This paper argues that Ovid in the exile poems casts Rome as a utopia and thereby inverts a literary trope that fashioned the city as a dystopia from which escape must be sought. It also demonstrates how the poet, in constructing Pontus as a dystopia that stands in direct contrast to his idealized Rome, inverts another trope that imagined the harsh region of Scythia as a utopia of hard primitivism. In Ovid’s transfer from world’s center to world’s margin, Rome takes on the role of unattainable other-world conventionally filled by non-urban landscapes. Throughout, I use the definitions of utopia and dystopia as “the ideal, liveable community, and its hellish opposite” (Evans, p. 3).
Rome as dystopia is a commonplace in Latin literature, and writers frequently construct idealized other-worlds to which they fantasize escape (e.g. the countryside in Tibullus 1.1, a Saturnian Golden Age in Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, the distant “happy fields” of Horace’s Epode 16, Cumae in Juvenal 3). Though these idealized escapes vary in space and time, utopian theories have established several unifying characteristics: utopias are remote and inaccessible (Marin), and their creation is motivated by a desire for a better way of living (Levitas). Ovid, however, had little use for distant utopias while he lived in Rome. His pre-exile works express no longing to leave the city. Indeed, in his world view, there could be no need to leave the city, for Rome contained the whole world within itself. “For other peoples,” he wrote (Fasti 2.683-4), “the land has been granted with a fixed boundary; the space of the city of Rome and of the world is the same.”
Ovid experienced a sudden and unwelcome separation from Rome with his banishment by Augustus in 8 CE to the remote northeastern border of the empire. The city is no less central in the poetry of this period, but its likeness is now drawn from a far distant vantage point at the margins of the inhabited world. From the externalized perspective of the “other,” he constructs a vision of Rome that blends elements of utopian visions of the Italian countryside found in earlier Augustan writers with an idealized urban landscape. He makes contemporary Rome what it never was before, turning it from dystopia to utopia. Two poems, Tristia 3.12 and Ex Ponto 1.8, are used to demonstrate this. Both elegies employ the stock poetic theme of the celebration of a season to draw out the contrasts between the poet’s idealized vision of Rome, encompassing both the urban and the rural, and the harsh reality of exile in Tomis. Comparison with Augustan building projects, which can be read as bringing a utopian vision to Rome through suggestive imagery (e.g. the Ara Pacis) and by redrawing the city plan, shows how Ovid’s vision taps into a concept of immediate cultural relevance.
The dystopia that counter-balances Ovid’s utopian Rome emerges from the descriptions of the poet’s place of exile, properly Tomis, but which he frequently calls Scythia. In constructing Scythia as Rome’s “hellish opposite,” Ovid inverts a trope of ancient ethnography that imagined the remote northeast as a utopia of hard primitivism (Romm). The inhabitants were thought to live under harsh conditions, but as a result to live simply and happily. The most famous representation of this society is Vergil’s “Scythian digression” (Georgics 3.349-383), to which Ovid responds in his “eye-witness” descriptions of the region. Tristia 3.10 in particular, which re-presents the region as not only harsh but violent and depressing, gives the lie to its utopian reputation. When Scythia replaces Rome as Ovid’s new center, the formerly tangible reality of the city is lost and the formerly idealizable other can no longer support the illusion. Rome becomes for Ovid the “unsituatable ‘other’ place” (Marin, p. 195) that he can never access but only long for.
Rome: The City as Text