Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.41
Aldo Luisi, Nicoletta F. Berrino, L'ironia di Ovidio verso Livia e Tiberio. Quaderni di "Invigilata Lucernis" 38. Bari: Edipuglia, 2010. Pp. 115. ISBN 9788872285947. €20.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Caitlin C. Gillespie, University of Pennsylvania (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
In this study of irony in Ovid’s exilic corpus, Aldo Luisi and Nicoletta F. Berrino argue that references to Tiberius and Livia may be read on two levels: a surface level of exaggerated encomium, and a second, ironic level. Through irony, they claim, Ovid is able to remain faithful to his anti-Augustan political ideals while supplicating the imperial family for a reprieve.
The intended audience of this volume is not indicated, but the level of knowledge assumed in its readers makes the book suitable only for scholars and others familiar with Ovid and with the problems of interpretation surrounding the author’s exile and literary representations of the imperial family. Additionally, a familiarity with the concept of irony as an interpretative device is useful. This book develops ideas presented in the authors’ joint 2008 study of Ovid’s exile, Carmen et error: Nel bimillenario dell’esilio di Ovidio (Bari. 2008) (reviewed by M. L. de Seta, BMCR 2010.07.24), as well as in Luisi’s Il perdono negato: Ovidio e la corrente filoantoniana (Bari. 2001) (reviewed by S. L. James, Classical Review 54  248-49). Many of the passages under investigation also appear in their co-edited volume Culpa silenda: Le elegie dell’error ovidiano (Bari. 2002) (reviewed by J. A. Richmond, BMCR 2003.01.12). The authors examine here through the lens of irony many passages cited in their former publications.
This book does not contain a methodological introduction or review of scholarship. Providing such would have challenged the authors to recognize the inherent polyvalence of poetic language, and to justify their openly one-sided approach to a corpus marked by ambiguity and open to numerous interpretive possibilities. The absences of Gareth D. Williams, Banished voices: Readings in Ovid’s exile poetry (Cambridge. 1994), and Jo-Marie Claassen, Ovid revisited: The poet in exile (London. 2008), from the discussion are particularly notable. Williams’ argument for ironic dissimulation in Ovid’s presentation of Tomis, his poetic decline, and the emperor Augustus is based soundly in ancient rhetorical theory, and an acknowledgement of his work would have bolstered the claims of the present volume. Claassen’s study of Ovid’s ironic treatment of Augustus is complemented by allusions to irony in the treatment of Livia and Tiberius; the wife and adoptive son of the emperor are not her focus, but her conclusions and specific textual references are often paralleled in Berrino’s and Luisi’s work (e.g., the mythological comparison of Livia to Juno, the innuendo present in Livia’s identification as Augustus-Jupiter’s “couchmate,” and the repeated references to Tiberius as Augustus’ son). Reference to such complementary studies would have located their own discussion of irony within Ovidian scholarship.
In the first part of the current volume (“Livia e l’ironia di Ovidio,” pp. 11-43), A. Luisi examines the portrait of Livia in Ovid, and concludes with a double hypothesis on the reasons for Ovid’s relegation. Luisi follows the modern consensus in scholarship that Ovid was exiled primarily for political reasons, and describes Ovid’s political position as anti-Augustan: against Tiberius as successor, and pro-Germanicus as the leader of a political trend labeled the “corrente filo-antoniana” (p. 42). Luisi offers his reading in part as a response to Anthony Barrett’s seminal biography (Livia: First lady of imperial Rome [New Haven. 2002]), in which Barrett argues that Augustus, in his posthumous conferment of the title ‘Augusta’ on Livia, remains an enigma (p. 153); for Luisi, Livia’s title ‘Augusta’ reflects the power she held while Tiberius reigned, and a degree of maiestas already visible in Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto. After introducing Ovid in this way, Luisi investigates Ovid’s Livia as presented in the Fasti, Tristia, and Epistulae ex Ponto, in search of the reason why the poet never received any assistance from Augustus’ wife, despite the fact that he addressed her in verses characterized by “exaggerated adulation” (p. 6). The reason: underlying irony in Ovid creates a Livia who is, to paraphrase Luisi’s repeated metaphor, a wolf in sheep’s clothing (“sotto la pelle di un mite agnello, come in apparenza sembra Livia, si nasconde un lupo feroce,” pp. 6, 13). Luisi does not imply that Livia was actually reading Ovid’s work, but suggests rather that his other addressees, a readership of politically like-minded friends, might recognize Livia’s truly despotic, vindictive character through his ironic letters. Reference to scholarship on theories of Ovid’s elite male readership, the question of Augustus as the intended reader of Tristia 2, and the notion of Ovid’s addressees as real people versus literary constructs (Augustus included) might have assisted in formulating a solid conclusion to this section.
Luisi’s analysis expands an article of 2000, although the subsection on Livia in the Fasti is virtually unrevised (A. Luisi, “Livia Augusta e l’ironia di Ovidio,” Invigilata Lucernis 22 [Bari. 2000] pp. 81-87). When Ovid seems to support the Augustan regime, according to this analysis, he is using irony; likewise whenever he mentions Livia. For example, when Ovid refers to Livia as genetrix (Fast. 1.649), he is making an overt comparison to Venus, mother of Aeneas and the Julian gens, a “rather daring” combination (“piuttosto audace,” p. 28). Ovid’s reference to Livia as the only woman worthy to share the couch of Jupiter-Augustus (Fast. 1.650) necessarily recalls the embarrassing sexual dalliances of the father of the gods (pp. 28-29).
