Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office | April 19, 2020
At one point in Ovid’s “Tristia,” a series of elegies about the poet’s exile from Rome at the hands of the Emperor Augustus, he deploys an unusual literary device: A book written by Ovid becomes the narrator, representing Ovid’s own hopes for a lasting return to Roman public life.
First the book goes to a “high and shining temple” — Augustus’ own library — but is ordered to leave. The book tries to enter another library and is barred as well. Then it visits a third, without luck.
However, the book reflects, “since a public resting-place is closed to me, may it be granted me to lie hidden in some private spot” — a private book collection, where Ovid’s work might live on. “You too, hands of the people, receive, if you may, our verses dismayed by the shame of their rejection.”
A strong grasp of Ovid’s imaginative flight in the “Tristia” requires both literary analysis and knowledge of the material culture of Roman writing. Indeed, it helps to have the background of MIT literature professor and classicist Stephanie Frampton. Over the last decade, Frampton has become a leading global expert on the interplay between physical forms of writing and the generation of literature and learning in ancient times.
Knowing the history of the Roman book, for starters, can help with understanding the “Tristia.” When Ovid was writing it, around 10 C.E., there were three “public” libraries in Rome — not open to everyone, but places where books could circulate. Those books, incidentally, were usually papyrus scrolls, whose physical existence was tenuous, depending on those scrolls being copied and recopied over time.
Even in less fraught circumstances, then, “authors in antiquity were incredibly sensitive to the fact that their survival was dependent on the maintenance of their works in physical form,” as Frampton writes in her 2019 book “Empire of Letters,” a close study of materiality and writing in the Roman world.