December 19, 2017
Now long dead, the ancient Roman poet Ovid is finally being allowed to return home
by Ian Dreiblatt
Big news from Italy this week. To make sense of it, we need to go back a few years.
Near the end of his life at the dawn of the first century CE, the poet Publius Ovidius Naso did some serious stock-taking. In a famous passage, he wrote, “Perdiderint cum me duo crimina carmen et error” — that is, “Two crimes have been my undoing: a poem, and a mistake.” The former, he wrote, had been a “turpe carmen,” an “obscene poem” in which he had made himself an “obsceni doctor adulterii,” a “teacher of vile adultery.” The latter, the mistake, he never described, writing only that he “must be silent about” it, lest he “re-open the wounds” of Augustus Caesar, the emperor who had recently banished him from his beloved Rome forever.
Scholars have long wondered what crime Ovid—as he’s known in English—actually committed. But whatever it was, it was enough to have him sent packing, in his late forties, to the remote town of Tomis, on the Black Sea coast in what is today Romania. Despite numerous pleas, he was never allowed to return to Rome, and died in exile after ten years of seclusion.
Before that, Ovid had been one of the most esteemed writers in history. Cursed, as they say, to live in interesting times, he was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar, and grew up in a Rome torn by civil strife; when he was a teenager, Julius’s nephew and adopted son Augustus consolidated power and crowned himself Rome’s first emperor. It was around the thirtieth year of Augustus’s reign that he passed his sentence on the poet, who was best known for writing The Metamorphoses, a suite that presented historicized myth and mythologized history, and The Art of Love, which may have included the aldutery lessons he would later confess to teaching. The confessions came in one of Ovid’s last well-known works, Tristia (“The Sadnesses”), in which he described Tomis, wished his friends and family well back home, and pled with the emperor, unsuccessfully, to recall him to Rome.
Millennia after he died in disgrace, Ovid remains one of the most read, influential, and beloved authors to have walked the earth. His Metamorphoses, in particular, has been a cornerstone of classical education since antiquity. The über-modernist Ezra Pound wrote in The ABC of Reading that Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of the work was “the most beautiful book in the language (my opinion and I suspect it was Shakespeare’s).” The Soviet dissident poet Osip Mandelstam—who also suffered and wrote through a long exile near the Black Sea—identified closely with Ovid, and titled his second book Tristia. In his essay “The Word and Culture,” Mandelstam wrote, “The past has not even been born yet, it has never truly come to pass. I want Ovid, Pushkin, and Catullus once more; the historical Ovid, Pushkin, and Catullus are not enough for me.”
It’s not quite Mandelstam getting his wish, but big news erupted in Rome this weekend: as Giovanna Vitale reports for La Repubblica, Rome’s city council has, on the 2,000th anniversary of Ovid’s death, officially lifted his sentence. This is to say that, though considerably too dead to enjoy it, Ovid will now finally be allowed back home.
Writing in the Guardian, Jon Henley quotes Rome’s deputy mayor Luca Bergamo as explaining the move is “about the fundamental right of artists to express themselves freely in societies in which, around the world, the freedom of artistic expression is increasingly constrained.”
The initiative was introduced by members of M5S, the “Movimento 5 Stelle” or “Five Star Movement,” an organization with complicated politics that include environmentalism, advocacy for anti-corruption measures, skepticism about the European Union, anti-interventionism in the Middle East and especially Syria, and the designation of periodic “V-days,” where the “V” is meant to recall simultaneously the number five, the movie V for Vendetta, the invasion of Normandy, and the Italian word “vaffanculo,” which means, ah, “fuck off.”
The move comes nearly a decade after the city of Florence passed a controversial measure to pardon the exiled fourteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri. That effort produced a row in which communist city coucilmember Nicola Rotondaro, who opposed the pardon seemingly on the grounds that it was considerably too little and substantially too late, memorably quipped, “If he had been sent to his death, would we perhaps have asked for his resurrection?”
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.