BMCR 2016.09.51

El destierro de Ovidio en Tomis: realidad y ficción. Estudis clàssics, 11

, El destierro de Ovidio en Tomis: realidad y ficción. Estudis clàssics, 11. Valencia: Institució Alfons el Magnànim, 2015. 334. ISBN 9788478226627 €17.00.

[The Table of Contents is reproduced at the end of the review.]

This stimulating book is the result of the reworking of E. Bérchez Castaño’s doctoral thesis, directed by J.L. Vidal and X. Ballester, and read in 2008 at the Complutense University of Madrid. Bérchez Castaño addresses a question that remains one of the most attractive in classical philology, the exile of Ovid in Tomis. The author argues that if Ovid was indeed banished, he did not suffer this relegatio in Tomis. After analyzing the exaggerations, untruths and inconsistencies of the information provided by Ovid, Bérchez Castaño concludes that not only is it unlikely that the poet had been exiled in Tomis, but that he might not even have known the region. Although some authors had already defended this thesis (see Chapter One), the documentation provided by Bérchez Castaño is so impressive and his evidence so persuasive that the reader succumbs to the temptation to contemplate more seriously than first thought the possibility that the exile of Ovid in fact took place in a location other than Tomis; ultimately, that everything has been a beautiful lie on the part of the poet in order to enhance the pathos of his relegatio. Really, the supremacy of rhetoric (i.e., that which the poet learned, read or studied) over experience seems to point in this direction. The truth is that if Ovid did indeed simulate his place of confinement, in his exile poetry we meet again in its purest form one of the defining characteristics of his prior poetic production, that is, its constant emphasis on the fictional nature of literary creation. This aspect is developed in the latter part of the book (Chapters Nine and Ten).

After an initial chapter that it serves as an introduction, in which Bérchez Castaño outlines the structure of the book with great clarity, Chapter Two provides a comprehensive status quaestionis in which the agenda for the book and part of its conclusions are anticipated. The hypothesis of the false banishment was raised by J.J. Hartman in 1911 and accepted by O. Janssen (1951) and C. Verhoeven (1979). Based on the number of historical, ethnographic and geographical errors that Ovid makes in his work in exile, E. Lozovan (1959), although not denying that the exile had taken place, said that it did not take place in Tomis. More recently, F. Brown (1985) and H. Hofmann (2001) provided conclusive documentation in favour of Ovid having never been in Tomis and that his exile in fact never happened. G. Williams (1994) analyzed how Ovid mixes non-erroneous facts about Tomis with other, fictitious ones, these being highly literary in nature, and echoing the topics used in ancient literature for the description of the loca horribilia. This led him to suggest that the poet, in his exile, could have created an unreality. Finally, J.-M. Claassen (1986 and 1994) was reluctant to accept the thesis of the falsity of the banishment; however, in her 2004 collection of previous studies, while insisting that the hypothesis of fictitious exile cannot be proven, she does admit the omnipresence of the recourse to invention and exaggeration with which Ovid appears to seek to increase the pathos of the place in which passed his final years.

Prior to Berchez Castaño’s book, the topic had also received attention by Spanish scholars. A. Alvar (1997 and 2010) highlights the high dose of imagination in Ovid and his capacity for combining pre-existing poetic arguments; in Alvar’s opinion, the Ovidian testimony about his exile is unreliable but this in no way renders it a falsehood. X. Ballester (2002) also holds that the exile took place but provides new ethnographic, geographic, and linguistic data that demonstrate the impossibility that it had happened in Tomis.

In the following chapters, the author compares what Ovid relates in Tristia, Epistula ex Ponto and Ibis with sources of all kinds, that is, with information about ancient Tomis provided by ancient and modern historians and geographers, with material sources (archaeological, numismatic and epigraphic), with literary and historiographical sources predating or contemporary with Ovid, with sources written after the poet, and with Ovid’s pre-exilic poety.

Thus, in Chapter Three Bérchez Castaño focuses on the information provided by the poet in Book I of Tristia on his farewell in Rome, the starting point and route of travel, the length of this, plus the storm that took place during the voyage. For all of this, Bérchez Castaño finds hypotexts that Ovid undoubtedly used and which therefore cast doubt on the veracity of what he narrates. Specifically, the sadness that Ovid feels before his departure ( Tr. 1.3.1-4) has strong reminiscences of Aeneas’s pain when he recalls the fall of Troy ( Aen. 2.3-7); the desperation of Ovid’s wife ( Tr. 1.3.81-6) echoes the words of Creusa in Aen. 2.675-8 and in passages of Heroides and Metamorphoses. Similarly, apart from the similarities with the voyage of the Argonauts and the phaselus of Catullus, the imprecision of the route that the poet describes (for example, he says that he headed to the Hellespont then turned back toward Samothrace; strangely he also claims, although denying it on other occasions, that he made the last part of the journey on foot while the ship went on to Tomis with his luggage) is faithful to Ovid’s tendency of listing cities in the wrong order (cf. Met. 2.214-59 and 15.697- 718). In the same way, the description of the storm seems to be a rhetorical product of his bookish erudition rather than the embodiment of a lived experience.

