Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1998 R. James Ferguson

Background Briefing:

Roman Amatory and Satirical Literature: From Desire to Decadence


- Introduction: More than Poetry

- Catullus and Desire

- Augustus, Patronage and Cultural Prescription

- The Relegation of Ovid

- Ovid as A Symptom of the Age

- Petronius: Decadence or Robust Satire?


1. Introduction: More than Poetry

An important aspect of Roman culture is its love poetry and erotic prose. This type of literature might be regarded as intensely personal, private, and in stark contrast to public rhetoric, historiography, or the great epic poems of Lucan or Virgil. This division, however, cannot be sustained. The nature of the political and social life of the late Republic was such that it could not readily avoid political entanglements. This was due to the particular nature of patronage during the period and changing political conditions as the late Republic passed into 'Empire'.

With the growing dominance of Augustus from 30 B.C. to 8 A.D., we begin to see an insidious change in the nature of patronage in Rome. Patronage had been the privilege of any Roman of means, and this does continue to some extent under the principate. Now, however, we now find that all public works need to find a concord with the type of settlement of affairs envisaged by Augustus and his ministers. Furthermore, from 19 B.C. Augustus himself becomes the major patron of Roman literature, no longer working through subtle men such as Maecenas, and panegyric becomes one of the main criterion for the success and survival of all creative works. Horace and Virgil, for example, would modify their works to avoid praising figures who had fallen from Augustus' grace, such as the knight Gallus.

This movement would effect not only poetry. It would also spell a disaster for the vigour of rhetoric in the 1st century A.D., which would shift from the vigorous presentation of opposing viewpoints, to a subtle flattery designed to promote, at best to influence, but rarely to oppose the ideas of the current regime. 'We live in the best of all regimes' might be its dominant note. This crisis was readily noted and expressed by Tacitus in his dialogue on oratory, the Dialogus of circa 102 A.D., where the stability of political life has led to a decline in real debate, and where the prosecutors and private accusers seeking fortunes (delatores) had made creativity a dangerous endeavour.

In is this context that we can approach a work such as Petronius' Satyricon in a new light. It may indeed be one of the origins of the bawdy piquaresque novel in Europe, but it is also much more than this. It contains, in fact, a sustained parody of much of the literature of the age, and retains an earthy vigour that frees it from the real decadence of the age. We can approach this changing environment for poetry by considering three major writers: Catullus, Ovid and Petronius.

2. Catullus and Desire

Catullus is one of the earliest Roman poets of lyric and erotic poetry whose work survives to any large degree. Only a few fragments of contemporary poets such as Calvus, Cinna, Corfinicius, Bibaculus and Ticidas survive. The poems of Catullus went out of vogue for about a thousand years with the dominance of Christianity, but a major codex was discovered wedged under a wine barrel in the 13th century A.D. (Whigham 1966, p44).

Caius Valerius Catullus was born circa 84 B.C., dying around 54 B.C. His father was an eminent citizen of Verona, who had at one time entertained Julius Caesar in his house (Whigham 1966, p13) and it seems clear that the family was of equites ('knight') status. We have not exact dates for his introduction into Roman society, though this was likely to have been achieved by 62 B.C. (Whigham 1966, 23). It was quite possible that such an introduction was provided by a fellow Veronese, Publicius Valerius Cato, the older teacher and poet, who was known to, and probably strongly influenced, Catullus and other 'new poets' such as Ticidas, Gaius Cinna and Furius Bibaculus, (Whigham 1966, p23-24).

Few biographical details are known about Catullus; he seems to have held a poetic distain for Julius Caesar, or at least a distain for flattering him. In one poem we find a parody of Caesar's sexual tastes: -

If not by all that his friends boast,

at least by pin-headed Otto's unattractive pate

by loutish Erius's half-washed legs

by Libo's smooth and judicious farts

by Sufficio's old man's lust turned green

may great Caesar be duly revolted. Once more

my naive iambics strike home . . .

unique general!" (Catullus, Poem 54)

Humour at Caesar's homosexuality, of course, was not a dangerous exercise. As we know, even his own legionaires sung bawdy lyrics about him in his triumphal processions. It must be remembered, of course, that in both Greek and Roman society homosexuality was not distained in itself; out term 'pederasty' is entirely incorrect in its connotations for such activities. Nor did they have any notion of our age of consent. Eros, as desire, was freely directed towards any beautiful object. Criticism was mainly directed against enslavement by such desire, and being controlled by the object of love. Even poets such as Propertius would regard such enslavement as something dreadful (Veyne 1988, p2). In this context, two main strategies were developed; to exhaust desire through the free play of passion, or to resist and extinguish the root of desire itself. The former was in main the path of the Hellenistic poets, the later that of Hellenistic philosophers.

