(43 BCE – 17 AD)

Anthologists make much of Virgil’s conservatism having stemmed from knowing Roman civil wars (e.g., Augustus vs. Antony and Cleopatra at Actium), and Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, born a year after Julius Caesar’s assassination) having been too young: hence his witty, skeptical, irreverent, almost subversive attitude of a law student drop-out who “took much of what had been achieved for granted,” as the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces snipes (6th ed. 917). Obviously this is the old “WWII mentality vs. the Beatles” paradigm.

Ovid lived in a time defined by benevolent despotism, the era of Augustus in the Roman Republic. Augustus Caesar wanted to “restore” Roman dignity and morality (of the days of the Republic). He encouraged patriotic writing (propaganda), instituted laws encouraging marriage and childbearing, and discouraged adultery and luxury. (Of course you can legislate morality!)

In this climate, Ovid was judged guilty by Augustus on two counts, “a poem and a mistake,” in 8 ad and exiled to an outpost of Rome (and of civilization). Despite many efforts to win a pardon, and despite poetic pleading, his appeals failed even after the death of Augustus. What were Ovid’s “crimes”? This is one of the great literary mysteries.

Among his suspected works:

  • Ars Amatoria — (The Art of Love) a witty, solemn parody of the didactic tradition, an amoral mockery of Roman virtue, essentially a “how-to” book on conducting an adulterous affair.
  • Metamorphoses — a treasury of classical myths, less likely to have landed Ovid in trouble, but it has been suggested as the cause. It does render amorality in a breezy tone.

The “mistake”?:

  • Involved a woman? — Livia (Augustus’ wife)? Julia (his daughter)? A granddaughter of Augustus? Other “Caesareae puellae”? Was Ovid involved with or only a witness to something? Augustus’ incest? Pederasty?
  • Treason? — this seems most unlikely.
  • He witnessed the “Bona Dea” or other cult mysteries and Livia was involved?