In 8 AD Augustus punished Ovid by sending him away to the shores Black Sea. The reasons are far from clear, but it is assumed the poems from the Ars Amatoria could not charm Augustus, who was by all accounts very prude. There is one big problem: was Ovid really sent away or was it his poetic construction? Much ink has been spoiled on this issue, but as long as we do not use his Tristia and Littera ex Ponto as real biographical accounts and stay within the frame of the poems, this does not affect the interpretation.
In this poem Ovid is offended because he was called an exul – an exile. This was not true as he had been sent away (relegatus), not exiled. This is not a mere play of words, but had juridical implications: an exul was stripped of his property and civil rights, a relegatus not. In the second part of this poem Ovid admits his trespass and flatters Augustus. It is reminiscent of Stalinist or Maoist show trials at which the accused confessed guilt and praised the leadership. Ovid had no success.
Ovidius, Tristia 5.11
Quod te nescioquis per iurgia dixerit esse
exulis uxorem, littera questa tua est.
indolui, non tam mea quod fortuna male audit,
qui iam consuevi fortiter esse miser,
quam quod cui minime vellem, sum causa pudoris, 5
teque reor nostris erubuisse malis.
perfer et obdura; multo graviora tulisti,
eripuit cum me principis ira tibi.
fallitur iste tamen, quo iudice nominor exul:
mollior est culpam poena secuta meam. 10
maxima poena mihi est ipsum offendisse, priusque
venisset mallem funeris hora mihi.
quassa tamen nostra est, non mersa nec obruta navis,
utque caret portu, sic tamen extat aquis.
nec vitam nec opes nec ius mihi civis ademit, 15
qui merui vitio perdere cuncta meo.
sed quia peccato facinus non affuit illi,
nil nisi me patriis iussit abesse focis,
utque aliis, quorum numerum comprendere non est,
Caesareum numen sic mihi mite fuit. 20
ipse relegati, non exulis utitur in me
nomine: tuta suo iudice causa mea est.
iure igitur laudes. Caesar, pro parte virili
carmina nostra tuas qualiacumque canunt:
iure deos, ut adhuc caeli tibi limina claudant, 25
teque velint sine se, comprecor, esse deum.
optat idem populus; sed, ut in mare flumina vastum,
sic solet exiguae currere rivus aquae,
at tu fortunam, cuius vocor exul ab ore,
nomine mendaci parce gravare meam! 30
quod…, littera = littera…, quod..
per iurgia dicere aliquid: in the heat of a dispute call someone something
queror questus: to complain
indolesco indolui: to feel pain
non tam…quam: not so much…but
male/ bene audio: to have a bad/ good name
consuesco sonsuevi consuetum: to become used to
pudor pudoris (m.): shame
reor ratus: to believe, think
erubesco erubui (+ abl): to blush
prefer et obdura: bear and endure
eripio eripui ereptum: to tear away from
fallor: to err
iste: the man who had called Ovid an exsul
quo iudice: in whose judgement
mollis: soft, mild
sequor secutus: to follow
priusque venisset mallem = et mallem prius venisset
funus funeris (n.): burial, death
quatio quassum (-ere): to shake
mergo sersi mersum: to sink
obruo obrui obrutum: to overwhelm, overflow
careo carui (+ abl): to lack
exto/ exsto: to stand/ rise above
(ops) opis (no nom. or dat sing.) (f.): wealth
ius civis: civil rights
abimo abemi abemptum: to take away, deprive of
mereo merui meritum: to deserve
perdo: to lose
quia peccato facinus non affuit illi: because a crime did not accompany the fault. i.e. Ovid did not commit a criminal act
nil nisi: nothing but
aliis: other people ordered to leave
Caesareum numen: the divine will of the Emperor
utitur in me nomine: he uses for me the name of
tuta causa: my case is safe i.e. I am not an exsul.
laus laudis: praise, glory
pro parte virile: to the best of their power
quails-cumque: of what quality so ever
adhuc: thus far
limen liminis (n.) threshold
teque velint sine se esse deum: i.e. Ovid prays that the gods grant Augustus divinity while still alive.
comprecor compratus: to pray
opto: to wish
ut in mare flumina vastum (solent currere), sic solet exiguae currere rivus aquae: i.e. the prayers of the people for the wellbeing of Augustus are a river, that of Ovid.
vastus: vast, immense
exiguus: small, poor
rivus: a small stream, brook
mendax mendacis: false, untrue
parco peperci/parsi parsum: to spare, refrain from
gravo: to load, burden
Translation by A.S. Klyne (2003)
Your letter complains that someone has said
that you’re ‘an exile’s wife’, by way of insult.
I was aggrieved, not so much that my fate is spoken of
with malice, I’m used to suffering pain bravely now,
as to think that I’m a cause of shame to you, to whom
I’d wish it least of all, and that you blushed at our ills.
Endure, and be true: you’ve suffered much worse,
when the Prince’s anger tore me away from you.
Still the one who called me ‘exile’ judges wrongly:
a milder sentence punishes my fault.
My worst punishment is having offended him,
and I wish the hour of my death had come before.
Still my ship was wrecked, but not drowned and sunk,
and though deprived of harbour, it still floats.
He didnt take my life, my wealth, my civil rights,
though I deserved to lose them all by my offence.
But since no criminal act accompanied my sin,
he only ordered I should leave my native hearth.
Caesar’s power proved lenient to me,
as to others, whose number is immeasurable.
He applied the word relegatus to me not exul:
my case is sound because he judged it so.
So my verses, rightly, sing your praises, Caesar,
however good they are, to the best of their abilities:
I beg the gods, rightly, to close the gates of heaven
o you still, and will you to be a god, separate from them.
So the people pray: and as rivers run to the deep ocean
so a stream runs too, with its meagre waters.
And you, the one whose mouth calls me ‘exile’,
stop burdening my fate with that lying name!