Thursday, February 22, 2018


Crescenzo Formicola, P. Ovidio Nasone: Epistulae ex Ponto, Libro III. Introduzione, testo, traduzione e commento. Vichiana, 1. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2017. Pp. 275. ISBN 9788862279451. €58.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Gareth Williams, Columbia University (

Version at BMCR home site

Another timely and valuable contribution marks the two-thousandth anniversary of Ovid's death. This densely written yet amply rewarding edition with translation and commentary of Epistulae ex Ponto 3 consists of a concise introduction in four parts, the first of which (entitled 'Destini di uccelli. Lamenti e canti primi e ultimi: tra prequel e sequel') contextualizes Ex Ponto 3 within the swan-song poetics of the exilic corpus more generally (pp. 15-19). The second focuses on Ovid's re-directing of elegiac form in exile (pp. 19-28), with incisive coverage along the way of (i) his exilic epistolography in relation to its precursor in the Heroides in particular; (ii) his descriptions of the Tomitan landscape as predicated on an implicit yet persistent contrast with the lost Roman-Italian landscape; and (iii) his complex deployment of myth in the exilic poetry not as a resource that gives form to the external world (as in the Metamorphoses), but as a now internalized means of identification and self-understanding (so p. 25: 'Il mito, che nelle Metamorfosi dava forma al mondo esterno ad Ovidio ed era da Ovidio indagato, ora è il mondo di Ovidio'). In turning in the introduction's third part to discussion of Ovid's addressees specifically in Ex Ponto 3 (pp. 28-34), Formicola usefully highlights how each letter is distinctively shaped by the character of its addressee, who thereby gives idiosyncratic meaning to each epistle even as the book remains largely consistent in strategic move, mood, and manner. Within the assemblage of Ex Ponto 1-3 as a whole, Formicola argues persuasively for a shift of aspiration in Book 3, where Ovid appears increasingly resigned to his fate in exile, and where his erstwhile appeals for practical help and advocacy towards securing his recall from Tomis now give way to disillusion, disappointment, and flashes of resentment at the realization that his friends, even his wife, could or did do little to effect his rescue from the Pontic shore: far from going home, all that is brought home to him is that his hopes of relief or reprieve have come to nothing.

In the introduction's fourth part (pp. 34-6), on the text and the criteria on which Formicola constructs his apparatus criticus, J. A. Richmond's Teubner edition (Leipzig 1990) predictably supplies the foundation for the present work. Formicola departs from Richmond's text in some fifteen places (conveniently listed on p. 34), in each case with even-handed but firm-minded discussion in the commentary; so, e.g., at 3.1.49 Formicola reads exposuit memet populo Fortuna videndum, rejecting Heinsius' mea me for memet (in the manuscript tradition and favored by most modern editors), and (p. 58) thereby exposing Ovid to the throes of Fortuna as an objectively drawn deity, not as his own subjectively personalized fortune. As for Ex Ponto 3's overall structure, Formicola rejects Harmut Froesch's proposal, endorsed by Richmond1, that Ex Ponto 2.11 was originally positioned between 3.4 and 3.5, and that the totality of Ex Ponto 1-3 was therefore symmetrical in its arrangement of three books of ten poems each. True, for all his dissimulating insistence that the assemblage of Ex Ponto 1-3 was put together 'without order' (sine ordine, 3.9.53), there are clear signs of structured ordering within the collection. But Formicola persuasively counters the case for transposing 2.11 to after 3.4: among other significant objections (pp. 31-2), Formicola makes the telling point2 that, since the Rufus addressed in 2.11 is the uncle of Ovid's wife (cf. 2.11.15-16), and since Rufus apparently exercised a mentor-like influence over her (cf. admonitu melior fit … illa tuo, 2.11.14), 2.11 is aptly placed before 3.1: after touching on Rufus' advisory role in 2.11, Ovid turns to admonitus of his own in 3.1 in advising his wife on how she can best approach the empress Livia on his behalf.

