By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ovid (43 BC-17/18 AD) is one of the great poets of Rome and indeed of the classical world. He is still studied and read to this day and his works, especially the Metamorphoses has consistently maintained its popularity. While he is remembered as a poet of love and joy, Ovid was, in his real life, an exile who suffered greatly.
Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari commemorating Ovid’s exile in Tomis (present-day Constanța, Romania)
The life and career of Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso was born in the provincial town of Sulmo, some 100 miles (140 km) from Rome, into an equestrian family. His father had the means to send Ovid and his brother to Rome to further their education. There, Ovid studied rhetoric but was more interested in verse. Based on his autobiographical poems, he travelled widely in Greece and Italy and later held a number of minor positions in the government. Soon though, he dedicated himself to poetry and rapidly became one of the leading lights of the Roman literary world.
At first, Ovid wrote love poetry but later went on to compose larger workers, such as the Metamorphoses and the Fasti. By 8 AD he was one of the best-known literary figures in Rome and friends of great poets such as Horace. Then, for reasons unknown, he fell out of favor with Augustus and his life became a nightmare.
An illumination of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from a manuscript of William Caxton’s translation of the Metamorphoses (1480)—the first in the English language
In AD 8, the poet was banished from Rome by the personal orders of Augustus without due process. Ovid was a friend of Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger, who, along with her husband, were implicated in a plot against the First Emperor. While the exact reasons for Ovid’s exile are not known, it has been speculated that Ovid knew of the conspiracy and did not disclose it. There are others who believe that he helped Julia in her many affairs, which scandalized Roman society and angered the severe Augustus. Some have suggested that the poet, who was something of a Casanova, may have had an affair with the granddaughter of the Emperor.
Julia the Younger was imagined in Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1774.
Yet another theory was that Ovid’s poetry, which celebrated love and extra-marital affairs, was contrary to the moral reforms of Augustus. All that Ovid states about his exile was that it was a result of “a verse and a mistake”. The banishment, however, meant that Ovid had to leave his beloved wife and his family.
Exile in Tomis, Black Sea
Ovid was sent to the outer reaches of the Roman Wold. He was ordered to stay in Tomis, which was on the coast of the Black Sea in what is now Romania. It was part of the Kingdom of Thrace, a client state of Rome.
Tomis was mainly inhabited by Thracians who were shepherds, constantly armed to defend themselves and their herds from raiders and wolves. The town was only superficially civilized, and no one spoke Latin. In his poems, he describes the hardships he experienced among the natives and the fears he had; Ovid was constantly at risk from the barbarian tribes who lived in the region.
Over time, however, the affable poet made friends with many of the local tribes’ people, especially the Gaetae, whom he refers to as Scythians. These were nomads and he writes’ about them in some of his most memorable poetry.
‘Ovid among the Scythians’ (1862) by Eugène Delacroix.
Ovid suffered greatly during his exile and he and his wife made many pleas to the Emperor to allow him back to Rome. However, Augustus never relented, and Ovid was never to see his beloved spouse and city again. When Augustus died, the poet and his family had real hopes that the order of banishment would be lifted. Unfortunately the successor of Augustus, Tiberius, was a cruel man; he continued to forbid the poet to return. Eventually, Ovid became somewhat reconciled to his fate, as can be seen in his later poems written at Tomis.
Works in Exile
During his sad and lonely years on the Black Sea Coast, the poet matured as an artist. There, he wrote two great works, the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. The themes of these works are his love for Rome and his exile. The Tristia, in particular, contains some of his most powerful poetry. Also during this time, he wrote the Fasti, a series of books on the history of Rome, which may have been written to win the favor of the Emperor. This was left unfinished at his death and was published posthumously. It is believed that several works written by the great poet were lost during his banishment.
Scythians at the Tomb of Ovid, by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld
Ovid died of unknown reasons in Tomis in 17 or 18 AD, far from his family and friends, and was buried in Tomis. His poetry became more popular than ever and was to prove very influential. Interestingly, the order of banishment was only revoked in 2017, by the Roman city council.
No one knows exactly when the Greek poet Homer lived. Herodotus, the father of history, guessed around 850 BC. Other ancient sources proposed that he was conjuring up transcendent imagery as early as the 12th century BC. Modern researchers, however, appear to place Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.
