FEBRUARY 2007 – NO. 12
Ovid's Art of Love
Being a poet in ancient Rome was a perilous business. Catullus had lauded his friend C. Helvius Cinna for his epyllion Zmyrna, sure it would be read by future generations. The poem has not survived, and Cinna met an exceptionally sticky end, when a mob mistook him for L. Cornelius Cinna, the conspirator against Julius Caesar, battered him to death, and paraded his head on a spear through the city. A century later, Petronius would be driven to suicide at the hands of Julius' descendant, Nero. Publius Ovidius Naso, called Ovid, was luckier — although his career too was blighted, "by a poem and a mistake."
Ovid's first book of poems, the Amores, opens with a dedication telling the reader that he has slimmed it down from five volumes to three. He was candid about the necessity of reworking and revising, mentioning "the flames which emend." The Amores is a waggish take on the Roman love elegy, in which he praises, pleads with, and vilifies his mistress Corinna. Unlike Lesbia, whom Catullus alternately hated and loved, or Prepertius' Cynthia or Tibullus' Delia, all of whose noms de plume have been unraveled by commentators, Corinna is a mystery. While the earlier elegists had struggled to convey, convincingly, their earnest passion, Ovid, with delicious glee and urbane wit, confutes expectations and winks at the audience. There is no "real" Corinna at all; she exists only because a love poet needs an object for his affection.
Ovid was a virtuoso, also composing a tragedy on Medea (which Quintilian thought best displayed his talents, but which has not survived) and a gloriously abundant compendium of myths, The Metamorphoses, and inventing the dramatic monologue, in his Heroides, where he gives a voice to legendary heroines. The poem that blasted his fortunes, however, was the Ars Amatoria, The Art of Love. In debonair and sardonic fashion, he advises the youth of Rome how to flatter, avoid suspicion from jealous husbands, deport themselves at the chariot games, and variously wheedle their way into the beds of Rome's women. It is a cosmopolitan extravaganza, conjuring up the alleys and banquets of the city. As a manual for seduction, it earned the ire of the emperor.
Augustus, whose impatience at the moral laxity of his subjects was manifesting itself in strict legislation against extramarital affairs, was less than amused. The Art of Love was the poem, but the error that accompanied it is shrouded in speculation. Suggestions range from the idea that Ovid was conducting an affair with the emperor's granddaughter, or that he had seen the empress naked, or had defiled the rites of Isis; whatever it was, Ovid was discreet enough, and perhaps humbled enough, never to make the charge specific. All he would let slip was that he "had eyes."
His punishment was severe. Ovid was banished from the Rome he so lovingly described to Tomis, on the Black Sea, the outermost edge of the empire. The suavest of poets would live with barbarians. He continued to write, sending letters and regretful poems back to his friends. The gravity of his sentence has often been heightened by comparison: imagine Byron in Saskatchewan, or Oscar Wilde in Iceland. During his ostracism, he started to compose a celebration of the Roman calendar, The Fasti, commemorating the way time used to be governed in a place where it was fixed by the flow of tides, seasons, and equinoxes. He completed only six months of his evocation of the etiquette and mythology of the holidays and holy days of Rome.
In the Epistulae ex Ponto, however, Ovid tells us one remarkable feat he accomplished in exile. He learned the Getic language of the savages, and even composed poems in it. His subject was a eulogy for Augustus, and the tribe were impressed enough to call him a bard. But, they insisted, since he sang the praises of the emperor, surely he would be restored to civilization? He never was, and the lines in which he celebrated the divine Caesars in the rough tongue of his despised compatriots were left unpreserved. As, for that matter, was the entire Getic language.
Excerpted from The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read by Stuart Kelly. Copyright © 2005 by Stuart Kelly. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.
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