Ancient History & Civilisation


The Poet

THOUGH OVID’S GREATEST WORK, THE Metamorphoses, concerns miraculous changes to its central characters, few of those transformations match the singularity of the real one, which befell the poet himself: from fame and acclaim in Rome to obscurity and despair on the edge of the classical world.

A statue of P. Ovidius Naso, known to posterity as Ovid, stands in the Piatsa Ovidiu in the town of Constantsa, principal seaport of Romania, on the north coast of the Black Sea, 200 miles east of the Bosphorus. This medium-sized, industrial city is capital of Dobruja, the province of Romania which is held in the crook of the Danube as the great river makes its final turn toward the delta. The delta begins only ninety miles further along the coast and beyond its marshy triangle is the former Soviet frontier. The name Constantsa comes from Constantiana, sister of Constantine the Great, after whom the city was renamed. Originally it was Tomis,1 a Greek colony founded in the 7th century BC. This was the place of Ovid’s exile to which, in AD 8, he was abruptly ordered, with no reason given, without trial or opportunity for self-defence. Here he passed the December of his days, composed his last poems; and here, after a banishment of nine years, he died. These final works, known as the Poems of Exile, are the most direct vision we have of the classical margins during the early years of the Roman empire. To appreciate this fully we must know something of Ovid’s character and career. But first one must understand the place.

The Turks call it Kara Deniz (Black Sea) in contrast to the Mediterranean, Ak Deniz (Blue Sea) and for good reason. Emerging from a Bosphorus bright with lawns and palaces, the very act of entering seems to induce a mood change, appropriate to the sea’s name in all languages except Greek and Latin. The Greeks called it Pontos Euxinos, the Hospitable Sea and the Romans followed their lead. But this was a publicity stunt, rather as Eric the Red was to change Whiteshirt Land to Greenland, ‘so that people will go there’. Indeed, with the bluntness of men whose business was to sail rather than sell, Greek mariners had called it Axenos, the Inhospitable. What influenced the change?

In the absence of later arrivals (Turks, Slavs and Bulgars), the Greek lands were adjacent to the Black Sea’s western end and Greek ships could penetrate its eastern. This is at longitude forty-two degrees, somewhat further east than present-day Moscow. So the Black Sea brought Greece to Inner Asia’s doorstep. Not surprisingly the twin seas, Black and Aegean, though wedded by water, were culturally divorced. The Greek view of this alien world is evoked by the Golden Fleece legend, in which fear and fascination mingle. Here was a sombre sea surrounded by savages, lacking the comfort of harbours and islands, yet tempting boldness with a rich reward. The picture is darkened by Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, with death on a barbaric altar as the price of shipwreck. Eastward loomed grim mountains: Virgil’s ‘rugged, rock-bristling Caucasus’2 where Prometheus endured eternal torment. Doubtless the origins of the Fleece legend may be sought in Caucasian gold, swept down in the freezing torrents, to be panned by prospectors and filtered through wool. But there were other prizes, which in the end proved richer. Where Jason led businessmen followed, pursuing, if not gold, then a golden rule: that whenever unlike peoples meet, money is to be made. Such convergences are eternal settings for commerce, since each side has something the other lacks.

To exploit this opportunity, the Greeks required anchorages, warehouses, interpreters, homes, defences; in short, the infrastructure of safe and stable business, repeated every hundred miles round this profitable shore. And to promote the exchange of goods, an exchange of adjectives, from inhospitable to hospitable, from hostile to welcoming, would encourage the colonists bound for these Pontic cities. At least five centuries before Rome’s arrival, two dozen trading stations had been established. Some were at the mouths of the rivers which drain down from the immensity of what we now call Russia: the Dniestr, Bug, Dniepr and Don. Others were on the Crimean peninsula and the Sea of Asov. Yet more lay in Georgia and along the northern coast of Asia Minor. Especially active as founder of these outposts was Miletus, on the Aegean coast of today’s Turkey, ‘mother of more than ninety cities’,3 though herself a daughter of Athens. Tomis was a Milesian foundation. It is a process still familiar to maritime nations, whose emporia, such as the depots along the Gold and Ivory Coasts, Singapore, Shanghai, Calcutta and many more, were so placed that they could be established, defended and, if necessary, evacuated by sea. However, in these modern instances, technology and strength favoured the incomer. By contrast, the Greeks were without particular advantage and faced impossible odds, surviving because the local peoples wanted them to.

There is ample evidence of the store set by barbarian societies upon trade and the goods it brought. Strabo speaks of ‘the Caucasian people taking produce to market by sliding down the snowy slopes on sledges made of animal skins’.4 The eastern Black Sea was reputedly the terminus of a caravan route from somewhere so distant that no one knew its origin. Pliny tells us that Dioscurias (Sukhumi) was ‘the common emporium of seventy tribes … all speaking different languages’;5 and that ‘dealings were done by our businessmen, aided by a staff of 130 interpreters’.6 Similarly Strabo on Tanais, at the Don mouth: ‘It is a market for both Asiatic and European nomads … who bring slaves, hides and such things as they produce; the Greeks giving in exchange clothing, wine and other commodities associated with civilized life’.7 Nevertheless, though normally tenable, and though there were also Greek colonies in unfriendly parts of the Mediterranean, the Pontic were the most precarious.

Cities like Tomis, on the Black Sea’s northern shore, faced a particular problem in that the world on whose edge they were precariously poised was itself precarious; for they were liable, after a long investment in bribes and trust building, to be confronted by new and even fiercer arrivals. This can be understood by seeing geography more widely, particularly that of the former Soviet Union whose zones of natural vegetation run crosswise in broad and even bands: tundra, pine, deciduous woodland, woodland mixed with grass, and finally grassland. The last, too dry for tree growth, was known as the grassy steppe: a strip barely 150 miles deep and running the entire length of the Black Sea’s northern shore. Today it is largely the southern Ukraine where, with the aid of irrigation from those mighty rivers, the landscape is one of waving wheat and heavy-headed sunflowers; ideal for mechanized farming, though the dense and matted sod remained unbroken till the late 18th century, when Russia’s southward expansion transformed the steppe way of life.


Steppe is Russian for prairie or pampa. This grassy or Pontic steppe is so flat that the Greeks called part of it the Racecourse of Achilles. Though generally more undulating, the short-grass prairie of the American high-plains states, which can still be seen in the National Grasslands of Nebraska and the Dakotas, is essentially the same. Virgin steppe, now rare in the Ukraine, survives at nature reserves like Askanya Nova; in spring melodic with lark song and vivid with wild tulip. Huge flocks of birds rest in mid journey between Northern Russia and the Middle East. Here too the Przewalski horses, pinkish-beige and white-maned, drum the dry plain. Introduced from Mongolia, these are possible descendants of the sturdy ponies of steppe prehistory.

Early summer is more spectacular still: the plain sprouting fescue, needlegrass and feathergrass; whirring with grasshoppers and bobbing with marmots. Hyacinth, lavender, sage, mint, vetch, milkweed and, most typical of all, the pungent wormwood,8 with its grey-green leaf and yellow flower, colonizing ground made bald by lightning-kindled grass fires. Hawks hang in the bare blue and everywhere is an endless horizontality, broken only by the bumps of kurgans (burial mounds or round barrows) scattered widely over the vivid, green grassland.

Late summer and autumn are less rewarding, the bronze and silver steppe a sea in which the walker wades, waist-high, through tinkling grass and crackling weed, legs pricked by stalks, socks stiff with burrs and bootfuls of sharp seeds. Here unmounted man makes little headway. Winter is more savage still. Big blizzards scour the plain, reminding us that, though we may be at the latitude of northern Italy, this, after all, is close to Russia.

Such was the hinterland of Tomis and her sister colonies along the Black Sea’s northern shore. The ultimate factor, however, is not the steppe’s natural history, but its extent. Although narrow in a north-south sense, from west to east it is one of the longest features on earth, extending some 5,000 miles from eastern Europe to Manchuria, where the grassy strip widens to 600 miles. All told, the area is immense, perhaps 5 per cent of former Soviet territory. While the American plains run north-south, from Manitoba to Texas, the steppe, almost three times as long, lies crosswise, traversing 100 degrees of longitude, well over half the width of the Eurasian landmass. Though its central portion is interrupted by mountains, these are crossable. As this grassy path marches eastwards it becomes higher, drier and more thinly peopled. However, the normal direction of march is westwards; for with each day’s journey the winter grows minutely milder, the climate infinitesimally moister and the pasture fractionally richer. If sheep led shepherd – as doubtless they often did – greener grass would draw them gently toward Europe.

