Excerpted from the Introduction
THE POETRY OF THE AUGUSTAN AGE
Many periods in Rome’s long history produced great poets.From the end of the Republic in the mid-first century BC , we have Lucretius’s Epicurean masterpiece, On the Nature of Things, and the kaleidoscopic variety of Catullus’s oeuvre, ranging from the coarse obscenities of political epigram, through beautiful love lyrics, to the sophistication of epicizing mythological narrative. Nero (ruled AD 54 –68 ) had a high opinion of his own poetic talents, but they were quite eclipsed by the tragedies of his adviser, Seneca the Younger, and by the Civil War , the political epic of Seneca’s nephew, Lucan. The years before and after the richly deserved assassination of Domitian in AD 96 produced the stiletto wit of Martial’s epigrams and the powerful satires of Juvenal, as marvellously trenchant and memorable as they are intolerant and appalling. It is universally agreed, however, that the poetic achievements of no other period can stand comparison with those of the age of Augustus, the first emperor, who attained sole rule with his victory over Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC , and maintained it ever more firmly throughout his long reign – longer than that of any later emperor – eventually to die peacefully in his bed, a privilege enjoyed by very few of his rivals and enemies,
in AD 14 , at the age of seventy-five. In the 20 s BC , the literary salons controlled by Augustus’s chief political adviser, Maecenas, and by his military commander, Messalla Corvinus, provided a galaxy of great poets with a venue for the recitation of their latest works. Virgil had already established his reputation with his Eclogues , pastoral poetry in imitation of the third-century BC Sicilian Greek poet Theocritus, and with his Georgics , a didactic poem on farming in four books, modelled on theWorks and Days , composed in the eighth century BC by Hesiod, Greece’s earliest literate poet. He was now at work on his last and greatest poem, the Aeneid , an epic to rival both the Iliad and the Odyssey . Horace had published his Satires and Epodes in the 30 s, and was to publish the first three of his four books of Odes in 23 BC . Love elegy also flourished in this decade. The genre appears to have been invented by Cornelius Gallus, a friend of Virgil and one of Octavian/Augustus’s most trusted lieutenants. In the late 40 s and early 30 s, Gallus had written four books of elegies, now almost entirely lost. He is the only one of the great Augustan poets to suff er this misfortune, which must be connected to some extent with his fall from favour with Augustus as a resultof his arrogance as the first Roman governor of Egypt, behaviour which compelled him to commit suicide in 27 or 26 . Gallus’s genre, however, lived on and prospered, first with Tibullus and Propertius, both of whom will have started to compose at about the beginning of the decade, and then with Ovid, for it was with love elegy that he began his poetic career, perhaps in 26 or 25 BC , when he was seventeen or eighteen years old.
OVID’S OTHER POETRY
The Amores –Ovid’s earliest love poetry – follow the conventions laid down by his predecessors and older contemporaries, in that they are collections of poems recounting the vicissitudes of his relationship with his mistress. The elegies of both Tibullus and Propertius display a wide range of emotional levels, from the wittily whimsical to the passionately tragic, suggestive of the suff erings of the lover. Ovid, by contrast, achieves originality by narrowing the focus of his elegies very drastically, presenting
the misfortunes he endures in his persona as the elegiac lover in a consistently humorous manner that sometimes falls very little short of parody of the genre.
To give just one example of this approach: whereas Propertius tries to convince Cynthia that she has no need of expensive jewellery to enhance her natural charms, Ovid pushes this theme of beauty unadorned to ridiculous but logical limits: when Corinna quite unnecessarily dyes her gorgeous hair, the procedure goes wrong and now she is completely bald. Such exploitation of already established conventions was to be a hallmark of all of Ovid’s later poetry, and of the Metamorphoses in particular. One short elegy in the Amores might indeed be viewed as a prototype for the Metamorphoses . In 2 .15 , Ovid daydreams about how he would like to be transformed into the ring that he is sending as a gift to his mistress, for then he could always be with her. The fantasy ends abruptly when he says, with typical euphemism, that ‘if she wears me in the bath, my limbs will rise with lust’: Ovid the ring will react to the situation as if it were still Ovid the man. The Narcissus episode in Metamorphoses III is a nice illustration of the way in which he was to exploit these two typically Ovidian techniques, the deployment of conventional themes in unconventional contexts and the unusual perspective achieved, most often to witty effect, by splitting the personality and characteristics of the individual whose story is being narrated. Narcissus has fallen in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, and will remain at the water’s edge till he is transformed into the flower that bears his name. Ovid has adapted to the myth that most typical scenario in love elegy: the lover’s pleading for the door of his beloved’s house to be opened so that he may be with her. Narcissus is cast in the role not only of the lover, but also of the beloved, and the surface of the water represents the closed door. The same scenario recurs in the Metamorphoses in the tales of Pyramus and Thisbe, separated by the wall made famous by Shakespeare, and of Polyphemus and Galatea, separated by the sea. Love and the conventions of love elegy are never far away in the Metamorphoses .
