This paper offers a new perspective the relationship between Ovid and his wife over the course of his exile with particular attention to the way in which he attempts to use her as a conduit to a network of powerful women. In the Tristia she is mostly treated as an exemplary figure whose fortitude in the face of danger Ovid renders mythic. In the fifth book, Ovid strikes a different tone. She might have the power to help relocate Ovid, he observes bitterly: esset, quae debet, si tibi cura mei “if you had the concern for me which you should have” (Tr. 5.2.34). At this point, he asks her to approach Augustus, and to intercede on his behalf for the very first time. Ovid does not develop this idea in the rest of the poems of the book, but early in his next collection (ex Ponto 1.2) he attempts he gives up on directing her to go to Augustus directly and instead tries to deploy his wife as a conduit to a network of women all of whom circle the ruling men.
The collection of Pont. 1-3 presents Ovid’s wife as a figure in whom he has a great deal of hope that eventually vanishes. It is the narrative of a marriage that shifts from intimacy to distance. There is only a passing reference to her in ex Ponto 4.8 and her absence intrigues. Has she, as Helzle (1989b) has imaginatively, though not very persuasively, argued joined Ovid in exile? Have Ovid’s feelings cooled toward her? Is she useless given the death of Augustus and Fabius Maximus? Or, as I will argue, is he seeking to protect her and distance her from Marcia toward whom his feelings actually have changed?
I focus on three poems starting with Pont. 1.2 in which Ovid tells Fabius Maximus that their wives are friends (comites, 1.2.138). This passage resets Ovid’s wife as a mythic heroine of the Tristia to a woman close to court and with a network of powerful friends. My next example is the much discussed ex Pont. 3.1 (Davisson 1984, Colakis 1987, Larosa 2013). His earnest hope in her success was misplaced. She has accomplished nothing for him (2.1.31). Ovid ends the poem with a series of very specific instructions about how his wife should approach Livia. I then turn to ex Ponto 4.8, the very last mention of his wife, although not by title, and argue that Ovid has dramatically stopped connecting her to any political elites because of the changed political landscape in Rome after the deaths of Augustus and Fabius Maximus.
Such a strategy is not unique to Ovid, and in order to contextualize my argument, I will discuss figures on either side of Ovid and show that this was a relatively normalized process. Cicero (ad Fam. 14.16) tried to get his wife to cultivate a friendship with Antony’s mistress in order to get Volumnia to intercede with Antony for Cicero (Treggiari 2007). Another example comes from the Imperial period. Livia died in 29 CE, and her son did not attend. Tiberius wrote a lecture excusing himself and diminishing her honors and then complained about her “womanly friendships” amicitias muliebris, which Tacitus (Ann. 5.2.7) goes on to explain was Tiberius’ frustration with the Consul Fufius who would send his wife, Mutilia Prisca, to Livia to intercede with Tiberius (Bauman 1992).