Donato Gagliastro

The Last Farewell from the Exile: Resistance and twilight in Ovid's heroic poetry

Donato Gagliastro

Department of Greek and Latin Studies, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic


A mio padre e mia madre

Abstract: The Tristia, elegies of solitude from Ovid’s peripheral world, invoke the presence of a distant and unrepeatable past. The past-present dialectic is emblematic of the conflictual condition of the Augustan poet, divided between the instinctive urge to return to the homeland versus the surrender to the painful abandonment. Internal parallels have revealed that the poet’s radical antagonism may further differs in opposing spatial and temporal perspectives according to schemes of dualities variously combined. Transfigured by exile, Ovidian poetry becomes an elegy from the distance that resists the impact against the hostile places and against the sense of laceration that marginalizes his life. The image of the homeland persists in the perpetual absence of the object invoked and desired. The sense of lacking provokes an indomitable rebellion against the condition of exile and the faraway places destined for him. Despite the awareness of failure, Ovid's lament combines with the irrepressible need to express a titanic will to resist superior forces. Among the criticisms of this work, that of monotony stands out. In an attempt to redefine this dominant opinion, the paper shows that the Tristia do not have monotonous cadences except in appearance. On closer inspection, this apparent monotony reveals the fidelity to the richness and variety of painful contradictions, which cannot be eliminated from the horizon of the exile experience. Ovid’s voice resonates with exceptional conditions that, as such, acquire a metaphysical significance. Moreover, lexical examinations have enlightenedthe sense of periphery and exclusion expressed by recurring words such as "extremus" and "ultimus". The essay tries to clarify the reason why the geographical meaning in relation to the lands of exile evokes also an existential one so that Ovid’s universal pain is reflected in the spatial representation of exile. Lastly, at the twilight of life, Ovidian poetry represents the extreme defense against the loss of identity, the inner resistance opposed to the lacerating and destructive effects of exile.

Keywords: Limit; Memory; Homeland; Resistance

Elegies of solitude, Ovid’s Tristia echo a banished voice that invokes the presence and comfort of the distant past kept in a tenacious memory resisting the consumption of exile. "Thrown far away on the Sarmatic banks" (V, 1, 13), the poet’s tormented gaze is fixed on Rome over the regretted time of literary successes. The city made marble by Augustus (according to Suetonius: "gloriatus marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset", De Vitis Caesarum, II, 28), where the pleasure-loving Ovid had intensely abandoned himself to the youthful pleasures, relegated him to the extreme margins of the empire. For the poet celebrated works extolled by public acclaim, exile becomes the elegy of interiority that reflects on itself and leads to a final shift in the shadows. The exile outlines an irreversible rift through which Ovid declines from greatness to smallness, from the public to the private, and finally from youth to old age preluding death. In the Tristia a subtle dialectical plot unfolds between places and time, two opposite and conflicting dimensions:

“Non ego divitias avidus sine fine parandi

latum mutandis mercibus aequor aro:

nec peto, quas quondam petii studiosus, Athenas,

oppida non Asiae, non loca visa prius,

non ut Alexandri claram delatus ad urbem

delicias videam, Nile iocose, tuas.

Quod faciles opto ventos (quis credere possit?)

Sarmatis est tellus, quam mea vela petunt.

Obligor, ut tangam Laevi fera litora Ponti;

quodque sit a patria tam fuga tarda, queror.

Nescioquo videam positos ut in orbe Tomitas,

exilem facio per mea vota viam.” (I, 2, 75-86)

This sequence makes explicit the opposition of the present against the past, denied through the repeated use of the adverb non/ nec which loads the verses with a strong power of negation and total exclusion of the past from the dimension of the present. The memory preserves images of events that Ovid once experienced and, having vanished, recalls them. His reminiscence implies an inexorable detachment from his youth experiences, recognized as past and unrepeatable. In these couplets aimed at contradicting the examples of travelers listed in the Horatian poem for Maecenas (Odes, I,1), Ovid is no longer the young man who traverses the seas to perfect his studies in Athens, or to visit the refined cities of Asia Minor which he had seen returning from Athens. He does not intend to travel to enjoy the luxurious sensualities offered by the lascivious Alexandria, despised both by Caesar's anti-Pompeian propaganda and by Octavian's anti-Oriental one.

