For some time now I have been reading and studying the Latin poet Ovid (43BC-18AD) and the more I read and study Ovid, the more I become enchanted and enthralled by his poetry. Without getting into too much detail about my personal life, I studied Classics, Greek and Latin, in both undergraduate and graduate school. For some reason I overlooked the importance and pleasure of reading Ovid in all that time. I think in the past I was a bit more serious than I am now, and so I was attracted to the more serious minded poetry of that other great Roman poet, Vergil, whom I still enjoy immensely. But now I have discovered the joys of Ovid as well.
Why do I enjoy Ovid so much, and what relevance does this have for this blog? Ovid was perhaps the greatest and most influential erotic poet of all time. Living in a time of great sophistication, civilization, and decadence, ancient Rome, his playful poems of love and sex are quite modern for the ancient world. No one before him wrote about love and sex with the sort of skill, wit, humor and psychological insight as he did, and no after him has had the profound influence on subsequent poetry as Ovid. He is one of the most important figures entire history of Western literature. Shakespeare as we know him is impossible without Ovid.
Ovid wrote three major works dealing with the themes of love. The first was the Amores, a series of elegiac love poems dealing with the overall pleasures and difficulties of a young man in love with a hard to get girl. The poems cover such diverse subjects as beauty, sexual positions, jealously, seduction, impotence, abortion, and the enjoyment of sexual variety. Ovid mentions how he enjoys every woman he meets, and cannot be content with just one. All the women on the street are beautiful to his eyes. He wants them all. I understand that completely. Latin poetry is not as graphic as modern poetry as far as describing sex, rather it speaks to us in nuances and suggestions, sort of in the same way that older movies expresses eroticism without actually showing the act of sex. And yet, like old movies, the verse is very effective in conveying the eroticism of life. But in all this Ovid is witty and humorous; his is a playful enjoyment of the world of love and sex. He never takes it too seriously, although he clearly enjoys the sensual company of women. It is all a game to Ovid. In this he is quite modern. “Game” is, as readers of this blog know, quite a modern phenomenon, especially in the blogosphere.
The next piece he wrote dealing with love was called the Heroides. This was a series of letters in verse written by jilted women to their ex-lovers. The subjects are famous women from Greek mythology, such as Medea writing to Jason. What is unique about this work is how Ovid desires to show the female side of the world of love, and his understanding of feminine psychology was deep. No other writer from the ancient world showed such a degree of interest in female eroticism, except perhaps the great Greek tragedian Euripides. Again, Ovid often mixes humor and levity and the final product is a depiction of once serious mythological figures that is both down to earth and sympathetic as well as biting.
His most notorious work on eroticism was his Ars Amatoria, or Art of Love. This was a didactic poem in three books. The first two book offers advice for men on how to pick up women; the third book is advice to women on how to keep men. All in all it is a humorous and satiric instruction on the best ways and places to seduce women. He gives detailed and clinical advice on how to seduce, and yet it is always humorous and engaging. It is quite similar really to what you might read on the old Roissy blog. It was the best exposition of “Game” ever written, two thousand years before we even had such blogs as Roissy. For instance, Ovid draws many examples from everyday Roman life (remember Roissy often wrote about life in DC). As a creature of urban Rome, a good place to meet girls, he says, are in theaters, or at the games, since women go the games not only to see, but to be seen. He mentions how you can score points with a girl at the games by confronting the guy sitting behind her if he happens to be pressing his knee into her back. I remember this actually happened to me once, when I was once in a movie theater with a girlfriend. A guy sitting behind us was shoving his knees into her chair and so I turned around and told him to stop. He did. She told me later that night, as I was furiously fucking her, how much that confrontation turned her on. She had many orgasms that night.
Ovid wrote much more, the most important being the Metamorphoses, a long poem in the style of epic on mythological transformations. It is one of the most important poems ever written, and has had a profound influence on all later art and poetry. Many great artists and writers have been influenced in one way or another by this work. Again, much of the theme is that of erotic desire and destruction, often told in a humorous or sarcastic way, although there are passages and stories of true erotic pathos and tenderness too.
So these are some of his works which are relevant for this blog. Again, Ovid is quite modern. He was so modern, in fact, that the emperor Augustus actually banished Ovid from Rome in 8 A.D., and he spent the rest of his life in exile at a lonely outpost on the banks of the Danube in modern Romania, until his death in 18 A.D. For a sophisticated urbanite like Ovid, this was a crushing blow. For the next decade he pleaded in poetry to return to his beloved Rome, but was denied. Augustus did not like his poetry, as it was too racy and irreverent for his tastes. For instance, Augustus wanted to restore old Roman morality, and so he stiffened the laws against adultery, the same adulterous conduct which Ovid was openly celebrating and promoting in his erotic poetry. Even his books were banned from the libraries at the time. The erotically playful Ars Amatoria was particularly disliked by Augustus.
And yet Augustus’s ban on Ovid proved ineffective in the long run. In fact, Ovid predicted his own literary immortality. In the last nine lines of the Metamorphoses (15.871ff), finished in 8 A.D., he says:
Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
Cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius
ius habet, incerti spatium mihi finiat aevi:
parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis
astra ferar, nomenque erit indelebile nostrum,
quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris,
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.
Which is translated as:
And now I have finished my work, which neither the wrath of Jove, nor fire, nor sword, nor gnawing old age will be able to destroy. When it wants, let that day, which has no power over anything except the body, end the span of my life: and still in my better part I shall be carried immortal beyond the lofty stars and I shall have an undying name. Wherever Roman power extends over the conquered world, I shall be spoken of on the lips of people, and if the prophecies of bards have any truth, through all the ages I shall live in fame.
The last word in the poem is vivam: “I shall live”. How correct Ovid was. The Bible is not the only place where literary prophecies come true.
And so today Ovid lives, and lives well, and is beloved among all lovers of eroticism as well as good literature. He clearly loved and was fascinated by women. He was entranced by feminine beauty. He loved writing about these things. He had in his own time, and has had for over two thousand years, a vast and receptive audience. Once again, as with the secret Vatican porn room I wrote about recently, the survival and profound influence of his poetry throughout the ages is another example of the “futility of censorship”.