History of Ovid’s Banned Books from Antiquity to Present

Ovid depicted in a 1887 statue in Constanta, Romania by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari.  Ovid is still revered in modern times!

Publius Ovidius Naso

 has been a highly influential yet controversial author from his own lifetime to modern times.  While was the first to claim that Ovid’s writing was so offensive he needed to shield the public from it, he certainly wasn’t the last to ban Ovid’s work.  Other instances of explicit censorship of Ovid include the Burning of the Vanities conducted by Savonarola in 1497, the Bishop’s Ban of 1599 in England, and a prohibition against importing the Ars Amatoria into the United States as late as 1930!  Often these instances of direct banning correspond to times of growing influence and popularity of Ovid’s writing.  Another way in which Ovid’s works have been censored after his own lifetime is through various editions and translations that have glossed over or entirely eliminated the sections considered most inappropriate.  As the controversy over Ovid’s work has continued for nearly two thousand years following his death, his words are evidently considered so powerful that ordinary people cannot read them safely!


Ovid’s Poetry

Jupiter and Juno, Annibale Carracci 1597, Farnese Gallery, Rome. Part of a series of frescos, The Loves of the Gods, partially inspired by Ovid.

Jupiter and Juno, Annibale Carracci 1597, Farnese Gallery, Rome. Part of a series of frescos, The Loves of the Gods, partially inspired by Ovid. Ovid depicts a world where the gods are even more lascivious than the mortals who worship them!

The erotic nature of Ovid’s poetry has been responsible for much of the opposition to his work.  His Amores and Ars amatoria have taken the brunt of the direct censorship as they are both books of love poetry that predominantly focus on sexual themes and showcase topics that are considered especially immoral, such as adultery and homosexuality.  The Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, is essentially a manual of how to conduct romance, with the first two books describing to men how to seduce women, and the third book providing similar advice for women.  Ovid’s Amores, the Loves, are  poems in a set of three books that detail an affair between the poet and a married upper-class woman named Corinna.  Even the Metamorphoses, his most famous work, which details the transformations of various mythical figures for a variety of reasons, contains many erotic events including rape and various forms of forbidden love that have been considered immoral.  Ultimately, the risqué nature of Ovid’s works has led to great controversy over a lengthy period, and Ars Amatoria may have the longest history of censorship of any book from its initial banning by Augustus to its interdiction in modern America.

Burning of the Vanities – Italy, 1497

Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality, Ludwig von Langenmantel 1879

Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality, Ludwig von Langenmantel 1879. Here his adherents are piling up their luxurious goods in preparation for a bonfire.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican monk living in Florence, Italy during the Renaissance, who pushed for the expulsion of all things he deemed excessive and immoral.  In 1497, he began physically burning such objects that he felt could be corrupting, including all of Ovid’s works, in the so-called Burning of the Vanities.  Savonarola lived in a time of great luxury and wealth in Florence, and he studied Latin as a youth most likely including Ovid’s poetry.  Later in life, as he gained political power with the expulsion of the ruling  in Florence, Savonarola developed a strict sense of Christian morality and rejected worldly comforts.  As a result of his strong belief that pride was a terrible sin from which he needed to save the public, he considered anything that might cause an individual to place more focus on himself / herself than God dangerous and deserving of elimination.  Ovid’s works were among the numerous valuable books, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, instruments, manuscripts, and even mirrors destroyed in these fires.

Europa and the Bull, Carl Milles 1929, The Lunder Collection, Colby College Museum of Art

Europa and the Bull, Carl Milles 1929, Colby College Museum of Art. The steamier tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses scandalized some conservative clergy.

Interestingly, Savonarola’s objection to Ovid in 15th century Italy followed the rise of the use of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Ars amatoria in classrooms.  Giovanni Dominici, a Florentine Dominican monk preceding Savonarola, felt that Ovid’s writing as well as other Latin works were immoral and unacceptable for children to read as they were in schools at the time.  Prior to this, other less objectionable Latin texts had been usually studied in Italian classrooms, and the study of “ethically questionable” works typically focused more on grammar than the moral implications of the poetry.  The literature that a society teaches its children is usually a good benchmark for that society’s values.  This shift in the Italian school curriculum during the Renaissance to highlight Ovid’s “lascivious” works seemed to indicate a loosening of morals since the Middle Ages in Florence, which then led to Savonarola’s reactionary crack down on sinful material.  

