Ovid Revisited: The Poet in Exile Paperback – 20 Nov 2008
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Claassen s passion and enthusiasm for her subject seem indefatigable. In this book she has collected in one place a wide range of interesting and important topics that will appeal to anyone interested in Ovid s exilic poems in particular or in exilic literature in general.
About the Author
JoMarie Claassen was Associate Professor in the Department of Ancient Studies at Stellenbosch University until she retired in 2001. She is a leading scholar on Ovid in exile and the author, inter alia, of 'Displaced Persons: the literature of exile from Cicero to Boethius' (Duckworth, 1999) and of many academic articles.
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Displaced Persons: The Literature of Exile from Cicero to Boethius.
Her second book, which is under review here, was published by the same publisher in 2008:
"Ovid Revisited: The Poet in Exile."
Not everything in this book is new, because it is based on articles and book reviews written and published in different journals during the last twenty years. As the author explains in her preface, these articles and book reviews have been revised, re-arranged and combined with something new in order to create the book we have here, with an introduction and six chapters, about Ovid - his life and his works - with the main focus on the works written during the last decade of his life, while he was in exile. All the facts and all the interpretations which are presented in these articles and book reviews are now collected in a single volume. This is very reader-friendly.
Here is a brief biography about the famous poet:
Publius Ovidius Naso - known in English as Ovid - was born in Sulmo (today Sulmona) in Italy in 43 BC. Having completed his education, he lived and worked in Rome where he became a popular poet. Most of his works have been preserved. Things were going well for him, but in AD 8 his comfortable life was suddenly ruined.
In December of that year the Roman Emperor Augustus signed a decree banishing him to live in Tomis (today Constanta in Romania) on the western shore of the Black Sea, which the Romans call Pontus Euxinus. The sentence was harsh, and no delay was allowed: thus, the poet had to leave at once, even though it was in the middle of the winter season, which most ancient travellers avoided, if they could, and so he arrived in Tomis in the spring of AD 9.
While in exile, he wrote two important collections of poems, which are both preserved: "Tristia" (five books), written and published AD 9-12, and "Epistulae ex Ponto" (four books), written and published AD 12-16. He was not happy in Tomis. Time and again he asked to be permitted to return to Rome, but Augustus refused to cancel his decree, and his successor Tiberius did not recall him either, so he ended his days in Tomis in AD 17. When he died he was about 60 years old.
Claassen's introduction covers the life of Ovid, the first part in Italy as well as the second part in exile. In chapters 1-6, the author presents and discusses the works of Ovid, in particular the later works written in Tomis.
Why was the poet banished to live in Tomis? We do not know. According to Ovid himself, it was because he wrote a poem and because he made a mistake. But he refused to explain what the mistake was. Perhaps it was not something he did. Perhaps he happened to see something he was not supposed to see. Claassen discusses the case, and I think she does a good job, given the limited evidence available.
As stated above, the book is divided into an introduction and six chapters. Here is the table of contents:
** Introduction - 6 sections
** Chapter 1 - Persons and personalities - 2 sections
** Chapter 2 - Poetic nequitia: the constant factor - 2 sections
** Chapter 3 - Ovidius poeta - 3 sections
** Chapter 4 - Ovidian logodaedaly - 3 sections
** Chapter 5 - Myth metamorphosed: Ovid's use and re-use of mythology - 11 sections
** Chapter 6 - Ad nostra tempora: Ovid today - 2 sections
At the end of the book we find the following six items: an excursus about Ovidian studies today; appendix I and II; a vocabulary table; a myth table; and an index. There is no bibliography.
What about illustrations? On the front cover there is a picture which shows the famous bronze statue of the poet in his native town Sulmo (today Sulmona) in Italy. The picture is taken by P. E. Claassen, who is the author's husband.
The statue in Italy is a modern copy. The original stands in Tomis (today Constanta in Romania). It was commissioned by the city of Constanta in 1883-1884, created by the Italian artist Ettore Ferrari (1850-1929), and unveiled in 1887.
But inside the book there are no illustrations; not a single map, drawing or photo.
Poetry was the cause of Ovid's doom, but once he ended up in exile, it was also the key to his survival, as Claassen explains several times. Writing poetry helped him keep up his hopes, keep up his spirits. His hope of returning to Rome was never fulfilled, but writing poetry gave him a sense of purpose, it kept him busy. It was - to use a modern expression - therapeutic, beneficial to his mental health.
Some of his letters were addressed to friends in Rome. He asked them to go to the emperor and try to persuade him to change his mind. Other letters were addressed to his enemies. He condemned them for having abandoned him. None of them changed his legal position in any way. He was still banished from Rome. But perhaps this did not matter so much. Writing the letters gave him something to do. And maybe this was more important.
Unfortunately, the conversation with friends and enemies is a bit one-sided, because we never hear from the other side. What we have is not a dialogue, but a monologue.
