MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW
Michael Wood on… poets as witnesses to history
As I write this, I’m about to fly to Romania – to Constanūa on the Black Sea. I’m making a film about the Roman poet Ovid, who died there 2,000 years ago, having been exiled by the Roman emperor Augustus.
Sometimes poets are uniquely great windows on history. Ovid is one such – a voice that influenced the whole of the western tradition in literature and art, but also a critical witness to one of the most fascinating periods in the ancient world.
Ovid was born in Sulmona in Abruzzo, east of Rome, during the violent death throes of the Roman republic, a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The fields of Italy were ravaged by civil war, flattened by the tramp of legions. The eventual victor was Octavian: adopted son, great nephew and heir of Julius Caesar. He became princeps (‘first citizen’) then emperor, calling himself Augustus – ‘the majestic’. And so dawned a new age. The Roman republic, with its stern old virtues, became a military dictatorship and then a Roman empire stretching from the English Channel to Syria.
So Ovid grew up in momentous times, exciting and dangerous. By the time he was 14, Antony and Cleopatra were dead and Egypt was conquered. An upper-class Roman with land and wealth, Ovid’s career was mapped out for him: a life of privilege and high office. But his dream was poetry, and in the nascent empire – as in all autocracies – poets were required to underwrite power. It was poetry that would make him, and in the end poetry would bring him down: “My own verses were what undid me,” he wrote.
By his twenties Ovid was already a star. Meanwhile, Augustus tightened his grip on politics: his conquests in Germany and central Europe advanced Roman imperialism, while he took absolute power in his patriotic ‘restored republic’. Like lots of dictators Augustus expected poets to sing the glories of the principate and the leader himself. So it was in Virgil’s Aeneid of 19 BC, which made an epic of the tale of heroic Rome. It was an instant classic for the new age that gave Augustus the immortality he craved, establishing his rule as the predestined culmination of Roman history. Hence poetry supported the regime.
Augustus also demanded a grand architecture: “I found Rome brick but left it marble,” he said. Ovid, though, responded with the Art of Love – cynical, witty, subversive. It seems to have offended Augustus. “Let others sing of Caesar’s wars,” wrote Ovid. He sang instead of the streets of Rome, writing his immoralities, seductions and infidelities onto Augustus’s new street map – making an erotic memory room of Augustus’s grand design.
The sophisticated Roman reading public loved it. Not so the emperor. And sex and poetry would play their part in Ovid’s downfall. In 2 BC, not long after the Art of Love was published, the emperor’s daughter was banished after a sex scandal, her lovers executed or exiled. Then in AD 8, a plot against Augustus’s life was discovered; there were purges, executions and suicides, and the emperor’s granddaughter Julia was exiled for life. How exactly Ovid was involved, we don’t know. “Two offences undid me,” he wrote: “a poem and an error. On the second, my lips are sealed.”
The emperor cast him out to the edge of the empire, on the Black Sea. Hoping for a reprieve that never came, he died there in winter AD 17. But he left an imperishable legacy. He was the poet of love, fascinated by the instability of human identity and sexuality, and by passions as driving forces of human action; the poet of change, who speaks to us now all the more powerfully as we see that permanent mutability is the fact of life; the poet of exile, dispossession and alienation – a precursor of the modern condition.
In 1945, the German scholar Hermann Fränkel described Ovid as a man in a metaphysical crisis between the old world of pagan antiquity and the coming world of Christianity. But of course the historian must say there was nothing inevitable about the triumph of Christianity. We should see Ovid as he is: a poet in history, author of one of the world’s great books, and of course a man who also embodies a perennial theme in history – speaking truth to power.