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Consuls and Poets as Organizing Principle in Ovid’s 'Epistulae ex Ponto' 4

Christian Lehmann

University of Southern California

Critics have long maligned Epistulae ex Ponto 4, the last book of Ovid’s career, for its incoherent structure (Evans, Helzle). Individual poems have attracted attention: 4.7 to Vestalis (Williams) and 4.8 about Germanicus (Fantham, Myers), but the book as a whole has not been evaluated. This paper shows that the book has a structure in which poems exploring the nature of the Roman consulship under Tiberius are contrasted with poems about other poets and their compositions. Ovid also juxtaposes his rise as a Getic poet with Tiberius’ ascension to emperor. He establishes these themes with two programmatic poems: 4.1 to a politician, Sextus Pompeius, and 4.2 to a poet, Cornelius Severus. Ultimately, I argue that Pont. 4 shows politics becoming increasingly dominated by the emperor in contrast to poets who still have the freedom to write what they want.

Ovid’s interest in Augustus during his exile has been thoroughly covered, particularly with regards to the Fasti (Barchiesi), but his presentation of Tiberius has not been addressed despite the fact that Ovid documents his ascension in Pont. 4.14. Instead of writing about Tiberius directly—he never names him in his poetry—Ovid draws attention to the diminished power of the Roman consuls in order to show the changes to political hierarchies. This analysis helps explain the prominent role of Sextus Pompeius (con. 14 CE) in the book. He is the subject of four of sixteen letters, 4.1, 4.4, 4.5, 4.15. His consulship in 14 CE was especially significant because this was the year when Augustus died and Tiberius became emperor, events that Ovid documents in 4.6 and 4.14. The other two Tiberian consuls, Graecinus (suf. con. 16 CE) and his brother Flaccus (con. 17 CE), are both mentioned 4.9 in order to emphasize that they followed each other by the will of the emperor and not the Senate.

Over the course of Pont. 4 Ovid presents an image of the consulship that puts it in tension with the emperor. Ovid’s assertion that there is no office greater than the consulship (4.9.63-68) is ironically undercut by the reality that the emperor controls the nomination process. Ovid manipulates the reader’s impression of the consulship to show that it is rigorously Republican in appearance yet imperial in practice. The consuls still bear their traditional trappings, the sella curulis and vestments, but their duties are diminished as Ovid makes clear when he says they have to seek advice from the emperor before making decisions (4.5.23-24).

Ovid articulates a dramatic portrayal of his poetic career over the course of the book that parallels the rise of Tiberius. He starts out by not even being able to address the locals, but soon he is writing a poem in the native Getic language about the rise of Tiberius (4.13.18-32). He then becomes so popular that he gains immunity from taxes (4.13.53). Because Ovid gains fame from a poem about Tiberius, we are encouraged to examine the combination of poetry and politics. Ovid claims to have written a flattering poem and this made the locals support Tiberius. The tacit threat is that Ovid could write a very different poem and shift public opinion again.

Just as he alternates himself with Tiberius, Ovid also juxtaposes the new consuls with a variety of poets. In contrast to the consuls and their subservience to the emperor, these poets have all chosen their own material and act independently of patrons. He first addresses Cornelius Severus, who is writing a poem on Roman kings (4.2). Albinovanus Pedo is writing about Odysseus’ adventures on Phaeacia (4.10), Carus is writing about Germanicus’ campaigns (4.13), and Tuticanus is composing a Thesiad (4.12, 14).

By comparing the political and literary landscapes, Ovid shows that while the empire can change the way in which politics is conducted and who can be a politician, it cannot control who becomes a poet and his subject matter.

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Imperial Fashioning in the Roman World

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