Poetic Magician of Modernity
Roman poet Ovid died 2,000 years ago. Now Melanie Möller, a scholar of Latin, is coordinating an anniversary program featuring discussions, presentations, and readings.
Mar 17, 2017
There is probably no other author whose work covers as broad a literary range as that of the Roman poet Ovid. Born in Abruzzo in the year 43 B.C., he disappeared under mysterious circumstances 2,000 years ago. Before his death, he worked in almost every form of poetry, from love elegy to erotic didactic poetry, from elegiac letter to beauty recipe, from assiduous verse epic to tragedy and even curse poem.
His texts are still among the masterpieces of literature today – and the best known of them is the Metamorphoses. The author himself had predicted that they would catapult him to the heights of literature: “I have completed a work that not Jupiter’s wrath, not fire or iron, nor yet gnawing age will be able to destroy.”
For centuries, scholars of language and literature have been analyzing the poet’s life and work, and yet there are still many unanswered questions. Was his subversive literature actually the reason that Caesar Augustus exiled him in the year 8 A.D.? What was Ovid’s relationship with politics? And where do his texts draw the line between truth and fiction?
Melanie Möller, a professor at the Institute of Greek and Latin Languages and Literatures at Freie Universität Berlin, has been working extensively with Ovid’s works for some years now. She explains – most recently in a short book occupying just 100 concisely worded pages and has just been published – what is behind the fascination with Ovid and why the poet defies contemporary categorization.
“Ovid always avoided drawing a clear distinction between art and reality,” the literature scholar explains. “We can’t tell exactly what parts of his texts depict the ‘truth’ and which do not,” she adds.
This blurring has caused researchers quite a bit of confusion, most particularly on the question of the circumstances surrounding Ovid’s exile. In the Tristia (“Sorrows” or “Lamentations”), an autobiographically tinged late work that he is supposed to have written in exile at the Black Sea, he sums up the reason for his banishment in nebulous terms: “carmen et error” (“poem and error”).
Scholars had long suspected that this was a reference to his erotic didactic poem Ars amatoria (“The Art of Love”), which is said to have unsettled Caesar Augustus. “Augustus evidently took on a stricter view of morality over the years,” Möller says.
Still, she explains, it is unclear whether Ovid’s exile was really intended as a punishment for writing Ars amatoria. “After all, at the time, the text had already been available for some eight years. Besides that, salacious literature was nothing unusual at the time,” she explains.
So was it a personal error, perhaps a political one, that caused the writer’s misfortune after all? Did Ovid perhaps not follow political instructions? Did he fail to praise Caesar Augustus enough, or might he even have seen something forbidden?
There are even scholars who dispute that Ovid was banished in the first place. What if the whole thing was just one big scam? What if it was the first marketing gag in history, along the lines of “playing hard to get”?
Whatever may have happened, the didactic poem Ars amatoria is certainly among the most distinguished frivolities of erotic literature, and it could still bring a blush to those with more conventional moral convictions to this day. In the work, Ovid offers advice on how men – and women –should behave in their amorous pursuits, taking every opportunity to elevate his instructions through poetic language.
Ovid’s Stories Provided Material for Hollywood Movies
But it is the Metamorphoses that brought Ovid immortality. In this work spanning 15 books, each one 700 to 900 verses long (about 12,000 total), the author tells epic stories of transformations – most of them by humans or demigods who turn into things like plants, animals, and constellations – in the process tapping into a rich vein of older sources in Greek and Roman mythology. Familiar stories are reshaped, exaggerated, given touches of invention.
The history of the work’s reception stretches from its creation to the present day. This is one of the reasons that philosopher Hans Blumenberg has called the Metamorphoses the most important reference source for the Western self-image. He said, “The European imagination is a mesh of relationships centered largely on Ovid.”
The best-known example is the story of the abduction of the princess Europa, in which Jupiter (Zeus, in Greek mythology) transforms himself into a bull to bewitch the beautiful girl and keep his wife, Juno (Hera, in the Greek tradition), from learning of his betrayal. He wins the young Europa over with the beauty of his white coat and his horns – a symbol of art’s superiority to reality.
