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Graphicology: Topos and Topography in Ovid Tristia 3.1 and Cicero ad Att 4.1

Gillian McIntosh

San Francisco State University

In this paper, I read Ovid’s Tristia 3.1 against Cicero’s ad Atticum 4.1, one letter written by a poet in exile, the other by an orator recently recalled. I show allusion by Ovid to Cicero who, I argue, provides a blueprint from which Ovid designs and structures his own letter. Ovidian allusion is ground well covered (Sharrock, Hinds, Newlands). Allusions to Cicero in exile have been noted too (Nagle, Claassen). Yet there is space for further exploration, and in this respect my argument contributes in an original way, since nobody has connected Ovid’s sad letter with Cicero’s happy equivalent.

Tristia 3.1 is a limping elegiac piece, where the letter travels into Rome in lieu of the poet, and the voice within the letter –that of the letter itself – speaks on behalf of its master-father-poet. This programmatic poem includes a focalized tour of Rome that a friendly reader takes it on. Ovid’s logic for including the tour is intuitive: the transcription of the tourist-letter’s experience can be read as a facsimile of the imagined return of the exile-poet. Central to the letter is the center of Rome, the locus of everything and yet nothing for the exiled poet.

Despite what seems like the presentation of a singular experience, Ovid’s letter in fact covers the same epistolary, topical and topographical turf as another letter, with another focalized tour of Rome, written by another exile: Cicero’s ad Att. 4.1. The conditions of production of Tristia 3.1 (in exile) and ad Att. 4.1 (returned) are opposite, yet there is overlap unnoticed until now: topically, both writers play with absence and presence, vision and perception, literal and metaphorical structures as they depict the physical and emotional journey to, and arrival at Rome. With an eye on language, I present the particulars of their correspondence. There is coincidence also of epistolary and topographical landscapes. The latter is embedded within the former as both Cicero and Ovid present a tour. As we travel through the letter, we travel through the city.

The tour becomes a critical juncture for observing Ovid’s clever craftsmanship, and for confirming his allusions to Cicero. Yet at the same time, Ovid offers a point of view opposite to that of Cicero. The letters cover the same territory, but whereas Cicero heads from the south-west section of the forum, along the Via Sacra to the north end, Ovid’s letter travels in the opposite direction. This is a literal reversal but one that signifies a figurative equivalent. Cicero assumes the path of a Roman triumph, and reports his first-hand experience triumphantly. Ovid’s reversal of direction underscores the impossibility of return and the misery of solitude, particularly because the only first-hand experience belongs emphatically to the letter not the man, and because that experience is one of repeated rejection, expressed dolefully. The poet’s inversion of Cicero’s experience problematizes and enriches Ovidian allusion.

Given this appropriation-cum-inversion at the focal point of Tristia 3.1, I argue that Ovid’s particular transposal here mobilizes a reversal of things elsewhere. If we turn back to the coincidence of topical representation, Ovid’s allusions become complex: while they do allude to Cicero, they do so by turning the orator’s topoi on their head. Mimesis becomes a false counterfeit, as it ironically fashions a new and unique original. Ovid writes by rewriting, and he rewrites by unwriting Cicero, as he limps backwards, reversing the steps that Cicero had formerly taken, and by assuming a tone of hopeless melancholy in lieu of fulfilled joy.

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The Power of Place

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