Catullus' sharper verse is reserved, apparently, for his distain of Caesar's patronage of a certain Mamurra, an equestrian staff officer and chief of engineers from Formiae, who was hated for his wealth and his 'vice' (Syme 1974 p71, p380). Catullus writes: -

Caesar Mamurraque!

A peerless pair of brazen buggers,

both tarred with the same brush

this, from the city,

that from south Latium,

the stain ingrained no purgative can flush . . .

double dyed,

the 'heavenly twins',

erudite in the skills of the one divan, each

as voraciously adulterous as the other -

joint competitors in the woman's market.

A peerless pair of brazen buggers! (Catullus, Poem 57)

The best of these abusive verses, however, is the concise: -

Utter indifference to your welfare, Caesar,

is matched only by ignorance of who you are. (Catullus Poem 93)

Whigham's translation here misses the punch of the original. It can more literally be translated: -

I have no great desire to make myself agreeable to you, Cesar, nor to know whether you complexion is light or dark. (trans. by Francis Cornish)

It is important in such a genre to leave the sharpest cut to the last, quickly, with a sudden turn of the blade. As far as we know, this distain for Julius Caesar was in no way was detrimental to Catullus' career. A limited poetical distain during this early period, as distinct from political opposition, could be allowed to continue without serious reply by a leader such as Julius Caesar. According to Suetonius: -

Valerius Catullus had also libelled him [Caesar] in his verses about Mamurra, yet Caesar, while admitting that these were a permanent blot on his name, accepted Catullus' apology and invited him to dinner that same afternoon, and never interrupted his friendship with Catullus' father. (Suetonius Julius Caesar 73)

In the later career of Octavian, this would not be the case, and poetry would be chained in a more direct way to the interests of enhancing the prestige of a leader, a regime, and what came to be felt as a 'new age'.

Catullus may have also been one of the lovers of Clodia Metelli, a great sources of scandal in the period (see Cicero's Pro Caelio, where she is attacked bitterly). In 57 B.C. Catullus and his friend Gaius Cinna accompanied C. Memmius Gemellus to Bithynia (Whigham 1966, p13), probably as members of his official entourage (Catullus 101).

As noted by Peter Whigham, Catullus had three main traditions to draw from; 'Roman epic and tragedy; Roman comedy and satire; and the Roman love epigram, which was an importation from Alexandrian Greek' (Whigham 1966, p26). The importance of this last tradition must not be under-estimated; the apparent simplicity of Catullus' poems is part of a highly polished and refined art which strove precisely for this freshness, even for a kind of naivete while exploring themes that run back through the entire corpus of Greek literature. The poetry of Callimachus (died 250 B.C.), and the romantic elements derived from Apollonius Rhodius (c. 295- c.230) seem to have been well known to Catullus and his circle (Whigham 1966, p28). We even find Catullus virtually translating a section of the poetry of Sappho (Catullus 51), while the far ranging mythical structures of poems 63-68 should remind us that Catullus was writing in a highly allusive, self-referential world.

We can see some of this in the Attis poem (63), which deals with the themes of the relationship between male and female, of castration, and transformation. Superficially, it deals with the cult of the Great Mother goddess Cybele and with the galli, dancing priests who would carry the sacred relics of the goddess in ecstatic processions throughout the empire, even in the streets of Rome. These frenzied priests would flagellate and cut themselves, and their most special act was that of self-castration. These pactises are attested in their religious critics. Eusebius, for example, notes: -

The Phrygians say that Maeon was king of Phyrgia and begat a daughter named Cybele, who first invented a pipe, and was called the Moutain Mother. . . . But Cybele became pregnant by intercourse with Attis, and when this was know, her father killed Attis and the nurses; and Cybele became mad and rushed into the country, and there continued howling and beating a drum. . . . Wherefore the Phyrgians keep this custom even to the present day, lamenting the death of the youth, and erecting altars, and honouring Attis and Cybele with sacrifices. And afterwards, at Pessinus in Phyrgia, they built a costly temple, and instituted most magnificent worship and sacrificial rites." (Eusebius Preparatio Evangelica II.ii.22, in Barrett 1987, p125)

This religious tradition seems to have become associated with other trends in Hellenistic religion, including the cults of Bacchus and Dionysus, as ecstatic, even antisocial cults that were introduced into Rome but never fully trusted or respected. The cult of Cybele was introduced into Rome in 204 B.C., when a black stone (perhaps a meteorite?) representing the Great Mother was brought by boat up the Tiber and installed in the Temple of Victoria, before her own temple could be constructed (Whigham 1966, p41).

