The Birth of Ovid

Writing from exile, the Roman poet Ovid revealed his birth date as 24 March 43 BC. But on the cause of said exile, he was unusually reticent.
Silent witness: Ovid, engraving after a coin, undated. Mary Evans Picture Library.

Ovid was with a friend on Elba in the autumn of eight AD when the crisis hit. A summons arrived for him from the emperor, Augustus. Were the rumours true, his friend asked. Ovid equivocated – half confessing, half denying.

Two millennia later, we still don’t know what Ovid had done to prompt the summons; we only know what happened next. Following a face-to-face meeting with the furious emperor, and without a trial, Ovid was exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea – now Constanța in Romania – at the eastern limits of the Empire. He dragged out his departure until the very last day of the emperor’s decree in December, postponing making travel arrangements, prolonging farewells. 

Ovid left behind his wife and his home, with its beloved gardens and orchards. He also left behind his masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, complete but not finished to his satisfaction. He never saw Rome again, dying in Tomis sometime in the winter of 17/18. He had long complained about the cold. But he complained about everything.

The only reliable evidence about Ovid’s fall from grace is in his poems of exile. Indeed it is to these we owe almost all his extant biographical information, including his date of birth: 21 March 43 BC. Ovid says that he was exiled for ‘carmen et error’: a poem and a mistake. The poem was the Ars Amatoria, a guide to adultery. But that was nearly a decade old by eight AD. And the mistake? Ovid makes clear that he witnessed something and then kept silent about it. What did he see? He kept silent about that too.

Into the space left by this second silence speculation has flooded. Perhaps he mocked the defeat of the Roman general Varus in the Teutoburg Forest. Or perhaps he profaned the sacred mysteries of Isis or Eleusis. Had he seen Livia, the wife of Augustus, naked? Had he slept with her? Or perhaps with Livia and Augustus’ daughter, Julia? Had he seen Augustus committing incest with his daughter? Or with his granddaughter? Or seen him having sex with a man?

It remains a mystery. But Ovid’s poems from Tomis have kept alive gossip about the emperor’s family and its peccadilloes for over 2,000 years. Ovid would surely have enjoyed the irony of that.