Poetry, Treason, and Payback: Roman Censorship and Ovid’s Exile 

“I am the only one whose own Muse has been his ruin.” — Ovid, Tristia

[Ovid Among the Scythians, Eugène Delacroix (1862)]

I swear one day this blog will get back to the Egyptians or the Greeks (or, gosh, maybe something novel). But since this is Banned Book Week in the US, it seems like a good time to talk about something ancient that relates to literature and censorship. And there’s really only one name that always seems to spring to mind when those two topics come up…

[Ovid: Salvepuellae! Did you miss me? I definitely missed all of you…]

So, I thought in the spirit of celebrating literary controversy, this week we’d spend some time unraveling one of antiquity’s most infamous censorship cases: that of Ovid in late Augustan Rome. Ovid’s strange fate has intrigued classicists for centuries, both because of the fame of its author-victim and for the odd lacuna of details surrounding the whole episode. But everyone loves a good mystery, so let’s examine the facts.

We’re in 8 AD, and Ovid is the most famous poet in Rome, having outlived his older predecessors (Virgil dies in 19 BC, Horace in 8 BC) and most of his contemporaries (Tibullus also dies in 19 BC, Propertius in 15 BC). He has recently completed his master work, The Metamorphoses, which seems to finally cement his legacy among the serious Latin poets. Up until then, Ovid had mainly focused on writing elegiac love poems (generally couplets composed in dactylic hexameter line paired with a dactylic pentameter line), but The Metamorphoses is an epic poem in pure dactylic hexameter verse, the same meter that Virgil’s Aeneid is composed in. Despite this radical shift in style, Ovid proves himself more than adept at writing in the heroic verse his younger self poked fun at and The Metamorphoses is very successful.

Indeed, this later phase of Ovid’s career is arguably the poet at his most conventional. The Metamorphoses has enough god-on-mortal sex and suggestion of Ovid’s sense of humor that you know it’s him, but the purpose of the poem is to delineate the beginning of the universe down to the founding of the Roman imperial cult— a very Horatian objective. The various mythic subjects of the poem are mortals who, get this, metamorphose from one thing into another. Plants, animals, monsters, constellations, most of the famous Greek myths where this happens to someone are represented in the poem. So what does this have to do with the imperial cult, which at this time is only composed of the Divus Julius? That is actually where Ovid’s choice of subject matter becomes very clever, for after writing of all these miraculous transformations from the heroic past, he then rounds the poem out with the excerpt I gave you last week, where Julius Caesar metamorphoses from a man into a god: the greatest human transformation of all. The fact that he pulls off this little poetic sleight of hand while also managing to flatter Octavius in the bargain shows a mature writer who’d apparently learned how to play the game during his many years in a changing Rome.

[A 1556 printing of The Metamorphoses in Latin]

And Ovid is the quintessential Roman poet, that is, a poet of the city. Virgil’s distaste for living in the capital was legendary and echoes through much of his poetry, where he is much more at home in the pastoral past than the urban present. But so much of Ovid’s poetry is bound up in being in the thick of things in Rome. Usually in the Amores, it’s the elusive Corinna who is traveling here or there, while Ovid is imploring her to come home. In the later Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), the settings of his instruction are the typical haunts of the city’s upper class: banquets, games, and assignations along the Portico of Livia in the Forum. Ovid’s love poetry might not be serious art, but it has a very lived-in sense of time and place. There is a genuine affection for Rome itself that runs through so much of his oeuvre, something that makes his ultimate fate all the more tragic.

But before we get to that, in the interest of further illustrating where Ovid was in his career and in relation to Octavius’ principate, I also want to touch on his unfinished poem, de Fasti (translated as The Calendar, or The Book of Days). Worked on around the same time as The Metamorphosesde Fasti was meant to be a celebration of Roman holidays and customs. Dedicated to Octavius’ grand-nephew Germanicus, what we have of the poem is six books that cover about half the year, and in addition to its imperial dedicatee, there are many references to the burgeoning imperial cult and the place of Octavius in both establishing or reviving certain practices. In short, it seems like just the sort of topic one would pick to ingratiate oneself with the ruling clan.

