Exiled for his sense of humour, poet Ovid has last laugh

Rome (AFP) –


Two thousand years after being banished from Rome, Ovid has been rehabilitated in a victory for the famous poet whose cheek riled one of history's most powerful emperors.

The Rome city council unanimously approved a motion to "repair the serious wrong" suffered by Ovid, best known for his "Metamorphoses" and "Ars Amatoria", or the Art of Love, who was exiled by the Emperor Augustus to Romania in the year AD 8.

The reason for his banishment to the town of Tomis on the Black Sea coast is one of literature's biggest mysteries, as there are no surviving contemporary sources which give details about it, so all historians have is Ovid's word.

The poet rather cryptically claims it was due to "carmen et error", or "a poem and a mistake" -- the poem being the Ars Amatoria, a subversively witty poem instructing men how to get and keep a girlfriend.

Augustus is assumed to have been less than pleased, having recently passed a series of laws against adultery.

- Scandal in the senate -

"Although the poem doesn't overtly advocate adultery, it sails quite close to the wind," Rebecca Armstrong, a Fellow in Classics at Oxford University, told AFP.

"It definitely displays an irreverent tone towards traditional moral attitudes as well as the emperor and his family.

"For example, Ovid recommends several of the public monuments built by Augustus and his family as excellent spots to pick up girls," she said.

It is unlikely to have been the poem alone that angered Augustus enough to drive Ovid out, as it was published several years before he was sent away.

But after irritating the emperor, experts believe the poet's mysterious "error" was the last straw.

"It's quite often suggested that it might have been something to do with the scandal surrounding Augustus's granddaughter, Julia, who was exiled in AD 8 for an adulterous affair with a Roman senator," Armstrong said.

The writer hated the "wild frontier" of Tomis and pleaded endlessly to be allowed to return to Rome -- to no avail.

- 'Would have been pleased' -

He did not help himself by partly apologising for the Ars Amatoria in the poem Tristia II, but "making it clear that he believes Augustus to be an unsophisticated reader of poetry and someone who can't take a joke."

"An interesting strategy for someone hoping to be recalled!" Armstrong said.

The decision to revoke Ovid's exile comes on the 2,000th anniversary of the poet's death in AD 17.

He is not the only famous figure to whom Italy has recently apologised: In 2008 Florence asked forgiveness for persecuting the poet Dante, who fled into exile after he was sentenced to death for his political beliefs.

Armstrong said she thought Ovid "would have been pleased" by last week's council ruling, particularly "by the knowledge that people care who he was and are still reading his poetry so many years later".

And not only has his jocular guide to dating been avenged, he may also have pulled one of the biggest pranks in history.

Most critics are dubious, but "on the basis that there is so little evidence available, some have even argued that Ovid was never exiled at all, and that his exile poetry is, rather, a kind of experimental literature".