It is easy to see how these accidents of climate and geography made the steppe a feature of long-term danger for the West. Not only did it offer the Asian herd folk a corridor toward the Balkans, it brought that most irksome enemy, the mounted nomad; for such vast distances, and the tangle of summer herbage, decreed that horsemen would dominate the steppe, as cowboys would one day rule the American prairie and gauchos the Argentinian pampa. This is why steppe migration awaited the taming of the horse and did not begin until about 2000 BC. At least a futher twelve centuries then elapsed before a distinctive, mounted warrior emerged, using armour and weapons largely copied from Iran.

Nomads have been described as those whose animals eat grass faster than it grows. Though we are used to thinking of the pastoralist as peaceful, this may simply be conditioning. Our cultural heritage is shepherd-friendly. The bucolic9 vein runs deep in Western art: through Virgil’s Eclogues, Dresden shepherdesses and Beethoven’s Sixth. Its theme is the unattainable: either an innocent past in one’s own place, or an innocent present in some legendary place. It elevates the shepherd to an ornamental role in societies whose real business is now the drudgery of agriculture. Christianity strengthens the tradition by emphasis on the good shepherd.10 And yet, as the Old Testament reminds us, there is also the bad shepherd: ‘And so it was, when Israel had sown, that the Midianites came, and the Amalekites, and the children of the east [ … ] they came as grasshoppers for multitude [ … ] and they entered into the land to destroy it.’11 These ‘children of the east’ were of course bedouin from the dry lands beyond Jordan, recalling the Arabian adage, ‘raids are the bedouins’ agriculture’. The nomad has always sought to rob the granaries of settled lands. Alas, the shepherds soon to be encountered by Ovid would bear little resemblance to those decorous products of Graeco-Roman pastoralism with which he and his colleagues had so blithely supplied their readers.

Whether squabbling over grazing and watering rights or harrying the farmers along its edges, aggression was a fact of steppe life. Though nomad populations were thinly spread, raiding parties could be mustered quickly. Doubtless they would as quickly dissolve, for lacking logistical capacity, there was little likelihood of prolonged campaigns. However, limitation was compensated by performance. These were the world’s best horsemen. All adults were warriors. The steppe drew little distinction between military and civilian, man and woman. Accordingly the Pontic region supplied the ancient world with two of its abiding images: the amazon, a woman who could outfight a man; and the centaur, in which rider and horse merge into a powerful killing machine.

Seen more widely then, the Pontic steppe was part of an invasion path of long standing. This is not to say that mounted hordes were continually pouring out of Mongolia, intent on the West’s destruction. Their view was local and their progress slow. Nor did they necessarily stay the course. Sometimes their wanderings ceased for centuries. Some tribes left the path midway, while others entered it. In particular the wide gaps between Caspian and Aral, Aral and Lake Balkhash, invited the northward movement of refugees from the droughts of northern Iran and Afghanistan, who joined the steppe in its central or Kirghiz portion. This was the probable origin of the Scythian and Sarmatian peoples, whose appearance in the Pontic region coincides with Greek commercial expansion. Nor did this pastoral corridor end at the Black Sea. Its natural termini were more ominous still: the Wallachian Plain, that part of the lower Danube where Bucharest now stands; or, branching north round the Carpathians, the Hungarian Plain and the middle Danube.

Foundation of the Pontic cities had coincided with a long lull in steppe migration caused by the settling of the Scyths, a people of sufficient power to command agricultural produce from the moister zone to the north and trade goods from the Greeks to the south. In the mid-1970s an exhibition from the Soviet Union called Scythian Gold caused surprise and excitement. Here were objects recovered by Soviet archaeologists from the kurgans. Of finest Greek workmanship and commissioned by Scythian notables, some depicted scenes from steppe life. The excavation reports are more sensational still. They describe burials of opulent barbarity, sickeningly brutal in their accompaniment of human and equine sacrificial massacre. Such findings provided a striking confirmation of Herodotus. In about 450 BC the ‘father of history’ visited Olbia, a Pontic city at the mouth of the Bug, three towns along from Tomis, leaving this description:

The death and burial of Scythian kings [ … ] A great, square pit is dug. The body is enclosed in wax, the stomach cavity stuffed with fragrant herbs and incense. The bearers mutilate themselves, slashing arms, scratching faces, cutting off ear lobes and piercing the left palm with an arrow. The body is placed on a couch, with spears planted all round it and roofed with hides. A concubine, the closest servants and their horses are then garrotted and buried with the body, plus various personal treasures. Then all build an earthen barrow, vying to make it as great as possible. A year later they strangle fifty more servants and horses. The horses’ bodies are propped up on posts and the men, mounted on top of them, secured with more stakes, as if riding round the king. Finally the whole grisly cavalcade is buried.12

The Scyths built palisaded settlements, usually within the protection of a river bend. The largest known has a perimeter of twenty miles, including grazing space for substantial flocks, wooden dwellings, smithies and leather workshops, plus a royal palace. Greek-style coins were minted, bearing the likeness of Scythian kings. Here was a developmental level not far behind that of Celtic Europe.

Two centuries after Herodotus’ visit, steppe traffic began to move again. The next arrivals were the Sarmatians. Numerous, ferocious and less advanced (except in war), they defeated the Scyths and confined them to the Crimea, where remnants survived for a time. The name ‘Scythia’ continued to be used by classical authors both for the north Pontic coast and, more loosely,13 for almost the entirety of the former Soviet Union. In fact the lands to the Black Sea’s north would remain inscrutable. Reportedly they were the abode of races subhuman and deformed: a conventional evasion by the ancient geographer when the limits of his knowledge were reached. Antiquity probably knew more about coastal India than the hinterlands of Dniepr and Don; as in the Age of Discovery, when continents would be circumnavigated long before they were investigated. Certainly the Greek colonists did not contemplate Livingstone-like marches into the interior. They preferred to placate the nearest tribes, addicting their leaders to outside products, especially wine, so inveigling them into a dependence through which the interior could be exploited indirectly. In this way a slave trade would be set in motion and grain drawn down from the forest-steppe zone around today’s Kiev, without the instigators leaving the safety of their coastal depots. The discovery of Greek objects far to the north tells of a web of trading relationships in partnership with the Scyths. Now the Sarmatians had blown the web away and a replacement must be sedulously spun.

The newcomers, however, were a trickier proposition. Though also of Iranian origin and speaking an Indo-European tongue, the Sarmatians were less likely to be influenced toward sedentary courses. The burial mounds of their chieftains are of a construction comparable to the Scythian, but less lavishly equipped. Many were opened by Soviet archaeologists in the pre-war and post-war years, mainly along the rivers and in the Kuban, yielding gold or bronze jewellery, weapons and iron chainmail; the latter confirming a formidable cavalry of knightly type. No sign of a steppe agriculture has been found. On the other hand, grave fields of two or three hundred burials imply prolonged stays. Here is something of a contradiction: a mobile people caught up in an indefinite pause. It is difficult to say whether trading and raiding among the Pontic cities provided incentives to stay. But stay they did: some eight or ten unruly subgroups, scattered along the Black Sea’s northern shore. Their vanguard, the Thracians, had reached as far as today’s Bulgaria. Closest, therefore, to Greece, the Thracians tended to side with the Greeks against their own Sarmatian cousins. Another group, the Dacians, had crossed the Carpathian passes, abandoned the ways of the nomad and settled in Transylvania. Yet another, the Getans, now occupied the steppe around Tomis. Nearby were the restless Rhoxolans and Iazyges; then the Sarmatian parent tribe itself, living east of Tomis; and the Alans, probably the rearguard: together a queue of troubles awaiting Rome’s eventual attention.

Such was the Pontic steppe when Jesus was a boy in Nazareth, the elderly Augustus ruled a renascent Rome and the imperial army and navy were taking the lower Danube in hand. However, their approach was slow. The coastal region between the Bosphorus and the delta would not be formally annexed for at least forty years. The date of this event is unknown, but the first permanent stationing of an army unit is not attested by inscription until the AD 70s.

