Ovid: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Nora Goldschmidt

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Publius Ovidius Naso (‘Ovid’) was a Roman poet of the late Augustan period who later became one of the most popular and influential writers to survive from antiquity. Perhaps best known for his mythological epic, Metamorphoses (‘Transformations’), and collection of erotic poems, Amores (‘Loves’), his extant works also include the Ars amatoria (‘The Art of Love’) and Remedia amoris (‘Cures for Love’), a didactic poem on make-up for women (Medicamina faciei femineae), a series of mythical letters known as the Heroides (‘Heroines’), as well as a number of influential poems written in exile, Tristia (‘Sorrows’), Ibis, and Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’).

Like Alexander Pope who claimed to have ‘lisp’d in numbers’, everything Ovid touched is said to have turned to verse. As the elder Seneca Sen. Controv. 2.2.8 remembers him, even when he was studying rhetoric as a young man, his speeches inevitably turned into ‘poetry in prose’—a story which Ovid himself was eager to confirm (Tristia 4.10.24). Apart from Seneca’s memories, though, while the lives of Ovid’s older contemporaries Virgil and Horace were taken up early on by ancient biographers, there is no surviving ancient life of Ovid (Jerome’s Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 184.2 (43 BC) Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 199.1 (17 AD) two very brief notices give little more than dates and places). What we do have, however, is an extensive series of autobiographical statements—overt and covert—in the poet’s own works. Ovid talked more about himself than any other Roman poet, constructing a semi-fictional autobiography that would tantalize and inspire later writers to fill in its gaps and transform its tropes. From the beginning, Ovid’s statements about himself participate in the play of fictions that characterise his work as a whole, teasing the reader about their ‘factual’ status (Volk 2010: 20-2; cf. Hardie 2002, Gildenhard and Zissos 2000). The poet swings between asking his readers to see his poetry as a mirror to his life (‘Naso, the poet of my own wantonness’ (Amores 2.1.2)) to exhorting them to make a clear distinction between the two (‘your credulity is harming me!’ (Amores 3.12.44), ‘my character is different from my poems: my life is chaste, my Muse a jokester’ (Tristia 2.353-4)).

Every one of Ovid’s surviving works, often written in the first-person, arguably leaves ‘a space for self-expression’ (Barchiesi and Hardie 2010: 59). But the most explicit ‘autobiographical’ content appears in the poems from exile. In AD 8, Ovid was relegated to Tomis on the Black Sea, and the poems he wrote there both speak of his current circumstances and continuously interrogate and re-fashion his life in Rome. Among the most significant are Tristia 2, addressed to Augustus, which talks cryptically of a carmen et error (‘a song and a mistake’ 2.207) that brought about the poet’s banishment (a trope which continuously resurfaces in the exile poetry: cf. Ingleheart 2010: 121-2), and, above all, Tristia 4.10 Ov. Tr. 4.10. This last—the closing poem of Book 4—is sometimes seen to fall within the literary tradition of the sphragis (Greek ‘seal’, ‘signature’) where the poet ‘signs off’ at the end of the work in his own voice. More than the traditional sphragis, however, the poem is arguably a full-blown autobiography in verse, extending to 132 lines (e.g., Misch 1950: vol. I, 295, D’Agostino 1969, Fredericks 1976, Fairweather 1987, Viarre 1993). Written with posterity in mind (accipe posteritas 4.10.2), Ovid traces the events of his life (uitae … acta 4.10.92) from his birth in Sulmo (Sulmo mihi patria est 4.10.3), charting his growth as a poet, and finally prophesying his own posthumous fame (4.10.129-30).

Despite Ovid’s warnings about the dangers of taking his biographical statements too seriously, his poems were frequently read autobiographically in later times and the clues (or red herrings) which he left became particularly important for later readers. The poet had already prophesied his own afterlife in a number of works, including the famous close of the Metamorphoses Ov. Met. 15.871-9, which ends with the assertion that even after his death his legacy would continue (uiuam, ‘I shall live’; cf. e.g. Amores 1.15.41-2; Tristia 4.10.130); Ovid’s life has, accordingly, been invented and reinvented through the ages in ways the ancient poet could never have imagined. The Middle Ages, and especially the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—famously dubbed ‘the Ovidian age’ (aetas Ovidiana) by Ludwig Traube—were particularly concerned with the poet’s imaginary life (see esp. Ghisalberti 1946). The period also saw the composition of De vetula (‘On the old woman’), a three-book hexameter poem which claims to be Ovid’s hitherto lost autobiography from exile, discovered sealed in the poet’s tomb (Knox 2009b, Hexter 1999 and 2002, Godman 1995; cf. Lyne 2002: 288-98 for Renaissance versions of Ovid as lover and exile).

