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THE LIFE OF OVID.
IN the Tenth Elegy of the Fourth Book of his Tristia, our poet has himself given us a minute account of his life and fortunes. In other poems, he often speaks of himself, so that there are few writers of ancient times with whose history we are better acquainted. Several biographies of him have come down to us; but they add little of importance to what we thus learn from his own writings.
PUBLIUS OVIDIUS NASO was born of an ancient and noble family, at Sulmo (now Sulmona), in the country of the Peligni, March 20, B. C. 43. At an early age, he was sent to Rome to be educated, and studied with some of the most eminent teachers of the day, among whom he mentions Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro. He was designed by his father for the bar, and seems to have made commendable proficiency in the preliminary studies of the profession. The elder Seneca speaks highly of his declamations, and has preserved an extract from one of them. He remarks, however, that Ovid's oratory resembled a solutum carmen, and Ovid himself tells us that whatever he attempted to write took the form of verse sponte sua. His father endeavored to wean him from this tendency to poetical pursuits, warning him that poetry was the direct road to poverty; but, after a brief struggle against the ruling passion, he yielded to his destiny, abandoned the profession for which he was intended, and devoted himself to the service of the Muses. He mentions several of the leading poets of the day as among the number of his friends at this time; Macer, Propertius, Bassus, and Horace. Virgil and Tibullus, both of whom died when he was but twenty-four, he knew less intimately. He seems to have been most familiar with Propertius, who, like himself, had relinquished forensic for poetical pursuits, and who occasionally read to him his elegies, which naturally excited the admiration and the emulation of the youthful listener. Ovid, like Propertius, had attempted epic poetry; but the failure of his friend in this species of writing, and his brilliant success in elegy, appear to have determined his own hesitating muse. His first published work, the Amores, was the result, and the favor with which it was received encouraged him to persevere in the career on which he had entered.
The life of Ovid, like that of most literary men, exhibits few prominent incidents. From himself we learn that he was thrice married. His first marriage took place when he was very young, and was soon dissolved as a low and unworthy connection. His second wife was also divorced, though he makes no charge against her. The third, to whom he seems to have been tenderly attached, remained with him until his banishment, in which she was forbidden by Augustus to accompany him. He studied at Athens, as was customary with the young men of his time. He held the judicial offices of triumvir, of centumvir, and of decemvir. Till his fiftieth year, he continued to reside at Rome, where he had a house near the Capitol. He not only enjoyed the friendship of a large circle of distinguished men, but was honored with the favor of Augustus and the imperial family. Meanwhile he had given to the world the second edition of the Amores; the Heroides, in which the most tragic love-stories of ancient legend are versified under the form of epistles; a tragedy, Medea, only two lines of which have come down to us, but which was esteemed by contemporary critics as his masterpiece; the Ars Amatoria, or De Arte Amandi; the Remedia Amoris; and some minor poems. He had been engaged for some ten years on his great work, the Metamorphoses, which was nearly ready for publication. He had collected the materials for the Fasti, a poetical version of the pontifical ritual, and may have made some progress in the composition of that work. While thus engaged, he was suddenly commanded by an imperial edict to transport himself to Tomi, a town on the Euxine, near the mouth of the Danube, on the very frontiers of the empire. A few hours only were allowed him to prepare for the journey which was to remove him forever from his home, his friends, and his family. He was exiled, unheard and unarraigned, and the cause of his banishment was only vaguely indicated by a complaint against the pernicious tendency of the Ars Amatoria, which had been published ten years previous. Had he been exiled at the time of its publication, it might not have seemed extraordinary, since the poem tended directly to subvert all those measures for the regulation of public morals which Augustus was taking singular pains to enforce; but Ovid was never molested on the ground of the licentiousness of his writings until an event occurred, which is now hidden in impenetrable mystery, although it is evident that it was no secret at the time. This event was the real ground of the banishment, for which the poem was made the pretext.
It is much easier to show what the offence was not than what it "It seems to have been of a nature which Augustus could not venture to declare openly: had it been an offence against public morality, he would have claimed merit for making it the subject of a
public arraignment. Though the sufferer bows to his sentence, and acquiesces discreetly in the charge which he knows to be fictitious, his allusions point plainly to some other cause, well known to Augustus and himself, the possession apparently, and possibly, as he protests, the innocent possession of some fatal secret. The conjectures which have been made regarding it may be readily dismissed as groundless. . . . . It seems natural to surmise that Ovid, though no public man himself, got unwittingly implicated in the political intrigues of the time, and suffered as an accomplice in projects, of the scope of which he was perhaps actually unconscious.'
After a night of inexpressible distress, which the poet could never recall without tears, a night spent in taking leave of his wife and of two friends who remained with him to the last, (his daughter was in Africa,) by early morning he was afloat on a tempestuous sea, the gloomy image of his future life on the Getic coast. It was nearly a year before he reached Tomi; but he beguiled the time by writing, several of his pieces having been written on shipboard.