Catullus, however, is not simply recasting mythic material. Nor merely describing a procession which he would have had opportunities to see. He deals with this material with a rather different purpose. We find our 'hero':-

Attis with urgent feet treads the opaque ground

of the Goddess, his wits fuddled, stung with phrenetic

itch, slices his testicles off with a razor-

flint, sees the signs of new blood spotting

the earth, knows arms, legs, torso, sans

male members and


ecstatically snatches in delicate hands

the hand-drum of Cybebe [= Cybele] . . . (Catullus 63)

But after ecstasy and the loss of the old self, comes a realisation: -

Attica mother & maker, I

like a gateless housecarl fleeing

his mesne, footloose among Ida's

snows among the wood & rock lairs

with the board caves for an icy hearth,

have I stripped myself of my patrimony

friends, goods, kin?" (Catullus 63)

But Attis is unable to return, for Cybele ensures that his/her madness returns, through the image of a lion, infecting him/ her with 'fear and desire for Cybele's pale'; -

The beast self-scourges its flanks

bounds through the brushwood, bursts

on the white-lined sands, appearing

where delicate Attis still stands by the sea.

The demented creature flees to Cybebe wold

her life-space doomed spent in Cybebe's thrall.

Catullus closes with a prayer to Cybele that her fury would not come to Catullus' house; but one suspects, in the mind of the poet, Cybele has her own home.

From this and similar poems, Whigham would argue that 'there was in Catullus a strain of femineity which was deeper than 'normal' adherence to the bisexual conventions of his class and time' (Whigham 1966, p42), a point which he supports by citation of poem 65, where Catullus seems to identify himself with a young girl who is harbouring a secret. I think, however, it is rather difficult to interpret these poems in such a direct way. If Catullus identifies with the female in poem 63, for example, it is only an identification with the female as an emasculated man, a 'synthetic woman'. This image may be in many ways appropriate for the Roman high society of the time; there was still a serious attempt to keep upper class women closeted in a world of fine education for political marriages, to the role of mother and house keeper. Free access to sexuality, as well as to public prominence, were suppressed. But the ambitions and ability of these women seem to form an undercurrent in the poetry of the period from Catullus to Ovid. It is, however, only in this political and social sense that they can be viewed as 'the emasculated'. Because there is an often overlooked aspect of the Attis myth; Cybele is the great mother, the progenitor, all fertility is absorbed into her and originates from her. It is indeed the man who must surrender his sex, his desire, his passion and his worship to her, and remain forever in thrall, but forever unsatisfied. Catullus can empathise with the sexuality of the female in these poems, but it is an awareness of a mythic, creative and destructive aspect of the female which he finds, in the end, mysterious and alien. It is this bifurcation which provides some of the intensity and tension in the Attis poem. It is not just a love-hate relationship, nor a fear of castration in the sexual act. Whigham's observation concerning this so called 'love-hate see-saw' as the experience of 'the manic depressive' (Whigham 1966, 43) is both trite and psychologically incorrect. Catullus holds the tension of desire and fear together at the same moment, something which the manic-depressive can never do. This tension allows a play within the poem itself. Catullus' prayer at the end exposes the poem as just that, a literary image or a dream, but the emotions in it may be viewed as either genuine or as a perfect artifice.

Catullus creates a poetic world of conceits, conceptions and deceits. Paul Veyne that it is extremely dangerous to read this material as direct or indirect biography (1988). Indeed, the question we must ask is whether we can read the persona of Catullus in these poems as a direct reflection of Catullus the man. If we accept Catullus as a genuinely naive poet, freshly inventive but unsophisticated, we can then readily proceed to mine the poems for historical references for the biography of Catullus. But the simplicity is misleading; Catullus is reflecting some 800 years of mythical thought in Greece and Rome, and is structuring a forum for the development of sensibilities (Veyne 1988). Catullus even ironically refers to his own naivete, his own entrapment (Poems 1, 6, 8, 52). But as noted by Veyne, the irony includes more than this playful juxtaposition between ego and persona: -

But, let the reader be assured, elegiac irony is usually more subtle than this 'second order' playfulness, as it is called. What our poets say does seem to be the expression of the deepest passion. Yet the way it is said belies this appearance: it deliberately lacks naturalness. This said, the question of the poets' ultimate sincerity is far from settled, but it becomes more difficult. Indeed, it is harder to see how a picture is painted than it is to see what it claims to represent, which is the first thing that leaps to the eye. . . . In his tender or passionate verses it is difficult to believe him insincere, but it is no less difficult not to suspect that he is playing. The details are often true while the whole rings false. What are we to make of those cries of jealousy, of despair, that are cut off after two lines to make room for a sententious voice, quickly succeeded by an allusion to rakish mythology? In short, Roman erotic elegy resembles a montage of quotations and cries from the heart. But these tightly controlled changes in tone do not even try to present themselves as lyrical effusions. Above all else, the poet seems to seek variety. He denies himself no attraction, not even that of some quite torrid lines of verse, so long as their torridness remains in its proper place and so long as any such attraction, within this mosaic, is set amidst other material that makes it unreal. The very movement of the poem, which is so contrived, lifts it to the apparent level of an outpouring of emotion. (Veyne 1988, pp3-4)

