Hic barbarus ego sum. Ovid wrote this line from the coastal Black Sea city of Tomis (modern Constanta, Romania), where he was living as an exile. His portrait of Tomis is fairly bleak:
Quem tenet Euxini mendax cognomine litus,
et Scythici uere terra sinistra freti.
Innumerae circa gentes fera bella minantur,
quae sibi non rapto uiuere turpe putant.
I’m trapped by the shore of the Euxine, that misnomer,
And the truly sinister coast of the Scythian Sea.
Innumerable tribes round about threaten fierce war,
And think it’s a disgrace to exist without pillage. (Trans. by A.S. Klein)
Ovid comments that, in moving from the center to the periphery of the Roman world, he has himself been transposed—turned into a foreigner. He bitterly laments his inability to communicate with the Getae, whose lack of Latin forces him to rely on hand gestures. And he hates the climate of Tomis, which he characterizes as cold, frozen, and just terribly harsh.
Traveling forward some 1800 years, another exile came these shores. This was Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, the Russian poet whose importance can be summed up by the still-common aphorism, “Пушкшн- это наше всё” or “Puskhin is our everything.”
Pushkin was well aware of Ovid and his tradition of exilic poetry. Indeed, in the early 1820’s, he actually wrote a response to Ovid in the poem, “К Овидию” (To Ovid). His portrait of the Black Sea is pretty different than Ovid’s, right from the start:
Овидий, я живу близ тихих берегов,
Которым изгнанных отеческих богов…
Я повторил твои, Овидий, песнопенья
И их печальные картины поверял;
Но взор обманутым мечтаньям изменял.
Изгнание твое пленяло втайне очи,
Привыкшие к снегам угрюмой полуночи.
Здесь долго светится небесная лазурь;
Здесь кратко царствует жестокость зимних бурь. (К Овидию)
Ovid, I live near the quiet shores
To which you once brought your banished native gods…
I repeated your songs, Ovid,
And believed their sorrowful picture;
But my eyes were deceived by your reveries,
Your exile held me in thrall, mystified,
Since for me the gloomy northern snows were quite normal.
Here the heavenly azure is light for long periods of time,
Here the cruel winter storms reign only briefly. (Trans. Sandler, p. 40)
Pushkin points out that perceptions are relative. For Ovid, Tomis was a cold northern frontier. For Pushkin, from the far colder north, the Black Sea was more like a balmy paradise. But on a deeper level, Pushkin’s engagement with Ovid also has a lot to say about how centers and peripheries interact even across great swaths of time.
Pushkin, as he was well aware, was not descended from the Romans—from Ovid’s stock, but rather from one of the many groups of ‘barbarians’ (ie the mobile pastoralist nomads) who ranged across the Eurasian steppes, eventually becoming Slavs. And yet, in this poem, it is Pushkin who has the last word—the ‘barbarian’ northerner is able to not just speak to the ancient poet, but actually to correct him, and to set the record straight (See Hokanson 2005-6).
Ovid’s poem and the relationship between Pushkin and Ovid has been a touchstone for me in thinking about archaeology and history in the South Caucasus and Pontic world. There is a particularly interesting space that opens up between historical and cultural traditions in this area—a profound and multi-faceted ‘cultural contact’ that challenges our perceptions of the past. Like Ovid and Pushkin both, we find ourselves transposed, and struggling to make ourselves clear across the (metaphorical and actual) chasms that separate both the scholarly traditions and the historical realities of the Pontic zone.
This is a tremendously productive discomfort—it pushes back against long-held interpretations of history in really useful ways. My goal in this digital space is to explore some of these threads.