Black Sea letters

There are two mysteries about the Roman poet Ovid. The first one is political. After 30 years of fame in Rome as a wildly fashionable poet, Ovid, aged 50, was exiled to Tomis in present day Romania, a port on the western shore of the Black Sea, spent his last 10 years there, and died there in 17 AD. No one knows why the Emperor Augustus banished Ovid. But there are guesses. And Ovid’s plaintive Black Sea Letters.

Ovid looks glumly over Tomis, now Constanta, in Ferrari’s 1887 statue

The second mystery is one due only to my ignorance. Ovid’s name in Latin was Publius Ovidius Naso. Some writers have looked on the ‘Naso’ as an agnomen, a nickname. That would make him ‘Ovidius Bignose’. But according to law Romans had to state both nomen (clan name, gens) and cognomen (family name). That would make Ovid ‘Publius Nose (of the Ovidian clan)’. The ‘Ovidius’ was the least of his names. But we can’t go round calling him Publius Nose, even if one of his ancestors was a Jimmy Durante lookalike. I’ll call him by his first name, Publius.

Rising star

This Publius was probably the most influential poet we know of, at least in the West, after Homer. In his day he was a best seller. After his death through to the Middle Ages he was on every school curriculum. He inspired the troubadours, Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe (who translated him and whose translation was banned) and William Shakespeare, whose own best seller, Venus and Adonis, was based on a story in Publius’ Metamorphoses (the book of changes). Nearly all we know about classical mythology comes from the epic Metamorphoses.

He began as what is referred to as an elegiac poet. These poems were laments, not for the dead, but for a lost lover, or comments on a stormy relationship. The term really refers to the metre.

Publius was 20 years younger than the Emperor Augustus and the poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus: the fifth child of Mr Limp) whom he knew and admired. His slightly older contemporary was Propertius, a friend by whom he was influenced.

A fresco celebrating the high life depicted by Ovid, and, under Nero, by Petronius

Right away Publius hit on a winning combination: erudition and sex. Hugh Heffner had a similar idea when he commissioned articles from leading literary figures for Playboy magazine. Ancient Roman readers could always claim they were reading Publius’ poems to brush up their mythology.

The first surviving work from Publius was the Heroides, letters from famous women, written about 19 BC when he was about 25. Then his sequence of poems to his mistress ‘Corinna’, the Amores (translated later by Marlowe), followed by the Ars Amatoria and its antidote, Remedia Amoris. In these poems Publius teasingly offers a guide to seduction for both men and women, advice on how to get a partner into bed. All this was brilliantly sophisticated, with dazzling technique, shocking subject matter, enormous erudition, and all of it very popular. In less than 10 years Publius had become Rome’s greatest poet, making Vergil and Horace seem old fashioned.

Whether they give or refuse, women are glad they have been asked. (Ars Amatoria I, 345)

Almost 20 years later came the epic Metamorphoses, a book that has fascinated readers for 2,000 years. This poem is in15 books, almost as long as Homer’s Iliad and set in the same metre, and tells the story of mythical transformations from the creation of the world to the deification of Julius Caesar. The amount of research alone is impressive. Publius had read every available book in Greek or Latin on myth, and reorganised it to suit his theme, again with enormous panache and style.

The story of Narcissus is in the Metamorphosis, here painted by Caravaggio

About this time Publius started on the Fasti, a long and elaborate account of Roman religious festivals. Thoroughly researched as to origins and meanings of the ritual, these poems were again brilliantly written. Both Fasti and Metamorphoses look as though conforming to Augustus’ wish for literature that supported traditional values, perhaps written to recall Vergil’s Aeneid and Georgics, or Livy’s history.

Both books came out in 8 AD, the year of Publius’ exile, the Fasti only half completed.

The ends of the earth

Tomis (Constanta) is 1333 km (828 miles) NE from Rome, as far as you could then get and still stay within the border of Empire. You could at that time travel from Britain to Africa, Spain to Egypt, and hear the Latin tongue spoken. Not in Tomis.

A view of Tomis as Ovid may have seen it at first

The area had been conquered for the Empire only 30 years before, in 29 BC. They called it the Scythian Frontier. To the north were the Slavs and the Germans, to the west the Dacians and to the south the Thracians. Tomis was a military outpost, where foreign traders and shipping agents tried to chisel tough legionaries longing for richer pastures. Pastimes were drinking, gambling, whoring and brawling, in any order you liked. To adapt Chandler’s metaphor, Publius in Tomis was as conspicuous as angel food in a tarantula’s nest. The locals didn’t understand a word he said, and when someone explained he was a poet you can imagine the guffaws.

