First published in the Idler, 2003
Ovid was the consummate ancient idler. He happily turned down an influential, financially rewarding, and unpleasantly strenuous career to dedicate himself to a life of sex and poetry. He wasn’t afraid to laugh at the foolish policies and ridiculous arrogance of the most powerful man in the world, and (to declare a personal interest) when he was eventually banished, he took the opportunity to invent Crap Towns.
Unfortunately for the lazy Ovid, he lived in a very hectic era. He was born in 43 BC, the year after Julius Caesar’s assassination. His boyhood was spent under the shadow of the bloody civil war that followed. The three most powerful men on earth, Lepidus, Marc Antony and Octavian battled it out for the control of Rome with a viciousness that has rarely since been equalled. It’s hard to put any exact totals on the numbers of people that suffered: no one was really counting. However, their decimation of the upper classes in one year, 43 BC, when they oversaw the execution of 300 Roman Senators and 2,000 ‘equites’ (the two highest strata of society), gives a pretty good impression of what happened to everybody else.
After more than a decade of furious bloodshed, Octavian emerged as the victor. He crushed his enemies with all the shock, awe and overwhelming force the non-nuclear technology of his era allowed. The final act of the war was the battle of Actium in 31 BC when he sank every single ship in the navy of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. He renamed himself Augustus and became the absolute ruler of Rome, with more unrestricted power than any one man had ever had before – or has had since.
Antony and Cleopatra’s infamous double suicide was definitely the most sensible response to their unenviable situation after Actium. Only the very bravest - or maddest - crossed Augustus, and nobody got away with it. Not even his own daughter Julia was immune to his wrath, as she discovered when he banished her in 2BC for breaking his stern moral laws on adultery. Equally, only a fool or a hero would turn Augustus down if he offered them a position in his spectacularly powerful inner circle – but that’s exactly what Ovid did – before devoting a considerable part of his career to making fun of the image obsessed dictator.
Ovid, together with his brother, was selected by Augustus because he was looking for someone from their home town, Sulmo (which was about 90 miles from Rome), to help him build up an administration that represented the regions as well as the capital. The young poet managed to skive out of the military service most young men in his position were subjected to (unfortunately, nobody now knows how he managed this) but he didn’t avoid being put on the ‘cursus honorum’, the fast track to political power in Ancient Rome. Augustus made him an ‘equites’ at the tender age of 16 and he was packed off to law school. Ovid went along with this, mainly, he later said, to please his beloved father. And it seems that his traditionalist dad also put considerable financial, as well as emotional pressure on the young poet, ominously warning him that “even Homer died poor.”
Luckily Ovid eventually managed to convince the old man that he just wasn’t cut out to face what he termed “the burden of power” or any of the “worries of ambition”. In fact, he was happy to admit that he “had neither the body, nor the mind” to put up with any kind of work at all. Instead, he loved “otium” (the most evocative Latin term for idleness, our word ‘negotiation’ is its direct opposite). He managed to win the protection and encouragement of the powerful Roman litterateur Messalla, and stepped off Augustus’ fast track to dedicate himself to sophisticated city life, getting as much sex as he possibly could and writing fantastic, dazzlingly witty poetry.
Ridiculously, the most common complaint about Ovid’s poetry from ancient and modern critics is that he patently didn’t suffer for his art. It all came too easily to him. “Whatever I tried to write was poetry,” he once complained. He practically thought in verse, the speeches he composed at law school were really all just poems, and as a boy he was even said to have promised that he’d never write another poem to his anxious father - in a perfect elegaic couplet. He enjoyed writing: and jealous puritans have suggested that this devalues his work. However, while it’s true that you can never really take Ovid seriously, this doesn’t mean his work is without feeling, and it doesn’t make his great skill any the less impressive. It’s always an easy pleasure to read Ovid, his irrepressible sense of fun bubbling over into everything he wrote. What’s more, his poetic gift was incredible, his felicity with language unrivalled until Shakespeare. Words were toys to him, delicate shining baubles hung to perfect effect on the verdant branches of his poetry.
Augustus was accustomed to taking such talents under his ‘protection’ and coercing them to write in praise of his reign. Vergil’s patriotic epic The Aeneid is the result of this pressure, as are Horace’s dreadful military odes (he came up with the old lie “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” to please Augustus). However, not only would Ovid not work to serve the state, he wouldn’t even serve the state with his poetry. Instead he dedicated most of his life to singing the praises of the idle life.
