Monday, August 22, 2011


Matthew McGowan, Ovid in Exile: Power and Poetic Redress in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Mnemosyne Supplements 309. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009. Pp. 261. ISBN 9789004170766. €99.00/$147.00.

Reviewed by Sanjaya Thakur, Colorado College (

Version at BMCR home site


Despite the recent surge in Ovidian scholarship, Ovid's exile epistles, the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, still remain fertile ground for further investigation. Matthew McGowan's recent volume is a most welcome addition for those interested in these texts and Ovidian studies. McGowan demonstrates throughout the book that he is a careful and close reader, and repeatedly points out the multiplicity of interpretations available to readers in each of these poems.1 Adapted from his 2002 Ph.D. thesis, McGowan's most valuable contribution in this book is his analysis of the often avoided, and notoriously challenging, figure of Augustus which Ovid creates in these texts. Thus, McGowan's work will be of use not only to scholars who study Ovid, but also to those who study imperial ideology; for these texts remain one of the few primary sources written about the emperor during this period.

Though McGowan does include references to the Ibis and Fasti (revised during Ovid's exile), he is primarily concerned with the two major collections of Ovid's exile epistles. The sub-title of his book, Power and Poetic Redress, is taken from the poet Seamus Heaney,2 who claims that poetry possesses the power to act as "a corrective and remedy for suffering." McGowan observes that Ovid's status and location on the periphery of the empire, in Tomis, allow him to be a unique commentator on (and critic of) Augustus and Augustan policy. As McGowan defines it, the "poetic act has the capacity to provide a counterweight to the burden of political persecution" (p. 30). The exile poems demonstrate the power of the poet to immortalize, but also to offer criticism and an alternate interpretation of imperial ideology, a power McGowan makes clear Ovid is well aware he possesses.

The first chapter begins with a comprehensive introduction to the exilic corpus and historical background on Ovid's situation. McGowan does not speculate as to the reasons for Augustus' exile of Ovid, but appropriately states what facts we have, stressing that Ovid himself is the source for our information.3 He goes on to situate the exile poems in Ovid's corpus, noting that the exile poems represent a development in Ovid's use of epistolary form following the Heroides. McGowan also discusses Ovid's choice of elegiacs as the meter for the poems, identifying the meter's association with lament. I would add that Ovid's use of the meter of love elegy, in particular, recalls the Ars Amatoria, the reason alleged for his exile. McGowan states that "the form of the verse epistle provides Ovid with a means to maintain an intimate tone fit for private correspondence" (pp. 23). Indeed true, but one might add that composition in meter betrays these letters to be carefully crafted works, rather than personal correspondence.

Chapter two investigates the legal circumstances of Ovid's banishment: not under which law Augustus banished Ovid, but where and how Ovid uses legal terminology to define the reasons for his banishment. McGowan's examination shows how the poet presents the uniqueness of his situation. Ovid defines his "crime" as one lacking criminal intent, and thus unworthy of Augustus' decreed punishment; rather the poet calls for penalties commensurate with the degree of his offense. McGowan rightly emphasizes that Ovid wanted his readers to know the uniqueness of his punishment, situating his "crime" not only in legal terms, but also in poetic history (cf. Tr. II.259ff.). McGowan recognizes that Ovid admits guilt, but of a mild transgression, and so emphasizes that the degree of Augustus' punishment was extreme and unwarranted. McGowan demonstrates that Ovid's punishment reflects the new reality of an emperor's autocratic powers--whatever Augustus does is right (even if it is not "right"), and what one does can always be interpreted as wrong, if Augustus believes/defines it to be so.

Chapter three investigates Ovid's treatment of Augustus as a god, and represents McGowan's most important contribution. Undeniably, one of the most significant developments in the exile poetry is the presentation of Augustus as a divine figure. McGowan reveals the complexity of Ovid's Augustus and the poet's power to define him against official discourse. McGowan, influenced by Ittai Gradel, stresses that Augustus avoided direct references to his divinity in Rome in his lifetime, but it seems clear that Augustus was presented, and thought of, as possessing powers and a status above any other person.4 McGowan begins with Augustus' divinity in the Augustan poetic tradition. I concur completely that Ovid recognizes the reality that Augustus has become a sort of living Jupiter, i.e. that Augustus' power in all facets of the state was absolute, and that Ovid's poems are in a way a commentary which seeks the consequences and implications of such status. What McGowan does not stress enough is that where Horace and Vergil also imagined Augustus as a god, or likened him to Olympian divinities, Ovid presents Augustus as a god with terrible powers. But McGowan is correct in saying that for Ovid, Augustus is a god in the here and now.

Chapter four investigates religious ritual in Ovid's exile poems, centering on cult worship of Augustus and his family. The significance is that, for the first time, we see explicit worship of the emperor in Latin poetry. McGowan is quite right (p. 96) to say that, although we should not read Ovid as a model for cult practice, it is difficult to imagine that the poet is making something up completely. I wonder then how Ovid's presentations of such practices would resonate with his audience (such a question is missing from McGowan's analysis of poems, such as Pont. IV.9 pp. 104-5). McGowan presents Ovid as reacting to political developments (certainly a valid reading), but perhaps he might have considered the possibility of reading Ovid as an innovator, extending discourse and imagery to a place it has not been, and may not even reach. One way to read the exile literature's failure (assuming one defines success as Ovid's recall to Rome, or departure from Tomis to another less exotic exilic venue) is that Ovid was too radical in his construction of Augustus, and in challenging official ideology and discourse though irony and sarcasm. McGowan concludes the chapter with a section which attempts to use to Varro's theologica tripertita to elucidate our reading of Ovid. I did not find the extended discussion necessary. McGowan did not need such a lengthy digression to reach the conclusion that Ovid shows Augustus to be a new type of god--one incompatible with Varro's definitions of only a generation or so before.

