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Return to Sender: The Rhetoric of Nomina in Ovid's Tristia

  • Ellen Oliensis (a1)


As Betty Rose Nagle has remarked, Ovid's exile poetry deploys proper names within a kind of economy: ‘Ovid immortalises his own name by publicising it and exhorting his friends and readers to keep it alive, and he rewards his friends for actively remembering him by immortalising them, i.e. by putting their names in his poetry.’ What interests me here is the shortcircuiting of this system of exchange within the Tristia. For one of the most striking features of Ovid's first run of exilic elegies is precisely the omission of the names of Ovid's addressees. As Ovid will claim in the poem that opens the Epistulae ex Ponto, it is this omission (along with a change of title) that differentiates the Tristia poems from their successors:

      inuenies, quamuis non est miserabilis index,
      non minus hoc illo triste, quod ante dedi.
      rebus idem, titulo differt; et epistula cui sit
      non occultato nomine missa docet.
    (Ex Pont. 1.1.15-18)



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My thanks to Andrew Walker and Gareth Williams for inviting me to participate in this venture and to John Shoptaw and Gareth Williams for their helpful criticisms and suggestions. My text for Ovid’s exile poetry is that of Owen, S.G., P. Ovidi Nasonis Tristium Libri Quinque, Ibis, ExPonto Libri Quattuor, Halieutica, Fragmenta (Oxford 1915); all translations are my own.

1. Nagle, Betty Rose, The Poetics of Exile: Program and Polemic in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto of Ovid (= Collection Latomus 170: Brussels 1980), 80, and in general on (absent and present) names, ibid. 77–82.

2. For the parallel, cf. Luck, Georg (ed.), P. Ovidius Naso, Tristia (Heidelberg 1977), ii.314ad loc.

3. For excidere used of a word ‘let fall’, see OLD s.v. 5 and Tr. 4.5.10 (discussed below).

4. In view of the strongly marked midpoint and endpoint of Tr. 3.4a (on which see further below), I consider Tr. 3.4a and b as distinct though closely linked poems (or as distinct sections of a single poem; the difference between these two descriptions is not of significance to my argument). For an illuminating reading of the complementary arguments of Tr. 3.4a and b, treated as a single poem, see Williams, Gareth D., Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid’s Exile Poetry (Cambridge 1994), 128-35.

5. See, e.g., Green, Peter (tr.), Ovid: The Poems of Exile (Harmondsworth 1994), 261.

6. Helze, Martin, ‘Ovid’s Poetics of Exile’, ICS 13 (1988), 73-83, at 73.

7. So Evans, H.B., Publica Carmina: Ovid’s Books from Exile (Lincoln and London 1983), 58, followed by Helze (n.6 above), 73.

8. See Barchiesi, Alessandro, ‘Insegnare ad Augusto: Orazio, Epistole 2, 1 e Ovidio, Tristia II,’ in Schiesaro, Alessandro, Mitsis, Philip and Clay, Jenny Strauss (edd.), Mega nepios: il destinatario nell epos didascalico (Pisa 1993 = MD 31), 149–84; the absent names in the Tristia thus function like the unspeakable error to which Barchiesi applies (in full self-consciousness) his skills of literary detection.

9. So Williams (n.4 above), 105.

10. Cf. Maecenas, whose name has come not only to represent but in many languages actually to denote ‘patron of the arts’.

11. On this shift of strategy, see Williams (n.4 above), 105.

12. Marg, Walter, ‘Zur Behandlung des Augustus in den “Tristien” Ovids’, in Al-brecht, Michael v. and Zinn, Ernst (edd.), Ovid (= Wege der Forschung 92: Darmstadt 1968 [orig. pub. 1959]), 502–12, at 507.

13. Cf. Hinds, S.E., ‘Generalising about Ovid’, in A.J. Boyle, (ed.), The Imperial Muse: To Juvenal through Ovid (Berwick Vic. 1988), 4–31, at 26, on Ovid’s ‘hermeneutic alibi’; the reading of Marache, R., ‘La revoke “d’Ovide exile1 contre Auguste’, in Herescu, N.I. (ed.), Ovidiana: Recherches sur Ovide (Paris 1958), 412–19, who believes that Ovid unwittingly revealed his hostility to the emperor in unintentionally double-edged ‘epigrams’, shows how well this alibi may have served Ovid in practice.

14. Feeney, Denis C., ‘Si licet etfas est: Ovid’s Fasti and the problem of free speech under the Principate’, in Powell, Anton (ed.), Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus, (London 1992), 1–25, at 19.

15. Cf. Marache (n.13 above), 417. For the play on liber (short i) and libertas (long i), see Hinds, , ‘Booking the Return Trip: Ovid and Tristia V’, PCPS 31 (1985), 13–32, at 29n.2.

16. On the anti-Callimacheanism of this gesture see Videau-Delibes, Anne, Les Tristes d’O-vide et l’élégie romaine: une poétique de la rupture (Paris 1991), 459. The ‘common hands’ belong, I take it, to readers without individual influence, the nameless crowd; cf. Tr. 1.1.88, where Ovid counsels his book to content itself with being read a media plebe. A sharp contrast is provided by the list of preferred readers that closes Horace’s first book of satires.

17. While this reading is ruled out by Tr. 3.1.17f. (where the book indicates that it was written in a ‘barbarous land’) and by Tr. 3.1.66 and 73–76 (where it speaks of its author in the third person), the impression of continuity between Tr. 1.1 and 3.1 remains strong; cf. Citroni, Mario, ‘Le raccomandazioni del poeta: apostrofe al libro e contatto col destinatario’, Maia 38 (1986), 111–46, at 122, on Tr. 3.1 as the ‘second half’ of Tr. 1.1.

