It was a warm night, Augustus’ month. The stars brilliant, the breeze from the south-east smelling of sea-salt and pepper plants. The villa was quiet in the moonlight, the sound of waves lapping against cliffs below. An older couple sit beside a grove of lilac trees, sharing a carafe of wine. Each draped in cool cotton for the warmth of a Mediterranean night. From their bench they can survey half the island of Ilva, though the couples eyes are not drawn to the coastline and their eyes spark with concern, not comfort, as they speak in hushed tones. They never even hear the agents' boots as they surround the garden; soldiers dressed as peons. Ovid’s wife starts as they appear soundlessly out of the darkness and greet her first, then the aging poet. She weeps as they lead them both away.
Roman secret police, known as the frumentarii
, took Ovid into custody in his summer villa on a small island of the west coast of Italy. His crime and trial were kept completely secret and the question concerning Ovid’s exile in 8 AD is still shrouded in mystery, though his later writings give us vague hints, like from his Tristia
), when he writes, “Why did I have to get my eyes in trouble / My wisdom fled from me and I concealed what I knew,” (II, 103-4), or “I am punished because my blundering eyes beheld a wrong / as if it were a sin, that I have eyes” (III, 49-50).
Those lines were written during his long, lonely period of banishment in Tomis, a tiny Roman frontier
town at the edge of the Black Sea
(now known as Constanta
, in modern Romania
). He lived the last decade of life half a world away from the gentle slopes and forests of Italy
, becoming one of the most prolific Latin poets. He began reciting his early love poems, Amores
, around 25 BC. His fame grew, as a result, but some did the whisper of scandal. Historians now speculate however that his exile
grew out of official disfavor over his Ars Amatoria
(Art of Love
, ca. 1 AD) and its sequel, which (along with his play Medea
) is tragically lost to us, Remedia Amors
(Cure for Love
, 3 AD).
This was a time when Roman births, especially among the upper classes, had been found to be plummeting dramatically, and the imperial administration had taken various steps to encourage larger families. Ovid’s works on love
send-ups of these policies; and they became incredibly popular, much to the emperor’s ire. Combine these 'immoral' writings (Ars Amatoria
has been called 'a fashionable Roman citizen's guide to sexual siege warfare') with his indifferent attitude towards Augustus and his reforms, and it would seem he courted controversy
. At the same time as his arrest, despite his equestrian
social standing, his daughter and grand-daughter were also both exiled on rather skimpy charges of adultery
. But as for the mysterious event which Ovid seems to have witnessed, he never told and the secret has never been uncovered. As he left Italy, his works were pulled from public libraries and he died in 17 AD at the fringes of the Roman world, beyond the pale
, forgotten by most of his peers.
Keep in mind of course that he was basically a well-to-do son of the Empire, a talented provincial who'd come to the Capitol and was expected to study rhetoric, enter politics and do right by his family by ascending as an elite. Instead, he turns to reciting poetry for audiences (at a time when both Virgil
were at the height of their powers, composing the Aeneid
His family's exasperation aside, Ovid actually read the public mood fairly well, as entertaining poets excelled much faster in Augustan Rome
than colonial bureaucrats. He ended up building a career on matters of love – a sex in the city approach. The Heroides
, for example, a revisionist collection of 'discovered' love letters
attributed to all the famous female figures of the Ancient World to one former love or another, was a bestseller with the ladies. Slowly, however, Ovid turned his attention and concern to his own legacy
, his prose growing more ambitious. He had scoffed at the beginning of his career as Virgil
's political epic hit the streets – who would possibly want to read yet another rendition of Rome’s founding, especially in more than 35 books of verse. However, with the completion of the Amore-cycle poems, the poet realized he was turning forty and had only love poems as a legacy. He turned to the Metamorphoses
: a 12,000 line opus retelling 250 episodes from Greek & Roman myth and history – from the creation of the World right up to Augustus
' rule. Ovid's brilliance, however, lies in his ability to subvert even this weighty material – though its form and content is epic, its tone is unwaveringly clever, satirical or outright ironic. One moment reverential, the next mocking, then involved, then distant, the poem is an interwoven style that seems entirely new – in book ten, for example we find Ovid himself recounting the story of Orpheus
, who in turn is singing of Venus, who is describing Adonis
, while he tells the tale of Atalanta and Meleager
. A tale within tale within tale within tale. Unfortunately, neither reputation nor artistry could release him from his fate.
Written over the last decade of his life, Ovid’s Poems of Exile
, the unified title of the “Tristia” (Sorrow) and “Epistulae ex Ponto” (Letters from the Black Sea), total some 7000 lines, most of which still survive. While the poet was widely esteemed and vastly influential in the late Medieval
and early Renaissance
(Dante made him one of the noble Pagans in his vision of the afterlife), Ovid’s late writings from his bleak period in exile are only now being appreciated for their historical importance. His writings between 9 to 17 AD actually represent the earliest and most lucid testimonials we have of Rome’s first encounters with the tribal people of Eastern Europe and the Great Eurasian plains; by strange historical coincidence then, one of Antiquity
’s greatest poets was yanked from his privileged and insulated urban existence and thrust face-to-face with the vast unknown country (Barbaricum
) outside the Roman order.
