Exile and Exiles


Danielle Lee


Publius Ovidius Naso, more commonly known as Ovid, was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus Caesar in the early Roman empire. Born into a wealthy equestrian family, his father desired for him in his studies to focus on law and rhetoric; this would have no doubt come in handy later in the pursuit of an impressive political career as expected for Romans of Ovid’s class and rank. Instead, Ovid set aside the minor public posts he did hold early in his life to become one of the most prominent Roman poets we know of today.

Much of Ovid’s body of work deviated from the tradition of existing literature in Rome. For example, the narrative of Metamorphoses—considered to be Ovid’s magnum opus—follows a main theme of love and transformation; in contrast, Virgil’s Aeneid extolled Roman virtues such as piety, and featured a hero with whom the emperor could be identified with. Other prominent works by Ovid include Amores and Ars Amatoria, both of which touch upon controversial subjects that were considered to be morally corrupting to the reader; for example, he discusses extramarital affairs and explicit sexual acts.


In 8 CE, Ovid was banished by the Emperor Augustus. Ovid mentions two reasons for his banishment in Tristia (one of the collections of poetic letters he wrote and addressed to family and friends in Rome during his exile): “carmen et error” – a poem and an error (Tristia 2.207). While we do not know for sure what this “error” was, Ovid himself seems to indicate that the “poem” in question is in fact Ars Amatoria. During his reign, Emperor Augustus had passed and promoted legislation on ideas such as monogamy and family values, particularly the Julian Laws of 17-18 BCE. The topics on which much of Ovid’s satirical work focused would have challenged and stood in opposition of the emperor’s moral agenda; thus, at the height of his poetic career, Ovid was banished from the city of Rome. Because his official sentence was that of relegation, Ovid did not lose his citizenship and therefore kept the rights to his property and his marital status. The place of his exile, however, was punishment enough in itself. Tomis—now modern-day Romania—was a small town located on the coast of the Black Sea at the remote edge of the Roman empire. Its population consisted of mixed ethnicities including Greeks, Getics, and Indo-Europeans, all of whom did not speak Latin. With the sparsely populated Tomis’ harsh climate and its being regularly subject to attacks from hostile local tribes, life here for Ovid was difficult in comparison to the populous city life he had known.[1]

Though he seemed to have come to terms with his predicament towards the end of his life, Ovid never ceased his pleas for forgiveness from the emperor of Rome. However, neither Augustus nor his successor, Tiberius, granted him his pardon. Ovid died in Tomis in 17/18 CE.


Tristia is one of two collections of poetic letters written by Ovid during his exile to his wife, family, and peers in Rome. In these poems, Ovid relates the details of his much-decreased standard of living and continued to plead his case to the emperor and his friends (Batty 1994, 88). Ovid’s exile poetry is also where much of our understanding of his biographical details originate; in the following passage, Ovid describes his childhood and progression towards a career in the arts. Interestingly,  the nature of Ovid’s career as a poet goes against the typical career path expected to be taken by the Roman male — this makes his career somewhat unRoman.

We began our education at a tender age, and, through

our father’s care, went to men distinguished in the city’s arts.

My brother tended towards oratory from his early years:

he was born to the harsh weapons of the noisy forum:

but even as a boy the heavenly rites delighted me,

and the Muse was drawing me secretly to her work.

My father often said: ‘Why follow useless studies?’[2]

Maeonian Homer[3] himself left no wealth behind.’

Moved by his words, and leaving Helicon alone,[4]

I tried to write words that were free of metre.

But verse came, of itself, in the right measures,

and whatever I tried to write was poetry.

Meanwhile, as the silent-footed years slipped by,

my brother and I assumed the freer adult toga:[5]

our shoulders carried the broad purple stripe,

our studies remained what they were before.

My brother had just doubled his first ten years of life,

when he died, and I went on, part of myself lost.

Still, I achieved tender youth’s first honours,

since at that time I was one of the tresviri.[6]

The Senate awaited me: I narrowed my purple stripe:[7]

it would have been an effort too great for my powers.

I’d neither the strength of body, nor aptitude of mind

for that vocation, and I shunned ambition’s cares,

and the Aonian[8] Muses urged me on to seek

that safe seclusion my tastes always loved.

Tristia 4.10.1-40

In the following passage, Ovid describes his journey to Tomis, his place of exile. Much like Cicero, Ovid’s dejection is apparent in his writings:

I’m forced to touch the wild left shore of Pontus[9]:

I complain my flight from my native land’s[10] too slow.

I pray for the journey to be shorter,

to see the people of Tomis in their unknown world.


