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The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters / Edition 1

The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters / Edition 1

by Ovid, Peter Green
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In the year A.D. 8, Emperor Augustus sentenced the elegant, brilliant, and sophisticated Roman poet Ovid to exile—permanently, as it turned out—at Tomis, modern Constantza, on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea. The real reason for the emperor's action has never come to light, and all of Ovid's subsequent efforts to secure either a reprieve or, at the very least, a transfer to a less dangerous place of exile failed. Two millennia later, the agonized, witty, vivid, nostalgic, and often slyly malicious poems he wrote at Tomis remain as fresh as the day they were written, a testament for exiles everywhere, in all ages.

The two books of the Poems of Exile, the Lamentations (Tristia) and the Black Sea Letters (Epistulae ex Ponto), chronicle Ovid's impressions of Tomis—its appalling winters, bleak terrain, and sporadic raids by barbarous nomads—as well as his aching memories and ongoing appeals to his friends and his patient wife to intercede on his behalf. While pretending to have lost his old literary skills and even to be forgetting his Latin, in the Poems of Exile Ovid in fact displays all his virtuoso poetic talent, now concentrated on one objective: ending the exile. But his rhetorical message falls on obdurately deaf ears, and his appeals slowly lose hope. A superb literary artist to the end, Ovid offers an authentic, unforgettable panorama of the death-in-life he endured at Tomis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520242609
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/18/2005
Edition description: First Edition, With a New Foreword
Pages: 535
Product dimensions: 5.13(w) x 7.75(h) x 1.25(d)

About the Author

Peter Green is Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and Adjunct Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa.He is the author of many books, including Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: A Historical Biography (California, 1991) and Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (California, 1990).His translations include Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires (third edition, 1998) and Apollonios Rhodios: The Argonautika (California, 1997).

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Ovid The Poems of Exile

Tristia and the Black Sea Letters

By Peter Green


Copyright © 2005 Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93137-4



Publius Ovidius Naso was born on 20 March 43 BC — the year after Caesar's assassination — and grew up during the final violent death-throes of the Roman Republic: he was a boy of twelve when news arrived of Octavian's victory over Antony at Actium (31 BC), and his adolescence coincided with the early years of the pax Augusta. Hisfamily was from Sulmo (the modern Sulmona) in the Abruzzi, and had enjoyed provincialequestrian status for generations. As Ovid himself points out with satisfaction (Am. I.3.8, III.15.5–6; Tr. IV.10.7–8; EP IV.8.17–18), they were landed gentry, not ennobled through the fortunes of war or arriviste wealth. He himself was confirmed as an eques in anticipation of subsequent admission to the Senate and an official career (cf. Tr. II.90). But quite early on, when hardly embarked on the sequence of appointments known as the cursus honorum, he was to decide otherwise.

After the usual upper-class Roman school education in grammar, syntax and rhetoric (Tr. IV.10.15–16), he came to Rome and was taken up, as a promising literary beginner, by Messalla Corvinus (see Glossary, and below, p. 261), the soldier-statesman who acted as patron to such poets as Tibullus, Sulpicia and (initially) Propertius. To his father's dismay (Tr. IV.10.21–2) Ovid devoted more and more of his time to literature, and correspondingly less to his official duties. From 23/22 BC he did spend a year or two in the study of law and administration, the obligatory tirocinium fori (which, characteristically, left its main mark on his poetic vocabulary), and held one or two minor positions while thus engaged. But very soon — certainly by 16 BC, when he would have been eligible for the quaestorship — he abandoned any thought of a public senatorial career. He had already contrived to avoid the — equally obligatory — period of military training, the tirocinium militiae (Am. I.15.1–4; Tr. IV.1.71). From now on, since he had access to the more-than-modest competence of 400,000 sesterces necessary forequestrian status, he was to devote himself entirely to literature.

