BMCR 2007.03.18

Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto 1

, , Epistulae ex Ponto, Book I. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xv, 606 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0199277214 $175.00.

Jan Felix Gaertner’s (henceforth G.) commentary on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto 1 is adapted from his 2001 Oxford D.Phil. thesis and is the first full-scale commentary in English on this book. It is a valuable addition for Ovidian scholars, especially those interested in questions of language and style. Intense philological investigation is the strength of this volume, which totals over 600 pages on 766 lines of Latin. In his preface G. acknowledges a stay at the TLL, the evidence and influence of which permeates the volume. A detailed introduction is followed by text and translation, commentary, three appendices and indices.

The introduction is divided into seven parts beginning with G.’s “aims and method” and provides a comprehensive background to the poems, including detailed analysis of the physical conditions and literary traditions under which Ovid wrote. G.’s emphasis is on diction as an avenue to examine the Ex Ponto‘s relationship to prior Ovidian literature. Section one discusses arrangement of the poems. G. assumes that Ovid was responsible for their organization. In following Froesch,1 who shows poems in books 1-3 of the Ex Ponto were symmetrically arranged by addressee, G. demonstrates the poems achieve balance and symmetry. This is one way to organize the poems, but should be noted, privileges the addressee over thematic relationships and does not account for all the poems. G. persuasively argues that Ovid, as is his style, carefully aimed for variatio in form, content and addressee. More comments on the arrangement of the poems within book one itself would have been beneficial, especially consideration of the book’s internal relationships, both structurally and thematically. Also worthwhile might have been consideration of how the poems work as a progressive unit and their impressions upon the reader when read in sequence.

The second section examines “addressees and readers”. The Epistulae Ex Ponto differ most notably from Ovid’s earlier Tristia in that the addressees are named within the letters. G. considers the implications this change has upon reading and interpreting the text of Ex Ponto 1. G. accurately describes the reader’s impression of being invited to read a private document. To this excellent discussion I would only add that, by naming addressees, the letters publicly pressure the addressed individuals, involve them in Ovid’s affairs, and represent an explicit call for aid.

The third section focuses on the historical situation which underlies the Ex Ponto in Augustan Rome and Tomis. Ovid’s relationship and characterization of Augustus within the text is one of the most intriguing and problematic points for any commentator to discuss. In a subsection on ” clementia and ira“, G. discusses these key terms and their seeming incongruity throughout Ovid’s portrayal of Augustus. G. sees mention of Augustus’ ira as reflective of a climate of intimidation, and the social and political realities of the day (p. 11). Clementia was one of Augustus’ self-proclaimed virtues to which Ovid appeals. Neither here, nor in the commentary, does G. reconcile what he defines as criticism of Augustus (as seen in the oft repeated image of the ira of Augustus cf. 1.4.29n. and 1.10.20n.) with the fact that the letters must be designed to gain Augustus’ support and favor in altering Ovid’s location of exile or relieving him of it altogether. Augustus’ status both within Rome and abroad is discussed, as is the role of Augustus’ divinity as described by Ovid. In the subsection on “emperor worship”, G. states that “there was no state cult for Augustus in his lifetime” (p. 12) and, though acknowledging that Augustan virtues were worshipped, G. fails to mention the worship of the numen Augusti (cf. 1.2.71n. p. 178). G. touches on the issue of Ovid’s exile and banishment, and is quite rightly cautious in using Ovid’s own statements as evidence. G. includes a subsection on Tomis, its geographical and political conditions and Ovid’s depiction of it; but is dated in his references and provides more detail than necessary. The key point is that aspects of Ovid’s depiction are certainly true, but he exaggerates climate and historical situation to his rhetorical advantage. Tomis was, in reality, a culturally diverse, prolific trade center with a large Greek speaking population and not the eternally frozen town surrounded by bow-wielding barbarians Ovid leads us to imagine. G. does well in comparing Ovid’s Tomis to others’ in the literary tradition, but might also have considered Romans’ perception of Ovid’s Tomis and their experience of other peoples through such sources as triumphal depictions.

When compared to the attention G. devotes to other topics in his introduction, section four on “non-autobiographical material”, receives less attention, despite its importance. Subjects such as Ovid’s mythological references and his manipulation of emotion serve to bind and connect the poems. G. details examples of these issues in the commentary; a broader perspective here would have been appreciated, and some attempt, beyond their mere identification, to question their function and force within the text.

In section five G. comments on Ovid’s diction and style. G. goes to great lengths here and in the commentary to distinguish between prosaic and poetic language and vocabulary, but fails to state explicitly why this issue is of such importance. G. states that diction within the Epistulae“is, generally speaking, more prosaic and colloquial than that of Ovid’s earlier works” (25). A point G. makes clear here, and which is exhaustively detailed in the commentary, is that Ovid carefully adapted his language and style to the addressee and subject matter at hand. This should not be shocking, but refutes those who have described Ovid’s exile literature as repetitive and unpolished. G. continues a detailed and technical discussion on the grammar, syntax and stylistic features of the text. The reviewer would have appreciated G.’s thoughts on the significance of these trends, in addition to their identification.

