Exile of Ovid

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Ovid, the Latin poet of the Roman Empire, was banished in 8 CE from Rome to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) by decree of the emperor Augustus. The reasons for his banishment are not known.[1] Ovid's exile is related to us by the poet himself, and also in a brief reference to the event by Pliny the Elder and Statius. At the time, Tomis was a remote town on the edge of the civilised world; it lay beyond the Danube, loosely under the authority of the Kingdom of Thrace (a satellite state of Rome), and was superficially Hellenized. According to Ovid, none of its citizens spoke Latin, which as an educated Roman he found trying. Ovid wrote that the cause of his own exile was carmen et error: carmen, "a poem", namely the Ars Amatoria; and error, an indiscretion or mistake of his own.[2]

Ovid was one of the most prolific poets of his time, and before being banished had already composed his most famous poems – Heroides, Amores, Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amoris, Medicamina Faciei Femineae, his lost tragedy Medea, the ambitious Metamorphoses and the Fasti. The latter two works were left, respectively, without a final review and unfinished. In exile, the poet continued producing works, and wrote some more that survive today: Ibis, Tristia, Epistulae ex Ponto, and possibly several other, minor poems. These works contain letters to friends and enemies, and also depict the poet's treatment by the Scythians – particularly the Getae, a nomadic people who were actually related to the Dacians or Thracians.

The exile of Ovid – both his persona and his works in exile – has served as a literary influence to Latin writers who also experienced exile, such as Seneca to Boethius, and as a central point of reference for the Middle Ages imaginings of exile, passing through Romanticism and its tendency to theorize about the misunderstood genius. Today, Ovid's exile is used by classicists to evaluate the policy and actions of Augustus, and is also used to study whether the exile was merely a farce, a misrepresentation by Ovid, or a rhetorical and literary device.[3][4]


In 8 CE, the year of his exile, Ovid was 50 years old. It is believed that he enjoyed great fame in Rome.[a] With the generation of Virgil (19 BCE) and Horace (8 BCE) having ended, some scholars write that he was then the most famous poet in the city.[6]

Thus, the poet who had written in verses the radical change experienced by men in the strange sensation that often accompanies humanity — the eminence of losing everything — between the wonderful Golden Age and the unfortunate Iron Age, left for exile.


J.M.W. Turner, Ovid Banished from Rome, 1838.
View of Ovid's statue in Tomis/Constanța

In 8 CE, Ovid was banished to Tomis on the Black Sea, by the exclusive intervention of the Emperor Augustus, without any participation of the Senate or of any Roman judge.[7]


Ovid chose his banishment as subject for his last three works of poetry: the Ibis, a "venomous attack on an unnamed enemy",[3] and the Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto, two collections of literary epistles centred around the experience of the poet's exile.[3] All these works were written in Tomis.

The Ibis, an elegiac curse poem attacking an adversary at home, was written during his journey to the exile place. According to some scholars, this work was "literary rather than personal".[8] In fact, Callimachus had written a poem with the same title attacking on Apollonius of Rhodes.[8][9] Caelius Rhodiginus (Antiq. Lect. xiii. 1) says, on the authority of Caecilius Minutianus Apuleius, that the enemy was Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus.[10]

The five books of the elegiac Tristia are dated to 9-12 CE, during the first four years of Ovid's banishment.[11] It is a series of poems expressing the poet's despair in exile and advocating his return to Rome. Its advocacy perhaps goes too far when Ovid compares his works to those of Augustus's favourite, Virgil, particularly with Virgil's magnum opus the Aeneid.[12] The tenth elegy of the fourth book is valuable because it contains many particulars of Ovid's life.[11]

The Epistulae ex Ponto, a series of letters in verse explicitly addressed to various people in Rome, asking them to help effect Ovid's return, are thought to be his last compositions. The first three books were published in 13 CE, and the fourth book later, between 14-16 CE. Some of these poetic letters were sent to Ovid's friends (such as Cotta Maximus), to Ovid's wife, and to the emperor himself. The Epistulae may contain Ovid's last verses that come down to us: "Where’s the joy in stabbing your steel into my dead flesh?/ There’s no place left where I can be dealt fresh wounds."