There is little firm evidence about the chronology of Ovid’s poetry, but we should perhaps assume that he continued writing Amores poems for a decade or more, and that he was also engaged throughout much of this same period on his Heroides , letters from various mythological heroines to their absent husbands or lovers (e.g. Penelope to Ulysses, Dido to Aeneas), followed by a series of such pairs written between lovers (e.g. Paris and Helen). The Heroides transformed and extended the elegiac genre by casting mythological figures in the roles more familiarly played by the elegiac poets and their mistresses; for example, the exchange of letters between Helen and Paris focuses on the banquet given in Sparta in honour of Paris by Helen’s husband, Menelaus, reworking the scenario played out between the lover, his mistress, and her dull-witted husband in Amores 1 .4 and 2 .5 . The Amores generally make very little use of mythology, and it is the Heroides that foreshadow the wealth of such tales in the Metamorphoses .
Ovid devised a further development of the conventions of love elegy when he wrote his Art of Love , a didactic poem providing instructions on how to ensure success in love affairs; for example, the instructions which he gives to his mistress in Amores 1 .4 and 2 .5 on how to conduct herself at a banquet are turned into a general set of rules to be followed in such a context. The Art of Love would seem to have been planned initially as a two-book work, offering advice to men, but its success induced Ovid to add a third book, offering corresponding advice to women. He even managed yet another variation on the conventional themes of love elegy, when, as a corollary to the Art of Love , he wrote his Remedies for Love; whereas the Art gives advice on winning and keeping a lover, Remedies explains how to cure oneself of love, and the two poems thus form a didactic pair in much the same way as do the Poisonous Creatures and the Cures for Poisons by the Hellenistic Greek poet Nicander. Ovid was reluctant to give up his preoccupation with love elegy, which he evidently found so congenial. As late as 1 BC – AD 1 , at the fairly advanced age of forty-two or forty-three, he was still engaged with the genre, for that is when he published the third book of the Art of Love and a second edition of the Amores , reduced from five books to three.
Even if he had restricted himself to love elegy, his reputation would have been assured, but he had higher literary aspirations. At some unknown date, perhaps around 15 BC , he wrote a tragedy, the Medea , of which only two short fragments, a total of twelve words, have survived. Apart from a translation of the Phaenomena , a poem on astronomy and weather signs by the Hellenistic court poet Aratus, it is his only substantial work known to be lost to us. This loss is a serious one, for all that the assessment ‘Ovid’s Medea shows what he might have achieved if he had been willing to control his genius rather than indulge it’ comes from Quintilian, the great teacher of oratory, who is not remarkable for his literary critical acumen. It is perhaps surprising that Ovid, the master of subversive wit, should have been successful as a tragedian, and perhaps equally surprising that, as far as we know, the Medea was his only attempt at the genre. Why should he have abandoned tragedy after one initial success? Maybe it was simply ousted from his agenda by other, more attractive, projects. Whatever the reason, by AD 8 , Ovid had been working for an indeterminable number of years on two large-scale works, the Fasti and the Metamorphoses . The Fasti is a calendar of Roman festivals and history, written in elegiac couplets, on the model of Callimachus’s Aetia (Causes), an account of the customs and rituals of various Greek states, which now survives mostly in distressingly brief fragments. Substantial as are the merits of the Fasti , no one would regard it quite so highly as the Metamorphoses , and it is our great good fortune that Ovid gave more attention to composing the latter poem, for by AD 8 , its fifteen books were almost complete, whereas only the first six books of the Fasti , treating the months of January to June, had been composed.
In that fatal year, Ovid’s life was changed utterly and forever. Augustus relegated him to the Greek trading post of Tomi on the coast of the Black Sea, modern day Costanza in Romania, at the edge of the empire, as far removed as possible from the sophisticated and cultured life of Rome, the milieu in which Ovid had thrived. For all that the reasons for his exile have been discussed voluminously by scholars, we shall probably never know why Augustus imposed this exquisitely sadistic punishment. Ovid felt unable to tell us anything, beyond saying that ‘two things destroyed me, a poem and a mistake’. The poem was the Art of Love , which ran counter to the spirit of Augustus’s moral reforms, and it is reasonable to assume that the mistake was political in nature. We know from the poetry he wrote from exile that he had friends who were very highly placed. It may be that Ovid did not merely enjoy the literary patronage of such people, but rather that he himself belonged to the elite of Roman society. At any rate, his stepdaughter was to marry a Senator: her husband, Cornelius Fidus, once burst into tears in the Senate when Domitius Corbulo, Nero’s great general, called him a ‘plucked ostrich’ [struthocamelus depilatus ] (Seneca, On the Constancy of the Wise Man , 17 .1 ). Ovid languished at Tomi for at least a decade, and died there, a broken man whose every effort to obtain a recall was in vain. To gain sympathy and a pardon, the Tristia (Sad Things) and the Letters from the Black Sea exaggerate the harshness of his new life: it was not always winter, Tomi was not entirely barbaric, the natives were not forever shooting poisoned arrows over the walls. Though it is not entirely lacking in the familiar Ovidian wit, nevertheless his exile poetry makes for very sombre and depressing reading, for we are constantly aware of the disaster that had so suddenly befallen its author; this was not the sort of poetry he should have felt forced to write. For a decade and a half, he had been unchallenged as Rome’s leading poet: Virgil had died in 19 BC , Tibullus perhaps in the same year, there are no references in Propertius’s poetry to any event later than 16 , and with the death of Horace in 8 BC Ovid was left as the sole survivor of the great Augustan poets. There is some evidence that he revised the Metamorphoses and Fasti at Tomi, but his heart was not in it. Being the compulsive poet that he was, he continued to write, but we are left to wonder what great works he might have composed had he been allowed to remain in Rome.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Mandelbaum. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.