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Ovid

(43 BCE - 17 CE / Rome / Italy)

Biography of Ovid

Ovid poet

Ovid was born in Sulmo (Sulmona), in an Apennine valley, east of Rome, to an equestrian family, and was educated in Rome. His father wished him to study rhetoric toward the practice of law. According to Seneca the Elder, Ovid tended to the emotional, not the argumentative pole of rhetoric. After the death of his brother, Ovid renounced law and began travelling — to Athens, Asia Minor, and Sicily. He held minor public posts, but resigned to pursue poetry. He was part of the circle centered upon the patron Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. He was thrice-married and twice-divorced by the time he was thirty years old; yet only one marriage yielded offspring — a daughter.

Originally, the Amores were a five-book collection, circa 20 BC; the surviving, extant version, reduced to three books, includes poems written as late as AD 1. Book 1 contains 15 elegiac love poems about aspects of love. Most of the Amores is tongue-in-cheek, and, while Ovid adhered to standard elegiac themes — such as the exclusus amator (locked-out lover) lamenting before a paraklausithyron (a locked door) — he portrays himself as romantically capable, not emotionally struck by it, (unlike Propertius, whose poetry portrays him under love's foot). He writes about adultery, rendered illegal in Augustus's marriage law reforms of 18 BC. Ovid's next poem, the Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, parodies didactic poetry whilst being a manual about seduction and intrigue; and it refers to the ludus duodecim scriptorum board game, an antecedent of modern backgammon. He identifies this work in his exile poetry as the carmen, or song, which was one cause of his banishment.

By AD 8, he had completed Metamorphoses, an epic poem derived from Greek mythology. The subject is "forms changed into new bodies". From the emergence of the cosmos from formless mass to the organized, material world, to the deification of Julius Caesar, the poem tells of transformation. The stories follow each other in the telling of human beings transformed to new bodies — trees, rocks, animals, flowers, constellations et cetera. Famous myths, such as Apollo and Daphne, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Pygmalion are contained. It explains many myths alluded to in other works, and is a valuable source about Roman religion, because many characters are gods or offspring of Olympian gods.

In AD 8, Emperor Augustus banished Ovid to Tomis, on the Black Sea, for political reasons. Ovid wrote that his crime was carmen et error — "a poem and a mistake", claiming that his crime was worse than murder, more harmful than poetry. The Emperor's grandchildren, Agrippa Postumus and Julia the Younger, were banished around the time of his banishment; Julia's husband, Lucius Aenilius Paullus, was put to death for conspiracy against Augustus; Ovid might have known of that. The Julian Marriage Laws of 18 BC were fresh in the Roman mind. These promoted monogamous marriage to increase the population's birth rate. Ovid's writing concerned the serious crime of adultery, which was punishable by banishment.

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Elegy for Tibullus

If Memnon's mother mourned, Achilles's mother mourned,
and our sad fates can touch great goddesses,
then weep, and loose your hair in grief you never earned,
Elegy, now ah! too much like your name.
That bard whose work was yours, who gave you fame, Tibullus,
burns on the mounded pyre, a lifeless corpse.
See Venus's boy, bearing his quiver upside down;
his bow is broken and his torch is quenched;
look how he goes dejected: his wings trail on the ground;

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