Ovid: The Night of Exile, Tristia 1.3 (From Latin)

In 8 AD, Ovid was exiled from Rome by Caesar Augustus for reasons that are not altogether clear. This poem is a (clearly immensely stylized) retelling of his final tear-sodden night in Rome before leaving for Tomis, in the yet unsettled Roman province of Moesia (modern-day Constanta, Romania) to which he had been exiled. There, in banishment, he would ultimately die, never seeing his wife or hometown again.

The Night of Exile, Tristia 1.3
By Ovid
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

When once again the mind is filled with shades      
   Of my final night in dear sweet Rome,
Recalling the night I gave up so much I cherished,   
   A tear even now begins to flow.

Dawn was at hand. By Caesar's fiat I had to   
   Depart for the frontier, come day.1
I'd found no time to prepare, nor inclination,   
   My will was lulled by long delays.
I had not bothered with slaves, or choice of attendants,   
   Nor clothes, nor the gear an exile needs,
Stunned as one struck by a bolt of Jove's own thunder   
   Who survives, unconscious that he still breathes.

But when sheer force of grief blew that fog off my spirit   
   And at last my stricken senses returned,
Before leaving, I had last words with the grieving few   
   Friends I still had of the many that were.
I wept in the arms of my wife who wept still harder.
   Tears streaked those cheeks that didn't deserve this.
My daughter, faraway in Africa couldn't   
   Be told what fate I would now endure.
Wherever I turned: more moaning, mourning. It seemed   
   A funeral with no moment of silence.
My wife, my son and slaves all grieved my passing.   
   Each nook had its tears. A house fell crying.
To gloss the small with the grand: Troy looked like this   
   When it fell that night in Aeneas' eyes.2

Now all was still. Not a stir of dog or man,   
   As Lady Moon rode her nightly way.
And in her beams I watched the Capitoline    
   So near my home, but near in vain,
And cried "High Powers who dwell in that citadel,   
   Temples I'll see no more with my eyes,
Gods of my Rome that I must now abandon,   
   Farewell now and for all of time!
Though I now take up the shield while already wounded   
   Yet lift hate's burden from this exile.
And tell that Godly Man3 what error snared me,   
   That he not think my failing a crime,
That my exile's architect feel all that you know.   
   With godhead appeased, no grief is mine."
Such was my prayer to the gods. My wife's were many,   
   Sobs choking her every word apart.
Disheveled she fell before our family shrine,   
   Pressed trembling lips to the cold dead hearth,
And poured great prayer to no avail for her husband.   
   For our household gods were no longer ours.
The fast-ebbing night left no time for further delay.   
   The Star-bear was wheeling round his axis.
What could I do? I'd held off for love of my country,   
   But this night had been decreed my last.
Oh the times I told my friends "Why hurry? Think   
   Where to, and where from you're rushing me!"
The times I lied to myself and others, swearing   
   I'd picked a proper hour to leave.
Thrice did I cross the threshold, thrice turned back,   
   The power of intention slowing my feet.
Often I'd say goodbye and go back to talking,   
   Then once again kiss all goodbye.
Often I'd give the same self-deluded instructions,   
   Then back to my loved ones turned my eyes.
At last I said "Why rush? It's Scythia4 I leave for,   
   And Rome I leave. Two reasons to stay.
I live, yet my living wife is denied me forever   
   With my sweet household, its loyal members,
And all the attendants I loved as would a brother,   
   Hearts bound to mine in a Thesean5 faith!
This may be my last chance to embrace them ever.   
   Best make the most of what remains."
Then I turned and left my words unfinished to hug   
   Each of my loved ones. No delay.

But as I spoke and we wept, the Star of Morrow   
   Had risen bright, but boding bane.
I was ripped asunder as if I'd lost a limb.   
   Something of me was torn away,
As Mettus6 when steeds avenging his betrayal   
   Were driven apart, and tore him in half.
My kinfolk then in a climax of clamorous weeping   
   Beat bare breasts with grieving hands.
And when at last I was leaving, my poor wife clasped me   
   With one last desperate, tear-drenched plea:
"They can't tear you away. Let us go together,   
   As exile and exile's wife. Take me!
Your journey is mine. There's room for me at an outpost.   
   I'll make small weight on your ship at sea,
You, exiled by Caesar's wrath, and I by loyal   
   Love. Let love be a Caesar to me."7
So she tried as she had tried before to convince me,   
   And yielded only to practical need.8 
I went a corpse without procession, in rags,   
   Hair strewn about my unshaven cheeks.