G. closes the introduction with sections on “meter and versification”, and “transmission, text and translation”. In the former G. begins with a brief introductory statement highlighting the epistles similarities and divergences from the remainder of Ovid’s corpus. G. then goes into detail comparing aspects of the Ex Ponto‘s metrics to Ovid’s other texts and to other elegiac poets. In the later section G. focuses primarily on the manuscript tradition and his English rendering of the text.

Following the introduction, G. provides a text (adapted from Richmond’s Teubner edition) with a limited apparatus and his own translation. There is no concordance listing G.’s departures from Richmond’s text.2 The translation is well done. I only note G.’s persistence in translating some passive constructions actively, for example- 2.24-25 and 2.51, which does not really diminish its overall high quality.

G.’s commentary is extensive, detailed, and often illuminating. He begins each letter with background on the addressee, typically following Syme,3 differing only in poem 1.8, identifying Cornelius as the poet Cornelius Severus. G. follows this with the structure and themes of the epistle, and then proceeds with an almost word by word analysis of each poem, interspersed with comments on sections of lines. G.’s entries demonstrate a degree of study and investigation few could attempt. Bibliography within entries, especially on language and syntax, is impressive and comprehensive. In adapting his dissertation G. has benefited from recent scholarship, notably Helzle’s recent commentary.4 Discussion of prosaic and poetic diction dominates the discussion, often overshadowing many of G.’s insightful interpretations. G.’s experience and knowledge of the TLL, even if not explicitly mentioned, is clearly visible behind each entry. Some might characterize his constant references to the TLL as overzealous, for example in Ex Ponto 1.1, a poem of 80 lines, there 81 entries and 46 direct references on words or phrases to the TLL. More often than not, the commentary focuses on a word’s history and form, rather than on the implications of its use in the text and as a means to consider the thematic organization of Ovid’s poems. G. often favors citing frequency statistics in comparing Ovid’s word use to that of other authors or within his own corpus. This makes for a dense read, and fuller citations of selected parallels might have been more effective.5 If diction is not a major interest for the reader much of the commentary will be unappealing. As many entries directly cite the TLL, those without a copy close at hand will be at a loss. Unfortunately the opportunity to discuss thematic relationships between letters is largely ignored and G. does not pursue the significance of words in interpreting the historical or political situation (cf. 1.6.25-26n).

As it is impossible to go into great detail here, I have included select remarks on G.’s commentary. Though some are points of dispute, many of the following comments are not intended as criticisms, but represent places where G. could have been clearer, more selective or included further reference and explanation.

Epsitle 1.1: There is not enough evidence for G. to date poem 1.1 to 13 A.D.; G. assumes Ovid revised or wrote it at the conclusion of 1-3. G.’s translation of sub lare (1.1.10) does not match his interpretation of the phrase (p. 100). In addition to the individuals G. mentions in reference to nullo laeso (1.1.11 p. 101) I would add the reader, as this supports his argument that the audience feels that they are reading a private document. More of G.’s thoughts on what Ovid gains by associating his poetry with that of Antony and Brutus would be appreciated (1.1.21-36 p. 105), as would a discussion on the term imperium (1.1.41).

Epistle 1.2: One of the infrequent omissions in G.’s bibliography is a citation of Harries’ article on Ovid’s treatment of the Fabii.6 At 1.2.5-12 (p. 140) G. does well to note Ovid’s “play with epistolary conventions”, but might have included an extended discussion in his introduction. At 1.2.13-56 (p. 144) G. rightfully recognizes the transference of the images of the exclusus amator to Ovid in Tomis. At 1.2.21 (p. 149) G. cites Met. 8. 286 in support for reading vallata for velata; it should be noted Tarrant (OCT) athetizes the line. To 1.2.45 (p. 161) I would add that Ovid might be drawing on imagery and depictions of the Parthians in describing the Sarmatae. G. rightly points out that Ovid’s depiction of the Getae is static throughout his epistles (1.2.76 p. 184). At 1.2.126 (p. 212) G. should provide references where Augustus is parallelled to Jupiter.

Epistle 1.3: G. might have done more to bring out the irony at 1.3.18 (p.232); allusions to Ovid as poeta doctus and through ars to Ovid’s Ars Amatoria should be made clear. At 1.3.27-84 (p. 238) G. includes a chart clearly showing exempla shared by philosophical authors and demonstrates Ovid differs from these authors in representing his own suffering as superseding that of the mythological exempla. G.’s translation of 1.3.31 appears to follow his conjecture of pium nimis rather than his printed text pium vis (cf. p. 242). G. should expand his discussion on Ovid’s use of gender and sexual vocabulary at 1.3.31-2 ( muliebris, mollis cf. p. 242).