On the contrary, the sails of his journey are stretched towards an extreme and antithetical limit to that of his great homeland: the Black Sea port of Tomis, whose marginal smallness is heralded by a series of geographical references ordered according to a decreasing gradualness: first the land of the Sarmatians, then the "sinister shores of Pontus" (the chiasmus is notable) and finally the men of Tomis. The process of approaching the fatal exile is rhetorically emphasized both by the oxymoronic contrast "late escape" and by the relief of the position in which Ovid places the first and the last geographical element, Sarmatis and Tomitas, which stand out respectively in initial and final position.

The dialectic between past and present is emblematic of the conflictual condition of Ovid, divided between the instinctive urge to return to the homeland versus the surrender to the painful abandonment to exile.

This radical antagonism exercised by the two themes in antithesis (past-present) differs further in opposing spatial and temporal perspectives which seem to be summarized according to following scheme of dualities:

Past vs Present

Distance vs. Proximity

Greatness vs. Smallness

Homeland (Rome) vs Land of Exile (Tomis)

Life vs Death

The constitutive elements of this scheme of oppositions, variously disseminated throughout the Tristia, converge in one of the most formally elaborated elegies (l, 3). The lament for the lost homeland rises to the solemnity of tragedy to evoke, not without excessive theatricality, the crucial moment of the departure, before his wife and servants, dismayed at the news of the relegatio ordered by Augustus. Ovid goes back to the tearful remembrance of those events that tumbled through his memory and set a definitive end to the life he had led until then. The poet identifies the power of this limit in the expression supremum tempus (I, 3, 2), the night of his departure, which contains a final meaning: the last point that is about to become the first after the exceeded limit, beyond which the previous life becomes past.

“Blando patriae retinebar amore

Ultima sed iussae nox erat illa fugae.” (I, 3, 49-50)

The night of departure also marks the limit that divides the temporal term from the spatial one for the "last night" prepares the transition that leads towards "the last land" ("me capit ultima tellus", I, 3, 83). The contrast between homeland and exile transpires in the verse “Finibus extremae iusserat Ausoniae” (I, 3, 6). The adjective “extremus”, which is placed in the semantic context of distance, is used multiple times to connote the land of arrival (see below). However, its use describes the "extreme boundaries" of the port of Brindisi, the place of both departure and detachment from his previous life.

Ovid’s poetry, transfigured by exile, becomes an elegy from the distance that resists the impact against the hostile places and against the sense of laceration that oppresses and marginalizes his life. The image of the homeland persists in the perpetual absence of the object invoked and desired. The Tristia often restricts the semantic area of ​​"desire" to the original and privative meaning (de-sidus) of "feeling the lack" of the homeland and distant people he lost. Ovid "desires" what is far and lost and, being deprived of it, his "desiderium" is a regret that afflicts him and allows no consolation.

After arriving in Tomis, he is appalled by the absence and emptiness aroused by the memory of all that he has lost, here expressed with the same reminiscent verb, subit, already used in I, 3. The couplet echoes two expressions of Cicero: "me desiderium tenet urbis" (Familiares, 2, 11) "non essem quidem tam diu in desire rerum mihi carissimarum" (Familiares, 2, 12):

“Roma domusque subit desideriumque locorum,

quicquid et amissa restat in urbe mei.” (III, 2, 21-22)

A close balance between memory and regret also emerges in the following verse:

“Pars desiderii maxima paene mei/ sis memor.” (III, 6, 20,21)

The regret widens to friendship, which Ovid felt deprived of, along with his homeland. In this apostrophe, he addresses an unknown recipient, identified by antonomasia with Patroclus, Pylades, Theseus and Euryalus, through words pronounced by the letter according to the expedient of the personification.

