Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Ovid: Exile or Not?

Two works assigned to Ovid, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, have been taken literally to mean that he was exiled from Rome at the height of his fame. This assumes that the attribution is correct and that we know the correct order of his writings. There is no contemporary evidence of exile, nothing by either Tacitus or Suetonius in the Twelve Caesars; they both hated Tiberius; there is a minor reference in Suetonius’s Lives of the Grammarians 20 about Hyginus, who is described as an intimate friend of the poet Ovid. 

Exile was a punishment for aristocrats of rich and influential families, who could afford to fund the exiled member; Tiberius was himself exiled for a while by Augustus. Exile was not used long term and not used for non-aristocrats. If Ovid had committed a crime, the punishment would have been a fine or execution. If it had been a deep insult to Augustus or his family, the outcome would have been Ovid’s murder in a dark alley; after all, Augustus, when young, had had Cicero murdered, and there is some doubt over the death of Virgil.
 There is nothing outside the poems to suggest Ovid died in exile until the fifth century AD, rather too late to be considered credible. We don’t know if the Tristia and Pontic Epistles were written at the end of his career at all. Pontus is in Asia Minor (Pliny the Younger was its governor under Trajan), whereas Tomis is on the south bank of the Danube, hundreds of miles away.
 Books were not ‘published’ as they are today. It is hard to see how two works written by an exile could appear in Rome; there was no copyright, no marketing and no means to ensure that he, or any writer got paid. Any income would have come from subscription and patronage, neither of which were available to an exile; exile was ‘social death’. How too could exiled works be copied? The idea of Ovid as an oppositional figure published in samizdat underground editions is a modern fantasy.
 It is possible that this is a poetic fiction, and that the speaker in these poems is a persona, just as the ‘Juvenal’ who speaks in some of Juvenal’s satires is not the real Juvenal, but a mask. By that, later authors, some centuries later, thought this was a real exile. The same people tell readers that Virgil was a wizard who could create caves with beams from his eyes, and opened his works at random because they thought he was a god who could assist their problems; they also quoted his lines out of context and made centos, collage poems, out of carefully chosen lines.
 Not to labour the point too much, but we have no evidence whatsoever about the biography  of Ovid from his own times. He is mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 79AD, but what’s mentioned is a work on fishing, which is dismissed as a mistake by modern scholarship. That means the only references to him come from Seneca and Quintillian from the reign of Nero, 50 years later.  It is possible that the works of more than one author have been attributed to Ovid, maybe in the ‘Alan Smithee’ model, where works that film directors wished to remain anonymous were claimed for a fictive Alan Smithee.

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