The dates, as you can see, vary wildly. All we do know is that his compositions are considered the oldest works of western literature and have had an enormous and incalculable influence throughout the history of the written word.
Homer as imagined in the Hellenistic period
But the “Homeric Question” goes deeper than just dates… Historians aren’t even sure he existed at all. His works may be the culmination of generations of storytelling, all grouped under a fictitious name and nothing else. Could one man have written both The Iliad and The Odyssey?
At the same time, the stylistic similarities between the two mammoth stories are overwhelming, suggesting that, yes, it was the result of single author. But to throw another wrench into the mix, most scholars agree that the books underwent a process of standardization and refinement in the beginning of the 8th century BC. Any wonder then that the styles were so similar…
We also can’t be certain that Homer was even a man, presuming he or she once lived. Samuel Butler, an important 19th century translator, argued that based on literary observations, it was a young Sicilian woman who wrote The Odyssey… but interestingly enough, not The Iliad.
Who was Homer??? Was he even a he?
So what do we know about Homer? How are we to learn anything about this ancient poet, if he or she did indeed walk this earth? Where do the clues lie to this ancient puzzle?
The answer may be obvious: We have to look at the poetry itself and piece together what we can. Unfortunately most of us do not have the time, nor the ancient greek skills to delve into the mystery ourselves…
For this reason, Classical Wisdom Weekly spoke with Ancient Greek expert A.P. David for insights into who Homer was and how we can better understand the monumental works of The Iliad and The Odyssey. A scholar and a gentleman, A.P. David also presents some alternative views on the subject… ones that might make you question everything you thought you knew about the epic poet and his (or her) writings.
By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Long before Herodotus fathered History and did his best to chronicle the past deeds of humankind, the true recorders of men and Gods were the ancient Greek poets, one of which was Hesiod.
Even though the exact time of his life is unknown, Herodotus’ estimation puts him (as well as Homer) around 400 years before Herodotus’ time, at circa 8th or 7th century BC.
It is hard to know the precise facts of Hesiod’s life, except what we know from his works. As such, we will delve into the poet of Agriculture and Peace through three important figures related to him.
Bust of Hesiod
Hesiod’s Early Life
First one is his father, Dius. A native of Cyme in Aeolis (modern day western Turkey), Dius was a seafaring trader and farmer, and generally a poor man. He was forced to leave his native place and move to continental Greece, settling at Ascra near Thespiae in Boeotia (as explained by Hesiod in his “Works and Days“). Dius had two sons, Hesiod, our poet, and Perses, a loafer and prodigal descendant of a hardworking father. After their father died, his land was divided between the sons, but Perses kept the larger share by bribing the corrupt rulers of Thespiae.
Portrait of the Greek poet Hesiod (ESIODVS) on the Monnus mosaic from Augusta Treverorum (Trier), end of the 3rd century CE.
It will be easy then to understand why Hesiod’s “Works and Days” revolved around not only myths and legends, but also two major moral precepts. Those are that labor is a universal virtue of Man and that he who is willing to work will always get by, both notions highly valued by the ancients. “Works and Days” also underlines advice and wisdom, emphasizing a life of honest labor, attacking laziness, corrupt rulers and the practice of injustice.
Hesiod and the Boeotian School
“Works and Days” also lays out the “Five Ages of Man”, the first extant account of the successive ages of mankind. At this point, we start noticing Hesiod’s didactic approach to poetry, chronology, and to an extent, history. The latter of which was, in comparison to Homer’s romanticized versions of past events, respected.
The Five Ages of Man
This method was later classified as the Boeotian School of epic poetry. And it was the reason, according to the historian Herodotus, why Hesiod’s retelling of the old stories in “Theogony” became, in spite of all the various different historical traditions, the definitive and accepted version that linked all Greeks in ancient times.
Ancient Rap Battle: Homer Vs. Hesiod
Homer is the third important figure of Hesiod’s, not life, but heritage. If Homer was Dr. Dre, Hesiod was Ice Cube. Homer was all about his poems. He added drama and huge characters, all while romanticizing ancient Greece to the point that every other poet wanted to do the same, with equal effect and celebrated consequences.