A proper historical usage of this material is not to ask who is Lesbia in the poems, for example, but rather to try to establish some idea of how the poetry would have been understood in its age, and how the structure of this poetry reveals a certain reaction to the ideas and life of the period. In the Carmina (poem 64), for example, Catullus laments the lost golden age but tries to transcend the limits of humankind; he has a goddess marrying a man (Pelius marries Thetis), and the gods walking among men (as noted by Whigham 1966, p34). In a sense, Catullus is trying to recreate the world where the gods walk again among mankind, which can now, at least in part, throw off some of its limitations. If this cannot be done by nature, it must be done through careful artifice. It is in this context that Catullus' poetry was enjoyed and loved in the Roman world - not its prurience but its brilliance was prized.

Catullus had a powerful effect on his immediate successors, including the poets Tibullus, Propertius, Horace and the epigrams of Martial. He had a particular impact on Ovid, whose own amatory poetry is full of reflections of the passion of Catullus. Likewise the early sections of Ovid's Metamorphoses echo not just the declining ages of the world as derived from Hesiod, but speak of the gods in terms already developed in Catullus' mythic poems. The admirers of Catullus in the modern period included Ben Jonson, Lovelace, Landor, Yeats and Ezra Pound. Walter Landor has written rather cleverly of Catullus' supposed obscenity: -

Tell me not what too well I know

About the bard of Sirmio -

Yes, in Thalia's son

Such stain there are - as when a Grace

Sprinkles another's laughing face

With nectar, and runs on.

(in Whigham 1966, p46)

3. Augustus, Patronage and Cultural Prescription

Great Roman men had always attempted to promote themselves and their careers through literature, whether speeches, poetry or histories, written by themselves or others. The autobiography of Sulla, the various writings of Caesar, the published and often self-congratulatory speeches of Cicero, all had this as one of their purposes.

Octavian, however, went one step further as he gained dominance in Rome, in that he sought a reform in moral and political life. This required, of course, the passing of laws on morals. Augustus, as sensor and reformer of morals, seems to have been proud of his efforts in this area. He states in his Res Gestae: -

. . . the senate and the people of Rome agreed that I should be appointed supervisor of laws and morals . . . . The measures that the senate then desired me to take I carried out in virtue of my tribunician power. On five occasions, of my own initiative, I asked for and received from the senate a colleague in that power. (Res Gestae, 6.1-2)

Later on he adds: -

By new laws passed on my proposal I brought back into use many exemplary practices of our ancestors which were disappearing in our time, and in many ways I myself transmitted exemplary practises to posterity for their imitation. (Res Gestae 8.5)

Thus Augustus emphasises this role in an attempt to rejuvenate the morals of his times, largely by an emphasis on traditional values. Both these passages seem to refer to the 'Julian Laws on Marriage of the Orders and on Adultery', and perhaps to laws against electoral bribery passed in 18 B.C. The Julian Laws served two purposes: to curb the increasing decline of sexual morals, and to try to stimulate the flagging birth rate among the upper classes.

But more than laws were required to reform the morality of the rulings classes in Rome and to stabilise Augustus' control of affairs. Augustus was sensitive to the way the regime was viewed in a variety of areas; upon becoming Chief Pontiff of Rome he had many of the Greek and Latin prophetic verses then in circulation destroyed, keeping only an edited version of the Sibylline Books (Suetonius Augustus 31). Likewise, he stopped the publicvtion of the proceedings of the Senate (Suetonius Augustus 36), begun by Caesar, perhaps in an effort to limit the widespread knowledge of just how dominant his position was in relation to that body. Suetonius states that Augustus had a particular interest in literature: -

[His] chief interest in the literature of both languages was the discovery of moral precepts, with suitable anecdotes attached, capable of public or private application. . . . He even read whole volumes aloud to the Senate, and issued proclamations commending them to the people - such as Quintus Metellus's On the Need for Larger Families, and Rutilius's On the Need for Small Buildings - just to prove that he had been anticipated in his recommendations by earlier thinkers. (Suetonius Augustus 89).

From the writings of Augustus himself and Suetonius it seems evident that Augustus was attempting to lay down general standards of behaviour, and furthermore that he was willing to censor or promote literature according to whether or not it supported his standards and moral reform program. Metellus' poem, for example, probably supported many of the aspects of the Lex Julia.

