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P. OVIDIUS Naso, in one of his later works (Trist. iv. 10), has himself furnished us with a minute account of his life and fortunes. Besides this, he frequently takes occasion to speak of himself and particular events of his career, so that there are few writers of antiquity with regard to whom we have more authentic information. Several biographies of him have also come down to us from a later period of antiquity, but these contain few facts of importance which were not already to be found in the poems themselves.
P. Ovidius Naso was born at Sulmo, in the country of the Peligni, the year after the assassination of Cæsar, B.c. 43. His father belonged to the equestrian order, and was possessed of a large fortune, as appears from the education which he bestowed on Ovid and his brother, who was only a year older than himself, as well as from the independence with which our poet, in later years, pursued his own inclinations, without devoting himself to any profession. The youths were brought to Rome at an early age, and there placed under the most distinguished teachers : among these we find particularly mentioned M. Porcius Latro, and Arellius Fuscus, who instructed their pupils in the grammatical and rhetorical studies of the day, introduced them to an acquaintance with literature, and directed them in the exercise of their own original powers. The practice of oratorydiscussions on prescribed themes_constituted a main element in this education, which had for its ultimate object to form the future statesman, to fit him for administrative and judicial offices, that, at the close of his career, he might, as a senator, devote the political insight which he had acquired to the conduct of the government in the most comprehensive sense. But this sphere of activity had lost all its charms under the absolute rule of Augustus. Ambition had no longer a worthy goal set before it: to rise by individual talent, as Cicero, Cæsar, and so many others had done, had now become impossible. Political virtue consisted in being content to occupy a subordinate position, and to carry out the will of the ruler. No wonder, therefore, that many Romans abandoned the stage of public life, and found their satisfaction in the enjoyments which private independence offered. Life in Rome was now a life of pleasure and gaiety; exertion for the good of the state was at an end, and every one sought his own private advantage. Under these influences Ovid grew up. The calamitous times of the civil wars had already passed by, and at Rome all was again tranquil, and moved on in settled course. Only the wish of his father urged him forward in the direction of public life; and he had already in reality held several offices had been Triumvir Capitalis, Centumvir, and Judex. The death of his brother, at the early age of twenty, seems to have made the father more indulgent to his younger son, so that he was now enabled to surrender himself more fully to his natural and almost irresistible inclination for poetry. In accordance with the custom of the day he undertook a journey to Sicily, Greece, and Asia Minor, which occasioned his absence from Rome for several years. He had already come forward as an author, and his poems had attracted attention, and introduced him into the circle of the most distinguished poets then living, by whom he was encouraged and excited to farther exertions. Among these he mentions Aemilius Macer, Licinius Macer, Ponticus, Bassus, Horace, Tibullus, and Propertius. Virgil he had only seen, but not enjoyed his friendship; Tibullus also died too early for the establishment of any deeper connection between them. The first poems which Ovid published are' Amorum libri iii.' elegies in which, as a very young man, he describes his experiences and observations in the province of love. They are written in the spirit of the time, when the intercourse of cultivated men with beautiful and accomplished courtesans had become so prevalent, that regular marriages were to an alarming extent on the decrease. Hence we find that in most other poets of that age similar connections form the theme of song; each of them had a lover to whom, with all the fire of passion and enthusiasm, he dedicated his muse. This is the case with Horace, Tibullus, and Propertius, and it is recorded of many others, whose works have not come down to us. Attempts have been made even at the present day to determine how much truth and how much fiction these delineations contain; and many have unwarrantably imputed more blame to Ovid, on the score of his poems, than to any of his contemporaries. Our poet calls his mistress Corinna -a feigned name, as he himself informs us: besides her, he addresses himself to others; and in these love-songs, which are all written in elegiac verse, he paints all the situations of suc
cessful as well as unsuccessful love which can occur in such a connection. The fact that so many writers of that age coincide both in the general tone and in the special objects of their poetry, makes it plain that we have here to deal with the poet rather than with the biographer; and Ovid himself tells us, in one of his later works, in allusion to the charges brought against his earlier poems, that his life had been spent without any heinous transgressions. At the same time, we are far from looking upon him as a model of virtue; the whole era was dissolute and corrupt, and all the poets of whom we have any exact knowledge would be exposed to serious censure if tried by the standard of the present day. Ovid had already had two wives, and been separated from both; he had a daughter, probably by the second. All that we contend for is, that he was no worse than his contemporaries, and that we are not justified in taking all his poetical and fanciful descriptions for biographical realities. The truer to nature these pictures are, and the more lifelike their colouring, the more must we be on our guard against drawing unwarrantable conclusions from them. It is the excellence of the poems wbich has chiefly occasioned the misrepresentations of the author and the misrepresentations are a proof of the excellence.
