Ovid’s depictions of imperial triumphs in Tristia 3.12 and 4.2 and Ex Ponto 2.1 and 3.4 ostensibly advance his self-portrayal as a ‘model imperial subject’ after his relegatio to Tomis in 8 CE. However, by highlighting the difficulty of information transmission between Rome’s center and periphery, these poems also make a radical assertion: that provincial subjects play an important imaginative role in constructing imperial power abroad.
Habinek has argued that Ovid’s exile poems present ‘dependency and subjection … as the necessary condition for enjoyment of the benefits of the imperial system.’ Davis counters that they instead dramatize the difficulty of sustaining Romanitas on the frontier, and Hinds and Hardie explore the poet’s anxiety to render himself ‘present’ to Rome despite his absence in Tomis. Building on these, I argue that Ovid uses the motif of the triumph to reapply these problems to the emperor himself, who faces the converse challenge of constructing his presence in the provinces.
The triumphal ceremony by definition represents the transfer of power and information from Rome’s periphery to its center. Moreover, as Beard notes, an imperator wishing to extend his triumph beyond its ritual time and space needed to re-present it, in turn, to audiences outside the urbs. This need grew more pressing after Augustus’ ascendancy, as triumphs became less frequent and Rome’s population more far-flung.
Ovid’s longing for report of a triumph in Tristia 3.12.25-48 raises some associated problems. It suggests that Roman identity stems from participation in such communal rituals, but that citizens in the provinces are regrettably excluded. It also illustrates the unreliability and slowness of information travel across empire – a problem that not only threatens Ovid’s ability to send epistles to Rome, but also the emperor’s ability to represent news, victories, and his own authority to the provinces.
Ovid presents a solution in Tristia 4.2 when, in the absence of news from Rome, he creates and experiences an anticipated triumph in his imagination. In fact, when news of Tiberius’ Pannonian triumph of 13 CE finally arrives, Ovid’s resultant poem (Ex Ponto 2.1) ostentatiously falls short of Tristia 4.2 in enargeia and inspiration. In Ex Ponto 3.4.1-60, Ovid blames the shortcomings of Ex Ponto 2.1 on the belatedness and poor quality of the news reports that find their way to Tomis from Rome. Taken together, these poems suggest that poetry can play a vital role in helping subjects on the frontier to participate imaginatively in the rituals that underpin Roman identity.
The substitution of imaginative for actual experience, however, raises problems of its own. Tristia 4.2 appears to rescind Ovid’s flippant treatment of the triumph in Ars Amatoria 1.217-228, where he advises would-be lovers to invent names for the cities and rivers on parade. However, the fictive triumph of Tristia 4.2 makes a similarly subversive suggestion: representations of imperial power need bear no relationship to reality so long as they inspire loyalty in their viewers.
Ovid embraces this idea in Ex Ponto 3.4.89-114 with a bold prophecy of future triumph that effectively eliminates the need for a real victory. The poem itself renders this increasingly inaccessible ritual into a vivid imaginative experience that can be shared by readers across time and space.However, it also treats the emperor as a public symbol that is constructed and authorized by the mental gaze of his subjects (cf. Ex Ponto 2.1.1-18). Moreover, Ovid represents the triumph as part of a process of change that applies not only to Rome’s enemies but also to Rome herself. The barbarian peoples now paraded in triumph will someday, like the Getes, be incorporated into empire and become part of the emperor’s validating audience. Ovid’s exilic representations of triumph assist in this process by sharing a quintessentially Roman experience with peoples on the periphery of empire. They also suggest that imperial power exists in part through the imaginative participation of its subjects.