Scribe of Venus
By Matt McKeown
In both Ovid's light verse and his grander work, the two aspects of the Roman Venus are clearly discernible.
The first century BC was a time of immense turmoil for the Roman Republic. Conspiracies and revolts repeatedly turned the law on its head; a series of dictators held power. In the middle of the century, the most successful and popular leader of the city, Julius Cæsar, was assassinated. This provoked long civil wars, in which both sides invoked the patronage of the goddess Venus, whose Roman version (though hardly less bawdy) was more maternal and protective than the Greek. The wars lasted until the Battle of Actium thirteen years later, after which the dead Cæsar’s adoptive son took his place at the helm of the state, and received the personal title “Exalted One”—in the Latin, Augustus.
Against this backdrop, the literary culture of Rome made some of its highest achievements. Augustus’ wealthy friend Maecenas and the illustrious soldier Messalla were both generous patrons of the arts: writers like Horace and Virgil himself were among their circles. As Augustus’ reign wore on, a young friend of friend of Horace, one Ovid, rose to prominence.
Ovid seems to have been a mercurial sort. Though educated in oratory, he took little interest in the conventional career of public service Romans expected from ambitious young men. He traveled around the Empire for a few years, and on returning to Rome began to enjoy esteem and success for his poetry.
One of Ovid’s most famous works was the Ars Amatoria or “The Art of Love.” This was a parody of didactic poetry (then a popular genre) that dealt not with attaining prosperity or cultivating virtue, but with carrying on love affairs. Unlike modern Western culture, which tends to treat romantic love as one of the most important things in life, the ancient Romans tended to view love as a juvenile and embarrassing distraction at best (even when it was not adulterous), so the idea of writing a textbook about it was a joke in itself; it would be a little like composing a graduate-level dissertation on “the fine art of freeze tag.” In a curious transformation, the Medieval poets of courtly love—ancestors of our modern ideas about romance—treated this piece of elaborate, deadpan sarcasm as a serious work instead. The Ars Amatoria thus took on an illustrious authority; this may be why, despite Ovid’s graphic and licentious content, he still appears among the virtuous pagans in Dante’s Inferno thirteen centuries later.
Augustus was less amused, since he had been on a campaign to reform public morals for some years. Whether the Ars Amatoria was the true cause or merely an excuse is debated, but in any event, the emperor sent Ovid into exile a few years after its publication. He spent the last ten years of his life on the coast of the Black Sea, in a town in modern-day Romania, writing melancholy poetry and letters to his friends back in Rome, particularly his wife.
But neither the Ars Amatoria nor the exile secured Ovid’s high place in the Latin canon. That honor belongs to the Metamorphoses, a mythological history of the world from its creation by the gods all the way down to the apotheosis of Julius Cæsar. The poems of the Metamorphoses became the “canonical” versions of ancient myths in Western Europe for centuries, especially in the Early Middle Ages, when Greek was rarely studied. To this day, our popular ideas of many myths are defined by Ovid—Narcissus, Arachne, Midas, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Atalanta among them. But he proceeds well into then-recent and even contemporary history, including the foundation of Rome, the life and teachings of Pythagoras, and the deification of Julius Cæsar.
As a largely mythic history, and an episodic work as well, the Metamorphoses is difficult to classify; some scholars consider it an irregular variety of epic (and it is written in the traditional epic meter, dactylic hexameter). Its style and tone vary considerably. Some portions are grandiose and tragic, while others turn on small, intimate, and even trivial events. Its wandering narrative may have aided its popularity, since it lends the work a variety that epics like the Iliad lack.
One surprising thing about the Metamorphoses is what it shares with the Ars Amatoria: namely, an accent on the importance of Amor (better known to us as Cupid, child of Venus) at all levels, even the divine. The Metamorphoses are not, in any straightforward sense, a comedy, still less a romantic comedy. Yet a persistent theme seems to be that love, and the irrationalities it drives men and gods alike to, is perhaps the most powerful force in creation, whether for good or ill. Perhaps the kinship between Ovid and the poets of courtly love in Medieval France and Italy was stronger than Ovid himself would have recognized.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, try one of our other author profiles, like this one on Plutarch or this one on Jane Austen. Or check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.