As has been demonstrated, Augustus can be viewed as 'culturally prescriptive' in two ways. First, he attempted to lay standards of behaviour and for attitudes in a general way. Secondly, he attempted to influence what would be written, attempting to harness the genus of men such as Horace, Virgil, Livy and Ovid to support his notion of a revived Roman virtue. But this virtue was to be carefully cultivated under the peace provided by his own overriding auctoritas. However, this control was far from perfect. Indeed, the very effort to repeatedly reform the family life of the Roman elite suggests that the real norms of behaviour were far from the censor's ideals. The question we can then ask, for example, is why was Ovid banished? Was it because of some positive action, some 'error' in his behaviour, or due to a failure to sufficiently support the regime and its morality in his poetry?

4. The Relegation of Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso was born in 43 B.C. of an equestrian family in Sulmo, some ninety miles east of Rome (Innes 1955, p10). He was educated in Rome and Athens, studying rhetoric in preparation for a political career. However, after achieving some minor offices, he turned away from entering the Senate. Instead he pursued his great love for poetry, fishing the Amores in five books by around 10 B.C., followed by his Ars Amatoria and the Remedia Amoris, (Remedies of Live), completed by A.D. 2 (William 1978, pp55-6). Ovid has been described as 'a poet utterly in love with poetry' (Gilbert Murray in Griffin 1977, p57).

Ovid was soon accorded a place was one of the major poets of the age, being the youngest of a generation which included Virgil, Horace, Tibullus and Propertius (Williams 1978, p53). His poetry was witty, allusive, and dwelt on the themes of seduction, desire, and cures for failed love. None of these poems, however, were really more shocking than the lyrics already written by Catullus or Propertius. Yet, in 8 A.D. Ovid was suddenly banished from Rome to the remote, barely Hellenized town of Tomus in the Back Sea (modern Romania). The type of banishment was not complete exile, but rather relegatus, that his, he retained his civil rights and his property. Furthermore, this punishment shows that Ovid himself was not prosecuted under the Lex Julia, whereby Augustus had made adultery a criminal action with the penalty if exile and the loss of citizenship and property.

The main source of data concerning this relegation and its course comes from Ovid's own poems, especially his Tristia and his 'Letters from Exile' (Ex Ponto). One such letter, entitled 'To Augustus, in Defense of the Art of Love', states: -

But now, what are the crimes that me oppress?

My verse and error. (Tristia 2.207).

Thus Ovid, seems to imply that a poem, perhaps the Ars Amatoria, was one of the main reasons for the offence he had given Augustus. It also seems that some second, unstated 'error', perhaps in association with the first, was involved. This has led modern scholars into a detailed, and largely fruitless, search for proof of the offending attitude and action that lay behind Augustus' approbrium.

The Ars Amatoria was a work in three books pretending to 'instruct' males (Books I & II) and females (Book III) on how to achieve romantic and sexual liaisons. In reality it is neither a manual of love, nor a pornographic work, but rather an extended narrative using the themes of love and encounter (see Griffin 1977, p60). Ovid writes in Book III: -

As youths before, so now, my maid, write thus upon your spoils: 'Ovid instructed us.' (Ars Amatoria III)

Ovid, however, had tried to ensure that his poem should not be construed as an invitation to adultery with married matrons: -

Naught but what's lawful do I here prescribe;

At no chaste matron to I wish to gibe. (Ars Amatoria III)

The poem as a whole, however, is full of a sophistication, a playful eroticism expressed publicly that was entirely out of keeping with sober moral program envisaged by Augustus. Furthermore, there is no doubt that it was aimed at the upper classes, the Senatorial order and the equites, the very group which Augustus hoped to reform and to encourage in suitable and stable marriages, thereby producing several legitimate children. Likewise, where Ovid managed to work in gracious praise of Augustus, he is found associated with a trivial, indeed, scandalous issues. The panegyric, slim as it was, remained tainted.

Ars Amatoria would have been published around 1 or 2 A.D. The question remains as to why Ovid's punishment did not occur till 8 A.D. Two possibilities exist for this delay. First, the period between 2 and 8 A.D. saw certain changes in the situation at Rome, and in Augustus's public policies. His position is now extremely dominant, and he is able to pass legislation at will. Secondly, it is possible that a specific error was involved in Ovid's public relegation. In 2 B.C. Augustus' daughter Julia, the wife of Tiberius, had been exiled for adultery, while one noble was executed and four exiled for their part in the scandal (Williams 1978, pp59-60). In 8 A.D. another Julia, the grand-daughter of Augustus, was also banished to a remote island, and her lover, a certain D. Junius Silanus, was exiled. It is possible that Ovid's exile was associated in some with these events since he was exiled in the same year (Griffin 1977, p58). In Ovid's letters from exile we find the following lines: -

I have done naught that the law forbids. Yet I must confess a weightier sin. Ask not what it is. But I have composed a foolish 'Art'; 'tis this prevents my hands from being clean. Have I sinned further? Do not inquire - that my wrongdoing may hide beneath my 'Art' alone. Whatever it is, the avenger's wrath was moderate. He took from me nothing but my native land. (Ovid Epistulae ex Ponto II. 9.75-6)

