(This is a term paper that I did for one of the Writing classes at uni)
This paper aims to investigate the influence of exile on the Roman poet, Ovid. The theme of his poetry prior to banishment differs substantially from that produced during exile owing to the change in surroundings, experiences, and state-of-mind of the poet. Ovid also introduces certain new poetic elements into his poetry, during his exile, to enrich his work. Scholars of Classics have highlighted several differences between Ovid’s pre- and post- exilic poetry. Four of those differences will be explored in this research paper, which are, the autobiographical nature of post-exilic work, exploitation of the redressive capacity of poetry, usage of creative word-magic and promotion of self-mythology, including intertextuality. The title of this research paper “From Rome to Tomis and Back” is inspired by Ovid’s physical (exilic) journey from Rome to Tomis and his return to Rome in the form of his books (Tristia and Epistulae Ex Ponto), which were, wherein, preserved and left to be read and appreciated by generations to come.
On March 20, 43 BC the Italian Apennine valley of Sulmo saw the birth of one of the most celebrated poets of all time, Publius Ovidius Naso. More commonly known as Ovid, the poet-to-be belonged to an illustrious family of equestrian rank that lived in the city of Sulmo (present day Sulmona) to the east and slightly north of Rome.
Ovid received education in Sulmo and then in Rome for law and politics – an expected career for men belonging to a family of that standing. However with a natural flair for poetry, Ovid soon denounced his political training for the love of poetry. At the ripe age of seventeen/eighteen, Ovid began narrating his poems in public recitals. Over the years, his works Amores, Metamorphoses, Fasti, Epistulae Heroides, Ars Amatoria and a few others soon earned him the eyes, ears and attention of the society. (Mack, 1988, p. 13-14)
However, la dolce vita became short-lived when, in AD 8, the Roman emperor Augustus banished Ovid to the outer edge of the vast Roman Empire, all the way to the frozen and barren city of Tomis (present day Constanta in Romania) on the western shore of the Black Sea. The reason for his banishment has a mysterious edge although scholars believe it was what Ovid himself mentioned in his post-exilic work Tristia (Tr.2.207): ‘carmen et error’, a mistake and an error. The ‘mistake’ is thought to be the love and indulging theme of Ars Amatoria in the time of moral reformation in Augustan Rome, and the exact ‘error’ is still an enigma, although it is believed to be an ‘error’ within the realm of politics. (Claassen, 2008, p. 2-3)
Ovid wrote the famous Tristia (Sad Things), Epistulae Ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea) and the poem Ibis while in exile. While his early (pre-exilic) poetry in Rome was erotic and centered on love and intrigue that echoed and appealed to the pleasure-seeking and sophisticated society of the Roman elite, the theme of his post-exilic works are much distant from this subject. In exile, Ovid writes poetry to seek assistance from his friends and family and requests them to intercede on his behalf with Augustus, to pardon him or relocate him closer to Rome. He also writes to Augustus directly, asking him for forgiveness and defending himself at the same time. This makes the theme of his poetry repetitive, mainly revolving around the cold, misery, loss of love and affection, anguish and sadness that comes from isolation, heart-felt solitude, poetic incapacity, political complaint, the pain of exile, and desire to return to Rome.
Based on this, Ovid’s post-exilic work could be seen as autobiographical; quite varied from his output in Rome, which was more fantastical with no emphasis on the author. For example, the Amores and Ars Amatoria were about love and lust, the Fasti about the Roman calendar, etc. Classical scholars have established that much of what is known about Ovid’s life is inferred from his own works at Tomis. For instance, the reason for Ovid’s banishment was carmen et error (mentioned above) which he himself mentions in Tristia. The fact that he has incorporated his life into his exilic works is natural, given his sorrowful situation. In a letter to his wife in Ex Ponto, he describes his pitiful state:
Iam mihi deterior canis aspergitur aetas
iamque meos uultus ruga senilis arat,
iam uigor et quasso languent in corpore uires,
nec iuueni lusus qui placuere iuuant.
nec, si me subito uideas, agnoscere possis,
aetatis facta est tanta ruina meae.
Confiteor facere hoc annos, sed et altera causa est,
anxietas animi continuusque labor;
nam mea per longos si quis mala digerat annos,
crede mihi, Pylio Nestore maior ero.
(The Latin Library, n.d)
Now the decline of life is on me, whitening my hair,
now the wrinkles of age are furrowing my face:
now strength and vigor ebb in my weakened body,
the games of youth that pleased, no longer delight.
If you suddenly saw me, you wouldn’t know me,
such is the ruin that’s been made of my life.
I admit the years have done it, but there’s another cause,
my anguish of spirit and my continual suffering.
And if my ills had been spread over as many years
(Ex Ponto 1.5, 1-10)
(From Kline, 2003)
Ovid describes how exile and ageing have taken the better of him and, in the last line of the extract above, analogizes his ageing with that of Pylian Nestor, a Greek mythological figure who was extremely old at the time of the Trojan War. The integration of mythology in his elegies was a persistent quality of an Ovidian poetry.