Although Ovid found writing poetry so incredibly easy, he didn’t actually write that much of it. In fact, until the age of 40, he averaged just 500 lines a year – just under two lines a day, or about 10 words. He could happily finish a day’s work while dozing in bed before breakfast, and still be confident that he’d done enough to earn himself immortality. He was able to dedicate the rest of his time to research: relaxing in his orchards in the countryside, going to fashionable dinner parties and the chariot races, drinking the finest wines known to humanity, visiting the theatre, staying out until the early morning (when “the cockcrow shatters poor workers dreams”) and arranging dangerous liaisons.
He jokingly called himself the ‘praeceptor amoris’ – best translated as “Dr Love”. In The Amores he wrote declarations of love and lust for women all over town, celebrating their many trysts and bemoaning the fact that his conquests usually had to go back to their husbands afterwards. The Art Of Love meanwhile is guide to how best to go about seducing (invariably married) members of the opposite sex.
Ovid gives himself the persona of a brilliant, witty seducer: virile, passionate, tender occasionally sad, but most often amused. And he finds no one funnier or more ridiculous than himself. He may brag about his ability to seduce anyone, and display the “finest cockmanship” , and he may boast that he’s been able to bring his mistresses to orgasm with a game of footsie, but more often than not we see him completely unable to take his own advice or live up to his self-image. One of his funniest poems is about an attack of impotence that destroyed all his careful arrangements for an adulterous arrangement. His would-be-mistress eventually abandoned him in a huff, splashing water on the bed so the maids didn’t get the impression that nothing happened. Similarly he undermines his own passionate avowal of fidelity to his most frequent muse, Corinna. She thinks he’s been having an affair with her maid, but Ovid fervently declares his innocence asking “What kind of gentleman would fancy making love to a servant?”- especially if he knows how faithful she is, and how likely to give him away. The next poem is addressed to the slave-girl in question, berating her for blowing the gaff and cheekily asking her for more sex to make up for it.
But Ovid didn’t just direct his wit at himself. Augustus was obsessed with promoting old fashioned virtues in his subjects. Ovid delighted in knocking them down. Augustus encouraged ‘virtutes’ – manliness - and the tough military life, Ovid made fun of it in an elaborate metaphor with a salacious punch line: “Every lover acts like a soldier,” he claimed. “A commander looks to his troops for gallant conduct, a mistress expects no less, a soldier lays siege to cities, a lover to his girl’s doorkeepers… Night attacks are a great thing; catch you opponents sleeping and unarmed… lovers too will take advantage of slumber (her husband’s) and thrust home his advantage when the enemy still sleeps." Augustus encouraged his followers to look back on the example of Rome’s ancestors for a guide to moral conduct, the ‘mos maiorum’, exemplified by the early Roman tribe the Sabines whose women faced death rather than betray their husbands. “In the old days things were different,” agrees Ovid. “Those Sabine women stuck to one husband apiece. But then,” he tells us, “they didn’t wash.”
In fact, Ovid’s whole project was an affront to Augustus’ draconian laws against adultery. These laws were more honoured in the breach than the observance – not least by the hypocritical Augustus himself, a well known philanderer who had himself written poems on the subject so disgusting that even the famously dirty Lord Byron claimed they made him feel nauseous. All the same, Ovid’s decision to republish his poems on the joys of adultery, the Amores, and to issue The Art Of Love, his guide to successfully committing adultery in the same year – 2BC, the year that Augustus banished his own daughter for her indiscretions – was provocative, to say the least.
Lots of critics have seen his subsequent work as an attempt to back-peddle and write some more serious poetry in a desperate attempt to make it up to the “injured emperor”, as Ovid later termed him. He even states in his introductory lines to The Metamorphoses, that he’s deliberately chosen to write in the epic hexameter, and is going to write on one serious theme for the glory of Rome. The work he actually produced, however, was more like a Popbitch of the divine world, a light-hearted account of the misdeeds of the gods, that often had hundreds of themes in the space of as many lines. It’s a work of genius, effortlessly intertwining a wealth of mythology and folklore, ingeniously inter-linking the endless variety of stories using the idea of metamorphosis. Characters are turned into birds, fish, insects, plants, flowers, rocks, trees, rivers, fountains, men are turned into women and vica versa, and they all lead seamlessly on from each other. It’s our main source for classical mythology and has been plundered for stories for centuries. No lesser writers than Chaucer and Shakespeare make free and easy use of it, and in their famous renditions of the story of Pyramus And Thisbe they borrow more than a little of Ovid’s irreverent tone.
