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Ovid’s Tombs: Afterlives of the Poetic Corpus

Nora Goldschmidt

‘I prefer to speak from the depths of my tomb’ (Chateaubriand, Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe)

At the end of the Metamorphoses, Ovid declares that his afterlife (uiuam...per...omnia saecla, 15.879, 878) will reside not in his body, but in his poems, his ‘better part’ (pars...melior, 15.875). Much has been written about the reception of Ovid’s voice, yet Ovid’s physical remains — or the absent presence of his body — also played a crucial role in the poet’s European reception. To borrow a pun on the Latin ‘body’/’body of work’ that Ovid makes himself (Farrell 1999; Hardie 2002: 298-9), the reception of Ovid’s texts and the invention of the resting place(s) of Ovid’s body were closely intertwined. After exile, Ovid became obsessed with his physical remains, constantly equating text and body, and feared never being buried at all (Tr. 3.3.45-6). Yet the location of Ovid’s real grave remained a mystery. With only his poetic corpus to turn to, later readers essentially invented the tomb from the text. This paper presents three snapshots of Ovidian ‘tombs’, each intended to highlight the complex dialogue among Ovid’s readers between the poet’s body and the poet’s body of work, his tombs and his texts.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in Ovid’s reception history where voice, text and tomb meet, is the 13th-century De vetula. In a prose ‘introitus’, we learn that this three-book hexameter poem was discovered when ‘certain ancient tombs were being excavated’ near Tomis. One, inscribed in Latin, was identified as Ovid’s burial place: hic iacet ingeniosus poeta. In an implicit continuation of Ovid’s claim at the end of the Metamorphoses that his voice would outlive his body, although the poet’s bones have dissolved, his book – through the encounter with his tomb — lives on ‘unconsumed by ages’: for the poem itself, so we are told, is Ovid’s lost autobiography from exile. This section examines how this fictional physical ‘discovery’ gives authority to the borrowed voice in ‘the most ambitious pseudo-Ovidian poem of the Middle Ages’ (Knox 2009). Riddled with anachronisms, De vetula flouts its own fakery (Godman 1995), yet  ̶  precisely because of the story of its discovery  ̶  readers were eager to accept it as Ovid’s authentic voice from exile.  

The second snapshot moves forward in time to focus on a painting by the Schwabian artist Johann Heinrich Schönfeld. While the De vetula works on the basis of an imagined sepulchral discovery, the Ovidian textual corpus was also crucial to reading concrete monuments, a number of which crop up in the moveable modern localizations of ‘Tomis’ in East-central Europe, where a series of tombs of Ovid were discovered, invented and contested (Trapp 1973). Schönfeld draws on the tradition, but his painting — complete with an epitaph from Ovid’s works (Tr. 3.3.73-6) and imaging the Scythian ‘other’ unable to decipher the ruined tomb of the civilised Roman — injects into the concrete monument as reception a further ‘reading’ of Ovid’s works from exile.

The final snapshot, excavated in 1674, moves to the outskirts of Rome. Extrapolating from the Tristia Ovid’s wish to be buried in Rome (e.g., Tr. 3.65-6)), the site now known as the tomb of the Nasonii was seized upon as Ovid’s lost resting place; reproduced in print and visited well into the nineteenth century — although there was no good evidence that the poet Ovid was indeed buried here (Messineo 2000) — the tomb became intertwined with Ovid’s texts as part of the cache that formed notions of the poet ‘Ovid’. Highlighting the interpretation and dissemination of the tomb’s frescoes, I argue that Ovid’s texts played a crucial part in reading this archaeological discovery.

Essentially, as these examples of the rich invention of Ovid’s tombs highlight, the materiality of the tomb was a powerful site of engagement for Ovid’s readers, in which the poet’s textual corpus and the invention of his physical corpus were crucially intertwined. 

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Tombs of the Poets: The Material Reception of Ancient Literature

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