Bust of Homer
Hesiod, modest as he was, talked of ordinary life, the morality of human life, just systems and chronological order of events. Even at the moment of winning the tripod at the contest in Chalcis, Euboea, Hesiod only mentions in “Works and Days” that the only time he sailed in a ship was when he went from Aulis to Chalcis to take part in the funeral games for Amphidamas, a noble of Chalcis. Hesiod there was victorious and he dedicated the prize, a bronze tripod, to the Muses at Helicon. There was no mention of Homer.
But to realize how important both of these poets were to ancient Greece, one must look at the Legend of Certamen. It was a contest of wit and wisdom between Homer and Hesiod, where the latter emerged as the greatest. Even though there is no proof they even met each other, let alone confronted each other poetically at a contest, the fact that the legend exists is meaningful. Moreover, it is important to note why Hesiod was victorious at that apocryphal battle; his work on agriculture and peace is pronounced as more valuable than Homer’s tales of war and slaughter. And then and there, even if it was just a legend, the mic, or in this case the tripod, dropped.
The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon.
The third important figure known to be part of Hesiod’s biography is a woman. She was not the Muses of Helicon, the ones who inspired all of his works. It was also not the Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, priestess of Apollo, who warned warned Hesiod that he would die in Nemea, which caused him to flee to Locris where he was killed at the local temple to Nemean Zeus, and probably buried there. The fourth figure is the woman he fell in love with, seduced, and eventually was murdered by her brothers as a result. His body, cast into the sea was brought to the shore by dolphins and buried at Oenoe.
Here, we will end the story of Hesiod with a description of his final moments, an epigram by Alcaeus of Messene:
“When in the shady Locrian grove Hesiod lay dead,
the Nymphs washed his body with water from their own springs,
and heaped high his grave;
and thereon the goat-herds sprinkled offerings of milk mingled with yellow-honey:
such was the utterance of the nine Muses that he breathed forth,
that old man who had tasted of their pure springs.”
By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sappho and Alcaeus, By Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Besides being born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, and this date is often disputed, surprisingly little is known about the life of this beloved poet. The only reliable source of biographical information about Sappho comes from her own poetry. However it is often disputed if her writings were actually autobiographical in nature, or, as they performed in festivals and for large audiences, they were retelling stories and myths.
Additionally much of her writing has been lost to the ages. Indeed she was prolific in her time and wrote around 10,000 lines (about 2,000 less than the Odyssey), but today only about 650 lines survive.
This leaves us with little to no verifiable evidence about who this woman was.
Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”)
Still her name has survived and her reputation as a gifted lyrical poet with it. She wrote extensively about love and passion for all peoples and for both sexes. She describes extensively emotional love between women and occasionally would write about sexual acts between women.
These discoveries have lead to the assumption that Sappho was a lesbian. The term “lesbian” derives from the name of her homeland “Lesbos” and the term “sapphic love” is derived from the poets own name. We may never know for sure if Sappho loved women, the love for women described in her poetry may have been entirely fictional. Sappho would write about other aspects of her life in the stanzas of her poetry, which led many to believe that she was in fact a lesbian.
Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, Solomon
However, in her own time period, she was not considered gay. Quite the opposite. In classical Athenian comedy (from the Old Comedy of the fifth century to Menander in the late fourth and early third centuries BC), Sappho was caricatured as a promiscuous heterosexual woman. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Hellenistic period (about three centuries after her death), that she was described as a homosexual.
Midway through the first century A.D., the Roman philosopher Seneca, tutor to Nero, was complaining about a Greek scholar who had devoted an entire treatise to the question of whether Sappho was a prostitute. Some ancient writers assumed that there had to have been two Sapphos: one the great poet, the other a very promiscuous woman. There is an entry for each in the Suda, the large 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world.
The truth is we can only draw conclusions from various scraps of poetry that have been attributed to Sappho. And they really are ‘scraps’. All of the surviving works by Sappho are partially destroyed, save for Hymn for Aphrodite. More than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments and the rest of the extant fragments of Sappho contain only a single word. Her poems are actually categorized as fragment 1- fragment 213. These fragments have been attributed to several books that the poet is believed to have authored during her literary career.
