Thursday, February 17, 2011

Exile I

As I have called this experiment Written in Exile, I do feel I should write about the subject.  I am not going to write about the miserable lives of current refugees, or the great tides of humanity who have been displaced over the millenia by war, famine, natural disasters, political pressure or even economic desire.  There are far better qualified people to do that.  I am a writer and naturally, if apologetically, I am interested primarily in exiled writers and what they have had to say about the experience. 

It is possible that in fact, I am obsessed with homesickness and the idea of 'home' rather than strictly exile, but indulge my fantasy please and allow me to focus on exile.  Who knows, one day I may be brave enough to look into the murky chasm of home/homesickness and parochial joy, but not yet.

During the early Roman Imperial era, roughly 30 BCE to 150 CE (this is the time frame I know a little about, I haven't done much reading about the post Hadrian period), public life carried a number of hazards.  The most severe was the death sentence: public or private execution  or instructions to suicide, with or without the confiscation of all a man's wealth and estates.  ( I use 'man' and 'he' because apart from a few Imperial Princesses, the majority of exiles were men, as women had very restricted public lives and could be controlled by the paterfamilias and were rarely of concern to the State.)  The second most severe punishment for failing to please on one level or another, was the sentence of exile.  Sometimes exile was code for secret assassination.  Exile could be for a fixed term, say two years or ten years, more usually it was for life.  In some cases estates and riches were appropriated by the State, in others fines, penalties and 'taxes' were extracted and the exile was allowed to keep a portion of his wealth.

It is difficult for us to imagine the impact of exile on a civilised Roman.  To be cut off from home and family, the social life of friends and religious rites, business interests and politics (often very intertwined) would be hard enough, but some exiles were sent to barbarous regions which were unstable, unsafe, with miserable weather, no familiar culture; where the locals didn't speak Latin and the food was scarce and inedible.  Some exiles were kept under the scrutiny of the garrison, virtual prisoners, while others enjoyed more comfort as guests of a client king or a military governor.  Exiles were usually not allowed to travel from their place of exile without permission from Rome.  The isolation would be extreme.

Depending on the nature of the offence, after a number of years the exile might petition the Emperor for clemency and leave to return to Rome. 

The most famous petitioner must be Publius Ovidius Naso, whose works Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae Ex Pontus (Letters from the Black Sea) are full of the miseries of exile and pleadings for forgiveness for his unnamed 'error'.  Ovid wrote of the wretched weather and the frozen alien Danube in winter, the terrors of attacks from beyond the Imperial frontier, of the primitive food, of the lack of libraries and culture, of his loneliness.

Ovid was exiled in 8 CE and is presumed to have died in exile about ten years later.  He continued to write poetry, perhaps to maintain his sanity, perhaps to remind his friends and Emperor of the wit they were denied, but having no audience - in Ovid's day poetry was recited in performance rather than read silently, alone - was, he said, like dancing in the dark.

Some of his petitions for recall read as grovelling from our comfortable armchairs in air conditioned comfort.  Some are quite squirm-making, piteous and undignified.  We are less subject to arbitrary power and usually have means of appeal for wrongful treatment.  We are not accustomed to pleading our cases on our metaphorical knees.  For Ovid, there was only one man who condemned him and only one man who could release him:  Augustus.

Ovid outlived Augustus by three or four years but he was never granted his wish and did not return to Rome.

I hope you are not disappointed by this small introduction to Roman exiles and the diversion through Ovid, because  I really want to write about Seneca, another exiled poet.  Believe me, exile has not changed that much.

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