It’s winter and the sky on the other side of the cold glass is grey and solid. The sunless sky makes me think of times when I must have felt warm. Hyperbolic, but it’s so cold outside! I remember a summer trip to Italy, swimming in the Mediterranean sea for hours under a ripe sun, running through a black sandy beach hot as coals. I remember walking through crowded and crumbling ancient streets, finding refuge from the heat in the shadows of buildings. I think of how Ovid felt when he was permanently banished from the warmth of his home, cosmopolitan Rome, to the shores of the Black Sea at Tomis; how he felt when he was forced to leave his bustling and adoring city and begin anew, isolated from all that he loved and enjoyed, save his wit and stylus. And I remember that both tools were likely contributors to his exile.
While at Tomis, Ovid produced several poems that lamented his death-in-life and cast vague blame about his fate and banishment. In his Tristia, Ovid is full of self-pity when he says that if the poem is “spotted and blurred with erasures, ’tis because the poet with tears has injured his own work” (littera suffusas quod habet maculosa lituras, laesit opus lacrimis ipse poeta suum, 3.1.15–16). Ovid also provides ridiculous descriptions of Tomis, modern Constanta in Romania, when he says that the winters are so cold that snow can last for two years and that the exposed faces of men “tinkle with hanging ice and their beards glisten white with the mantle of frost”(saepe sonant moti glacie pendente capilli, et nitet inducto candida barba gelu, 3.10.21–2). A Google search shows that modern Constanta boasts a 4.1 star outdoor water park called Aqua Magic and an average winter temperature in the 30s. Ovid’s exile works are heavy with embellishment and a sense of lonely drama. But before Ovid wrote the Tristia or Epistulae ex Ponto, a collection of letters about his exile that he sent back to Rome, he wrote a curse poem that is as vitriolic as it is inaccessible, which is saying a lot.
The Ibis is a short poem written in elegiac couplets filled with defensive posturing, accusation, and caustic and obscure mythological references to many forms of suffering. It begins with a defense of the author. Ovid claims that his work never did harm to anyone but himself, and that “all the song of my Muse has been harmless” (omne fuit Musae carmen inerme meae, verse 2). The veracity of that claim could have been challenged even in Ovid’s time by cuckolded spouses and evidence of extramarital affairs inspired by the Ars Amatoria, but Ovid seems to overlook this in his state of emotional fragility. Ovid proceeds by shaming his unnamed foe, the man who has kicked Ovid while he is down, who has prevented his name from regaining the innocence justice owes him. He accuses his enemy of stealing the broken pieces of Ovid’s own life, of preventing Ovid’s wife from mourning him, of preventing the poet from experiencing comfort in his old age. In the first and shortest of the catalogues that compose the poem’s body, Ovid vows to be this man’s enemy until a series of impossibilities (ex. “the same region [of the sky] be both evening and sunrise” [atque eadem regio vesper et ortus erit, 38] comes to fruition — in other words, never. In line 55 we learn that Ovid will call his unnamed foe “Ibis,” modelled after Callimachus’ poem of the same title in which he curses his literary rival Apollonius of Rhodes.
After obscurely identifying the curses’ target, Ovid calls on a plethora of deities to help fulfill the invectives to come, to “let him be richer in misery than my wit can conceive” (plenius ingenio sit miser ille meo, 92)! It’s hard to believe that more suffering exists in the world for one man than the series of maledictions that follow. At first the curse is severe and direct, as Ovid says
Nec corpus querulo nec mens vacet aegra dolore,
Noxque die gravior sit tibi, nocte dies.
May neither thy body nor thy sick mind be free from querulous pain,
May night be to thee more grievous than day, and day than night. (115–6)
It’s easy to imagine a person suffering in this manner. Having known someone with chronic pain or dying from cancer, it’s realistic to think of a person enduring sustained pain that makes each day and night seem more difficult than the previous. What’s difficult to imagine is calling on the gods to bring this kind of suffering upon others. Who hurt you, Ovid? No, really. Who? Ovid continues and goes on the psychological offensive by saying
Sisque miser semper, nec sis miserabilis ulli:
Gaudeat adversis femina virque tuis….
