The Unbearable Lightness of Ovid

A Mirror is Held to the Writer’s Life in Ovid’s Tristia

Tom Hendrickson
Jan 9 · 10 min read
J.M.W. Turner, “Ovid Banished from Rome.” (Private Collection — Photo from The Athenaeum via Wikimedia).

At roughly fifty years of age, Ovid departed from Rome, never to return. He was forced by Augustus to relocate to a small town on the Black Sea, leaving behind his wife, his friends, and the city he loved. Ovid is cagey about why Augustus banished him. He claims that it was something he did accidentally, perhaps something he saw. But there was also a second reason: something he wrote. He had let the uneven strides of his elegiac couplets go one step too far. Ovid’s defense is the Tristia, whose title we might, in keeping with his characteristic irony, translate as Sad Times.

I first encountered the Tristia during my own period of exile. Well, it wasn’t technically exile, but then neither was Ovid’s. (Ovid suffered relegatio, which let him keep his property and his civil rights.) He claimed that he had been banished for a carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”). My carmen, I suppose, was my dissertation; my error was going on the academic job market. I found myself a postdoc in Pisa, a small Italian town whose claim to fame is a tower that didn’t quite work out. Then again, Pisa was hardly an entirely unpleasant place, and (despite Ovid’s protestations) neither was Tomis, the town to which he had been banished, and which is now a tourist destination thanks to its beaches and lovely climate.

Ovid’s Tristia are five books of poems that he wrote in (and on) exile. The first book is a melange of short elegies recounting his shocked departure from Rome, his wretched voyage to Tomis, and his last words to friends, both faithful and fair-weather. The second book is a single long elegy of 578 verses, defending himself and his poetry. Books three through five again contain shorter elegies addressed to his wife and friends, and the whole collection creates a portrait of his life and his exile at Tomis. In fact, the vast majority of what we know, or think we know, about the course of Ovid’s life comes from a single autobiographical poem in the collection (4.10).

Ovid’s depiction of himself in exile is so full of self-pity and over-the-top drama that he almost seems to be joking. Abandoned by a trusted friend, he becomes Dido by giving the same angry speech she gave to Aeneas (1.8). During a storm he is an epic hero unjustly hounded by the gods, like Ulysses harassed by Neptune, or Aeneas by Juno (1.2, 1.5). In fact, he adds (1.5.79–80), his sufferings are worse than those of Ulysses — since his aren’t fictional!

Like many of those who now open the pages of the Tristia, I was looking for something specific rather than reading at my leisure when I stumbled across it in Pisa. I was doing research on ancient books, and the very first poem of the Tristia is addressed to the book itself and provides a lush description of the ancient bookroll as an aesthetic object. Ovid instructs his book to look mournful and unkempt, in keeping with his situation (1.1.5–12):

Nec te purpureo uelent uaccinia fuco —
non est conueniens luctibus ille color —
nec titulus minio, nec cedro charta notetur,
candida nec nigra cornua fronte geras…
Nec fragili geminae poliantur pumice frontes,
hirsutus sparsis ut uideare comis.

Let no whortleberry veil you with crimson dye —
That color is not fit for mourning —
Let your title-slip be marked by no cinnabar, your papyrus with no cedar,
And may you not carry gleaming horns on your dark forehead…
Let your twin faces be smoothed by no delicate pumice,
So that you seem shaggy, with scraggly hair. (1.1.5–12)

Books in the Roman world were typically papyrus scrolls. They could be utilitarian tools, but they could also be luxury objects, works of art in their own right. The papyrus would be stained with cedar oil (cedro charta notetur), which kept it free from pests and rot, but which also gave it a heavenly color and scent. The edges of the scroll, which could become torn and ragged, would have to be frequently filed with pumice (fragili geminae poliantur pumice frontes), allowing book-owners to indulge in a kind of “care of the book” ritual. A center-rod, which might be made of precious materials, would be used to unroll the scroll. Here the center-rod sticking out of either end of the scroll must be ivory, since Ovid describes it as being like the gleaming horns on a cow’s dark forehead (candida … nigra cornua fronte). Each scroll would have a small title slip attached to the top and naming the author and work, here imagined to be written in scarlet ink (minio). The “crimson dye” (purpureo … fuco) refers to a slip-cover in which the book could be stored and transported in safety.