The approval which Ovid met with in the career on which he had entered, induced him to persevere in it, and to attempt a greater poem on the saine subject. True poetic fame then, as now, resulted chiefly from lengthened and continuous works: Virgil in particular had thus gained imperishable glory, and was looked up to by the younger poets as a model. Ovid therefore also attempted in his province to produce a more comprehensive work, the · Ars Amandi,' which he completed in three books, likewise in the elegiac measure. This poem is in its way one of the most perfect that have come down to us from Roman antiquity. The poet brings together, and reduces, as it were, to a system all the arts with which the one sex gain and preserve the attachment of the other, and illustrates his instructions by mythological examples and comparisons, of which his extensive acquaintance with the Greek poets furnished him an abundant supply. The opposite side of the subject also occupied his attention, and he wrote the "Remedia Amoris,' in one book in the same measure. There is still extant a considerable fragment of a poem ( Medicamina Faciei') in which he describes the arts of the toilet then in use to preserve and improve the complexion. The Heroides,' letters from heroines to their absent husbands, form the last work in this class of poems in which Ovid had no predecessor, and with which he may be truly said to have enriched the literature of Rome.
Our poet was in the meantime advancing in years, and he may have felt that such frivolous subjects as had hitherto exclusively occupied his muse were no longer suitable for him. His friends also were now advanced in life, and had turned their attention to more serious studies: their influence on Ovid, who always easily suffered himself to be determined from without, was great, and he resolved to occupy himself with some worthier task. The result of this resolution was a tragedy, ' Medea,' which received great applause from his contemporaries as well as from later critics, but which is now lost. Whether he followed the Medea of Euripides, or cut out a new path for himself, it is now impossible to decide. In either case it remained the only dramatic attempt of our poet. We next find him occupied with two great poetical works, at which he appears to have laboured simultaneously—the · Metamorphoses’ and the 'Fasti.' In the former he treats of those parts of the ancient mythology in which transformations occur, and draws mainly from Greek sources; the latter, in which he describes the Roman festivals and their occasions, in the order in which they occur in the calendar, is a thoroughly native production. In the former, therefore, he entered the lists with many contemporaries and predecessors ; in the latter, he pursued a path entirely his own.
It may be assumed with great probability that the Metamorphoses was composed on the model of one or more Greek poems extant in the age of Ovid. The literature of Greece abounded in works the plan of which was to unite into one whole a variety of subjects having no necessary internal connection with each other; the Theogonia, the Heroogonia, the Karároyos yuvacxwe of Hesiod, may serve as examples from the earliest antiquity. This style of composition was carried to an extreme in the Alexandrian age, when the fire of original genius had gone out, and displays of erudition took the place of true poetic effort. In the last century before the Christian era, the literature of Greece exercised an undue influence over Roman genius. The poetry which had sprung up on the Italian soil, nourished with Italian conceptions, and striking out into Italian forms, was supplanted by a foreign growth, and the independent development of an original Roman poetry was thus seriously obstructed. But since this was the direction which Roman literature had taken, Ovid yielded to the general tendency, and he appears in the composition of the Metamorphoses to have followed one or more of the later Greek poets. It is impossible to speak decidedly on this subject, because we cannot bring our suppositions to the test of an actual comparison, all the Greek works of a similar character, from which we might form a correct judgment, being lost. But from what we know of the richness and inventiveness of Ovid's genius, as well