The story, which went on to become the myth of the founding of the European continent, shows that national identities always incorporate elements including figures of speech, poetic fantasies, and fabulous stories – not just supposed facts.
Ovid’s stories of metamorphosis are so diverse and creative and straddle so many boundaries that they constantly invite new interpretations. “Even today, Hollywood is still working through the ancient myths, which were shaped to a large extent by Ovid,” Möller says, pointing to films such as Troy and Hercules and episodes of Star Trek.
But there is also a political dimension that gives the poet a certain immediacy today, she explains. Just consider the growing nationalist groupings that take a one-sided, Eurocentric perspective. In light of the current political debates taking place, who could serve as a better point of reference than the Roman poet, who is viewed as an icon of European culture par excellence?
But Möller warns against attempts to use Ovid for ideological positions, saying that he is not suitable for that. That is not just because there were no nation-states at the time, and Roman identity was based on many different factors, the scholar explains; it is also because Ovid’s stories – and especially those in the Metamorphoses – represent a potpourri drawn from disparate sources: Greek, Roman, and Asian. The poet also transcends traditional notions of genre and time periods, she says; his subtle texts are closed to simple readings.
Now, on the 2,000th anniversary of his death, the literary world is trying to make a bit more progress toward solving the puzzle that is Ovid. At Freie Universität and elsewhere in Berlin, a large number of events focusing on this subject are planned, from a podium discussion of the role that Ovid’s literature played in the myth of the founding of Europe to star-studded readings and performances, roundtable discussions, and lecture series.
Möller designed the program, and invitees include authors, actors, and scholars. A lecture series scheduled for the summer semester will take up long-neglected aspects of Ovid’s literature, such as the poetic role or strong women and the negotiation of transgender identities.
“Ovid was well ahead of his time, and he played a major role in shaping our notions of art and literature, and most especially of aesthetics following its own rules,” Möller says. And that means, she explains, “If you want to understand modern European culture, Ovid is essential.”.
Prof. Dr. Melanie Möller, Institute of Greek and Latin Languages and Literatures, Freie Universität Berlin, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ovid and Europe - Overview of the Program
PANEL DISCUSSION „Ovid und die europäische Phantasie“, March 3, 6 p.m., Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of the Sciences and Humanities, Jägerstr. 22; in cooperation with the Zentrum Grundlagenforschung AlteWelt. With Hartmut Böhme, William Fitzgerald, Durs Grünbein, Valeska von Rosen, Jürgen Paul Schwindt; Moderator: Heike Schmoll/F.A.Z.
LECTURE SERIES „Deconstructing Gender? Ovid und die Frauen“: April 20 to July 20, Thursdays, 4 to 6 p.m., Habelschwerdter Allee 45, Room J 32/102
OVID FORUM „Lesungen und Vorträge“: June 16 and 17, Freie Universität, with Christian Demand, Wolfgang Hörner, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Ulrich Noethen, Ernst Osterkamp, Tobias Roth, and Gyburg Uhlmann
THEATER ANU: „OVIDS TRAUM“: July 27 to 29 and August 3 to 6 (starting at 9:30 p.m.); Outdoor production of selected stories from the Metamorphoses – Theater installation of dance, sculpture, sound collages. Tempelhofer Feld, entrance at Columbiadamm
WORKSHOP „Zwischen Kanon und Zensur: Ovid als Bildungsgegenstand“: September 15 and 16, with Michael von Albrecht, Michael Lobe, Stefan Kipf, Katarzyna Marciniak, Hans Jürgen Scheuer, Ulrich Schmitzer, Darja Šterbenc Erker. Michael Thimann, and others; in cooperation with Humboldt-Universität
ANNUAL MEETING of the international research group La poésie augustéenne: Excessive Writing: Ovid in Exile, December 14 to 16 with a reading by Christoph Ransmayr (The Last World)
MISCELLANEOUS Introduction for School Students: 2000 Jahre Ovid. Das Werk und seine Kontexte, February 20 to April 2; Junior Researcher Forum: Latein Ovids Ibis, April 29: Long Night of Sciences (June 24, Topic: Calendar poetry); Girls’ Day (April 27); Kinderuni (October 10 to 14)
Current Schedule: www.geisteswissenschaften.fu-berlin.de/ovid