According to Pliny the Elder, Ovid wrote another poem while in exile, Halieutica, about fishing. There is a fragmentary poem, traditionally attributed to Ovid, called "Halieutica," about the "rules for fishing in rocky, sandy or open waters, distinguishing the kinds of fish which haunt each",[13] possibly written with information from local fishermen. However, the real authorship of this work is much debated, and Ovid's authorship is denied or doubted by some scholars.[14][15][16][17]


In his works of exile, principally the Tristia and the Epistulae, Ovid tried to do three things that he hoped would help convince the emperor to end his exile:

  • Create pity for himself, through his descriptions of the hazards and harsh conditions in Tomis, and of his worsened physical, mental and social state. Ovid portrayed himself as old, sick and away from his family and the pleasures of Rome;
  • Defend his cause, by referring repeatedly to his attitude that led to his exile as stupid, but without any malicious intent, and by referring to his offense as an error;
  • Compliment the emperor, either directly (by praising the emperor's good qualities), or indirectly, by praising the emperor's family, or the successes of the Empire in the emperor's campaigns.[18]

Much has been written suggesting that what Ovid wrote in exile is entirely different from Ovid's earlier works.[3] According to Ovid himself, his exile ruined his former poetic genius.[19]

Causes of the exile[edit]

According to Ovid himself[edit]

Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was carmen et error — "a poem and a mistake",[20] claiming that what he did was nothing illegal, but nevertheless worse than murder,[21] more harmful than poetry.[22][23]

Tristia, on the other hand, are full of declarations that it was not a crime, just a mistake caused by stupidity,[24] that it was done without premeditation,[25] and that the mistake's nature was that Ovid has seen something.[26] He repeatedly says that the emperor must well realize that, because he has only relegated the poet, not putting him to death, not dispossessing him, and not depriving him of Roman citizenship.[27]

The carmen is undoubtedly identified as Ars amatoria,[28] though Ovid expresses his surprise that only he has been exiled for such a reason, though many others also wrote less or more obscene verse,[29] even with the emperor's approval.[30]

View of mainstream scholars[edit]

Scholars agree that the cause of the exile is never fully explained, but often attach a political reason that involves the famous changing of the poet literary production. Many scholars believe that the charge against Ovid was Laesa Maiestas, the crime of "Lèse-majesté".[31] Most believe that the "Carmen", that is, the "poem" that Ovid refers to is the Ars Amatoria. Many believe that Augustus — who presented himself as the restorer of Roman public morality — could not fail to punish the author of a work who presented himself as a master of adultery and obscenity.[32] In fact, there is an ample literature that supports this idea. What was Ovid's "mistake" ("error")? Scholars have proposed many different ideas over the centuries:

Many scholars believe that the Art of Love was a mere pretext to conceal the real cause of Ovid's condemnation, considering the enormous amount of time between the publication of this work (20 BCE) and the sentence of Augustus (8 CE).[33] To support this view, some authors note that the "Art of Love" was no more indecent than many publications by Propertius, Tibullus and Horace circulating freely in that time.[32][33] Some scholars who agree with these ideas also believe that, foreseeing the consequences of the themes of his first poems, Ovid changed his artistic focus and wrote works with less sexual themes, such as Metamorphoses, with the deification of Julius Caesar and the glorification of Augustus, and the Fasti, which are dedicated to Roman festivals of his time.[34]

Other authors, such as the scholar Vulikh, suggests that Ovid was an intellectual proto-resister against totalitarian authoritarianism.[35]

Falsehood thesis[edit]

Poetic fiction[edit]

A number of scholars have written suggesting that Ovid's exile was not real.[36] Early in the 20th Century, J. J. Hartman argued that Ovid never left Rome for exile, and that all of his exile works are the result of Ovid’s fertile (and joking) imagination. This theory was supported and rejected in the 1930s, especially by certain Dutch authors.[b][37][38] In 1951, a similar theory, proposed by O. Janssen, argued that the poet's exile is a poetic fiction.[39] In a 1985 article, A.D. Fitton Brown also argued that Ovid's exile was fictional. The reasons argued by Brown are basically:

  • 1. The reasons for the exile and its chosen place, which has no rational explanation for a look that makes us to seek reasons only the work of Ovid himself, except doubtful passages in Pliny the Elder and Statius, and that nothing read in Tacitus, Suetonius or in any other author until the beginning of the 5th century (the author acknowledges the fragility of the usual argumentum ex silentio, but considers that, in this case, the lack of information is a particularly significant given).[40]
  • 2. Ovid provides information about the geography of Tomis (climate, landscape, customs and descriptions of the celestial motions), or do not line up with reality, corresponding to literary topics, while others may have been taken from Virgil or his Metamorphoses itself,[d] and all the correct information may have been received by international sources, some of which are identifiable.
  • 3. The poet that knew to separate the poetic author in epistolary epic could very well repeat this technique to invent their own exile — on the other hand, the possibilities that such literary fiction were opened almost inexhaustible, and a reading devoid of prejudice the work of the exile of Sulmonensis shows us how effectively the poet knew extract these possibilities that the poetic game offered to him.[41]