If you[11]love me, hold back these breakers,

and let your powers favour the ship:

or if you hate me deeply, drive me to the land assigned,

part of my punishment is in the place.[12]

Drive my body on swiftly, winds – why linger here? –

Why do my sails desire Italy’s shores?

Caesar does not want this. Why hold one he expels?[13]

Let the land of Pontus see my face.

He orders it, I deserve it: nor do I think it pious

or lawful to defend a guilt he condemns.

Yet if mortal actions never deceive the gods,

you know that crime was absent from my fault.[14]

Ah, if you know it, if my error[15] has misled me,

if my thought was foolish, but not wicked,

if as the humblest may I’ve favoured that House,

if Augustus’s statutory law[16] was enough for me,

if I’ve sung of the happy age with him as Leader,

and offered incense for Caesar and the Caesars[17]

if such was my intent, spare me, gods!

Tristia 1.2.75-110


In this passage, Ovid recounts his emotional actions towards his famous work, Metamorphoses, in the face of his exile.

Leaving, mournful, I threw it[18] on the fire, myself,

along with so many other things of mine.

As Althaea, they say, burning the brand, burned

her son, and proved a better sister than a mother,[19]

so I threw the innocent books, that had to die with me,

my vital parts, on the devouring pyre:

because I detested the Muses, my accusers,[20]

or because the poem was rough and still unfinished.

The verses were not totally destroyed: they survive –

several copies of the writings, I think, were made –

Now I pray they live, and with industrious leisure

delight the reader, serve as a reminder of me.

Tristia 1.7.15-26

Ovid elaborates on the reasons behind his exile:

Though two charges, carmen et error, a poem and an error,[21]

ruined me, I must be silent about the second fault:[22]

I’m not important enough to re-open your wound, Caesar,

it’s more than sufficient you should be troubled once.

The first, then: that I’m accused of being a teacher

of obscene adultery, by means of a vile poem.[23]

Yet if, by chance, as I wish, you’d had the time

you’d have read nothing criminal in my ‘Art’.[24]

I confess the poem was written without a serious

face,[25] unworthy of being read by so great a prince:

but that doesn’t render it contrary to established law,

or destined to teach the daughters of Rome.

And so you can’t doubt whom I wrote it for,

one of the three books has these four lines:

‘Far away from here, you badges of modesty,

the thin headband, the ankle-covering dress.[26]

I sing what is lawful, permissible intrigue,

and there’ll be nothing sinful in my song.’

Haven’t I rigidly excluded from this ‘Art’

all whom the wife’s headband and dress deny?[27]

Tristia 2.207-252

In the following passage, Ovid gives a hearty defence for his actions, and for the poem that caused his exile.

If I’m allowed to present it in order, I’ll show, below,

the mind can be harmed by every sort of poem.

Yet every book’s not guilty because of it:

nothing’s useful, that can’t also wound.

What’s more useful than fire? Yet whoever sets out

to commit arson, arms his bold hands with fire.

Medicine sometimes grants health, sometimes destroy it,

showing which plants are helpful, which do harm.

The robber and cautious traveller both wear a sword:

one for ambush, the other for defence.

Eloquence is learnt to plead just causes:

it protects the guilty, crushes the innocent.[28]

So with verse, read with a virtuous mind

it’ll be established nothing of mine will harm.[29]

Anything can corrupt a perverted mind:

everything’s harmless in its proper place.[30]

The first page of my ‘Art’, a book written only

for courtesans, warns noblewomen’s hands away.[31]

Tristia 2.253-312


Ovid describes his trials and tribulations in living among the extremely un-Roman behaving Getae in Tomis, amongst other populations. More significantly, his anguish is evident as he describes the deterioration in his ability to speak Latin; as a poet, language was his most important tool (Grebe 2010, 496).

If I look at the place,[32] the place is hateful,

and nothing could be sadder on this earth,

if at the people, they barely deserve the name,

they’ve more cruel savagery in them than wolves.[33]

They fear no law: justice yields to force,

and right is overturned by the sword’s aggression.[34]

They keep off the evils of cold with pelts

and loose trousers,[35] shaggy faces hidden in long hair.[36]

A few still retain vestiges of the Greek language,[37]

though even this the Getic pronunciation barbarises.[38]

There’s not a single one of the population who might

chance to utter a few words of Latin while speaking.

I, the Roman poet – forgive me, Muses!–

am forced to speak Sarmatian[39] for the most part.

