Rome Sick: Ovid’s Exile

Ovid’s exile is often attributed to his Ars Amatoria, a scandalous guide on the art of seduction. Yet, careful study of Ovid’s works hints at another reason for exile, a reason that stems from the steamy world of politics and intrigue.


Moral Argument

Ovid depicted in a statue in Constanta, Romania

A statue of Ovid in Constanta, Romania

Though the general consensus until fairly recently was that Ovid was exiled for undermining Augustus’ agenda of in Rome, there are two major problems with this position. The first issue is: why would Augustus wait for before banishing Ovid? If the Ars Amatoria were that disruptive, surely Augustus would have taken action before 8 AD, the date of Ovid’s banishment. The second issue is textual; Ovid specifically mentions two reasons for offending Augustus:

       Perdiderint cum me duo crimina, carmen et error,

            alterius facti culpa silenda mihi:

       nam non sum tanti, renovem ut tua vulnera, Caesar, (Tr.2.207-209)

       Though two crimes, a poem and a blunder have brought me ruin,

       of my fault in the one I must keep silent,

       for my worth is not such that I may reopen your wounds, Caesar,


By Ovid’s own admission there is more to his exile than the ; there is also the . Many scholars have argued that this is an example of , yet Ovid distinguishes between the reason he can talk about and the one he cannot, so hendiadys can be ruled out. Whatever was the prime cause for exile, it was a convenient time for Augustus to remove Ovid from a Rome troubled by political unrest.


Wars & Coups

The emperor Tiberius, by Angelo Minghetti, in the Victoria and Albery Museum

The emperor Tiberius, by Angelo Minghetti, in the Victoria and Albert Museum

Despite the relative peace of the , there were still disturbances at the beginning of the 1st century AD. In , Tiberius, Augustus’ adopted son, was waging war against the native tribes. Generals on the frontier of modern Germany were holding back the Germanic tribes from advancing into , and Tiberius was sent to quell the trouble there as well. Furthermore, a revolt in threatened the northern section of Italy, far too close for comfort.

There were political disturbances at Rome itself. For example, a group of young nobles engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow Augustus, among many other haphazard plots. Just as shocking was the plan to retrieve and her brother Postumus Agrippa from exile, and to bring them to the safety of legions abroad.



Just as disruptive as rebellions and coups was the crisis over who should succeed Augustus after his death. The possible heirs were from two distinct parts of the family; Tiberius was a Claudian, and was a champion of the Julians. Tiberius’ rivalry with the Julians is undisputed. Earlier on, he vied with Julia’s sons Gaius and Lucius, and later retired to Rhodes to dispel rumors of conflict. Germanicus, the husband of Julia’s daughter Agrippina, had attained the before the legal age, and was naturally in competition with Tiberius, who had served in Germany, for Augustus’ favor.

Tiberius (purple) vied with Germanicus (center; blue) for Augustus' favor.

Tiberius (purple) vied with Germanicus (center; blue) for Augustus’ favor.

Now, how does Ovid fit into this clash of clans? Ovid’s relationship with the poet Propertius provides some insight. Propertius was a friend of the Julian faction through Lucius Aemilius Paulus, and likely introduced Ovid to Paulus’ son, the husband of Julia the Younger. The younger Paulus had participated in a failed coup in 6 AD against Augustus, clearly engendering in Augustus some hatred for him and his associates.




Agrippina and Germanicus, Peter Paul Rubens 1614

Agrippina and Germanicus, Peter Paul Rubens 1614. Agrippina was the beloved wife of Germanicus, and granddaughter of Augustus.

Ovid hedges his bets with a mildly positive portrayal of Tiberius, but he is much more generous in his representation of the Julians, particularly Germanicus. Indeed, Ovid dedicates his Fasti to Germanicus instead of to Tiberius. Even further, Ovid’s friend, Carus, was the tutor of Germanicus’ sons. Without a doubt, Ovid’s associations with the Julian faction garnered Ovid little favor with Augustus and his eventual successor, the Claudian Tiberius.

