Funny, wise and a comfort for exiles: Why Ovid demands to be read 2000 years later
“Let others praise ancient times, I am glad I am born in these.” Ovid.
I’m convinced that we should all be reading Ovid. And it’s not just because I believe his poetry has special relevance and meaning for millions of us in these strange and unsettling times; he was certainly a man who held his faith in modernity while around him others looked instead towards an idealised past.
No, the main reason I think we should still be reading his works two thousand years after his death in 17AD is simply because he is very funny.
His writing sparkles with wit and insight into human behaviour. He takes expected phrases and does unusual things with them. Or takes expected situations and gives them very humorous twists, showing his readers the ridiculous aspect to everyday situations and actions.
He also delights in shocking and upsetting expectations, and undermining the pompous and self-important.
He makes me laugh out loud – and there aren’t many ancient authors who can do that.
So many writers of the period were so very serious. But he just laughs at everything. In the face of a socially conservative agenda, he asserts his belief in the value of independence through humour. He’s saying ‘no’, I like living now. And that seems to me very relevant.
He also talks a lot about people changing their shape, their gender and who they are. There’s an awful lot in his work about notions of identity and how these change or are called into question. These are all very potent themes for our age.
This openness to what’s possible illuminates his work. Ovid may have started off writing love elegies. But then he gave the genre a playful twist by taking its conventions and using them to create a guide to seducing members of the opposite sex, the Ars Amatoria.
At the same time he is writing fictional letters from the heroines of myth to the lovers who have abandoned them – or who are separated from them. In doing so he snatches away the elegiac voice from men – who we are used to hearing from – and gives it instead to women.
Then he gets even more ambitious and writes a fantastical poem about the Roman calendar, the Fasti. And, of course, at the same time as all of this he is writing the epic Metamorphoses, which is surely one of the most loved and most influential poems in the western canon. So many artists have gone to him for inspiration.
But he ultimately pays the price for his outspoken, mischievous corpus, when he is exiled by the Emperor Augustus to the remote Roman outpost of Tomis, now Constanţa on the Black Sea coast of Romania.
The Emperor was – like many dictators throughout history – on a mission to create a more moral society that recreated an idealised past. And Ovid had no place in this world.
Augustus found Ovid’s erotic poetry immoral, a threat to his own laws promoting marriage and making adulterous affairs illegal. Plus the poet seems to have become embroiled in some kind of scandal that caused personal offence to the Emperor. He had to go.
The poet found himself marooned, far from the city he loved, stuck in a cold, dangerous, and isolated place that he hated. But while he moaned about it endlessly, he also turned his exile into a whole new body of work that expresses with a touching delicacy the cold ache of homesickness and loss. It seems that the very act of writing at this time was driven by a desire to connect with what he had lost. He wrote home because "I wish to be with you in any way I can".
Through his work at this time he has become the defining example of an artist exiled for his art and a source of comfort for many who find themselves unwillingly dislocated and at odds with politically powerful enemies – including famously the author Salman Rushdie after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwah against him.
Ovid was funny, wise, a comfort for exiles and a writer who explored some of the essential truths of the human condition – those qualities mean that he still demands to be read.
Jeniffer Ingleheart is a professor of Latin in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University . Her research focuses on Latin poetry and its relationship with politics and culture.