Ovid’s Exilic Imagination


In the title essay of his book Reflections on Exile, the late Palestinian-American scholar and critic Edward Said describes the terrible costs of banishment. “True exile,” he writes, “is a condition of terminal loss… an unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.” Although much of Western culture is the creation of exiles and refugees, émigrés and expats—categories with meaningful distinctions—to be torn from one’s home, Said tells us, is a condition whose “essential sadness” can never be surmounted, not even by the intellectual and artistic innovations that are sometimes achieved in exile.

Ovid, the ancient Roman poet, might well have agreed. In the year 8 AD, at the height of his powers and the peak of his fame, he was banished from Rome by the Emperor Augustus for none-too-clear reasons, and was consigned to spend the rest of the days in the Black Sea town of Tomis, a ramshackle port on the margins of the Roman Empire (now Constanta, a relatively prosperous city in Romania). He was deprived of a trial, his books were banned in public libraries, and he was barred from visits from his wife and daughter. The causes of his exile remain unknown: The Emperor might have objected to the risqué content of Ovid’s satirical poem, The Art of Love; or maybe the well-connected poet was being punished for inadvertently stumbling on a bit of palace intrigue; some scholars have made a persuasive case that Ovid abetted the extramarital affair of the Emperor’s granddaughter, Julia, at a time when adultery was criminalized—both of them were exiled in the same year. Whatever the case, in his letters from Tomis, Ovid never illuminates the cause of his exile, but despairs over its debilitating effect on his creativity. “Fine spun verses come from a tranquil mind,” he writes in Book 1 of his collection of elegiac letters, the Tristia. “My days are clouded by sudden miseries.” The great poet would spend the remaining decade of his life dying a spiritual death on the beach, before finally making his last descent into the Underworld.

It’s a tragic, bizarre, inexplicable story—one that Ovid could’ve written. He’s best known for his magisterial work, the Metamorphoses, an unclassifiable compendium of cosmology, philosophy, quasi-history, and Greco-Roman mythology, all of which are linked by the loose theme of transformation, or metamorphosis. The Metamorphoses’ influence on Western culture can’t be overstated—its lineage can be traced in artists as disparate as Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Richard Powers, and Andrea Lawlor—and it stands as the keystone of Ovid’s extant work. His epic poem is so all-encompassing, and the shadow it casts so vast, that it’s tempting to mistake the facts of the poet’s life for one of the hundreds of myths included in the Metamorphoses. At a distance, the story of his exile resembles his version of the story of Actaeon, a hunter who happened to stumble upon the goddess Diana while she was bathing nude in a creek. The chaste goddess, in her fury at being intruded upon, turns the unwitting Actaeon into a stag. As he flees through the forest, he ends up being chased and eaten alive by the very dogs he brought with him to hunt. Maybe Ovid, like Actaeon, was guilty of nothing except running afoul of power. Maybe he happened to stumble upon the proverbial Emperor, wearing no clothes.

But the work he produced before his banishment tells a more interesting story—one that calls attention to the nature of exile itself, and makes Ovid not a victim but an agent of his own demise. For exile, as Said tells us, is not only a “discontinuous state of being” or a condition of “essential sadness”; it can also be an occasion for cultivating “a scrupulous subjectivity,” predicated on the understanding that in a “secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional” and that “borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons.” Said goes on to suggest that exile can even be grounds for a principled intellectual position. He references Theodor Adorno’s aphorism in Minima Moralia that it is ethical to “not be at home in one’s home”: that in an era in which the logic of capital—an all-mighty power, if there is one—has invaded our private lives and cozied up to our consciousness, language itself turns into a dubious shelter: not a palace, but a trap. The exilic stance, Said suggests, is about standing outside of one’s own home, and empire—so far outside, in fact, that one can find a port of call anywhere, maybe even in a shabby town on the edge of the Black Sea. The exilic stance is about scrutinizing the myths of belonging and interrogating memberships national, ethnic, religious, and personal.