But instead of inheriting Virgil’s place in the center of the imperial family, in 8 AD Ovid is banished from Rome on the personal intervention of Octavius and sent to Tomis, a small Thracian port on the Black Sea (now the Romanian city of Constanța). There he will spend the next decade in exile until his death in 17/18 AD, even after Octavius’ death in 14 AD and the accession of Tiberius. He never sees Rome again.

[Ovid Banished from Rome, J.M.W. Turner (1838)]

So what the hell happened? The short answer is: we’re not sure. Ovid’s exile occurs around the time of Octavius’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger (or Julilla)’s separate banishment to the Italian island of Tremirus, as well as the exile of his grandson, Agrippa Postumus to the island of Planasia. Like her mother Julia Augusti’s murky banishment a decade earlier, there is a distinct lack of documentation as to the specific events that led up to this rash of exiles, in part probably due to Octavius’ personal embarrassment. Julilla, like her mother before her, is vaguely accused of various adulterous misdemeanors. This may sound relatively innocuous, but adultery was a banishing crime under Octavius’ Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis.

Passed in 17 BC, the so-called Julian Laws (Lex Iulia) were a series of legislative acts designed to regulate morality and promote more traditional Roman values in the new imperial state. One of the main focuses of these laws was marriage, which was seriously encouraged and, as you can see, vigorously protected. Celibacy and childlessness were discriminated against under law, particularly in regards to inheritance, and citizens in legitimate marriages with three or more children were rewarded in a variety of legal ways. Marriages between Roman citizens and foreign women was strongly discouraged, and adultery was publicly punished. The guilty parties were banished from Rome to separate islands (luckily this is the Mediterranean, so it would take a while to run out of sex-punishment islands), and a percentage of their property was forfeited to the state.

Unfortunately, this is where most of the gender equality of the Lex Iulia ends. Husbands were required to divorce adulterous wives (in hindsight, obviously no such requirement for patient wives willing to stand by their man), and could even kill their wife and her paramour under certain circumstances (most likely similar to post-classical antiquated crime-of-passion statutes). On the other hand, fathers could kill their daughter and her partner under basically any circumstances. This is because, as we’ve discussed, even a married woman was under the legal guardianship of her father as paterfamilias, so an adulterous daughter and her lover were both violating the legal and property rights of her father, which is why dear old Dad gets a lot more vigilante wiggle room than her husband. Octavius probably felt like he was being very magnanimous when he refrained from not only killing his daughter, but his granddaughter as well, but that’s not exactly putting him in the running for Father of the Year. Julia Augusti in particular was popular in Rome, and had nothing been done about her supposed indiscretions (which for the record is a matter of some doubt due to aforementioned lack of evidence), no one would have probably even bothered to accuse Octavius of a double standard, as the adultery law wasn’t exactly rigorously enforced because it is really hard to police people’s bedrooms. Even Tacitus later in the Annals points out that Octavius was stricter on his own relatives than the law actually required (III, 24), which again points to the two Julias’ crimes being ones of mortifying the old man more than being epic sluts.

[Julia the Younger in the Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1774]

With both Julias, and again in light of the spotty record, there is also some thought that there was a political motive to the ladies’ banishment. That Octavius pretended their crimes were sexual in order to not have to execute them for treason. The thought is that both Julias were involved in plots to overthrow Octavius and replace him with a younger male relative: Julia Augusti to put her eldest son, Gaius, in power without her father; and Julilla to put her brother Postumus back in the line of succession after his de-adoption and banishment in 6 AD. This is supposedly supported by the men caught in the alleged adultery dragnets: in Julia Augusti’s case, her half-brother, Publius Cornelius Scipio, and Mark Antony’s last surviving son, Iullus Antonius, among others; and in Julilla’s case, her husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, among others. Scipio (son of Octavius’ divorced wife, Scribonia) and Iullus, son of his old enemy, had potential axes to grind against the principate. And if Julilla’s main crime was adultery, why was her husband so implicated that he was executed as opposed to exiled as she was?

