Ovid’s Darling Wife: “This Loyalty Will Be My Caesar”

Ancient Italy – “Ovid banished from Rome” by J. M. W .Turner

This is not the first time I have blogged about Ovid, and it will not be the last. In fact, I have spent some of my happiest days reading Ovid in Latin. Many people do not see the point of poetry, and Latin poetry annoys them even more. “Why do you like such boring stuff?” sighed a chic friend who kept trying to get me to wear eyeliner, and believed Latin got in the way of compliance.

You will not be too surprised to learn that a bluestocking like me enjoyed a recent rereading of Ovid’s Tristia (Sad Things), an underrated collection of poems. One of the most fascinating aspects of Tristia is the introduction of Ovid’s wife as a minor character, and the amorous Ovid’s unexpected appearance as a husband.

Written in exile, Tristia are especially triste for a poet so famous for wit, humor, and amorous poems. Ovid’s poetry became anguished and obsequious after he was exiled by Augustus in 8 A.D. for carmen et error (a poem and an error).

But never mind the causes of banishment. Blink an eye and it could happen in ancient Rome. In Tristia, Ovid wishes he hadn’t seen whatever he saw–the error–if only we knew what it was!

Written as letters in verse, Book I of Tristia appeals to friends to intercede with Augustus. Urbane and citified to his very bones, Ovid does not thrive in Tomis on the cold shores of the Black Sea.  He wonders if Augustus might agree to move the place of exile closer to Rome.

In Tristia I.3, he delineates the sadness of parting from his wife, who is his rock, loyal and loving. Fascinated to discover that Ovid had a wife (this was his third, and we do not know her name), I must share this dramatic passage written from her point-of-view.

The following literal prose translation is mine

But my wife, clinging to my shoulders as I got ready to leave, / mixed these sad words with my tears: “You cannot be torn from me. Together from here, together we will leave,” she said. / “I will follow you and be the exiled wife of you in exile./ And this path is made for me, and the ends of the earth capture me./ Let me come, just a small burden for the fugitive boat. / Caesar’s wrath commands you to leave,/ loyalty commands me. This loyalty will be my Caesar.”

What a darling Ovid’s wife was! He forbade her to come along, naturally. But the exile’s letter to his wife is perhaps almost a genre in Latin. Cicero also wrote a noble letter to his wife telling her to stay in Rome and look after their property and not to consider joining him unless it was certain he would never be forgiven. (Cicero was allowed to come home, unlike Ovid.)

In another poem in Tristia, Ovid compares his wife to Penelope, and notes that he himself has it a lot rougher than Odysseus. I have to think this was true.

I checked at Amazon to see if I could find a translation of Tristia to recommend, and you might try the brilliant Peter Green’s translation of The Poems of Exile, which includes Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea).

Ovid died in exile at Tomis in 17 A.D., never reunited with his wife.