He had already been making a mark for himself as a member of Messalla's poetic circle even before assuming the toga uirilis of manhood (Tr. IV.10.19–30; EP II.3.75–8, cf. I.7.28–9). Married for the first time c. 27 BC at the age of sixteen (Tr. IV.10.69–70) to a wife who proved 'neither worthy nor useful' (cf. Green OEP, pp. 22–5), and divorced some two years later (about the same time as he was finishing his studies with the rhetoricians), Ovid then spent over eighteen months away from Rome, travelling in Greece, Asia Minor, and Sicily (Tr. I.2.77–8; EP II.10.21ff.; Fast. VI.417–24). There is no mention of this episode in his 'autobiographical poem' (Tr. IV.10). Soon after his return he began to give recitations, presumably of the erotic elegies which afterwards (c. 15BC) were published as the first, five-book, edition of the Amores. This event probably followed his decision to renounce a senatorial career: the success of the Amores may conceivably have induced Ovid's father to acquiesce in his only surviving son's proposed 'life in the shade' (uita umbratilis ). About the same time Ovid married his second wife (her name, like those of her predecessor and successor, remains unknown), and his one child, a daughter, was born to her c. 14 BC. This union may have been the occasion of a permanent (and reasonably substantial) settlement on Ovid by his father, though it proved, like the first, of short duration. However, since Ovid speaks of the lady as 'a bride you could not find fault with' (Tr. IV.10.71), it presumably ended in her premature decease (? in childbirth, like so many) rather than as a divorce case.

Ovid's independence, even his financial qualification for equestrian status, may also have been supported by Messalla's patronage; at all events, from now on he became a gentleman of leisure who devoted himself exclusively to writing poetry. He had a house near the Capitol (Tr. I.3.29–30) for social life, and a country villa on a hillside overlooking the junction of the Via Clodia and the Via Flaminia (EP I.8.43–4) for vacations, or when he wanted to concentrate on his work in solitude, free from urban distractions. He enjoyed writing in his orchard (Tr. I.11.37), and, like many literary figures, gardened for relaxation (EP I.8.45ff., cf. II.7.69). In Rome he found a world of brilliant, and intensely felt, literary creativity (Tr. IV.10.41–54). Virgil, as he says, he 'only saw', Tibullus died before their friendship could develop; but he heard Horace recite his Odes and became an intimate of Propertius. In his early years his attitude was the not unfamiliar one of adolescent bedazzlement: 'For me, bards were so many gods.' He was closely involved with the neoteric movement: Hellenizing poets who wrote in the tradition of Philetas and Callimachus, pursuing the byways of didacticism and mythical aetiologies. At the same time (perhaps having noticed its political exploitation) he held himself carefully aloof from the artificial heroics of literary epic. An incurably irreverent sense of the ridiculous soon set him to parody the didactic, while ironically undermining Augustus's ambitious programme of social and moral reform, so memorably celebrated by Virgil and Horace, so embarrassingly in the later poems of Propertius (4.6 alone is enough to induce a severe attack of recusatio in the sensitive).

Ovid also offended against Augustus's known aims because of his erotic poetry, much of which (despite careful if unconvincing protestations to the contrary) was clearly aimed at Rome's fashionable beau monde, seeming to assume and, worse, enthusiastically endorse, a world of free-wheeling upper-class adultery and liaisons dangereuses. Such an assumption — which ran flat counter to Augustus's moral legislation, especially the Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus and the Lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis of 18 BC — was almost certainly correct: no legislation otherwise. Thus the enormous popularity of Ovid's Amores, and his later Art of Love (c. 1 BC/AD 1), which compounded the problem by offering what purported to be practical hints on seduction, ensured that their author incurred lasting resentment at the highest official level (see Green OEP, pp. 71ff.), so that when he committed his fatal error, he could expect no margin of compassion whatsoever.

To make matters worse, the Art of Love was published in the immediate wake of a scandalous and notorious cause célèbre directly involving the Princeps. In 2 BC Augustus's only daughter, Julia, was relegated to the island of Pandataria on charges of adultery with an assortment of wealthy, high-born and politically suspect lovers (Vell. Pat. 1.100; Suet. Div. Aug. 19.64–5; Dio Cass. 55.10). The conjunction was unfortunate, and duly noticed. It is interesting that from now on Ovid abandons the erotic genre at which he had worked more or less exclusively since adolescence. But though the time of the change might possibly have been dictated by nervous alarm, the enormous efflorescence that followed during the next eight years, the hugely increased rate of production that achieved the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses and six of the unfinished Fasti (17,000 lines in all) demands a different, more genuinely creative, explanation. What produced Ovid's gigantic obsession with mythical transformations? Why, having despised antiquarianism in the Art of Love, which displayed an uncompromising taste for the modern (AA III.121–8), did he now launch into an aetiological exploration of the Roman calendar, as full of esoteric folklore and allusive legend (no wonder Sir James Frazer edited it) as anything in Callimachus? This surely constitutes the great unexamined mystery of Ovid's career. He may (as the subject-matter of the Fasti and flattery of the regime in the Metamorphoses both suggest) have been trying to repair the damage his earlier work had caused; but such a consideration was, it seems clear, no more than incidental. We shall probably never know the answer: all we can do is consider the phenomenon in its personal and public context.

It may or may not be significant (Green OEP, pp. 40–41) that the death of Ovid's father and his third marriage both probably fell within the period 2 BC–AD 1. The first meant (Ovid's only brother having died young) that the poet was now in full possession of his patrimony. The second established a firm and lasting relationship that may have changed Ovid's fundamental attitude to women, and seems to have survived even the prolonged separation occasioned by exile (but see below, p. xvii).

We shall become better acquainted with Ovid's third wife in the poems he wrote her from exile (see Tr. I.3.17ff., I.6, III.3, IV.3, IV.10.70ff., V.2, V.5, V.11, V.14; EP I.4, III.1). She was a widow or divorcee with a daughter, the 'Perilla' — perhaps, but not necessarily, a pseudonym — of Tr. III.7: her status in the household of Paullus Fabius Maximus, Ovid's patron (EP I.2.129–35, etc.) is uncertain (see p. 214). She was related to the poet Macer, Ovid's companion on the Grand Tour, and through Fabius's wife Marcia had some kind of acquaintance, however slight, with Augustus's consort Livia (Tr. I.6.25, IV.10.73). Thus it was natural that after her husband's relegation she should remain in Rome to petition for his recall and look after his affairs. The absence of poems to her in the final years of Ovid's exile (AD 14–17/18) has prompted one scholar (Helzle (1) 183–93) to suggest that after the deaths of Augustus and Fabius Maximus (see pp. 358–9) she may have joined her husband in Tomis, and that this would partially explain the drop in urgency of his appeals to Rome, his grudging resignation to life among the Goths. It is an attractive theory, and could well be true (one would certainly like to believe it), but by the nature of things must remain non-proven.

How far the public verse-epistles addressed to her by Ovid from Tomis are to be treated as in any sense evidence for their relationship, and how far as purely literary artifice, is impossible to determine. What does seem certain is that an extremist argument for either case can confidently be ruled out. The mere fact of Ovid's relegation will have affected, in a fundamental sense, all aspects of his marriage, communications included, just as it dictated the form his poetry now took. (I should perhaps say at this point that I do not for one moment believe the perverse scholarly thesis, best known from the article by Fitton Brown, according to which Ovid was not relegated at all, but for some impenetrable reason spent the last decade of his life in Rome playing with the topos of exile, and making fictional appeals to real people — a supposition dealt with in short order by Little: see especially pp. 37–9.) At the same time, the poet was exploiting all his very considerable poetic skills of rhetoric and persuasion (Green OEP, pp. 20–21), while drawing on genres previously used for very different purposes (e.g. in the Heroides ) to mount a propaganda campaign for his recall, or at least for a transfer away from Tomis. The littérateur 's formal expertise was being deployed now for the amelioration of a real-life situation. Thus while personal circumstances coloured the poetry in an unprecedented manner (the erstwhile praeceptor amoris who had apostrophized a perhaps fictitious and in any case highly literary mistress now became a husband penning domestic admonitions to an absent wife),Ovid's ars poetica in turn transmuted both the setting in which he found himself and his public appeals, so that his (nameless) wife is made to sound like one of his mythical heroines, the recipient of exhortation and advice from an Acontius, a Leander, a Paris.