The truth of any of this is impossible to confirm, but it should be noted that even when we have incomplete information about the various conspiracies against Octavius’ government, like in the case of the Murena/Caepio conspiracy of 23 BC, we usually know definitively that a conspiracy was hatched. For someone who ultimately took a fair amount of flak for his treatment of the Julias, it would have arguably been easier for Octavius to publicly admit how bad his eggs had gone to justify what was seen as his overly harsh punishment of them. Perhaps he really was too ashamed to confess that his family might hate him that much, but considering how quick he was to badmouth both of them in their absence (Suetonius quotes him glossing Hector in the Iliad, saying “If only I had never married, or had died childless.” [Life of Augustus, LXV]), it seems strange that he’d suddenly be squeamish about an attempt on his life or power. Personally, I think the adultery storyline actually makes more sense the political conspiracy storyline (for the ladies at least— it’s hard to say what was going on with the guys, especially Paullus). There is something very Greek tragedy about the prudish Octavius enacting these draconian adultery laws, only to be forced to uphold the integrity of his rule by punishing his daughter by those laws. Because, as we’ve said, perhaps nothing in the principate was more important to Octavius than his image as a peaceful, fair administrator— a first among equals. How would he be able to say so if he exempted his family members from his own laws? I also think despite his hardline public stance, he must have occasionally evinced some private sadness or remorse over the affair, because I think that might explain Julilla. She might have simply thought he wouldn’t possibly be able to do it again.

So what does any of this have to do with Ovid’s sitch? Well, it’s often hypothesized that Ovid was exiled for either some kind of involvement in the Julilla/Paullus political conspiracy, or for at least having knowledge of it. Ovid himself states he was banished for “carmen et error”— a poem and a mistake (Tristia, 2.207), but doesn’t elaborate beyond that. It is generally assumed “the poem” is the Ars Amatoria, his tongue-in-cheek guide to adultery, which certainly against the spirit of the Lex Iulia. But the problem becomes that the Ars had been in wide public circulation since 2 AD, which makes it odd that Octavius would wait six years to register a complaint. A more interesting theory is that the offending poem is de Fasti or even The Metamorphoses. 


De Fasti has long evaded serious critical analysis because of its incompleteness and its perceived lower artistic quality as compared to Ovid’s other work. And yeah, generally it doesn’t grab you the way his other poems do, but his stories about Roman festivals and traditions are interesting in their own way. But the weird thing is that a lot of it we know isn’t true, or cannot be confirmed in any way. The poem is structured as third-person witness accounts of the festivals, or as interviews between vares (bards) and the Roman gods who supposedly explain the significance of rituals. Ovid uses these outside narrators to make statements and arguments with authority or tradition, which is kind of a classic antiquity author move to skirt blasphemy or treason charges. There are also plenty of references to Octavius and the imperial family, which are at least on the surface complimentary, but the argument could be made that the famously sardonic Ovid might not have been entirely serious.

This theory on the Fasti as a secretly subversive text isn’t accepted by all scholars, some pointing out that Romans often had a somewhat irreverent attitude towards religion. But I do think this was somewhat less true in Octavius’ principate, where the ruler was also the pontifex maximus, the head Roman religious figure. And although the pontifex maximus was historically a political post, I think the extensive Lex Iulia shows that Octavius was a highly motivated pontifex maximus. It’s possible that de Fasti’s loose affiliation with the truth about Roman religion and customs was seen as unacceptable by Octavius and therefore nipped in the bud. Because despite continuing to write in Tomis, Ovid never returns to the poem to finish out the calendar year. He claims it’s because he no longer has access to the reference materials necessary to work on it, seeing how he now lives far from what a Roman would view as the civilized world, but considering how much of the first six books is based on hearsay, that’s not the most convincing argument.

