Reading Ovid at his Bimillennial

In Medias Res explores the work of the Most Roman of Rome’s Ancient Poets.

The statue of Ovid in Constanta, showing the dour exile who pined away under the gray skies of Romania. (From https://bdmundo.bg/bg/-statuya-ovidiya/)

When I was a high school Latin student, long before I had ever taken a trip to Italy, I presumed Rome was not so much a city as a shrine to Classical Antiquity. I imagined it would revere its writers the way Washington D.C. does its presidents: just as there is a Jefferson Memorial, a Washington Monument, and a Lincoln Memorial, I thought Rome would pay marble homage to Catullus, Vergil, and Ovid. I’m still a bit surprised that the city recognizes them almost not at all; the only poet with a truly substantial place in Rome’s urban topography is Giuseppe Belli, the poet of the local Romanesco dialect (in which, for example, the definite article is “er” not “il”). Belli watches the motorini buzz by from a rather unfortunately busy location on Viale Trastevere.

One day in Rome, as I pondered the vagaries of memory and oblivion, I thought about raising a monument to one of ancient Rome’s poets. Who would I start with? Vergil, obviously; but wouldn’t he prefer a monument elsewhere? Wasn’t he a poet of the countryside? What’s a tram to Vergil, or Vergil to a tram? Catullus maybe; he at least seems urban; but somehow not much in Rome today really reminds me of Catullus, except maybe for the graffiti. Really the poet I’d start with is Ovid.

There exist two bronze statues of Ovid, one in Sulmona, the place he quickly left behind, and the other in Constanta in Romania (the site of Tomis), the place he hated. The statue is rather grim — rather unlike Ovid’s Roman persona. There’s no real monument in Rome — but it’s in Rome that his spirit resides. The brilliance of wit, the glamour of fame and poetry, the titillation of romance, infidelity, and sexuality — Ovid is essentially an urban poet, an Italian poet to boot, and specifically a Roman poet.

The poet who swore off war, who was skeptical of making money, but who celebrated love and transformation and festivals — this to me is a poet who still feels relevant in Rome today. The poet who wrote tempus edax rerum (time the devourer of things) — I can feel those words in Rome’s every corner. Who wrote spectatum veniunt, veniunt spectentur ut ipsae (they come to see, they come to be seen) — every evening as I watch the passegiatta go by, I can mouth these words to myself. Who wrote Lente — O lente — currite noctis equi — “slowly, O slowly, run ye horses of the night:” this man knew the happiness of a Roman night. And how marvellous is that “O” there? I can repeat it over and over. “Lente — O lente –” You can say it to a lover, to a musician, to a moment, to a city — anytime you sense some great pleasure marred only by the knowledge that it simply cannot last.

It is believed that Ovid died in 17 or 18 A.D. — in other words, almost exactly two thousand years ago. To mark the occasion, last year the city of Rome canceled the order of Ovid’s exile. And at In Medias Res we’d like to mark the continued relevance of Ovid two millennia after his death. As we close this year we’ll be featuring a number of essays about the most Roman of the ancient Roman poets.

The essays have a particular slant. Given the difficulties people have in mastering the ancient languages, Classics has unfortunately become a discipline of excerpts. Reading lists even for doctorate degrees in Classics now require only a handful of complete works in the ancient languages. Everything else is reduced to excerpts: a few books of the Metamorphoses, some sections of the Republic, a few dozen poems of Horace, and so forth. For undergraduates, and high schoolers, the case is far more serious: they may see only a few thousand or a few hundred lines of real Latin in their whole school careers. And so we the writers at In Medias Res have decided to read entire works of Ovid, and report back on what we find. Ovid’s catalogue happens to feature several excellent works worth reading in toto, though their character varies substantially. We hope that this will encourage you to do the same: to pick up and read, letting Ovid bring you back to Rome a bit, wherever you may be. Or maybe we’ll encourage you to bring him with you on your next trip to Rome: after all, since his exile has been revoked, we’re technically allowed to bring him along nowadays. I’d still love to get a statue of Ovid installed somewhere in Rome — maybe as part of an urban renewal project at the Circus Maximus — but that dream may have to wait a bit longer. Anyway, having readers two thousand years after his death is probably the monument Ovid most wanted to have. And that he most certainly has.

I’ll be updating this post as we move through our series. First up, a few days ago I posted “Afternoons with Ovid,” my essay about the Amores, a particularly excellent choice for anyone looking to read through a whole work of Ovid. The link is just below. Enjoy!

Second in our series, Dani Bostick discusses Ovid’s attempt to write from the female perspective in the Heroides. Does Ovid show his limitations as a writer here, or does his work point to something universal in our experience of heartbreak and loss?

Third, Dani Bostick returns to the Heroides, looking at the reception of the poem, and possibilities for bringing it into the classroom, in “The World’s Love-Hate Relationship with Ovid’s Heroides.”

Fourth, Dani Bostick, in the last part of her trilogy on the Heroides, explores the psychological value of Ovid’s assuming various personae in “Ovid on the Therapist’s Couch.”

Fifth, Elizabeth Manwell bravely reads the little-read Medicamina Faciei Femineae — and tries out one of its recipes herself in “Girls! Glamour! Barley!”

Sixth, Luby Kiriakidi heads to the Scuderie del Quirinale for its spectacular exhibit on Ovid, organized for his bimillennial.

Seventh, John Byron Kuhner returns to discuss the Metamorphoses in all its grandeur and horror in “The Epic of the Sufferers.”

Eighth, in “Angry Birds,” Rachel Dowell investigates the most obscure of all Ovid’s works: the inaccessible, mysterious “Ibis.”

Ninth, Tom Hendrickson reads Ovids’s Tristia, contemplating poetry, persona, exile, and the writer’s life in “The Unbearable Lightness of Ovid.”

Tenth, to conclude the whole series, we have “Salve Ex Ovidio,” the Ovidian reimagining of Adele’s “Hello,” conceived as a letter Ovid writes to Augustus from exile.

We hope you enjoy reading all ten pieces as much as we enjoyed writing them! And what’s more, we hope to inspire you to return to the authors, and take some time to contemplate the durable appeal of the Classics.


John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.