Brown's article was followed by a series of works supporting or refuting Brown's views in a short space of five years.[42] Brown's hypothesis opened a debate over whether the ancient poets wrote accurately about historical facts. Roman poets themselves wrote about the difference between a poet's actual life and what the poet wrote, as Catullus did in Catullus 16.[43] Modern authors suggest that the Ovid's treatment of Augustus in Tristia, chiefly as a character and only secondarily as the addressee, reminds us that these letters are literature first and foremost, and that we can not assume that they were intended to obtain an actual recall.[44] Gareth D. Williams, for example, vies Augustus as the addresse in Tr. 2 throughout the poem both as a character in the third person and via a number of apostrophes, but he is not technically the addresse of the poem, while Ovid's books are (Tr. 2.1-2).[45] These idea see the principal theme of Tr. 3 more that of poetry than political recall.[44] Rather, it seems that Ovid wants "to muthologize his exiled situation".[44]

Fasti and Ibis[edit]

The orthodox scholars, however, are opposed to all these hypotheses.[46] One of the main arguments of these scholars is that Ovid would not let his Fasti remain unfinished, mainly because this poem meant his consecration as imperial poet: most researchers agree that this work is the clearest testimony of support of Augustan ideals by Ovid,[47] although some authors such as Martin[48] and Porte[49] detected in the passage 3.371-80 of the Fasti an Ovidian attitude contrary to the wishes of Augustus to his succession. In fact, some authors believe that of all the poets of the generation of Augustus, Ovid was the youngest and perhaps the most unrelated to any "Augustan" ideas.[50]

Traditionally, it is argued that being far from Rome, Ovid had no access to libraries, thus he might have been forced to abandon the Fasti poem about the Roman calendar, of which exist only the first six books (January through June), and the workmanship, or final review, to the Metamorphoses. Fasti is, in fact, unfinished. Metamorphoses was already completed in the year of exile, missing only the final revision.[51] (In exile, Ovid said he never gave a final review on the poem.[52]) However, parts of this two poems may have been rewritten by him in Tomis while Heroides 16-21 may have been entirely composed during his exile.[53]

However, this hypothesis of a lack of scholarly documentation does not seem able to stand when we think of development, in Tomis, a poem so far-fetched as Ibis, with its entire cargo of mythological encyclopedic knowledge of the way of Alexandria.[54] Other authors, also, believe that the enemy in Ibis isn't a real person.[55] There is, in any case, another explanation for the abandonment of writing the Fasti. Some authors, such as B. R. Nagle, suggest the possibility that Ovid harbored the ideiade write this book right from the year 8 BC, when Augustus, the new Pontifex Maximus, corrected the defects resulting from the introduction of the Julian calendar. Nagle also argues that some political motivations may have caused the poet to dissociate their work, from the year 4 AD, when Tiberius was adopted by Augustus and therefore implicitly named successor to the Principality and that Ovid may have lost enthusiasm in finding that their work in praise of Caesar and his dynasty juliana should be modified to accommodate deeply and enter the symbology of the lineage of Claudius.[56][clarification needed] Thus, the poet may have just started a different work, a work that offers the perfect literary excuse for abandoning another: poetry for the sake of credibility, the earlier work should be unfinished.[56]

Influence and repercussion[edit]

His exile poetry has been seen as of fundamental importance for the study of Roman aristocracy under Augustus and Tiberius, furnishing "precious pieces of information about events and persons".[57][58]

See also[edit]


  • a. ^ Ovid himself frequently wrote about his fame (before and after his exile): see
  • b. ^ See, for example, F. Lenz, Ovid. Bericht über das Schrifttum der Jahre 1928-1937. (1938, but editorial details lost from copy read by me in Classics Library, U Austin, Texas); O. Janssen, O F M: "De Verbanning van Ovidius, Waarheid of Fiktie?" In Uit de Romeinse Keizertijd, Collectanea Franciscana Neerlandica 6-3 (1951), p. 77-105.