But because de Fasti wasn’t completed or in wide circulation before his banishment, it also seems doubtful that it is the offending carmen of which its author speaks. I think there’s a serious argument to be made that the true criminal poem is in fact the seemingly praiseworthy Metamorphoses, and here’s why: Ovid’s poem is the earliest extant version we have of a very particular myth, the story of Arachne. Arachne is a mortal girl who boasts that she is a more talented weaver than the goddess Minerva (Athena), the inventor of the craft. Predictably enraged by this, Minerva demands that she take back this this claim, but instead Arachne challenges the goddess to a weaving contest. The duel commences, with Minerva producing a tapestry depicting the terrible ways in which the gods punish mortals who dare to challenge them. One would think this would frighten her opponent, but Arachne isn’t daunted, producing a beautiful tapestry showing all of the many horrible things the gods have done to mortals, many of which are also the very stories Ovid is recounting in the larger poem, for many of the transformations of The Metamorphoses are the result of divine punishment, or escape from the gods’ wrath or sexual advances. When the tapestries are completed, Minerva sees that not only has the bold Arachne dared to challenge the gods again through the story her weaving tells, but truthfully, her work is better than that of the goddess. And though Minerva is usually treated as one of the more reasonable gods, she reacts just as any of her less rational relatives would. Rather than accept defeat, she turns Arachne (as you might have guessed from her name and her crafting talent) into a spider for her hubris.

[Minerva and Arachne, René-Antoine Houasse (1706)]

It doesn’t take a literary theorist to see what Octavius might have when he read this part of the poem. The fearless artist speaking truth to power is hardly the sort of hero one would want to promote in a pseudo-monarchy, and Ovid had always been particularly unconcerned with appeasing Octavius’ ego. The princeps found himself with the most widely-read poet in his empire since Virgil spouting verses that were much less ambiguous in their criticism towards him, and I think he reacted exactly as Athena did. The Arachne myth, planted innocuously in the middle of The Metamorphoses, arguably throws the entire sincerity of the poem into question, and suddenly that section about Caesar starts to wobble a little bit on its complimentary legs. Let’s look at that section again:

“And still, he came a stranger to our temples,

Caesar is a Deity in his own city,

Whom, alike distinguished both in war and peace,

Wars his exploits, did not more tend to change

Into a new planet, and a star

With blazing train, than did his own progeny.

For all the acts of Caesar, there is not one

More ennobling than that he was the father of this our Caesar Augustus.

Was it, forsooth, a greater thing to have conquered

The Britons surrounded by the ocean and to have steered his victorious ships

Along the seven-mouthed streams of the Nile that bears the papyrus,

And to have added to the people of Romulus, 

The rebellious Numidians and Cinyphian Juba,

And Pontus, proud of the fame of Mithridates,

And to have deserved many a triumph and enjoyed some,

Than it was to have been the father of a personage so great,

Under whose tutelage over the world, you, ye Gods above,

Have shewn excessive care for the human race?

That he then might not be sprung from mortal seed,

‘Twas it that Julius should be made a Divinity.”

It appears that Ovid is indeed saying that Octavius is greater than Julius, that Julius had to become a god to justify his adopted son’s exalted place in the world. But it is funny that to do so, Ovid also goes out of his way to list so many of Julius’ specific achievements (including his prowess in both peace and war, which is not something Octavius could really say personally), while not doing so for Octavius. The poem continues on to discuss Octavius in a bit more specifics, but Julius’ presence hangs over the whole last section while Ovid assures us that he’s really giving Octavius precedence. His intent might have been sincere, but coupled in a poem mostly about mortals suffering at the hands of capricious gods written by a poet who’d built a twenty-five-year career out of speaking out of the side of his mouth, and one begins to see how Octavius might have taken exception to this work. The Metamorphoses might not be as questionable as the Ars Amatoria, but it might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

[“Quick, babe, no one’s going to believe me if we don’t put our clothes back on!”]