In Chapter Four, Berchez Castaño confronts the historical data on Tomis with the information allegedly omitted or invented by Ovid. The poet’s constant confusion between the Thracians and Scythians, present in many authors, is hard to explain if he really did live in Scythia Minor. Tomis, apart from being an important port enclave (a fact that Bérchez Castaño documents with epigraphic and numismatic material), had attained a high degree of hellenization prior to becoming part of the Roman Empire in 29 BC. This suggests that, when Ovid arrived in Tomis in year 9 CE, the city must have had not only quite a large community of Roman citizens but the administrative structure that such a place demanded. Neither should we forget that Pliny considered Tomis to be one of the most beautiful cities of the region ( Nat. 4.44) and the variety of gods whose cults were practiced there points towards the cosmopolitanism of the place. None of these facts coincide with the way in which Ovid paints Tomis as a city isolated from the civilised world, or with the claim that he, Ovid, is the only Roman on the city’s soil.

The cold weather, the characteristic of Tomis most vividly underlined in the exile poetry, is the subject of Chapter Five. The intensity of the low temperatures is sufficient to freeze wine ( Trist. 3.10.23-4) and even the Pontus Euxinus itself ( Trist. 3.10.37-8, Pont 4.10.31-4, etc.). The icy winter damages the poet’s health, a situation that Ovid describes with the same words that Propertius had used to convey the physical discomfort of the lover (2.1.57-8). Equally, as is well known, for the description of the Scythic winter Ovid uses a diversity of pre-existing material, recurring to the Georgics 3 of Virgil, who for his part had turned to Hippocrates and Herodotus, and perhaps also to Homer ( Od. 11.14-9). Obviously, concludes Bérchez Castaño, both Ovid and Virgil fall into the error of “atribuir iguales características climáticas a toda la Escitia, uno de los territorios más vastos de Europa” (p. 134) (“attributing the same climatic characteristics to all of Escitia, one of the most extensive territories of Europe”) in assigning to Tomis the same climate as that found in the northern part of Scythia.

Chapter Six moves on to the residents of the city. Ovid claims that the people of Tomis have horrific, bloody and primitive customs. He states that they were unaware of the art of weaving, engaged in almost no agriculture, their only law was force, and that they lacked a written culture. This ethnography, argues Berchez Castaño, has the strong taste of a literary topic, that is, it sounds more like a literary image than a real one. Indeed, characteristics that Ovid points out coincide suspiciously with those which Greek and Roman authors used to employ in describing the inhumanity of any barbarian people. In any case, reliable historiographical sources discredit the ethopoeia that Ovid presents of the people of Tomis and, as Berchez Castaño brings to light and carefully analyzes, he commits notable errors (for example, in the ethnonyms) that, although frequent in the historiographic sources, Ovid would have not have made were he to have had a direct and genuine knowledge of this region of Scythia.

The Getic language is the subject of Chapter Seven. Ovid states again and again that almost no Latin or Greek is spoken in the region. This is hard to believe, since as has been already said, the territory was under Roman rule from the year 29 BC and had previously been a Greek colony (indeed, inscriptions preserved from the first century CE demonstrate the use of Greek). On the other hand, Ovid boasts of having learned in just three years four indigenous languages of the region—Getic, Thracian, Sarmatic and Scythian. Given that these languages belong to linguistic groups far removed from Italic and Hellenic ones, learning them would have been a difficult task for a native Latin speaker. Thus, Ovid’s talent for rapid language acquisition would have exceeded that of Persicus, Publius Crasus Mucianus, Cyrus and Mithridates, all of whom were legendary in terms of their multilingualism. Yet more absurd still seems Ovid’s assertion that he wrote a poem in the Getic language with a Latin metre in honour of the imperial family ( Pont. 4.13.33-6), when quite possibly this language did not distinguished long and short syllables.

In the preceding chapters, Bérchez Castaño compared information provided by Ovid about Tomis with data from archaeological, epigraphic, historical, geographical and ethnological sources. In Chapter Eight he continues to explore the picture that Ovid paints of the region and its inhabitants, but now from an exclusively literary perspective. He concludes that Ovid, in addition to employing the topics that literary tradition used to describe Scythia and other remote places, identifies Tomis with places or literary times that provoked repulsion, specifically the Iron Age and the Kingdom of Hades. The aim of Ovid, in Bérchez Castaño’s opinion, is to emphasize the contrast between an idealized Rome and an exaggeratedly debased Tomis in order that, with this fiction, the reader feels the reality of his exile with palpable drama.