Alcaeus and Sappho. Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC. From Akragas (Sicily).
Recently, there have been major discoveries of more of Sappho’s poetry. In 2004, the Tithonus Poem and a new, previously unknown fragment was discovered, and in 2014, fragments of nine poems: five already known but with new readings, including the Brothers Poem, were found in an ancient Egyptian vase.
Even though very little of her work has survived, from what remains we can determine that Sappho was extraordinarily talented. She possessed a clarity of language and simplicity of thought that creates images that are sharply defined and beautifully constructed.
She wrote and sung in an Aeolian dialect, a type of Ancient Greek that was a pitch-accented language, a bit like Chinese is today. She used a rhythmic scheme that Sappho is said to have invented called the “Sapphic Stanza”. Each four-line stanza consists of three metrically identical lines, eleven syllables in length, followed by a shorter fourth line of five syllables.
Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original.
She was admired by other poets of her time. One Greek author, writing three centuries after her death, confidently predicted that “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure / and will endure, speaking out loud . . . as long as ships sail from the Nile.”
Solon, the poet, statesman and all around wiseman, asked to be taught one of her songs “so that I may learn it and then die”
The philosopher Plato wrote of her in the Anthologia Graeca, a collection of ancient poems by esteemed writers, when he states:
“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless! Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”
While much of her work has been lost, we still maintain enough poetry from Sappho to appreciate her skill as a poet and her importance as an ancient writer.
Classical Wisdom‘s First ever Webinar, The Lost Poetess, is available for a limited time. Click below to register and watch for free.
The Lost Poetess
by Anya Leonard, Co-Founder of Classical Wisdom
Who was the Lost Poetess?
Considered equal to Homer and praised by Plato (who didn’t even like poetry!), this ancient poet has almost completely disappeared. We’ll look at who she is, what happened to her work, and whether she was really worth the ancient hype.
The Webinar The Lost Poetess was presented by Classical Wisdom in conjunction with Ancient Origins.
The author of these words could not have issued a better prediction. This figure of classical antiquity was regarded by contemporaries with nothing but esteem, admiration, and sometimes infatuation. With a likeness that appeared on coins, a firm place in the Library of Alexandria’s canon of nine lyric geniuses, and the intense respect of people like Plato and Aristotle, there’s no question that this poet was one of the most famous and beloved of the classical era—and, believe it or not, she was a woman. She was a daughter, sister, mother, lover, poet and musician—and, true to her expectations, the world has still not forgotten her name: Sappho of Lesbos.
Sadly, despite Sappho’s continued relevance and fame, very few of her poems and none of her songs have survived the harshness of time. What we do have is a collection of fragments—some of them numbering only one word—but these fragments have been studied, translated, and published again and again throughout the years, proving that society’s fascination with Sappho’s work didn’t die with her or her contemporaries. What is perhaps more surprising (and in many ways, disappointing) is the whirlwind of furious debates and controversies that surrounds her life, about which we know extremely little.
Thanks to a few other writers of classical antiquity who specifically name historical figures as contemporaries of Sappho, we can overlap and piece together the dates and time periods we do know to infer that Sappho was born around 615 BCE. We know for certain (thanks to her customary title and her own poetry) that she was born on the island of Lesbos (located in the northeastern Aegean Sea near the coast of Asia Minor), though we are not sure if her birthplace was the capital city of Mytilene or in the smaller town of Eresus; and scholars are also fairly certain that as an adult she oversaw some kind of academy for young women in Mytilene. Evidence (including, again, her own poetry) suggests that she was born into an aristocratic family and eventually had a daughter named Cleis (most likely with Cercylas, a wealthy man she was thought to have married, though the evidence for his existence is much less verifiable).
Of course, it would be silly to ignore the biographical fact for which Sappho is most well-known, and the one that sparks the most controversy: her sexuality.
Generally, Sappho is considered one of the most famous lesbian poets in history: so much so that the very word “lesbian” is derived from “Lesbos,” the island of her birth. Despite a long line of Victorian scholars and translators who tried their best to “tone down” Sappho’s poems so that readers wouldn’t “get the wrong impression,” there is no denying that her poetry (so much of which is about love and desire) gives equal erotic attention to men and women (though some readers, including myself, would argue that her love poems to women have a fiercer desire and a more beautiful light in them than her poems about men).