I found chapter five to be McGowan's strongest and most engaging, though its title, "Space, Justice and the Legal Limits of Empire," is slightly deceptive. What followed was a fascinating discussion centering around the terms ius and fas. McGowan is highly original in his varied understanding of the use of these terms, focusing upon how Ovid imagined himself, Augustus and their relationship. McGowan also looks at how Ovid uses the term vates, beyond merely referring to his status as a poet, but as a predictor of the future. McGowan draws on prior chapters to argue that Ovid's place of exile grants him distance from Augustus' control and the power and position to critique the emperor and his policies. McGowan presents the relationship between Augustus and Ovid "in terms of the space occupied by each" (p. 133), with ius defining areas/extent of Augustus' control and fas the space in which Ovid feels authorized to speak. To paraphrase, McGowan defines fas as Ovid's right to speak to gods, and one that is divinely sanctioned by his status as a poet, and ius as Augustus' legal right/power overly the earthly realms to rule and to exact punishment from Ovid, through the poet's exile. McGowan neatly relates Ovid's status as vates to this discussion, as well as the implications of using the term iustus in relation to Augustus. McGowan is clear throughout: "Ovid's use of fas in the language of prayer is hardly remarkable… it is noteworthy, however, that Ovid appears to be using fas here to establish his own divine right as a poet in exile over against the right of the princeps in Rome" (p. 130). McGowan's central argument is that Ovid tries to come out on top, and he follows with an original and, once again, convincing depiction of how one may imagine Ovid creating both lateral (i.e. public/private) and vertical (i.e. power dynamics) hierarchies through his representation of himself and Augustus. However, McGowan ends the chapter too ambitiously, stressing Homeric allusion, and forces Homeric influence on Tr. I.3 (Ovid's final night in Rome), a poem in which Vergilian, not Homeric, references predominate. The chapter summary (esp. pp. 166-7) serves to look forward rather awkwardly to the next chapter, and the claim that "towards the end of his life, Ovid appears intent on achieving a certain purity in poetry where matter and meter are matched and form in se aids meaning" (p. 166) is unsubstantiated and seems randomly introduced.

The relationship of Chapter six, "Ovid's identification with Homer and Ulysses," to prior chapters is not immediately apparent. McGowan sees Ovid as a Homer and Odysseus figure, mentioning the inversion with Ovid as a man obsessed with nostos, and Odysseus as an exile. The chapter offers a good case study as to how Ovid creatively adapts myth to his circumstances, but it remains a bit out of context with the rest of the book and would have been more successful if explicitly presented in those terms. For example, McGowan relates the wrath (ira) of Augustus to the wrath of Achilles (p. 194), but I do not believe that the identification is widespread enough to merit such focus (as compared to, for example, Ovid's nearly constant inclusion of Augustus). McGowan omits that Ovid tends to avoid historical exempla, thus reinforcing the poet's self-defined status within a literary world.

Though the book has some rough spots, McGowan's study allows one to appreciate the ways in which Ovid grapples with shifting political realities, and the place of a poet, and literature, in Roman society. McGowan effectively illustrates how Ovid blends genres and blurs genre boundaries in the liminal space he inhabited. In his conclusion McGowan appears to redact his earlier claim that, "ultimately, the poet teaches us, the princeps determines whether Roman poets live or die" (p. 12), stating on p. 203 that, "Ovid lays claim to the immortalizing power of poetry over against the exiling power of the princeps." I believe the latter to be true, and that McGowan has demonstrated it through his analysis over the course of the book. McGowan succeeds in offering a thought-provoking reading of the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, and shows the power of Ovid's poetry--that political control, even forced exile, cannot silence all voices and dissent.


1.   Three other notable works which treat both collections of epistles are H.B. Evans "Publica Carmina" Ovid's Books from Exile (Lincoln and London 1983), B.R. Nagle The Poetics of Exile: Program and Polemic in the "Tristia" and "Epistulae ex Ponto" of Ovid (Brussels 1980), and G. Williams Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid's Exile Poetry (Cambridge 1994); F. Millar "Ovid and the Domus Augusta: Rome seen from Tomoi" (JRS 83, 1993 pp. 1-17) is noteworthy for its claim that the exile poems show Ovid as loyal subject of Augustus.
2.  S. Heaney "The Redress of Poetry." An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 24th October 1989, in The Redress of Poetry (New York 1995).
3.   For theories on the reasons for Ovid's exile see J. Thibault The Mystery of Ovid's Exile (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1964), and for claims that it was a myth see A. Fitton Brown "The Unreality of Ovid's Tomitan Exile" (LCM 10.2, 1985 pp.18-22).
4.   I. Gradel Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford 2002). Note that in chapter 10 on the term numen (pp. 234-250), Gradel does not refer to Ovid, though the poet uses the phrase throughout the exile literature.

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