I confess that I luxuriated in this passage, but then I’m a devotee of the hedonistic pleasures of the book. Most readers have gravitated toward the second book of the Tristia, in which Ovid defends himself and his poetry. This book, made up of a single long poem, is where he famously writes of his carmen et error (2.207). He claims that he will keep silent about the latter so as to not make Augustus relive his pain, though in fact Ovid likes to drip out tantalizing hints about this error throughout the Tristia. But keeping, for the moment, a relative silence about the error, Ovid then takes up a defense of the carmen in question, the Ars Amatoria. The charges, as Ovid presents them, are that the poem encouraged married women to commit adultery, and that it was evidence that he had a perverted moral character.

One might reasonably expect that someone in this position would defend the value or character of his work. Not Ovid. Ovid’s approach is simply to claim that it is unfair to punish him alone, when so many authors throughout history wrote about erotic material but did not get into trouble:

Quid, nisi cum multo Venerem confundere uino,
praecepit lyrici Teia Musa senis?
Lesbia quid docuit Sappho, nisi amare, puellas?
Tuta tamen Sappho, tutus et ille fuit.
Nec tibi, Battiade, nocuit, quod saepe legenti
delicias uersu fassus es ipse tuas.
Fabula iucundi nulla est sine amore Menandri,
et solet hic pueris uirginibusque legi.
Ilias ipsa quid est aliud, nisi adultera, de qua
inter amatorem pugna uirumque fuit?
Quid prius est illic flamma Briseidos, utque
Fecerit iratos rapta puella duces?

What did the Teian muse of the old lyric poet (Anacreon)
Instruct, except to blend Venus with lots of wine?
What but love did the Lesbian Sappho teach girls?
Yet safe remained Sappho, and safe him too.
Nor did it harm you, Battiades (Callimachus), that you often yourself
Confessed your flings in verse to your readers.
No play of pleasant Menander lacks love
And he gets read by boys and girls!
The Iliad itself! What is it but an adulteress, over whom
There was a fight between her lover and her husband?
What happens in it before a passionate conflagration over Briseis,
And when the abduction of a girl made leaders angry? (2.363–74)

Ovid continues this survey of erotic content through all Greek and Latin literature. The Odyssey follows the Iliad, then Greek tragedy, then a turn to Roman literature including many big names you might have read (Ennius, Lucretius, Catullus) and some whose works have been lost (Cinna, Calvus, Anser). In addition to these mainstream authors well known to us, Ovid pulls back the curtain on a host of lost works evidently dedicated to immoral and trivial arts, like gambling and ball games. Ovid adds a vivid description of mime, which (he suggests) depicted adultery far more frequently and egregiously than his own verses did. So, faced with charges that he wrote about immoral and erotic material, Ovid responded by writing about immoral and erotic material.

It’s outstanding to have any kind of literary history survive from the ancient Mediterranean. The only thing even remotely like it is Book 10 of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, which provides a literary history of its own, though Ovid’s erotic syllabus is much more lively.

The Tristia is worth it for Book 2 alone — but don’t just read Book 2 alone. If you read the Tristia in its entirety, you get a very different picture of what Ovid is up to than if you just read a few poems in isolation. If you’re just reading Book 2, it will seem that Ovid distances himself from his poetry, saying that it in no way represented himself or his character:

Crede mihi, distant mores a carmine nostri —
uita uerecunda est, Musa iocosa mea —
magnaque pars mendax operum est et ficta meorum:
plus sibi permisit compositore suo.
nec liber indicium animi, sed honesta uoluptas.

