About the time of Ovid’s birth in 43 b.c., Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Octavianus, the grandnephew of Julius Caesar and more commonly known as Augustus, came to Rome as a young man to assert control over the estate his granduncle had bequeathed to him. For the next twenty years, Augustus methodically gained power over his adversaries, and, by the time Ovid began writing poetry at the age of twenty, Augustus was firmly established as the emperor of Rome and had long since set about to exact measures to purify Rome of its immoral influences.
Although far from being considered a prude himself, Augustus nevertheless saw sexual licentiousness as a lifestyle that could undermine the power and efficacy of the state. The Roman Empire itself had experienced decades of upheaval. Roman civil wars alone had killed some 200,000 Italians, and the empire’s outposts were continually on guard against invasions. Augustus’s great achievement was to end the wars and work to establish a sense of stability throughout the empire. In large part, he was highly successful, and in many ways history views him as the greatest of all the emperors.
Part of his successful strategy was to give Romans a sense of the morally upright state. If Romans were to love anything at all, Augustus reasoned, they ought to love the state. Thus, he set out to pass laws regulating such activities as premarital sex and enforced economic measures that penalized individuals for avoiding...
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