18. Little better than the bland name ‘Pontus’ (= [the Black] ‘Sea’) is the deceptive ‘Euxinus’ (rejected at Tr. 3.13.28 and 4.10.13). But Ovid, who rose to fame on the strong wings of his own ingenium, will claim a starry and Horatian rather than watery Icarian renown. Cf. the ‘corrective’ echo of Tr. 1.1 in Tr. 4.10 (the poems that frame Tr. 1–4): dum petit infirmis nimium sublimia pennis Icarus, aequoreas nomina fecit aquas. (Tr. 1.1.89f.) Flying too high on weak wings, Icarus gave his name to the level sea. tu mihi, quod rarum est, uiuo sublime dedisti nomen, ab exequiis quod dare fama solet. (Tr. 4.10.121f.) You [my Muse] granted me during my lifetime a rare favour—the exalted name that fame is wont to confer only after death.

19. This exceptional act of naming perhaps proves the ‘return to sender’ rule, especially if, as argued by Georgia Nugent (unpublished paper), Perilla (the feminine form of ‘Perillus’, a type of the creator destroyed by his own creation) is to be read as a fictional character who incarnates Ovid’s own misfortunes.

20. Cf. Tr. 5.3, where a partying poet is imagined mournfully pronouncing Ovid’s name (ubi est nostri pars modo Naso chori?, ‘Where is Naso, only recently part of our chorus?’, 52). In Tr. 5.1, Ovid has the reader directly address Naso (‘quis tibi, Naso, modus lacrimosi carminis?’ in-quis, ‘“When are you going to put a stop to this tearful song, Naso?” you ask’, 35).

21. By this time, it seems, Ovid is past remarking the oxymoronic juxtaposition of his own Roman name with the name of his barbarous place of exile; contrast Tr. 3.12.51 (ei mihi, iamne do-mus Scythico Nasonis in orbe est?, ‘Alas, is Naso’s home now in the Scythian sphere?’) and Tr. 4.4.86 (si modo Nasoni barbara terra sua est, ‘if a barbarous land is now Naso’s own’). Ovid’s progressive ‘domestication’ in Tomis is indicated by Ex Pont. 1.7, where the Roman and barbarian names have so grown together as virtually to imply each other: littera pro uerbis tibi, Messaline, salutem quam legis, a saeuis attulit usque Getis. indicat auctorem locus? an, nisi nomine lecto, haec me Nasonem scribere uerba latet? (Ex Pont. 1.7.1–4) A letter instead of speech has carried to you, Messalinus, the greetings you read all the way from the [land of the] savage Getae. Does the place point to the author? Or, unless you read the name, will it be unclear that I, Naso, am writing these words?

22. Cf. Horace’s dicar (‘I will be spoken of/said’, Odes 3.30.10) with Ovid’s legar (‘i will/may be read’, Tr. 3.7.52, Tr. 5.14.5) and dicor…et legor (‘I am spoken of and read’, Tr. 4.10.128); the exiled poet retains a more ineradicably textual sense of his own afterlife. I do not mean to discount the significance of the recitatio and other performance venues which imply the co-presence of the author and the works that bear his name. But such performances are themselves predicated on a division between the two figures I am calling Ovid (who reads before an audience to whom he may be a relative stranger) and Naso (who is read to an audience that already knows who ‘he’ is).

23. Porphyrio records the same formula as a variant ending for Odes 2.6 (ibi tu calen-temldebita sparges lacrima fauillam/uatis Horati. ‘there you will sprinkle with due weeping the still warm ashes of the bard Horce’, 22–24), where the name should be imagined as posthumously pronounced by Horace’s devoted friend.

24. Cf. fraude, Tr. 3.9.20; in this etymological setting, we may hear an allusion to the derivation of Medea from Greek μέδεσθαι (‘to devise’).

25. So, e.g., Evans (n.7 above), 62.

26. For Ovid’s disavowal of the Ars Amatoria (a disavowal that is always countered by a neighbouring reclamation, however covert), see, e.g., Tr. 1.1.67f. (the Ars has got the punishment it deserved), Tr. 3.1.65f. (Ovid wishes he had never begotten these ‘sons’), etc.

27. It is appropriate that it is Medea, a familiar figure within Ovid’s poetry, who enables this self-reflexivity. The episode Ovid narrates here is precisely the one the Medea of Heroides 12 (which I take to be Ovidian) cannot bring herself to pen; see Her. 12.112–15.

28. For the mutilation of Cicero’s corpse, see Sen. Suas. 6.17–21; Plut. Cic. 48–49. The identification of Medea with Augustus and Absyrtus with Cicero/Ovid (and Orpheus, another dismembered man of words whose ghost visibly hovers over this scene) is proposed by Schubert, Werner, ‘Zu Ovid, Trist. 3.9’, Gymnasium 97 (1990), 15464, an essay to which this final reading of Tr. 3.9 is much indebted, though Schubert attempts what is in my view a more coherent allegorisation than the poem will support.

29. See Videau-Delibes (n.16 above), 151–71.

30. The disjunction is remarked by Videau-Delibes (n.16 above), 172.

31. For the etymology of Caesar from caedere cf. Ahl, Frederick, Metaformations: Soundplay and Wordplay in Ovid and Other Classical Poets (Ithaca 1985), 80f.

32. Whereas Antony created such a sign out of the severed body-parts of his victim, it is Ovid more than the officially ‘clement’ Augustus who has an interest in keeping Naso ademptus in the public eye.

Return to Sender: The Rhetoric of Nomina in Ovid's Tristia

  • Ellen Oliensis (a1)


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