“Nec patriam magis ille suam desiderat et quae

plurima cum patria sentit abesse sibi.” (V, 4, 27-28)

The experience of exile is described in terms of lack and deprivation, contrary to Seneca, in whose works the exile is not a source of dismay, nor is it a suffering that places the blame on destiny. Whereas Ovid accuses fate for dragging him to pain ("Sed mea me in poenam nimirum fata trahebant", III, 6,15), Seneca, overcoming Ovid's perspective and the distressing image of the "desiderium", places his own experience of exile in the larger picture of wandering, viewed as the very essence of living. Given these premises, the distance transforms from suffering into good for it accustoms a mother to the absence of her child (“redisti, non ut voluptatem ex filio perciperes, sed ut consuetudinem desiderii perderes”, Consolatio ad Helviam matrem, XV, 3), and the regret, which fades over time ("ipso interval desiderium molliente") will not only be accepted but rewarded by the affection of those who are present (“Certabunt in te officiis et unius desiderium duorum pietate supplebitur”, Consolatio ad Helviam matrem , XVIII, 3).

Uunaffected by the reassuring power of the Stoic doctrine, Ovid rejects his fate as a wanderer. The sense of lacking provokes an indomitable and fierce rebellion against the condition of exile and the faraway places destined for him.

“Roma relinquenda est: utraque iusta mora est.

Uxor in aeternum vivo mihi viva negatur.” (I, 3, 61,62)

“Ante oculos errant domus Urbsque et forma locorum(…)

Coniugis ante oculos sicut praesentis imago est;

Illa meus casus ingravat.” (III, 4b, 11,13,14)

Without the comfort of philosophy, the void created by what has been lost cannot be filled by the detached superiority of the stoic. The image of his wife Fabia, who acquires importance from the eminent position at the beginning of the two verses, is present in memory however offers no comfort. Fabia’s image fails to alleviate the weight of distance. On the contrary, it aggravates it (ingravat) and makes it unsatisfactory. The conjugal affection forever denied in this new life is an inconsolable wound, accentuated by the contrast between in aeternum and vivo, repeated in short distance from the polyptyoton viva. Fabia, recalled many times in the Tristia, appears with the features of one of the "Heroides". It is not by chance that Ovid compares her to Penelope (in particular in I, 6 and in the final elegy), the supreme symbol of conjugal fidelity. For his wife’s empathetic devotion, Ovid raises a monument likening her to Penelope's nomen inextinctum. However, unlike in the Heroides, the perspective changes as the sense of emptiness and absence is suffered by the abandoner and not by the abandoned.

Ovid reiterates a commiserative poetry expressing an abysmal pain, and reflects the oppression of a man who feels caged in body and spirit by the imprisonment of foreign places. He does not tend to emphasize his misfortunes with the secret hope of invoking pity in Augustus. This intent manifests through the self-defense of Book II and the innumerable pleas addressed to the emperor, the "angry god", the "offended Caesar", invoked in an attempt to bend him to his prayers.

The insistence on pathetic themes, far from being a sign of tired repetitiveness, testifies on the contrary to an inexhaustible vital impulse to the “agon”, in an effort to achieve the return to the homeland without succumbing to the adversity of the exile. Ovid's elegiac lament combines with the irrepressible need to express a titanic will, despite the awareness of failure, to resist superior forces now identified in fate, now in places, now in the intransigence of Augustus.

Ovid's attitude is rooted in the hope of receiving an act of mercy from the prince. The more the passage of time disillusions him, the more his tenacious resistance sublimates into a heroic poetry, in which the character of competitiveness dominates. In the absence of everything, Ovid's distant world has an eminent existence in poetry, so much so that everything he possesses stems from it. As the last barrier to the impetus of misfortunes and injustice, poetry is the only secure and authentic possession. Even in the praise of Fabia's greatness, the self- awareness of his poetry shines through, since it is thanks to his poetry that the virtuous woman will be immortalized.

