Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 23. Ovid: Practicing the Studium Fatale

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 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.

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).


[ 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.