BMCR 2010.07.24

Carmen et error: nel bimillenario dell’esilio di Ovidio. Quaderni di “Invigilata Lucernis” 36

, , Carmen et error: nel bimillenario dell'esilio di Ovidio. Quaderni di "Invigilata Lucernis" 36. Bari: Edipuglia, 2008. 171. ISBN 9788872285534. €20.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

This book is the latest and most comprehensive by Luisi and Berrino on a subject they have already treated in many works,1 the reasons for Ovid’s exile. Since most of the topics and reasons had already been discussed,2 I shall give here only a summary of the contents of the present book with attention to new elements.

The authors read Ovid’s poetry with an allegorical overview, finding allusions to contemporary personalities in Ovid’s use of mythology, and regard the poetry of exile as a historical document: they explain the poet’s relegatio in the framework of the complicated political intrigues for the succession at the court of Augustus between 2 BC and AD 8. Each of the two parts which form this book analyzes separately one of the two crimina. In the first part (pp. 13-84 Il carmen. Concausa della relegazione) N. Berrino, who also wrote the index and bibliography, examines the reasons why the Ars, the carmen mentioned by Ovid at trist. 2, 207, should have caused the relegatio and also its importance as compared to the error. In the second part (pp. 85-141 L’error di Ovidio) Luisi rejects the hypothesis of the poet’s involvement in a sexual scandal and attempts to prove that the error is attributable to his participation in Roman political life. They maintain that the carmen was as important as the error in determining the punishment of the poet: “il poeta stesso parla di carmen et error, con la congiunzione et a suggerire la perfetta equipollenza dei duo crimina” (see p. 7).

In comparison with his most recent book on the same topic, Luisi has used a wider range of texts to support his idea and has enriched his argument with an analysis of the Ars. He looks for support to the “ricostruzione storica abbastanza complessa e oscura” (so Luisi at pp. 85-86) in the historians (above all: Dio Cass. 55, 10, 12-16 e 55, 13, 1; Suet. Aug. 19, 1 e 19, 2; 65, 1; Tib. 25, 2; Tac. Ann., 1, 53, 3; 3, 24, 2, 4, 35, 5 et al.).

In the first part, Berrino acquits the Ars of having caused Ovid’s banishment by expressing a view of love at odds with the new laws against adultery (thanks to his early studies, Ovid was an expert on law, and he claims never to have used verba profana, see trist. 3, 5, 48; cf. also trist. 2, 249 nil nisi legitimum, for which see TLL VII, 1112, 1). B. attempts to document ironic insinuations against Tiberius and Livia which Ovid allegedly hides in many passages and which are supposed to reveal the poet’s access to a “corrente politica di matrice filoantoniana”.3 She also analyzes some lexical choices to support her opinion: the adjectives turpis and obscenus, which Ovid uses when describing the Ars as a crimen, are not concerned with the concept of legality (cf. for the second TLL IX 158,78).4 The longest passage examined is the myth of Helen, Paris and Menelaus in Ars 2, 357-372 (one of Ovid’s favorite myths, which he explores again, in different ways, in Remedia, vv. 773-776 and Heroides 16 and 17): this is said to reflect the relationship between Julia, Iullus and Tiberius and make Tiberius responsible for Julia’s betrayal. The defense of Julia, it is claimed, shows Ovid’s closeness to the part of the family which did not support Tiberius’ nomination to the succession. Other myths reveal his hostility towards Livia. It was she who read the Ars and discovered these insinuations.5 When something happened to reveal Ovid’s implication in a conspiracy, she had recourse to the Ars to supply another reason for his banishment (that is why Ovid talks about vindicta in trist. 2, 545; Livia gets ironic descriptions in other exilic work too – see the discussion of Pont. 3, 1, 114-118 at pp. 75-76).