Moreover, another change in Ovid’s poetry after exile was the ‘function’ of poetry. Much of his post exilic work draws from the redressive capacity of poetry. The “redress of poetry”, a term made famous by Irish poet Seamus Heaney in 1989, means poetry may be used as a “corrective and remedy for suffering… and as a reaction against injustice, to right a wrong and offset the harshness of political oppression” (McGowan, 2009, p. 1). Ovid uses this redressive capacity of poetry to take into account the representation of himself against whom power/authority is yielded by the Emperor Augustus (McGowan, 2009, p.2). This is where Ovid’s poetry has a politicizing edge to it, where he incorporates politics into his poetry (Ingleheart, 2011, p.15-17).
A popular instance of this redressive mode may be seen in the beginning of the Tristia where Ovid sends his book to Rome in place of himself. This feature is quintessential of his post-exilic poetry that illustrates “poetic presence in place of physical absence…(a single most important exilic form)” (McGowan, 2009, p. 3):
Parue – nec inuideo – sine me, liber, ibis in urbem:
ei mihi, quod domino non licet ire tuo!
uade, sed incultus, qualem decet exulis esse;
infelix habitum temporis huius habe.
(The Latin Library, n.d)
Little book, go without me – I don’t begrudge it – to the city.
Ah, alas, that your master’s not allowed to go!
Go, but without ornament, as is fitting for an exile’s:
sad one, wear the clothing of these times.
(From Kline, 2003)
In this epic opening of the Tristia, Ovid sends his “little book” to his beloved Rome and explains to it that he himself cannot go. Ovid explains the shaggy and forlorn state of the book and instructs it to keep a low profile. This mirrors the state of its heartbroken author. The technique of Ovid sending his book to Rome may be related to the Greek drama Plot Device of Deus Ex-Machina, where the god descended from heaven to the earth in a physical device. In similar vain, the plot device here is Ovid’s book, where it is acting as descending from Tomis to Rome in a physical state.
Throughout the Tristia and Ex Ponto, Ovid characterizes himself as the ‘miserable’ exiled poet who, at some points, is now sorry for his carmen et error and accepts the power of the emperor; while at other places, he subtly defends himself and mentions the unjust and bigoted attitude of his oppressor. This paradox speaks about the relationship of the oppressed (Ovid) against the oppressor (Augustus) where Ovid presents himself as being apologetic and submissive to the emperor on one hand, but also speaking out between the lines, against the unfair decision of Augustus and in defense of himself.
As he spoke out against Augustus, Ovid countered the punishment by Augustus by the eternal effect of ‘Power Of The Written Word’. Ovid kept himself alive in the city of Rome by writing poetry and embarking on a journey to Rome through his book. His post-exilic writing is replete with the imbalance of power between the poet and the emperor but at the same time challenging the emperor’s temporal power with the permanent power that he yields through the power of words, weaving poetry from them (McGowan, 2009, p.3).
Ovid’s poem Ibis which takes on a slightly different subject is full of incessant resentment and the ‘need to curse’, and may be implicitly directed towards Augustus.
Moreover, another interesting feature of Ovid’s exilic poetry was his ‘logodaedaly’ (creative-word magic). This is an Ovidian characteristic which highlights his ability to create a word-portrait using artistic terms by exploiting the extraordinary and lingering power of words. Over his exile, he diversified his use of vocabulary and paid much attention to synonyms and incorporated them firmly in his writing. This is a strong characteristic of every good writer. The use of word-play (punning) and sound play were also something he invested on in his poetry. (Claassen, 2008, p. 111)
In his exilic poetry, the specialized vocabulary of exile can be ascertained by the words denoting misery, longing or expressing distance, for e.g me miserum, labors, durus. They appear so consistently in his post-exilic poetry that apart from their connotation of banishment and exile, they may also ‘be termed inherently exilic’ (Claassen, 2008, p. 116). Its connotation is more effective and dramatic when the (exiled) situation of the poet is taken into account.
Given the nature of the political act of the emperor banishing the poet from the city, Ovid naturally integrates political vocabulary accompanied with word play, into his poetry. For e.g. the words clementia (mercy), imperium (imperial), iusticia (justice) adorn his post-exilic work. He plays upon a quality of Augustus that the emperor self-anointed to himself: clemency. Ovid uses this as a request with a sarcastic/challenging edge to it in (Tr. 4.4.53) quantaque in Augusto clementia ‘And so great is Augustus’ mercy’ to try and persuade Augustus to hold true to this value of his and pardon Ovid.
Ovid’s post-exilic work also includes a diverse range of synonyms, to make his writing more vibrant and expressive. For example, he incorporates nine synonyms for the word “sea”: mare, aequora,fluctus, fretum, aque, undae, montes aquarum, Oceanus, pontus, pelagus (Claassen, 2008, p. 111). In my opinion, one possible reason for his mind interpreting ‘sea’ with nine different synonyms maybe that, now that he was banished to Tomis on the western shore of the Black Sea, he had more appreciation for the massive body of water and could express it with a variety of words, each having its own inherent character.
