Exile: Ovid

Exile has been a form punishment throughout the ages, and it is an important topic we have not discussed. Few realize the sorrow it inflicts. It is significant that Socrates preferred suicide to exile.  Hence the interest of the bio, sent by John Gehl, of  the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-16 AD), the short name used for Publius Ovidius Naso: He first came to prominence as the composer of risqué love poetry, but whose most important poetic legacy was his long narrative poem "Metamorphoses," a literary masterpiece that became a veritable a storehouse of classical stories for English writers from Shakespeare's time to the present.

Ovid was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar in the town of Sulmo, some 90 miles east of Rome. When the civil strife subsided and Caesar Augustus became Rome's uncontested ruler, Ovid's father sent him
Rome to be educated for a political career. Ovid's true ambition, however, was to become a poet. By age 20 he had found an appreciative audience for his undoubted talent among Rome's sophisticates, and at age 30, he was Rome's most popular poet.  Initially, he wrote under the influence of his poet-friend, Sextus Propertius, who wrote compellingly on the torments of love. In his poem "Amores" Ovid depicts a witty lover who evades love's torments by turning love into a sport. Then in the "Heroides" he pursues another theme suggested by Propertius: passionate letters written by famous heroines to men who have abandoned them. Then in the "Art of Love" he writes professorially, and impudently, on how men can seduce women; in reality, however, this poem reveals the folly of making the art of love into a "science." This poem, more than any other, contributed to Ovid's loss of favor with the Emperor Augustus, who was seriously committed to improving the moral tone of Roman society.

Besides the poet Propertius, Ovid also enjoyed the friendship of Horace and other members of Rome's literary elite. Having found acceptance as a talented poet, Ovid took on more ambitious projects, such as "The
Metamorphoses," a collection of mythological and legendary stories told in chronological order from the creation of the universe (the first metamorphosis, of chaos into order) to the death and deification of Julius Caesar (the culminating metamorphosis of the chaos of the Civil Wars into the order of the Augustan Peace). When Ovid was 50 years old, Augustus suddenly ordered him into exile at Tomis (modern Costanza, in Romania), then a primitive, semi-barbaric town on the Black Sea. The exact reason for his exile has never come to light. Both Ovid and the Emperor merely made a vague reference to an unspecified indiscretion. Ovid's banishment was never lifted and for the remainder of his life he consoled himself by writing poetry about exile. He apparently died soon after, an unhappy man of 60 whose suffering exposed the authoritarian nature of Augustus.

RH: Death in exile should be one aspect of our study,  Think of the Spaniards who died in exile because of the Civil War, or of the Jews because of the Nazis. Their feelings were of nostalgia, bitterness and anger.  Exiled from Florence, before dying in Ravenna in 1321, Dante said bitterly "Ingrata patria, non avrai le mie ossa".

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 27, 2005