Rita Degl'Innocenti Pierini (University of Florence) reviewed this book in the online magazine "Bryn Mawr Classical Review" (2010.01.10). Most reviews in "BMCR" are written in English, but the editors do allow other languages, so a few of them are written in German or French. This review is written in Italian.
Pierini mentions Claassen's first book that was published in 1999. As she says, it received a positive review in "BMCR" (2001.12.21). The first book is about exile in the ancient world. It covers several cases from Cicero to Boethius. The second book is also about exile, but this time the focus is on a single author, Ovid.
In general, Pierini is positive. She likes the fact that all quotations from Ovid are given two times: first in Latin and then in an English translation. This is a good idea, because it makes the book accessible to the non-specialist. But she also has a few critical remarks:
** She is perplexed by the absence of a bibliography.
** She points out that one important study is never mentioned by Claassen: Repetition in Latin Poetry: Figures of Allusion by Jeffrey Wills (1996, 2001).
** She deplores Claassen's decision to eliminate the notes of the original articles in the book. The non-specialist can focus on the text and ignore the notes, while the specialist can read the text as well as the notes.
Pierini concludes her review with the following statement:
"In spite of a few reservations, which I have mentioned here, this volume is recommended: for the wide spectrum of topics covered, for the sensitive reading of Ovid, for the attention to linguistic details, and for the conviction - which I fully support - that the works of the exiled poet are much more than dull lamentations."
I agree with Pierini's review; the positive as well as the negative remarks. I have a few additional comments:
(1) It is a shame there are no illustrations in this book (apart from the picture on the front cover). Even a literary analysis can benefit from a few illustrations.
(2) Claassen is in most cases a careful author, but I noticed two minor flaws:
(a) On page 39 she writes: "Vipsania, wife of Agrippa, divorced from Tiberius so that he might marry Julia."
Vipsania (36 BC-AD 20) is the daughter of Agrippa, not his wife!
(b) On page 236 she mentions: "... Cicero's relationships with his freedman Tyro."
The name of Cicero's secretary is Tiro, not Tyro. He was born ca. 103 BC; freed by Cicero in 53 BC, and took his Roman name from his former master: Marcus Tullius Tiro. While Cicero was executed in 43 BC, Tiro lived on to be an old man. He died around 4 BC.
While Claassen discusses several modern studies of Ovid, one important work is never mentioned: Ovid in Exile by the late Romanian scholar Adrian Radulescu (published in 2002, two years after his death). It is obvious to compare this book with Claassen's book, because their topic is exactly the same:
(a) One is much shorter than the other. "Ovid in Exile" has only 141 pages, while "Ovid Revisited" has almost three hundred (to be precise, 292 pages).
(b) Radulescu includes a bibliography which covers six pages, while Claassen has no bibliography at all.
(c) "Ovid in Exile" has an index which covers nine pages, and it is easy to use, because it follows the alphabet. "Ovid Revisited" has an index which covers nine pages, but it is not so easy to use, because it is based on topics. Here are a few examples to illustrate the problem:
If you wish to find Seneca, you will search in vain under the letter S. To find Seneca, you must go to AUTHORS, and then to ANCIENT. To find Agrippa, you must go to AUGUSTUS' FAMILY. To find Tomis, you must look for GEOGRAPHY. I do not understand why the index is arranged in this awkward way. It is not helpful at all.
(d) Radulescu has written a popular account that is easy to read and understand, while Claassen has written an academic account which may appeal more to the specialist than the general reader. To offer just one example: the title of chapter 4 "Ovidian logodaedaly" is not exactly a common term. Perhaps it would be better to say "Ovid as a wordsmith." Claassen is aware of this problem. In her preface she says: "Non-specialist readers may feel happier to skip the more technical sections of Chapters 3 and 4."
(e) Radulescu wants to place Ovid in his Romanian setting; and the focus of his book is on history and geography. For Claassen the concept of exile is important - in chapter 6, she compares the ancient Roman poet Ovid with the modern South African poet Breyten Beytenbach (who was born in 1939) - and the focus of her book is on literary and linguistic aspects.
(f) Both authors know their topic very well. Their enthusiasm for the poetry of Ovid is obvious and contagious.
Both volumes have positive and negative elements. Therefore I wish to recommend both of them and to give them a rating of four stars.
PS # 1. The following article is available online: John Richmond (University College, Dublin), "The Latter Days of a Love Poet: Ovid in Exile," CLASSICS IRELAND, vol. 2, 1995.
PS # 2. For more information, see History in Ovid by Ronald Syme (Oxford University Press, 1978). This book is mentioned by Claassen but not by Radulescu.
PS # 3. See also Ovid in Exile: Power and Poetic Redress in the Tristia and Epistulae Ex Ponto by Matthew McGowan (Brill, 2009). This (expensive) book is reviewed in "BMCR" 2011.08.45.
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