Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BCE–17 CE), born at Sulmo, studied rhetoric and law at Rome. Later he did considerable public service there, and otherwise devoted himself to poetry and to society. Famous at first, he offended the emperor Augustus by his Ars Amatoria, and was banished because of this work and some other reason unknown to us, and dwelt in the cold and primitive town of Tomis on the Black Sea. He continued writing poetry, a kindly man, leading a temperate life. He died in exile.
Ovid’s main surviving works are the Metamorphoses, a source of inspiration to artists and poets including Chaucer and Shakespeare; the Fasti, a poetic treatment of the Roman year of which Ovid finished only half; the Amores, love poems; the Ars Amatoria, not moral but clever and in parts beautiful; Heroides, fictitious love letters by legendary women to absent husbands; and the dismal works written in exile: the Tristia, appeals to persons including his wife and also the emperor; and similar Epistulae ex Ponto. Poetry came naturally to Ovid, who at his best is lively, graphic and lucid.
The Loeb Classical Library edition of Ovid is in six volumes.
VI. Kal. 24th685 Now have I to tell of the Flight of the King: from it the sixth day from the end of the month has taken its name. The last to reign over the Roman people was Tarquin, a man unjust, yet puissant in arms. He had taken some cities and overturned others, and had made Gabii his own by foul play. For the king’s three sons the youngest, true scion of his proud sire, came in the silent night into the midst of the foes. They drew their swords. “Slay an unarmed man!” said he. “’Tis what my brothers would desire, aye and Tarquin, my sire, who gashed my back with cruel scourge.” In order that he might urge this plea, he had submitted to a scourging. The moon shone. They beheld the youth and sheathed their swords, for they saw the scars on his back, where he drew down his robe. They even wept and begged that he would side with them in war. The cunning knave assented to their unwary suit. No sooner was he installed in power than he sent a friend to ask his father to show him the way of destroying Gabii. Below the palace lay a garden trim of odoriferous plants, whereof the ground was cleft by a brook of purling water: there Tarquin received the secret message of his son, and with his staff he mowed the tallest lilies. When the messenger returned and told of the cropped lilies, “I take,” quoth the son, “my father’s bidding.” Without delay, he put to the sword the chief men of the city of Gabii and surrendered the walls, now bereft of their native leaders.
711 Behold, Ο horrid sight! from between the altars a snake came forth and snatched the sacrificial meat from the dead fires. Phoebus was consulted. An oracle was delivered in these terms: “He who shall first have kissed his mother will be victorious.” Each one of the credulous company, not understanding the god, hasted to kiss his mother. The prudent Brutus feigned to be a fool, in order that from thy snares, Tarquin the Proud, dread king, he might be safe; lying prone he kissed his mother Earth, but they thought he had stumbled and fallen. Meantime the Roman legions had compassed Ardea, and the city suffered a long and lingering siege. While there was naught to do, and the foe feared to join battle, they made merry in the camp; the soldiers took their ease. Young Tarquin entertained his comrades with feast and wine: among them the king’s son spake: “While Ardea keeps us here on tenterhooks with sluggish war, and suffers us not to carry back our arms to the gods of our fathers, what of the loyalty of the marriage-bed? and are we as dear to our wives as they to us?” Each praised his wife: in their eagerness dispute ran high, and every tongue and heart grew hot with the deep draughts of wine. Then up and spake the man who from Collatia took his famous name: “No need of words! Trust deeds! There’s night enough. To horse! and ride we to the City.” The saying pleased them; the steeds are bridled and bear their masters to the journey’s end. The royal palace first they seek: no sentinel was at the door. Lo, they find the king’s daughters-in-law, their necks draped with garlands, keeping their vigils over the wine. Thence they galloped to Lucretia, before whose bed were baskets full of soft wool. By a dim light the handmaids were spinning their allotted stints of yarn. Amongst them the lady spoke on accents soft: “Haste ye now, haste, my girls! The cloak our hands have wrought must to your master be instantly dispatched. But what news have ye? For more news comes your way. How much do they say of the war is yet to come? Hereafter thou shalt be vanquished and fall: Ardea, thou dost resist thy betters, thou jade, that keepest perforce our husbands far away! If only they came back! But mine is rash, and with drawn sword he rushes anywhere. I faint, I die, oft as the image of my soldier spouse steals on my mind and strikes a chill into my breast.” She ended weeping, dropped the stretched yarn, and buried her face in her lap. The gesture was becoming; becoming, too, her modest tears; her face was worthy of its peer, her soul. “Fear not, I’ve come,” her husband said. She revived and on her spouse’s neck she hung, a burden sweet.
