Scholia Reviews 3 (1994): 1

R. Verdière, Le Secret du Voltigeur d’Amour ou le Mystère de la Relegation d’Ovide. Brussels, Collection Latomus 218, 1992. 168p. ISBN 2-87031-158-3. BF400.

Jo-Marie Claassen
University of Stellenbosch

To read Ovid’s poetry solely for the sake of discovering the reasons for his relegation is to read beautiful poetry for the wrong purpose. That being said, I shall put my quibble aside, and review this book (which does search for reasons) in terms of the parameters set by the author himself.

Verdière sets out to provide an update to the 1964 work by the American scholar, John C. Thibault, whose The Mystery of Ovid’s Exile[[1]] is considered the standard work on the topic. Verdière‘s Bibliography (p.163) lists in chronological order subsequent works discussing their conjectures by authors such as Herrmann (four articles), Hollemann (two), Verdière himself (four) and other well-known Classical scholars such as Carcopino, Rogers (only the second half of a seven-year serial on ‘the emperor’s displeasure’), Barone, Levick, Syme, Stroh, Della Corte, Barnes, Green, Nisbet, Goold and Grimal. Other names (some of them publishing in less well-known journals) are Baligan (two articles), Nardi, Abbottt, Denes, Corsaro, Meise, Birnbaum, Popescu, Phillips, Porte and Martin. The last two on the list both published in Latomus, Porte in 1984, and Martin in 1986. One South African is listed, Buchert in Akroterion (1974).

After a short introduction, the body of Verdière’s work is taken up by a chronologically arranged critical exposition of each author’s theories, taken work by work, as may be seen from the Table des Matières, (pp. 167-8) which lists, for example, ‘Première contribution de G. Baliban, Deuxième contribution de G. Baligan….’ etc. Each theory is re-argued, with copious quotations from Ovid, and from the author in question[[2]] and then refuted, with reference, too, to other critics’ reaction to the thesis propounded.

Rather surprisingly, Thibault himself is sixth on the chronological list, and is preceded by papers which Verdière explains the master himself had apparently been unable to obtain. These papers are the first by Herrmann, Nardi’s and Carcopino’s guess-work, and both efforts by Baligan. Verdière exonerates Thibault from potential accusations of superficiality by explaining that Baliban had published in an obscure and almost unobtainable journal. Baliban’s theory was that Julia Minor had been ‘Corinna’, Ovid’s heroine of the Amores. The imperial connection would then be clear. Verdière gives a copious exposition of Baliban’s arguments, but does not agree, and finally indicates (p.48) that Ettore Paratore has already adequately pointed out the inadequacies of this supposition.

In the case of Nardi’s paper, had he read it, Thibault ‘would have been able to demolish his arguments in half a page’ (p. 23). It takes Verdière seven pages to re-argue (with copious quotations from the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto) and then demolish Nardi’s theory that Ovid had discovered some crime ‘committed by another’: that he had become involved in a political plot spearheaded by Julia the Younger, her lover Silanus and her brother Agrippa Postumus.

It is not the intention of the reviewer once more to re-argue, or, like Verdière, to demolish, individual theories. Verdière very satisfactorily deals with bizarre ideas, such as Carcopino’s view of Ovid as a Neo-Pythagorean martyr. Some well-known theorists receive short shrift, such as Herrmann, who partly follows Carcopino, but turns Ovid into a ‘second Clodius,’ intruding on the Roman Bona Dea festivities while doing field-work for the Fasti, and Holleman, who portrays Ovid as proto-feminist champion of the woman’s point of view and also as an opponent of Augustus’ adrogation of deity. Herrmann’s other contribution to the polemic, his stress on Ovid’s assertion that he had completed the Fasti (of which we have only half), is given due recognition, also in the context of discussion of other theorists’ views.

