Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.09


John F. Miller, Ovid's Elegiac Festivals. Studien zur klassischen Philologie 55. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1991. Pp. 192.


Reviewed by Elizabeth Block, Philadelphia, PA.

This book aims "to contribute to the rehabilitation of the Fasti as a work of art" (4), by studying Ovid's presentation of Roman sacra. Miller's focus on ritual differs from that of many earlier critics, who were largely concerned to determine Ovid's accuracy and reliability in the depiction of Roman rites. Miller suggests that "the extent to which, and the manner in which, Ovid reflects contemporary cultic realities would surely play an important role in the aesthetic experience of ancient readers... " (4). Through close readings of the prooemia and selected passages, Miller intends to show the effects of the poet's shifting and the resultant polytonality of the poem.

This variation can be achieved in multiple ways, through shifts in persona or perspective, for example, or by treading more or less close to the line between humor and irony, seriousness and satire. Ovid's fascination with the possibilities, challenges, and problems of such reworking is evident in the Fasti as in his other works. The Metamorphoses, the Ars Amatoria and the Remedia Amoris, as well as the Heroides, all play, in a way that is not always attractive to modern readers, with variation of a single concept. Just as the themes of these poems had been treated by earlier poets before Ovid's ingenuity sucked them dry, so the religious, or aetiological concerns of the Fasti have literary ancestors. Ovid defines "the Fasti's place within the tradition of Roman elegy, as well as to some extent the larger tradition of Callimacheanism" (6).

In the first chapter, Miller examines the prooemium to book 1, dedicated to Germanicus. He is less concerned to point up the textual history of this dedication (treated in the appendix) than to discover Ovid's allusions, beginning with the first couplet, both to Callimachus and to the aetiological poems in Propertius' fourth book. Like Callimachus, Ovid presents himself in the persona of a scholar poet, generally present at the rites, and concerned to describe the rituals of the Roman year as well as explain their origins. Like Propertius he proposes to Romanize these themes within the elegiac tradition. But Ovid increases the scope of both models, expanding the temporal focus as well as the subjects of narrative. The dedication predicts calendrical honors for Germanicus and his family, and at the same time promises to treat Augustus' religious festivals rather than his military campaigns. Yet, again in the tradition of Propertius, Ovid also embraces imperial panegyric. The difficulty for the reader is that his approach (to the Augustan program in general) "ranges widely ... from the serious to the perfunctory to the downright comic" (14). While the promise of an elegiac poem on national topics blurs the traditional distinction between elegy and epic, Ovid is careful to express his distance from the epic topic of arma. Instead arma and ara are "symbols of style" (13) alluding both to traditional epic themes as treated by Vergil, and to the elegiac model of Propertius 4. As Miller points out, this simultaneous embracing and dismissing of epic themes itself has many literary models of which Ovid was doubtless aware. Both Ovid's fans and his detractors are quite familiar with the fluidity of his tone -- the fundamental refusal to be categorized as a poet of this or that -- even as he proudly says all that could possibly be said about this or that.

The proem to Fasti 2 complements and supplements the general prooem -- its original shape and intent are not crucial to Miller. In it Ovid declares that he is "in the very process of surpassing" Propertius, by actually doing what his model had only promised. He is simultaneously indebted to Propertius, and proud to point out how, within the tradition he evokes, he is truly primus (21). Similarly, Ovid alludes to his own earlier poetry (especially Am. 3.1) apparently to depreciate love elegy, and to draw attention to the fact that he is now (Fasti 2) giving it up. But in typical Ovidian fashion, the denial masks, and at the same time is integral with, a "proud boast" (23). Ovid wants his reader to believe that he is treating greater themes, at the same time that he has achieved continuity with his earlier work. Ovid himself was a poet sufficiently sophisticated to know that it is not possible for a writer to sever himself from his past; like a snail, he makes his own trail, no matter how often he turns to erase it. We should not be surprised if, in the programmatic act of announcing his progress, he wants us to recall, and appreciate the present relevance of, his past.

Ovid further places the Fasti in the context of his own literary past while insistently defining the nature of his service to Augustus: haec mea militia est: ferimus quae possumus arma (F. 2.9). The resonances of this disclaimer are many: we remember both Propertius' similar elegiac disclaimer (1.6.29-30) and Ovid's own (Am. 1.9), both statements of a venerable elegiac pose. Here Ovid goes further with a sneer at those who fight real wars, but backs off quickly by addressing Augustus deferentially. In Miller's words: "One might say that Ovid's image of the Fasti as his militia nearly deconstructs itself" (28). It is this shifting ground that I think was for Ovid most compelling, most demanding, and ultimately most dangerous; for when he wanted, in the Tristisa, Epistulae ex Ponto, and possibly in the revision of the Fasti, to make himself simply and unequivocally clear, he could not do it.