In an era such as ours, in which the fluidity of sexuality is being recognized as a normal fact of life, it seems reductive and close-minded to argue about Sappho’s sexuality instead of accepting the raw beauty of her poems, which clearly catapulted her to fame in her own time (note that no one seems to have raised an eyebrow about her sexuality then—societal norms were very different in Ancient Greece, where bisexual behavior was considered par for the course).
However, it’s definitely worth noting that her poems alone didn’t lead to this conclusion about her romantic preferences. About three centuries after her death, Greek comedians began to parody Sappho, portraying her as oversexed, promiscuous—practically a prostitute. This image, sadly—despite how loved and revered she was in her own time—is the one that eventually stuck; and this reputation paired with her love poems to women eventually put Sappho on such bad terms with the emerging Catholic Church that much of her surviving work was utterly destroyed by church-sanctioned book burnings around 1073.
Her sexuality and personal life are still debated to this day (though perhaps with fewer fiery consequences)—but it would perhaps be more constructive to avoid trying to prove any one point right now, and to instead focus on what we do know for certain about Sappho: her work and its insane popularity.
Sappho is one of very few women poets that we know about from classical antiquity, and she is certainly the most well respected. Critics, both in her own time and ours, firmly dub her one of the greatest lyrics poets to have ever lived, and a lyric genius.
Her poems, like her songs, were meant to be sung, usually with the accompaniment of a lyre—and, in fact, she’s credited with having invented a musical mode, the plectrum (now popularly called a “pick,” as in a guitar pick) , and even a specific kind of lyre. She’s also largely credited with inventing a particular kind of poetic meter which is now called “Sapphic meter.” This technique utilizes stanzas (also called “Sapphic stanzas”) that are characterized by three long lines followed by a fourth short line.
By the time Sappho’s poems were first transcribed together into one collection around the 3rd Century BCE, they filled nine volumes which, all told, would have amounted to something like 10,000 lines of poetry. But it wasn’t her prolificacy that made her so popular. Unlike many of the poets of her day, Sappho didn’t choose to write about the gods or the epic heroes. Instead her poems deal with the feelings of one individual speaker, tracing her feelings about time, family, and especially love. The verses are achingly simple and direct, with no “flowery” language to cover up the raw descriptions of love, desire, and the bittersweet pain that sometimes comes hand-in-hand with those feelings (incidentally, the term “bittersweet” and the notion that love can feel this way appeared for the first time in Western Literature in one of Sappho’s poems).
Something about the honesty of Sappho’s work (and probably her music) deeply moved those who encountered it. The literary critics of antiquity who wrote about Sappho nearly always wrote about her work under the obvious assumption that everyone must love her—it’s almost a “who wouldn’t?” attitude that pervades nearly all the critiques we still have. Plato himself called Sappho the “tenth Muse.” She was the only woman to be included in the canon of nine lyric geniuses—a list decided upon by the famed scholars at the Library of Alexandria. Even Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, wrote that Sappho “was honored although she was a woman.” And (what is perhaps most telling) Greek society seemed to consider Sappho on par with Homer—while he was reverently called “The Poet,” she was called “The Poetess.”
Fragments of Sappho’s poetry are still being found on tattered pieces of papyrus that were used in an ancient coffin-making process similar to papier mâché.
Thankfully, not all of her work was destroyed by book burnings or time. We have a decently sized collection of fragments, one full poem (of about twenty-eight lines), and, miraculously, fragments are still being found (one was discovered–or, more accurately, recognized as Sappho’s work–as recently as 2012)–most of them on tattered pieces of papyrus unearthed in Egypt.
One thing is absolutely clear: Sappho was correct in thinking that she’d never be forgotten. Society’s memory of her can get bogged down by debates about her sexuality or personal life, but the sheer number of existing translations and studies of her work are testaments to the fact that her words still have the power to delight and move us. We can appreciate her not only as a poet, but also as something of a feminist icon–a woman who, against the odds and the norms of her society, attained incredible fame. She certainly wasn’t lying when she wrote: