Monday, March 19, 2018

Was Ovid Actually Exiled?

For centuries, students learned that Ovid, the great Roman poet (the greatest ancient writer of Latin in my personal opinion, and in the opinion of some others, although many or most might rank him below Vergil), spent the last years of his life in exile in Tomis, the present-day Constanța, Romania, a desolate, frozen outpost on the coast of the Black Sea, because of, in his own words, "a poem and a mistake." This punishment has often been seen as excessive. In about 10 years of wretched exile, beginning in AD 8, Ovid wrote several works full of sadness and bitterness and longing for the city of Rome -- so everyone has been led to believe.

On the 14th of December, 2017, Rome's city council unanimously pardoned Ovid.

And then, yesterday, on the 18th of March, 2018, I learned -- I must say: to my great amazement -- that some scholars do not believe that Ovid was actually exiled. In 1911 JJ Hartman raised the possibility that the exile was an invention on Ovid's part. O Janssen, in 1951, accepted the thesis that the exile had not taken place, as did C Verhoeven in 1979, F Brown in 1985, and H Hofmann in 2001. So far, I haven't been able to learn much more about these scholars than their names. Other scholars have come to the conclusion that Ovid was exiled, but not to Tomis; and it seems to be generally agreed upon, by those who have looked into the matter more closely, that Ovid's account of Tomis is unreliable in some significant respects: for example, it seems that the climate was not quite as cold as Ovid describes it; and it also strains credulity when Ovid claims that no-one in the place besides him spoke either Latin or Greek, because Tomis had been a Roman colony for decades before Ovid's arrival, and was under Greek control for centuries after that. Literary, documentary, numismatic and archaeological evidence all undermine the previous status of these late writings of Ovid as realistic depictions of Tomis.

Apart from a couple of brief mentions by later Roman writers, all that we know, or all that we used to think that we knew, about Ovid's exile, came from Ovid's own later works Ibis (the title refers to the bird also known in English as the ibis), an elegant but violent torrent of abuse and threats toward some unknown object, referred to only as Ibis; Tristia (Sadness), and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters From the Sea-Coast, letters in verse addressed to the Imperial family, begging to be allowed to return home). Traditionally, all these works have been regarded as quite wretchedly sad; however, it seems we must re-evaluate them, in one way or another: If Ovid really was exiled to Tomis, then he exaggerated how awful the place was; if he was exiled to some other place, then perhaps he made up a fictional Tomis, perhaps as a metaphorical expression of his sadness.

Or, whether Ovid was exiled to Tomis, or to some other place, or not exiled at all, perhaps it's been all wrong all along to regard the works "from the sea-coast" as being sad at all. Maybe they're meant to be understood to be sarcastic and funny responses to -- who knows what? Maybe to no longer being invited into the presence of the Imperial family. Maybe to a punishment even less severe than that.

Or maybe Ovid really was exiled to Tomis, and maybe he really was very sad there, and maybe he exaggerated some of the aspects of the place in hopes of winning mercy and permission to return home.

Or maybe quite a few other things. In any case, we now have the knowledge these "exile writings," if you no longer believe that Ovid was exiled, or exile writings, with no quotation marks, if you still believe that he was, are much less realistic than had been believed.

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