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Vintila Horia: Dieu est né en exil (God Was Born in Exile)

In 9 A.D. Emperor Augustus sent the poet Ovid into exile to Tomis, a remote place on the fringes of the Roman Empire, which is now Constanța in modern-day Romania. Some eighteen months ago, I visited Constanța. Apart from a modern statue outside the museum, there is no trace of Ovid’s presence, no archaeological finds such as a grave, though it is generally believed he died there. This is the fourth book on my website about Ovid’s exile but the first by a Romanian. I am aware of only one other Romanian novel on the topic, Titus Cergău’s Insula lui Ovidiu, which has not been translated into any other language.

Horia wrote this book in French, as other Romanian writers did with their books. It purports to to be the diary of Ovid which has, of course, been lost, if, indeed, it ever existed.

We open at a bad time for Ovid, as it is bitterly cold and the wolves are howling. Indeed, one wolf entered the town and killed an old woman before it was killed by others. Apart from the weather, Ovid bemoans his fate. He kept hoping that Augustus and his successor Tiberius would pardon him. They do not. He hopes that they will perhaps transfer his exile to somewhere more pleasant such as a Greek island or even Sicily. They do not. He does not give up hoping. He blames Julia, Augustus’ elder daughter, as he feels that, at least in part, he is taking the blame for her well-known immoral behaviour. He writes to various people, including his wife,Flavia, who has been allowed to stay in Rome, asking them to intervene but, if they do, they are not successful.

He does do some writing but one way he keeps himself amused is by thinking of all his past girlfriends (there were quite a few) and their various adventures. Inevitably, despite limited offerings, he indulges while in Tomis. There is Artemis, the local prostitute and then, later, Lydia, a much younger woman (he is around fifty) whom he catches in bed with his friend, the local barkeeper.

He also thinks about his life in Rome. As he was a successful poet, he is quite rich. However, he particularly enjoyed parties, particularly when they led to orgies, as was often the case. He name-drops various friends such as Horace and Propertius. In short, he enjoyed the good life.

The local tribe near Tomis was the Getae and we see them in various contexts. He has a servant, Dokia, who is from the tribe and who, he will later discover, is a single mother, living with her father. He gradually learns Getic. The Getae attack Tomis later in the book. Ovid, who is seemingly a pacifist (mildly, but only mildly criticised by Honorius, his minder, for this) takes up arms (a bow and arrow) and fires at them. He will later be told by Dokia’s father that they were attacking purely because they were starving and wanted food.

The father comments You who cultivate words as I cultivate the ground why don’t you invent the word of peace?, to which Ovid responds we shall seek it long years yet for it is not a thing that is invented.

He gradually becomes more sympathetic to the Dokia. He is particularly interested in their religion,which is monotheistic, worshipping Zalmoxis. Indeed, he seems to consider rejecting the Roman polytheism and becoming monotheistic, as does Honorius. Given that much is made of this, I cannot help feeling it is a not very subtle promotion of Christianity which did not, of course, exist at that time.

There was one other famous, albeit legendary visitor to Tomis – Medea and Ovid ruminates on her and Jason.

Ovid does seem to change over the years. He manages to get away and essentially does a tour of the area, focussing on what is now Romania, giving Horia an opportunity to promote Romania, though he visits places which are now essentially ruins. He meets the people and is impressed with two things. Firstly there are a few Roman soldiers who have deserted and now live as locals and much prefer to do so, as they are more or less their own masters. Secondly, he very much takes to the locals, i.e. the future Romanians. I learned more in a few weeks than in all the rest of my life. I saw purity and death , I saw suffering and the simplest joie de vivre; there, the secret of life and death was partly revealed to me.

He also follows the geopolitics as, during his time in Tomis, we see the movements of the Sarmatians and Scythians and the various attacks and counterattacks of the Romans and the locals. We Romans are advancing everywhere in order to ensure a peace that escapes between our fingers, while the barbarians attack us from all sides in order to prevent our advancing.

We also follow his writing. During his period in exile he wrote three major works: Ibis, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (as well as a few minor works). Though we see the occasional excerpts and he makes a few comments on them, they are not the key to this story. The death of Augustus and his not entirely straightforward succession also play a role.

What does become key – and this is undoubtedly the weak point of this book – is his unashamed promotion of monotheism and Christianity. The Roman doctor is called Theodore and he had travelled. While in Egypt he had come across the concept of the trinity, with Isis, Horus and Osiris. He is very impressed, though why is not clear. It gets worse. He goes to Judea and happens to be in Bethlehem, when Jesus is allegedly born. He is told that he is the Messiah (there were lots of Messiahs at that time and I do not think even the bible has him hailed as such by the general population at his birth). He tells Ovid and Ovid immediately becomes Christian years before there was Christianity. (Ovid died 17/18 A.D.) It is so unconvincing and unlikely that, I must say, it was a major deterrent to enjoying what to that point had been quite an interesting book.

So, in conclusion, we have Ovid, the wild, party-loving, immoral poet becoming both a Christian and a Romania lover. There is, of course, no historical evidence for this whatsoever. Yes, it is a novel and Horia is, of course, entitled to speculate but when his speculation essentially amount to propaganda, this reader found it very off-putting.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Fayard
First published in English by St. Martin’s Press in 1960
Translated by Arthur Lytton Sells