Ovid and Covid

Ovid’s place of exile Tomis (present-day Constanța, Romania) on the The Peutinger Map (Segment VIII), the 13th-century copy of a lost (possibly) Roman original map

A one-sided, anachronistic narrative of Ovid’s exile to the Black Sea coast may be read like this: the Latin poet Ovid (born 43 BC – died 17 AD) was put into isolation at the outskirts of the Roman empire for the good of the Roman society which was at risk of contamination from Ovid’s infectious poetry. Government regulations, what can you do? The Emperor Augustus introduced the social distancing measure of putting 1,600 miles between Rome and the disgraced poet.

A lockdown till the end of your days, that’s what the news report had to tell Ovid every day, as he was struggling with life on the edge of the empire in the uncivilised Scythian Frontier. Eight years spent in confinement, eight years worth of tears.

What would Ovid-43-17 have to say about Covid-19?

  • a temporary confinement is always better than a lifelong sentence. Ovid died in exile, confined with the barbarians.
  • the sorrows of living an impounded existence are the same in 8 AD as they might be in 2020 AD.
  • everyone needs an échappatoire in times of trouble. Do what you’ve always done, just do it better. Ovid kept writing till the end of his life: Reader, if you find fault with my books, and you will, accept my excuse: this time when they were written. I’m an exile, and I looked for solace, not fame, lest my mind became too absorbed with misfortune. That’s why the man in shackles, digging ditches, still eases his hard labour with unlearned song. And he who bows down to the sand and mud, dragging a slow barge against the current, sings: and he who draws flexed oars to his chest, together, striking a rhythm with his arms, as he beats the water.’ (Tristia, Book 4)
  • alienation from home often leads to assimilation to the place of imprisonment. You may not develop any affection to the locus captivitatis, the place of captivity, but you will make it your new home nonetheless.
  • elegiac verses are anxiogenic during a personal or public crisis. I have it on good authority that if Ovid had been given another chance, he would have written his two works of exile Tristia and Ex Ponto in humorous verse, Juvenal style. Your days are numbered, there’s no point sobbing when you can crack a good joke and poke fun at the adversity – the very source of the best humour on earth.

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