  1. ^ Green, 2005, xxiv.
  2. ^ OCD (2007), Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid). John Richards (ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. ^ a b c d Gaertner, 2007, p.155.
  4. ^ Green, 2005, xiv.
  5. ^ "Bibliothek des allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens. Bd. 5" (1905), Abriß der Weltliteratur, Seite 51
  6. ^ Mirmont, 1905, p.1-28.
  7. ^ See Trist. II, 131-132.
  8. ^ a b Kenney, 1982, p.454.
  9. ^ Taplin, 2000, p.437.
  10. ^ Cited by Smith, 1849, p.73.
  11. ^ a b Smith, 1849, p.72.
  12. ^ Tris., 2, 532–536.
  13. ^ Ellis, 2008, p.87
  14. ^ Denied by Wilkinson, 1955, p.363.
  15. ^ Toohey, 1996, p.195.
  16. ^ Luce, Falkner, 1989, p.210.
  17. ^ Horster, Reitz, 2005, p.20.
  18. ^ Montero, 2002, p.14.
  19. ^ See Tr. 1.1.45-8, 3.14.33, 5.12.21-2, Pont. 1.5.3-8, 3.4.1 1, 4.2.15, 4.8.65-6.
  20. ^ Ovid, Tristia 2.207
  21. ^ Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto 2.9.72
  22. ^ Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto 3.3.72
  23. ^ Norwood, Frances, "The Riddle of Ovid's Relegatio", Classical Philogy (1963) p. 158
  24. ^ Ovid, Tristia 3.6.35
  25. ^ Ovid, Tristia 4.4.43-4
  26. ^ Ovid, Tristia 2.1.103
  27. ^ Ovid, Tristia 4.4.45-6, 5.2.55-6, 5.11.15-18
  28. ^ Ovid, Tristia 2.1.245-50
  29. ^ Ovid, Tristia 2.1.495 sqq.
  30. ^ Ovid, Tristia 2.1.509-14
  31. ^ Fränkel, 1945, p.111-12.
  32. ^ a b Vázquez, 1992, p.10.
  33. ^ a b Montero, 2002, p.10.
  34. ^ Green, 2005, xxii.
  35. ^ Vulikh, 1968, p.370-82.
  36. ^ Simón, Rodríguez, 2004, and Verdière, 1992, p.163. lists an extensive bibliography.
  37. ^ Holleman, 1985, p.48.
  38. ^ Hofmann, 1987, p.23.
  39. ^ O. Janssen, 1951, p.77-105.
  40. ^ Brown, 1985, 20-21.
  41. ^ Brown, 1985, p.19-22.
  42. ^ Ezquerra, 1997, p.23-24.
  43. ^ Allen, 1950, 145-60.
  44. ^ a b c Smith, 1997, p.192.
  45. ^ Williams, , 154-209.
  46. ^ Claassen, 1987, p.31-47.
  47. ^ Fantham, 1998, p.42.
  48. ^ Martin, 1986, p.609-11.
  49. ^ Porte, 1984, p.284-306.
  51. ^ Mora, 2002, p.99-117.
  52. ^ Tristia 1, 7, 14.
  53. ^ Bömer, 1969-86, vol. 1, pp.488-9 (with further literature).
  54. ^ See, for example, the detailed description of the course books by Rome in the elegies Tr. 1.1 and 3.1. Argument raised by Mora, 2002, p.107.
  55. ^ Housman, 1972, 1040.
  56. ^ a b Nagle, 1980, p.19-20.
  57. ^ Syme, 1978, p.37.
  58. ^ Gaertner, 2007, p.10.


  • Ovid: Tristia (Tris.) and Epistulae ex Ponto
  • John C. Thibault, The Mystery of Ovid's Exile (University of California Press, Cambridge University Press, 1964)
  • H. De la Ville de Mirmont, La jeunesse d’Ovide (Paris 1905)
  • A. L. Wheeler, “Topics from the life of Ovid”, American Journal of Philology 46 (1925) 1--28
  • Oliver Taplin, Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A New Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Ronald Syme, History in Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1978)
  • Jan Felix Gaertner, Writing exile: the discourse of displacement in Greco-Roman antiquity and beyond (BRILL, 2007). ISBN 90-04-15515-5
  • Peter Green (ed.), Ovid, The poems of exile: Tristia and the Black Sea letters (University of California Press, 2005). ISBN 0-520-24260-2

Further bibliopgraphy[edit]

  • M. Trozzi, Ovidio e i suoi tempi (Catania 1930)
  • H. Fränkel, Ovid: a poet between two worlds (Berkeley 1945 = Berkeley-Los Angeles 1969)
  • M. von Albrecht-E. Zinn (eds.), Ovid (Darmstadt 1968)
  • E. Martini, Einleitung zu Ovid (Darmstadt 1970)
  • J. W. Binns (ed.), Ovid (London-Boston 1973)
  • J. Barsby, Ovid (Oxford 1978)
  • S. Mack, Ovid (New Haven—London 1988)