THE ELEGIAC POETS: PROPERTIUS & OVID
Propertius's erudition and intensity; Ovid's skill and versatility.
Sextus Propertius (c. 50 - c. 15 BC) was born in Umbria. His father died when he was a child, and his mother sent him to Rome to be educated for the law. Instead he turned to literature and published his first book of elegies in about 26 BC. Most of his poems describe his love for Cynthia, who in real life was called Hostia and appears to have been a freedwoman and a courtesan. Much of Propertius’s verse is peppered with academic allusions and pervaded with melancholy, but the emotions read as though they are sincerely expressed.
Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC - AD 18) was born at Sulmo, in the mountains east of Rome, of an ancient equestrian family. Destined for a political career, he studied rhetoric and law, and was married at about 16 and divorced shortly afterwards. He held minor legal and administrative posts in the civil service, but abandoned politics for poetry in about 16 BC, when he married again - his wife died two years later, having had a daughter.
Terracotta figurine (150 - 100 BC) of a young man and a reluctant woman on a couch. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)
Ovid combined his pursuits of poetry and pleasure in Amores (Love Poems) and Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love). These were not so much erotic as irresponsible in that they appeared to condone adultery, which under Augustan law was a public offence, and for which Augustus had in 2 BC to banish his own daughter, Julia. Ars Amatoria was published in 1 BC; in AD 8, Augustus’s granddaughter Julia followed her mother into exile for the same reason. And in that same year Ovid, too, was banished to a bleak place called Tomi, on the west coast of the Black Sea.
Late first-century BC bust of a woman resembling Augustus’s daughter Julia. (VRoma: Museo Montemartini, Rome: Ann Raia)
Ovid says that the reasons for his banishment were “a poem” (presumably Ars Amatoria), though it had been published some years earlier, and “an error”. The error may have had something to do with the younger Julia, or possibly someone disclosed some scandal about Ovid and her mother.
Whatever the error, Ovid had to go, and Ars Amatoria was banned from Rome’s three public libraries. He was never called back, even after the death of Augustus. He kept writing, sadly and ultimately resignedly. His third wife, a young widow with a daughter, remained devoted to him to the last.
Ovid aimed to use elegiac couplets to amuse the reader, which he did as much by verbal effects and ingenious and delicate deployment of his verse form as by what he said. The fifteen books of Metamorphoses (Transformations), his most lasting and influential work, are written in hexameters. This vast collection of linked myths and legends was widely drawn upon by later Roman and European writers.
High relief of Europa and the bull, whose story appears in Book 2 of Metamorphoses. (VRoma: Vatican Museum: Lisanne Marshall)
More on Propertius here.
For some of the tales from his Metamorphoses, go here. (Atalanta, Diana & Actaeon, Echo & Narcissus, Tiresias etc)
Our principal source of information about Ovid’s life is the tenth poem in book 4 of Tristia, a series of verse letters written in AD 9-12 during his exile. Book 2 is a plea to Augustus to soften his ordeal.
Believe it or not:Ovid appears to have had a blind spot about the quality of some of his poetry. It is said that friends once asked him if he would allow them to suggest which three lines might most readily be omitted from his published work. He agreed, if he might nominate the three most deserving of immortality. It transpired that the lines in each case were the same!
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