Bishop’s Ban – England, 1599

Richard Bancroft (1544–1610) Archbishop of Canterbury by British (English) School, c.1600

Richard Bancroft (1544–1610) Archbishop of Canterbury
by British (English) School, c.1600

In Elizabethan England, a translation of the Amores was proscribed in the 1599 Bishop’s Ban as Ovid’s works were gaining greater popularity.  John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London issued a ban that ordered the cessation of further printing of offensive books and the destruction of existing copies of the books on the list in an effort to improve public morality. ’s translation of the Amores was included in this act of censorship as he translated Ovid’s writing accurately and did not attempt to sanitize the poetry in his translation.  The Church probably found this translation of Ovid more threatening to the public than the original works in Latin, since this “immoral” poetry could reach a larger audience in the vernacular.  The Bishop’s Ban bears a striking similarity to the Burning of the Vanities as both were attempts by church officials with substantial political power to control the access the public had to offensive content.  Furthermore, the explicit censorship of Marlowe’s translation of the Amores implies that it had captured the public’s attention in 16th century England enough that Church leaders felt allowing it to remain openly available could harm the public.

A 1593 reprinting of Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Golding’s version escaped the Ban because he modified the text to make it appear to support Christian values!

Ovid’s works generally appear to have experienced a growing following in Elizabethan England as translations of Ovid gained popularity and his writing also influenced some of the most popular writers of the time including Shakespeare, Spencer, and Marlowe.  Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses first published in 1567 was so popular that it was reprinted seven times before 1612.  Golding’s Metamorphoses most likely was not included in the Bishop’s Ban because his commentary generally tried to “moralize” this work, in accordance with Christian doctrine.  Golding included a preface in Puritanical terms suggesting the Metamorphoses should be read as a moral allegory and in his commentary there are several instances in which he tried to highlight Christian values in this otherwise entirely pagan story.  Elements inspired by the Metamorphoses have also been noted in Spencer’s  published in 1596.  Spencer employed a structure similar to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a series of stories, of which many deal with instances of physical and emotional change. Furthermore, Spencer makes extensive use of Ovidian settings involving mythical characters like nymphs and Roman gods.  For example, in Spencer’s story of ‘Mutabilitie Cantos’ Diana and her nymphs are located in a secluded grove as also occurs in Ovid’s story of .  The Amores, possibly Marlowe’s translation itself, influenced Shakespeare’s Sonnet 140 as both poems express the idea that the poet only desires his mistress to appear to be virtuous to him though she is actually unfaithful.  Shakespeare also includes ideas relating to the Metamorphoses in his  while Marlowe does the same in his .  Given the popularity of Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses, these authors influenced by Ovid probably assumed that learned audiences at this time were acquainted with the ancient stories and could appreciate the references.  Clearly, Ovid was quite popular when the Bishop’s Ban was enacted.

The Awakening of Adonis, John William Waterhouse 1899

The Awakening of Adonis, John William Waterhouse 1899. Shakespeare drew inspiration from Ovid’s account of the love of Venus and Adonis.

United States 1920s

U.S. Customs Service Seal

U.S. Customs

Censorship of Ovid has continued to modern times in the United States as customs banned the import of the Ars amatoria as late as 1928.  Furthermore, the city of San Francisco enacted an explicit ban of the Ars amatoria in 1929.  Even so, home produced copies of this morally suspect poetry were usually available already in the country.  The ban on the Ars amatoria was finally lifted with the passage of the .  This law stated that “All persons are prohibited from importing into the United States any… obscene book… or other article which is obscene or immoral.”  However, this law also contained a clause permitting, “That the Secretary of the Treasury may, in his discretion, admit the so-called classics or books of recognized and established literary or scientific merit.”  The Ars amatoria fell under the category of a literary classic and since then has been freely allowed into the United States.


Modified Editions of Ovid

Demons reluctantly releasing Eurydice, 14th century illustration from Ovide Moralisé, a French translation and commentary that substantially altered Ovid’s text to make them more palatable to a Christian audience.

