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Ovid and Horace, Roman poets in the age of Augustus, collectively captured a very broad range of sentiments and atmosphere in the empire at this time. Horace wrote odes, satires, and epistles that glorify Augustus himself and his reforms and intentions for Rome. Ovid, on the other hand, in his poetry before 8 AD, chose to write about the more universally intriguing subject of love, and he did so in a way that flouted Augustan morality reforms and Augustus himself. His bold content and style, as well as his accidental knowledge of a mysterious error of someone in Augustus’s family, caused him to be exiled to Tomis in 8 AD. There, he continued to compose verse, including Tristia, but his once amorous, sharp-witted voice shifted to one characterized mostly by supplication and flattery. As Horace maintains his often used persona of earnest observer who ultimately emphasizes deference and praise of Augustus in his Epistle II.1, In defense of modern poetry, Ovid’s poetry from exile, as witnessed in Tristia, assumes the tone of a dejected Horace.
Augustus’s main objective in his rule as Princeps of Rome was to create an image of himself as the bringer of peace, prosperity, and fertility to Rome. By extolling Augustus as the font of such goodness, Horace won great favor with Augustus and was given the honor of composing the hymn for the Secular Games, the Carmen Saeculare. In this ode, Horace celebrates the dawning of a new generation under the aegis of Augustus: “There is Trust now and Peace, Honor, and Chastity;/ ancient virtue, long neglected,/ dares to return, and rich Abundance is among us with full horn” (Horace, Secular Hymn, 57-60). Even in his satires where he takes on a more laughable persona, Horace underlines his verses with praise for Augustus. For example, in Satire 1.8, Horace uses Priapus, the god of masculinity and fertility to convey Augustus’s life-giving power over the Roman empire: Priapus, who represents life, and his timely flatulence, frightens off intruding hags, who represent death, from a garden he is the guardian of, symbolizing fecundity (Horace, Satire 1.8.46-50). In Epistle II.1, however, Horace makes it obvious that Augustus is seen as a god in his own time and ever after. Distinguishing Augustus from heroes such as Romulus and Hercules, deified only after death (Epistle II.1.5-12), Horace writes: “But you are honored in good time while still among us./ We build altars on which to swear by your divinity,/ declaring your like never has been and never will be” (Epistle II.1.15-17). He praises Augustus by speaking of the closed doors of the temple of Janus, signifying the peace he has achieved: “For my part,…I’d sooner celebrate mighty deeds,…the ending of strife throughout the world by your command./ Janus, guardian of peace locked behind his bars” (Epistle II.1.250-55). Thus, Horace portrays Augustus in the light which Augustus wishes himself to be seen, thereby gaining the blessings of Augustus’s friendship.
Both Horace in Epistle II.1 and Ovid in his Tristia explain necessary qualities of poetry under Augustus’s rule—Horace enumerating virtues of the poet and his art, and Ovid using his own prior writing as a negative example for what Augustan poetry ought to be like. Horace declares this modern poetry to be the finest of writing because of Augustus’s influence: “True—with the Greeks, the oldest writing in every genre/ is quite the best. But if, in consequence, Roman writers are to be judged by the same procedure, we needn’t go any further–/ a nut hasn’t a shell; there’s no stone in an olive!” (Horace, Epistle II.1.28-31). He notes the inclination of men to write poetry (II.1.108-117) and the freedom allowed to them in writing (II.1.147), but then makes reference to Ovid in saying: “…the joking began/ to get vicious and turned into sheer madness, becoming a menace/ and running unchecked through decent houses; its tooth drew blood,/ and the victims smarted; even those who escaped were worried/ about the state of society” (II.1.148-52). He then comments that the morality reforms of Augustus put an appropriate stop to this: “At last, a law was enacted/ involving penalties; no one, it said, should be traduced/ in scurrilous verse” (II.1.152-54).
Ovid too recognizes what ought not be in Augustan poetry by admitting his past mistakes and humbling himself to beg for Augustus’s pardon in Tristia. This book, he says, is “not love’s teacher” (Tristia 1.67) as is the Ars Amatoria, nor is it playful or temptingly immoral (Tristia 1.5-14) as are the Amores. Alluding to another previous work, the Metamorphoses, Ovid notes his own personal metamorphosis, pleading to be granted return to Rome: “Among those figures changed/ bid you tell them/ They now can reckon my own fortune’s turn./ That change so sudden, from its former aspect,/ so lamentable now, though once so gay” (Tristia 1.96-99).
Ovid’s relationship with Augustus is clear from both his personal state of affairs in writing Tristia and from his explication of his position as a suppliant in Book I, poem 1 and Book III, poem 6. He entreats: “…pray that Caesar/ will soften and reduce my penalty” (1.29-30), and he flatters: “The Palatine…where Caesars dwell./ Those awesome places and their gods, grant pardon!/ …Residing there are Powers of great mercy” (1.70-73). Indeed, he acknowledges himself as in the wrong, though not intentionally: “My fate doubtless dragged me to my sentence,/…/And by a blunder, I began my crime” (6.15-21).
This sheepish tone of sorrow and bowed pride toward Augustus is a complete contrast to his earlier work—ostensibly what got him in trouble. He boldly describes the pleasure of illicit love affairs that disregard Augustan morality and the Julian and Papia-Poppean Laws aimed at promoting marriage and reproduction in the Amores, and goes so far as to instruct his readers how to have such affairs in Ars Amatoria. He states his philosophy: “I can think you are faithful, even when you’re not./ Keep on with your present life, just don’t admit to it. A modest/ Persona, in public, shouldn’t prove too bad/ An embarrassment. Impropriety has its special off limits/ Enclave, where every kind of fun is the rule/ And restraints are unheard of” (Amores III.14.13-18). Furthermore, he mocks Augustus by including Venus and Cupid, Augustus’s claimed ancestors, as characters in his odes to debauchery. He even places himself in a position of superiority by saying: “I,/ by Venus’s appointment, am made Love’s artificer” (Ars Amatoria, 1.6-7).
Yet in his exile, Ovid’s only hope to return to his beloved Rome is to garner Augustus’s mercy or favor through meek submission and pleas. He gives up his own idea of what it means to create delight through poetry, telling in his new book, “If you’ve displeased your reader, feel no shame” (Tristia, 1.50), and sadly adopts Horace’s aesthetic of “return[ing] to decent language and the business of giving pleasure”(Horace, Epistle II.1.154-5).
Truly, both Ovid and Horace allow us to enter the world of Augustan Rome with their insightful observations and honest commentary. Though Ovid’s rebellious attitude and sharp-wit ultimately have him ejected from Rome, through the change in his work from citizen to exile, we seen even more poignantly what we have seen from Horace all along—that regardless of whether Augustus really was worthy of divine honors, regardless of whether he did what was best for Rome, he exuded a power that even the most free-spirited could not defy, the most fanciful could not ignore.
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