translated by John Svarlien and Diane Arnson Svarlien

1.1   Weapons and war were my theme (JS)
1.5   It was hot (JS)
1.8   There’s a certain madame (JS)
1.13   She’s coming (JS)
1.14   How many times did I tell you? (JS)
2.4   You won’t catch me making excuses (DAS)
2.13   For trying to unseat the burden (DAS)
2.14   What good does it do for girls to be exempt? (DAS)
2.19   Where’s your self-respect? (DAS)
3.4   You’re strict, but your severity is pointless (DAS)

Notes on Ovid and the Amores by William W. Batstone

Ovid was born into a well-to-do equestrian family on March 20, 43 B.C.E. in Sulmo, a town in the Apennines, about eighty miles from Rome. This was the year after Julius Caesar was assassinated; almost a year before Cicero was murdered; and twelve years before the battle of Actium brought an end to the civil war between Antony and Octavian. At about the time of Actium, Ovid, like others from his class, was sent to Rome for an education in rhetoric and law. To a large degree, then, he missed the century of civil wars that played such an important role in the experience of our other poets, and he reached his maturity in the new, peaceful, and urbane Rome of Augustus. He continued his education in Athens, toured Asia Minor, spent a year in Sicily. Then at twenty-five he prepared to stand for the quaestorship. This public office was the first office in the cursus honorum, or “course of offices,” leading ultimately to the consulship. It would have meant admission to the Senate and would have made Ovid the first senator from Sulmo. He decided, however, not to stand for the office, but rather to write poetry, “a useless task,” his father called it. He became a member of Messalla’s circle of poets.

Ovid had begun his public recitation of verse around 25 B.C.E. at about eighteen years of age. At that time, Vergil had completed his Eclogues and Georgics and was working on his Aeneid; Horace had completed his two books of Satires and his Epodes and was working on his Odes; Propertius had published the Monobiblos and perhaps a second book of elegies; and Tibullus had just published his first book of elegies. Rome was vibrant with literary activity; and Ovid said that he felt compelled to turn to poetry because whenever he attempted a speech, it came out in verse. He became in his own lifetime the most popular and widely read Roman poet and has been popular in all generations. He claims to have published a first edition of his love elegies in five books (between 19 and 8 B.C.E), which were later reduced by the poet to the three books of Amores which we have. At the same time that he was producing his elegies he was breaking new ground with a series of poems called the Heroides, letters written by the women of myth to their husbands and lovers. Here he explored most explicitly his interest in female psychology and demonstrated his sympathy for what he took to be a woman’s point of view. After the Heroides he wrote his only tragedy, the very popular Medea, which is lost to us. Then he returned to love poetry, this time to write a series of three books called The Art of Love (2 C.E.) in which he assumes the role of “Professor of Love” in order to instruct would-be lovers in passion manipulation. Immediately thereafter he wrote a sequel, The Remedy for Love. He is best known for his great mythologic/historical epic, the Metamorphoses, which was completed by 8 C.E.

At that time, due to some “error” unknown to us, he was banished by the emperor Augustus to Tomis on the Black Sea. This was an old Greek colony, now inhabited mainly by barbarians, where no one spoke Latin and few spoke Greek. He left behind, unfinished, a series of etiological/astrological poems on the Roman calendar, and from Tomis composed his Tristia, or Poems of Sadness, and his Letters from the Black Sea. He was unable to win a reprieve, either from Augustus or the next emperor, Tiberius, and died in exile in 18 C.E. He had been married three times; two brief marriages which produced one daughter, and a third wife who remained with him during his exile.

His poetry is generally noted for its ease and wit; sometimes faulted for its rhetorical self-indulgence. He has less interest in politics per se than any other poet in this volume [Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry, edd. Rayor and Batstone, Garland 1995] which is not to say that his urban sophistication, irreverence, and even mockery of old-fashioned Roman values did not have political consequences. The elegies of the Amores are all the work of a young poet, but they already show his major strengths: an irreverence toward tradition and convention, be it the austere conventions of Roman morality or the recently developed conventions of his elegiac genre, and an interest in and subtle sense of human (here particularly male) psychology. As with his predecessors, he writes in the first person of his love for a woman, called Corinna, whose actual status as either a real person or as the consistent subject of the poems is problematic. In one poem Ovid wittily recounts that he knows a woman who boasts that she is Corinna. If his mistress is, as seems most likely, a literary topos, the persona which Ovid adopts for himself is similarly literary. He often seems to be a parody of the Propertian lover, a conscious attempt to undermine the typical lover’s sincerity with comic posturing. Ovid says, “My love embraces all mythology” (Amores II 4.44).

Amores I: Ovid began writing the Amores at about eighteen years of age in 25 B.C.E. When he came to revise this five-book edition sometime after 10 B.C.E. into the three books we have, he apparently rearranged the order of the poems, roughly speaking, from pre-infatuation to disenchantment. In this way Ovid can construct an apparent narrative of his love affair which may also seem to parallel his attraction to the genre and his eventual abandonment of it. The first book of the Amores has the clearest structure as a book: it begins and ends with programmatic poems which correspond to each other and places the longest poem in the center. On either side of this poem, I 8, the other poems are arranged in pairs of success and failure: 2 with 9, 3 with 10, etc.

Amores II: In this book, the poet proceeds on his project of demystifying love, convention, and sincerity. Book II includes humorous versions of the epicedion, or “funeral poem” (6), the propempticon, or “farewell poem” (11), and (perhaps) the paraclausithyron, or “excluded lover poem” (19). Corinna is named nine times, more often than in any other book.

Amores III: Book III of the Amores brings the affair with Corinna to an end. This is taken by many to allegorize the end of Ovid’s interest in love elegy as a genre. While Ovid went on to write many more poems whose central themes and interest may be described as amatory, once he had completed the Amores he did not return to the genre. Furthermore, no other Roman poet picked up where Ovid left off. The poems of the last half of this book are frequently about failure: in III 7, the speaker is impotent; in III 8 his wit and talent no longer open doors; in III 12 his poetry is the reason that Corinna is promiscuous; and in III 14, his farewell to Corinna, the speaker asks pathetically for the last time to be allowed to enjoy his delusions. Since the collection was shortened, revised and republished after Ovid had written The Art of Love and his Heroides, or Letters from Heroic Women, the impression of failure and abandonment cannot be ascribed merely to biographical events.

Bibliography: We can recommend some fine general books on Ovid:

Fränkel, Herman. Ovid, A Poet between Two Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945).

Mack, Sara. Ovid (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

Rand, E.K. Ovid and His Influence (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1963).

Wilkinson, L.P. Ovid Surveyed (Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press, 1962).

[Additional Bibliography]

These translations and notes first appeared in Diane J. Rayor and William W. Batstone (edd.), Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations. New York: Garland, 1995. They have been republished in Diotíma with permission. Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use. The author may be contacted at