Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE - 17/18 CE)

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26,341.86 hours

Ovid was one of the most prolific of the ancient poets, whose work ranged from epic (the Metamorphoses) to the elegiac. We know about Ovid's life through his later works, especially the exile poems, the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. He was born on March 20, 43 BCE to a rich family in Sulmona, a town in central Italy east of Rome. Originally studying law, Ovid joined the literary circle of Corvinus, where he rubbed elbows with some of Rome's great poets, including Tibullus. Many of his works were in the elegiac genre, which dealt with manners of love and lust. It is this subject matter, and quite possibly an unwise relationship with Augustus' granddaughter, Julia Minor, that got Ovid exiled in 8 CE to Tomi, a small town on the Black Sea in modern day Romania. At Tomi, Ovid, the quintessential city poet, suffered and eventually died in 17 or 18 CE.

His Works

Ovid is the last of the great Augustan poets, and he is also one of its most prolific. His preferred meter is the elegiac couplet, which combines a line of hexameter with a second line of a quasi-pentameter (two half-lines of two-and-a-half feet). It's with this meter that he burst onto the literary scene after 20 BCE with the Amores (Loves), forty-nine short poems, possibly entirely fictional, that follow the traditional formula of a poet falling in and out of love. Then we have the Heroides (Heroines), a selection of poems in elegiac couplets told from the perspective of mythological women who were rejected by men. Then came the lost tragedy, Medea, written some time between 12 and 8 BCE. Ovid wrote the first two books of his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) between 1 BCE and 1 CE, which instructed men how to make women fall in love with them. The third book of the Ars soon followed, which was dedicated to women, along with the Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love), how to break up with them once they have fallen in love. Ovid also wrote a short poem (only 100 lines remain) on women's cosmetics called Medicamina Faciei Femineae during this period.

From 2 to 8 CE Ovid wrote his great epic, the Metamorphoses, which tells of the story of the world through mythological stories of changing bodies with about 12,000 lines of hexameter. He also wrote the first half of his poetic calendar, the Fasti, again in elegiac couplets. He only got through six books/months in this, from January to June, before he suffered exile in 8 CE. We don't know the specific reasons for Rome's most famous poet of the day being sent to the furthest reaches of Rome's control. Ovid himself tells us that it was because of a poem and a mistake (carmen et error). The poem could be his scandalous Ars Amatoria. Needless to say, exile prevented the final revision of the Metamorphoses and the second half of his culturally valuable Fasti.

During exile, Ovid wrote five books of the Tristia (literally, Sadness) and four books of the Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea). These poems were composed as letters of appeal to Augustus, his friends, and Rome, to revoke his exile and allow him to return. He also wrote a short invective poem called Ibis around 11-12 CE. All of these poems were written in elegiac couplets.

His Style

Ovid was first and foremost an elegiac poet, and Ovid's hexameters have a lot of the bounce and quickness of elegy. Ovid obviously prefers dactyls to spondees. In our lines, we see that he uses the dactyl 54.83% of the time, which leaves just 45.17% for spondees. Vergil and his heavy, serious meter is the inverse of Ovid.

Like many other Augustan poets, Ovid prefers to begin his line with a dactyl. In fact, his eight most common patterns all begin with a dactyl. Contrast this with Vergil, whose top eight patterns included four that begin with a spondee. We can look at this difference even more by contrasting Ovid's use of DDDD (5.83%) with Vergil's (1.95%), as well as Ovid's use of SSSS (1.75%) to Vergil's (7.06%).

While Vergil uses elision to work with his narrative (Anderson notes that it helps connect phrases and reinforce the complexity of the narrative), Ovid works to create a much cleaner line, and uses elision less frequently. In our lines, Ovid's elision rate (the number of elisions divided by number of lines) is 0.2482, while Vergil's is 0.5485. Anderson also notes that a large portion of Ovid's elisions occur with -que, et, or est, and don't serve to constrict the flow of the story. Perhaps taking a lesson from the elegiac couplet (where he would stitch two separate phrases together to form the quasi-pentameter second line), Ovid uses the caesura to divide phrases. So especially with Ovid, understanding where the caesura falls helps immensely in not just understanding the scansion of the line, but also its sense.


Anderson, William S. 1997. Ovid's Metamorphoses, Books 1-5. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Conte, Gian Biagio. 1994. Latin Literature: A History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

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