Explicit banning of a particular book is not the only form that censorship can take. Various editors and translators of Ovid’s writings over the centuries have chosen to modify his stories by highlighting some elements and entirely excluding others to fit their own agenda.  Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses provides an example of this more subtle form of censorship as his commentary features his own bias towards Christian morality, and he tries to influence the reader’s perspective on Ovid’s poetry.  Another example of this type of work is the Ovide moralisé, a French translation and commentary of the Metamorphoses published by an anonymous poet in the early 14th century that reworked the stories to make them morally acceptable to a Christian audience.  The Ovide moralisé promises to provide a respectable rendering of Ovid’s original works with the opening line translated as, “Here begin in Romance the fables of the great Ovid, told according to truth and aligned with morality.”  The translator took great artistic license and strongly paraphrased Ovid’s stories in order to present them as moral allegories for the public.  Not only did the author of this lengthy vernacular poem gloss over the morally suspect elements of the original Latin, but he also digressed from Ovid’s text frequently to make his book specifically support Christian values.  This kind of alteration to the original sense of the poetry in a translation is also a form censorship as the translator highlights the elements that best fit with his own purpose. 

 Works Cited

Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC – 18 AD) was a famous Roman poet living during the transition from the Roman Republic to Empire, a time of great political upheaval.  Ovid was exiled from Rome by the Emperor Augustus officially because of the immoral nature of his writing, but the true reason for his banishment remains unclear.  Click here for more information about Ovid’s exile.
Gaius Caesar Octavianus Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) was the first ruler of the Roman Empire.  Augustus alleged that Ovid’s Ars amatoria violated his moral reform policies and supposedly banned Ovid’s writing for that reason.  Click here for more information about censorship in Rome under Augustus.
Haight, Banned Books: Informal Notes on Some Books Banned for Various Reasons at Various Times and in Various Places, 2.
Latin elegy features a characteristic metrical form of couplets containing a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter line.  This type of poetry written by well-known authors including Propertius and Tibullus as well as Ovid typically features erotic themes.
Kenney, “Ovid.”
 Green, The Encyclopedia of Censorship, 224.
The Medici were a very powerful and wealthy family that ruled Florence from the 15th through the 17th century.  They were known to be great patrons of the arts and provided conditions of artistic freedom in which the Renaissance flourished.
Martines, Fire in the City, 116.
Black, “Ovid in Medieval Italy,” 142.
McCabe, “Elizabethan Satire and the Bishops’ Ban of 1599,” 188.
Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593) was an English playwright and poet.  Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was most well-known for his dramas, but he also engaged in poetry and translation.  
Lerner, “Ovid and the Elizabethans,” 125.
Blake, “Golding’s Ovid in Elizabethan Times,” 93.
Lerner, “Ovid and the Elizabethans,” 125.
The Faerie Queen, an allegorical epic poem, was written by the English poet Edmund Spencer (1552 – 1599).  This half-finished work promoted Christian values and praised Queen Elizabeth in a veiled manner.
Actaeon is a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who came upon the goddess Diana bathing in a wooden grove surrounded by her nymphs.  As a punishment for this egregious act, Diana turned Actaeon into a deer that is ultimately killed by his own former hunting dogs.  Click here for more information about the story of Actaeon.
Burrow, “Metamorphoses in The Faerie Queen,” 116.
Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, was one of the first poems by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616).   It is based on the myth of Venus seducing the mortal hunter Adonis, which is contained in book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Hero and Leander is a poem by Christopher Marlowe published in 1598 that expresses the myth of a young man Leander seducing Hero, a virgin who had made vows of chastity to Venus.
Lerner, “Ovid and the Elizabethans,” 125.
Green, The Encyclopedia of Censorship, 224.
The Tariff Act of 1930, also known as the the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, tremendously raised taxes on imports into the U.S. in an effort to protect American business.  This legislation, however, greatly hurt global trade and exacerbated the Great Depression worldwide.  The lessening of restriction on foreign classics is a much lesser known component of this law.  
Haight, Banned Books, 2.
Pariet, “Recasting the Metamorphoses in fourteenth-century France,” 83.
Pariet, “Recasting the Metamorphoses in fourteenth-century France,” 83.