761 Meantime the royal youth caught fire and fury, and transported by blind love he raved. Her figure pleased him, and that snowy hue, that yellow hair, and artless grace; pleasing, too, her words and voice and virtue incorruptible; and the less hope he had, the hotter his desire. Now had the bird, the herald of the dawn, uttered his chant, when the young men retraced their steps to camp. Meantime the image of his absent love preyed on his senses crazed. In memory’s light more fair and fair she grew. “’Twas thus she sat, ’twas thus she dressed, ’twas thus she spun the yarn, ’twas thus her tresses lay fallen on her neck; that was her look, these were her words, that was her colour, that her form, and that her lovely face.” As after a great gale the surge subsides, and yet the billow heaves, lashed by the wind now fallen, so, though absent now that winsome form and far away, the love which by its presence it had struck into his heart remained. He burned, and, goaded by the pricks of an unrighteous love, he plotted violence and guile against an innocent bed. “The issue is in doubt. We’ll dare the utmost,” said he. “Let her look to it! God and fortune help the daring. By daring we captured Gabii too.”
784 So saying he girt his sword at his side and bestrode his horse’s back. The bronze-bound gate of Collatia opened for him just as the sun was making ready to hide his face. In the guise of a guest the foe found his way into the home of Collatinus. He was welcomed kindly, for he came of kindred blood. How was her heart deceived! All unaware she, hapless dame, prepared a meal for her own foes. His repast over, the hour of slumber came. ’Twas night, and not a taper shone in the whole house. He rose, and from the gilded scabbard he drew his sword, and came into thy chamber, virtuous spouse. And when he touched the bed, “The steel is in my hand, Lucretia,” said the king’s son “and I that speak am a Tarquin.” She answered never a word. Voice and power of speech and thought itself fled from her breast. But she trembled, as trembles a little lamb that, caught straying from the fold, lies low under a ravening wolf. What could she do? Should she struggle? In a struggle a woman will always be worsted. Should she cry out? But in his clutch was a sword to silence her. Should she fly? His hands pressed heavy on her breast, the breast that till then had never known the touch of stranger hand. Her lover foe is urgent with prayers, with bribes, with threats; but still he cannot move her by prayers, by bribes, by threats. “Resistance is vain,” said he, “I’ll rob thee of honour and of life. I, the adulterer, will bear false witness to thine adultery. I’ll kill a slave, and rumour will have it that thou wert caught with him.” Overcome by fear of infamy, the dame gave way. Why, victor, dost thou joy? This victory will ruin thee. Alack, how dear a single night did cost thy kingdom!
And now the day had dawned. She sat with hair dishevelled, like a mother who must attend the funeral pyre of her son. Her aged sire and faithful spouse she summoned from the camp, and both came without delay. When they saw her plight, they asked why she mourned, whose obsequies she was preparing, or what ill had befallen her. She was long silent, and for shame hid her face in her robe: her tears flowed like a running stream. On this side and on that her father and her spouse did soothe her grief and pray her to tell, and in blind fear they wept and quaked. Thrice she essayed to speak, and thrice gave o’er, and when the fourth time she summoned up courage she did not for that lift up her eyes. “Must I owe this too to Tarquin? Must I utter,” quoth she, “must I utter, woe’s me, with my own lips my own disgrace?” And what she can she tells. The end she left unsaid, but wept and a blush o’erspread her matron cheeks. Her husband and her sire pardoned the deed enforced. She said, “The pardon that you give, I do refuse myself.” Without delay, she stabbed her breast with the steel she had hidden, and weltering in her blood fell at her father’s feet. Even then in dying she took care to sink down decently: that was her thought even as she fell. Lo, heedless of appearances, the husband and father fling themselves on her body, moaning their common loss. Brutus came, and then at last belied his name; for from the half-dead body he snatched the weapon stuck in it, and holding the knife, that dripped with noble blood, he fearless spake these words of menace: “By this brave blood and chaste, and by thy ghost, who shall be god to me, I swear to be avenged on Tarquin and on his banished brood. Too long have I dissembled my manly worth.” At these words, even as she lay, she moved her lightless eyes and seemed by the stirring of her hair to ratify the speech. They bore her to burial, that matron of manly courage; and tears and indignation followed in her train. The gaping wound was exposed for all to see. With a cry Brutus assembled the Quirites and rehearsed the king’s foul deeds. Tarquin and his brood were banished. A consul undertook the government for a year. That day was the last of kingly rule.