Chapter 23. Ovid: Practicing the Studium Fatale

Perhaps the most famous poetic exile in Latin literature is Ovid’s. He was the first major poet-victim of the repressive powers of the imperator; as he was the most popular living poet, [1] this banishment served notice that freedom of poetic expression would be severely curtailed in the Augustan regime. This had been prefigured in the cases of Labienus and Cassius Severus. Labienus was an abusive orator who opposed the Augustan order; he was prosecuted, and all his writings were burned. [2] Cassius Severus, another prominent orator, had published famosi libelli ‘scandalous pamphlets’ jibing at prominent aristocratic men and women. He was condemned by the senate (probably in 12 BC) and banished to Crete. [3] Thus, as Syme writes, “freedom of speech was curbed and subverted under the pretext of social harmony.” [4] And one could be prosecuted for more than just invective directed against the aristocracy: any attack on ruler or government could be prosecuted. Even historians had to be careful about praising the Republican past, as the case of Cremutius Cordus shows. [5]
Ovid was exiled by Augustus in late autumn, AD 8. [6] Augustus had come to power in 31 BC; Ovid, who stayed aloof from the emperor’s “minister of propaganda,” Maecenas, was aligned instead with Messalla and his group (including Ovid’s closest poetic friend, Tibullus). [7] Ovid published the first Amores perhaps in 20 BC; the Heroides, letters from famous women to absent husbands or lovers, came between this and the next edition of the Amores; this was published immediately before the Art of Love (first two books), which appeared in 1 BC or after. The Metamorphoses and Fasti were written from AD 2 to the exile; the Metamorphoses had not received its final revision when Ovid left Rome. [8]
Meanwhile, in 18 and 17 BC, Augustus had passed the lex Iulia de adulteriis (which made adultery a public crime) and the lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus (which nearly made bachelorhood a public crime). Obviously, Ovid’s love elegies did not fit neatly into the spirit of Augustus’ moral reforms; the Art of Love, a how-to book on the illicit affair, is almost a blatant invitation to disregard the reforms. It is easy to see the reasons for the conflict that was gradually taking shape, and from which the poet would later suffer. [9] But perhaps the lack of precedent for a poet receiving major punishment made Ovid ignore the danger his poems might cause him.
Thus, Ovid’s exile is, in general, by no means inexplicable; there are, however, aspects of it that remain enigmatic to this day. A key text is Tristia 2.207–244:
perdiderunt cum me duo crimina, carmen et error
alterius facti culpa silenda mihi:
nam non sum tanti, renovem ut tua vulnera, Caesar
quem nimio plus est indoluisse semel.
altera pars superest, qua turpi carmine factus
arguor obsceni doctor adulterii.
* * *
at si, quod mallem, vacuum tibi forte fuisset,
nullum legisses crimen in Arte mea.
illa quidem fateor frontis non esse severae
scripta, nec a tanto principe digna legi:
non tamen idcirco legum contraria iussis
sunt ea Romanas erudiuntque nurus.
Though two crimes, a poem [carmen] and a blunder [error], have brought me ruin, of my fault [culpa] in the one I must keep silent, for my worth is not such that I may reopen your wounds, O Caesar; it is more than enough that you should have been pained once. The other remains: the charge that by an obscene poem [turpi carmine] I have taught foul adultery … [Ovid explains why a great emperor should be too busy to read the poet’s trifling poems] … Yet if … you had happened to have the leisure, you would have read no crime in my “Art.” That poem, I admit, has no serious mien, it is not worthy to be read by so great a prince; but not for that reason is it opposed to the commandments of the law nor does it offer teaching to the daughters of Rome. (trans. Wheeler, adapted)
By Ovid’s account, then, he was exiled for a “poem” and a “mistake.” This would seem simple enough, though the error is not specified. But then one wonders which was the more important crimen. Peter Green argues that participation in a political scandal of some sort was the reason for the exile, and that the mention of Ovid’s poetry was mere window dressing, a prophasis for the real crime. [10] While such an interpretation is possible, much evidence argues against it. [11] In the passage quoted above, Ovid calls his political offence an error, a very mild word, hardly enough to cause the harsh sentence of exile. Elsewhere, he says it should be called culpa, not a facinus. [12]
In one passage, Cupid, speaking to the poet, implies that of the two crimina, the error injured the poet more, [13] but other Ovidian data contradicts this. One passage explicitly says that poetry was the chief cause of the exile. Ovid, speaking to the Muses, writes: “By your leave, nine sisters, would I say it: you are the chief cause of my exile” (pace, novem, vestra liceat dixisse, sorores: / vos estis nostrae maxima causa fugae). [14] This would be, according to Green, diversionary, but it seems excessively diversionary.