A particular strength of this edition lies in the co-ordination that Formicola achieves between macro- and micro-levels of analysis: while he monitors the flow and function of Ex Ponto 3 within the course of the exilic poetry as a whole, he also well captures the idiosyncratic force and flavor of each elegy. Given this balance of perspectives on part and whole, four tendencies of the commentary warrant special notice, the first of them Formicola's rejection of a line-by-line or couplet-by-couplet mode of treatment, and his coverage instead of larger blocks of text – a method that allows for a more discursive approach to the verse while still offering scope for close linguistic analysis in point of detail.3 Secondly, the commentary teems with sharp-witted insights, only a token sampling of which can be offered here. So, e.g., in his account to his wife of conditions on the Pontic shore at 3.1.7-10, Ovid laments the absence of peace in a land 'trampled by the neighboring enemy with swift horse (rapido … equo)': through allusive contact with Fast. 5.592-3, quid [tibi] rapidi profuit usus equi,/ Parthe?, Ovid delicately aligns the Pontic foe with the Parthian bogeyman (p. 50). When he describes Amor's dream-like visitation to him in 3.3, Ovid's recognition of him (hunc … agnovi, 21) is related by Formicola (p. 113) to Aeneas' struggle to recognize the disfigured Deiphobus at Aen. 6.498 (vix adeo agnovit pavitantem; Formicola further connects Virgil's notis … vocibus at 6.499 with Ovid's talibus … sonis in 22); Amor is suitably transformed in his now chastened and unkempt appearance in Tomis (13-20), and Ovid's dawning realization in 21 that it really is Amor is nicely tempered by the hint of lingering unrecognizability supplied by the Virgilian subtext. Many more touches of this sort could be registered, but – my third point – this sharp eye for verbal detail is matched by an alert ear both for sound effect within the verse (so, e.g., p. 55 on the concatenation of assonance, alliteration, etc., that underscores his downbeat appeal to his wife at 3.1.31-6) and for intimations of irony, impatience, and barely concealed recrimination. Take, e.g., 3.8: if the Maximus addressed in this poem is indeed taken to be Paullus Fabius Maximus (as Formicola has it, with sound reasoning on p. 206), Ovid's association with this influential confidant of Augustus nevertheless resulted in no effective intercession on the poet's behalf before Fabius' death in 14 CE, not long before Augustus' own death. Since Ovid's appeals to Fabius in Ex Ponto 1.2 and 3.3 had apparently brought no positive result, the gift that 3.8 claims to accompany – a quiver-full of Scythian arrows which, Ovid prays, 'may become stained with your enemy's blood' (20) – is suggestively double-edged in connotation: through the polyvalence of calamus (21) as both arrow and pen, the poem itself may deliver its own pointed shaft, blending surface deference with the lurking insinuation that Maximus could (and should) have done more on Ovid's behalf (p. 211). For Formicola, the poet's statement of mindful affection for Maximus (memorem … curam, 1) makes ironic allusion (p. 211) to Maximus' far from maximal effort to remember, and to take committed action for, his Naso.

Fourth, Formicola's sensitivity to Ovidian linguistic subtlety and ironic possibility extends to the allusions to historical context that he discerns in Ex Ponto 3. Already in his Premessa (pp. 11-13) Formicola makes capital of Ovid's claim in Ex Ponto 2.3, to M. Aurelius Cotta Maximus, that 'Aethalian Ilva [sc. Elba] last saw me with you' (83-4), and that Cotta had there inquired into the disastrous transgression that led to Ovid's exile (85-6). Not far from Elba was Planasia, to which Agrippa Postumus (adopted along with Tiberius by Augustus in 4 CE) was exiled in 7 CE; with Agrippa's demise and his eventual murder in 14 CE, the Julian line of succession was thwarted, Tiberius in the ascendant, with Livia's maneuvering suspected in the sources (so Tac. Ann. 1.6.1-2, Suet. Tib. 22, Dio 57.3.5-6). What, then, were Cotta and Ovid doing on Elba? For Formicola, these developments cast a dark shadow over Ex Ponto 3: could it be that for Ovid in Tomis, 'con tutta evidenza tanto filogermaniciano quanto antitiberiano' (p. 12), Agrippa's marginalization was related to the growing sense of resignation to his exilic fate that Formicola perceives in Ex Ponto 3? And what then of Fabius Maximus' role in Augustus' rumored efforts to contact Agrippa? As Tacitus notoriously has it (Ann. 1.5.1-2), Fabius told Marcia, his wife, of the visit that he had made with Augustus to Planasia in 14 CE, and she had divulged as much to Livia. As Formicola states (p. 212), it is far from clear if and how the news of that visit could have reached Tomis before Ovid penned Ex Ponto 3.8, but Formicola makes much of Ovid's assertion in Ex Ponto 4.6 that he counts himself the cause of Fabius' death (11-12): does Ovid refer to some compromising incident that pre-dated (and so precipitated, at least in part?) his exile – an incident that was somehow related to Agrippa's demise, implicated Fabius, and drew the lingering ire of the Tiberius-Livia circle? Hence, perhaps, the suspicion that the enemy against whom Fabius might use his gift of Scythian arrows came from that hostile inner circle (pp. 212-13).

