History of Roman Exile


    Ovid Banished from Rome,  J.M.W. Turner, 1838

Ovid Banished from Rome,
J.M.W. Turner, 1838

While Ovid laments the suffering he experienced during his enforced separation from the city he loved so much, ancient Roman law actually adopted the penalty of exile in an effort to avoid excessive capital punishment. In addition, while the death penalty offers little or flexibility, imposing the same final outcome, the possibility of different degrees of exile allowed the state, or ruler, to impose a punishment that more fairly matched the severity of a particular crime. This page delineates the different gradations of exile, and identifies the kind of crimes that each type of exile punished.

What is Exile?

“Exile” deriving from the Latin word exilium, or exsilium, banishment, exile, or the place of exile, or from exul, or exsul, describing the person who is leaving. According to Polybius, a famous Roman historian who documented the Roman Republic, “exilium was a voluntary act through which a citizen could avoid legal penalty by quitting the community.” Nowadays, we define exile as “the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons: a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion.” As the definition makes clear, victims of exile are forced out of their patria to live in another place for a certain period of time. However, as Polybius reveals, a person could choose to avoid a worse punishment. Thus it was seen as an alternative to capital or pecuniary punishment.

Degrees of Exile

Crafted by Romanian painter Ion Theodorescu-Sion, this painting is called Ovidiu în exil, or Ovid in Exile.

Ovid in Exile, by Romanian painter Ion Theodorescu-Sion, 1915.

Although the English language often uses banishment and exile interchangeably, the two word words have distinctive meanings, one voluntary, and the other imposed. Exile can be broken into two branches,  and banishment. The fuga was considered the more voluntary option of exile.Banishment, on the other hand, is exile by forced removal. Furthermore, banishment can be broken down into three levels of severity; ,  , and . The severity of the punishment is measured by the duration, location, and rights associated with each of the three tiers.


The mildest form of banishment is called the relegatio. The relegatio is removal (of undesirable foreigners) from Rome or a Roman province by magisterial decree for a specified amount of time or for life. A person subject to relegatio is ordered to leave Rome by a certain date; however they are not sent to a designated location or do not lose any of their civil rights.

Aquae et Ignis Interdictio 

Camillus, Detail, Girlandaio, Sala dei Gigli, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, late fifteenth century

The great general Camillus returned from exile to save Rome from the Gauls in 387BCE.

Literally meaning ‘debarred from fire and water”, the second tier was similar to the first in the sense that the exsul had no permanent place of residency. However, aquae et ignis interdictio differed in terms of duration and rights. The victim lost the civil rights that came with Roman citizenship and their property was confiscated. The dersignation aquae et ignis interdictio occasionally was applied to unique cases of voluntary exile, or self-banishment. Despite voluntary departure, the person was stripped of rights and property.


Deportatio was the most extreme case of banishment. It required forcible removal to a fixed place, most commonly an island in the Mediterranean, usually for life. The English word deportation means “to expel (a foreigner) from a country, typically on the grounds of illegal status or for having committed a crime.” Deportation is a common practice among countries today, and the American government deports hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants every year.

Exile as an Alternative to Imprisonment, Death, and Dishonor

Cicero at the tomb of Archimedes, Martin Knoller 1775Polybius’ remarks that exile was often used an alternative to potentially harsher punishments concur with those of the great orator and statesman, M. Tullius Cicero. Unaware that he would one day be exiled by Julius Caesar, Cicero documented the experiences of many exiles, including a man named Albucius. After serving as a Roman praetor, Albucius was convicted of . a crime punishable with banishment. Banished for his crime, Albucius thrived in exile, free from the pressures to achieve professional success, and pursued his interest in philosophy. In this comments, Cicero comments that

“exile is not a punishment: it is a harbor of refuge from  punishment.” He goes on to explain that those who avail themselves of exilium ‘“quit their native soil,’ that is to say, they change the place of their abode . . . people seeking to avoid imprisonment, death, or dishonor . . . take refuge in exile as in a sanctuary . . . and therefore citizenship is not taken from them, but is by them abandoned and discarded. For no one under our law can be a citizen of two states” .

Victims of Exile

Street Musicians, Villa Del Cicerone, PompeiiA tense contest for power defined much of the republican period. Anything that could have threatened the republican way of life was often effectively diminished or silenced. Similarly, public immorality was not tolerated. Jews, philosophers, magicians, dancers, actors, poets, and astrologers were often exiled because their work was seen as questioning and threatening to the dominant ideologies of the time. Most, if not all, the victims were men. It is important to note that although exile had a varying impact depending on the severity of its terms, the overall effects were relatively lenient. For example, rather than being taken to a particular destination, many exiles were given a mandate to remain a certain distance outside of Rome. Furthermore, it was common that wealthy exiles traveled with a small entourage comprised of slaves and freedmen. In preparation, many an tried to liquidate his material assets to make transportation easier. No matter where the place of banishment or what connections the exiles might have there, access to necessities and money was vital.