In the two passages already cited, it is worth noting that the poem is always mentioned first. And in the first passage, after a brief mention of the error, Ovid spends the rest of the (long) poem protesting that his poem was not a crime. This would lead one to entertain the possibility that the error could be diversionary camouflage.
Green’s most convincing argument is “the irrational delay between publication and punishment; there is no reason why Augustus should have waited so long to strike … and then to have struck, on that basis, so improbably hard.” [15] However, Green fails to allow time for publishing and dissemination—not a quick process before the printing press, obviously—and for the fact of Ovid’s continuing popularity. As Ovid’s popularity grew, it would become more and more offensive to the emperor, and, in his mind, more pernicious.
It is also significant that the Art of Love was removed from public libraries at the time of the exile, not a common occurrence. [16] Augustus and Ovid, working in tandem, would seem to be carrying out an extremely elaborate diversion if Ovid was not exiled to a significant degree for his poetry.
Yet one should not ignore the error. J. C. Thibault suggests that the two crimina were related. [17] Syme ends his treatment of the exile by concluding that “the ‘carmen’ and the ‘error’ are in a tight nexus. Neither charge was good enough without the other.” Yet he also inclines toward the Art of Love as the most important cause, “the root and cause of enduring resentment.” [18] I conclude, then, that Ovid’s Art of Love was a major cause, perhaps the major cause, for the poet’s exile. [19]
We are then left with a picture that resonates in familiar ways. Augustus sees the Roman people diminishing through lack of marriage and propagation; it is, as it were, a plague on the country. (One thinks of the beginning of the Oedipus Rex, where all of the productivity of the country has been struck down. Cows will not calve; fields will not produce; women will not bear children, 25–27.) Legislation is passed to combat this, with not entirely satisfactory results. On top of this Ovid publishes the Art of Love, explaining to the Roman how to go about breaking Augustus’ laws. Ovid, the most popular poet of his day, is seen by Augustus as a cause of the plague of infertility; the peripsēma is expelled from the commonwealth to ward off the plague. Syme has a good summary:
[There is] … the anger and resentment of the septuagenarian despot. Augustus can never have liked a man who spurned the career of honours and continued to be proud of his secession. Ovid should have entered the Senate as quaestor in the salubrious season of the Leges Iuliae, perhaps to rise high as a loyal representative of old Italy. Instead, something noxious and odious: a declared and defiant ‘praeceptor amoris.’ [20]
“Something noxious and odious” must be expelled to cleanse the state.
Archilochus too was evidently punished for obscene, sexual poetry. [21] Yet Archilochus, according to cult legend, was in reality pious, acting as prophet for the god, Dionysus. So too Ovid, the seemingly gay, secular mocker of the gods, was still quite interested in the concept of the poet as prophet, holy—even if, for him, this may have been just a metaphor for secular realities. J. K. Newman writes, “If we were to go by mere statistics, we should conclude that Ovid was the most ardent supporter of the vates-concept (cf. his eighteen uses in the Amores by contrast with the Georgics or Odes).” Newman thinks that Ovid marks a degeneration of the vates-concept, but one suspects that he merely disapproves of Ovid. [22]
In the Amores (3.9.17–18), we read, “Yes, we bards [vates] are called sacred [sacri], and the care of the gods; there are those who even think we have the god [numen] within.” [23] In this same poem, the Tibullus elegy, when Ovid was as serious as he seemingly ever gets, he mourns that death can “profane [profanat]” “every sacred thing [omne sacrum]” (that is, Tibullus). In Amores 3.8.23–24, Ovid writes that he is the “unstained priest [purus sacerdos]” of Apollo and the Muses. Sacred vates, poet-prophet, pure priest, possessing numen: Ovid’s concept of the poet, of himself, certainly exploits sacral diction and imagery. Thus he is “pure,” holy, clean; but to Augustus, “noxious and odious,” a typically ambiguous poet. [24]
There is even a consecration scene, with Cupid, not the Muses, as the inspirer; Ovid, seeking to write epic, is shot by Cupid’s arrow:
“quod” que “canas, uates , accipe” dixit “opus.”
me miserum! certas habuit puer ille sagittas.
uror, et in uacuo pectore regnat Amor.
sex mihi surgat opus numeris, in quinque residat;
“Singer” [uates], he said, “here, take that which will be the subject of your song!” Ah, wretched me! Sure were the arrows that boy had. I am on fire, and in my formerly vacant heart Love reigns. In six numbers let my work rise, and sink again in five.
