Studia IV

OVID’S TOMB

Among the personalities that have honoured with their presence the 125th anniversary of the Romanian Academy was professor J.B. Trapp, Director, until recently, of the famous Warburg Institute of the London University. Professor Trapp became head of the prestigious research institute fifteen years after Sir Ernest Gombrich, working in the classical tradition of the Renaissance history and art.

Professor Trapp's presence at the Romanian Academy anniversary was also occasioned by an old scientific preference of his. Among the many topics that make the subject of his investigations the British scientist is much concerned with the formation and evolution of Ovid's tomb legend. In 1973 he published in volume 36 of the prestigious Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes a study entitled Ovid's Tomb. During his short stay in Romania, professor Trapp visited Constanţa (Tomis), the place where poet Ovid died in exile in A.D. 17.

Ovid was an outstanding figure of the Renaissance, as his life, negatively affected by the political manoeuverings in which he was involved, met with Augustus' and Tiberius' ban, which led to his exile and death in Tomis. Ovid's destiny was similar to that of many Renaissance intellectuals, such as Dante, his forerunner. So, maybe with a good reason the interest in Ovid's tomb was similar to the one in Dante's tomb at Ravenna. Sulmona, his birthplace, erected statues in his memory, even at the beginning of the modern epoch. In Constanţa, the commemoration bronze of Ettore Ferrari was erected on a socle in 1887, in the square that has ever since borne the name of the Latin poet.

In his study, professor Trapp wishes to follow the history of the monumental tomb allegedly erected by public funding to the exiled poet, due to his tragic, but apotheotic ending. Not only the grave travels along vast spaces, but Tomis itself is diversely located during the Renaissance centuries. The imagination of modern Latin-language poets and of humanists have played an important role, sometimes even exclusive, in the formation and transformation of legends. Mr Trapp shows that from the Black Sea shores the tomb "travels" North, to Poland, then to Hungary; some looked for it at Sulmona, others in Rome, where they thought they really found it... People argued and "demonstrated" that Ovid had died at Savaria (Szombathely) on his way back to Italy; the fact that he mentioned the Sarmatians (who were not in Dobrudja at that time) and the fact that the Sarmatians were considered the ancestors of the Polish, makes the latter consider Ovid their first national poet. In Rome, the tomb of the Nasso family, discovered in 1675 and dated about mid 2nd century, A.C., is considered the poet's tomb just because it was on the place (where via Flaminia crossed via Claudia) where the poet seemed to have had a suburb villa with a garden (Epistulae ex Ponto, I, VII, 43-46: "the gardens from which one can see the crossing of via Flaminia and via Claudia"). Researching the Romanian bibliography, professor Trapp found that Miron Costin considered that Ovid's place of exile was Ce­tatea Albă, and Dimitrie Cantemir located it either there or at Chilia, while Kogălniceanu transferred it from Tomis to Cetatea Albă. The Russian legends also point to Cetatea Albă, next to which stands to the date the town of Odiviopol, where traces of ancient buildings were digged out (it is not clear whether they are only Greek or also Roman). The British scientist's study is an exhaustive research model; his pur­pose is not to de facto find the monumental tomb of Ovid, in Tomis or elsewhere. Therefore, let us state shortly our own opinion on this matter.

Ovid was exiled to Tomis in A.D. 8. He was introduced to the court of Augustus by Fabia, the poet's third wife. His verses were enormously successful, and Ovid was loved by the Roman high society. And then came those "carmen et error", the cause of his exile. "Carmen", most probably Ars amatoria, must have been the official pretext for the punishment. As to "error", one may think it must have been a politi­cal-dynastic issue. Ovid's relationship with Julia (daughter to Julia, the daughter of Augustus and Agrippa) made Augustus send his niece into exile on the island of Trimerus, offshore Apulia (where she died in A.D. 28) and Ovid to Tomis at the same time. The one behind the dynastic manoeuverings in Augustus' family was his wife, Livia, who sought to chase away all candidates to succession, so that her son Tiberius may ascend the throne. Tiberius had been born in 42 B.C., from the marriage of Livia to Titus Claudius Nero. Fate, bravely endured by Livia, made Augustus adopt Tiberius; Augustus died in A.D. 14, unhappy because none of his direct heirs were still alive to succeed him. The male descendent of niece Julia (the result of her relationship with Ovid) would have added, from Livia's point of view, an unnecessary com­plication to the succession issue, which she had so carefully prepared in paving the way for her son.

