It is two thousand years since the poet, Ovid, died in a remote, uncivilized and cold boundary of the Roman Empire. Exile is not meant to be enjoyable and Ovid missed the pleasures of Roman life.
His relationship with the emperor, Augustus, and more specifically the power struggle between them is one that many writers have faced. A quick search online reveals lists of writers who have been censored and harassed. Prestige alone will not protect an author from severe punishment.
The cause of Ovid’s exile is mysterious but it seemed to stem from a clash between Augustus’s decrees on civic morality and Ovid’s facetious ridicule of the emperor’s policies. Dictators dislike mockery and Ovid lost to Augustus but the extent of Ovid’s power, or rather, his influence, his ideas, was seen as no small threat to the emperor.
Like many powerful figures Augustus was concerned about social cohesion; governing a compliant population poses less risk than one in which the state is questioned. Ovid’s imaginative satire diminished the emperor’s status; humor is a dangerous weapon, and it produces a potent feedback loop, encouraging ideas which corrode dictatorial supremacy.
Ovid admirer, Shakespeare, is probably the best English writer about power. He understood its range and force, its tone and allure, and also its transitory nature. Richard II traverses power’s vain omnipotence through to abject loss and ultimately to death. Prospero exercises magical power when his temporal power has been taken by his brother; Rosalind and her cousin, Celia, discover power in disguise and exile.
Lady Macbeth urges her hesitant husband to the throne, while Margaret of Anjou berates her spineless husband, Henry VI, to prosecute the full power at his command; Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus, exults in the dread power of her son and fears him when he is exiled. Then there is King Lear, who, still believed he was powerful even though he had vested the sources of power to his daughters, Goneril and Regan. And it is Lear’s fool who taunts him, the conscience, which sees past the status, and pulls him down to earth.
Writers often have the last word, it is a salutary concession, and it’s true of Ovid. Even though he was banished and endured parochial life, he kept writing; his texts, and the ideas, were read and debated by successive generations. For Augustus, and it goes for all of his descendants, omnipotence has a fixed duration. The fatuousness of censuring and imprisoning a vivid imagination is certain in the long run.
©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.