This is not the place to discuss in any detail the still-mysterious circumstances of Ovid's relegation by Augustus in the early winter of AD 8 (for a full analysis see Green OEP, pp. 44–59 and CB, pp. 210–22). For the reader of the exilic poems it is simply the fact of the poet's exile, rather than its possible antecedents, that is of primary importance. Briefly, Ovid himself (as readers of the Tristia and the Black Sea Letters are reminded many times) offers two reasons for it (see, e.g., Tr. II.207, IV.1.25–6): an immoral poem, the Art of Love, and a mysterious 'mistake' or 'indiscretion' (error), the details of which he declares himself forbidden to reveal, but which he clearly regards as the chief occasion of Augustus's wrath, with the poem as a subsidiary offence and probable diversionary cover (e.g. EP II.9.75–6).

This error lay not in any specific act on his part, but in his having witnessed something, presumably of a criminal nature, done by others (Tr. II.103–4, III.5.49–50, etc.), and, it seems safe to assume, in having failed to report it to the authorities. The hints of lèse-majesté that he scatters, the relentless hostility to him of Tiberius and Livia after Augustus's death, his clear partiality for the Princeps' grandsons and Germanicus, all combine to suggest that he was involved, however marginally, in some kind of pro-Julianplot directed against the Claudian succession (we know of at least two). If this is true, the Art of Love will have been dragged in (almost ten years after its publication!) to camouflage the real, politically sensitive, charge. A sexual scandal could — can — always be relied upon to distract public attention from more serious political or economic problems.

There was also a certain sadistic appositeness about Ovid's relegation which suggests the degree of angry resentment that his public attitudinizing had aroused. Enemies had brought his more risqué passages to the Princeps' attention (Tr. II.77–80), slandered him behind his back (Tr. III.11.20; Ibis 14), and tried to lay hands on his property through the courts (Tr. I.6.9–14), presumably claiming the reward due to an informer. All this, given the climate of Julio-Claudian Rome, was predictable enough. But with the poet's removal to Tomis his sufferings acquired an ironic aptness that he himself must have recognized better than most. Now the poet who had mocked the moral and imperial aspirations of the Augustan regime, who had taken militarism as a metaphor for sexual conquest, who had found Roman triumphs, Roman law, and the new emphasis on family values equally boring and provincial, was being made to suffer a punishment that in the most appallingly literal way fitted the crime, while at the same time — since the victim of a relegatio retained his citizenship and property — offering a spurious show of imperial clemency.

The choice of Tomis as Ovid's place of enforced residence was a masterstroke. It cut him off, not only from Rome, but virtually from all current civilized Graeco-Roman culture. Wherever the intellectual beau monde might be found in AD 8, it was not on the shores of the Black Sea. Such residence rubbed the poet's nose in the rough and philistine facts of frontier life, the working of the imperium which he had so light-heartedly mocked. Life had caught up with literary fantasy and turned it inside-out: no metamorphosis now could rescue Ovid from the here-and-now of mere brute existence. His erotic exploitation of the soldier's life that he himself had so carefully avoided was duly turned back against him, in this dangerous outpost where he was exposed to raids from fierce unpacified local tribesmen, and might, in an emergency, be called on to help in the town's defence himself (see p. xxiii). Though we should take with a fairly large grain of salt his claims that he was forgetting his Latin, that his poetic skills were atrophying, that linguistically he was going native (see p. xxvi), it does remain true that, except through correspondence, he was now deprived of an alertly critical and sophisticated audience for his work-in-progress, such as he had enjoyed (and found essential for the creative process) in Rome. 'Writing a poem you can read to no one', he lamented in a famous aside (EP IV.2.33–4), 'is like dancing in the dark.'

The charge against Ovid (whatever it may have been) was brought to the notice of Augustus and some of his more highly placed intimates, including Ovid's friend and patron Cotta Maximus (EP II.3.6ff.) in October or early November of AD 8. Ovid himself describes Cotta's reactions, and the fraught meeting they had on Elba when the news broke (see pp.138 and 320). The poet was summoned back to Rome for a personal interview with Augustus, during which he was given a severe dressing-down (Tr. II.133–4). Dealing with him in this way avoided a public trial — something, given the sensitive nature of the charge, the Princeps seems to have been very anxious to avoid: secrecy marks the proceedings throughout.


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Table of Contents

Foreword to the 2005 Edition
Preface and Acknowledgments

Textual Variants
Select Bibliography

Black Sea Letters

Notes and References


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