Formicola offers much stimulation through sharply perceived speculations of this kind, but caution is in order, as hard fact is so elusive within the web of hint and suspicion that he discerns in Ex Ponto 3 and beyond. After all, the reading that places Ovid and Cotta on Elba at 2.3.84, Aethalis Ilva, is Janus Rutgers' enticing (after Plin. Nat. 3.81) but still contestable conjecture, now challenged by Martin Helzle's appealing Algida silva;4 such is the foundation on which Formicola bases his argument for looking to Agrippa on Planasia. So too Formicola accepts that Ovid's third wife, the addressee of Ex Ponto 3.1, was a relative of Paullus Fabius Maximus (see esp. p. 48 on 3.1.1-6), thereby eschewing the more cautious approach of other recent commentators.5 Her identity thus established, Formicola terms her Fabia in the commentary, a maneuver that then enables Formicola's speculation (e.g.) that any failure of effort to intercede energetically on her husband's behalf (or any such failure at least as suspected or perceived by Ovid) was motivated at least in part by her desire to protect her family and familial patrimony from exposure to judicial risk (p. 57): the presumption that she is Fabia here shapes the consequence of her belonging to the Fabia gens. Yet Formicola is careful to nuance his speculations by often posing them as open questions or as possibilities for consideration, and the value of the provocations he raises amply justifies the interpretive risks that are sometimes taken.

A thorough index of passages cited (pp. 261-9) is followed by an index of modern authors (pp. 271-5), but there is no general index – an unfortunate omission, given that such a navigational device would surely have enhanced the commentary's utility. The bibliography is impressively full, up-to-date, and multilingual, albeit Gordon Williams' Change and Decline: Roman Literature in the Early Empire (Berkeley 1978) is wrongly attributed to the present reviewer. In sum, this handsome and well-produced volume fills an important gap in scholarship on Ovid's exilic poetry, and its combination of philological acuity, interpretational finesse, and historical sensitivity greatly enhances our appreciation of Ex Ponto 3.


1.   H. H. Froesch, Ovids Epistulae ex Ponto 1-3 als Gedichtsammlung (Diss. Bonn 1968), esp. 139-42; J. A. Richmond, P. Ovidi Nasonis Ex Ponto libri quattuor (Leipzig 1990), xviii and 72 in app.
2.   Cf. already L. Galasso, ed., Ovidio: Epistulae ex Ponto (Milan 2008), xlix.
3.   See already on the benefits of such an approach E. J. Kenney, CR 22.1 (1972), 38, in review of F. Bömer, P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphosen: Buch I-III (Heidelberg 1969).
4.   See Ovids Epistulae ex Ponto, Buch I-II: Kommentare (Heidelberg 2003), 308-9 on 2.3.83-4 with, in review, B. Boyd, JRS 94 (2004), 252.
5.   For his wife as Fabia see esp. M. Helzle, 'Mr. and Mrs. Ovid,' G & R 36.2 (1989), 183-93. For a more circumspect approach, J. F. Gaertner, ed. Ovid: Epistulae ex Ponto I, Book I (Oxford 2005), 216 on 1.2.136; G. Tissol, ed., Ovid: Epistulae ex Ponto, Book I (Cambridge 2014), 90 on 1.2.135-6.

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