Amores 1.1.24–27 [25]
This passages touches on the theme in the legendary Homer tradition of the poet as persecuted by his inspiring god: [26] Cupid is saeve puer, “cruel boy,” (Amores 1.1.5); he is ferus ‘savage’, his arrow wounds, pierces violently, and brands (Art of Love 1.9); in Metamorphoses 1.45, his wrath is again cruel.
In Tristia 5.12.45–68, Ovid addresses bitter words to his inspiring Muses—they caused his exile; he wishes he had burned the Art of Love. Poetry is “the death-dealing pursuit” (studium fatale, 51). Still, he cannot stop writing poetry, even if he burns what he writes (59–62).
Ovid recognized that his very pre-eminence brought about his exile. In the Remedies for Love, he wrote that some had attacked his love poetry as proterua ‘wanton’ (362). But he did not care, as long as he was sung in all the world; Homer too was attacked. “What is highest is Envy’s mark: winds sweep the summits, and thunderbolts sped by Jove’s right hand seek out the heights. … Burst yourself, greedy Envy! My fame is great already, it will be greater still.” [27] Thus the scapegoat is the best, and at the same time, the intolerable worst.
So Ovid was exiled, [28] and his departure apparently was accompanied by a “wave of public dislike.” [29] Thus the community that had accepted Ovid as the best gathered to expel him as worst. The poet lived the last years of his life in a miserable town on the Black Sea. There he wrote our largest and most influential classical corpus of exile poetry, the Tristia, whose title expresses the misery of exile in the ancient world, and the Letters from Pontus. [30] Exile poetry is another point of contact between Archilochus and the Roman poet. Jo-Marie Claassen, in an important book on exile poetry, argues that Ovid consistently mythologized his experiences as an exile, both by heightening the miseries and isolation of his surroundings in Tomus, and by portraying himself as “Ovidius heros,” “a lonely, long-suffering survivor in a malevolent, mythical world.” [31] When he arrives in the Pontic area he experiences shattering physical and pyschological symptoms—or so his poems lead us to believe—that have occasioned modern psychiatric diagnoses.
Certainly the most curious of Ovid’s exilic poems is the Ibis, a curse poem modeled on Callimachus’ poem of the same name. [32] In its obscurity and malevolence, it is quite unlike anything else the poet ever wrote. Ovid targets an unnamed person who has done the poet grievous wrong, and runs through a long catalogue of the horrifying things that could happen to him, if he does not repent. Prominent among these dooms is Ovid’s threat to actually call his target by name, a powerful threat in curse or satirical tradition. [33] The poem certainly is a curiosity; interpreters are divided as to whether it is merely a wooden exercise in Hellenistic ingenuity, or whether it reflects authentic hatred. In addition, the Ibis is a valuable source for information on the pharmakos and on previous exiled poets; thus Ovid stands directly in the Hipponactian tradition, the exiled poet who curses his satiric target by assimilating him to the pharmakos. [34]


[ back ] 1. Tristia2.519–520; Fränkel 1945:45, 259, 72. For further on Ovid’s exile, see Owen 1924, who assembles the evidence for the exile from Ovid’s own poems; Thibault 1964; Fairweather 1987; Holleman 1971; Wiedemann 1975; Goold 1983; Gahan 1985; Grasmück 1978:135–137; Claassen1999.
[ back ] 2. Seneca Controversies X, praef. 4–10; Syme 1978:212–213.
[ back ] 3. Tacitus Annals 1.72.3. Annals 4.21.3, cf. Syme 1978:213.
[ back ] 4. Syme 1978:214, 229.
[ back ] 5. Tacitus Annals 4.61.
[ back ] 6. Cf. Syme 1978:214.
[ back ] 7. Amores 3.9. For the Messalla connection and its possible impact on the exile, cf. Thibault 1964:89–99; see also Wheeler 1925.
[ back ] 8. Cf. Kenney 1982:855.
