Epic and History in Ovid Pont. IV 7
Case Western Reserve University
In Pont. IV 7 Ovid recounts that the frontier post of Aegyssus was captured by the Getae and then re-taken by a Roman contingent led by the centurion Iulius Vestalis who sailed down the Danube (27) and attacked the settlement (33-40) which was very inaccessible because it was located on a hilltop (24). After an epic style battle the Romans win and re-take the strong point. Gareth Williams in his influential book Banished Voices. Readings in Ovid's Exile Poetry, Cambridge 1994, reaches the conclusion that "Ovid is simply not to be trusted'' and that "we must take P. 4.7 to be fundamentally ironic" (p.41).
Ovid clearly describes the battle for Aegyssus in epic terms: the town reaches the clouds (24). The armor is flashing (30), the defenders hurl stones down as if in a hailstorm (34) and spears and arrows on top (35-6). Iulius Vestalis is driven by glory like Homer s Sarpedon (40). He is also compared to Ajax (41-2) and tramples a pile of dead enemies (47). Vestalis is the right man for this action since he had previously turned the river Danube read with the blood of enemies (19-20), another epic motif.
It must be assumed that Ovid was nowhere near these events when they occurred, if they occurred at all which Williams seriously doubts. Yet before we reduce all Roman poetry to a cerebral exercise conducted by a handful of extremely well-read bookworms, we need to entertain at least the possibility that the event reported by Ovid did in fact occur. Even if Ovid's account relies on hearsay rather than autopsy and casts it in epic terms.
With Ovid's account as well as Williams s skepticism in mind I travelled to the town of Tulcea, the modern name of Aegyssus, on 15th April 2004. Today the town serves tourists, naturalists and hunters as a gateway into the Danube delta, Europe s largest remaining wilderness. Topographically, the southern bank of the Danube slopes quite steeply towards the river and would be very hard to take for any aggressor coming across or down the river. But the ancient settlement was located on a tall rocky mountain which towers over the town and the river. Today it is crowned by a monument to the Romanian war of independence against the Ottomans. A little further down the hill one can find the archaeological museum with astonishing remains from the frontier posts on the lower Danube. Behind the museum, well hidden from the average tourist, are some excavations of the Roman fort. The visible remains probably date to a time after Ovid but leave no doubt as to where the Romans were stationed. What is also striking is the great number of dolia displayed along the hillside.
Two important tactors emerged from visiting this site:
1. This hill forms a natural strongpoint on the river. Whoever controls it, controls the shipping on the southernmost arm of the Danube. This hill was extremely hard to seize for an aggressor because of the steep drop on almost all sides.
2. The site was definitely used as a storage facility in later years and it is no wild guess to assume that that was one ot its functions in Ovid's time.
If one further considers that Aegyssus was the second or maybe third Roman settlement from the Black Sea coast and that there were dozens of fortifications all along the Danube (P. MacKendrick The Dacian Stones Speak, Chapel Hill 1975, 22), the picture sketched in encomiastic terms by Ovid becomes much clearer. The Roman fortresses were invariablv in strategic, but inaccessible positions. They had to be supplied from the sea by way of the Danube. If Aegyssus served as a storage facility, anybody who took it from the Romans threatened the entire lower Danube border and therefore the whole Dobrudja. Vestalis must therefore have been in command of a camp further upstream which was cut off from its supplies by the barbarian aggressors. Apparently, he took matters in his own hands and restored the supply-line for himself as well as the whole frontier. Ovid's second-hand, epic-style account omits the military logistics and rather celebrates and exaggerates the natural inaccessibility of the fort at Aegyssus, the bravery of the soldiers who re-captured it against all the odds and their commander who happened to be the son of M. Iulius Cottius and grandson of Donnus, the king of Alpine tribes in Liguria (R. Syme, Historv in Ovid, Oxtord 1978, 82-3).
Rather than dismissing the episode as a piece of literary fabrication, I therefore would take it as a "fragment of reality" in the sense of W. Iser, "Akte des Fingierens oder Was ist das Fiktive im fiktionalen Text?" in Funktionen des Fiktiven. ed. D. Henrich, W. Iser . Munich 1983, 121-51. Ovid combines this "Realitatsfragment" with some obviously epic themes to form an aesthetic unit which draws attention to a deeper reality. viz. the lack of pax Augusta on the lower Danube. the vulnerability of the frontier and of himself.
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