I'm told she fainted from grief, mind plunged in dark,   
   And fell half-dead right there in our house.
When she came round, with disheveled dust-fouled hair,   
   Staggering up from the cold hard ground,
She wept for herself, for a house abandoned, screaming   
   Her stolen man's name time after time,
Wailing as though she'd witnessed our daughter's body   
   Or mine, upon the high-stacked pyre;
And longed for death, to kill the horror and hardship,   
   Yet out of regard for me she lived.
Long may she live! And in life give aid to her absent   
   Love, whose exile the Fates have willed. 


1 - The original Latin literally reads "depart from the farthest boundaries of Ausonia." Ausonia, originally a Greek term for a particular region in southern Italy, is a literary archaism used in Greek and Latin poetry to refer to all of Italy. (Compare English poetic use of "Hellas" for Greece, or "Cathay" for China.) For Ovid it would have had strong associations with the Aeneid, as it is frequently used there as a term for Italy as a storied "promised land" sought by the exiled Aeneas. Ovid in exile is using a term for Italy which implies distance and unattainability, as well as longing.

2 - This is the most overt, but not the only, indication in this poem that Ovid perceives his exile as a kind of reverse-Aeneid. Throughout the poem, there are a great many linguistic and thematic echoes, subtle and not, of Virgil. Though the precise instances need not all detain the Anglophone reader, it is worth noting that the entire poem borrows from the language and rhetorical toolkit of epic, including the disjointed narrative structure, to treat a deeply personal matter, which epics typically do not.

3 - "Godly Man" i.e. Caesar Augustus

4 - Ovid's exile was not actually in Scythia, but he uses the term in opposition to Rome because of its associations of barbarity, harshness, remoteness, and in short, everything Rome was not.

5 - Theseus' legendary love for his friend Pīrithous had become proverbial by this point. Theseus eventually lost his friend to the underworld, and despite all dedication was unable to rescue him. Ovid's companions cannot go with him into exile. The reference is simultaneously to the depth of attachment, and to how powerless that bond has ultimately proven.

6 - Mettus Fufetius, Alban leader torn to pieces by order of Tullius Hostilius as punishment for treachery. His body was tied to two different chariots which were driven in opposite directions.

7 -The term translated as "loyal love" is pietās. Pietās in Latin is one of those words (like Russian toská or Persian ɣayrat or Portuguese Saudade) which is both readily understood by the language's user and also quite difficult to translate. The closest English word approximation is probably "devotion." It is however devotion not only as a state of being, but as a moral virtue, encompassing ideas of duty, loyalty and selfless love, devotion to one's kin, one's deities, one's countrymen, or the Roman state, and to doing right by them.

8 - Practical need: i.e. she must stay behind to watch over his interests in Rome, and also attempt to help get Ovid's exile rescinded so that he might return. It never was. Ovid never saw his wife, children or hometown again.


Cum subit illīus trīstissima noctis imāgō   
      quā mihi suprēmum tempus in Urbe fuit,
cum repetō noctem quā tot mihi cāra relīquī,
      lābitur ex oculīs nunc quoque gutta meīs.

Iam prope lūx aderat quā mē discēdere Caesar
      fīnibus extrēmae iusserat Ausoniae.
Nec spatium nec mēns fuerat satis apta parandī:
      torpuerant longā pectora nostra morā.
Nōn mihi servōrum, comitis nōn cūra legendī,
      nōn aptae profugō vestis opisve fuit.
Nōn aliter stupuī quam quī Iovis ignibus īctus
      vīvit et est vītae nescius ipse suae.
Ut tamen hanc animī nūbem dolor ipse remōvit,
      et tandem sēnsūs convaluēre meī,
alloquor extrēmum maestōs abitūrus amīcōs
      quī modo dē multīs ūnus et alter erant.
Uxor amāns flentem flēns ācrius ipsa tenēbat,
      imbre per indignās usque cadente genās.
Nāta procul Libycīs aberat dīversa sub ōrīs,
      nec poterat fātī certior esse meī.
Quōcumque aspicerēs lūctūs gemitūsque sonābant,
      fōrmaque nōn tacitī fūneris intus erat.
Fēmina virque meō puerī quoque fūnere maerent,
      inque domō lacrimās angulus omnis habet.
Sī licet exemplīs in parvīs grandibus ūtī,
      haec faciēs Troiae cum caperētur erat.