However, Augustus agreed to adopt Tiberius in A.D. 4 on the following condition: after the death, in the same year, of the two grandsons (his daughter Julia Maior's sons), Gaius and Lucius, Agrippa Postumus be coadopted (who was Julia Maior's third son, born after his father's death in A.D. 12 and the preadoption by Tiberius of Germanicus, Livia's nephew. In this series of adoptions, Livia had the most advantageous position (through her son and nephew.)

Ovid took along in his exile the manuscript of Fastes (which had been conceived to include 12 books), remained half written (Tristia, II, 549). The poet had dedicated it to Augustus, but, after the emperor's death, Ovid writes in his letter to Sullinius (Epistulae ex Ponto, IV, 8) that the poem would be dedicated to Germanicus, a poet himself. Germanicus became in A.D. 17 the supreme commander in the East, and his questor was Sullinius, who was married to Ovid's step daughter. So, Ovid hoped to obtain an annulement of his exile this way. But he died that very year, at the age of 60, and shortly after, Germanicus fell out of Tiberius' favour (A.D. 19) being poisoned before the end of the year.

Any hope that the body of the exiled be returned to Rome, perhaps by his brother Licius, was gone with the disgrace and death of Germanicus. As against our conjectural analysis, the greatest living historian of the Roman world, Sir Ronald Syme (The Roman Revolution, Oxford, reprinted in 1974, p. 468) thinks that "error" must have been something vulgar and underhanded, having nothing to do with serious dynastic issues, and Augustus, in order to drive away attention from the scandalous behaviour of his niece Julia (a very powerful argument in the hands of the adversaries of the one who, at the time when he was still just Octavian, had killed tens of thousands of "proscribed" persons), chose an innocent man, a scapegoat, whom he exiled to drive away attention from the real cause of the scandal. This scapegoat was at the same time a poet who had not cooperated in Augustus' work to regenerate the state, moreover, he had dared treat in a "didactic" manner, in fact with unforgiving and unforgivable irony, the serious issues that the Prince was interested in, including them in the "policies and battles of love". So he was exiled by the mere auctoritas of Augustus, without any legal procedure (Tristia, II, 131-132: nec mea decreto damnasti facta senatus/ nec mea selecto iudice issua fuga est meaning: "My deeds you did not condemn by decision of the Senate/ Nor has any judge sent me into exile").

How did Ovid live in Tomis? Despite his lamentations, it was not really unbearable. In an attempt to impress his readers, he changed the geo-ethnographic facts, so over the centuries these created confusions, as the Scythians around Callatis (Mangalia) were called Sarmatians because they had settled there coming from the Danube delta. He says he was not understood by anybody (Tristia, V, 10, 37-38), although he spoke Greek, as he had studied rhetoric in Athens. He does not say a word about the Greeks in the city, as if only Getae lived there, although the city was Greek and it is the Greeks who had elected him agonothetos with the occasion of ceremonies organized at Augustus' death (Ex Ponto, IV, 9, 101-116; Greek perfidy or poetic praising full of vain hopes?) We can infer from this a certain local preoccupation with the cruel fate of the poet, but we cannot infer support for his wish to be called back to Rome.

What was the juridical aspect of the relations between Tomis and Rome? Before Ovid arrived at Tomis, the Western shore of the Black Sea had been organized by Augustus as praefectura orae maritimae, the prefecture of the sea shore, subordinated to the proconsul of Macedonia. In A.D. 15, Tiberius established the Moesia province, and the prefecture was subordinated now to the governor of the new province. Ovid mentions the name of the first prefectus orae maritimae, Vestalia, in office as early as A.D. 12 (Ex Ponto, IV, 7, 15). Tomis was issuing its own bronze coins, but having the emperor's face engraved on them. The city enjoyed the status of civitas foederata (allied city) and perhaps that of civitas libera et immunis (free city exempt from taxes). In 46, Claudius included Dobrudja (Ripa Thraciae) into the Roman province Moesia. The attacks staged by the Dacians South of the Danube, especially those in A.D. 86, when the legatus of the Moesia province, Oppius Sabinus, died, persuaded Domitianus to divide into two the vast land of Moesia, establishing thus two out of one administrative unit: Moesia Superior and Moesia Inferior (to the East, up to the Black Sea).

