Augustus had long been disturbed at the state of morals, behind which lay a
genuine concern for the falling upper class birthrate. Laws were passed to
protect marriage and outlaw adultery. Though carrying stiff penalties, these
were regarded as unenforceable and something of a joke, especially in view of
the gossip about Augustus' peccadilloes and his ability to reconcile them with
his position as praefectus moribus (corrector of morals). Nor was he
particularly prolific himself, having produced only one child, Julia, despite
Joke or not, Augustus took the matter seriously. Dio has left an account of his
harangue, directed toward unmarried or childless knights in the year of Ovid's
banishment. It was a long and scathing speech and a few lines gives you an idea:
How should I address you? As Romans? You are heading toward the elimination
of that name. The truth is you are on a collision course with our natural
future. What would be left of mankind if everyone behaved like you? You are
murderers, in the sense of not giving life to those who would be your
descendants; and traitors, in the sense of leaving your country bereft of heirs.
For it is people who make a city, not empty houses or deserted squares. how can
we preserve the state if we neither marry nor have children?
Further laws were passed to penalize the unmarried, both fiscally and in matters
of inheritance. These were called the Papia-Poppaea laws, after the consuls of
that year. To the discomfort of some and the amusement of others, it was then
realized that Papius and Poppaeus were bachelors.
The appearance of Ovid's Ars Amatoria, only a year or so after Julia's
banishment for adultery was an all time publishing gaffe. Here appears to be a
philanderer's charter. It would have been less humiliating if the book had
flopped, but no, it had to be a best seller. Ovid argued that it was intended as
a divertissement relating only to the affairs of courtesans. In his favor was
the fact that his own personal life was relatively blameless. "No scandal
ever attached itself to my name." he maintains, "My muse was merrier
than myself." meaning he'd been a playboy in poetry rather than practice.
Whatever Augustus' feelings, there was no official rebuke and no action was
taken at the time. Ovid moved on to other subjects. However to the government's
and to the author's embarassment, the poem on illicit love refused to die down,
instead it's popularity grew.
In 8 CE, there was another hammerstroke, the arrest and banishment of the
granddaughter of Augustus, also known as Julia and also for adultery. This
arrest was complicated by the fact there was supposedly also a conspiracy to
replace Tiberius. The same year saw the death of Ovid's patron, M.V. Messalla
Corvinus, distinguished general, statesman and honored friend of Augustus.
Ovid and his third wife (who's name is unknown to us, but with whom he claims to
have found lasting happiness with) were off on a visit to Elba unaware of the
gathering shadows, when suddenly a man (or men) appeared at the villa where they
were staying and placed him under arrest. He was now 51.
Supposedly it was not the poem that was the cause of his arrest, he'd seen
something or was party to some information. Whatever it was, nothing has
survived to give us any indication of what that might be; Ovid would never speak
of it, if he even knew what it was. We have hints from the Tristia and
that's all we have.
Two 'crimes', a poem and a faux pas
Have brought me to this pass.
On the latter I must hold my peace
Lest insult to injury be added.
For it is enough, O Caesar,
That you should have been injured
Why did I get my eyes into trouble?
Why was I so stupid as to cover up
That which I knew?
He swears it was by accident:
And I am punished because my blundering
Eyes beheld a wrong, as if it were a
Sin that I have eyes
Whatever it was, Ovid died in 17 CE or thereabouts, at age 60 in exile in Tomis
on the Black Sea and was buried obscurely in cold Sarmatian soil, somewhere
between barred gate and bare steppe.