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The conversion of Ovid in early Christian poetry

Ian Fielding

University of Oxford

It should come as no surprise that Christian writers in late antiquity did not hold much admiration for Ovid, whose poetry was condemned in his own lifetime for corrupting public morals. In contrast with his close contemporary Virgil, he is almost completely ignored by patristic prose authors like Jerome and Augustine – and on the few occasions when his work is mentioned, it is disparaged and dismissed. Among late antique poets, on the other hand, Ovid was much more influential, and as this paper will demonstrate, that influence was not limited to style and versification: his autobiographical writing also offered a point of reference for Christian poets to describe their lifestyle choices. Tristia 4.10, Ovid’s account of his withdrawal from public life to cultivate his relationship with the Muses, was a particularly important model in this respect. Prudentius’ Praefatio – the first example that I will discuss – presents a similar narrative of retirement from politics to pursue a literary vocation. In this case, however, Ovid is identified with the kind of secular poetry that Prudentius renounces: it will be argued here that Prudentius’ references to his youthful lasciuia (Praef. 10) and nequitia (Praef. 12) can be understood as allusions to Ovidian poetics.

Not all Christian poets sought to oppose themselves to Ovid in this way. In the second part of this paper, I will suggest that Prudentius’ contemporary, Paulinus of Nola, aligns his biography with Ovid’s in Carmen 10, as he justifies his conversion to a more committed form of Christianity. It is Ausonius, Paulinus’ friend and former tutor, who initially (in Epistle 21 Green) compares Paulinus’ secluded ascetic existence to Ovid’s exile in Tomis. Paulinus responds that unlike Ovid, who claimed in exile to be less than he once was, his retreat into the wilderness makes him stronger, by bringing him closer to God. As he explains, his new Christian poetics are concerned with another kind of metamorphosis, from the transitory physical world to the eternal world beyond. Nonetheless, Paulinus does not fully reject this likeness to Ovid, whose own autobiography recounts how he was drawn, from a young age, to the study of ‘caelestia sacra’ (Tr. 4.10.19). Thus, Paulinus will be shown to represent himself to Ausonius as a latter-day Ovid, redeemed by his faith in the Christian God.

Session/Panel Title

Narrating the Self: Autobiography in Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number

5.2

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