Verdière’s own theory, which the reviewer has always found unconvincing (based on the correlations ‘Corinna = ingenium = poena = fuga,’ [sic] p. 81) is propounded at length in the discussion of his four papers. The author finds Ovid’s Corinna in ‘one of Augustus’ many mistresses’, to wit, Terentia, wife of Maecenas, whose indubitable involvement with Augustus took place some thirty years before the poet’s banishment. The abortion Ovid deplores in the Amores would then have been of a child of Augustus’, which, if it had been allowed to live, could have saved the dynasty. From his first contribution (1971) to his last paper (1983), and his final chapter in this book, Verdière has the repeated opportunity to reply to various critics of his hypothesis, such as Stroh, Andre and Sabot, but apart from newly stressing his suggestion that the first, five-volume edition of the Amores may have been a contributing factor in arousing Augustus’ ire, he does not move from his position.

Essentially, Ovid gives two reasons for his banishment, carmen and error (Tristia 2.207). Critics’ interpretation of both factors are widely divergent, as Verdière amply shows. The chronological approach of Verdière’s book is interesting, in that it gives readers an opportunity to view fashions in interpretation of the poet over a period of some twenty-two years. The book appeared in 1992, but, according to the author’s preface, was completed in 1989, a normal publication time-lapse obtaining. The last essay discussed dates from 1986. The author may, therefore, be excused for not including this reviewer’s various pieces that have appeared since 1986, which, in the context of discussion of poetics, do touch on the poet’s references to his own exile.[[3]]

It is, however, inexcusable that no attention is paid to the theory that the poet was never exiled at all. This idea was first mooted in 1913 by J.J. Hartmann, and was supported and refuted in turn by various scholars, as reported by Lenz in 1938.[[4]] In 1951 O. Janssen argued extensively for the poet’s exile as poetic fiction, undercutting his argument somewhat by ascribing such a bizarre exercise to Ovid’s awareness of ‘failing powers’.[[5]] The idea was revived (and since reviled by others, notably Martin Helzle of Illinois)[[6]] by A. Fitton Brown in the year 1985, a terminus ad quem that Verdière could have attained.[[7]] The theory was subsequently taken up by two Dutch scholars, Professors Verdière Schmidt and H. Hofmann of Groningen and variously reported by them.[[8]] This very beguiling theory has some merit, but in the end there is too much against it, even if association of the poet with his works is such an intrinsic part of his autobiographical stance, e.g. in Tristia 1.1 and 3.1. For the sake of completeness, Verdière should have mentioned aspects of the polemic and weighed the proffered evidence critically, even if he did not want to commit himself to a conclusion. Another omission is any reference to the Marxist-tinged interpretation by Vulikh (publishing at Leningrad) of Ovid as intellectual proto-resister against totalitarian authoritarianism.[[9]]

Balanced appraisals of the evidence Ovid offers are in general given due weight. Of these, the contributions of Green and Nisbet are in the reviewer’s opinion the best, as both are careful rather than flamboyant in their approaches to the problem. Verdier\re also notes this. Sometimes Verdière’s ira et studium obtrudes. He is honest enough to quote Syme (History in Ovid) on Thibault’s (and others’) earlier attempts to unravel the ‘mystery’ as ‘a misdirection of the labour force’ (Verdière’s n. 219, p. 91), but he waxes extremely indignant about both Syme’s acerbic tone and the essentials of his criticism (pp. 90-3). It is clear that the recently-defunct doyen of British ancient historical research does not enjoy unalloyed Belgo-Gallic favour.

Not all the articles cited are reviewed at equal length. The Akroterion contribution of Bernadette Buchert seems to have been (inexplicably) unobtainable, Abbott is summed up in three lines, Birnbaum’s Hebrew contribution is summarized from L’Année Philologique, Barnes is cited ‘from memory’, Grimal merits a paragraph (in which his omission of any explanation of the error is deplored), Phillips is (rightly) censured for not citing Thibault. A longer analysis of Porte’s theory, that Ovid was involved with the political coterie of Germanicus, is concluded with a phrase in English: ‘much ado about nothing’ (p. 129). Martin’s continued exploration of this idea is conveyed and condemmned in just more than a page.