Luisi’s longest section on Livia draws a parallel between Carmenta and Evander in Fasti book one (1.529-36), and Livia and Tiberius (pp. 29-35); this section includes most of the references to Livia in the Fasti. The presence of an undeveloped allusion to Tiberius and Livia in Evander and Carmenta was noted by Alessandro Barchiesi (Il poeta e il principe: Ovidio e il discorso augusteo [Roma-Bari. 1994]); Luisi teases out its full implications. His analysis of Livia in the Fasti would have benefited from a stronger engagement with the work of Geraldine Herbert-Brown, Ovid and the Fasti: An historical study (Oxford. 1994) (here cited but twice in footnotes, both on p. 33). Herbert-Brown’s separation between Livia’s pre-exilic image as exemplary wife, and her post-exilic persona as semi-divine Augusta (pp. 130-72), would have helped nuance the irony seen by Luisi in Ovid’s portrayal of the imperial couple and their regime.
In the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, Luisi also finds an ironic vein running throughout Ovid’s presentation of the imperial household, especially in his description of the relationship between Augustus and Livia. Ovid’s representation, in Tristia 2.161-66, of Livia as an univira without whom Augustus would have remained caelebs was treated in Barchiesi’s discussion as an example of a passage in which two readings are readily available; Luisi concludes that the exaggerated elegy to Livia ends in a joke (p. 36). Ovid’s constant references to the imperial marriage couch, torus or pulvinar, and to Augustus as a Jupiter-figure (e.g., Pont. 3.1.118; Fast. 1.650; Pont. 3.1.164) not only fail to take into account Livia’s and Augustus’ actual ages, he argues, but also create an image of Livia as a sexually unsatisfied woman (“Farebbe pensare più a una donna sessualmente inappagata anziché a una first lady. Insomma, Livia sembra essere più una donna da letto che una moglie di imperatore.” p. 37). In addition, the characterization of Tiberius as natus, although he was not Augustus’ own son, is ironic. Ovid’s comparison of Livia to both Juno and Venus (Pont. 3.1.114-18), as well as his reference to her skills “in the nuptial bed” can be nothing but ironic, he argues -- she was, after all, over 70 years old at the time of writing (p. 39).
At the end of his section, Luisi concludes that Ovid was opposed to the Augustan regime and to the accession of Tiberius, that he was a supporter of Germanicus, leader of the “corrente filo-antoniana” (p. 42). His error was his participation in this political group; the “shameless lies” present in his poems aimed to safeguard his noble friends (p. 43). These are also the conclusions reached in the 2008 volume; one is left to wonder about his final thoughts on Livia.
In the second part of the volume (“Tiberio e l’ironia di Ovidio,” pp. 45-94), N. Berrino argues for irony in Ovid’s presentation of Tiberius, and identifies a clash between the Julian and Claudian gentes, she too maintaining that Ovid is hostile to Tiberius as Augustus’ successor. Berrino argues that subtle uses of irony regarding Tiberius increase from the Tristia to the Epistulae ex Ponto as Ovid loses hope of a reprieve from exile (or at least a change of locale). In the Tristia, she notes, Ovid has only slight hints of irony; for example, Ovid’s opening image of Tiberius’ expected triumphal return to Rome in Tristia 4.2 seems to celebrate the imperial household, “but a close analysis reveals some dissonances” (pp. 62-63). In the Epistulae ex Ponto, when the poet has lost all hope of the princeps as helpmate, Berrino asserts, he is openly ironic about the domus Augusta and Tiberius, and supportive of Germanicus. Her analysis is attuned to literary devices, meter, and other poetic features; extensive sections of her analysis are repeated from the 2008 volume, with the addition of “irony” as an interpretative keyword, and have been analyzed by other reviewers (e.g., her examination of the love triangle of Menelaus, Paris, and Helen in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria 2.357-72 as an analogy to the scandal of A.D. 2 between Tiberius, Iullus Antonius, and Julia the Elder, and an analysis of Livia in Pont. 3.1).
Berrino’s reading of Tiberius often cross-references Luisi’s complementary analysis of his mother, as well as their collective scholarly oeuvre. Luisi’s argument for irony in Ovid’s presentation of Livia as a young lover is echoed in Berrino’s argument for irony when Tiberius is referred to as natus even when middle-aged. However, she argues that Livia’s position as guardian of the pulvinar (Pont. 2.2.69) is not that of a lover, but rather of the priestess of a divinized monarch (p. 71). For Luisi, Livia’s title “Augusta” was a “un brutto regalo” (p. 11) that made Tiberius “roso della gelosia” (p. 12); similarly, for Berrino, Livia is eventually made equivalent in power to Augustus and “ingombrante” to Tiberius (p. 79). Berrino concludes her analysis by restating that the exilic verses that seem encomiastic towards members of the imperial family are ironic; through irony, he hides his continued political support of the Julian gens. This analysis proves that his error was political in nature. In sum, Berrino’s section of the present volume reads as a continuation of Luisi’s analysis, and of her own 2008 thoughts on Ovid’s relegation and continued support of his political party; an ironic presentation of Tiberius is one aspect of this reading.
Aside from an inconsistent misspelling of Barrett’s name, editorial mistakes are few. The book ends with an index of quotations, modern authors cited, and bibliography. With the exception of P. J. Johnson, “Ovid’s Livia in exile,” CW 90  403-20, no English scholarship on Ovid from within the last 15 years appears. The authors’ dependence on their own prior scholarship has a negative impact on any reader new to their work. Their argument for irony in the presentation of Tiberius and Livia answers some unresolved questions of their 2008 work on the political nature of Ovid’s error, and complements a current trend to explicate the irony that is fundamental to Ovid’s corpus.