For the Greek cities, with Roman land forces still distant and only sporadic protection from the navy, the early 1st century was a time of unease; the Barbaricum unstable, shifting round them like the winter ice floes against the Black Sea shore. This was the mood at the time of Ovid’s arrival; and archaeology confirms his pessimism. Constantsa’s modern overlay makes Tomis less easy to dig, but Histria, the next city northwards, has provided considerable evidence. In the 2nd century BC its size had doubled. Temples had been built. There were stone houses with upper stories. Its own coinage was issued. A period of contraction then followed; and construction of a stronger town wall indicates the coming of the Sarmatians and disorder in the Pontic region generally.

Regarding the character of the Sarmatians and the flavour of life in an outpost among them, Ovid’s verse is our principal source. His Poems of Exile consist of two major compositions: Tristia (The Sorrows) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea), together some 7,000 lines, which have survived almost entire. As literature and the testament of a personal ordeal these are works of unique interest. As history they must be treated with caution. Ovid loathed this thraldom and his poems are a plea for deliverance. To whomever they were addressed, their real target was the emperor, or those who might influence him favourably. It was not in his interest to paint Tomis and the Black Sea region in cheerful colours. On the other hand, neither archaeology, modern climatic data, nor the views of other ancient witnesses entirely refute his impressions.

We must also remember that Ovid’s style, with its abundant echoes of other authors, sometimes puts his value as an observer in doubt. His description of the Black Sea’s winter climate is, for example, embarrassingly close to a passage in Virgil’s Georgics.14One Ovidian commentator rightly points to resemblances between his portrayal of the Pontic barbarians and those of the Aeneid’s later books, in which Virgil visualizes the primitive tribes of Italy.15 Where, then, do Ovid’s descriptions end and his plagiarisms begin? After forty years weaving poetic spells, was he capable of straight reporting? Probably not. Certainly, allusion was indispensable to his compositional method. Ovid’s motives were idiosyncratic and no one could call him an impartial witness. But he was not necessarily a perjured one.

As well as personal pleading there is also the more general bias of Roman against non-Roman. The steppe barbarians bequeathed few impressive remains and no written evidence. As ever, the reputation of the illiterate was in the hands of the literate, who had no reason to depict Rome’s potential enemies with sympathy and understanding. Here Ovid is as culpable as other ancient authors. It did not occur to him that fate had placed him at a unique vantage point, a forward listening post from which the steppe could be monitored and a fascinating study written.16 What he does give are glimpses of the grassland barbarians at their grimmest; strikingly perceived and expressed, but always subordinated to his own propaganda intention: that he should be allowed to return to Rome. In view of contemporary literary tastes, it is in any case barely conceivable that he would have placed the barbarian in the foreground of his work. As we have said, literature tended to feed on its own traditions and to be more intent on refining subject-matter than enlarging it in an ethnic or social sense. One may doubt whether any man of letters would have respected Sarmatian society sufficiently to be its ethnologist or lexicographer. Today, by contrast, we live in an age which professes to cherish less advanced peoples and their cultures; guilty perhaps that so few are left. Furthermore the modern Western nations are comfortingly distant from alien continents. Theirs were maritime empires, with oceans between themselves and their colonies. Even now, direct First World–Third World interfaces (as between South Africa and Mozambique, or the United States and Mexico) are surprisingly rare. Classical antiquity’s sense of being adjacent to and surrounded by the envy of less happy lands was stronger; with fear and prejudice correspondingly more acute.

It is time to turn to the Roman side of the story. This was the eighth year of the Christian era and the thirty-ninth since the battle of Actium had brought peace to the Roman world and Octavian, generally known as Augustus, its first emperor, to unchallengeable power. Ovid, aged fifty-one, with his wife (whose name is unknown to us) was on vacation in the Isle of Elba. She was his third wife and the only one with whom he had found lasting happiness. By rank he was a member of the equestrian order,17 entitling him to the white toga with a thin, purple stripe. He was proprietor of a fine estate, the Villa Ovidio at Sulmo, the family seat, ninety miles inland from Rome; and a comfortable town house close under the Capitoline Hill. As a young man he had studied law, indeed begun its practice and even held minor office. However, as he put it, ‘no matter what I tried to write, it came out verse’.18 The Muse beckoned and he followed, abandoning the substance and respectability of a public career. Not that poetry was without respect. Despite his father’s warning that ‘even Homer died broke’,19 there was no more propitious moment at which to excel, especially for one who could combine poetry with patriotism. It is a peculiarity of the Augustan Age that its greatest artists were able to reconcile themselves to the political background, matching stirring events with noble song. Here Ovid was a misfit, whose destiny was to be the ancient world’s supreme poet of love. His counterpart is surely Byron, with echoes of subject-matter, of attitude, even of place.20 Both were associated with scandal. Both would end in the loneliness of a Greek exile. And for both, success came early and in a rush. ‘I awoke one morning to find myself famous’,21 said Byron of the publication of Childe Harold; and Ovid’s first work, the Amores, brought much the same response. ‘When pressed to give public recitations’, he tells us, ‘my beard had been trimmed but twice.’22 At a stroke he attracted distinguished patronage and the acclaim of dilettantist Rome. This early reputation would be confirmed, indeed outshone, by the Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), published during his early forties: a sparkling essay on seduction, sometimes compared to Pope’s Rape of the Lock and, it seems to us, as inoffensive. Be that as it may, Ovid would thenceforward choose subjects more suited to his maturity: the less successful and uncompleted Fasti (the Festivals), a poetical calendar of the Roman year and its holy days. Then came his central work, the Metamorphoses: a series of verse episodes, each concerning a supernatural change; a thesaurus of transmogrification; a glittering amalgam of myth, magic and invention. In all Ovid enjoyed thirty years’ homage, first as the enfant prodige then as the literary lion of Rome. And yet, during the last decade of this happy and productive time, a cloud began to smudge his sky.

He had never sought the approval of officialdom. In this sense he was the odd man out in the golden quartet of Augustan writers. Livy’s History, in 142 books, had Rome’s greatness as its unswerving theme. Virgil’s Aeneid, a patriotic epic, climaxed in the birth of Rome and its rebirth under Augustus. Even the hedonistic and satirical Horace reflected, in his Odes, the great pageant of the Roman story. These were, in the highest sense, the Augustan apologists. Rome’s mission had been their inspiration and they lifted Latin to parity with Greek as the supreme language of civilized mankind. All three were, however, older than Ovid. Theirs was the civil war generation, which had longed for peace and prized the blessings it brought. Ovid’s was the post-war generation, which took peace for granted and had heard enough of valiant deeds. Understandably he turned toward less patriotic themes, unrelated to public events. His commitment was total but it was to poetry itself, not to a regime, however glorious. It is of course clear to us that, far from being contrary to the glory of the Augustan Age, Ovid’s achievement was a proud part of it; and that his deviations from orthodoxy were refreshing as well as harmless.

Not entirely harmless. The emperor had long been disturbed at the state of morals, behind which lay a genuine concern for the falling upper-class birthrate. Laws were passed to protect marriage and outlaw adultery. Though carrying stiff penalties, these were regarded as unenforceable and something of a joke, especially in view of gossip about Augustus’ own peccadilloes and his ability to reconcile them with his position as praefectus moribus (corrector of morals). Nor was he exceptionally prolific himself, having produced only one child, Julia, despite four marriages. The birthrate remained low, the morals uncorrected.

Joke or not, Augustus took the matter seriously. Dio has left an account of his harangue, directed toward unmarried or childless knights during the year of Ovid’s banishment. It was a long and scathing speech, of which a few sentences give a flavour:

How should I address you? As Romans? You are heading toward the elimination of that name. The truth is you are on a collision course with our national future. What would be left of mankind if everyone behaved like you? You are murderers, in the sense of not giving life to those who should be your descendants; and traitors, in the sense of leaving your country bereft of heirs. For it is people who make a city, not empty houses or deserted squares. How can we preserve the state if we neither marry nor have children?23

Further laws were passed to penalize the unmarried, both fiscally and in matters of inheritance. These were called the Papia-Poppaea laws, after the consuls of that year. To the discomfort of some and the amusement of others, it was then realized that Papius and Poppaeus were bachelors.