The apparent monotony of themes can be traced back to the monody of a solitary and deserted soul. The author finds the origin of his thematic foundation in extreme conditions where, perhaps for the first time in his career, poetry coincides with life. Therefore, the poetry of the Tristia does not show monotonous cadences except in appearance. On closer inspection, in fact, this apparent monotony reveals the fidelity to the richness and variety of painful contradictions, which cannot be eliminated from the horizon of the exile experience. The following verses can be interpreted as a poetic declaration:

“Flebilis ut noster status est, ita flebile carmen,

materiae scripto conveniente suae.

Integer et laetus laeta et iuvenalia lusi.” (V, 1, 5-7)

The adjective "flebilis" clarifies the mournful origin of elegy, restored to its ancient purpose, that of regret, and as such the most suitable for its condition of radical unhappiness. Poetry is emblematic of his present life, now drained of the sweetness of his youthful life and of the city that once welcomed them. Their drying is replaced by the intense pathos of a tearful poetry lamenting the emptiness and loss of the past through which Ovid's elegy conquers total mimetic participation in his sad life. In the perfect lusi, plastically placed at the end of the verse, the exemplary characteristics of his happy, remote and unrepeatable past are summarized.

The elegy seems now to miss the author of youthful loves that had produced a rebellious rupture of sentimental conventions. The elegy no longer sees the "Naso magister", "novum vates, tenerorum mater Amorum" (Amores, III, 15, 1) who had emphasized the seductive aspects of the Alexandrian mentality and the refined voluptuousness of the circles in “Urbe”. The nostalgia of that world, lost together with his youth, returns in the form of regret in the memory of the poet exiled from his homeland. Ovid's past is an unattainable limit, within which an ended epoch of sensuality and affection has moved away in time and space without leaving any trace behind. When he was young, he refused to identify poetry and biography but now, tired and exiled, Ovid is forced to blend the two in an inseparable nexus.

Places that hold a body imprisoned in space mark an imprint on the poetry as on the life. Surrounded by the immovable and impassable borders of exile, Ovid cannot help but look with contempt at Sarmazia and Scythia, Euxine Pontus and Tomis, all depicted as hostile and barbarous, frigid and distant:

“Barbara me tellus orbisque novissima magni

sustinet et saevo cinctus ab hoste locus.” (V, 2,31-32)

“Quam tenet Euxini mendax cognomine litus

Et Scythici vere terra sinistra fregi?”(V, 10, 14)

The contempt is reinforced by the choice of affine verbs (tenet-sustinet) which increase the expressive breadth of the lexical notion of "to hold", and thus seems to refer to the oppressive constraint of a chain that prevents movement. Here and elsewhere ("Euxinus falso nomine dictus", III, 13, 28) the criticism strikes at the origin itself of the toponym whose etymological meaning ("eu-xeinos", "welcoming, hospitable") has a promise of hospitality that is betrayed by the real characteristics of the place.

A number of Ovid's commentators believe that the description of Tomis and the Sarmatian peoples appears to be overly negative and bombastic, functional to the mere intent to pity Augustus’ soul. It has been observed that the descriptions are excessively laden with redundant elements, in order to exaggerate the difficulties and present the places as more horrid and inhospitable than they actually were.

However, here it is not relevant whether Ovid's external descriptions have magnified proportions with respect to the truth. It would be misleading to speak of the instrumentality of Ovidian poetry as if it were subordinated to the pursuit of a material self-interest. The poetry of exile resonates with exceptional conditions that, as such, acquire a metaphysical significance: given this condition, even the external reality is revealed and manifested in ways of feeling that are, themselves, exceptional. It is through these that the essence of things becomes evident. Therefore, the elegiac-universal pain of Ovid along with his existence are reflected even in the spatial representation of exile. Forced into places that are foreign to him, suffered as if they were a tormenting illness, he defines himself in a heartfelt tone aeger. In the following verses, addressed to his wife, he confesses that he is sick, just as much in spirit as in body. As the disease looms, the connotation of the places unravels through successive negations and anaphoric couples (nec ... not ... not ...). It is significant that the entire sequence is sealed to the two extremes by the words aeger / aegro:

“Aeger in extremis ignoti partibus orbis

Incertusque meae paene salutis eram.

