Playboy of the Roman World

After Ovid: New Metamorphoses

edited by Michael Hoffman, by James Lasdun
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 298 pp., $14.00

Tales from Ovid

by Ted Hughes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 257 pp., $25.00

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

translated freely into verse by David R. Slavitt
Johns Hopkins University Press, 342 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Publius Ovidius Naso^1, though admired by Shakespeare, was distrusted in the nineteenth century as an immoralist and dismissed for most of the twentieth as a lightweight, but is now back in favor. He was all the fashion in his own time, too, and that time has some intriguing resemblances to our own. It was an age of peace that succeeded generations of war and also one that saw the obsolescence of the stern moral code that had made the early Roman republic a nation of dedicated farmer-soldiers and faithful, fertile wives.

In Ovid’s day divorce had become commonplace in upper-class Roman circles, abortion not infrequent, families small, and adultery generally condoned. Ovid, who proclaimed himself “the well-known recorder of his own amorous follies,” justified that title by devoting well over two thousand lines of elegiac couplets (the standard meter of Latin love poetry) to a witty chronicle of the ups and downs of his long affair with a married woman, including her abortion and his seduction of her maid. Not content with this he went on to write The Art of Love, an instruction book for young men on where in Rome to find women and how to seduce them, in which at one point he announced his satisfaction with the age in which he lived. “Let others delight in the good old days; I am delighted to be alive right now. This age is suited to my way of life.”

The word here roughly translated as “way of life”—moribus—is, as so often in Ovid, a significant allusion. It is an unmistakable and mocking echo of a famous line of Ennius, the epic poet who, two centuries earlier, had celebrated the great days of the early republic, the wars against Carthage, and the conquest of the eastern Mediterranean: Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque—“By its ancient way of life and its men the Roman state stands firm.” Ovid goes on to make perfectly clear why he is so happy to be living now. It is not because of “the stubborn gold we mine, or the rare shells gathered / For our delight from foreign shores, / …but for / Refinement and culture, which have banished the tasteless / Crudities of our ancestors.”

Unfortunately for Ovid, Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who in 30 BC, after the defeat and death of Antony and Cleopatra, had become the master of the Roman world, was intent on turning the clock back. Using powers granted him by a subservient Senate, he established a whole legislative program designed to restore the old Roman family values. Octavian himself, before he assumed the titles of Augustus and pater patriae, had been no plaster saint. He …

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