PUBLIUS OVIDIUS NASO was born at Sulmo--the modern Sulmona--on March the 20th, 43 B.C. He was fortunate in his birthplace, and it may not perhaps be over fanciful to ascribe the airy charm, the delicate grace, which his Muse so plentifully displays, at least as much to his early environment as to heredity. Sulmo, indeed, lies amid a region of great natural beauty. Its pastures, as Ovid himself tells us, were cool and rich, it produced abundant crops of corn, and yet so light and fine was the soil that the vine and the olive flourished there in profusion. It was a land of streams, of streams that hurried down from the mountains so clear and cold that the place is called by the poets "gelidus Sulmo." Even in the hottest of Italian summers, when the canicular is at its height, its meadows are fresh and green and its atmosphere sparkling and salubrious.
Ovid's family was of hereditary equestrian rank and possessed a sufficiency if not an abundance of wealth. The poet was proud of his ancestry and his family traditions, and he is careful to impress upon us that he is no upstart, no parvenu, emphatically not one of the postwar rich, as we are wont to say nowadays. At an early age he and his only brother--his elder by exactly a year--brought up in their father's house with the care and attention that would naturally be bestowed on the sons of well-to-do and aristocratic parents, were sent to
continue their education in Rome. It was their father's intention that they should both follow the profession of advocate, and with this purpose in view they were sent to study rhetoric under two of the most celebrated professors of that art--Porcius Latro and Arellius Fuscus. For in the Rome of Ovid's time, though the days of the great political orators were gone for ever, oratory, the lucrative and harmless oratory of the schools or the bar, was a highly popular pursuit. The elder brother, Lucius, appears to have devoted himself to his studies with a will. Ovid's tastes, however, lay in a very different direction. He tried hard to follow the parental injunctions and to make himself an effective advocate, but he achieved only indifferent success. The elder Seneca tells us that he once heard Ovid delivering a speech before his master Fuscus, and he gives us to understand that the effort was more remarkable for the beauty of its phrasing than for its argumentative power. Indeed he describes the speech as nothing more or less than poetry without metre. Ovid himself confesses that, try as he would to declaim in prose, he constantly found himself gliding into poetry. He "lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." His heart was with the Muses. He wanted to be, not a barrister, but a poet. One can imagine the paternal chagrin when the boy made known his ambitions. A country gentleman with family traditions, and not too much money to throw away, could hardly be expected to look with favour on poetry. As a pastime, well enough perhaps, but rather effeminate. As a profession, mere starvation. Naso père seems to have entertained the typical country squire's contempt for "those writing fellows" and to have given expression to it in no ambiguous terms. So for a time, at least, our poet had to stick to his declamatory exercises and turn his back on the Muses. It is clear that had his father remained obdurate, Ovid might well have achieved no more than mediocrity as a professional barrister, have filled
with tolerable credit a few minor offices of State and, in course of time, have gone back to Sulmo to wear out the evening of his days in such innocent pursuits as usually fall to the lot of retired Civil servants with landed interests and a private income. The prudent and level-headed father would have had his way; the world would have lost one of its most delightful poets, and the literatures of Italy, France and England would have been immeasurably the poorer. But when Ovid had attained the age of nineteen or thereabouts, an event occurred which averted the threatened triumph of parental common-sense. That event was the death of Ovid's elder brother Lucius. His removal from the scene, though we have no reason to doubt that Ovid sincerely regretted it, went a long way to disarm the parental opposition, which had always been based on practical grounds of finance, for obviously what would have provided a bare sufficiency for two would furnish an easy if not abundant competence for one. Ovid doubtless returned to the charge and pressed his suit with the persuasive eloquence which his genius and his training would have placed at his command. His father, realising, like the good sensible man he was, that it is useless trying to drive a nail where it won't go, and wisely concluding that a willing poet is better than a reluctant advocate, "sealed his hard consent." Whether Ovid would have gone to Athens had he followed the forensic career designed for him by his father is perhaps doubtful, but, for the man of letters, and above all for the poet, such a crown to his education was in the highest degree desirable; so to Athens he went, much in the same way that a public school boy of to-day goes up to Oxford or Cambridge. What he did there we do not know. He himself, usually so communicative about his own affairs, contents himself with informing us that he went there for purposes of study. He would, at all events, have learned to read Homer, Euripides and
[paragraph continues] Sophocles. A knowledge of Greek was in those days a mark of a superior education, and Greek he certainly acquired; but whatever he learned or did not learn--and we can scarcely picture this child of the Muses as a fort-en-thème, a determined reading man--we may be quite sure that he was not insensible to the beauty of the incomparable city to which his good fortune had sent him, or to the charm of the region in which it was set, and Attica, with its delicate and brilliant atmosphere, with its soil so favourable to the vine and olive, may well have reminded him of his native Sulmo.