Quem mihi nunc animum dira regione iacenti

inter Sauromatas esse Getasque putes?

Nec caelum patior, nec aquis adsuevimus istis,

terraque nescioquo non placet ipsa modo.

Non domus apta satis, non hic cibus utilis aegro.” (III, 3, 2-9)

If we consider the suffering (patior) as the effect and the exile as the agent cause, then we can understand that Ovid's explicit aversion to the places around him is caused by the oppressive power of exile. It acts as an efficient cause making the feeling of aversion consequential (an effect that it could not produce by itself). In the presence of the places that captivate him, Ovid reconnects to his monumental homeland viewed as the source and symbolic horizon of his heroic poetry in which the gaze outstretched to the past turns contemptuously to the present:

“vivere quam miserum est inter Bessosque Getasque

illum, qui populi semper in ore fuit!

Quam miserum est porta vitam muroque tueri

Vixque sui totum viribus esse loci!

Aspera militiae iuvenis certamina fugi,

nec nisi lusura movimus arma manu;

nunc senior gladioque latus scutoque sinistram,

canitiem galeae subicioque meam”. (IV, 1, 67-74)

The stark contrast between youth and old age breaks through a network of antitheses and intertextual references (The Loves, I, 9), in which Ovid commiserates himself, the acclaimed Augustan poet, once haloed in fame, now lost in the impersonal anonymity among barbarian people. Similarly, the young elegiac poet who once refused the military life and deplored senile love as ignoble as an old man's fight, now, "senior" as the Virgilian Priam (Aeneid, II, 509), wields his sword to defend himself from the perils of Tomis. In two parts of the work, both placed in the opening verse, Ovid makes exact chronological references to the duration of the exile since the beginning: first, two years have elapsed ("bis me sol adiit", IV, 7,1), then three ( "Ut sumus in Ponto, ter frigore constitit Hister" V, 10, 1). This identical position seems to reflect and reaffirm the immutability of events, flattened within a cold framework in which cadences of time are measured and conceived as a succession of identical instants (“Stare putes, adeo procedunt tempora tarde”, V, 10, 5).

As time passes in vain, the sense of disorientation worsens and the empty precipice of distance deepens. At the same time, the desire intertwined with hope trickles away. In the later compositions, the lament tends to be sublimated into imaginative outbursts. It does not seem a coincidence that in the elegies of the 4th and 5th book, composed - if we want to believe Ovid's chronology - over two years after the exile, the poet recurs more insistently to hyperbolic similarities (the first trace of which is in I, 5.47) to measure the magnitude and accumulation of his own suffering. However, since suffering is immeasurable, it can only be compared to places, spaces and magnitudes that are boundless, such as sand on the shore, fishes in the sea, trees in a forest, and grass in the Field of Mars:

“meque tot adversis cumulant, quot litus harenas,

quotque fretum pisces, ovaque piscis habet.

vere prius flores, aestu numerabis aristas,

poma per autumnum frigoribusque nives,

quam mala, quae toto patior iactatus in orbe,

dum miser Euxini litora laeva peto.” (IV, 1, 55-60)

“Quot frutices silvae, quot flavas Thybris harenas,

mollia quot Martis gramina campus habet,

tot mala pertulimus, quorum medicina quiesque.” (V, 1, 31-33)

“Litora quot conchas, quot amoena rosaria flores,

quotve soporiferum grana papaver habet,

silva feras quot alit, quot piscibus unda natatur,

quot tenerum pennis aëra pulsat avis,

tot premor adversis: quae si conprendere coner,

Icariae numerum dicere coner aquae.”(V, 2, 23-28)

As it can be seen, the examples echo each other according to a symmetrical and invariable scheme. The parallelism is presented through the correlation between the indeclinable quot and tot, the latter being the most suitable to mean innumerable evils. Similes compare images and boundless spaces that, by virtue of their common infinite, seem to act as a subtle counterpoint to the impossibility of crossing the finite border of the hated places, in the awareness of not having enough power to render the ideal real.