Despite severity on this issue, Augustus could hardly be called a figure of fear. On the contrary, with middle age he had become increasingly relaxed and approachable. Unfortunately this was about to change. Events within the imperial family would trigger outbursts of that youthful ruthlessness which had won battles and eliminated opponents. Robert Graves,24 not without support from Roman historians, would have us believe that Augustus’ blood relatives were being disposed of through the bad offices of his fourth wife, Livia, in favour of her son (by her first husband) Tiberius. This is the woman called by Tacitus, ‘a curse to the state as a mother; to the house of Caesar as a stepmother’.25 Though there is no hard evidence, her alleged methods were either to poison her stepchildren and step-grandchildren, or to poison her husband’s mind against them. True or not, public splendours were to be soured by a succession of private griefs. In AD 2 a scandal broke around the emperor’s daughter, Julia, who was accused of adultery and exiled to a tiny and desolate island. Such harshness is explainable only in terms of her father’s acute sensitivity to ridicule. Another source of amusement was that the adultery law was part of a code called the Lex Julia; named after Augustus’ family, the Julians.

The appearance of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, only a year or so later, was an all-time publishing gaffe. Here was what appeared to be a philanderer’s charter. It would have been less humiliating for the administration had the book flopped. But no, it sold like hot cakes! Ovid argues somewhat lamely that adultery had been far from his thoughts, that the poem was intended as a divertissement relating only to affairs with courtesans. In his favour was the fact that his own personal life was relatively blameless. ‘No scandal ever attached itself to my name,’26 he maintains. ‘My muse was merrier than myself’,27 meaning he had been a playboy in poetry rather than practice. Whatever Augustus’ feelings, there was no official rebuke and no action was taken. In any case, Ovid’s pen now pursued more seemly subjects. However, to the government’s and perhaps the author’s embarrassment, that poem on illicit love refused to lie down. On the contrary, its popularity continued to soar.

In AD 8 there was another hammerstroke to the greying, imperial head: the arrest and banishment of his granddaughter, daughter of his already exiled daughter, also called Julia, again for adultery, complicated this time by an alleged conspiracy to replace Tiberius as heir. Livia, if Graves’ theory is correct, was working overtime. It is probable that the same year also saw the death of Ovid’s patron, M. V. Messalla Corvinus, distinguished general, statesman and honoured friend of Augustus. Without subscribing to the poet’s indiscretions, Messalla’s very presence would disarm retaliatory measures. With his passing, a trusty shield had fallen quietly away.

We return to Ovid, unaware of the gathering shadows, on his visit to Elba during this same year. If he had offended Augustus, surely he had by now redeemed himself? Ars Amatoria may have been an almighty faux pas, but seven years had elapsed since publication and no harm had come. At this juncture, out of the blue, a man (or probably men) appeared at the villa where the happy couple were guests. Perhaps they were plain-clothes officers of what later became known as the frumentarii28 (military supply services), a cover-name for the secret police. The poet was staggered. Under arrest … for writing a love poem! But that was not apparently the question. Ovid was party to some knowledge. He had seen something. Something he should have reported.

In the lonely years ahead, Ovid would brood interminably on this fateful moment. He had blundered. An indiscreet poem, certainly; that he would rue, long and deeply. He had erred too in the direction of his work: its disregard for all the age had accomplished. But of the other matter, the last straw which broke the imperial patience, Ovid would never speak. That is to say he would never mention it in his verse. Though the desire for self-justification was obsessional, to speak out clearly on the reason for his banishment could only rekindle the emperor’s anger and damage his chance of reprieve. Doubtless the secret was fully discussed in his private correspondence and was common gossip in Rome. Nothing of either has survived; and hints in the Tristia are all we have:

Two ‘crimes’, a poem and a faux pas

Have brought me to this pass.

On the latter I must hold my peace

Lest insult to injury be added.

For it is enough, O Caesar,

That you should have been injured

Once already.29

And again

Why did I get my eyes into trouble?

Why was I so stupid as to cover up

That which I knew?30

He swears that what he saw was by accident:

And I am punished because my blundering

Eyes beheld a wrong, as if it were a

Sin that I have eyes.31

Whatever he beheld, his implication in this ‘wrong’ seems not to have been deep:

And yet the gods, who see through all

Men do, know that I have

Nothing done which could be called

Great guilt.32

What was it, this wrong of which he dared not speak? Scholars have speculated endlessly. As the poet implies several times, Ars Amatoria was only a contributory cause. It has often been surmised that the true reason concerned the indiscretions of the younger Julia, for both his and her banishments occurred in the same year. Perhaps he knew of those indiscretions. Perhaps, in some peripheral way, he was accessory to them. It is unlikely we will ever know.

Ovid would, however, be let off lightly. Not even exsilium (exile): something milder; something called relegatio (demotion). He would keep his knighthood, estate and fortune. Ars Amatoria, now in all the public libraries, would have to go; but otherwise he could continue to work as he pleased, write as he pleased, correspond with whom he pleased. Only he must return immediately to Rome, pack his bags and take ship for somewhere in Greece; a place called Tomis.

Back in Rome he tried to steel himself for suicide. But there was little steel in Ovid. One thinks of Romans as martial, but here was a quiet man, a meek and on the whole a modest man; physically timid, frail and nervous. Even in boyhood he had shrunk from sport and the mandatory war games. He loved his wife, his home, his work and the adulation it brought. Virgil had died a generation earlier, Horace that very year, leaving Ovid as the language’s greatest living poet. Above all he loved Rome herself; the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, talk and endless stimulus of this mother city; queen and crossroads of the world. Now the cup was snatched away. A sudden confrontation by nameless men; a verdict and a sentence pre-imposed.

And yet life among the Greeks might be bearable. Romans of his class saw Greece as a spiritual home. Indeed he had studied in Athens. Neither was this to be relegatio in insulam; banishment, like that of the tragic Julias, to some God-forsaken rock. Nor in oasim; expulsion to an oven-hot clump of datepalms on Egypt’s fringe. At least he was bound for a city, long established, older even than Rome herself. Nevertheless, however packaged, the reality was exile: the destination to which he would be brought by the ‘crooked axle’ of his luck, ‘the destiny, knitted at my birth from a black fleece’.33 Nor was it a comfort to recall that until half a century earlier ‘exile’ had been the traditional grace-period during which a citizen condemned to death was allowed to flee Roman territory. This suggests that flight into the Barbaricum was scarcely preferable to execution: for where, in that lawless wilderness, might refuge be found? The view was that earth’s most felicitous regions by now belonged to Rome and what she did not have was not worth having. Though Ovid was not being sent into barbarian territory (the Pontic cities were already under Roman protection) the point was a fine one, for as yet this protection was largely nominal and in a day-to-day sense the Tomitans were expected to defend themselves. It was a place of which he was soon to write:

Only guarded wall and barred gate

Shield us from the baleful Getans’ hate.34

Ovid’s fear of mutilation or violent death, though natural enough, was in his case morbidly acute. This would make exile to the Sarmatian steppe a singularly unpleasant experience, so much so that one might wonder whether it had been devised with his particular sensitivities in mind. We have compared Ovid to Byron, but there is also a resemblance to Wilde. Both were brilliant, witty men. Both defied the orthodoxies of their age. Both were early fêted and abruptly dropped. Both served spiteful, life-shortening sentences. And both produced two ‘poems of exile’,35 works strikingly different from anything they had previously written.

By the spring of AD 9 Ovid was in Tomis and had begun work on the Tristia. Its opening book describes his last night in Rome; how he looked up toward the Capitol, flooded in moonlight; how, the next morning, his wife, hysterical, rolled in the hearth, clutching the household gods. Glimpses of the voyage follow: lying awake beneath the thwarts of a creaking ship, with seas so mountainous that the terrified helmsman abandoned the tiller and turned to prayer. Since he later mentions an exchange of letters as requiring a year, we may guess his journey was long, with various pauses, changes of vessel and overland stretches. Here is a characteristic passage about Tomis and its ambience:

Would you like to know just how things are

In Tomis town and how we live?

Though Greek and Getan mingle on this coast

It owes more to the Getan than the Greek.

Great hordes of them and their Sarmatian

Cousins canter to and fro along the rough roads,

Everyone with bow and quiverful of

Arrows, yellow-nibbed and vile with venom.