Thibault argues that 'Ovid sees his poem as a screen or cloak to conceal the nature of his mistake (1964, pp30-1). Indeed, in Epistulae ex Ponto III.3.71-72; II.9.72-76 this invisible mistake seems to be the most important of the two causes. The idea that Ovid's poetry is not the sole cause is supported by two other factors. Augustus had the Ars Amatoria removed from the three public libraries (Thibault 1964, p35), but a more total ban was not applied. In other cases books were generally banned and publicly burnt. If this is the case, then the offending work was not hated as much as might be expected, and may have actually been a pretext for Ovid's treatment rather than the major cause. Furthermore, Ovid was not tried in any court, but merely suffered a private interview with Augustus. Ovid notes: -

"Nor by decree of the Senate was I sent,

Or some deputed judge, to banishment;

I was in sharp but royal sort condemned." (see Epistulae ex Ponto 120-154)

Private hearings were not unknown at this stage, and this procedure does suggest that some sensitive matters may have been dealt with. Of course, by this stage Augustus had been granted the powers to regulate the mores of the Romans, as noted in the Res Gestae, and imperial command under these terms was enough to banish Ovid.

Ovid suggests that his error was to have seen a crime which was somehow related to Augustus, but that Ovid himself committed no crime, nor conspired against Augustus (Thibault 1964, pp27-30). What kind of error would fit this suggested scenario? It seems unlikely that Ovid was involved in some kind of political conspiracy. He had turned away from political ambitions, his poems do not reveal such designs, and if this was the case a more serious charge could have led to Ovid's execution. It is possible, however, that the poem is in some way directly related to the second error. Thus Ovid writes: -

Doubtless for this very reason is she fair to me now because she injured me before, when she was indicted with me for a joint crime. (Tristia IV.1.25-6)

Here Ovid seems to be saying that both he and his poem were indicted for the one 'crime'. Perhaps he was convicted merely for seeing, or encouraging, crime. It seems reasonable, then, in the absence of stronger evidence, to suggest that Ovid either witnessed or encouraged an adultery within Augustus' inner circle. In this he would be associated by the 'seduction' sequences in the Ars Amatoria. This would resolve the apparent contradictions in Ovid's later poetry where he on the one hand speaks of his error, on the other hand his poetry, as the main cause of his relegation. With our limited evidence, however, such a theory must remain conjectural (Scullard 1966, p249). It is however, a better-founded theory than the commonly asserted theory that Ovid was directly involved in the corrupt life of Augustus' grand-daughter Julia (Grant 1980, p300).

5. Ovid as A Symptom of the Age

As noted by Gordon Williams, there was a powerful sense among noted writers of the early Empire, including the elder Seneca and younger Seneca, the elder Pliny, Petronius and Tacitus, that they were living in an age which had declined, morally and politically, from earlier times (Williams 1978, pp6-16). In the elder Pliny, for example, we find the following analysis: -

Once you had senators being selected on income, judges being appointed on income, magistrates and army commanders finding honour in nothing so much as in income: once childlessness began to have the greatest influence and power, and will-hunting was the richest source of profit, and the only pleasures were in possessions - then the real values of life were lost, and the arts called liberal from their greatest distinction (i.e. liberty) fell into its opposite, and slavery began to be the sole means of progress. This slavery took different forms of devotion and centred on different objects: what was common to all was the aim - the hope of gain. Everywhere you found even outstanding men preferring to practise foreign vices rather than native virtues. So, by heaven, pleasure began to live, life began to die. (Natural History, 14.6, in Williams 1978, p16).

Now this powerful sense of decline can be explained in various ways; for Tacitus it was based on the centralisation of political power and patronage (Dialogus 2, & 40-41; Williams 1978, p49), though Greek theories of a universal rise and fall could also be employed to suggest the decay of Republican institutions. In this context, we must note that Ovid left a powerful legacy; he was one of the most often influential poets for the next century, quoted regularly by Lucan and Juvenal, for instance (Williams 1978, p52). As noted by Williams: -

His (Ovid's) importance was increased by the fact that he found it impossible to avoid becoming involved in politics, and he was the first poet to fall a victim to the clash between republican ideals and the imperial system. And herein lies a paradox: his poetry seems, to a degree most unusual in Roman poetry, to have been created basically for its own sake, with no ulterior purpose, no message - art for art's sake; yet his personal life became deeply involved in the public life of his times that a major problem concerns the interpretation to be placed on the many passages in his poems that touch on politics. (1978, pp52-3)

