BMCR 2001.12.21

Displaced Persons: The Literature of Exile from Cicero to Boethius

, Displaced persons : the literature of exile from Cicero to Boethius. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison/ London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. viii, 352 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0299166406. $19.95.

This study of the literature of exile in the Roman World focuses on the works of five authors who endured banishment during their careers: Cicero, Ovid, Seneca, Dio Chrysostomus and Boethius. Claassen takes a literary-critical approach to the texts in order to highlight the narrative strategies used by the exiled authors. A recurring topic throughout the book is how banished writers turned to their literary talents to overcome the isolation and powerlessness they experienced as a result of their exile. One of the most prominent methods banished authors employed to this end was to construct a “myth of exile” and recast their misfortune in a heroic light. The book does not focus on this theme alone, however, as Claassen examines many diverse topics in the genre of exile literature, such as the conventions of consolation literature written for exiles and the role of poetry in universalizing the subjective experience of banishment. As might be expected from the quantity of Ovid’s work in exile, his Tristia, Epistulae ex Ponto, and Ibis dominate the discussion in Displaced Persons —indeed, about half the book is devoted to an in-depth analysis of these works. Cicero also receives extensive attention. Despite being a bit “Ovidiocentric,” Displaced Persons will not appeal just to students of Ovid (or Cicero), as Claassen fully discusses the briefer exilic works of the other authors and effectively integrates them into her examination of key themes.

The book is organized as four “Stages,” each of which is subdivided into chapters and sections. Each Stage deals with exilic works written in a particular grammatical “person” (first, second and third person). Claassen’s division of the work by “person” lends the book a strong and easy-to-follow structure. While themes progress methodically and logically through the various persons and Stages, Claassen’s narrative does become a bit repetitive at points, as ideas discussed in earlier Stages are often thoroughly recapitulated in later ones. Below I will examine some of the key features of each Stage.

In addition to discussing third person narratives, the First Stage provides an historical background to Roman exile and traces the evolution of ancient exile narratives. Since the book concerns the literature of banishment, the presentation of the historical and legal background is understandably very general and simplified. Those wishing a fuller examination of the historical development of Roman exile should consult the appropriate sections of E. L. Grasmuück’s Exilium. Untersuchungen zur Verbannung in der Antike (Ferdinand Schöningh: Paderhorn, 1978) or R. A. Bauman’s Crime and Punishment in Ancient Rome (Routledge: New York, 1996).

Claassen’s survey of the development of Roman exilic literature in the First Stage would have benefited from a discussion of the letters of the banished Q. Caecilius Metellus Numdicus ( cos. 109). During his exile on Rhodes from 100-98 BC, Metellus wrote letters to Cn. and L. Domitius at Rome. Metellus’ epistles seem to have been highly regarded—they were still extant in the second century AD for Aulus Gellius to admire for their elegant prose. Although only two brief fragments survive, these letters are important not only as the earliest example of published exilic writing by a Roman author, but also since their content foreshadows some important themes employed by later banished writers. For example, Metellus’ exemplum was invoked by Cicero as a model for his own exile in his speeches post reditum.1 It is certainly possible that Cicero borrowed elements from the Metellan letters when he attempted to put a positive “spin” on his own exile. Indeed, one fragment suggests that Metellus created a “myth” of his own exile and depicted himself as a blameless exul whose dignity was undimmed by his situation—a posture that would be adopted by later authors.2 An analysis of this fragment would have nicely complemented Claassen’s discussion of the construction of exilic myth, as well as her section on the invective of banishment. The second fragment of Metellus’ letters would have added to Stage Two’s analysis of second person exilic outreach and consolation literature.3

There are a few minor errors in the First Stage which should be noted: P. Rutilius Rufus ( cos. 105) went into exile in 92, not “sometime after 88 BC” as Claassen reports on pages 16 and 53.4 The chronology of Cicero’s exile presented in the book is confused, as Claassen has the exiled orator go straight to Dyrrachium after leaving Italy (pages 18-19, 104, 108). In reality, Cicero stayed with the quaestor Cn. Plancius at his quaestorium in Thessalonica from May-November 58 before departing for Dyrrachium and remaining there until his restoration in August 57. Most of Cicero’s letters from exile were written while he languished in Thessalonica, and reflect the particular dilemmas he faced there, especially whether he should seek a more distant refuge in Roman Asia, or go back to Western Greece.