In the same year as Ovid’s exile, Julia the Younger was banished, ostensibly for adultery, to a remote island. The intrigue surrounding this event has made some scholars suspect that she actually participated in a failed attempt to restore the Julian faction to its former glory. Some have even alleged that she attempted to restore her brother Postumus Agrippa from exile so that he could assume power. Though the evidence for this specific theory is tenuous, it introduces a question: If Ovid was among the Julian faction, could he have heard or seen something, an error, which would lead to his banishment? Ovid certainly hints at this possibility in his post-exile works.


Myth and Reality: One and the Same

Fall of Phaethon,  Peter Paul Rubens

Fall of Phaethon,
Peter Paul Rubens

Throughout the Tristia Ovid aligns himself with mythical characters from his Metamorphoses. In the beginning of the Tristia, Ovid references his rendering of the myth of remarking, “If Phaethon lived he’d avoid the sky, refuse to touch the horses he chose, foolishly”(Tr.1.80-81). Ovid is Phaethon’s kindred spirit, an ambitious man who could not handle whatever he was entrusted with, and he ultimately paid the penalty. A few lines later, Ovid mentions , who flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea due to his . In the same way, Ovid may have brought himself too close to the world of political intrigue, and he paid the price for his blunder.

A stark example of alignment with a mythical character is with . At the start of the Actaeon excerpt in the Metamorphoses, Ovid mentions error and its relation to a crime:

       At bene si quaeras, fortunae crimen in illo,

       scelus invenies; quod enim scelus error habebat? (Met.3.141-142)

                                                                                                            But if you ask well, you will find the crime of Fortune in that case,

                                                                                                            not a crime; for what crime did a mistake have?


As though hinting at his own misfortune, Ovid begins the myth with a deflection of sorts, inviting the reader to consider whether a mistake due to fate is a crime. He continues this alignment in his Tristia:

       Cur aliquid vidi? cur noxia lumina feci?

            cur imprudenti cognita culpa mihi?

       inscius Actaeon vidit sine veste Dianam:

            praeda fuit canibus non minus ille suis. (Tr.2.103-106)

       Why did I see anything? Why did I make my eyes guilty?

       Why was I so thoughtless as to harbor the knowledge of a fault?

       Unwitting was Actaeon when he beheld Diana unclothed;

       None the less he became the prey of his own hounds.

Unwitting Actaeon sees Diana

Summer: Diana surprised by Actaeon, Eugene Delacroix 1863From there, the similarities between Ovid’s fortune and Actaeon’s spring from the page. Both are unwitting victims of sight, who, by accident, see something they should not have seen. In the end, a vengeful superior condemns them to disaster.

The inciting incident for both is viewing something that they should not have. For Actaeon, it is a nude Diana; for Ovid, it is something related to politics at court. Perhaps it was something treasonous, a thing that would cause Augustus to remove him from Rome for the safety of his regime. In the Tristia Ovid borrows a part of a line from Virgil’s Ecologues, where Ovid exclaims “Madness carried me away!”(Tr.2.109). The preceding part of the line, however, reads “ I saw, and I was lost” (Ecl.8.41). To any educated Roman, this echo of Virgil would call to mind the rest of the line, in which sight is at the forefront. The theme of sight causing downfall riddles the Tristia and the Metamorphoses, hinting that Ovid saw something to rouse Augustus’ anger.



The Crime

Though Ovid is reluctant to reveal what he saw, he does provide textual clues to the crime he was charged with. One scholar suggests the charge of , that is, offending the dignity of the state. This broad charge, which Tiberius used freely during his subsequent reign to exile or execute opponents, is the perfect legal vehicle by which to exile Ovid. He, however, makes no explicit mention of this charge, and only uses the word maiestas once in his post-exile works. In two tantalizing couplets, Ovid writes,

       Haec tu spectasti spectandaque saepe dedisti 

            -maiestas adeo comis ubique tua est-

       luminibusque tuis, totus quibus utitur orbis,

            scaenica vidisti lentus adulteria.   (Tr.2.511-514)

       These you have yourself viewed and often presented to the view of others-

       so benign is your majesty everywhere-

       and with your eyes, by which the whole world profits,

       you have gazed undisturbed at these adulteries of the stage.