Mayst thou ever be piteous, but have none to pity thee
May men and women rejoice at thy adversity…. (117–8)
Here Ovid asks for the compassion he lacks to be also removed from the hearts of all people, replaced instead with a joy rooted in seeing the Ibis suffer. As a fan of the author, I want to empathize with Ovid, but I find it difficult to have more than a secret and shameful fascination with the cruelty he calls for in this poem. As the curse progresses, so do the outlandish requests for suffering and calls of vengeance. In a way that might excite Romero fans or Walking Deadheads, Ovid vows to “burst forth from the Stygian realm and stretch forth icy hands in vengeance against thy face” (Stygiis erumpere nitar ab oris, et tendam gelidas ultor in ora manus), even if that death was brought on by a shipwreck in which he was eaten alive by exotic fish, or killed by a wolf whose nose drips with the author’s blood. The poem quickly moves from the cruel and realistic to the energetically morbid and fantastic. These lines are just the beginning of a rich and wicked catalogue of suffering summoned by Ovid to show how much he wants the Ibis to suffer. These exempla range from familiar and quickly accessible references featuring the likes of Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Ixion to the intentionally obscure or even impenetrable. Exempli gratia, the couplet at line 607–608 reads “As his own offspring was revenged upon Lycurgus the Pentelid, so may the stroke of a strange weapon await thee also” qua sua Penteliden proles est ulta Lycurgum, haec maneat teli te quoque plaga novi. The footnote in the Loeb edition says that no explanation of the couplet is known. One has to wonder if even the gods would occasionally scratch their heads while reading this catalogue, or turn to each other to clarify what exactly Ovid wants to happen, and how he wants it done based on the examples provided.
But what’s most interesting about the poem? The long list of obscure and damning exempla for how the Ibis should suffer? That might be the case after a quick read-through. But what about the obfuscation with which Ovid handles the identity of his curse’s target? Who is the Ibis? Why does Ovid refuse to name the man he blames for so much of his own suffering in exile? There doesn’t appear to be a definitive scholarly consensus answering these questions. Some think that the Ibis is no more than a scholarly exercise for Ovid to prove his erudite talent and inherent worth as an author who deserves to return to Rome as the city’s shining literary son. Then there are those who wonder if the Ibis is an alias for Rome’s first Emperor, the powerful man who banished Ovid to Tomis, and refused to allow him to return home before the author’s death. And still there are those who question whether Ovid actually wrote his exile works from exile at all. Ovid was adept at establishing literary personas, and maybe his whole banishment was a fabrication. While questions endure about the true identity of “Ibis,” it seems certain that Callimachus, and Ovid after him, named their rivals after this Egyptian bird because of its disgusting carrion-eating habits and propensity to use its long beak and flexibility for self-enemizing. While calling someone a “dirty bird” can be playful and feel like an insult from the 1950s, calling someone an ibis takes the sentiment up a depraved notch.
At 644 lines, the poem is not long in length, but the invocation of suffering is boundless. As curious and interesting a work as the Ibis is, I wonder why scholars and Latinists over time have shied away from this short poem. Few translations of full text exist in English and all citations in this piece come from the 1929 Loeb edition of the work. Is it the impossible catalogue of mythological exempla that comprise most of the poem? Is it the question of identity surrounding the Ibis? Whatever the reason, it’s worth noting that prior to the long catalogue of exempla, the Latin in Ovid’s Ibis is energetic and the content is interesting. In the Ibis, Ovid glows with a fiery wrath and his wit burns as a rebellion to the perceived icy gloom of his exile.
[This is one of a series of essays about reading Ovid at his bimillennial. For more information about the series, and links to other essays, click on the links below.]
Reading Ovid at his Bimillennial
In Medias Res explores the work of the Most Roman of Rome’s Ancient Poets.
Rachel Dowell is an Associate Superintendent of Catholic Schools in Oklahoma City.