Trust me, my character is far different from my poetry:
My life is modest, my muse tells dirty jokes.
Anyways, the bulk of my work is pulp fiction,
It takes way more liberties than its author does.
And a book is not evidence about the author’s mind, but just a decent way to enjoy yourself. (2.353–7)

Yet despite these denials, if you read the Tristia as a whole you see that Ovid constantly, insistently, demands that his books of poetry go to Rome on his behalf and represent him and his character to Augustus and other potential readers.

To give just one example, in the very first poem of the Tristia Ovid sends the book to Rome and says (15–16), “Go, book, greet those beloved places with my words; surely I might be allowed to step there with this foot” (Vade, liber, uerbisque meis loca grata saluta: / contingam certe quo licet illa pede). The book’s words are his words. The feet of its elegiac couplets are his feet. He commands it to dress the way that he dresses. The book does not just represent him, it’s his alter-ego. (I’m not the first to notice this, and if you might like a longer discussion on the topic, I heartily recommend Michael Mordine’s “Sine me, liber, ibis”.)

The Tristia is about homesickness and regret and desperate hope, but one of the most persistent themes is the relationship between author and work. Ovid sometimes imagines his books as his slaves, or as his children. There is even a disturbing scene in which Ovid recounts burning his books, even though it meant throwing his own children to the flames (1.7.15–20). Ovid claims that his books speak for him, and hence can advocate for him in Rome. At the same time, he claims that his books do not speak for him, and should not be used as evidence against him. There is no ultimate answer here, only a struggle, a wrestling-match, a royal rumble between Ovid, his books, his poetry, and his persona.

I spent most of my own exile haunting the magnificent library housed in the Palazzo dell’Orologio, which the Renaissance architect Giorgio Vasari had built out of a medieval prison (“The Tower of Hunger”). The library is straight out of an Umberto Eco novel. You can only reach it through an underground tunnel whose entrance lies behind a large column in the backroom of a palazzo across the square. The library itself is a labyrinth of asymmetrical passages that lead to unexpected treasures. I lived a life filled with books, while writing my book, which was about books (some of which were about books). It became almost like a mirror maze where you could lose track of whether you were looking at an image, or at an image of an image, or at an image of an image of an image — or maybe just at yourself.

The book I was working on reflected my interests, of course, but I soon noticed that it had also taken on my predilections and quirks — and a great many of my faults. Not only that, the book was intellectually between fields, and I was starting to seriously doubt that it could find a home anywhere. I would say to myself, “You are not your book,” but part of me wondered whether that was entirely true. It’s too bad that I read so little of the Tristia at the time. Ovid (and his books) have a lot to say to writers, and to those trying to get home.

However much of the Tristia you read, I would make one suggestion: read it out loud. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that reading the Tristia silently would be like deciding to experience the musical Hamilton by only reading the lyrics. You’ll get what happens, but you’ll be missing something important, something beautiful.

The Tristia are in elegiac couplets, which are among the easiest of all Latin meters to read, once you’ve got the beat. The first line of each couplet is dactylic hexameter, and the second has two hemistichs (halves), each of which has two and a half dactylic feet. There is a strong break between the hemistichs, which often rhyme. The second hemistich does not allow the replacement of dactyls by spondees, which means that the line ends with a kind of fluttering sound. Take, for example, the line I quoted above about Ovid sending his book to Rome: “Surely I might be allowed to step there with this foot.” The first hemistich lumbers along in spondees, the second trips along at a trot: contingam certE | quo licet illa pedE. There was music behind Latin poetry. Ovid’s elegiacs let you hear it.

Tom Hendrickson has found a home at Stanford Online High School. His Ancient Libraries and Renaissance Humanism found a home in the Antichistica section of the Palazzo dell’Orologio.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

Tom Hendrickson

Written by

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

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