Exile

Turner: Ovid Banished from Rome

On Saturday, before writing my last post, I read Cicero’s letters to Atticus for the years 58 up to mid-57 BC. At this time, Cicero was in exile; he claims through the envy of friends, although I reckon the machinations of enemies would be more apt. Yet perhaps my view of Clodius is tainted by later events. Nonetheless, he was in exile on the grounds that he had put Roman citizens to death without trial when he was consul (two consuls ruled Rome in the Republic) in the events of the Catalinarian Conspiracy (for which, besides Cicero’s Speeches Against Catiline, I recommend Sallust) — events in which Cicero viewed himself as the Saviour of the Nation.

Going into exile, then, was a bit of a blow. This, he felt, was undeserved! It spelt ruin for him, his family, his property! Throughout his letters, he declares to Atticus that he wishes his friend had not convinced him to live. He wishes he’d committed suicide instead of this. If he had killed himself before the law of exile was passed, his family would have inherited his property and lived comfortably. As it was, all of his things had been confiscated and his wife and children were in a dangerous state of affairs. Not only did his exile bring his ruin, it brought them ruin. Cicero’s thinking, then, is that if he’d committed suicide first, he alone would have suffered.

For a Platonist, death is only the start of the next round anyway. Once the lots were cast, Cicero would have expected to drink from the River Lethe and be reincarnated anyway. Death, for Cicero or for any other Roman, was not so bad an option. It kept honour intact. It maintained one’s gravitas. But exile … well, exile was something different.

But this episode, unlike his clash with Antony over a decade later, ended happily for Cicero. He was recalled from exile and was able to resume his life as a leading man in Rome, as an orator, as an advocate in the law courts, as a philosophiser, as a (bad) poet.

Cicero is not the only, nor the most famous, exile of Roman history. We have also P. Ovidius Naso (on whom I’ve blogged here and here). Augustus exiled him to Tomis on the Black Sea for his ars and something else, the nature of which was so delicate no clues exist that are sufficient for us to work it out, try as Ronald Syme might. Unlike Cicero, Ovid died in exile; but he left us literary remains, the Tristia, as well as Ex Ponto (epistolary poems), and the finishing touches on his great works the Fasti and Metamorphoses.

Less well-known in certain circles is John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, who was also exiled to the Black Sea region, in 404. Like Cicero and Ovid, he left letters. Unlike Cicero, he does not wish to be dead. He encourages his supporters in the city to promote his cause, and he engages, both in the letters and in his work On Providence, in philosophising and theologising his situation. Why, he asks, does God allow bad things to happen to good people? (Similar to Boethius’s philosophising in prison, only explicitly Christian.)

Dante Wrote Masterworks from Exile

Exile has been a force in world history for generations. Today, the Queen of Iran is in exile. James VII (II) died in exile, but his descendants still live on abroad. In the Anglo-Saxon world, exile was often a punishment for crimes, and the exile found himself in a world cut off from the assistance and benefaction of a lord and of kin ties. So also in the Viking world, which gives us the exile Eric the Red who went off to find Greenland, making good use of his time away from home.

What a person does with exile is up to him. Cicero moved around, wrote letters not only to Atticus but to his family as well, fretted about his brother, and wished he were dead. He did, however, seek not to change, writing to Atticus:

I am the same man. My enemies have robbed me of what I have, but not of what I am. (Ad Atticum 3.5, 6 April 58 BC)

Ovid and Chrysostom spent their exiles trying to get reinstated back home (but to no avail). Ovid also employed his wit to compose and revise his poetry; Chrysostom used his to produce theology. Eric the Red discovered Greenland. These men all demonstrated that their circumstances do not define them. It was not Rome or Constantinople or Iceland that made them who they were. That was something inside, something that could operate at any place and under any circumstances.

Still, I’m glad not to be an exile, myself!

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