The final two chapters of the book are dedicated to the epistolary elegy in exile (Chapter Nine) and the art of fiction in Ovid (Chapter Ten). In the first of these, Bérchez Castaño begins by analyzing the debt that Ovid, creator of the epistle of the exile written in verse, owes to the epistolary genre as practiced in prose by Cicero and Seneca. It then moves on to focus on an aspect that, although already the subject of brief attention by previous scholars, Bérchez Castaño develops magnificently; he shows the continuity that the poet establishes between his “elegies of exile” and the elegiac topics developed by Tibullus, Propertius and also by himself. As was already the case in his amatory works, in his production during exile the unbearable pain leads him to wish for death, causes insomnia, loss of appetite and physical disorders; tears stain what he writes and the journey itself is the cause of painful separation; the verses will immortalise the protagonists and, finally, the militia exulis ( Tr. 4.1.71-4 and Pont. 1.8.7) inevitably echoes the militia amoris.

The truth is that, as discussed in the final chapter (“The art of fiction in Ovid. Magnaque pars mendax operum ficta et est tune“), the emphasis of Ovid on the fictionality of what is recounted remains as present in his work in exile as in what comes before, though in the case of work in exile, the poet strives (unsuccessfully it seems, in opinion of Bérchez Castaño) to hide his lie with all the resources at his disposal to make his fiction not only plausible but true.

Since the author himself indicates his use of previous scholarship (see Chapter Two), I will limit myself here to stress the importance of this book in Spanish scholarship on Ovid, an author who is the subject of very significant studies by Spanish scholars.1 Specifically, the issue of the exile of Ovid has recently been revisited and has caused pointed disagreement. Thus, while X. Ballester shows the unreality of the exile in Tomis, B. Segura Ramos forcefully defends the opposing view.2 The depth and breadth of the arguments provided by Bérchez Castaño in El destierro de Ovidio en Tomis: realidad y ficción seem to tip the balance in favour of Ovid’s Tomis being an invention.

Bérchez Castaño not only reveals himself to be a profound connoisseur of Graeco-Roman literature, but also a passionate lover of literary creation and, therefore, of fiction itself, whether it be that of Ovid or not.

Indice general

Preface 9
Aspectos formales 11
1. Introucción. Exulis haec vox est 15
2. Status quaestionis. Quidium omnino non esse relegatum 25
3. Despedida y travesía. El libro I de Tristezas 45
4. Tomis: locus horribilis 89
5. El clima escítico. Sempter hiems 119
6. Los Tomitanos. Vix sunt homines hoc nomine digni 145
7. La lengua y el poema géticos. Non patria Camena 175
8. Tomis topicalizada. Laeta fere laetus cecini, cano tristia tristis 191
9. La poética innovadora del exilio. La elegía epistolar del exilio 209
10. El arte de la ficción en Ovidio. Magnaque pars mendax operum est et ficta meorum 229
11. Conclusiones 253
12. Bibliografia 263
13. Index nominum 285
14. Index locorum 301
15. Indice de autores modernos 327
16. Indice de fotografías, tablas e illustraciones 333


1. The contributions of the following scholars merit attention: M. ª C. Álvarez Morán, E.F. Baez Angulo, X. Ballester, V. Cristobal, J.C. Fernández Corte, J. Gómez Pallarés, R. Guarino, R.M. ª Iglesias Montiel, F. Moya del Baño, A. Ramírez de Verger, L. Rivero García, M. Rodríguez Pantoja and A. Ruiz de Elvira. For exhaustive information on research into Ovid by Spanish scholars, see M. von Albrecht, Ovidio: Una introducción, Murcia, 2014, pp. 398-449.

2. Ballester, X., “El geta de Ovidio”, in M.A. Coronel Ramos (ed.), El espacio: ficción y realidad en el mundo clásico, Valencia, 2002, pp. 131-74; Segura Ramos, B., “El destierro de Ovidio: ¿Realidad o ficción?”, Miscelánea de Estudios Filológicos en la jubilación del prof. B. Segura Ramos, Sevilla 2010, pp. 135-54. See also Cristobal, V., “Tempestades épicas”, CIF 14, 1988, pp. 125-48 and “Ulises y la Odisea en la literatura latina”, Actas del VIII Congreso Español de Estudios Clásicos, Madrid, 1994, pp. 497-51, and Alvar Ezquerra, A., “Ovid in Exil: Fact or Fiction?”, Annals of Ovidius University Constanta, 2010, pp. 107-26.