Iamque quiēscēbant vōcēs hominumque canumque, 
      Lūnaque nocturnōs alta regēbat equōs.
Hanc ego suspiciēns et ab hāc Capitōlia cernēns,
      quae nostrō frūstrā iūncta fuēre Larī,
"Nūmina vīcīnīs habitantia sēdibus," inquam,
      "iamque oculīs numquam templa videnda meīs,
dīque relinquendī, quōs urbs habet alta Quirīnī,
      este salūtātī tempus in omne mihi.
Et quamquam sērō clipeum post vulnera sūmō,
      attamen hanc odiīs exonerāte fugam:
caelestīque virō, quis mē dēcēperit error,
      dīcite, prō culpā nē scelus esse putet.
Ut quod vōs scītis, poenae quoque sentiat auctor:
      plācātō possum nōn miser esse deō."

Hāc prece adōrāvī superōs ego, plūribus uxor,
      singultū mediōs impediente sonōs.
Illa etiam ante Larēs passīs adstrāta capillīs
      contigit extīnctōs ōre tremente focōs,
multaque in adversōs effūdit verba Penātēs
      prō dēplōrātō nōn valitūra virō.
Iamque morae spatium nox praecipitāta negābat,
      versaque ab axe suō Parrhasis Arctos erat.
Quid facerem? Blandō patriae retinēbar amōre,
      ultima sed iussae nox erat illa fugae.
Ā! Quotiēns aliquō dīxī properante "quid urgēs?
      vel quō fēstīnās īre, vel unde, vidē."
Ā! Quotiēns certam mē sum mentītus habēre
      hōram, prōpositae quae foret apta viae.
Ter līmen tetigī, ter sum revocātus, et ipse
     indulgēns animō pēs mihi tardus erat.
Saepe "valē" dictō rūrsus sum multa locūtus,
      et quasi discēdēns ōscula summa dedī,
saepe eadem mandāta dedī mēque ipse fefellī,
      respiciēns oculīs pignora cāra meīs.

Dēnique "quid properō? Scythia est, quō mittimur," inquam,
      "Rōma relinquenda est, utraque iūsta mora est.
Uxor in aeternum vīvō mihi vīva negātur,
      et domus et fīdae dulcia membra domūs,
quōsque ego dīlēxī frāternō mōre sodālēs,
      ō mihi Thēsēā pectora iūncta fidē!
dum licet, amplectar: numquam fortasse licēbit
      amplius. In lūcrō est quae datur hōra mihi."
Nec mora. Sermōnis verba imperfecta relinquō,
      complectēns animō proxima quaeque meō.

Dum loquor et flēmus, caelō nitidissimus altō,
      stēlla gravis nōbīs, Lūcifer ortus erat.
Dīvidor haud aliter, quam sī mea membra relinquam,
      et pars abrumpī corpore vīsa suō est.
Sīc doluit Mettus tunc cum in contrāria versōs
      ultōrēs habuit prōditiōnis equōs.
Tum vērō exoritur clāmor gemitūsque meōrum,
      et feriunt maestae pectora nūda manūs.
Tum vērō coniūnx umerīs abeuntis inhaerēns
      miscuit haec lacrimīs trīstia verba meīs:
"nōn potes āvellī. Simul hinc, simul ībimus:" inquit,
      "tē sequar et coniūnx exulis exul erō.
Et mihi facta via est, et mē capit ultima tellūs:
      accēdam profugae sarcina parva ratī.
Tē iubet ē patriā discēdere Caesaris īra,
      mē pietās. Pietās haec mihi Caesar erit."
Tālia temptābat, sīcut temptāverat ante,
      vixque dedit victās ūtilitāte manūs.
Ēgredior, sīve illud erat sine fūnere ferrī,
      squālidus immissīs hirta per ōra comīs.

Illa dolōre āmēns tenebrīs nārrātur obortīs
      sēmjanimis mediā prōcubuisse domō,
utque resurrēxit foedātis pulvere turpī
      crīnibus et gelidā membra levāvit humō,
sē modo, dēsertōs modo complōrāsse Penātēs,
      nōmen et ēreptī saepe vocāsse virī,
nec gemuisse minus, quam sī nātaeve meumve
      vīdisset strūctōs corpus habēre, rogōs,
et voluisse morī, moriendō pōnere sēnsus,
      respectūque tamen nōn periisse meī.
Vīvat, et absentem, quoniam sīc fāta tulērunt,
      vīvat et auxiliō sublevet usque suō.

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