To: Mr. Publius Ovidius Naso.
From: A descendant of the Getae, Sauromatae, Greeks, Romans and many others.
Sir Ovid (for this is how people call you in the West. I think the “ius” is too hard for them to pronounce. It could also be that they shortened your name due to that tendency they have to abbreviate everything in order to be efficient. You see, Mr. Naso, efficiency is crucial in my world, more so than it was during your beloved Roman Empire),
Although your exile poems deepened my winter depression, I still consider them to be the best stuff you ever wrote. I understand the tears of an exile. I’m an immigrant, not an exile, but my troubles are similar to yours. I know that “home” is a notion that cannot be packed in a luggage and taken out in the new place, especially when the weather in that new place is severe, for weather plays a most important role in the life of fragile people like us. However, dear ancestor, I would like to know how you would have liked it to be sent to Canada instead of Tomis! You complain about the long winter in Tomis? You exaggerate every bit when saying that “the snow lies continuously, and once fallen, neither sun nor rain may melt it“(Tr. III. 10. 13). You would be surprised to find a place colder and more sad than old Tomis, colony of Miletus. You would be grateful that you were granted such a place for your exile, on the shores of Scythia Minor (Black Sea), where the Hister (Danube) flows into the sea. In Canada, somehow, the sky is always very low. One has a feeling he’s carrying clouds with him all day and the sky scrapers with shiny windows reflecting the opaque nebulae don’t help at all. You complain that you don’t feel safe, that the savage Getae are always at war and poisonous arrows are flying through the air, searching for victims. How would you like it, I wonder, if instead of the the sound of sea and birds in the morning, you heard the constant humming, vrruuumming, beep-beeping, uiiuuuiiuuing and occasionally the bang-paffing of the highway. What if this noise went on forever, non-stop, 24/7???
I fail to understand how you couldn’t see the beauty in the things you describe. Let’s look at this image:
“(…) I have seen the vast sea stiff with ice, a slippery shell
holding the water motionless. And seeing is not enough; I
have trodden the frozen sea, and the surface lay beneath
an unwetted foot. (…) At such times the curving dolphins
cannot launch themselves into the air; if they try, stern winter
checks them; and though Boreas may roar and toss his wings,
there will be no wave on the beleaguered flood. (…) I have seen
fish clinging fast bound in the ice, yet some even then still lived.”(Tr. III. 10. 37-50)
How cool is that??? I already see the dolphins trying to jump but banging their head against the surface ice (ouch!) and the cartoonish image of the frozen fish blinking in bewilderment and thinking “Wtf, I wan’t expecting this, man!!”. I know how the cold can make one bitter and pissed off with life but c’mon, we all know you came to Tomis with slaves. I’m sure that after taking a walk on the frozen sea, covered in the warmest bear skins (you describe the local clothing yourself!) you come back to your warm cottage, for your slaves have taken care to keep the fire going and even cooked some hearty soup for you. Your desk is ready and you can just start writing, without worrying, like my contemporaries often do, that you haven’t paid the mortgage on your house, that your car insurance is going higher by the day or that the very food you’re eating has so many genetically modified substances that it doesn’t even resemble what it once was.
The locals you hate so much seem to me much more genuine than those Romans of yours, the ones who kicked you out of Rome for a book you wrote ten years prior to your exile! You complain about the Tomitans endlessly:
“With skins and stitched breeches they keep out of the evils of the
cold; of the whole body only the face is exposed. Often their hair
tinkles with hanging ice and their beards glisten white with the mantle
of frost. Exposed wine stands upright, retaining the shape of the jar,
and they drink, not droughts of wine, but fragments served them!” (Tr. III. 10. 19-24)
The Santa-like faces must have seemed so strange to a Mediterranean poet who spent his whole life in gardens, drinking wine any other way but frozen. However, the images are frame worthy! Later, when exaggeration didn’t serve you anymore, for you gave up all hopes of being excused and called back to Rome, you put things differently:
“Your gentle harboring of my fate, Tomitae, shows how kindly are
men of Grecian stock. My own people, the Paeligni, my home country
of Sulmo could not have been gentler to my woes.(…) Wherefore dear
as is to Latona the land of Delos, which alone offered her a safe place in
her wandering, so dear is Tomis to me; to me exiled from my native abode
it remains hospitable and loyal to the present time.” (Epistulae ex Ponto. IV. 14. 47-60)
Well, not all men at Tomis were “of Grecian stock” but it’s good enough. I’ll take these verses as proof that you were less bitter after seven or eight years of life in Tomis. Moreover, you started a huge trend, the autobiographical, confessional style of writing which I greatly appreciate. Therefore, exile has good aspects. I’m sure immigrations does too, I just can’t see them at the moment.
A student of letters.
* * *
Nine years have passed since, following my family, I set foot on North American land. Ovid himself spent nine years as a “relegatio” (a milder form of exile, where the convict could keep his property and communicate with friends and family through letters) before he died at Tomis. I am as much of a stranger as I was nine years ago. My unadaptability justifies my affinity with works such as Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto . Reading these works, however, was quite hard and, sometimes, puzzling. Ovid is exiled at Tomis, today’s Constanta, a city I love. While I can relate to his feelings of alienation, I recognize my native scenery in his depictions and I get irritated at his constant disdain towards Tomis and it’s people. I just wish Ovid was more of an explorer, more versatile and inquisitive. I wish he was, unlike me, an adaptable man, for life is short and there’s no time for endless whining. That way, we could have seen more of those beautiful images through Ovid’s eyes.
The Black Sea, as Ovid saw it, exasperated, every winter:
Pictures from: Vapoare, English Russia, Goobix, Haioase.
All quotes from: Ovid. Tristia. Ex Ponto. Trans. Arthur Leslie Wheeler. London: Harvard University Press, 1988