Roasting the Emperor: Augustus as Phalaris In Ovid's Exile Poetry

Samuel J. Huskey

University of Oklahoma

Famous for roasting men alive in a bronze bull, Phalaris of Acragas earned a reputation as one of the cruelest tyrants in antiquity. Joined with him in legend is Perillus, who invented the bull and subsequently became its first victim. In several passages in the exile poetry, Ovid suggests that those who continue to sabotage his efforts to win a reprieve from exile should suffer the same fate as Perillus (i.e., that their schemes should backfire and harm only themselves).  By extension, however, the example of Perillus also creates an analogy that can hardly be seen as flattering the emperor, since it compares him to Phalaris.

Tr. 3.11, addressed to an anonymous enemy, marks the first appearance of Phalaris and Perillus in Ovid's work since Ars 1.653–654. Indeed, several verbal similarities suggest that Tr. 3.11.51–52 alludes to Ars 1.653–654: (repertor, Tr. 3.11.51 ~ auctor, Ars 1.654; imbue, Tr. 3.11.52 ~ imbuit, Ars 1.654; opus, Tr. 3.11.52 ~ opus, Ars 1.654). In both passages, Ovid depicts Phalaris not as cruel, but just, since he suitably disposed of someone who has devised an evil device. By comparison, Augustus would be just for similarly rewarding the addressee of Tr. 3.11. But what a comparison! In the Ars amatoria, Ovid invoked Phalaris' treatment of Perillus as justification for deceiving deceitful young women. Now, in Tr. 3.11, he has alluded to the same passage to suggest that Augustus should take Phalaris' example and punish Ovid's foes accordingly.

To compare Augustus to one of the cruelest tyrants and to do so while alluding to the very poem that raised Augustus' ire against Ovid in the first place seems at best foolish and at worst dangerous. Yet Ovid will make this same comparison, albeit more subtly, four more times in the exile poetry: Tr. 5.1.53–54, Ib. 435–438, Pont. 2.9.44, and Pont. 3.6.42. I shall examine all five passages in making my argument that Augustus is to be seen as an analogue of one of the worst tyrants in antiquity.


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