[ back ] 9. Cf. Syme, “In sharp contrast to Virgil and Horace, the writers of elegiac verse eschew national and patriotic attitudes; they are averse from extolling governmental achievements in war and peace” (1978:188). Something more than indifference can be found in Ovid, though: “malicious frivolity or even muted defiance” (190). See also, Stroh 1979.
[ back ] 10. Green 1982.
[ back ] 11. Green’s statement that, “of the three main theories [for Ovid’s exile] … two can be dismissed out of hand: … only a political solution to the problem is acceptable” seems overly doctrinaire (1982:209).
[ back ] 12. Letters from Pontus 1.6.25.
[ back ] 13. Letters from Pontus 3.3.65–76 (trans. Wheeler, modified): “There resides no crime in your ‘Art’. As I defend you on this score, would I could on the rest! You know there is another thing that has injured you more.” (Artibus et nullum crimen inesse tuis. / utque hoc, sic utinam defendere cetera possem! / scis aliud, quod te laeserit, esse, magis).
[ back ] 14. Tristia 5.12.45–50. See also Tristia 1.1.67, 113; 2.2, 2.10, 2.495, 3.3.73, 3.7.9; Ibis 5, Letters from the Pontus 2.7.47; 2.10.15; 3.3.46; 3.5.4; 4.2.32; 4.13.41.
[ back ] 15. Green 1982:203.
[ back ] 16. Tristia 3.1.65ff.; Letters from Pontus 1.1.5ff.
[ back ] 17. 1964:31.
[ back ] 18. 1978:222, cf. 219, on the false dichotomy of politics and morals.
[ back ] 19. Cf. Bretzigheimer 1991:71, with further bibliography on this point.
[ back ] 20. 1978:221.
[ back ] 21. See above, ch. 3.
[ back ] 22. Newman 1967:52, 51. See also Jocelyn 1995:23nn18, 19.
[ back ] 23. at sacri vates et divum cura vocamur; / sunt etiam qui nos numen habere putent.
[ back ] 24. Cf. Tristia 4.10.18–19; ibid., lines 41–42, 55–56, 129, 39–40; Amores 2.1.38; Art of Love 1.25–30 (Ovid as “prophet” of Venus).
[ back ] 25. Trans. Showerman, adapted. Cf. Amores 2.1.38; 2.18.1–18; Art of Love 1.25–31.
[ back ] 26. See above, ch. 5.
[ back ] 27. Remedies 369–370, 389: Summa petit liuor: perflant altissima venti, / summa petunt dextra fulmina missa Iouis. … rumpere, Liuor edax: magnum iam nomen habemus; / maius erit …
[ back ] 28. For further bibliography on the reasons for the exile, see Thibault 1964; a small update in Nagle 1980:7; cf. Bretzigheimer 1991.
[ back ] 29. See Green 1982:209.
[ back ] 30. For Ovid’s misery, cf. Fränkel 1945:261; see also Nagle 1980; Richmond 1995. Froesch interprets Ovid as the “European Prototype of ‘der verbannte Poet,’” see Nagle 1980:7n18. For exile as death, see, representative of many examples, Tristia 1.2.45–75, 3.3; From the Pontus 4.16; Ibis 16. For Ovid’s exile poetry, Froesch 1976; Nagle 1980; Evans 1983; Doblhofer 1987; Bretzigheimer 1991; Richmond 1995; Claassen 1996; Forbis 1997; Claassen 1999. For the exile as death, further in Nagle 1980:23–32, Doblhofer 1987:170–171, and Claassen 1996:577–578. Ovid virtually founded the conventions of exile poetry, one of whose basic themes is “the metaphor of exile as death,” writes Claassen. “Death is his [Ovid’s] theme from first to last” (Claassen 1996:583). However, Claassen sees a vision of immortality following the depression of exile. See ch. 22 above (Cicero); ch. 25 below (Seneca).
[ back ] 31. Claassen 1999:198.
[ back ] 32. See Watson 1991:113–129; Claassen 1999:142–146.
[ back ] 33. On the power of the name in blame, see above, ch. 14 (Aristophanes); ch. 21 (Naevius); ch. 22 (Cicero).
[ back ] 34. Ibis seems too vitriolic to have Augustus as its target (though he is an obvious possibility), and too intense to be directed at a friend who has neglected Ovid in exile (another theory). Perhaps it was directed at an official who was instrumental in keeping the poet exiled. See Claassen 1999:142, Elliott 1960:126–128.