As for the second half of Ovid’s claim, his “mistake”, that is usually thought to be a reference to the poet moving in the same social circles as Lucius Aemilius Paullus and the alleged Postumus conspirators; that he knew these men, but didn’t know of their plans (or didn’t report them). Basically, that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got caught in the imperial crossfire. But what’s interesting about Ovid’s case is how deeply personal it appears to have been from Octavius’ side. As I mentioned earlier, Octavius handed down Ovid’s sentence by personal decree, meaning Ovid was not tried judicially either by the Senate or the lower tribune courts, which is very unusual. This extra-judiciary move on Octavius’ part has led to the theory that, like in the cases of the Julias, that there was a sexual, rather than a political, component to Octavius’ motives (because “when in doubt, sex” is a common avenue in forensic history). There are two typical theories in this line: One, that Ovid was one of the men who committed adultery with either or both of the Julias, and/or was aware of their adultery with others; or two, he somehow knew that Octavius had committed incest with either or both of the Julias and was banished so he couldn’t tell anyone about it. 

To deal with the second and more far-fetched of those theories first, considering that Suetonius came through later and spilled ALL THE TEA about the Julio-Claudian emperors, no matter how salacious the gossip or unverifiable the sources, it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t have mentioned that Octavius was banging not only his daughter, but his granddaughter. This theory is probably an offshoot of a rumor of this nature Caligula started when he was emperor because he thought being the grandchild of an incestuous relationship between Octavius and Julia Augusti was better than admitting his grandfather was the lowly Marcus Agrippa. Also in his elegiac poem, Tristia, which he writes in exile, Ovid says his “unguarded eyes saw a sin” (III, 4), which is interpreted as incest because the sin is left unspeakable. While this being true would certainly explain Octavius’ personal and extreme response, I just don’t think it’s very likely. Octavius had a lot of personal shortcomings, but incest seems to have been pretty far outside his moral code.

[My readers are making this face right now, but I play with this rumor because I write fiction.]

As for the first theory, while it certainly sounds like Amores Ovid to be banging a woman and her daughter (presumably while dying of excessive high-fiving from his friends), as Ovid had claimed before in earlier works and claims again in Tristia, “[M]y life is one of decency: my Muse is a sportive one.” In short, Ovid had almost always asserted that he was a writer of poetic fiction; that his raucous, playboy persona was largely an invention and he was a much tamer person than the narrator of his poems is. This is one of the many reasons that, unlike the other elegiac muses of Tibullus and Propertius, literary theorists generally believe that Ovid’s Corinna wasn’t a real person, or at best was a composite of several women the poet knew, and his rowdy escapades with her are pure invention. This is certainly possible, though I maintain that the very lived-in feel of particularly his early poetry suggests that Ovid doth protest a bit too much when it comes to his reputation.

As with most things, I suspect the truth of all of this is somewhere in between; Ovid’s not as naughty as his poems and Octavius make him out to be, but he’s no angel either. He probably had a lot of fun, got in with a bad crowd, and simply found himself in a situation he couldn’t talk his way out of. The tone of Tristia, his exile poem collection, is wildly unpredictable, veering from righteous indignation, to self-pity, to thoughtfulness, and back again in a trail of blazing verse. However, Ovid’s dominant emotion in the piece appears to be astonishment— he simply didn’t see this coming. He clearly believes himself to be an unimportant person in the Empire, a scribbler of silly love poems, and a part of him doesn’t understand how he ended up a traitor at the edge of the world. But I think Octavius’ choice shows that it doesn’t really matter which of the competing theories above is the truth. Ovid had come a long way since he was Corinna’s cheeky lover, and with The Metamorphoses, he had proven himself to be an artist to be reckoned with. One whose voice had the strength to challenge the most powerful man in the world, and whether he knew it or not, Octavius certainly did and acted accordingly. Once again, the gods smite and Ovid is left to spin in obscurity until the danger he represents dies with him.

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