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Literature

Exiled by Rome 2,000 years ago for his sense of humour, poet Ovid finally has the last laugh

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 December, 2017, 9:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 December, 2017, 7:38pm

Two thousand years after being banished from Rome, Ovid has been rehabilitated in a victory for the famous poet whose cheek riled one of history’s most powerful emperors.

Rome council unanimously approved a motion to “repair the serious wrong” suffered by Ovid, best known for his Metamorphoses and ARS Amatoria, or the Art of Love, who was exiled by the Emperor Augustus to Romania in the year AD8.

The reason for his banishment to the town of Tomis on the Black Sea coast is one of literature’s biggest mysteries, as there are no surviving contemporary sources which give details about it, so all historians have is Ovid’s word.

The poet rather cryptically claims it was due to “carmen et error”, or “a poem and a mistake” – the poem being the ARS Amatoria, a subversively witty poem instructing men how to get and keep a girlfriend.

Augustus is assumed to have been less than pleased, having recently passed a series of laws against adultery.

“Although the poem doesn’t overtly advocate adultery, it sails quite close to the wind,” said Rebecca Armstrong, a Fellow in Classics at Oxford University.

“It definitely displays an irreverent tone towards traditional moral attitudes as well as the emperor and his family.

“For example, Ovid recommends several of the public monuments built by Augustus and his family as excellent spots to pick up girls,” she said.

It is unlikely to have been the poem alone that angered Augustus enough to drive Ovid out, as it was published several years before he was sent away.

But after irritating the emperor, experts believe the poet’s mysterious “error” was the last straw.

“It’s quite often suggested that it might have been something to do with the scandal surrounding Augustus’s granddaughter, Julia, who was exiled in AD8 for an adulterous affair with a Roman senator,” Armstrong said.

The writer hated the “wild frontier” of Tomis and pleaded endlessly to be allowed to return to Rome – to no avail.

He did not help himself by partly apologising for the ARS Amatoria in the poem Tristia II, but “making it clear that he believes Augustus to be an unsophisticated reader of poetry and someone who can’t take a joke.”

“An interesting strategy for someone hoping to be recalled!” Armstrong said.

The decision to revoke Ovid’s exile comes on the 2,000th anniversary of the poet’s death in AD17. It was approved Thursday in the presence of officials from the poet’s hometown of Sulmona in central Italy.

Rome said it had restored “the freedom and dignity” of a man who had “inspired writers of calibre such as Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Joyce, Kafka and Pope, as well as modern artists such as Bob Dylan”.

Ovid is not the only famous figure to whom Italy has recently apologised: In 2008 Florence asked forgiveness for persecuting the poet Dante, who fled into exile after he was sentenced to death for his political beliefs.

Armstrong said she thought Ovid “would have been pleased” by the ruling, particularly “by the knowledge that people care who he was and are still reading his poetry so many years later”.

And not only has his jocular guide to dating been avenged, he may also have pulled one of the biggest pranks in history.

Most critics are dubious, but “on the basis that there is so little evidence available, some have even argued that Ovid was never exiled at all, and that his exile poetry is, rather, a kind of experimental literature”.