The language of sight in such close proximity to a word as loaded as is the closest Ovid ever gets to revealing the charge.

The second word of the charge, , appears in many forms throughout his post-exile work. This is astounding, considering the word’s usage in contemporary poetry and in Ovid’s own pre-exile work. Propertius, Ovid’s associate, only uses the word sixteen times; Tibullus, eleven times; Horace, thirteen times; Vergil, twelve times. Overall, Ovid uses forms of laesa eighty-five times. In his large body of work before his exile, he uses the word thirty-nine times. In contrast, he uses the word forty-seven times in his smaller post-exile body of work, which only includes the Tristia, the Epistulae ex Ponto, and the Ibis. Clearly, though he hesitates to explicitly mention the crime with which he was charged, Ovid leaves textual clues for the reader to surmise the cause of his exile.




Tomis, where Ovid was banished, is marked by a star. The darker shade of red indicates provinces managed by the Senate; the lighter shade those provinces controlled by Augustus. Yellow regions are client states, and the green regions are those ruled by the Parthians.

Tomis, where Ovid was banished, is marked by a star. The darker shade of red indicates provinces managed by the Senate; the lighter shade those provinces controlled by Augustus. Yellow regions are client states, and the green regions are those ruled by the Parthians.

Given this combination of factors, it is probable that Ovid was exiled under the charge of maiestas laesa. Seen against the backdrop of the succession crisis, and his connection to the Julian faction of the ruling family, Ovid’s identification with mythical characters who met their downfall either from foolishness or unintentional actions suggests that he was cast from Rome for a political misstep. This error, in conjunction with his carmen, the Ars Amatoria, led him to the metaphorical chopping block, from which he was never recalled. The effects of his carmen et error are devastating and long-lasting. In one fell swoop, Augustus changed Ovid’s life and poetic trajectory. From all of this, we can extract a multitude of questions, but one resonates here: What authors are being censored now, and what cost do we face for their silence?



 Works Cited






Goold, “Introduction to the Tristia and Ex Ponto”  xx
A series of laws which established codes of morality, the most famous of which is the Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis, ratified in 17 BC, which penalized adulterers
The Ars Amatoria was published in 1 BC
Poem or Song
A rhetorical technique, where two words joined by ‘and’ are used to convey a single idea
A period of time spanning from 27BC to 180AD, during which the Empire was relatively stable
A Roman province covering modern Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Slovakia
Suetonius, Tiberius 9.1
A province encapsulating modern France
Suetonius, Tiberius 16.1
A province covering modern Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Croatia
Suetonius, Tiberius 16.2
Green 214
Suetonius, Augustus 19.1
Augustus’ granddaughter through his daughter Julia and his friend Agrippa
Suetonius, Augustus 19.2
Augustus’ grandson, and nephew of Tiberius
Suetonius, Tiberius 11.5
The chief executive of the Roman Republic and the Empire, in charge of military affairs, judicial proceedings, and elections. There were normally 2 consuls
Suetonius Caligula 1.1
Norwood 156
Goold “The Cause of Ovid’s Exile” 105
Suetonius, Augustus 19.1
Norwood 160
De Seta 2
The son of Helios, the Sun. Phaethon convinced his father to let him drive the chariot of the Sun. Phaethon could not control the horses, and he almost burnt up the Earth. Zeus struck down Phaethon with a thunderbolt to save Earth.
The son of Daedalus. Daedalus fashioned wings for his son and him, so that they could escape the palace of Minos on Crete.
Excessive pride, arrogance, and foolhardiness.
A grandson of the founder of Thebes, Cadmus. During a hunt, Actaeon accidentally saw Diana bathing in the woods. He was turned into a deer and eaten by his own dogs.
Ingleheart 73
Ingleheart 70
Ingleheart 76
Offended Majesty
Fränkel 111
Tacitus, Annales 2.50