The youngest of the Big Four, Ovid was born in 43 BCE about 90 miles from Rome to a family which belonged to the class of equites, or Knights. This meant that he was well-born, though not quite out of the top drawer: had he been willing and able to follow a conventional career of successively more senior public offices, he could well have been able to wind up as a senator. In practice, he held some junior ones, but gave up official life in favour of a career in poetry. Some of his poetry is autobiographical, which means that we know quite a lot about him but need to bear in mind that he had reasons to put his own spin on things.
Until well into middle age, he wrote prolifically and successfully for a sophisticated Roman audience, mostly about love. The society he reflects approvingly seems distinctly easygoing about love and sex. The Amores is composed of love poems, largely addressed to a mistress he calls Corinna: it is more likely than with, say, Catullus’s Lesbia that Corinna was an ideal, not a real, person. Like the majority of his works, the Amores is in elegiacs. This form had recently been made popular for use in love poetry by the poets Tibullus and Propertius, written in couplets consisting of one line in the classic metre of epic, hexameter, followed by a shorter line with a pause in the middle.
Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, is a manual in poetic form which purports to teach how to seduce and retain lovers: the Remedia Amoris, or Cure for Love, deals with the reverse process. The Metamorphoses, Ovid’s largest and most ambitious work, deals in traditional epic metre with a wide range of stories from mythology, many again about love and seduction, which involve the transformation of Gods and people into animals or inanimate objects.
Ovid’s concentration on sex and sensuality obviously had great appeal for his audience, but less so for the powers that be. His work was distinctly out of tune with the austere and socially conservative values towards sex and marriage that the Emperor Augustus had adopted in his own life and that he wanted to see generally followed. All of a sudden, in 8 CE, the Emperor banishes Ovid from Rome to a place on the outer fringes of the Roman world in what is now Romania.
When he writes about this, Ovid is coy about the precise nature of his offence: the morality, or lack of it, of his work is clearly a factor. It was in 8 CE that Augustus’s granddaughter, Julia, was also exiled after the exposure of an adulterous affair, and some scholars believe from evidence in Ovid’s work and references in other ancient writers that there was some kind of connection. It does seem that there may have been a reason for Ovid’s catastrophe that went beyond general disapproval of his morals, but we will never know for certain. The main works of his exile, the Tristia (“sorrows”) and Letters from the Black Sea, express the anguish with which he misses civilised life in Rome and angle desperately for his recall, but it never came. He died in exile around 18CE.