Publius Ovidius Naso was born at Sulmo, a small town about 90 miles (140 km) east of Rome. His family was old and respectable, and sufficiently well-to-do for his father to be able to send him and his elder brother to Rome to be educated. Ovid was thought to have the makings of a good orator, but he neglected his studies for the verse-writing that came so naturally to him. He spent some time at Athens to study and traveled in Asia Minor and Sicily. Afterward he dutifully held some minor judicial posts, but he soon decided that public life did not suit him.
Ovid’s first work, the Amores (The Loves), had an immediate success and was followed, in rapid succession, by the Epistulae Heroidum, or Heroides (Epistles of the Heroines), the Medicamina faciei (“Cosmetics”), the Ars amatoria (The Art of Love), and the Remedia amoris (Remedies for Love). The common theme of these early poems is love and amorous intrigue. At Rome Ovid enjoyed the friendship and encouragement of Marcus Valerius Messalla, the patron of a circle which included Tibullus.
Having won an assured position among the poets of the day, Ovid turned to more ambitious projects, the Metamorphoses and the Fasti (“Calendar”). The former was nearly complete, the latter half finished, when in AD 8 the emperor Augustus banished him to Tomis on the Black Sea. The reasons for Ovid’s exile will never be fully known. The most probable explanation is that he had become an involuntary accomplice in the adultery of Augustus’ granddaughter, the younger Julia, who also was banished at the same time.
Ovid’s first poems, the Amores (The Loves), were published at intervals, beginning about 20 BC, in five books. They form a series of short poems depicting the various phases of a love affair with a woman called Corinna. In the Heroides (Heroines) Ovid developed an idea already used by Propertius into something like a new literary genre: letters from legendary ladies such as Penelope, Dido, and Ariadne to absent husbands or lovers. Turning next to didactic poetry, Ovid composed the Medicamina faciei, a witty exercise of which only 100 lines survive. This frivolous but harmless poem was followed in 1 BC by the Ars amatoria, a manual of seduction and intrigue for the man about town. It was followed by the Remedia amoris, also a burlesque.
After exploiting love-elegy Ovid turned to new types of poetry in which he could use his supreme narrative and descriptive gifts. Ovid’s Fasti (“Calendar”) is an account of the Roman year and its religious festivals, consisting of 12 books, one to each month, of which the first six survive. Ovid’s next work, the Metamorphoses, is a long poem in 15 books. It is a collection of mythological and legendary stories in which metamorphosis (transformation) plays some part, however minor. The stories are told in chronological order from the creation of the universe to the death and deification of Julius Caesar. In many of the stories, mythical characters are used to illustrate examples of obedience or disobedience toward the gods. By his genius for narrative description, Ovid gave many Greek legends their definitive form for subsequent generations. The loss of Ovid’s tragedy Medea is particularly to be deplored; it was praised by the critic Quintilian and the historian Tacitus.
Ovid’s verse is remarkable for its smoothness, fluency, and balance. Although Augustus banned his works from the public libraries, Ovid’s popularity was immense. From about 1100 onward Ovid’s fame began to rival and even at times to surpass Virgil’s. The 12th and 13th centuries have with some justice been called “the age of Ovid”, when his works were read in schools. His influence on the Roman de la rose was profound. Ovid’s popularity grew during the Renaissance, particularly among humanists.