As I noted in my recent post about Ovid, he spent the last decade of his life in exile in Tomis, on the Black Sea, Constanța in modern Romania. As noted by Garth Tissol in the introduction to his commentary on book one of the Epistulae ex Ponto (the text I assigned my students), Fitton Brown has argued that Ovid, in fact, never went into exile, and it’s all just a literary fiction.
One of the main reasons it has been argued that Ovid stayed at Rome and wrote the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto as an exercise in poetic wit, has been his use of hyperbole. Tomis is not nearly so bad as Ovid makes it to be. Most people reject Fitton Brown’s argument.
Indeed, it strikes me that Ovid’s hyperbole is, in fact, true. Or rather, it is true to him.
The Roman province to which he was exiled was called Scythia Minor. Ovid portrays his place of exile as Scythia in the worst possible sense. Ancient Scythia is, essentially, Ukraine. For an idea of what the weather in Scythia can be like, Saskatchewan is the Ukraine of Canada. Ovid’s literary Scythia is a place of unending winter and deep gloom. Think of an Italian in a six-month Saskatchewan winter.
The inhabitants of Ovid’s Scythia are, inevitably, Scythians. Scythians are archetypal barbarians. They are the sort of people who drink wine from their enemies’ skulls. In Ovid, they are always engaged in war. Warfare is so continuous in Ovid’s Scythia, he can’t even plant a garden and is always girded for battle.
We look at Tomis and say, ‘It is not unremitting winter! The weather is not all that bad.’ It is, after all, on the Black Sea coast. The summers are not bad, and the sea has a tempering effect on the winter. This isn’t the Scythian plain.
Moreover, even if there was some battling, it was not all war all the time for an entire decade.
To read Ovid this way is to miss the point.
Why would we read a poet for an accurate, historicist picture of the scientific details of climate and battles? We read him for his artifice, his wit, and his soul. Read the letters from Pontus. Ovid is miserable.
Sure, it may not really be a Gigantomachy as he imagines it. He may not be Ulysses. But it sure feels that way. The winter’s not as bad as in, say, Regina, but it’s still pretty bad for a guy from central Italy. The battles may not be endless, but for someone from Rome in the midst of the Peace of Augustus, one battle is more than enough.
Not only this, but it is the winter of Ovid’s soul that matters, isn’t it? It is the battles waged against his heart and memory. He has been taken against his will to a place he did not wish to go. This is the real heart of the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto.
I do not think anything but hyperbole will bring that across. Who tempers his sorrow with accuracy and reason when lamenting to his friends?