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Unintended Audiences: Ovid and the Tomitans in Ex Ponto 4.13 and 4.14

Angeline Chiu

Near the end of his final book of exile poetry, Ovid presents two poems focused on his literary interaction with the local residents of Tomis. In both pieces he constructs scenarios in which the Tomitans become his unintended audience. Ex Ponto 4.13 and 4.14 form a complementary set, a diptych of opposites. This paper will examine the juxtaposition of these poems, their interaction, and their effect on Ovid’s exilic self-presentation. Ex Ponto 4.13 presents the poet as having learned the local lingo of Tomis and not only written but publicly declaimed a work in that language. In so doing, he acquires a new audience not of Romans but of Tomitan natives. Instead of being a positive development for the poet, however, this double acquisition of the Getic language and an audience in that language becomes a deeply pessimistic experience. Throughout the exile poetry Ovid had regarded the local language as uncultured babble and its speakers as rough arrow-bearing provincials (Tr. 3.8, 3.10). He complains bitterly and repeatedly that the native patois is unintelligible and that he has no audience in Tomis, no one to appreciate his (elegant Latin) poems (Tr. 3.14, 4.1, 5.1, 5.2, 5.7, 5.10, Ex Ponto 4.2). When in Ex Ponto 4.13 Ovid declares that he has now declaimed a Getic work to a Getic audience, he frames it as a proclamation of his own degeneration as an artist. No longer to be numbered among the Latin poets by his own account (Tr. 5.1), Ovid downgrades himself to being a poet for Tomitans, the audience he had never intended or wanted to acquire. The poet constructs this as the culmination of a wretched pattern of linguistic corruption and artistic decline (Tr. 5.12, Ex Ponto 1.5, 3.3, 3.4, 3.9). In contrast, Ex Ponto 4.14 explores what happens when the Getic audience encounters Latin poetry that Ovid had intended strictly for his Roman audience. The resulting public relations disaster becomes a showcase of the poet attempting to reconcile two wildly different personae and bodies of work intended for two separate audiences: it is also an opportunity to consider the uncertainties of literary circulation, the practical Latinity of Tomis, and the underappreciated role of translators and intermediaries as Ovid complains that a malus interpres had maliciously leaked the poems (41-42). The embedded apologia in 4.14 emerges as an echo of the poet’s great apologia of Tristia Book 2; alienation repeats itself with yet another troublesome poem and yet another hostile audience. Furthermore, and more intriguingly, as the events of 4.14 undo the local goodwill gained in 4.13, Ovid sheds his association of “Getic poet” when the audience turns against him. Despite his embarrassment, his renewed isolation separates him from his Tomitan audience and becomes the badge of his own identity that persists despite his claims to the contrary. In sum, Ex Ponto 4.13 and 4.14 form a doublet expressing one of Ovid’s final considerations of poetry in exile amid the risks of readership and reception on the edge of empire. For all Ovid’s protestations of terminal decline, his exilic poems still, as such scholars as Block 1982, Batty 1994, Williams 1994, Claassen 1990 and 1999, Habinek 2001, McGowan 2009, Jansen 2012, and Stevens 2012 remind us, carry his distinctive stamp.

Session/Panel Title

Polyvalence by Design: Anticipated Audience in Hellenistic and Augustan Poetry

Session/Paper Number

7.5

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