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Ira Caesaris and Ovid’s Exile Epistles: A New Reading

Jayne Knight

nec, quia uel merui uel sensi principis iram,
a nobis ipsum nolle putate coli.

Don't think that because I've earned or felt the prince's anger,
that the prince himself would not want to be worshipped by me.
Ovid Pont. 1.1.49-50

The anger of Augustus appears frequently in Ovid's exile epistles as a primary
motivator for the poet's banishment as well as an object of his attempts at reconciliation.
Scholars have proposed a variety of reasons for the recurrence of ira in the poems. Syme
argued that Ovid's preoccupation with ira Caesaris was an effective attack on the
emperor's character and authority (1978: 223-24). This reading has its origin in ancient
philosophical views on anger, including those found in Hellenistic kingship treatises.
These genres offer a predominately negative assessment of anger as a trait for a ruler. In
his recent volume on the exile poems, Matthew McGowan suggests that Ovid employs
ira to give a Homeric flavor to his relationship with Augustus (2011: 194). This
perspective also makes ira a pejorative, since it is unlikely that attributing the wrath of
Achilles to the princeps could be construed as flattering, despite its divine implications.
This paper proposes an additional reading of ira in the exile poetry: as an element of
panegyric that speaks to Augustus' power, authority, and effective management of his
subjects through his use of emotion.

While the perspectives on ira Caesaris presented above are not at all unfounded,
the possibility that Ovid's treatment of anger in these poems serves to praise Augustus
has been neglected. This paper demonstrates how Ovid addresses a human Augustus who
has acted in an elevated emotional state to successfully enforce the policies of his
sociopolitical agenda. Contrary to calling his exile unjust and Augustus' anger invalid,
Ovid accepts responsibility for his punishment and appears to understand the emperor's
process of balancing mercy and severity (Pont. 2.2: 111-118). Additionally, Ovid
contrasts his praise of Augustus' pragmatic ira with his negative self-description as
someone experiencing furor (Pont. 2.3: 46; Pont. 2.1: 11). Ovid's approach to imperial
anger is not monotonous, however. He occasionally invokes the epic and religious
connotations of anger for poetic effect, but if Augustus' ira was in reality equal to that of
Achilles or Jupiter, the poet would have no hope of appeasing it through his poetry or
through the intercession of his friends, which he often professes as his aim.

Ovid's exile poems provide compelling insight into the emperor-subject
relationship and Roman emotional culture. The poet's focus on the role of emotion, and
especially anger, in his exile poetry is particularly fertile ground for further
contemplation. This paper offers a new reading of ira Caesaris in the exile epistles that
demonstrates how Ovid's treatment of the emotion amounts to a positive assessment of
Augustus as a leader who possessed the invaluable instrument of a healthy emotional
compass—a compass whose arrow the poet hoped could be redirected toward clementia
by means of panegyric.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Exile: Poetry, Prose, and Politics

Session/Paper Number


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