Michael Wood on… po­ets as wit­nesses to his­tory

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester. Down­load his BBC se­ries The Story of Eng­land at store.bbc.com/ michael-woodsstory-of-eng­land

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.

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