Like philosophy, poetry was expected to pull for the good of the regime, not the regime of the good. An attempt to write a personal poetry, or in the service of a personal ethic, was not only a waste of time, it smacked of a dangerous indifference to the times. It was no co-incidence that Seneca the elder, Seneca the younger, and Ovid found that they were unable to really retire from political life. And with the death of major poets such as Horace and Virgil, Ovid for a time was the pre-eminent poet in Rome. His 'art conceals its own art' (Ovid in Griffin 1977, p58), and his movement from apparently simple love poems to the extended epic concerned with metamorphosis from the time of creation down till his own time in fact cover a great mastery. Throughout he was concerned with the full range of human emotion and relationship (Griffin 1977, p61). His work also show a genuine liking, and generosity towards women, something not the norm for his times (see Griffin 1977, p59). He remained a major source in the Middle Ages, especially with the Goliards (the 'wandering scholars' of the period), then with Dante, Chaucer, Montaigne, La Fontaine, Spencer, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, but his popularity began to decline in the modern period until his revival in the late 20th century (Innes 1955, pp19-24; Griffin 1977, p57).

His treatment of certain stories is often greater than his Roman sources and certainly better than modern adaptations, e.g. his view of Pygmalion is more profound than Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion or the shallow treatment in My Fair Lady (Griffin 1977, p65, p68). Many aspects strike a sympathetic cord with contemporary sensibilities: -

The Narcissus and Pygmalion episodes also show that Ovid had what strikes us as a strangely modern interest in the question of personal identity. He was aware that within an individual one set of emotions can conflict with another and sometimes endanger the integrity of the personality. Ovid does not, of course, use modern psychological jargon, but his characters often face crises because of a clash within them between illusion and reality. Narcissus cannot come to terms with the world around him and therefore destroys himself. Pygmalion at first rejects the world around him and seeks, through the art of sculpture, to escape from it, but comes at length to terms with life, or rather life adapts its terms to suit him. Ovid had a unique insight into the personalities of people who might be described as oddities. His imaginative portrayal of how they feel shows a genuine sympathy for them. (Griffin 1977, p68; see further Innes 1955, p15)

We may blame the harsh rulings of emperors such as Augustus or Nero; there is no doubt that these rulers became authoritarian. But the attempt to separate the political from the aesthetic, to create a private concern exempt from an encroaching intrusion of public interests, was not possible under the early Principate. Neither Ovid's eloquent appeals from the border of the empire, nor the greatness of the epic Metamorphoses or the Fasti would secure his return. He died in exile, robbed of his fatherland, something that fatal for the spirit of a Roman poet.

6. Petronius: Decadence or Robust Satire?

There has been considerable argument about the date of the Satyricon, ranging from early in the reign of Augustus to the 2nd century A.D., though it seems likely that it was written circa 60 A.D. and should be associated with the Petronius who was forced to commit suicide in 66 A.D. as a result of a 'conspiracy' against the emperor Nero (Williams 1978, p12), though the envy and jealousy of a certain Tigellinus may have been one of the main reasons for his downfall. If so, then the writer would be T. Petronius Niger, the infamous 'arbiter of eloquence' for Nero's more interesting diner parties, and the competent consul and proconsul of Bithynia (Tacitus Annals 16.17-20). A robust attack on the decadence of the imperial age begins in the very first fragment which we have of this prose 'novel', where the character Encolpius says: -

"Our professors of rhetoric are hag-ridden in the same way, surely, when they shout "I got these wounds fighting for your freedom! This eye I lost for you. Give me a hand to lead me to my children. I am hamstrung, my legs can't support me." We could put up even with this stuff if it were a royal road to eloquence. But the only result of these pompous subjects and this empty thunder of platitudes, is that when young speakers first enter public life they think they have been landed on another planet. I'm sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of any use in everyday life. All they get is pirates standing on the beach, dangling manacles, oracles advising sacrifice of three or more virgins during a plague - a mass of cloying verbiage: every word, every move is just so much poppycock. People fed on this kind of thing have as much chance of learning sense as dishwashers of smelling clean." (Satyricon 1-2)

The theme of decadence is developed further in section 88: -

We, on the other hand, are submerged in wine and women; we do not even deign to understand even the arts that have been discovered, but, slandering the past, ourselves learn and teach nothing but vice. Where do you find dialectic now? Astronomy? Where is that most civilized path of philosophy? They do not even pray for sanity and good health, but, before even reaching the Capitol's entrance, one is promising an offering if he can bury a rich relative, another if he can dig up some treasure, another if he can make a few millions and live. (Satryricon 88, discussed in Williams 1978, pp10-12).

