Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.60

Garth Tissol, Ovid: Epistulae ex Ponto, Book I. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. ix, 191.  ISBN 9780521819589.  $36.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jo-Marie Claassen, Stellenbosch University (

A new commentary in English on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto is to be welcomed, especially one by such a distinguished scholar. The blurb on the back cover of this relatively slim addition to the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series explains that this commentary (on Book I only) ‘[will] assist intermediate and advanced students in understanding Ovid’s language and style, while guiding them in the appreciation of his poetic art.’ In other words, the stated intention of the author was to produce a teaching tool. In this Tissol succeeds admirably.

The book is concise and relatively user-friendly, even if readers need to page back and forth from the text of the poems to the appropriate commentary. The general set-up is predictable. The usual Preface and List of Abbreviations is followed by an Introduction of twenty-eight pages (pp.1-28). Topics covered in the Introduction are, in turn ‘Letters from exile: a new vessel for old grief,’ ‘The literary background’, ‘The higher genres and Ovidian hyperbole,’ ‘Names in the Epistulae ex Ponto, ‘Observations on style,’ ‘Fata libellorum: remarks on the early reception of the Epistulae ex Ponto’ and ‘A note on the text.’

Next follows the full text of Book I in just over twenty pages (pp.31-52). The author has, as explained in the above ‘note,’ slightly adapted Richmond’s 1990 Teubner edition, sometimes choosing alternative readings and providing only a brief apparatus that (sensibly) reports ‘only [those] readings that are discussed in the commentary’ (p.28).

The commentary itself comprises 127 pages (pp.53-180), which amounts mutatis mutandis to an average of just under thirteen pages for each poem commented upon. A five and a half page bibliography lists all modern works cited (but explicitly, and sensibly, not including the names of standard commentaries on other ancient authors). The index of Latin words discussed in the commentary fills, rather surprisingly, only one double-columned page (in contrast with the twenty-two pages of Jan Felix Gaertner’s wide-ranging commentary on Book I 1). Tissol has a (similarly double-columned) four-page ‘General Index’ with a variety of topics, ranging from names of addressees to grammatical concepts such as participles or case usages, to literary-critical or stylistic concepts, to various metres (pp.188-91).

In his Preface Tissol lists the meagre range of commentaries available on books of the Epistulae ex Ponto , the only one in English (on Book I) until recently being that of the nineteenth- century Keene, to which Gaertner’s commentary should now be added. .A surprise, to this reviewer, however, was the author’s omission of any mention of Peter Green’s very accessible Penguin translation of both the Tristia and Ex Ponto2 which has a finely printed forty-five page introduction and devotes almost a hundred pages of useful, mostly literary or prosopographical, commentary to the Ex Ponto (of which almost thirty pages elucidate Book I). It must be conceded, however, that Green himself calls his commentary mere ‘notes’ (p.xv). For the rest, the ‘usual suspects’ in any discussion of Ovid’s exilic corpus are very much in evidence in Tissol’s list of works cited, but, interestingly, there is scant overlap with Green’s seven-page ‘Select Bibliography’.

However, Tissol’s commentary is much more extensive than Green’s briefer discussions of individual poems, for Tissol offers a ‘line-for line’ commentary. Unlike in Gaertner’s tome, which is heavily slanted toward matters linguistic, Tissol’s comments range in type between linguistic elucidation, suggestions for appropriate translation, cultural or legal explication (for example of the term peregrinus in I.3), references to similar linguistic or grammatical usages in other Ovidian poems or in other authors, also referring to commentators ad locc. cit.. Also frequent is discussion of grammatical usages (as with I.9-10, latere… tutius as an ‘infinitive treated as an indeclinable neuter noun’ etc.), or discussion of matters of Ovidian style or typical poetic usages, such as quamvis with the indicative. For the rest, extensive literary-critical comments on a particular phrase within a poem alternate with longer or shorter historical analyses or detailed discussion of particular grammatical usages and contrast of Ovid’s language or his situation with other ancient sources. Each couplet usually has a longish paragraph devoted to it, comprising a variety of different types of comment as cited above, relating in turn to individual words or phrases within that couplet.

The commentary on each individual poem is preceded by a brief introduction, all of these following roughly the same pattern, covering in turn the following topics (but not always in the same order after the initial discussion of the relevant addressee). These are: the structure (‘parts’) of the poem; notes on the tone of the poem (for example, wit and irony versus pathos); discussion of matters intratextual (that is, Ovid’s allusions to his own earlier works, whether exilic or otherwise); frequently, also, comments on the linguistic register our poet employs (more elevated towards grandees such as Messalinus and more familiar toward his brother, Ovid’s bosom friend Messala Corvinus).