See, I’m ashamed to admit it, from long disuse,

now, the Latin words scarcely even occur to me.[40]

I don’t doubt there are more than a few barbarisms

in this book: it’s not the man’s fault but this place.B[41]

Yet, lest I lose the use of the Italian language,

and my own voice be muted in its native tongue,

I speak to myself, using forgotten phrases,

and retrace the ill-fated symbols of my studies.[42]

Tristia 5.7.43-68


I often search for a word, a name, a location,

and there’s no one I can ask, to be more certain.

Often in trying to say something – shameful confession! –

words fail me, and I’ve forgotten how to speak.[43]

Thracian and Scythian tongues sound round me,

and I think I could almost write in Getic metres.

Believe me, I’m afraid lest you read the words

of Pontus, in my writings, mixed with the Latin.[44]

So, whatever this book may be, think it worth your

favour and pardon, given the nature of my fate.

(Tristia 3.14.1-52)


Here too I recognise the threads spun at my birth,[45]

threads of a black fleece,[46] twisted for me.

To say nothing of ambush, or the risks to my life,

real, but too serious for their reality to be believed,

how wretched to be living among Bessi  and Getae,

a man who was always there on people’s lips!

How wretched to defend my life, at gate and wall,

scarcely protected by the strength of the place![47]

(Tristia 4.1.49-71)


Works Cited

Batty, R. M. 1994. “On Getic and Sarmatian Shores: Ovid’s Account of the Danube Lands.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 43 (1): 88–111.

Gehman, Henry S. 1915. “Ovid’s Experience with Languages at Tomi.” The Classical Journal 11 (1): 50–55.

Grebe, Sabine. 2010. “Why Did Ovid Associate His Exile with a Living Death?” The Classical World 103 (4): 491–509.

Ovid. Tristia. Translated by A. S. Kline. Poetry in Translation, 2003.


Bibliography and Further Reading:

“Greek & Roman Mythology – Remythologizing.” n.d. Accessed April 10, 2019. http://www.classics.upenn.edu/myth/php/remyth/index.php?page=ovid.

Green, Peter. 1982. “Ovid in Tomis.” Grand Street 2 (1): 116–25.

“Latin Literature | Britannica.Com.” n.d. Accessed April 10, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/art/Latin-literature.

“Ovid | Roman Poet | Britannica.Com.” n.d. Accessed March 11, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ovid-Roman-poet.

Wiedemann, Thomas. 1975. “The Political Background to Ovid’s Tristia 2.” The Classical Quarterly 25 (2): 264–71.


