Happy birthday to the bad boy of Roman poetry!


tim120More birthday greetings from our correspondent, the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele. This time the occasion is the birthday of Ovid. Tim has offered occasional salutations to Virgil, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, George Frideric Handel, Christina Rosetti, William Hogarth and Oliver Goldsmith. And we have written about Ovid here and here and here and here and here.

But the years roll round again relentlessly offering us another occasion to celebrate the author of Metamorphoses – and Tristia, too.

This Sunday marks the birthday of Ovid, the bad boy of Roman poetry. Born in 43 BCE, he reports in his Tristia that versing came naturally to him even as a child. His masterpiece, “Metamorphoses,” is a tour de force that knits together, by the recurring motif of transformation, myths and legends from the origin of the world up to the time of Julius Caesar. Though Ovid did not invent the stories, he recounted them with unforgettable psychological vividness and gave them their definitive form. No other poem has had a greater influence on subsequent art. Sculptors, painters, composers, novelists, and poets have drawn on it for centuries.

narcissusIn his own day, Ovid was immensely popular, but, unluckily, the emperor Augustus was not a fan. A libertine in youth, he metamorphosed as a ruler into a priggish defender of public morals, and he detested Ovid’s poems, which breezily treat sex and seduction and which parody conventional Roman pieties. In 8 CE he banned Ovid’s work from the state libraries and banished the poet himself to Tomis, an imperial outpost on the Black Sea notorious for its bandits and bad weather. Ovid died there in 17 CE.

Many anecdotes survive about Ovid’s genius and vanity. The Elder Seneca reports one of them in his Controversies (2.2.12): “[Ovid] was aware of his faults—and liked them. This is clear from an incident when he was asked by his friends to get rid of three of his verses; in exchange he asked that he should be allowed to make an exception of three verses which they could not touch. This seemed a fair condition. They wrote down privately the ones they wanted damned: he wrote down the ones he wanted saved. Both sheets contained the same verses. … From [this] it is clear that this talented man lacked the will rather than the taste to restrain the license of his poetry. He used sometimes to say that a face was all the more beautiful for a mole” (trans. Michael Winterbottom).

At right is a rendering of the Narcissus episode in Metamorphoses executed by the great bad boy of Italian painting, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.


Another bad boy

Postscript: A gentle reader wrote to ask … Isn’t Catullus the bad boy of Roman poetry? Tim replies:

“That’s a good question. Catullus is revolutionary in his sexual candor. However, his epigrams and lyrics are often bitterly realistic, and he is sometimes excruciating on the subject of his obsessive relationship with Clodia/Lesbia. His ultimate disillusionment with his passion for her is the opposite, it seems to me, of licentious. (Catullus was also very well-born and a friend of Caesar’s, who evidently admired his work.)

“Ovid, on the other hand, really is naughty. The Art of Love is virtually a vade mecum for adulterers. And in theMetamorphoses he presents (with great relish) the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses as pathologically vindictive, sensual, or deceptive. This isn’t to say Ovid can’t be poignant and moving, as in the tale of Baucis and Philemon or Pythagoras‘s powerful speech in favor or vegetarianism near the end of the poem.”

And then, courteous gentleman that he is, Tim thanked the reader for raising the point.

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