This paper considers the passages in Ovid’s exile poetry where the poet refers to letters or messages sent to him from Rome. I demonstrate, first, that the absence of such communications early in the exilic corpus serves to weaken Ovid’s claims about his friends’ loyalty and support; and second, that when messages do arrive, their contents do more to undermine those claims than to support them, casting doubt on Ovid’s hopeful predictions of a recall from exile.
Other scholars (especially Davisson 1981 and 1985) have shown that, over the course of the exile poetry, Ovid increasingly uses typical markers of epistolary literature. The responses of correspondents are an important aspect of epistolarity (Altman 88-93), and I show that they follow the same increasing pattern.
The first two books of the Tristia make no mention of communications to Ovid in Tomis; the third and fourth books mention only the absence or possibility of such communication. This apparent silence casts doubt on many of Ovid’s claims, particularly when he praises the loyalty of his friends and wife. Ovid calls himself a “witness” (testis, Tr. 1.6.18) to his wife’s virtue; later he “affirms” (adfirmo, Tr. 3.3.27) that she suffers as he does. But without seeing or hearing from her (as he wishes to at Tr. 3.3.23-4), his claims of knowledge appear mere wishful thinking. Similarly, in Tr. 4.7, Ovid insists that, although he has received no letters from his friend, many must have been lost in the mail. The certainty he claims (esse liquet, 11) only makes his ignorance more obvious.
In Tristia 5 and the Epistulae ex Ponto, Ovid does mention communications from Rome. Many of these communications seem designed to fill the specific gaps raised in the third and fourth books of the Tristia. In Tr. 5.13, for example, he again gives a friend the excuse of lost letters; but this time he has received some letters, if only rarely (11-16).
Even as messages begin to arrive from Rome, however, they fail to confirm the loyalty of Ovid’s friends. None of those friends, from the reports of their letters in the exile poetry, writes to assure the poet that they are pleading with Augustus for his recall, or that there is hope that Augustus will soften – the things which Ovid most wants, and the things he repeatedly insists are likely. The silence of the first four books of the Tristia gives way to evasion or bad news. Rufus’ letter, for example has tried to console Ovid, and make him accept his exile (Ex P. 1.3), rather than offering any hope of its end; Cotta Maximus’ has reported the death of a mutual friend, one of Ovid’s strongest supporters (Ex P. 1.9).
The one example of Ovid being offered hope by a messenger is supernatural: the “visit” of the god Amor, described in Ex P. 3.3. Amor’s visit, corresponds, in many ways, to the “arrival” of Ovid’s birthday, described at Tr. 3.13. The two “visits” are described with similar language – both are said to have followed Ovid to Tomis (Tr. 3.13.6; Ex P. 3.3.27), and Ovid tells both they have no business there (Tr. 3.13.11; Ex P. 3.3.25). Amor, however, unlike the birthday, gives a speech in response (lines 67-92) – a speech which, unlike any other message received by the poet in exile, includes an assurance that Augustus will relent (83-92). The report of Amor’s words is followed immediately by a confident assertion that the poem’s addressee, Fabius, will certainly share the god’s sentiments. This assertion, however, is supported by no more evidence than similar ones from the earlier exile poetry; Fabius has, apparently, sent no message to make his support known. The vision – or mere dream (Ex P. 3.3.4, 92-4) – of Amor’s visit shows what Ovid desires, but never receives, from his mortal correspondents.
- Altman, J.K. 1982. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
- Citroni Marchetti, Sandra. 2000. Amicizia e Potere nelle Lettere di Cicerone e nelle Elegie Ovidiane dall’Esilio. Florence: Università degli studi di Firenze, dipartimento di scienze dell’antichità “Giorgio Pasquali.”
- Davisson, Mary H. T. 1981. “The Functions of Openings in Ovid’s Exile Epistles.” Classical Bulletin 58: 17-22.
- Davisson, Mary H. T. 1985. “Tristia 5.13 and Ovid’s use of Epistolary form and content.” Classical Journal 80: 238-246.
- Korenjak, Martin. 2005. “Abschiedsbriefe: Horaz’ und Ovids epistolographisches Spätwerk.” Mnemosyne 58.1: 46-61; 58.2: 218-234.