The work, of course, goes on a wild journey of parody and satire; poets, rhetoricians, the rich, dinner-parties, slaves and freedmen come in for Petronius' critical attention. In doing so he reveals some of the 'contradictions internal to a social group and the dialectic between groups' (Veyne 1988, p77). Freemen, particularly, were now an in-built part of Roman society, needed to enhance their ex-master's prestige, used by emperors such as Augustus and Claudius to manage their affairs. Important freemen were at various times pandered to, respected, hated and ridiculed. Trimalchio, the freeman who-would-be-a-knight, is granted a special place as the arbiter of bad taste. Interestingly enough, it is the implied treatment of slaves by this ex-slave which is also held up for parody. Petronius himself and his book are sometimes regarded as a decadent. Rather, the decadence lies only in his subject. His writing is brilliant, incisive, and in its own way hard and unyielding. Surrounded by a genuine debasement, he sought to both pander to it and criticise it.

The relationship between writers and patronage has now come fall circle. The independence of a Catullus was a thing of the past. Ovid had attempted a middle path of the private poetry of love, with limited references to Caesar and August, and failed. Livy, Virgil and Horace bowed to a moderate praise of Augustus, but the brilliance of their own individual viewpoints saved them from too gross a subservience. Poets of the later principate, however, like its philosophers, would now be forced to make a choice: the aggrandisement and rhetorical flattery of a Lucan, or the indirect, social satire of a Lucian. Petronius took the later course, but it didn't save him either. All that was left for him after Nero turned against him was to commit suicide with dignity, apparently holding, as the blood slowly flowed, a literary soiree. His revenge was to flatter neither Nero nor Tigellinus. Instead he wrote a full description of Nero's vicious indulgences and sent it to the emperor (Tacitus, Annals 16.20). Petronius had previously satirised almost every other tier in Roman society. Now he could afford to include the emperor, since he was about to die by his own hand.

Taken together, the works of Catullus, Ovid and Petronius, whether in or out of vogue during a particular decade, remain a central legacy of Western literature, indeed, of the human exploration of what it is to be human.


7. Bibliography and Further Reading


AUGUSTUS Res Gestae, ed. & trans. P.A. Brunt & J. Moore, London, 1967

BARRETT, C.K. (ed.) The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, rev. ed., London, SPCK, 1987

CATULLUS The Poems of Catullus, trans. Peter Whigham, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966

GOOLD, G.P. (ed.) Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris, trans. F Cornish, J. Postgate, J. Mackail, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1988

OVID The Art of Love, and other Poems, trans. J. Mozley, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1985

OVID Heroides & Amores, trans. G. Showerman, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1986

OVID The Metamorphoses, trans. M. Innes, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1955

OVID Ovid's Selected Works, ed. & trans. J. & M. Thornton, London, 1955

OVID Tristia & Ex Ponto, trans. A. Wheeler, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1988

PETRONIUS The Satyricon, trans. J. Sullivan, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1986

SUETONIUS, The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979


BAUMAN, Richard A. The Crimen Maiestatis in the Roman Republic and Augustan Principate, Johanesburg, 1967

FERGUSON, John Catallus, Greece & Rome New Surveys on the Classics No. 20, Oxford, OUP, 1988

GARNSEY, Peter "The Lex Iulia and Appeal under the Empire", The Journal of Roman Studies, 56, nos 1 & 2, 1966, pp167-189

GRANT, Michael Greek and Latin Authors 800 B.C. - A.D. 1000, N.Y., H.W. Wilson, 1980

GRIFFIN, Alan H.F. "Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'", Greece & Rome, 24 no. 1, April 1977, pp57-70

GRIFFIN, Jaspar "Genre and Real Life in Latin Poetry", JRS, 71, 1981, pp39-49

GRIFFIN, Jaspar Latin Poets and Roman Life, London, Duckworth, 1986

HAMMOND, Mason The Augustan Principate in Theory and Practice, New York, Russell & Russell, 1968

INNES, Mary M. "Introduction", to OVID The Metamorphoses, trans. M. Innes, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1955, pp9-25S

JONES, A.H.M. Augustus, London, Chatto & Windus, 1970

MALOUF, David An Imaginary Life, N.Y., George Brazillier, 1978 [Novella on Ovid's exile]

NAGLE, B.R. The Poetics of Exile: Program & Rhetoric in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto of Ovid, Bruxelles, Latomus, 1980

SYME, Ronald The Roman Revolution, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974

OTO, B. Ovid as an Epic Poet, Cambridge, CUP, 1975

SCULLARD, H.H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 B.C., London, Methuen, 1966

THIBAULT, John C. The Mystery of Ovid's Exile, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1964

VEYNE, Paul Roman Erotic Elegy: Love Poetry and the West, trans. D. Pellauer, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988

WHIGHAM, Peter "Introduction" to The Poems of Catullus, trans. Peter Whigham, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, pp13-46

WILLIAMS, Gordon Change and Decline: Roman Literature in the Early Empire, Berkeley, Uni of California Press, 1978


Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1998 R. James Ferguson