  1. By the early first century CE, Rome’s population had reached several million.
  2. Men of Ovid’s equestrian birth would have been expected to pursue and obtain an impressive political career filled with law and rhetoric, not write flowery poetry as their main occupation (a surprising number of them seem to have done this on the side, including, of all people, Cicero, who wrote erotic poetry to his secretary, Tiro).
  3. Homer is the legendary oral poet to whom the Iliad and Odyssey is attributed. “Maeonian” is a reference either to his place of birth, or possibly the name of his father
  4. By “leaving Helicon” behind, Ovid attempts to abandon poetry (but fails).
  5. Male Roman citizens assumed the toga virilis at age 15, indicating a transition to adulthood
  6. Specifically, Ovid held the post of tresviri capitales, in which he had duties such as overseeing prisons and executions
  7. The trabea toga, or perhaps the toga praetexta, worn by men of Ovid’s equestrian rank, was also white and also often with purple stripe. (See the section on [pb_glossary id="1489"]toga[/pb_glossary] for more information)
  8. Though the exact location is uncertain, Aonia is typically associated with ancient Boetia (the region of Greece where [pb_glossary id="1488"]Mount Helicon[/pb_glossary], sacred to the Muses, is found). Therefore, Aonian is often used interchangeably with Heliconian
  9. The Black Sea; Ovid uses this name to refer to the region in which Tomis was located. In Rome, the “left” side was considered to be unfavourable and distrustful (in the original Latin, laevi—the word used for “left”—can also be translated as unlucky)
  10. The city of Rome
  11. The “you” Ovid addresses are the “Gods of the sea and sky” (Tristia 1.2.1)
  12. Indication that the location for Ovid’s place of exile was chosen intentionally as a means of punishment; this is evident as the vast body of his following verses detail Ovid’s unhappy days and displeasure of living in Tomis.
  13. Here, Ovid alludes that Augustus Caesar himself ordered Ovid’s exile.
  14. Ovid claims that there was no intent behind the crime he committed.
  15. One of the famous references to the “error” that Ovid claims led to his expulsion from Rome. We do not exactly know what this error was.
  16. The law referred to here are almost certainly the Julian laws of 17-18 BCE, moral legislation in which Augustus limits marriage across social classes and punishes adultery with banishment (these laws were later exercised upon Augustus’ own daughter and granddaughter). As he will go on to elaborate, Ovid believes that his work Ars Amatoria (the “Art of Love”), which stood in direct opposition of Augustus’ moral legislation, were a part of the reasons why he was exiled.
  17. Refers to Augustus Caesar and his ancestors (e.g. Julius Caesar); later, “Caesar” transitioned from its origin as a family name to a title that was adopted by most Roman Emperors
  18. Referring to the Metamorphoses: here Ovid recounts that in the face of his exile, he threw the manuscript of magnum opus into the fire (luckily, it was not the only copy).
  19. Althaea killed her son in revenge for her brothers
  20. Because his poetry condemned him, he expresses temporary hatred for the Muses
  21. A poem and a mistake.
  22. We do not know exactly what this error was. However, there is usually a general consensus that the error was either sexual or political.
  23. It is widely believed that the poem (carmen) he is referring to is his work Ars Amatoria (the Art of Love), which counsels the reader on how to maintain illicit relationships in Rome. As the work promoted positive views on topics such as sexual practices (whether within or outside of marriage) and extramarital affairs (e.g. obscene adultery), it was considered to be morally corrupting and would have been something that the more austere Augustus Caesar could not condone; as a result, many (including Ovid) believe that this poem is the reason that Ovid was exiled. As a part of his defense plea in following lines of poetry within the same book, Ovid cites many Greek and Roman poets preceding him who also approach topics similar to his work and yet are never reprimanded (Tristia 2.361-470).
  24. Refers to Ars Amatoria [The Art of Love]
  25. Ovid claims the poems that have seemingly incriminated him were not written in a serious manner, and therefore should not have been taken so seriously
  26. Proper Roman matrons were supposed to wear a fillet (typically a narrow headband of cloth) and the stola (a full-length and restricting dress)
  27. Here, Ovid claims that his work began by warning away virtuous and modest women; therefore, it should not have corrupted anyone who should not have been corrupted. In regard to “headband and dress”, see the previous note.
  28. Ovid is perhaps arguing that, if it is fair that guilty people often go free, it means that they have defended themselves well - a skill put to good use, so their release is therefore justified.
  29. Ovid reasserts that if one possessed a virtuous mind to begin with, they should not have been corrupted by his work.
  30. In addition to previous footnotes in this section, please see the previous section on women's proper dress
  31. Ovid again asserts that his works were intended towards courtesans, not proper noblewomen
  32. The place in question is Tomis, the location of Ovid’s exile.
  33. Ovid considers his surrounding population to barely be people. Wolves were a traditional symbol of savagery in Rome, as well as being a symbol of Rome itself.
  34. Ovid claims that the people of Tomis do not follow the law; they value physical power (contrast this with Rome and the importance of laws and courts).
  35. Again, respectable Roman men would never wear pants/trousers
  36. This appearance stands in stark contrast to the neat, well-groomed, and civilised Roman man who did not ever wear trousers.
  37. Though Tomis was technically a Greek colony, it had long since lost the Greek culture (Batty 1994, 91)
  38. Of all the “barbaric” tongues Ovid encountered, Getic is the one he mentions the most; there is the possibility that Ovid didn’t exactly discern many differences between all the foreign tongues he encountered (Gehman 1915, 51)
  39. The Sarmatians were another local nomadic tribe that passed by Tomis
  40. Latin was (and still is) a difficult language. Being able to handle Latin was the marker of an educated Roman citizen. For a poet at the level on which Ovid stood, Latin would have been doubly important to his identity. Having to lower himself to a regional dialect in order to communicate and thus losing his handle on Latin would have been a devastating blow to the already miserable Ovid.
  41. lames the location of Tomis for any instances of “barbarisms” in his work
  42. Ovid turns to and continues to write his poetry in order to retain his ability to speak and write Latin.
  43. Ovid admits that he is forgetting Latin.
  44. Here Ovid tells us that his Latin has been “corrupted” with Getic and Sarmatian words (Grebe 2010, 496)
  45. Ancient Romans (and the Greeks before them) believed that a person’s lifespan relied on their Threads of Life, which were spun, measured, and cut by deities often referred to as the Fates
  46. Perhaps alluding to the Golden Fleece, with "black" reference to the way that Jason originally obtained the Freece on his quest - with magic. Or, simply perhaps the fact that the Golden Fleece was found near the Black Sea.
  47. As a town at the edge of an empire, Tomis was constantly under attack by raiders and passer-byers


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