Ancient Rome was violent and decadent. If you’ve binge-watched the TV series Rome or perused Mary Beard’s best-selling history SPQR, you know that Rome seethed with wars, civil wars, conspiracies, gang warfare, assassinations, exile, poisonings, insanity, promiscuity, lead poisoning, and capricious emperors.
War veterans in ancient Rome obviously suffered PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but the psychological cost of exile is also treated in Roman history and literature. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the traumatized hero-warrior Aeneas survives the fall of Troy but then must reluctantly lead the survivors into exile—because the gods force him to.
And Ovid, the frivolous, brilliant poet, was capriciously exiled by the emperor Augustus in 8 A.D. for carmen et error (a poem and an error). In letters written in the form of poetry, Tristia (Sad Things) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea), the urbane Ovid begs his friends to intercede on his behalf, because he does not thrive among barbarians in Tomis on the cold shores of the Black Sea. But he died in exile in 17 A.D.
And then there’s Cicero, the most eloquent lawyer and orator in Rome, who was elected consul (the highest office) in 63 B.C. He boasted of his achievements, especially of having crushed the revolutionary conspiracies of Catiline. But in 58 B.C., he went into exile in Greece, mainly because of the political machinations of his enemy Clodius (which also benefited Julius Caesar).
Cicero’s letters home are pathetic. He wonders: has the government stripped his wife Terentia of their land and property? Are the children all right?
O desperate me! O ruined me! What now? Should I ask you to come here, a sick woman, exhausted in body and mind? Should I not ask? Should I be without you? I think I should deal with it thus: if there is hope of my return, let me know and help manage the affair; but if, as I fear, it has not been settled, come to me any way you can. And know this: if I have you, I will not seem entirely lost. But what will become of Tulliola [their married daughter]? You must see to it: I have no counsel for you. But however the matter turns out, my unhappy little one’s reputation and marriage must be saved. What else? What should my son Cicero [age 6] do? May he always be in my embrace and protection. I cannot write more now. My sorrow prevents it.
Near the end of the letter, he courageously writes,
We have lived; we have flourished. Not our vice but our virtue has ruined us. There is no sin, unless it is that I did not lose my life along with honors.
Cicero returned from exile to his beloved, deadly dangerous Rome in 57 B.C. He continued to write and deal with other powerful men until he was put to death in 43 B.C.
The translations of Cicero are my own.