Villainy of voice and face betray their thoughts;

Hairiness of head and beard tell us they

Have never seen a barber. Right hands itch

To pull the universal knife. Such is, alas,

The company your Bard must keep.36

The steppe peoples were formidable archers, using bows perhaps thirty inches long and shooting from the saddle at full gallop. A cavalry bow must of course be short, but strength was added by means of horn tips and plates, bound and glued to the wood. It is possible that the Sarmatians were the first in Europe to develop stirrups, in their original form of leather footloops, which steadied the mounted archer while riding hands-off and greatly increased his accuracy. To be ready to hand, the bow was carried strung, in a large holster attached to the belt, which served also as a quiver. The arrows were poisoned. Ovid’s imagination brooded on the Getan arrow and he developed a special revulsion toward it. He described it as ‘dealing double death’: from the venom as well as the wound itself. The arrowhead was spliced around its base with a collar of thorns, to increase tearing power. The venom’s recipe has been reconstructed from ancient references and with medical advice by a German scholar, C. J. Bucher.37 Extracts from the rotted corpses of adders, including the venom sac, were steeped in putrefying human blood tainted, in its turn, with excrement. The intention was clearly to manufacture a blend of toxicity with gangrenous and tetanoid infections. If the wound failed the poison would succeed; and if the poison did not the diseases would. Herodotus confirms this ferocity in gruesome terms; though he is speaking of the Sarmatians’ predecessors, the Scyths. On the matter of head-hunting, Ovid tells us that the Sarmatians continued Scythian practice.38 Being related peoples we might expect this to be true of a number of customs.

A Scyth drinks his first victim’s blood. He takes the heads of enemies to the king, for otherwise he will have no share in the booty. He then cuts around the ears and, gripping the scalp, shakes out the rest of the head. After cleaning it with a bone scraper, he works the skin by hand till supple and makes a kerchief of it. This he attaches to his horse’s reins. The best man is the one with most trophies. Some even sew these scalps into coats. Others make quiver-covers from the skin of enemies’ hands: human skin being brightest and finest for such use. Yet others flay the whole body and carry the skin splayed out on a wooden frame. Regarding their worst enemies: those able to afford it have the skull sheathed in leather and the inside gilded for use as a drinking cup. This may also be done with a kinsman slain in a feud. If visited by guests he will serve them with these heads as a token of honour. This they call courage!39

Blood was drunk in brotherhood rituals: ‘They bleed those involved, mixing blood with wine in a large pottery bowl into which is dipped a sword, axe, spear and arrows. Then, after solemn oaths, they and the witnesses drink.’40

Their source of wine was of course the Pontic cities. The Sarmatians’ national drink was koumis, a fermentation of mare’s milk. Hemp (in Greek kannabis) is native to the steppe. Sets of inhaling equipment, consisting of bronze cauldrons, trays to contain hot stones, clusters of short tentpoles four feet high, with leather seed bags and charred hemp seeds, were found in the Scythian tombs. Such was the apparatus rendered obsolete by the invention of pipe and cigarette. Herodotus describes hemp as a fumigant as well as an intoxicant, even a source of clothing.

They have cannabis in their country, like flax except thicker and taller. It is both wild and cultivated. The Thracians make cloth from it, hemp being very like linen. The Scyths take the hempseed and, crouching under blankets, throw it onto hot stones. The seed smoulders and gives off steam at which they emit cries of pleasure. This serves instead of bathing, for seldom do they wash in water.41

The practice of ritual divination is mentioned by more than one author. As Herodotus put it, ‘there are many fortune-tellers, who divine by means of willow wands’.42 The wand is still of course associated with magic, but here the method was to drop a bunch of osiers to the ground and consult the pattern which they formed. In this matter it can hardly be maintained that Roman practice was superior, for the latter included the examination of animal entrails, observations of birds and other ‘omens from the sky’,43 such as lightning, the shape and movement of clouds and all natural or accidental occurrences, reading into them what they hoped or feared, ‘constantly peering into the intestines of sacrificial victims and watching the flight of birds. Agonizing over vague and equivocal predictions’.44 It has rightly been said that epoch-making Roman decisions hung on a chicken’s innards.

The steppe had its own answer to diviners whose prophecies misdirected royal policy. ‘Such fortune-tellers are bound and gagged inside a waggon laden with kindling wood, to which two oxen are harnessed. The wood is then fired and the terrified animals stampeded. Sometimes the oxen are roasted with the fortune-teller, sometimes the pole is burned through and they escape.’45 Regarding religion, there are Euripides’ references to the Crimea of the Scythian period, with its cult of Artemis.46 We have only a single, specifically Sarmatian image, though a powerful one: worship of a naked sword thrust into the ground.47 ‘In their country is neither temple nor shrine, nor even thatched hut; only a naked sword stuck into the soil, which they worship with due reverence. Such is the war god who presides over the lands on which they wander.’48

The above quotations mention the absence of huts and presence of wagons. The latter were the standard dwelling of the Sarmatian tribes and an essential part of nomad equipment. Where might timber for these carts be found? Though the steppe was generally treeless, its river bottoms were often wooded. The so-called Iron Age was a period of major advance in wood working, not least in the construction of vehicles with strong, spoked wheels. Clay models, probably toys, from Scythian tombs show these as covered wagons, with skins stretched over (or bark nailed onto) hooped frames. Sometimes only the rearward half was enclosed, leaving an open-fronted driving compartment. Occasionally the covering was pyramidical, a sort of wigwam erected on the wagon’s stern. The classic shape, however, resembled the American or Afrikaner covered wagon and was possibly a distant ancestor of the gypsy caravan.

The 4th-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus of Antioch has this to say about Sarmatian nomadism:

Midway along the Black Sea’s northern coast are numerous Sarmatian tribes whose lands have no known limit. They roam over vast solitudes: places ignorant of plough or seeds and knowing only disuse and frost. Here they forage like animals. Their families, homes and chattels they load onto bark-roofed wagons; and when the mood is on them they move off, without a second thought, rolling on toward the place which takes their fancy next.49

This is the means by which they and others like them had travelled along that great and grassy road whose beginning and end none knew. When they halted, the wagons would be formed into a laager or defensive ring. Though the able-bodied lived in the saddle, vehicles were essential for child-rearing and winter shelter.

Indeed they are without even hovels and cannot be bothered with ploughshares, living on meat and milk, dwelling in wagons roofed with rounded canopies of bark and driving them over the wide solitudes. When they come to good grazing they arrange their carts in a circle, then gorge like beasts. And when foraging is finished they load their cities, so to speak, and off they go. In these same wagons the men lie with the women and the children are born and brought up. Such are their houses; and at whatever place they chance to arrive, that to them is home.50

The Greeks were amazed and amused by the nomad diet, calling the steppe peoples hippemolgi (horse milkers) and galactophagi (milk eaters). ‘They live on meat, including horse meat; and mare’s milk, the latter (prepared in a certain way) being especially enjoyed. Hence the poet51 calls all the nomads galactophagi.52

Other food products were nevertheless available, both from the north and the Crimea. The latter, in climate a mini-Mediterranean, had been famous for its grain from the late Bronze Age.53 There is also evidence for millet cultivation in valleys on the steppe itself; and the Pontic cities had surrounded themselves with fields. All this the Sarmatian peoples regarded as their own. Having conquered the entire western steppe from the Scyths they believed it their right to charge for its use: ‘They turn over their land to anyone who wishes to till it, requiring only that in return they receive the rent they have put on it.’54

Even so there were shortages. The trading colonies did not consider it their role to feed the Sarmatians but rather, with their help, to acquire grain for shipment to Greece in return for luxury goods. This could be a recipe for trouble. In winter the pasture disappeared under snow and the undernourished herds produced little milk. The Pontic colonies then faced starving tribes to their front and frozen seas at their back; for the freshwater of the great rivers reduced the freezing point of the coastal waters and induced the formation of fringe ice which in turn blocked the harbours and completed their isolation. As if this were not enough, the Danube and other rivers also froze, allowing easy passage for raiding parties. Even wagon columns could now cross. Herodotus’ claim that the Sea of Asov freezes for eight months in the year was doubtless an exaggeration. It does, however, share the same January isotherm as the Gulf of Finland, though 850 miles further south. ‘For eight months every year there is frost unbearable [ … ] the sea freezes [ … ] and the Scythians drive their wagons across to the land of the Sindi.’55 Pliny the Younger adds that: ‘When the Danube banks are joined by ice and it can carry great preparations for war upon its back, then its fierce tribes have both their arms and the cold to fight for them…’56