"From the scene of his punishment, on the verge of the inhospitable Dobrudscha, dreary and pestilential now, but then alternating the frosts of the Neva with the fevers of the Niger, the wretched victim poured forth his misery in verses of grace and sweetness, though of little power: he murmured at the loss of every friend and amusement, at the rudeness of the people, and hostility of their savage neighbors, while he shuddered at the sight of the frozen Euxine, or shivered in the agues of the Danubian marshes. A gleam of reviving cheerfulness induced him at more favorable moments to cultivate the hospitality of the natives, and to flatter them by cultivating their language, and even writing verses in it; but neither lamentations nor industry availed to soothe the bitterness of his sorrows, which were only for a moment allayed by anticipations of future celebrity; and he continued in vain to solicit with abject humiliation the compassion of the offended emperor. Though his punishment was not strictly exile (exilium), but only the milder form of relegation (relegatio), which allowed him to retain his fortune and his citizenship, and admitted the hope of eventual pardon, he never obtained remission of his sentence, though he survived Augustus three years.”†
Ovid died, A. D. 18, in the sixtieth year of his age, and the tenth of his exile. His constitution, never robust, gradually gave way under the burden of his sorrows. The severity of the climate, the want of home comforts and of good medical advice, doubtless hastened his decline; but it is probable that this last chapter of the sad story is briefly comprehended in the simple words of one of his biographers: "he died of a broken heart."
* Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire, Vol. IV. p. 260. † Merivale, loc. cit.
The works of Ovid up to the time of his exile have already been enumerated. To these are to be added the five books of elegies called Tristia, written during the first four years of his banishment, and the four books of Epistolae ex Ponto, written subsequently, in the same measure as the Tristia, and, like that work, made up of descriptions of his afflicted condition and petitions for mercy. There is also a satirical poem called Ibis, written in exile, and several other pieces, whose genuineness is more or less doubtful. Of the twelve books of the Fasti, only six have come down to us, and some have thought that only six were ever written. The Metamorphoses, which the poet burnt on going into exile, was complete in its plan, though it had not received its last touches, and copies of it were already in the hands of friends, through whom it was preserved.
"If Ovid, as a man, was unfortunate, as a poet he cannot be altogether so regarded. He was born at the happiest time for the exhibition of his chief excellence, skill in the mechanical structure of his language. Even in the Julian Age he would scarcely have developed this, nor, if he had, would it have been duly appreciated; and immediately after his decease a new school had arisen. Of the mutual adaptation of his time and his genius he was fully sensible; and he made good use of his opportunities. When we speak, however, of Ovid's elegance as his principal distinction, it is only because his success in this respect is so transcendent. He was, in imaginative power, perhaps, superior to all other Latin poets; and Milton hesitates not to affirm, that, but for the influence of misfortune on his genius, he would have surpassed Virgil in epic achievement. The Metamorphoses, though in part indebted to Greek originals for form and material, are yet a marvellous work of fancy. Some of the stories are exuberant with creative force; and the subtle thread which connects the diverse materials in one harmonious and beautiful whole is not less admirable than the structure itself. . . . . Ovid was the only writer of eminence who prolonged the golden age of Latin poetry beyond the time of Horace." *
"His various compositions," says another writer, from whom we have already quoted, "comprehend many pieces of unsullied purity and grace, which are still the first pages of antiquity we put into the hands of our children, and among the last on which we turn the retrospect of our own declining years. . . . His amatory poems were principally the work of his earlier years, and the maturity of his powers was devoted sedulously, nor with less felicity, to subjects of wider scope and higher interest." t
* Thompson, History of Roman Literature.
SELECTIONS FROM OVID.
METAMORPHOSES. Book I.
THE FOUR AGES. [vv. 89-162.] In regard to the number of these Ages, the poets do not agree. Hesiod reckons five, adding the heroic after the brazen; Ovid, four; Aratus, three; Virgil (G. I. 125 foll.) and Tibullus mention two. There was also a prophecy that, after the present age is ended, these ages are to repeat themselves in inverse order. See Virg. E. IV.
89 Prima-est = Vindice nullo
first began. Gr. 443. 2. A. & S. 205, R. 15 (6). with no magistrate to punish crime. Gr. 431. A. & S. 257, R. 7 (a). — 90. Sponte. Gr. 134. A. & S. 94. Rectum. Gr. 441. A. & S. 205, R. 7 (2). Colebat. Gr. 469. II. A. & S. 145, II. 1. — -92. Aere = = brazen tablets; on which, in early times, the laws were set up for public view. Cf. Virg. A. VI. 622. Gr. 422. I. 2). A. & S. 254, R. 3. Supplex turba the accused A. & S. 209, R. 11 & 94. Suis
and their friends. 93. Erant. Gr. 461. I. (2). Tuti. Gr. 438. 6. A. & S. 205, R. 3. tive. Peregrinum
Gr. 481. II. I; 491. A. & S. 258. I. 2; 262. 705. III. A. & S. 324. 3. Undas. Gr. 435. I. vv. 94, 95, cf. Virg. E. IV. 32-38.
- 95. Pinus. Gr.
A. & S. 235 (2). On
- 96. Norant. Gr. 234 2;
297. 2. A. & S. 162. 7 (a); 183, N. 3. -97. As yet there were no wars. Praecipites deep. 98. The tuba was straight, and used by infantry; the cornu, curved, used by cavalry. Aeris. Gr. 396. IV. A. & S. 211, R. 6. —99. Erat. Gr. 463 I. A. & S. 209, R. 12 (3). Sine usu = without need of soldiery. — 101. Cf. Virg. G. I. 94. Immunis is, literally, free from taxes; here nullo cogente, v. 103. Rastro. Gr. 414 4 A. & S. 247. 3. — 102. Per se = spontaneously. Omnia. Gr. 441. A. & S. 205, R. 7 42). 103. Contenti; sc. homines. Cibis. Gr. 419. IV. A. & 244. Nullo. Gr. 431; 457. 2. A. & S. 257, R. 7 (a); 207, R. 31 (c). -104. Arbuteos foetus the fruit of the strawberry-tree (Arbu