Yet another feature that is recurrent in Ovid’s exilic poetry is self-mythologizing (Ingleheart, 2011, p. 18). Jennifer Ingleheart rightly speculated that “Self-mythologizing…is capable of transforming the suffering of exile into art” ((Ingleheart, 2011, p. 18). In Tristia, Ovid freezes himself into the “immortal” world of mythology. He translates his fate and pours his sorrow into the words of the first poem of Tristia:
sunt quoque mutatae, ter quinque uolumina, formae
nuper ab exequiis carmina rapta meis.
his mando dicas, inter mutata referri
fortunae uultum corpora posse meae,
(The Latin Library, n.d)
There are also fifteen books on changing forms.
songs saved just now from my funeral rites.
Tell them the face of my own fortunes
Can be reckoned among those Metamorphoses.
(From Kline, 2003)
Here, he analogizes himself with his own characters of Metamorphoses (which was his pre-exilic magnum opus) and asks his little book (that he sends to Rome. This point was mentioned on page 2) to announce that he as Deus in the Deus Ex Machina concept is worthy of receiving importance from the city and its inhabitants, even in exile. Ovid uses this intertextuality to effectively compare his transformation with that of his own characters from Metamorphoses (which means transformation). When his characters transformed, they were silenced, exiled and disremembered. Ovid went through the same situation: he was exiled and forgotten. By mythologizing his own situation (i.e. his exile), “Ovid turns the bare truth of his life into a legend” (Ingleheart, 2011, p. 294) and this is how he blurs the lines between myth and reality, giving each a touch of the other in order to create an “indistinguishable entity”. Suffering the same fate as Lycaon, Atalanta (Greek mythological characters), Ovid was banished and so metamorphosed by a cold-blooded and unreasonable “god” i.e. Augustus (Ingleheart, 2011, p. 295). In this regard, Ovid has created an art that is forever living. His self-mythologizing, as well as the power of poetry/words renders him an inextinguishable burning candle, who has been banished from his city but whose remembrance will forever be alive in literary tradition.
Additionally, Ovid repeatedly likens himself and his exilic circumstances to mythical characters in similar scenarios and this is particularly an Ovidian characteristic (Ingleheart, 2011, p. 169). It is a smart tactic on Ovid’s part for a number of reasons. First, it is something that guarantees instant increase in self-value/worth since the comparison of oneself (in depressing situations such as exile) with notable figures (in similar downfalls) helps counterpoise the melancholy, of separation, and pain of exile. Ovid persistently compares himself to the Greek mythological character Ulysses (Greek: Odysseus) in Tristia and Ex Ponto (Ingleheart, 2011, p. 169). The similarity between Ulysses and Ovid lies in the point that Ulysses fought (but physically) to return to his family and his home town Ithaca; Ovid also fought (but through words) to return to his third wife back in Rome.
Furthermore, another reason for Ovid constantly self-mythologizing may be that he harnessed the inherent feature of mythology which revolves around the notion that the body and soul are separate. So upon banishment, Ovid was physically removed from Rome but his heart and soul were still in his beloved city. He may self-mythologize to indicate this ‘torn’ state of body, mind and soul.
Ovid’s ingenuity of adorning his post-exilic elegies with the various poetic elements described above, qualify him as a shining poet not just for the BC era but also for the AD era. A creative mind like his is in acute proximity to their soul, thoughts and emotions. In history, exceptional talents have gone through trials and tribulations of exile, whether voluntary or imposed. Regardless, the effect on their creative output is phenomenal. Whereas Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Fasti were astounding and prodigious, Tristia and Ex Ponto were Romanesque and almost literal. In essence, exile had a profound effect on the artistic imagination of the poet. It stimulated the mind of Publius Ovidius Naso to work wonders with words and produce poetry that is still being read and analyzed two thousand years later.
Claassen, J. M. (2008). Ovid revisited: The poet in exile. London, United Kingdom: Duckworth.
Ingleheart, J. (2011). Two thousand years of solitude: Exile after Ovid. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Kline, A. S. (2003). Ovid:Tristia. Retrieved April 24, 2016, from www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidTristiaBkOne.htm#anchor_Toc34214733
Kline, A. S. (2003). Ovid: Ex Ponto. Retrieved April 24, 2016, from www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidExPontoBkOne.htm#anchor_Toc34217517
Kline, A. S. (2003). Ovid:Tristia. Retrieved April 24, 2016, from www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidTristiaBkOne.htm#anchor_Toc34214734
Mack, S. (1988). Ovid in his own time. In Ovid (Hermes books) (pp. 12-52). New York, NY: Yale University Press.
McGowan, M. M. (2009). Ovid in exile: Power and poetic redress in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Retrieved from https://books.google.com.hk/books?id=wMz8YoYnVx8C&pg=PA1&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false
The Latin Library. (n.d.). Ovid: Tristia I. Retrieved April 24, 2016, from http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.tristia1.shtml
The Latin Library. (n.d.). Ovid: Ex Ponto I. Retrieved April 24, 2016, from http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.ponto1.shtml
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