Did the Sarmatians incline to villainy only when pushed to starvation’s brink, or were they habitual robbers and raiders? Though winter was the time of greatest danger, sources are unanimous in branding them as bad for all seasons. Ammian calls them ‘a tribe highly experienced in brigandage’57 and ‘a people better suited to theft than war’.58 Tacitus admitted their quality as fighters, though only when mounted: ‘While they are useless on foot, on horseback it is another matter. The line of battle which can stand up to them hardly exists.’59 He describes an incursion by one of their tribes into imperial territory higher up the Danube in AD 69 when the intruders were intercepted by Roman infantry on ground unfavourable to cavalry: ‘The Rhoxolans, a Sarmatian tribe [ … ] 9,000 rampaging horsemen, seeking booty rather than battle [ … ] had scattered for plunder and [returning] loot-laden were unable, because of the slippery paths, to benefit from their horses’ speed. They were delivered as lambs to the slaughter.’60

But once out on the open steppe there was little likelihood of catching them. ‘Pursuing or pursued, they gallop great distances on fast horses, leading one or even two more so that by alternating mounts they can maintain speed.’61

Herodotus touched upon a universal military problem when he wrote: ‘They who are without permanent towns or fortifications and live not by agriculture but by stock-raising, carrying dwellings in wagons: surely such people will be uncatchable and therefore unconquerable.’62 The underlying point is that strength alone does not determine the outcome of war. Rome had often defeated the strong, whose weakness was that they possessed roads which could be marched on, granaries which could be commandeered and towns which could be knocked out. What of that other kind of enemy whose territory was trackless and townless, whose soil had never been ploughed? Conflict with backward peoples would prove less and less rewarding as Rome advanced and the Mediterranean fell behind.

On the other hand, steppe brigandage becomes more understandable, perhaps more excusable, as the empire takes shape. It has already been noted how the Sarmatian tribes migrated as far as the Black Sea and then stopped. Whatever the earlier reasons, by Ovid’s time one is dominant: the growing presence of Roman arms in the Balkans. Like westbound wanderers generally, their path was now blocked. Particularly it meant they had ceased to be true nomads, exchanging the carefree, open-ended steppe for confinement to one area, with other tribes behind and the unattainable wealth and security of the Roman provinces in front. An obvious solution was to settle and practise farming. Like the American Indian, however, Sarmatian development had not attained this level. Nor did the north Pontic region, with its summerlong drought63 and winterlong freeze, invite it. Even in the late Roman period offshoots of this same group of tribes would still be hanging around in the lower Danube region with nowhere to go. In the 4th century of our era, when Tomis had risen to respectability as the seat of the Bishop of Scythia, a Greek cleric called Grigoris was out on the steppe, preaching to the Sarmatian tribes. He admonished them to mend their ways, abandon rapine and follow the path of Jesus. When he concluded there was a puzzled silence. Then their leader spoke, asking the question which evidently troubled them all: ‘But suppose we do as you say and obey the law of the Church; suppose we cease to rob and plunder the goods of others: on what then shall we live?’64

Returning to the subject of winter: this was the season Ovid most dreaded. The Dobruja is in fact transitional, between Russian and Mediterranean climates. Mamaia and the other beach resorts remind us that this is Romania’s playground, where winter can be mild. But when the wind backs toward Russia, Ovid’s comments become credible. Ancient geography had little understanding of the influence of landmass on climate. Cold was attributed to latitude and altitude, but not to distance from the ocean or the direction of its currents. That is why Ovid imagined himself much further north than he really was, locating Tomis as ‘close to the shivering pole’! In fact Constantsa lies on the O°C January isotherm, which also runs through New York and across the northern United States. In his tendency to dwell on the cold, Ovid may be compared with a Southern Californian writing home from Chicago. One must therefore allow for exaggeration and the expectations of a warm-climate readership. Shocking descriptions of cold were a literary convention. In the Poems of Exile, however, cold is inseparable from the dangers it provoked:

While summer lasts the Danube is our friend:

His war-preventing water between us

And them. But when the spiteful season shows

His sordid face and grim frost grips the ground,

Then are those savage peoples by the quaking cold

Driven toward the limit of endurance.65

Now comes the ill-wind from the steppe: the mounted raider and the singing arrow. These Getans, like their Sarmatian parent tribe and the Scyths before them, wore scale armour: overlapping plates of horn or iron, sewn onto a leather jerkin. Helmets were cone-shaped. They flew tubular standards, like wind socks, painted to resemble dragons or snakes.66 From Scythian tombs we also know of brightly coloured saddles and embroidered horse trappings. As well as the shortbow, they used sword or axe, plus a vicious weapon of their own: the fighting whip, multi-thonged with a small, metal weight on each tip, used against the enemy’s face to inflict blindness. Accoutrement and ornament depended on social status. Burials suggest wide differences, not only in finery but in horse size and even human stature. To have defeated the lavishly equipped Scyths, the Sarmatians must have had an aristocratic, heavy cavalry, perhaps using horses of Ferghana (Uzbek) origin. Their underlings, more lightly and crudely outfitted, rode the usual steppe pony, controlled, as was normal in the ancient world, by means of the knees and bit alone. The upper mane was shortened to prevent fouling the bow, the withers left long for hanging onto.

We may suspect that the raiders described by Ovid were of the lower social order: a rabble, acting in defiance of their own chieftains; for it is doubtful whether Tomis could have withstood an organized attack by heavy cavalry. Even so, these ruffians would possess the usual skills of steppe horsemen: capable of wheeling with the oneness of a flock of starlings; brilliant archers, able to shoot backwards, in Parthian fashion; employing clever ruses, including the celebrated feigned retreat, which enticed the enemy to break ranks or abandon a defensive position.67

On the other side of the picture we have the treatise, by an anonymous physician, known as Airs, Waters and Places, once attributed to Hippocrates. He visited the Pontic region around the same time as Herodotus, examining a number of Scythian men and women. It portrays the steppe warrior as far from fit or strong. Hip and spinal problems are given as the commonest ailments, wages of a life on horseback. The men are described as short, with skin pink and clammy; the women as ugly and loathsomely fat. At any rate, so they seemed to a sophisticated Greek. The Sarmatians looked fit enough to Ovid. He writes of their forays, in the danger zone outside the walls, where the small city was obliged to support itself by farming:

When bitter Boreas cements both stream and sea,

When Danube by the north wind has been frozen flat:

Then comes the enemy, riding to attack,

Savaging the surroundings far and wide.

Some flee, abandoning to plunder what little

The country and the wretched peasant has.

Others, dragged off with pinioned arms,

Gaze helplessly behind toward families and farms.

Yet others, shot with barbed shaft, fall writhing:

For poison rides aboard the flying steel.

The barbarian will break all things he cannot take,

His hungry flame devouring harmless home.

Even when peace returns the land is paralysed.

Fallow and fruitless the fields. Frightful the

Foe, in prospect as in presence.68

Barbarian portraits are common on Roman soldiers’ tombstones; especially of cavalry troopers, who are shown overleaping sprawling enemies. Prisoners are featured on triumphal arches: usually tousled and muscular, dressed (when not naked) in shaggy skins and often trousers. Were they always of strapping build, or was this so that Roman courage would seem greater? To the Mediterranean nations, trousers were as much a symbol of savagery as today’s clichés of war-paint or bones through noses. In fact they were simply the invention of horseriding peoples and a practical part of their lives.

With stitched trousers and sewn skins covering all

But face, the savage grapples with grim winter.

Ice hangs from hoary hair and sparkling beard,

Wine stands moulded to the vessel’s shape,

Streams stop dead. Ice is dug as drinking water.

The very Danube (no less narrow than the Nile

And mingling with the deep through many mouths)

Stiffens under freezing wind and gropes its

Seaward way beneath the ice. Now will men

Walk where ships once sailed and ice becomes

A drum for horses’ hooves. Across the new-formed

Bridge over the still-moving stream, there rumble

The ox carts of the Sarmatian.69

Progressively the ice builds against the coast, sealing Tomis from the south; closing that last option of a beleaguered port: evacuation by sea.

The Euxine, called the Axine in the past,

Now holds me captive in its cold embrace.

No softness shields these waters from the blast,

No foreign shipping, safe in sheltered place.