His sojourn in Athens was followed by a tour which he made in company with Pompeius Macer, another youthful aspirant to poetic fame. In the course of these leisurely wanderings the two young men visited Sicily and the famous Greek cities of Western Asia Minor, bathing their spirits in the perennial springs from which Anacreon and Theocritus derived their inspiration. Altogether Ovid was away from Rome about three years. When he returned he sought, probably at his father's instigation, and obtained, certain public appointments, which, though not in themselves of great importance, were stepping-stones to the quæstor-ship, an office which, under the Empire, was shorn of much of its ancient importance, notably the care of the treasury, but which nevertheless carried with it the right to a seat in the Senate. He successively discharged the duties of Triumvir Capitalis, whose functions largely corresponded with those of a modern police magistrate, and Decemvir Stlitibus Judicandis, a member of a tribunal for the trial of private causes, representing the prætor. If, however, the father had entertained the hope that the fulfilment of these offices would divert his son from his poetic ambitions, that hope was doomed to disappointment, for, though Ovid appears to have filled these preliminary positions with credit, he made what his father at least must have considered il gran rifiuto.
[paragraph continues] He declined the quæstorship, and exchanged the broad purple band which he had worn as a future member of the Senate for the narrower stripe to which he was entitled as a member of the equestrian order. In other words, he decided to retire into private life, preferring, it would seem, to indulge his dilettantism and to enjoy the distractions of society, as the fancy took him, rather than to incur the diminution of his freedom which the adoption of a public career would have necessarily involved.
When he was very young, scarcely more than a boy, Ovid was married, to a wife who was probably chosen for him by his parents. All we know about this union is that it was speedily dissolved. Another wife was promptly discovered, the bride on this occasion being a native of Falisci in Etruria and a woman of some social standing. Ovid's attitude towards her appears to have been dictated by respect rather than affection--he confesses that her conduct gave him nothing to complain of, yet the second marriage lasted but little, if any, longer than the first. All his devotion, in those early days, seems to have been reserved for the mistress whom he celebrates in his earliest poem, "The Loves," under the name of Corinna. Who Corinna was we do not know. That she was not Julia, as Sidonius Apollinaris would have us believe, is as certain as that she was a real and not an imaginary personage. How long Corinna continued to reign supreme in Ovid's heart is a matter of conjecture. Her dominion had probably come to an end some considerable time before his marriage with his third wife, to whom he appears to have been sincerely attached. Since his daughter, Perilla, the fruit of this third union, had attained the age of twenty and was herself married when Ovid was banished., A.D. 8, the marriage could scarcely have taken place later than 12 B.C. Until his fiftieth year Ovid lived at Rome in a house near the Capitol, whence, from time to time, he would
go to seek refreshment and repose on his country estate at Sulmo. It seemed as though everything had combined to make Ovid's lot a happy one. Endowed with talents that shone with special lustre even among the brilliant society of the day, blest with sufficient but not burdensome wealth, popular with the men, idolized by the women, smiled on by Augustus himself, Ovid seemed to be indeed a favourite of the gods. But suddenly, when the barometer of his fortune was at its height, this brilliant and fascinating child of the age, this refined and delicate voluptuary, was commanded by an Imperial edict to quit Rome and to take himself to Tomi, a town on the Euxine, by the mouths of the Danube and on the very confines of the Empire. Though the sentence which thus fell upon him was harsh enough, it was not as terrible as it might have been. It was not an exsilium, but a relegatio. He did not lose his citizenship, he was permitted to enjoy the income of his property, to correspond with his friends and to indulge in the hope (alas, illusory!) of ultimate pardon. Still, even with all these mitigating circumstances, such a fate would have been hard enough on any man. On a man of Ovid's habits and disposition it was peculiarly so. The place of his banishment was surrounded and continually threatened by hostile and barbarous tribes. The cold was so intense that the snow would sometimes remain unmelted from one winter to another. The wine turned to ice in the jar; the broad waters of the Danube were often frozen completely over, and afforded but too easy a viaduct to the men and horses of the barbarian foe, when they came to murder, outrage and destroy.
Probably Ovid exaggerated the horrors of his situation in the hopes of moving the Emperor's pity. Those hopes, to which he clung with despairing tenacity, were destined never to be fulfilled, and he died in exile, A.D. 18, in the sixtieth year of his age.
What was the real cause of his banishment is, and will probably always remain, a mystery, for the publication of the Ars Amatoria was obviously but a mere pretext and could have deceived nobody. It certainly did not deceive Ovid, for whenever he mentions the ostensible cause of his misfortune,, he darkly alludes to another which he never discloses. He is continually harping on a "Carmen" and an "Error." The "Carmen" was the Ars Amatoria; what the "Error" was he never reveals. It is commonly supposed that, in some way or another, he had given serious offence to Livia and that the poet's banishment was due to the machinations of that redoubtable woman.
It may have been so, or it may merely have been that Augustus, with the shadows of oncoming age descending upon him, viewed with misgiving the increasing licentiousness of the times, the growing corruption, which had not spared even the members of his own household, and which the sternest legislation seemed unable to repress, and that he therefore determined to make an example of those who were most conspicuously identified with the dissolute society he thought it his duty to castigate, foremost amongst whom was the unhappy Ovid. If, as is not improbable, Ovid was privy to the adulterous intercourse of the younger Julia with Silanus, he, as well as the erring lovers, would, by the lex de adulteriis, have been liable to the capital sentence, so that in suffering a mere relegatio, the milder form of exile, he may be considered to have got off lightly.