Five Fascinating Facts about Ovid
Interesting facts about a classic Roman poet
1. Ovid wrote a tragedy about Medea, but it has not survived. This is particularly galling since the Roman rhetorician Quintilian thought this among Ovid’s finest work – and this is a poet who also gave us the fantastic (in more ways than one) catalogue of myths and legends, the Metamorphoses. How much Ovid’s work about the sorceress who killed her own children owed to Euripides’ celebrated play Medea is not known, and now probably never will be.
2. Ovid has also been described as the originator of the dramatic monologue form. Nearly 2,000 years before Tennyson and Browning developed the dramatic monologue in the mid-nineteenth century, Ovid was in fact doing something strikingly similar – and, for his time, very innovative – by writing in the voice of numerous heroines from legend in his work the Heroides.
3. Ovid’s work, especially his magnum opus, the Metamorphoses, would have a huge influence on Shakespeare. Ovid has been called Shakespeare’s favourite poet, and in his book Shakespeare and Ovid (Clarendon Paperbacks), Jonathan Bate has outlined the extent of Ovid’s influence on the Bard. This influence can be seen most clearly perhaps in plays like Titus Andronicus and narrative poems like The Rape of Lucrece, although Shakespeare’s continual obsession with transformation, with people changing into other people and other things – with, in a word, metamorphosis – can be traced to his grammar-school education in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he would have read Ovid’s work. Think of Bottom’s head being turned into an ass’s head in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Hermione’s ‘statue’ coming to life at the end of The Winter’s Tale. Ovid is everywhere in Shakespeare’s work.
4. His work Ars Amatoria proved controversial to say the least, and led to his exile. Ovid’s poem about the art of seduction, Ars Amatoria (‘The Art of Love’), was disliked by the Emperor Augustus, who was already worried about extramarital sex and the rise of loose morals in Rome. This poem, along with some undefined indiscretion Ovid committed (which may have been seeing Augustus’ wife naked, or even bedding the Emperor’s granddaughter), led to Ovid being banished from Rome.
5. Ovid lived out the latter years of his life in exile in Tomis, on the Black Sea. This was right on the edge of the Roman Empire, far from the centre of things. However, while in exile among the ‘barbarian’ tribe of Tomis, Ovid – ever the talented innovator – took to learning the Getic language of the local tribe, and composed a poem in praise of Augustus in the Getic language. The locals were impressed, but sadly, the poem has not survived. If it had, we’d at least have some record of the Getic tongue – as it stands, it is yet another language that has fallen into extinction forever.
For more information about Ovid’s extraordinary life, we recommend Stuart Kelly’s hugely readable The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read.