When in Tomis you were aware of two things, the cold and the wind. It blew a gale at the best; other times it got really windy. Bathing was optional, but it was in the sea. Food was repulsive and unlike anything Publius had tried to eat before. For a pampered middle class boy earning a good salary it was a horrible shock. Even the legionaries hated it, and they could put up with a lot, even constant rain in Britain. Publius complained bitterly.

He lamented his exile at Tomis in his poems Tristia or Sorrows and Epistulae ex Ponto, Black Sea Letters.

The Roman Empire: this slightly later map of the empire gives some idea of Tomis’ distance from Rome

The plot thickens

Why send Rome’s most gifted poet to a Black Sea military outpost?

The traditional explanation was that exile was a punishment for writing naughty poems. Augustus was a prim, proper puritan, and worked ceaselessly to turn Romans bloated with the spoils of empire into characters out of Livy, but the snag with this explanation is that the poems were 25 years old when the exile was announced.

Another theory is that Publius was involved in a plot to murder Augustus and put someone less restrictive on the throne. Not really involved of course. But you could imagine Publius agreeing to the wrong person at a banquet that, yes, Augustus was a bit much sometimes.

Little is known about the supposed plot, because it was covered up. Bad press to let anyone know that the Father of his people was unpopular and resented.

Augustus had the most manicured career in history. Everything about him was passed through a PR process to give the image he wanted to the world. A supreme manipulator and politician, he had come from nowhere, managed to become Julius Caesar’s heir, married a wife, Livia, his equal as a politician, who smoothed his way with Senatorial families, was friends with Agrippa, the army Commander in chief, who was Rome’s greatest general, won all Augustus’ battles for him, and was unswervingly loyal. Augustus was ruthless, bloodthirsty, and as part of the Triumvirates with other leading politicians (whom he eventually eliminated) was responsible for thousands of murders for profit. But officially he was the Father of the people, and popular with the plebeian class. And a great builder. Most importantly, he bought peace and stability to the empire. Like Stalin really. Another Big Brother.

For Ovid Rome was the heart of things, with all that made life worth living

So when Lucius Aemilius Paullus, former senator and husband of Augustus’ adoptive granddaughter Julia, plotted his overthrow, the matter was hushed up. Inevitably, in an atmosphere where spy spied on spy, the plot was betrayed to the authorities. Paullus was executed. Implicated was Paullus’ wife Julia, and Augustus’ adoptive grandson Agrippa Postumnus. Both these were exiled to different islands of Tremiti on the other side of Italy. Julia spent 20 years on her tiny island and died there. And Publius was also implicated and exiled to Tomis. He said only that he had been indiscreet, and written a poem he shouldn’t have. Perhaps he did send Julia a poem he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t much, but it was too much for Augustus. All the elements that might tarnish his image were tidied out of sight.

There’s also a third theory, also with no evidence to support it. Augustus was seventy, and ill. The problem of the succession was beginning to loom. The threat of a civil war over a disputed succession was possible. Augustus’ wife Livia wanted Tiberius to succeed. He was  a brilliant general, but had no taste for politics, and was unwilling to assume the role of ‘First Citizen’. Augustus agreed with Livia on the matter, but also had other candidates, who unexpectedly both died in their mid teens. Livia and Augustus, both strong willed, equally devious, became locked in a battle over Tiberius’ succession. Some think the plot of Aemilius Paullus was cooked up by Livia to help discredit a faction working against Tiberius. The involvement of Publius, whose poetry Livia probably loathed, became just a factor to discredit the opposing side morally. The ruthless complexity and pettiness could be just like Livia.

In 8 AD Ovid landed in Toms, having lost wife, family, friends, culture, audience and riches, captured in Theodorescu-Sion’s 1915 painting

There might have been no indiscretion, no poem to the wrong person at the wrong time. Or perhaps there was. Whatever happened, Publius got his big nose caught in the wringer of power politics, something he knew nothing about. The master of seduction missed his wife (his third) most of all in his exile.

My morals differ from my verse. My life is chaste; my muse is playful. (Tristia II)

The greatest story teller of myth had a fate he himself could have made up, like the story of Phaon and Sappho, or Endymion and Selene, in the Heroides.

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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