It is very likely that the people of Tomis honoured Ovid with a decent tomb, but definitely not a monumental one, as the poet himself noticed just how poor they were, as they could not repair the walls of their city, and the barbarians entered it any time they pleased (Tristia, II, 7, 68: Pontica finitima terra sub hoste iacet).

During archaeological diggings done on a great area in Constanţa (1959-1962), when the modern city was reconstructed, Vasile Canarache and his team searched in vain for Ovid's grave, which forerunners used to think was a marble sarcophagus without an epigraph. But that turned out to be the tomb of one of the city's agoranoms. But the now visible enclosure of Tomis dates from the 3rd century A.C., the one dating from Ovid time being much further in the interior of the old city, replaced now by modern foundations, starting with the Turkish rule period. There is no hope of finding the tomb outside those walls.

Regarding the allegation according to which Ovid's ashes were returned to Rome and laid in a special tomb, the political situation proved against that (Julia Minor dies in exile, A.D. 28). Later, the ever more difficult issue of material resources appeared, as well as the question on how many were still interested in such a pious action. The immediate heirs are not necessarily the ones to do that. This is a conclusive example in support of the above. About the year A.D. 238, Roman Lucius Anninus Octavius Valerianus died in Dacia, at his estate close to Romula (Reşca).

His grave there is more than humble, his body being covered with tiles on which his name was written, with an elegiac verse that can also be found on the figurative cover of the sarcophagus discovered in Rome, in the immediate suburb area of via Appia, now in the new Lateran museum, moved over to the Vatican. If a difficult situation lasting for a few months determined the entombment of Octavius Valerianus in Dacia, where his body remained, not being cremated and his ashes not being transported to Rome, what can be expected in the case of a political ban, as Ovid's? On the other hand we can imagine the cost of a funerary monument. The owner of a rich estate could afford the luxury of a sarcophagus, in a period of economic recession and political instability, at the time of Maximin the Thracian. The Haters, in the much better times of the Flaviuses, as rich entrepreneurs in building, erected a family tomb richly decorated with reliefs, a sign of wealth. Eurysaces, the supplier of bread for the army around Rome, under the command of Julius Caesar, erected a tomb in the form of an oven, next to Porta Maggiore. Would the family of a poet have the money to build such a stone construction?

The tombs of Augustus and of Hadrianus, as well as the base having a funerary function of Trajan's Column, were emptied of their urns and sarcophaguses. We know no other tomb or sarcophagus of an emperor. No grave of any literary man has been preserved, nor of any philosopher. Cicero was proud of the fact that while he was quaestor in Sicily, in 75 B.C., he discovered the neglected grave of Archimedes (285-212 B.C.) and he drew the attention of the important men of Syracuse on this lack of piety toward one of the city's greatest citizens (Cicero, Discussions at Tusculum, V, 64 ff.) This was the situation earlier than a century and a half after the death of the great physicist.

Horace was the first to express the idea that the written work is the humanist's most enduring grave, using a term with numerous modern connotations (Exegi monumentum aere perennius). This is an important moment in the assertion of the Greek-Latin culture and traditional cosmos. Ovid prepared for himself an ever-lasting tomb in his Tristia and Epistulae, as, despite the hopes and all the interceding meant to put an end to his exile, he knew well in the depth of his soul that the "error" that had vexed high interests would never be forgiven in his lifetime, as Augustus' niece was involved. Perhaps before the very end he accepted the thought that his ashes would be left at Tomis and be lost, on the Pontus Euxinus shores, and that the world would only know his verse. The integral preservation, except for a tragedy, Medea, of the work of an ancient poet is surely the most pious homage paid to him in time.

Before Dante, in the long series of Latin satirists, epigramists and comedy writers, Ovid personally assumed the unfortunate consequences that his work, as an integral and enduring part of the culture cosmos could have over the creator and his relations with those in power, giving him thus the aura of a hero of humanism. Through him, Rome is once again the ancient cradle of the Romanticism of damned poets whose generic epitaph can be made up of Lamartine's verses (Le Poète mourant):

„Le poète est semblable aux oiseaux de passage

Qui ne se posent jamais sur le rivage;

Nonchalamment bercés dans le courant de l'onde

Ils passent en chantant loin des bords et le monde

Ne connaît rien d'eux que leur voix!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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