In more recent times, Ovid the exile has fascinated modern writers (cf. Kerrigan 1992, Pana 1993, Hardie 2002: 326-37, Ziolkowski 2005: 99-145). Late modern authors have found particular affinity with the exilic voice: in ‘Ovid in Tomis’ (1980), Derek Mahon makes Ovid ‘weep for our exile’ (Ziolkowski 2005: 128-9), while in prose fiction, the post-colonial voice of David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (1978) sees the urbane western poet par excellence eventually long for a return to nature beyond the limits of language and the ‘civilised’ world. Notable, too, is Christoph Ransmayr’s Die letzte Welt (‘The Last World’, 1988), where Tomis, the site of Ovid’s exile, is figured as a Zwischenwelt, full of rusted iron, dilapidated buses, firearms and corruption, a place between fiction and reality. Fittingly, in Ransmayr’s postmodern last world, the Roman poet—so elusive in his own ‘autobiographical’ statements—can never actually be found (cf. Ziolkowski 2005: 176-83).


  • Barchiesi, A. and Hardie, P. R. 2010. ‘The Ovidian Career Model: Ovid, Gallus, Apuleius, Boccaccio.’ In P. R. Hardie and H. Moore (eds.), Classical Literary Careers and their Reception. Cambridge: 59-88.
  • D’Agostino, V. 1969. ‘L’elegia autobiografica di Ovidio: Tristia IV, 10.’ Latomus 101: 293-302.
  • Fairweather, J. 1987. ‘Ovid's Autobiographical Poem, Tristia 4.10.’ CQ 37: 181- 96.
  • Fredericks, B. R. 1976. ‘Tristia 4.10: Poet's Autobiography and Poetic Autobiography.’ TAPA 106: 139-54.
  • Ghisalberti, F. 1946. ‘Medieval biographies of Ovid.’ JWCI 9: 10-59.
  • Gildenhard, I. and Zissos, A. 2000. ‘Inspirational Fictions: Autobiography and Generic Reflexivity in Ovid’s Proems.’ G & R 47: 67-79.
  • Godman, P. 1995. ‘Ovid's sex-life.’ Poetica 27: 101-8. 
  • Hardie, P. R. 2002. Ovid’s Poetics of Illusion. Cambridge.
  • Hexter, R. 1999. ‘Ovid's Body.’ In J. I. Porter (ed.), The Construction of the Classical Body. Ann Arbor: 327-54.
    • 2002. ‘Ovid in the Middle Ages.’ In B. W. Boyd (ed.), Brill's Companion to Ovid. Leiden: 413-42.
  • Ingleheart, J. 2010. A Commentary on Ovid, Tristia: Book 2. Oxford.
  • Kerrigan, J. 1992. ‘Ulster Ovids.’ In N. Corcoran (ed.), The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland. Bridgend: 237–69.
  • Knox, P. E. 2009a. ‘A Poet’s Life.’ In P. E. Knox (ed.), A Companion to Ovid. Malden, MA: 3-7.
  • Knox, P. E. 2009b. ‘Lost and Spurious Works.’ In P. E. Knox (ed.), A Companion to Ovid. Malden, MA: 207-16.
  • Lyne, R. 2002. ‘Love and Exile After Ovid.’ In P. R. Hardie (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Cambridge: 288-300.
  • Misch, G. 1950. A History of Autobiography in Antiquity. Trans. by E. Dickes and G. Misch. 2 vols. London.
  • Pana, I. G. 1993. ‘The Tomis Complex: Versions of Exile in Australian literature.’ WLT 67: 523–32.
  • Volk, K. (2010) Ovid. Malden, MA.
  • Viarre, S. 1993. ‘Tristes IV, 10: L’Histoire récente de l’interprétation et la signification poétique.’ In G. Arrighetti and F. Montanari (eds.), La componente autobiografica nella poesia Greca e Latina fra realità e atrificio letterario. Pisa: 255-74.
  • Zambon, E. 2011. ‘Life and Poetry: Differences and Resemblances between Ovid and Dante.’ In J. Ingleheart (ed.), Two Thousand Years of Solitude: Exile After Ovid. Oxford: 23-40.
  • Ziolkowski, T. 2005. Ovid and the Moderns. Ithaca.