Marco Montagnin

Parve – nec invideo – sine me, liber, ibis in Urbem

The exsilium, unlike in the past, is now a passive, voluntary condemnation: it is a way for citizens to save themselves, and thus, broadly speaking become migrants. An exile becomes a migrant, in some cases, a homeless person and no one seems to listen to the suffering that transpires from his haggard face, from the dreamy and gloomy eyes of a man who can no longer go back, who has abandoned everything to reach a mutilated, parodic concept of freedom. Many are the illustrious cases of this in the last century, especially during the period of totalitarianism matured between the world wars and immediately after the one that follows.

Whereas, Relegatio in insulam (exile on the island), in Roman law, was the punishment that allowed people to maintain their property and status as citizens, although it also required them to leave a certain location (in the case of banishment) or to be relegated to a certain place within the state (in the case of confinement); the latter was also implemented during Fascism and applied to some Italian intellectuals, including Cesare Pavese [1] and Carlo Levi. Confinement was scarcely permanent, in fact, it could be revoked, bsince it was a a punishment of a political rather than legal nature. Let us recall a famous case from Roman times, although today’s historiography questions its veracity: that of Publius Ovidius Naso who, in October 8 AD, was confined to Tomi.

Ovid was one of the most important poets of his era, which is often misinterpreted: a flourishing age, the age that led Roman civilisation to become the great empire we all know, and yet, it was politically and socially complicated. Rome’s strategy of conquest did not include religious and cultural subjugation, and this enabled a continuous cross-influence between Rome and its territories; an influence that was predominantly from Rome outwards, but also vice versa. Roman customs, the Mos maiorum so dear to the ancestors, was slowly corrupted over the centuries; a corruption opposed by a fringe of the ruling class, the optimates. Despite the conservatives’ efforts to keep the ancient values intact, the game was already lost: beauty, luxury and pleasure had taken root in Rome. Augustus tried to stop the dissolution of Rome by forcing the disobedient to submit. In an unstable climate of transition, young Ovid, son of a wealthy equestrian family, undertook the Cursus honorum but soon abandoned politics to devote himself to poetry, approaching the circle of Messalla.
As a matter of fact, the imperator exploited the literati of the time to promote the glory of Rome and its traditions: it was the circle of Maecenas, whose main exponents were Virgil and Horace, who celebrated the past, ancient customs and Augustus himself; they were opposed by the circle of Messalla who, despite his extraneousness to political events, contrasted the idea of imperialistic poetics with evasion in dreams, and the idea of strict customs with the sweet refuge of love.
The ethical-poetic archaism of the Augustean period had been set aginst a new form: the Roman elegy, which, despite deriving from the Hellenic tradition, led to completely original results.

Elegia quoque Graecos provocamus, cuius mihi tersus atque elegans maxime videtur auctor Tibullus. Sunt qui Propertium malint. Ovidius utroqu elascivior, sicut durior Gallus.[2]

Greek elegy, characterised by the couplet in which hexameter and pentameter alternate, derives from the élegos, a song accompanied by a flute that expressed mourning and lamentation; it narrates mythological love stories that mirror those actually experienced by the poet. Neoteric poetry acted as an intermediary between Greek and Roman elegy, and in it some typical axioms were defined, including that of the puella/domina. The leitmotif of servitium amoris, whereby the poet becomes the slave of the capricious and cruel beloved maiden, leads the former to live a dissolute existence of moral and civil degradation; the fiction he lives makes him an unfortunate soldier in war of love, and thus the motif of militia amoris also appears. Poetry itself becomes an instrument of courtship, and comes close to the Alexandrian and neoteric poetry, conceived as a discipline to be practised in private moments of disengagement. The condition of servitium amoris is a denial of the Mos maiorum, yet the poets, aware of being unable to oppose imperial power, thank Augustus for having restored the peace that allows them to indulge in otium; they also praise the idea of Roman marriage, which is, however, reinterpreted as a free and irregular sentimental relationship; together with this, the main foundations of ancient Roman custom are also revised.

