I shall be read

Denis Feeney

  • Ovid: The Poems of Exile: ‘Tristia’ and the ‘Black Sea Letters’ translated by Peter Green
    California, 451 pp, £12.95, March 2005, ISBN 0 520 24260 2
  • Ovid: Epistulae ex Ponto, Book I edited and translated by Jan Felix Gaertner
    Oxford, 606 pp, £90.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 19 927721 4

In the year 8 AD, at the age of 50, Publius Ovidius Naso stood at the height of poetic ambition. Fêted and continuously successful for almost thirty years, Ovid had been without a rival since the death of Horace 15 years before. Surrounded by second-raters and nonentities, he was unquestionably the most famous poet in the empire. Rome was his oyster, and his poetry took the metropolis as inspiration and subject. His love poetry brought a cool passion to bear on the sophisticated life of the city, with its classy courtesans and new imperial pomp; his Metamorphoses, almost finished, made Rome the magnet that tugged all Greek mythology and art towards itself as the new centre of the world; and he was even now at work on an unparalleled creation, a poem on the Roman calendar that would make the ancient festival cycle the occasion for an inquiry into the city’s religion and identity.

Something happened. Whatever it was, it was not a crime, but a ‘mistake’, an error. The poet saw something, something incriminating enough to make his friend Cotta Maximus groan when he heard of it. The ruling family was somehow involved, for Ovid was summoned to see the emperor, Augustus, and blasted by the septuagenarian despot’s rage. The old man dug up a ten-year-old resentment, and threw the Art of Love into the indictment; he had stifled his indignation at the poem’s smart-alecky smirking at decorum and the new Augustan morality when it first appeared, but under the spur of this new affront, whatever it was, he lashed out and added the poem to the charge. From now on, Ovid would always refer to the double charge against him, carmen et error, ‘a poem and a mistake’. Untried and unsentenced, he was ‘relegated’, not ‘exiled’, by the mere authority of the emperor. He was never to see Rome again. He went to Tomis, a Black Sea port on the very edge of the empire, just south of the estuary of the Danube. Perhaps, as Robin Nisbet once suggested, the vindictive emperor was venting some learned spleen with this choice. Ovid had written a tragedy called Medea, the only work of his which did not survive to the age of printing. Augustus would have known that Tomis was said to have got its name from the barbarian witch’s first major crime. Here she chopped up her brother to make her pursuing father slow down to gather up the bits: the tom in Tomis could look like the Greek word for ‘cut’ (tome, as in ‘appendectomy’). Let Ovid stew in the city he had glibly etymologised and mull over the cleverness of his literary heroine.

Tomis is the modern-day Romanian Black Sea summer resort of Constanta. Whatever its seasonal appeal now, in 8 AD it was a wretched place, a border-post clinging to the appurtenances of Hellenism, weeks of travel away from the metropolis that had been Ovid’s milieu since adolescence. Scholars sometimes point out that Tomis wasn’t all that bad: there were gymnasia, a theatre, inscriptions in Greek. Imagine an habitué of London or New York being exiled to – insert your preferred provincial town here – and being told that the local art gallery has some surprisingly good works. Similarly, scholars sometimes say that the unpleasantness of its climate and setting is greatly exaggerated by Ovid, pointing to Constanta’s modern role as a resort and to the hyperbolically and conventionally grotesque language with which Ovid evokes a desolate landscape of unrelieved winter. Jan Felix Gaertner, in the introduction to his commentary on the first book of the second collection from exile, provides a full battery of sobering information to show that Ovid knew what he was talking about: the average temperature in January is below freezing, and it can get as cold as -20ºC; the Danube freezes for weeks, as do the fringes of the Black Sea; it is a treeless place, with fogs, freezing winds, storms. The barbarian tribes of Getae and Sarmatians lived on the northern side of the Danube, and occasionally raided the Roman province, Moesia. Not exactly Fort Apache, but certainly a different world from Italy, and Rome.

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