I suggest that Ovid was not simply exiled, but that he also exiled himself. With great intention, he stood far away from Rome through feats of imagination—visions that carried him all the way to Tomis, and which threatened the Augustan state with their subversive wit. His most radical exilic work, the Heroides, was published well before his exile, sometime around 15 BC. Largely forgotten, the Heroides is a poem comprised of a series of imaginary letters, written by the women of Greek and Roman mythology to the lovers who have deserted them, including such storied figures as Ulysses, Hercules, and Aeneas. Through their own words and styles, Ovid imagines the inner lives of a series of women who have been damaged by the exploits of supposedly great men. Longing and desire mix with irony and recrimination. Here’s Dido, the queen of African Carthage—historically, a Roman enemy, the Republic’s adversary in the Punic Wars—addressing Aeneas, one of the founding fathers of Rome:
“You are false. All this talk of your father and the gods, all borne on your shoulders to escape the flames, is still more of your lies. I was not the first nor will I be the last to feel the heavy burden of your deceit…faithless man…it is Dido, swollen with child, whom you abandon with part of you.”
Imagine a fictionalized version of Sally Hemings, addressing a screed to Thomas Jefferson, a letter in which she enumerates every one of his personal flaws—his cruelty, his monstrous hypocrisy, his abandonment of her and their children—along with the depths of her own suffering, and the thwarted person she might have been, and you get a sense of the radicalism of these fictional letters. They were published at a time when the Emperor claimed to be a direct descendant of Aeneas; upon his accession to the throne, he gave himself the name Augustus—“the revered one.” For Ovid to offer up such a critique of the Emperor’s progenitor was itself a kind of treason—and to put this critique in the first-person language of a woman, and an African queen at that, was to call to mind Cleopatra, Augustus’s erstwhile enemy. The letter also shows Ovid’s pronounced difference from Virgil and his Aeneid, a mythopoeic birth of a nation, sponsored by the Emperor himself.

Ion Theodorescu-Sion (1882–1939), “Ovid in Exile” (1915), oil on cardboard.

Beyond the de-mythologizing of famous men, the fact that Ovid devotes an entire book to the lives and minds of women is itself radical. Though freeborn Roman women had more independence than their counterparts in Ancient Greece and the Middle East, Augustus curtailed some of their freedoms as a part of a public morality campaign. He made women’s legal independence contingent on bearing at least three children, forced them to sit in the back rows of theaters and gladiatorial arenas, and publicly shamed and exiled both his daughter and his granddaughter for acts of adultery and “debauchery”. He was given the title of pater patriae, the father of the fatherland, and took great pains to present himself as a benign paternal figure: showering the public with regular dispersals of cash, sponsoring military parades and athletic spectacles, and tapping marble quarries in the north of Italy to make Rome into a gleaming, formidable metropolis, more opulent than anything in Ancient Greece. And what says Ovid? “I am not impressed by your wealth, nor am I touched by the thought of your great palace, nor have I the least desire to become one of the many wives of Priam’s sons,” writes Oenone, to Paris, in one of the epistles. “Your position is awkward with shame.” Again and again in these letters, the women express a deep disappointment in powerful men, a bitterness that illuminates depths of suppressed power and intelligence. With withering irony, Penelope writes a letter to her husband, Ulysses, whom she correctly suspects of delaying his journey homeward: “Perhaps it is love that detains you: be sure that I know how fickle men can be. Perhaps you describe me as simple, and fit only for keeping your royal house, but I pray that I am mistaken…”

Ovid’s critique is aimed not simply at a tyrant like Augustus, but at a tyrannical culture of male impunity. Through the language of these discontented women, he is marking his distance from his country, and staking a claim elsewhere, in the realm of the human heart. In a time and a place where women couldn’t vote or hold political power, were deprived of anything beyond a rudimentary education, and were married off by their fathers as early as twelve years of age, it’s remarkable that this son of Sulmo—well-off, well-educated, trained in rhetoric and law—would shrug off the expectations of a public career, and, in one his first works, decide to devote pages not to patriotism or the exploits of great men, but to the eloquent, scornful, soulful, witty, impassioned minds of women. In so doing, Ovid found himself not in Rome but in Tomis: not at home at home, far away from the fatherland and its many fathers. And the Heroides was only the start; Katy Waldman, writing about the Metamorphoses in late 2017, at the dawn of the #MeToo era, observed: “Ovid’s epic poem positions female pain as the beginning or hinge of the story, not the end: victims are transfigured, their suffering made new and strange.” If the letters of this miniaturist masterpiece presage Ovid’s own exile, they also serve as a hinge in an epic story, one still being told to this day. As Medea writes to Jason of the Argonauts in the Heroides: “Listen well…my wrath labors to bear all my threats. I will not hesitate to follow wherever this anger leads…. I only know that my mind conceives of something worthy of myself.”