ovid in exile


Publius Ovidius Naso invented exile the way Charles Dickens invented Christmas. Of course, the institution was there before, but it had not been given a definitive literary and cultural codification, a reference point for all subsequent experience. Exile in the ancient world was bound up in the identity of what we would call the individual with his or her community—not so much “family” in the ancestral sense of Native Americans and East Asians, but what we’ve come to think of as “the polity,” the city. The power of exile as punishment is a construct of urban life. Exile is always exile from—and the community left behind has to remain a powerful element in the exile’s life, or else the dispossessed suffers only emigration. When an ancient was thrust into exile, he or she (yes—think of Dido) carried the City on his or her back; and the foundations of “daughter” cities traced back to the laborious expulsion from parents. But all this was in the realm of legend, mythology, history. With Ovid, for the first time, we hear the voice of an exile in psychological and social depth—exulis hæc vox est: præbet mihi littera linguam, / et si non liceat scribere, mutus ero—“This is the voice of an exile: a letter serves as my tongue, / and if not permitted to write, I will be dumb.” [1] Ovid would have appreciated the pun available in English translation but not to him: In Latin, littera, a letter of the alphabet, is a different word from epistula, a missive.

more from J. Kates at Harvard Review here.