Predictably, this impressive enterprise did not please Augustus at all, not least because Ovid mercilessly ribbed him once again. Ovid’s comparisons of the newly deified Augustus to the king of the Roman gods, Jupiter, (who like Augustus holds his councils on a “divine Palatine Hill”) should have been warmly received, were it not for the fact that Ovid’s Jupiter is a priapic fool, lustily chasing women (and cows) all over heaven and earth, fearfully avoiding his outraged wife Juno, and siring bastard children and man-bull combinations wherever he goes.
Ovid never got to see his masterpiece published in Rome. In AD 8, he was banished. The reason for the exact timing of this has been lost in the mists of time. It may have something to do with the fact that his long-standing friend and protector Messalla died in that year. And perhaps it’s just too much of a coincidence that “Dr Love” was banished in the same year that Augustus once again exiled a member of his own family (his granddaughter, also called Julia) for committing adultery. Ovid himself only ever said that it was due to "carmen et error" - his poetry and some unspecified mistake.
The outraged emperor chose the most exquisite torture for this dedicated urbane idler. He sent him to a crap town. Ovid was made to go to Tomis, a remote Roman outpost by the Black Sea, where nobody spoke the same language as the talented poet and he was even made to put on a helmet and fight against the barbarians who constantly threatened its borders.
All the same, and despite the two books of poetry he wrote begging to be taken back to Rome Ovid seems to have relaxed into it his situation, teaching himself to do a bit of fishing, and even composing in the odd poem in the native Getic. And, although, in my vainer moments I like to flatter myself that I came up with the idea for Crap Towns, I’m forced to admit that Ovid for one beat me to it by a good 2,000 years.
“I have to live among barbarians” he said, in one of many harrowing descriptions of his new home. “The snow lies continually on the ground, neither sun, nor rain melts it…sometimes it stays for two years. The natives keep out the evils of the cold with skin and pelts, of the whole body, they only dare expose their face…Exposed wine stands upright, retaining the shape of the jar and everyone drinks, not draughts of wine, but fragments! …I’ve seen fish fast-bound in the frozen sea…the barbarian enemy…[uses the frozen rivers as an opportunity to attack], and with his far flying arrows, deprives the locality of its populace… Even when there is there is peace, everyone’s terrified of another war and nobody bothers to do any plowing… the soil here is lifeless, abandoned in stark neglect. There are no grapes, no fruits. There isn’t even any paper. All you can see are naked, empty plains; leafless, treeless. This is a place – damn it – that no fortunate man should visit.”
Tomis incidentally, is in modern Romania. It’s now called Costanza, and by all accounts it’s still pretty awful. Although Ovid wasn’t best pleased to have been sent to such a miserable place, he must have been secure in the knowledge that, as ever, he was going to have the last laugh. His jokes are still funny after more than 2,000 years. His brilliant poetry has won him immortality while drawing an everlastingly ridiculous portrait of his nemesis Augustus. And, most importantly, he’s an example and inspiration to idlers everywhere.
Wit and wisdom of Publius Ovidius Naso
da requiem; requietus ager bene credita reddit - Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.
video meliora proboque deteriora sequor - I see the better way and approve it, but I follow the worse way.
in medio tutissimus ibis – Moderation in all things
bene qui latuit, bene vixit - One who lives well, lives unnoticed.
cui peccare licet peccat minus – The person who is allowed to sin, sins less
exitus acta probat - The end justifies the means
gutta cavat lapidem, non vi sed saepe cadendo - The drop excavates the stone, not with force but by falling often.
omnia iam fient quae posse negabam - Everything which I used to say could not happen will happen now.
nil homini certum est - Nothing is certain for man.
parva leves capiunt animos – Small things please small minds.
Paucite paucarum diffundere crimen in omnes - Do not blame the masses for the crimes of the few.
fas est et ab hoste doceri - It's right to learn - even from an enemy.
saepe creat molles aspera spina rosas - Often the prickly thorn produces tender roses.
leve fit, quod bene fertur, onus - The burden carried in good spirit is made light.
rident stolidi verba Latina - Fools laugh at the Latin language.