Ringed round with ravening tribes, which endless vigil keep,

The land is no more docile than the deep.70

As winter advances, so does the hungry savage. Now arrows begin to fall inside the city.

I am a captive of the counterfeit Euxine,71

That luckless land beside the Scythian shore,

Hemmed in by numberless and tameless tribes

Who recognize no way of life but plunder.

All outside is danger. Just saved by skilful siting,

Our little hill with little walls defended.

The foe rises quickly as a cloud of birds:

Scarce sighted, they are already on their loot-laden way.

Though closed the gate we gather deadly missiles

In mid-street.72

Now Ovid, though in his mid-fifties, must arm himself and mount the town wall. Gentle Ovid, ‘the soft philosopher of love’.73

I shrink from matters military.

Even as a young man

I never handled weapon but in jest.

Now, in middle age, I buckle sword to side,

Fit shield to arm and helmet to grey head;

For when the lookout signals the attack

I rush to arm myself with trembling hand.

The foe, with bent bow and poison-pickled

Arrow, wheels the wall on snorting steed;

And as the sheep, which lacks the shelter of

The fold, is dragged o’er field and forest by

The ravening wolf, so he who reaches not

The shelter of the gate can count himself

A goner, with a rope around his throat,

Or else a dead man, dropped by deadly dart.74

Weeks pass and the hit-and-run attacks upon the beleaguered town become more hit and less run.

Now are the frighted walls made dizzy by the mounted archer

As stockaded sheep are giddied by the circling wolf.

Now is the shortbow, strung with horse hair, never slack.

Our housetops bristle with a feathered mist of arrows

And the stoutly crossbarred gate scarce counters the attack.75

The barbarian is at the gate, yet there is little comfort inside it.

The town’s defences scarce defend; and even within

The walls a tribal riff-raff mingles with the Greek.

What safety when unbarbered barbarians

In skins inhabit over half the houses?

Even descendants of the Grecian mother-city

Instead of patriotic dress wear Persian breeches.

What conversation! They in local lingo, I in gestures.

Here I am the barbarian, understood by none.

At Latin words the Getans simply gape and giggle.76

This was a frontier town, a ‘wild west’ in the Greek east. Violence might erupt at any moment; even in the agora, close to where Ovid’s statue now stands:

Law has no force and force is all they know

Since force replaces justice in their eyes …77

Here sword is law and many is the wound

Inflicted in the middle of the market place.78

Such then was the favour to which one of the Olympians of Latin verse had come.

Pathetic, for one whose name was ever on

Men’s lips, to live among the Bessans and the Getans.

Pathetic, to do one’s stint at the gate

And on the wall: a wall scarce strong enough

To guard its guardians.79

Ovid was an amiable, companionable man; Tomis shrewdly selected to ensure his dejection. He broods constantly on the total absence of Latin-speaking company, indeed of kindred spirits of any kind. He feels his powers waning through disuse and the absence of stimulus or encouragement. He struggles with composition in surroundings deeply hostile to poetry.

Though clash of arms is ever near

I cheer myself with versifying as I may,

Albeit there is no one here to hear;

In this wise may I pass the dawdling day.80

And again

Poetry should be free from fear;

I cringe continually from the throat-slitting sword.

Poetry should spring from peace;

I am churned by suffering.

Poetry should flow from sweet solitude;

I am vexed by sea and storm.81

Even so, though he never stopped complaining, neither did he stop composing. Timid as a man, his toughness as an artist is beyond dispute. However monotonous his plea, the fact is that he found the strength to write and write well. If exile were a contest to break or preserve his spirit then, in the long view, we must judge Ovid, life’s loser, the winner. At the time, however, he was a desperately lonely man. He even began to learn the despised Sarmatian tongue. Such was his need of an audience that he started to write in groping Getic:

While some have smatterings of Greek, made barbarous

By tribal twang, none knows a word of Latin.

A Roman poet (Muses forgive me!)

Here I have no option but Sarmatian;

And to my shame, from long desuetude,

Latin words come sluggishly. A man apart,

I talk to myself, seeking by practice

To keep bright the tarnished coinage of my art.82

I have become, to my embarrassment

Something of a Getic poet, having

Done a piece in Getic tongue, working their

Wild words to fit our metre. So the uncouth

Getans begin to call me ‘bard’.83

Ovid’s descriptions of his Getic essays are not without a rueful humour. Unfortunately none has been preserved. But would his serious work now be read? With high hopes the winter’s stanzas were collected and sent to Rome on the first ship. Would they arrive? And now that he was a non-person, would anyone spare his work a second glance? Suppose only the copy kept in Tomis would survive, one day to perplex some puzzled savage:

Oft have I asked myself, ‘For whom this

Careful craftsmanship? Will Getan or

Sarmatian read my verse?’84

Two things troubled him most. First, had his sentence a limit? Was it to be loneliness and danger without relief and without end? Might he at least be moved to some more peaceful place?

Not just a climate cold,

A soil shrunken under hoarfrost;

Not even a Latinless land, or one of garbled Greek:

But because of how I live, enclosèd by

The thorny hedge of instant war, compared with

Which our little wall gives grudging comfort.

Though peace there sometimes is, belief in peace never.

Such is this place: either under attack,

Or in fear of it. Punishment I accept,

But beg that I may suffer it in safety.85

Second, there was his dread that he would die in Tomis and his troubled spirit find no rest.

Often for death I pray, yet bite my tongue

Lest death one day should come

And to Sarmatian soil my bones belong.86

But spring comes even to Tomis, lifting the winter-long blockade of the Sarmatian shore.

Lucky who may love an unforbidden Rome.

But joy to me is snow made soft by spring

And water in the pond instead of ice.

No longer is the sea fast frozen;

No longer the Sarmatian ox-driver

Coaxes creaking cart across the Danube.

Soon ships will come, even as far as here!

Soon a friendly sail will reach our shore:

How I will run to meet and greet the skipper,

Asking who he is and where he’s from.87

Down at the harbour a stir of excitement, a whiff of the world outside. But on the inland side of town, reality was unchanged: rank fields which farmers feared to plough; and beyond, the dour steppe, with no trees to respond to the strengthening sun.

Bare fields and leafless landscape without tree.88

The sour steppe begets the dismal wormwood

And from its bitter lesson do we learn

The land’s own bitterness.89

The steppe sprouts wormwood,

Aptest crop for bitterest place.

And fear: the wall slammed by the enemy,

The dart dipped in dripping death.90

We have said much of Tomis and its tense relationship with the surrounding Getans. What of the relationship of both to Rome? By now Greece and most of Asia Minor were in Roman hands. Nominally Tomis was imperial territory, not only through Rome’s custody of the mother-city, Miletus, but more directly in that M. Licinius Lucullus had visited the area as early as 72 BC in support of his brother’s campaign in Asia Minor; and had taken the north Pontic cities under the eagle’s wing. Getica was regarded as a protectorate, ruled by its own chiefs and after its own customs but in allegiance to Rome. Indeed its king, Cotiso, had been Roman educated and Augustus may even have contemplated marriage with his family.91 It is possible that Cotiso was still being held in Rome in polite captivity as a royal hostage: Ovid’s situation in agreeable reverse. In practice, however, Rome’s control over the untrustworthy Getans, like her protection of the insecure Pontic Greeks, was still tenuous. During Ovid’s time at Tomis the nearest Danubian base was probably a naval station, Ratiaria, 375 miles upstream. Its name, meaning ‘rafts’, suggests a lighterage depot. What is more, only two legions were presently allocated to supervise the entire distance from Belgrade to the delta. The fact is that Rome was preoccupied with problems closer to home and Tomis must look after herself. More broadly, the lower Danube had been placed under the guardianship of Rome’s ally, King Rhoemetalces of Thrace, whose territory began some 150 miles south-west of Tomis and whose capital was Viza, now a village just north of Istanbul. In the event of a crisis too big for Rhoemetalces to handle, Roman reinforcements would be sent down the Danube, assuming they could be spared, and naval units were available to move them, for no riverside road yet existed.

So, in Ovid, we have a Roman banished to a Greek city surrounded by Getan barbarians, all under nominal Roman rule but presently being looked after by Thracian allies, who were themselves the Getans’ ethnic cousins. Doubtless the average Getan cared little for these complexities, continuing to rove and rob as steppe and season dictated.

For thee, fair Rome, they nothing care,

Belief in bow and quiver makes them brave.

