Publius Ovidius Naso invented exile the way Charles Dickens invented Christmas. Of course, the institution was there before, but it had not been given a definitive literary and cultural codification, a reference point for all subsequent experience.
Exile in the ancient world was bound up in the identity of what we would call the individual with his or her community—not so much “family” in the ancestral sense of Native Americans and East Asians, but what we’ve come to think of as “the polity,” the city. The power of exile as punishment is a construct of urban life. Exile is always exile from—and the community left behind has to remain a powerful element in the exile’s life, or else the dispossessed suffers only emigration. When an ancient was thrust into exile, he or she (yes—think of Dido) carried the City on his or her back; and the foundations of “daughter” cities traced back to the laborious expulsion from parents. But all this was in the realm of legend, mythology, history. With Ovid, for the first time, we hear the voice of an exile in psychological and social depth—exulis hæc vox est: præbet mihi littera linguam, / et si non liceat scribere, mutus ero—“This is the voice of an exile: a letter serves as my tongue, / and if not permitted to write, I will be dumb.”Ovid would have appreciated the pun available in English translation but not to him: In Latin, littera, a letter of the alphabet, is a different word from epistula, a missive.
Ovid’s letters from his relegationto Tomis on the western shore of the Black Sea constitute a consciously artful landscape and psychology of dispossession and longing—one that has been used as a template for the writings of Western writers ever since. There are, of course, some who claim that Ovid’s story was entirely a literary construct, that, since the only evidence we have for his fate are his own words, he made everything up out of whole cloth. There are also those who assert that Helen never went to Troy, and that the works of Shakespeare were written by someone else with the same name. But at least the Ovidian claim bears witness to the conscious artifice of the poet’s writings—rather than being the spontaneous whimper of a despairing depressive, they are clearly works of rhetoric and imagination.
Those works are contained in two compilations of letters written to named and unnamed correspondents in Rome, published as the Tristia—Sorrows—and the Epistulæ ex Ponto—Letters from Pontus. Roughly speaking, the five books of the earlier Tristia beg for Ovid’s relegatio to be lifted, and the four collections of the Epistulæ ex Ponto significantly lower the level of his bargaining, and ask only for his place of dispossession to be moved closer to Rome so that he might be brought within the orbit of the Roman urbs.
Once accepted as genuine, these surviving poems have often been dismissed as inferior, repetitive work, mere pitiful whingeing and lickspittle cringing. The poet complained over and over again about the injustice of his punishment—for some offense to the Emperor Augustus he never named as a crime, but as a mistake—“Yet don’t talk of a ‘crime,’ say rather ‘culpable error’”—and about the horridly barbaric conditions of his life. There is nothing good he can say about this place:
. . . [M]ust I live for ever among these barbarous natives, / be buried in Tomis’ soil? You know not flower-wreathed springtime . . . You hold the sea ice-bound . . . You boast no fresh springs . . . There’s no birdsong . . . Then there’s fear—attackers battering at the ramparts . . .
Little here suggests that Tomis, now Constanţa in Romania, was the moderately respectable Hellenic mercantile provincial outpost it seems to have been. (Whether the climate was as inclement as Ovid says could probably be determined by meteorological archaeology, and that would offer a useful objective correlative to the expressions of his rhetoric. But I haven’t been able to track that down.)
Read all together, the epistles can indeed seem tedious. “Get over it,” the impatient reader comfortably at home wants to shout at the poet. “Live where you are.” (How did the Romans say Suck it up?) But the rhetoric is far more artful than confessional. This is no less than we would expect from a sophisticated, thoughtful man with a quick eye and an imaginative mind. Ovid crafted for himself and his readers back in Rome the persona of someone who can be fully alive nowhere but in that city. But like every persona, it is nothing more nor less than a mask.
Ovid had written such artificial letters before, the remarkable twenty-one Heroides—fifteen in the voices of women famed in literature and legend, and six exchanges between such women and their men. There is no large leap between the arguments of the abandoned and the lovelorn and the arguments of the poet pining for his city. What an attentive reader can notice in these Black Sea books, though—the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime—is an obviously deliberate absence of curiosity. A poet who had devoted his craft to a chronicle of Roman festivals and holidays, rummaging among Greeks and Etruscans (the Fasti), and to an epic compendium of mythology and legend, roaming all around the Mediterranean world (the Metamorphoses) seemed to pay no attention at all to the people he had landed among on the Black Sea. He wrote next to nothing about their life, their customs, their stories. Not a whiff of narrative. This is what seems incredible, and argues most trenchantly for the artificial construction of Tristia and Epistulæ ex Ponto.
Just a couple of times, the mask slips. Late in his life he remarked rather parenthetically that he had learned the indigenous languages, Getic and Sarmatian, and carried on conversations with the locals;and, in one of the very last letters, most likely edited for Roman readers well after the poet’s death in approximately 18 C. E. and therefore not under his own eye, “I blush / to admit it, I’ve even composed in the Getic language, / bending barbarian patois to our verse: / among the uncultured natives I’m getting a reputation / as a poet. Congratulate me: I’ve made a hit.” This could be Brodsky in New York, and it’s certainly a pleasantly discordant tone, not the one Ovid had cultivated all along. Given a few more years of life, he might have found himself the fountainhead of Romanian literature.
Instead, Ovid became a fountainhead of European literature in general, embraced in the Middle Ages and relished in the Renaissance. Well into the twentieth century, any poet worth his or her salt who found separation from the homeland an unchosen condition of life took cues, language, and even images from the Latin poet’s longing for his own lost home. Russians—those natives of the “Third Rome”—took up Ovid especially as one of their own. Osip Mandelstam prophetically named his own first collection of poems Tristia. In an earlier generation, Pushkin had written, “How like you, submitting to a hostile fate, / I was, like you, not in fame but in our common lot. / Here, sounding the lyre of the northern wilderness, / I wandered . . .”And now, in a new century when urban distinction and identity are being overwhelmed by the global village, virtual citizenship and instant communication, it will be interesting to see if and how Ovid languishing in exile on the shore of the Black Sea continues to resonate.