Cicero’s Exile

Cicero, 1st century BCE, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Cicero, 1st century BCE, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A case study of Cicero’s banishment gives us a detailed look in the life of an exile because his writings document his life so well. Although he had forged numerous political alliances, and earned the gratitude of many powerful figures who had relied on his oratorical skills, Cicero was not able to avoid exile himself. As consul, Cicero had urged the decision to execute captured conspirators without trial, a violation of the law. For this reason, he himself had to leave Rome in 58 B.C. and go into exile temporarily. During his exile, Cicero traveled almost constantly, making stops in places like Epirus, Thessalonica, Dyrrachium, Brundisium, and Cyzicus. He wrote many letters to contacts back in Rome, including his friend and colleague Atticus as well as his wife, Terentia. In one of the letters to his wife, who remained back in Rome with their daughter Tullia and son Marcus, Cicero voiced the following concerns:

o me perditum, o me adflictum! … rogem te ut venias, mulierem aegram, et corpore et animo confectam? … sine te igitur sim? opinor, sic agam: si est spes nostri reditus, eam confirmes et rem adiuves; sin, ut ego metuo, trasactum est, quoquo modo potes, ad me fac venias. unum hoc scito: si te habebo, non mihi videbor plane perisse (Cic. Fam. 14.4.3). 

Oh, how I am ruined and shattered! … Should I ask you to come, a sick woman exhausted in both body and mind? … Am I therefore to be without you? I suppose I should express it thus: if there is hope of my recall from exile, you ought to strengthen it and advance my cause; but if matters have run their course, as I fear, come to me by any means you are able. Know this one thing: if I have you, I will not consider myself as totally ruined.

Cicero was exiled for his illegal politico-judicial decision whereas Ovid was allegedly exiled, in part, because of the perceived immorality in his work the Ars Amatoria. The terms of their exile differed, too. Cicero fled voluntarily during his trial, as was common practice, and was sentenced to aquae et ignis interdictio within four hundred miles of the city. He was stripped of his property, and declared a public enemy. Ovid in all likelihood retained his property; however, he did not go voluntarily but was banished by Augustus in 8 A.D.

Where To?

Neapolis - one of the many refuges for Roman exiles.

Neapolis was one of the many refuges for Roman exiles. Unless banished to a particular place, exiles were usually ‘free’ to travel as they pleased.

The location of exile was normally related to the prescribed duration, whether it was temporary or for life. If only banished for a fixed period of time, the extent of the exile’s desire to remain  involved in political or social life became of great importance to where he spent his time away from Rome. These factors contributed heavily to determining the destination for exile. Safe refuge could be sought among states of allied with Rome such as Neapolis, Praeneste, Tibur, and others. In order to isolate themselves from political intrigues, many exiles including C. Porcius Cato and Q. Caecilius Metellus Numidicus sought locations abroad, Tarraco, Spain, and the island of Rhodes respectively. Destinations such as Sicily and Dyrrachium were used for their proximity to Italy by those who wanted to keep in touch with events in Rome.


Aeneas Fleeing Troy, Pompeo Batoni 1750Exile can be a very harsh punishment but it is not without its gifts. It is a kinder penalty than execution. It offers hope of a return. And in some cases, it leads to unexpected outcomes. Rome itself is said to owe her rise to exiles. To some extent, Aeneas can be seen as an exile, driven from his Trojan home, and leading his people to Italy where his descendants would one day found Rome. Moreover, Rome’s founding father Romulus populated his newly established city with prisoners of war, slaves, criminals and exiles. Finally, turning our focus back to Ovid, we must acknowledge that Ovid’s great exilic works, the Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto owe their conception to the poet’s banishment.

Works Cited

Braginton, Exile Under the Roman Emperors, 392
Kelly, A History of Roman Exile, 17
Oxford English Dictionary
Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome
Comes from the feminine latin word fuga, fugae, meaning flight
From the feminine noun relegatio, relegationis meaning banishment
Literally meaning having been barred from fire and water
From the feminine noun deportatio, deportationis meaning conveyance to exile
Braginton, Exile Under the Roman Emperors, 393
Kelly, A History of Exile in the Roman Republic, 65
Bauman, Crime and Punishment in Ancient Rome, 6
Kelly, A History of Exile in the Roman Republic, 25
Washburn, Banishment in the later Roman Empire: The Rhetoric and Realities of a Disciplinary Institution
 Oxford English Dictionary
Literally meaning the thing to be recovered of extorted money
Versteeg, Law in the Ancient World, 364
Kelly, A History of Exile in the Roman Republic, 1
Washburn, Banishment in the later Roman Empire: The Rhetoric and Realities of a Disciplinary Institution,15
Cramer, Bookburning and Censorship in Ancient Rome: A Chapter from the History of Freedom of Speech, 165
From the neuter noun exsul, exsulis meaning an exile or wanderer
Kelly, A History of Exile in the Roman Republic, 110
Cramer, Bookburning and Censorship in Ancient Rome: A Chapter from the History of Freedom of Speech, 165
Braginton, Exile Under the Roman Emperors, 394
Kelly, A History of Exile in the Roman Republic, 81-84
Washburn, Banishment in the later Roman Empire: The Rhetoric and Realities of a Disciplinary Institution