Ovid belongs to the second generation of elegiac poets: he did not live through the civil wars and does not seem to understand that his opposition to the political regime in force will lead him to an exemplary sentence. The elegiac metre experienced the appearance of new themes thanks to the brilliant mind of the young man who, in a short time, became one of the most influential poets of his time.
During his full literary maturity, he equally seems to realise the imminent danger: he temporarily abandons elegy to compose two works: the Metamorphoses and the Fasti. If in the former he makes an explicit exaltation of the prince and his time, in the latter – interrupted after his condemnation – he narrates the legendary events that gave rise to the Roman calendar. Unfortunately, it was already too late: he had added a new error to his past ones, albeit not literary, it weighed out heavily on the emperor’s condemnation.

perdiderint cum me duo crimina, carmen et error,
alterius facti culpa silenda mihi:
nam non sum tanti, renovem ut tua vulnera, Caesar,
quem nimio plus est indoluisse semel.
altera pars superest, qua turpi carmine factus
arguor obsceni doctor adulterii. [3]

The carmen is the Ars amatoria, but the error was never clarified. There is speculation about a scandal involving Agustus’ niece or the poet’s links with the fringe that wanted an orientalising turn of the empire. Ovid ex Pontus is a broken man: Rome was at the centre of the world, while Tomi was a remote, rugged and wild place on the edge of the civilised world. In the Tristia the poet addresses his circle of anonymous friends, describing Pontus as harsh and wild, the inhabitants as barbarians, in an obsessive and repetitive narrative of its conditions; differently, in the Epistulae ex Ponto, Ovid addresses the circle close to the emperor to intercede on his behalf, hoping for a possible change of location.

Ovid died, alone, between 17 and 18 AD in Tomi: not even the death of Augustus and the rise of Tiberius allowed the poet to return to Rome. His punishment, which was legally confinement, was in reality an exile; he was forced to live among people who were culturally and physically foreign to him, and thus became a stranger even to himself. He lost his vital force – his hedonism faded away, turned into a dark shadow of memories – and drawing only from his memory, he slowly wore himself out.

This is how one of the greatest poets of all time died, whispering in his books not to be ashamed, too frightened by an auctoritas that, even today, prevents, in too many places, the existence of genius unless it is enslaved to the dark human games that have nothing divine about them. Otherwise, he is forced to abandon his homeland, and then, like a new Cain, he awaits death at the hands of his own blood while he recalls vague images that turn into dreams.

Parve – nec invideo – sine me, liber, ibis in Urbem:
ei mihi, quod domino non licet ire tuo!
vade, sed incultus, qualem decet exulis esse;
infelix habitum temporis huius habe.
nec te purpureo velent vaccinia fuco
non est conveniens luctibus ille color
nec titulus minio, nec cedro charta notetur,
candida nec nigra cornua fronte geras.
felice ornent haec instrumenta libellos:
fortuna memorem te decet esse meae.
nec fragili geminae poliantur pumice frontes,
hirsutus passis ut videare comis.
neve litura rum pudeat; qui viderit illas,
de lacrimis factas sentiat esse meis.
vade, liber, verbisque meis loca grata saluta:
contingam certe quo licet illa pede.
siquis, ut in populo, nostri non inmemor illi,
siquis, qui, quid agam, forte requirat, erit:
vivere me dices, salvum tamen esse negabis;
id quoque, quod vivam, munus habere dei[4]

[2] We also challenge the supremacy of the Greeks in elegy. Of our elegiac poets Tibullus seems to me to be the most terse and elegant. There are, however, some who prefer Propertius. Ovid is more sportive than either, while Gallus​ is more severe.

Marco Fabio Quintiliano, Institutio Oratoria, X, 1,93-95

[3] Though two charges, carmen et error, a poem and an error,
ruined me, I must be silent about the second fault:
I’m not important enough to re-open your wound, Caesar,
it’s more than sufficient you should be troubled once.
The first, then: that I’m accused of being a teacher
of obscene adultery, by means of a vile poem.

Ovid, Tristia, Liber II, vv. 207-212, translated by A. S. Kline, 2003.

[4]Little book, go without me – I don’t begrudge it – to the city.
Ah, alas, that your master’s not allowed to go!
Go, but without ornament, as is fitting for an exile’s:
sad one, wear the clothing of these times.
You’ll not be cloaked, dyed with hyacinthine purple –
that’s no fitting colour to go mourning –
no vermilion title, no cedar-oiled paper,
no white bosses, ‘horns’ to your dark ‘brow’.
Happier books are decorated with these things:
you instead should keep my fate in mind.
No brittle pumice to polish your two edges,
so you’re seen ragged, with straggling hair.
No shame at your blots: he who sees them
will know they were caused by my tears.
Go, book, greet the dear places, with my words:
I’ll walk among them on what ‘feet’ I can.
If, in the crowd, there’s one who’s not forgot me,
if there’s one, perhaps, who asks how I am,
say I’m alive, but deny that I am well:
that I’m even alive is a gift from a god.

Ovid, Tristia, Liber I, I, 1-20, translated by A. S. Kline, 2003.


Ti è piaciuto l’articolo? Lascia qui la tua opinione su La Livella.

Did you enjoy the article? Leave here your feedback on La Livella.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email