a marble bust of Ovid

Did Ovid's erotic poetry lead to his exile from Rome?

Penning scandalous poems about gods and mortals brought Ovid many Roman fans—except Emperor Augustus, who banished the poet for reasons still unknown.

Ovid, first-century marble bust. Uffizi Gallery, Florence
White Images/Scala, Florence

Publius Ovidius Naso, the poet better known today as Ovid, tried to write his own epitaph before his death in A.D. 17. In a series of poems composed near the end of his life, he asked for these lines to mark his final resting place:

I who lie here was a writer
Of tales of tender love
Naso the poet, done in by my
Own ingenuity.
You who pass by, should you be
A lover, may you
Trouble yourself to say that Naso’s
May rest softly.

Recognized today for the Metamorphoses, his dazzling reworking of Greek and Latin myths, Ovid was known during his time for vibrant, controversial love poetry, including the Amores (The Loves) and the Ars amatoria (The Art of Love). These frank poetic reflections on Roman sexual customs brought him fame but also played a role in his downfall. (Learn about the responsibilities that came with coveted Roman citizenship.)

After publishing his magnum opus, Ovid fell out of imperial favor, was forced to leave Rome, and exiled to Tomis, a city on the Black Sea. It was here, on the fringes of the empire, that Ovid pined for his beloved Rome and begged to return. (This is why Black Sea shipwrecks are such unique finds.)

By Ovid’s own account, the exile was punishment for an “error” that enraged the emperor Augustus. Ovid considered himself lucky that he escaped execution for the offense but never recorded any specific details about what he did wrong. Scholars have puzzled over the cause of the exile for centuries, which remains unsolved to this day.

Early success

Ovid was born in 43 B.C. in Sulmo (now Sulmona) 100 miles east of Rome. His letters and the Tristia (Lamentations), a five-book collection of poems written in exile, have given historians a wealth of autobiographical details.

He describes himself as a natural poet from his youth: “Poetry in meter comes unbidden to me.” After a brief stint traveling and then studying in Athens, he turned his back on a political career, and went instead to Rome to become a poet. He fell in love with the city, and it embraced his poetry.

Completed in 16 B.C., Ovid’s first major work was the Amores, a collection of poems charting a love affair with a young woman called Corinna. In this first book of poems, Ovid employed an urbane, ironic voice. A famous poem describing a hot summer’s afternoon of lovemaking ends with the lines:

Fill in the rest for yourselves!
Tired at last, we lay sleeping.
May my siestas often turn out that way.

Some have theorized that Corinna had a real-life corollary: Fifth-century writer Sidonius Apollinaris identified her as Julia the Elder, Augustus’ daughter, and posited that Ovid enjoyed a dalliance with her. Sidonius credited that scandalous relationship for Ovid’s exile, but later historians have debunked this theory. Most commentators regard Corinna as a fictional character.

Following this debut, Ovid notched up one success after another. His Heroides (Heroines) was a series of dramatic monologues centering on mythological women, including Dido, Medea, and Ariadne, who lament their mistreatment by their lovers.

Courting danger

A three-part work, Ars amatoria, completed around A.D. 2 was a sensation. The first two parts are a “how-to” guide for men on seducing women and keeping their love. Ovid counsels that absence makes the heart grow fonder and that asking a woman’s age is not a recipe for seduction. Part three is aimed at women and includes the suggestion that making a lover jealous isn’t such a bad idea. (Rome's Vestal Virgins were awarded privileges unavailable to other Roman women.)

Ovid had struck publishing gold. His handbook gave his young audience practical tips under the guise of a formal didactic work. But despite its success, Ovid craved a more learned readership.

Ovid’s career started when Roman literary circles were devoted to two figures: Virgil and Horace. Virgil was writing the Aeneid, the national epic about Aeneas the Trojan prince and mythological founder of Rome, while Horace was feted for his witty Satires. These two men would embody the flowering of Roman letters under Augustus.

Already in his 40s when he completed Ars amatoria, Ovid was neither fabulously wealthy nor well connected. He had a loyal patron, but the literary set he associated with were minor writers compared to giants like Virgil and Horace.

The Metamorphoses

Inspired to write a great work like the Aeneid, Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses. “My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed,” he wrote in his opening lines. He informed the readers that the theme of transformation will influence the very form of his long poem, which will “spin an unbroken thread of verse from the earliest beginnings of my world down to my own times.”

Extremely successful in its own time, the work became one of the most influential works of Western literature, inspiring numerous works of art, music, and drama. Love, lust, grief, terror, and divine punishment trigger a series of startling changes in Ovid’s retelling of 250 stories of gods and mortals.

Sailors become dolphins. The sculptor Pygmalion’s kiss changes a statue into a young woman. For having spied the goddess Diana as she bathed, the hunter Actaeon is changed into a stag to be ripped apart by his hounds. In one of the Metamorphoses’ most famous passages, Daphne flees Apollo’s lustful advances and changes into a laurel tree: “Her hair grew into leaves, her arms into branches, and her feet that were lately so swift, were held by sluggish roots, while her face became the treetop. Nothing of her was left, except her shining loveliness.” (Ovid retold the classic tale of Theseus and the Minotaur in his Metamorphoses')

Angering Augustus

By age 50 Ovid had reached the peak of his popularity. His groundbreaking style had established him as one of the most popular poets in Rome. But it was just as his fortunes were riding high that disaster broke. In A.D. 8, as Ovid was garnering praise for the Metamorphoses, the emperor Augustus decided to send him into exile. (Who were Rome's 'Five Good Emperors'?)

Ovid lived the rest of his years in Tomis. His petitions to the emperor were all in vain. After Augustus’ death in A.D. 14, Ovid tried to get his successor Tiberius to commute his sentence, but the new emperor was impervious to the continued pleas of both the poet and his wife Fabia. The Roman love poet died in A.D. 17, far from the city where he had made his name, and which he had loved so dearly.

Scholars still have not pinpointed all the reasons why Augustus wanted Ovid exiled. The poet attributed his punishment to “carmen et error”—“a poem and an error.” Most historians agree the “poem” was the Ars amatoria, whose rakish indifference to social norms was at odds with the new imperial morality Augustus was promoting. As chief priest, the emperor was guardian of laws and customs (curator legum et morum) and was eager to restore traditional social norms.

In A.D. 8, the year of Ovid’s banishment, however, the Ars amatoria was more than five years old. Historians largely agree that while the poem might have served as extra evidence of Ovid’s undesirability in the eyes of Augustus, it was a secondary cause for his banishment. The real reason for Ovid’s exile was the “error,” references to which are scattered through Ovid’s later writing. Scanning these texts for clues, scholars have found several hints as to what the “error” might have been. The poet never spells it out, but states that it was unpremeditated, the result of a foolish mistake.

Mysteries of exile

Numerous hypotheses have been put forward. American scholar John C. Thibault’s 1964 book, The Mystery of Ovid’s Exile, studies medieval writings that speculate on Ovid’s error. Among the most dramatic are that Ovid knew of an incestuous affair between Augustus and his daughter Julia, or that Ovid had a dalliance with Livia, the emperor’s wife.

The 20th-century British Ovid scholar Peter Green proposes that the error was not moral, but political. A very delicate theme at the time was the question of Augustus’ succession. If Ovid had gossiped about certain political factions, his indiscretions (combined with the salaciousness of his earlier erotic poetry) could have been enough to seal his fate.

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