In the second chapter Luisi answers some unresolved questions on the relegatio in order to prove his thesis on the “natura dell’ error“. What was Ovid doing on Elba in a season unfavorable for sailing? Why did he have to leave so quickly? And why does he no longer want to talk about the error? Ovid was there with other poets to take part in the conspiracy arranged by Julia Minor to release Agrippa Postumus, imprisoned not far from Elba. As Augustus wanted to prevent Ovid and his comites uniting, Ovid had to leave as soon as possible. When Ovid says he will not write about a culpa silenda, he means to respect Augustus’ wish that conspiracies should not be mentioned. Ovid exculpates himself by using the terms error, stultitia, and frequently referring to his inscientia or to himself as inscius (cf. TLL VII, 1844, 66). In speaking of the culpa recens he restates the importance of the error as compared to the carmen (pp. 110-133). Ovid was by then one of the most influential of contemporary poets and, being close to the populares, was part of the entourage of both Julia Minor and Julia Maior and a supporter of the “corrente filoantoniana di opposizione al principato”, though inscius (“involontariamente” – so on p. 140 – in other words, neither taking action nor resisting it: the references to his oculi point in the same direction, since he was there as a witness but played no active part in the plot: Luisi looks back on Marin 1958). As the hostility was directed not only at Augustus but also at the whole Claudian dynasty, there was still a reason after Augustus’ death for Tiberius to prohibit Ovid’s return (the change in the dedication of the Fasti from Augustus to Germanicus made clear to Tiberius Ovid’s connection with the gens Iulia).

Berrino and Luisi point out that Ovid gives much more space and attention to the defense of the Ars (in other works too, compare for example Pont. 2, 9 and 3, 67-72) than to that of the culpa silenda. As for the last, Ovid’s decision not to say more about the error shows that he wanted to conform to Augustus’ policies and therefore avoided the subject of conspiracy.

At the end we find a complete index of quotations and a bibliography, in which I would point out the absence of U. Schmitzer, Ovid. Eine Einführung, Hildesheim 2001, recently translated into Italian by M. Bonvicini ( Ovidio, trad. it. e saggio introduttivo a cura di M. Bonvicini, Bologna 2005); J. Wills, Repetition in Latin poetry: figures of allusion, Oxford -New York 1996 and Gareth D. Williams, Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid’s Exile Poetry, Cambridge, 1994, who has another approach to the poetry of exile.

The complexity of the historical reconstruction and the comparison between ambiguous passages, with continuous reference to the vocabulary, make this book suitable both for the scholars and for readers familiar with Ovid’s text and with these problems.

Some misprints (I have not checked systematically): at p. 17 frontis, p. 78 inscius, p. 119 condividendone, p. 138 colpiscono. The correct citation of J. C. McKeown, is Fabula proposito nulla tegenda meo. Ovid’s Fasti and Augustan Politics, in Tony Woodman, David West (edd.): Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, Cambridge 1984, pp. 169-187.


1. The most important and the most recent before the present publication are the work cited in footnote 2 and: Aldo Luisi, Il perdono negato. Ovidio. e la corrente filoantoniana, Bari 2001. See also note 3, below.

2. Aldo Luisi-Nicoletta F. Berrino, Culpa Silenda: Le Elegie dell’Error Ovidiano. Quaderni di “Invigilata Lucernis” 17. Bari: Edipuglia, 2002 (BMCR 2003.01.12).

3. On the topic of the ironic treatment of Tiberius and Livia in Ovid there is the new book of A. Luisi, N. Berrino, L’ironia di Ovidio verso Livia e Tiberio, Edipuglia (Quaderni di “Invigilata Lucernis”, 38), Bari 2010 (which I haven’t read). For the problem of the Ars as ‘political text’ she refers to the key contribution of A. Sharrock, Ovid and the Politics of Reading, now in P.E. Knox, Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Ovid, 2006, 238-261.

4. We now have in Jo-Marie Claassen, Ovid revisited. The poet in exile, London 2008 an examination of Ovid’s language in the exile poetry (for the terms of legal vocabulary see especially pp. 122-124 and pp. 261-264)

5. We can add trist. 2, 77-80, where Ovid tells how someone read his love poetry to Augustus. Having banished the poet and his works, the emperor could not read the works in which he was praised.