What this reviewer missed in this otherwise admirable and useful literary commentary was perhaps more extensive discussion of the spectrum of emotions that Ovid displays and his manner of conveying these: that is, more on both his wit and his all too frequent despair. But that is something the target readers (intermediate and advanced students) should get to grips with themselves, once Tissol has helped them over the many linguistic and other hurdles that prevent instant understanding and enjoyment of our brilliant poet when in extremis in the fourth year of his banishment.

An intriguing element of the commentary is Tissol’s conservative (in the literal sense) attitude throughout to various verses or couplets that Gaertner’s commentary proposes blithely to discard as ‘un-Ovidian’. I counted no fewer than nine rejections of Gaertner’s readings within some forty-six pages (130-76). Gaertner’s justification of his apparently frequent proposals to cut couplets are most often trenchantly labelled as ‘wrong’ by Tissol, but always, then, plausibly rebutted with well-framed arguments. In all these cases Tissol argues for the retention of the verses, most often with reference to Ovid’s exuberant and often elliptic style. I quote one such refutation (on Ex P.I.7.49-2): ‘Gaertner deletes the lines because of their parenthetical nature: the next couplet (53-4) returns to Augustus’ leniency and so “would follow far better after 1.7.48,” i.e. immediately after. One ought not, however, to expect invariably smooth transitions in Roman elegy, especially in a poem that reflects Tibullan style. The lines are appropriate to their context; their style and expression are unobjectionable and the wound-imagery is characteristic of O.’s exilic poetry’ (p.144).3 On page 151 Tissol follows this up with ‘[Ovid’s] thought does not move with bland unpredictability from point to point.’ These examples serve as illustrations of Tissol’s sensitive reading of our poet and his awareness of the variability of Ovid’s style from context to context.

Tissol does not, however, reject all previous commentators out of hand, but often cites earlier scholars such as Postgate, Platnauer or Bömer, depending on the kind of issue he wishes to elucidate.

I have never been sure how much explication is required in a commentary aimed at students, and what kinds of problems of understanding it should seek to solve. As indicated above, Tissol addresses an admirable variety of issues, grammatical, linguistic, literary and cultural. He may therefore be excused the occasional redundancy, as for instance his illustration of the fact that that a verb of fearing (ne… clauserit) ‘need not depend directly on a governing verb or expression’ with a quotation from Cicero Verr. 2.1.46 (p.56). Again, his suggestion for translating 1.8.21-2 rex aevo… fortissime nostro as ‘bravest king of our time’ is to my mind then rather unnecessarily explained as ‘temporal ablative’ and illustrated with an example from the Ars amatoria (p.154). But these are mere quibbles: students usually need all the help they can get.

More serious is a matter of readability: Tissol’s occasional idiosyncratic use of figures and numbers together with non- standard abbreviations left this reader sometimes confused. Tissol’s comment on me miserum as ‘used 45x by O.’ (p.139) is clear enough, but I had to reread the following three times to try to work out what Tissol meant (on page 141, at 1.7.33-4): ‘…the verb [dedignor] occurs only there before O., who uses it 11x. 33’ (and then the line breaks and the next line continues ‘recalls 27 in language and expression…’ Better editing (or the avoidance of starting a sentence with a figure) would have made of this: ‘…occurs only there before Ovid, who uses it 11 times. Verse 33 recalls verse 27 in language… etc.’

However, overall the commentary is useful and extremely accessible for its projected users. It is a valuable addition to the arsenal of teaching tools available for academics intent on inculcating a love of our brilliant, star-crossed poet in the next generation of anglophone Latinists, for whom it opens up aspects of Ovid’s exilic poetry. It will also be of equal value to more mature academics. Tissol’s next publications (hopefully on Books II to IV) are eagerly awaited.


1.   Gaertner, Jan Felix (ed., intro, transl., comm.). Ovid, Epistulae Ex Ponto, Book 1. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
2.   Green, Peter (transl., intro., nn., gloss.) Ovid: The Poems of Exile. Harmondsworth, Penguin; 1994. Second edition subtitled ‘Tristia and the Black Sea Letters: with a new Foreword.’ Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 2005.
3.   In spite of almost consistent strictures on Gaertner’s readings throughout, Tissol refers in his ‘Preface’ (p.vii) to Gaertner’s tome as ‘a valuable work’, sensibly qualifying this, however, with the comment that its ‘vast scale perhaps diminishes its accessibility to some readers’.

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