Epistle 1.4: The influence of Ovid’s Medea is briefly mentioned at 1.4.24 (p. 288); surely more should be made of its influence in this epistle. At 1.4.51 (p. 300) G. does well to mention emaciation as characteristic of the elegiac lover (cf. 1.10.13-14). G.’s argument for athetizing 1.4.15-18 (p. 282) is not fully convincing; one could just as well use Tr. 4.8.17-20 as a justification for inclusion. I do not see any reason to connect regia Iuno 1.4.39 (p. 295) here with the cult of Juno Regina.

Epistle 1.5: G. generally needs to remember that Ovid’s Ars Amatoria is potentially lurking behind any mention of the word ars, and consider this in his interpretation of the text (cf. 1.5 intro p. 305-6 and 1.6.7 p. 358). The strong Callimachean influence in 1.5 is further evidence that Ovid is not without literary resources in Tomis. G.’s suggestion of Liris for Lixus (1.5.21 p. 316) is an attractive alternative, but the Italian river is not on the same scale as the other geographic locations Ovid includes, which might then favor Heinsius’ Nilus. G.’s statement at 1.5.49 (p. 332) that Augustus “destroyed” the Republic is rather simplistic. I do not agree that 1.5.65-66 (p. 341) sound as “feeble” as G., and see no need to athetize the lines.

Epistle 1.6: The mere mention of sodalis does not imply that Graecinus was a poet (1.6 intro). At 1.6.14 (p. 362) G. does well to mention allusion to Hor. Odes 1.1.2 and his note on the frequency and uses of amicus (1.6.19 p. 365) is helpful. I am not in favor of athetizing 1.6.23-4 (p. 367); Ovid’s call for the audience to cease its inquiry further serves to enhance their interest in the question. At 1.6.29 (p.371) G. might have considered whether Ovid was aware of the work on the temple of Spes during this period, making his selection of the goddess all the more appropriate. G. neglects to mention the pattern of direct address and conversation with the gods (1.6.43 p. 378) which finds numerous parallels in Ovid’s Fasti and Callimachus’ Aetia.

Epistle 1.7: Although G. argues convincingly for reading pulset (p. 393), he prints pugnet at 1.7.12. G. (p. 394) reveals Ovid’s disingenuousness in his descriptions of Tomis (supposedly surrounded on all sides by the enemy 1.7.14); in actuality Tomis was situated on a peninsula. G.’s argument for athetizing 1.7.61-66 (p. 424) is convincing.

Epistle 1.8: At 1.8.24 (p. 443), on the cult of Roma, G. should cite Mellor.7 There is no need to athetize 1.8.33-4 (p. 448) which, when taken metaphorically, make complete sense. At 1.8.35 (p. 449) G. ought to have specifically identified the marble theatres ( marmore tecta theatra) to assist the reader in identifying Ovid’s topographical references.

Epistle 1.9: G. rightly observes that “Ovid’s memories of Celsus are largely centered around Ovid’s own life” (1.9.7-40 p. 473) and references to Maximus in the third person have a “distancing effect” (1.9.27 p.483).

Epistle 1.10: At 1.10.15-20 (p. 510) I do not see the difficulty G. does and would not favor transposing these lines after 1.10.36. On the image of thinness (1.10.21 p. 513), in addition to the physical body, it might be worthwhile to consider reference to Ovid’s poetic elegance (the Callimachean concept of leptotes).

G. concludes the book with three appendices and comprehensive indices. The first appendix gathers “poetic expressions” and contains lists and citations of poetic words, forms and usages, iuncturae, plurals, and singulars. The second appendix collects “prosaic expressions”, and is divided like the first appendix. The third and final appendix cites examples of imagery in book 1. This is a useful addition, containing subsections listing similes, and metaphorical expressions arranged by the object compared, or the subject alluded to. Four indices (general, Greek words, Latin words, passages) close the volume.

G.’s has written an impressive work and his edition has filled a void in Ovidian scholarship. It is a substantial scholarly addition, especially addressing issues of language within the epistles, but might more practically have been subtitled a linguistic and stylistic commentary, as details of language and usage predominate the discussion and commentary. Typographical errors are almost non-existent. The book will be an important resource to anyone assessing Ovid’s use of vocabulary, its development, or history of diction. This commentary is a prodigious and intelligent effort, one which will allow for further work and discussion on the Epistulae ex Ponto.


1. Froesch, H.H. (1968) Ovids Epistulae ex Ponto I-III als Gedichtsammlung. Bonn.

2. G. includes some in a footnote on page 40, but the remainder must be found through reading the commentary.

3. Syme, R. (1978) History in Ovid. Oxford.

4. Helzle, M. (2003) Ovids Epistulae ex Ponto. Buch I-II. Kommentar. Heidelberg.

5. Some examples are 1.1.15n., 1.2.16n., 1.2.56n., 1.3.25n. and 1.4.9n.

6. Harries, B. (1991) “Ovid and the Fabii: Fasti 2: 193-474″, CQ 41: 150-168.

7. Mellor, R. (1967) Dea Roma. The development of the idea of the goddess Roma. Princeton. Also, Mellor, R. (1981) The goddess Roma. ANRW 2.17.2: 950-1030.