The poetic images of such similes are models of infinity to measure the final distance that separates exile from the homeland, that is to say the real from the ideal. The elegies from the Tristia, in a continuous oscillation between rebellion and resignation, have made imaginable the possibility and the desire to bridge this distance.

However, faced with the obstacles that reality places in the way of desire, Ovid’s sour soul, as Leopardi says, "imagines what he does not see" and "wanders in an imaginary space" (Zibaldone of thoughts, pag.170, 12- 13 July 1820) so that the imagination, replacing the real, strives to bridge the distance from the desired places and cancel the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion. From the very beginning, Ovid's solitude is filled with the poignant hope of being reunited at the origin and yearns for the desire of the impossible return to Rome, the cosmic place of his life single and associated.

Over time, however, desire and hope are split. In particular, the "desiderium" of Rome crystallizes and survives as a remote and unattainable limit while the poet loses hope of finding the end in his perfect cosmos (Rome).

The Tristia are therefore the elegies from the peripheral world of Ovid, who, having shed the center (Rome), faces the extreme destiny of his inconclusive life. The concept of the periphery, and together with it, the sense of expulsion towards the margins as well as the distance that can no longer be filled or measured, is characterized by words such as "extremus" and "ultimus", in which the geographical meaning in relation to the lands of exile evokes also an existential meaning. This subjective connotation, reaffirmed by numerous occurrences of the two adjectives variously disseminated throughout the work, acquires a constant significant trait, as it is shown in the following results, identified through the lexical examination of the text:

“Orbis/ Ultimus, a terra terra remota mea.” (I,1,128)

“Et mihi facta via est et me capit ultima tellus.” (I, 3, 83)

“Ulterior nulli quam mihi terra data est.” (II, 194)

“Qui procul extremo pulsus in orbe latet.” (III, 1, 50)

“ultima nunc patior, nec me mare portubus orbum.” (III, 2, 11)

“Heu! quam vicina est ultima terra mihi!” (III, 4b, 6)

“Haec igitur regio, magni paene ultima mundi.” (IV, 4, 83)

“Forsan in extremo coniugis orbe diem.” (V, 5, 4)

“Solus in extremos iussus abire Getas?” (V, 12,10)

In the last analysis, the land of exile as the ultimate limit of the Roman world transfigures into the end of Ovid’s own life. The exile’s indomitable soul has abdicated the hope of leaving prison and ending his days in the safe harbor of Rome. Never pacified with foreign places, Ovid is finally forced to surrender to the contradictory destiny of living to "set” in the east (Exul ut occiderem nunc mihi vita data est, III, 3, 36). By paradoxical contrast, he is destined to end his days on the Eusine shores, which, although wide open to the sea, always appear to be unceasingly closed. Exiled with no return, Ovid’s banned voice entrusts to the elegies the supreme task of heralding his "distant death". The resistance of man may be defeated, but not the strength of the poet, consoled by the eternal force of his work. Poetry, in an extreme consolatory and titanic impulse, tries to rise above his misery and dominate reality but cannot eliminate its constitutive sadness. At the twilight of life, Ovidian poetry represents the extreme defense against the loss of identity, the inner resistance opposed to the lacerating and destructive effects of exile. In the poetics of twilight the sad and heroic solitude of the exile reaches a transfiguration of the ego where everything is a final seal.


I would like to express my profound gratitude to my father and my mother. My most sincere thanks to Lucie Doležalová, Tina Gesmundo, Annamaria Andreoli, Valerie Bogdan and Vincenzo Paolino. Finally, to my Nevio.


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