The Second Stage of Displaced Persons concentrates on the dialogue between exiles and their friends back in Rome. As one might expect, the most frequent form of such second person exchanges is the letter. Claassen’s narrative is particularly strong in this Stage, the highlight of which is her excellent analysis of Cicero’s letters to banished Pompeiani during the Civil War of the 40’s BC. Claassen very effectively contrasts Cicero’s authorial persona as a writer of letters from exile with his tone as an author of epistles to exiles. The examination of the generic features of consolation literature written to banished men is also well presented. One of the many interesting points Claassen makes in this section is that the banished Cicero’s “letters of complaint” to his friends and family were written as point-by-point refutations of the stock sentiments of consolation literature. The final chapter in the Second Stage deals with exilic invective and its role in aiding a banished author to combat feelings of helplessness and regain some sense of personal power.

Subjective first person accounts of exile are examined in the Third Stage. The manner in which banished authors used their first person accounts to color their deeds for posterity and paint themselves in heroic terms is the central theme of this section of the book. Claassen effectively demonstrates how Cicero used his speeches post reditum to depict his humiliating exile from Rome in a favorable light. In dealing with the dubious value of Ovid’s exile poetry as autobiography, Claassen wisely does not attempt to mine these works for nuggets of authentic biographical detail. Instead she concentrates on how Ovid advances his poetic agenda by including (alleged) revelations about his past and present life. Her resulting examination of Ovid’s use of ostensible autobiography is a good synthesis of current scholarly views and her own original contributions.

The poetry of exile is explored in the Fourth Stage. Ovid’s innovations and contributions to the genre of exilic literature are fully detailed. Ovidian experts will want to see how much Claassen adds to the discussion of his works from exile. Although this Stage deals almost entirely with Ovid, Claassen includes an interesting examination of Cicero’s epic poetry with regard to his banishment, as well as a discussion of the lyric sections of Boethius’ Consolatio Philisophiae.

Displaced Persons is a valuable survey of Roman-era exilic writing that should appeal not only to classicists, but also to those with broad interests in the literature of banishment. Indeed, Claassen’s inclusion of translations for all Latin and Greek passages and terms makes this work accessible to the general academic reader. It should also be noted that the book includes an extensive bibliography and thus serves as a good starting point for readers wishing to pursue a more detailed study of Classical exile literature. Despite the relatively minor flaws discussed above, Claassen’s book is a worthy addition to the growing body of modern scholarship on the literature of exile.


1. Cic. Dom. 87; Red. Sen. 38; Red. Pop. 10-11.

2. Gell. 17.2.7: illi vero omni iure atque honestate interdicti, ego neque aqua neque igni careo et summa gloria fruniscor (“truly those ones were interdicted from all law and respectability, but I lack neither water nor fire, and enjoy the highest glory”). Presumably illi refers to those who caused Metellus’ banishment. The sentiments of this line are closely mirrored by Cicero in his Paradoxa Stoicorum 4.29-31, where he claims that the wicked men responsible for his own discessus are in truth “exiles” due to their crimes, even if they have never been expelled from their homeland.

3. Gell. 15.13.6: at cum animum vestrum erga me video, vehementer consolor et fides virtusque vestra mihi ante oculos versatur (“and when I see your affection toward me, I am comforted very much, and your loyalty and courage remain before my eyes”).

4. Although R. Kallet-Marx, “The Trial of Rutilius Rufus,” Phoenix 44 (1990) 122-39, argues for a slightly earlier date (ca. 94 BC) for Rutilius’ exile.