It’s the birthday of the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (books by this author), better known as Ovid, born in Sulmo, 90 miles east of Rome (43 B.C.). Most of what we know about him comes from autobiographical poems he wrote later in life. His father sent him to Rome to study rhetoric, but Ovid decided to be a poet instead of an orator or a lawyer.
He made a name for himself publishing poems about amorous dalliances, and was soon the darling of the Roman literary scene. He then started writing something quite different: the Metamorphoses (A.D. 8). It’s a 12,000-line poem that relates a series of Greek and Roman myths of transformation. He was just finishing the book when he was exiled from Rome for what he called “a poem and a mistake.” We don’t know what that mistake was, but it coincides with a scandal involving Augustus’s granddaughter. She was exiled at the same time, and some scholars believe Ovid may have been an unwitting accomplice. He tried to earn his way back into the good graces of the emperor Augustus, and Augustus’s successor Tiberius, but to no avail. He died in the Black Sea fishing village of Tomis, in what is now Romania, in A.D. 17.
Europe experienced an Ovid revival in the Middle Ages, and his romantic early poems set the standard for the medieval age of chivalry and courtly love. In the Renaissance, Ovid inspired the Humanist movement. Today, Ovid is best known for the Metamorphoses. In retelling the stories of the gods, the poem is really an exploration of human nature. The Metamorphoses inspired the works of Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Pound, among others. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay, mentions Ovid several times in his work, and wrote: “The first taste I had for books came to me from my pleasure in the fables of the Metamorphoses of Ovid. For at about seven or eight years of age, I would steal away from any other pleasure to read them.”