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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Longest Banned Book?

Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid.  Image courtesy of www.thefamouspeople.com.

The Roman poet Ovid not only had his book, Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) banned, but he himself was banished from Rome for writing it in the year 8 CE. All of his works were burned by Savonarola in his infamous bonfire of the vanities in 1497.  Christopher Marlowe translated it in 1599, and his translation was banned.  U.S. Customs banned it in 1930 - nearly two thousand years later. This makes it a candidate, if not the winner, of the dubious distinction of being the longest (in time) banned book.

"Study for Ovid's 'Ars Amatoria'" by Federico Righi, circa 20th century.
Image courtesy Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Publius Ovidius Naso (43-17 BCE) was a poet who is considered a master of the elegiac couplet, a poetic form first used by Greek lyric poets with alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter.  This form is considered the oldest Greek form of epodic poetry (think "call and response") first used for funeral songs, then adapted to erotic poetry.  The Romans took it to its zenith in the time of Augustus. Ovid is traditionally ranked with Virgil and Horace as the triumvirate of canonical Latin love elegists.  His poetry was much imitated in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced European art and literature.

Image courtesy of this site.

Ovid was born to an important equestrian family in Sulmona and educated in Rome,  His father wanted him to study rhetoric with an eye to practicing law, but Ovid was drawn to poetry.  He was very popular when he wrote his early works. His Ars Amatoria was published in 2 CE.  But his most famous work was the Metamorphoses, an epic poem of 15 books in hexameter, published in 8 CE.  This opus covers the history of the world (through mythology) up to the deification of Julius Caesar, and it is considered a masterpiece of Latin literature from its Golden Age.

Statue of Ovid in Sulmona, town of his birthplace,
southeast of Rome.  Image courtesy of Idéfix/Wikipedia.

In 8 CE, Ovid was banished to Tomis, now in Romania, on the Black Sea. Augustus banished him alone, without the Senate or a Roman judge.  There are no definitive writings on why, but Ovid himself wrote it was by reason of carmen et error - a song and a mistake.  He claimed his actions were worse than murder. The Julian Marriage Laws of 18 BCE were enacted to promote monogamy in the interest of increasing the birth rate and strengthening families.  Since Ovid's Ars Amatoria included adultery, it may have seemed in opposition to Augustus' legislation.

Ovid Banished from Rome by J. M. W. Turner, 1838.
Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.

But since there were six years between the publication and the banishment, Augustus may have used the poem as justification for something else, some sort of political secret.  What that would be is anyone's guess, but Augustus had also banished his grandchildren, Agrippa Postumus and Julia the Younger, about the same time, and Julia's husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was put to death for a conspiracy against Augustus.  Ovid may have known about this conspiracy. Unless some new documents come to light, we may never know.

A 1644 edition from Kempffer in Frankfurt.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Then there's another theory that has bounced around scholars for the last century or so:  Ovid never was exiled.  The main reason for this theory is that the only record of it is Ovid's, except for "dubious" mentions by Pliny the Elder and Statius, but no one else until the 4th century CE.  He did apparently die in Tomis in 17 CE, however, and has been adopted by Romanian nationalists as "The First Romanian Poet".

A page from the book, 1484 edition, with footnotes in German.
Image courtesy University of Texas.

Ars Amatoria is a didactic poem in three books that teaches the arts of seduction and love.  It serves in part as a satire on didactic poetry.  The first book is for men and covers the seduction of women.  Ovid establishes himself as a teacher of love, and tells of the places one can scout for lovers, such as a theater, a triumph, or an arena.  He then goes into ways of seducing a woman at a banquet, the right time to seduce her, and care of the body.

Another page akin to the top image.

The second book is also for men, and tells them how to keep a lover.  He advises men to keep up their appearance, hide affairs, don't give too many gifts, don't forget her birthday, and don't ask her age.  The end of this book promotes the joy of simultaneous orgasms.

Bacchus Returns From India, mosaic from Tunisia said to be inspired by
the poem which states that tigers drew Bacchus' chariot.  Image courtesy this site.

The third is addressed to women and teaches seduction techniques.  He is resolved to arm women against the measures the first two books advise.  He tells women not to wear too many adornments, to read elegiac poetry, learn to play games, flirt, and take on lovers of different ages.  He also advises that women should make their lovers jealous so they don't become complacent.  He also discusses sexual positions, with advice on choosing an appropriate one for their own bodies.

Papyrus scroll courtesy of above scroll site.

Despite the real or imagined banishment and the subsequent bannings through the centuries, Ars Amatoria is still part of the curriculum of both high schools and colleges, as it was in medieval times.  If all this fuss was created by Ovid, then kudos to him for his marketing genius.


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