”Only guarded wall and barbed gate / Shield us from the baleful Getans’ hate,” (Tristia, IV, i, 69-70.
) wrote Ovid of the tiny Roman fort
-town of Tomis
. He arrived there in 8 AD, to live out his life in the chill air of the Black Sea
, overlooking to the north the expanses of the vast Eurasia
grasslands. On those steppes*
lived the Getans, one of dozens of semi-nomadic
tribes which reared horses and engaged in trade along the fringes of the Mediterranean world. They were rumoured by the Greeks and Romans to be birthed and buried on horseback, and early encounters with them by the Greeks likely represent the source of the mythical centaur
creature. The Scythian and Sarmatian tribes were by Ovid’s time well-established in the region along the Black Sea, after migrating from the Middle East
around 250 BC. The Greeks bought their goods, in exchange for strong wines!
, which they hoped would pacify them. Tracian and Dacian tribes soon followed, settling in Transylvania
. Finally, just prior to Ovid’s arrival, the Getans settled around the Roman walls of Tomis:
Would you like to know just how things are
in Tomis town and how we live?
Though Greek and Gretan mingle on the coast
Our ways now owe more to Gretan than Greek
Great hordes of them and their Sarmatian cousins
Canter to and fro on the rough roads
Everyone with a bow and quiver of arrows
Yellow-tipped and vile with venom
Villainy of voice and face betray their thoughts…
They have never seen bath or barber…
Such is, alas, the company your bard must keep.
-Tristia, IV, vii, 9-21.
While these words clearly betray the same prejudice and fear of all ‘civilized’ colonizing
peoples suddenly confronted with a people they don’t understand, Ovid and his fellow Romans did have genuine grounds for insecurity. These tribes controlled the most effective cavalry
forces the world had ever known: powerful compound bow
s and barbed, poisonous+
arrows all made them fast, lethal opponents. Tacitus
‘reported’ stories about tribal practices of scalping and cannibalism (which effectively makes him the first of the hysterical black helicopter paranoiacs
), while Herodotus
and Ammianus Marcellius
tackled the more realistic problem of how Rome was to effectively defend itself against an enemy which had no country to retaliate against:
They are without permanent towns or fortifications and live not by agriculture but by stock raising, carrying dwellings in wagons: surely such people will be uncatchable and therefore unconquerable.?
Ovid initially found this confined and fearful environment terribly depressing : “This luckless land beside the Scythian
shore / Hemmed in by numerous and tameless tribes … all outside is danger and just by skilful citing is our little hill with little walls defended.” (Tristia, III, X, 51.
) The city itself was under perpetual siege
, “Though closed the gate, we gather deadly arrows off the streets and our rooftops bristle with a feathered mist of darts.” (Tristia, IV, I, 66-70
) What is most notable however, is that over the years, Ovid actually mellows to his distant surroundings. He ceases his complaints about having to walk the wall like all the other sentries. He toughens up, in other words, and drops his urban affectations and in the process abandons some of his prejudice. He concludes Rome will never hold sway in this part of the world, where ‘the light of Roman day grows dim and from here begins Sarmatian
sway.’ He even, to some extent, adapts to the local culture:
A Roman poet! Muses forgive me
P. Ovidius Naso
here I have no option by Sarmatian;
An to my shame, from long disuse,
Latin words now come slowly…
I have become, strangely
Something of a Getic poet,
having done a lyric in their tongue
Sculpting their wild words to fit our metre
So the untamed Souls begin to call me Bard.
-- Epistles Ex Ponto, IV, viii.
, in the end, had nothing to fear from the Getans. In 17 AD, he passed away peacefully in his sleep at age sixty, and at his own behest was buried on the beginnings of the Sarmatian steppe, outside Tomis’ gates, in an unmarked grave.
Those grasslands, incidentally, though narrow north to south, stretch east to west as one of the longest geological features on earth, extending 5000 miles, and some hundred degrees of longitude
, well over half the width of the entire Eurasian landmass. See D. Williams, Romans and Barbarians
(London: Constable, 1998), 34.
Using spirits to keep indigenous
was also employed heavily by the Romans, who were just entering the military quagmire
’s forests at this time. It failed there as well.
Venom derived from trapped adder
s, mingled with putrefied blood and urine, to ensure even the shallowest wounds would become gangrenous
, IV, 46; see also A. Marcellius
(31.2.23, 22.8.4. & 31.12.18.)
J. Barsby, Ovid
(Oxford: Claredon, 1978); S. Mack, Ovid
(New Haven: Yale, 1988); J.B. Solodow, The World of Ovid's Metamorphosis
(1993); Ovid Renewed
, ed. C. Martindale (NY: Cambridge, 1988); Marie Colavito's The Pythagorean Intertext in Ovid's Metamorphoses
(Queenston: 1989), which posits Ovid was part of a secret Neo-Pythagorean
cult plotting against Augustus, which is why he was exiled (???); George Sandys
' trans. of Metamorphoses
(awesome commentary, much borrowed from Francis Bacon
's De Sapientia Vererum
, and written in 1621
in the American colonies where Sandys was Treasurer of the Virginia Company
, and in charge of defense against Native American raids.