An ‘Excursus’ (pp. 131-2), further supplemented by an ‘Addendum’ which follows the Bibliography (p. 165) reviews some theories on the identity of the exile’s enemy, whom Ovid reviles in the Ibis. A final chapter, entitled ‘La faute secrète,’ gives the author’s considered opinion of the various and conflicting theories surveyed, ending with another allusion to ‘Corinna’s abortion’, but further explores the possibliity ‘that Ovid lied’ (pp. 133-5). Again, to this reviewer’s mind, that is confusing poetic truth with literal fact. Ovid always is the poet of ‘imagined reality’.[[10]] Whether he was exiled or not, and why, is as immaterial to his poetic purpose as it should be to our purpose as readers of his poetry. What Ovid’s poetry of exile conveys, the anguish of loss and alienation felt by all exiles everywhere and in every era, is even more relevant in the twentieth century, with its final solutions, its ethnic cleansings, its total onslaughts and its aeronautical mobility, than ever it was in an era of ships and swords and the emperor’s displeasure.

To conclude this review with a reiterated rider would be in the spirit of Ovidian literary excess: when the reviewer has made her pleas for the return to the exilic poetry as poetry, she cannot otherwise than express appreciation for a work such as Verdière’s, that gives successive theories in rapid review. One may not agree with Verdière’s own theories, nor with his reactions to the theories of others, but Verdière does make it possible for the reader to come to some sort of own conclusion. This reader is tempted to agree with Peter Green:[[11]] no other explanation than a political one can make sense of Ovid’s exile. Verdière ends by quoting Thibault: ‘ The many … attempts to solve this mystery have … clarified the terms of the problem…’ [and may eventually lead to] ‘… an hypothesis which will be cogent …’ This reviewer agrees that the terms of the problem have become clearer, but differs with both Thibault and Verdière in assuming that any ‘final solution’ is attainable, or, for that matter, necessary.


[[1]] University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

[[2]] Authors who wrote in other languages than French, are translated, with their original words given in a footnote. There are some typographical errors in English quotations, e.g. pp. 68 ‘genious’; 82 ‘personnal’; 98 ‘compromissing.’ Such errors are unimportant.

[[3]] ‘Error and the Imperial Household: an Angry God and the Exiled Ovid’s Fate’, AClass 34 (1987) 31-47; ‘Carmen and Poetics: Poetry as Enemy and Friend.’ Coll. Latomus, Studies in Roman history and Latin literature 5 (1989) 252-266; too late for inclusion would have been ‘Ovid’s wavering Identity: Personification and Depersonalisation in the Exilic Poems’. Latomus 49 (1990), 102-116 esp. n.44.

[[4]] F. Lenz, Ovid. Bericht über das Schrifttum der Jahre 1928-1937. (1938, but editorial details lost from copy read by me in Classics Library, University of Austin, Texas). [[5]] O. Janssen, O. F. M.. ‘De Verbanning van Ovidius, Waarheid of Fiktie?’ In Uit de Romeinse Keizertijd, Collectanea Franciscana Neerlandica 6-3 (1951) 77-105.

[[6]] M. Helzle: ‘Ovid’s Poetics of Exile’. Illinois Classical Studies 13 (1988) 73-83; also Publii Ovidii Nasonis Epistolarum ex Ponto Liber I; Verdière A Commentary on poems 1-7, 16Spudasmata 43 (1989) p. 15, n. 55.

[[7]] A. D. Fitton Brown: ‘The Unreality of Ovid’s Tomitan Exile’. LCM 10.2 (1985) 19-22.

[[8]] Viktor Schmidt spoke at the Leeds International Latin Seminar in April 1989. Heinz Hofmann is quoted and soberly refuted by W. W. Ehlers, ‘Poet und Exil: zum Verständnis der Exildichtung Ovids’, A&A 34 (1988) pp. 145 and 155. Ehlers’ paper should also have formed part of Verdière’s review, as it gives a considered report on recent theories touching Ovid’s reasons for his banishment, and comes to the same general conclusions as this reviewer in a paper published in the same edition of the journal, ‘Ovid’s Poems from Exile: the Creation of a Myth and the Triumph of Poetry’, [above, same note], 158-169.

[[9]] N. Vulikh, ‘La Révolte d’Ovide contre Augustus’, LEC 36 (1968) 370- 82.

[[10]] Cf. B. Stirrup, ‘Ovid: Poet of Imagined Reality’. Latomus 40 (1981) 88-104; W. Nicolai, ‘Phantasie und Wirklichheit bei Ovid’. A&A 19 (1973) 107-116.

[[11]] Cited by Verdière, pp. 99-104.