Inured to thirst and hunger,

With tireless horses under them,

They know an enemy will fall behind

For want of water.92

In a propaganda sense Augustus’ trump card was as peace-bringer to the Roman world. He had consecrated an altar93 to the pax Augusta; and three times closed the door of Janus’ temple, previously ‘shut but twice since Rome’s foundation … signifying peace by land and sea throughout the Roman realm’.94 One of his admiring subjects wrote that the Augustan peace had reached the limits of the known world, ‘preserving every corner of it free from fear of brigands’.95 Even the careful Ovid cannot forgo a hint of sarcasm:

… in the wide world, take my word,

You will hardly find a land more lacking

The Augustan peace.96

Of interest to all who study the Augustan period is the extent of the conviction that the world was Rome’s oyster, to swallow as it suited her. This may have gone far beyond popular jingoism; invading top decision-making, colouring Augustus’ view of the outside world and boosting his confidence in Rome’s ability to take and hold central Europe. Weighty literary sources, like Virgil at his most majestic,97 can be quoted to support divine ordination as the source of Rome’s right to rule. Even Ovid had written, from the safety of the capital:

Gentibus est aliis tellus data limite certo:

Romanae spatium est urbis et orbis idem.98

(To other nations their allotted place:

Only the globe restricts the Roman race.)

From Tomis he would see this matter differently:

Along the Black Sea’s northern shore

The light of Roman day grows dim:

From here begins Basternian and Sarmatian sway.

Perched on the empire’s very rim,

This land comes last of all beneath thy law.99

The difference between these two statements implies Ovid’s acceptance of a far-reaching truth: that world dominion was not granted by Rome’s gods or decided by Rome’s poets. It rested on her military arm, whose strength and length were not indefinite. Though we do not know the exact date of the second passage’s composition, it is possible that events in Germany were bringing the emperor face to face with the same truth at the same moment. With the passing years Roman public opinion would also begin to recognize this reality, as seemingly endless campaigns beyond the Rhine reached no conclusion.

Reading Ovid’s last work, the Epistulae ex Ponto, one is aware that something more than the usual steppe gangsterism was in progress. The Getans had stormed and taken two Thracian-manned outposts on the Danube: Aegisos and Troesmis, not far above the delta. In view of the steppe peoples’ generally poor showing against fixed defences, it is not clear how they achieved this; but being already inside the lower Danube they were able to attack from the rear in an act of treachery against an ally of Rome. The two strongpoints were retaken by Roman forces, ferried downriver in AD 12 and 15, when, according to Ovid, the Danube was ‘dyed with barbarian blood’. Though these events were only a hundred miles away, Ovid’s anxiety was mollified by the Roman intervention and also by the pleasure of receiving the officers, Vestalis and Flaccus, who presumably visited Tomis in connection with the campaigns. It is, however, possible that Ovid visited them, for he writes of ‘verses composed on the battlefield’.100 Flaccus, the commander, was the younger brother of a friend. Here was an opportunity for Ovid to push his case. To Vestalis:101

You see yourself the Black Sea white with ice.

You see yourself the frozen wine stands stiff.

You see yourself the ferocious Iazygian

Steering laden wagon over mainstream Danube.

You see how poison, flying on fast feathers,

Delivers death twice over.102

To Graecinus, another brother of Flaccus, who was about to return to Rome after his tour of duty:

Should you see Flaccus, recently commander

Of this region …103

Ask him of Scythia and its climate.

How it is to live in fear of foes so near.

Whether the slim shaft is dipped in snake venom.

Whether the human head is used as gruesome talisman.

Whether I lie when I say the sea freezes over

Acres at a time.104

The years were passing, Ovid weakening. He complained of brackish water and poor food. He suffered stomach upsets, fever, sleeplessness and a constantly aching side. He was pallid, with hair prematurely white.

Augustus, too, was ageing. He had passed seventy-one when Ovid’s exile began. What if the emperor should die first? Would his successor grant a reprieve? Augustus did in fact die first: at seventy-seven, during the sixth year of Ovid’s absence. The poet wrote him an elegy, in Getic:

You ask me what I wrote: a song for Ceasar,

Telling of Augustus’ earthbound body

But his spirit soaring high in heaven

And Tiberius holding now the reins.105

But no word from Tiberius; and there was little hope of reaching this increasingly reclusive and stone-hearted man. By now Ovid himself had less than three years to live. His sole consolation was an unexpected one. Latterly the city of his exile had begun to seem less hateful. He was touched by the simple kindness of its people. Though no one could read his verse, they honoured him. Perhaps the officers’ visit enhanced his standing. He was exempted from taxes. At last Tomis was starting to seem like home!

Dear as Latona106 to the Isle of Delos

Which alone gave haven to her wanderings,

So dear to me is Tomis. From home far exiled

It has become for me a faithful home-from-home.

Would the gods had placed it nearer to some

Promise of peace, further from the chilling pole!107

Tomitans, I have affection for you,

But little for your land.108

Ovid died in AD 17 or soon after, aged sixty. Buried obscurely, this odd-man-out in the Augustan Parnassus ended as he dreaded most: in cold Sarmatian soil, somewhere between barred gate and bare steppe. So faded a comet, whose returning fire would be hailed in many an age to come. During the resurrection of Pompeii, when the spade uncovered the numerous wall-scrawls of the common man, the lines of poetry would be predominantly his. The cultural movement known as the Twelfth Century Renaissance would call itself Aetas Ovidiana (the Ovidian Age). His would be the poetry which most delighted Dante, who made him one of the ‘four great men’ encountered in Limbo. Ariosto and Tasso, Gower and Spenser were under his spell. Chaucer would call him ‘Venus’ clerke, who wonderfullie wyde hath spread that goddess’s grete name’.109 Meres would avow that ‘the sweete and wittie soul of Ovid lives in honey-tongued Shakespeare’.110 His work, especially concerning transformations, would be a treasury of plots and ideas for writers and painters, from the elder Brueghel111 to Bernard Shaw.112 He was the least awesome and most delightful of the great Romans; a poet to be loved as long as love is loved. ‘Nor fire, nor cankering age, thy wit-fraught book shall once invade.’113

The steppe evoked little wit. Though never losing technical mastery, circumstances turned Ovid toward inwardness and darkness and away from the brilliance and brightness which had been his genius. The gain for history was a loss for literature, which fades markedly during the closing years of the Augustan Age. Regarding the Poems of Exile: it is a happy outcome that the fruits of so unpromising a place, shipped from so far, should have been preserved, despite official frost, to survive Rome’s long life and painful death, to escape the Dark Ages, to be circulated among Meroving monasteries and Caroling libraries, finally to emerge into the safety of print and the daylight of dissemination. It is lucky, for those who study the edges of the ancient world, that such a man should have gone to such a place. Americans may still comprehend contemporaries like Henry James and Buffalo Bill114 as contrasting aspects of the same national experience. British people, too, are just able to reconcile differences represented by the view from an empire’s centre and from its edges, as in the work of opposites like Wilde and Kipling, Aubrey Beardsley and Robert Service. With Ovid the metropolitan and frontier experiences meet, though uneasily, in one man. It was an accident unlikely to be repeated. The fringes of the Roman world were the abode of backwoodsman, trader and soldier. Only occasionally and in flashes would they again be seen through the eyes of a supreme creative artist. The coincidence of voice and place which is Ovid in Tomis was unique and would not recur.

Banishment to the Black Sea was more than a way to be rid of someone, and the motive was more than plain punishment. Who devised this arrow, dealing double death to person and poetry alike? The style could be Livia’s. Despite advice to her husband to treat dissidents leniently,115 she herself was the last to be lenient in the event of a threat to her son’s succession. She was motivated by what Tacitus called ‘stepmotherly spite’.116 If there is truth in the younger Julia’s implication in a plot against Tiberius,117 and if Ovid had knowledge of it, Livia’s hate would be assured. All, of course, is guesswork. Only on the question of who gave the actual order are we on firm ground. As Ovid’s wife puts it at the beginning of Tristia, ‘It is Caesar’s anger which commands you to quit your native land.’118 Whoever devised the punishment, the order was the emperor’s; and it diminishes his august name. State oppression of artists has many a resonance in the 20th century and it is comforting to be reminded that the outcome is the same. Art is in a curious way unpunishable and those who penalize poetry incur the penalty of its augmented power.

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