With this equivocal tone in mind, Miller continues in chapter 1 to analyze the remaining four prooemia, finding in them evidence of Ovid's own sense of being "both inventor of the Latin calendrical poem and the daring soul who first handles matters of significance with the meager equipment of elegy" (42-43). Miller demonstrates how Ovid develops these claims through allusion to his own and other poetic models.

Chapter 2 concentrates on two poems from Am. 3, arguing that their treatment of sacra anticipates the techniques of the Fasti. In the Amores Ovid introduced religious themes, even though he cannot be called a religious poet, because he is a "poet who more than any other treated love in an explicitly Roman context" (45) which almost inevitably elicits descriptions of the religious life of the City. In Am. 3.2, Ovid famously uses the pompa circensis as a tool of seduction. Presenting a "ritual in progress" (49), the lover assumes the persona of a "master of ceremonies." While this pose is common to poets such as Callimachus, Catullus, Propertius, and Tibullus, Ovid's innovation is the emphasis on a "public and official urban ceremony," and the eroticization of "the very rationale for assuming the persona of ritual director" (50).

This stance maintains "the dominant, humorous perspective on sacra in Ovid's erotic elegies" (50), and must be contrasted to Am. 3.13, the only non-erotic elegy in the collection. The elegy describes a trip, with his wife, to a religious festival in Falerii. Miller analyses the poem in terms of its treatment of ritual, a "combination of description, aetiology and the stance of a curious, appreciative observer" (53). Instead of exploring the precise purpose of the rites, Ovid "recreates the spectacle" (55). The position of this poem near the end of the collection seems to Miller to mirror the development from erotic elegy to the Fasti. Certainly Am. 3.13 is striking in its departure from the erotic. What I miss here is an attempt to explain why Ovid's emotional focus was changing (however slowly) while his technique remained much the same. The kind of close reading upon which Miller relies is little help in discovering such explanations.

Chapter 3 begins by examining the introductory description of Janus. "Ovid's account of the year's first religious ceremonies introduces presentational modes that will reappear throughout the poem ... [and] relate to ... Ovid's earlier elegiac versions of sacra and ... the programmatic concerns ... [of the] prologues" (58). Again a linear reading of the passage discovers a shifting tonality, references to earlier treatments (Am. 3.2 and 13, the Aetia and Propertius book 4), and a deliberately general introduction to the concerns of the rest of the Fasti. Ovid acts as a master of ceremonies, and observer and a supervisor of ritual in progress. This observer, introducing Roman festival in general through his "cinematic" (70) presentation, is paradigmatic of Ovid's various personae in the Fasti.

Miller argues that Ovid's presentation of the Robigalia exemplifies this perspective. It also demonstrates how Ovid treats the details of ritual to emphasize the humorous possibilities in his material. The priest's prayer invokes the Augustan programme by conjoining agricultural prosperity and peace, but also comes close to sacrilege in suggesting that Robigo could "violate" Ceres (79). Miller points out how the ironic tone of Ovid's version of the Robigalia is a development of the Falerii elegy, but he does not touch upon the vexed question of intent. It is difficult to know just how outrageous Ovid meant to be, and how much control over his tone he had. He was fascinated by a technique of witty elaboration that pervades his poetry and is so integral to it that perhaps he cannot change the tone even when he must.

The answers to these questions are made more difficult by the frequent variations in tone that are achieved through changes in persona. Miller shows that the Magalensia, for example, recalls the humorous stance of Am. 3.2. Here Ovid juxtaposes the Phrygian and the Roman aspects of the Magna Mater. As in the description of the Robigalia, strange and exotic rites are elucidated by a curious scholar-poet engaged in an aetiological dialogue with a deity. But the detached curiosity of the Callimachean model is humanized by humor, when the interrogator shrinks from the procession's noise. Miller sees here a comic pattern that derives from Ovid's love elegies, and in this he is doubtless correct. I think, however, that the pattern has as much to do with Ovid's use of humor at serious moments (as in the Metamorphoses or even the Heroides) as with a continuum with the Amores. The subject of development and continuity upon which Miller concentrates, is less simple than his presentation suggests. What is in evidence here is Ovid's problematic humor, no less obscure in its motives to us than to his contemporaries.

The familial celebration of the Caristia, Miller argues, is fundamentally serious, but again colored by Ovidian humor, albeit fleeting. Ovid presents a concrete illustration of familial impietas (93), based on Greek mythologies. The length of the list is not, argues Miller, evidence of the Ovidian faults attacked by critics since Quintilian, but rather an element "in a planned poetic design" (94) that introduces irony and humor. I think that the complexities of tone here go even deeper. Whether the list is intended to be ingenious and witty, or serious and moralistic, it should be read in conjunction with Virgil's presentation of Roman impieties at the close of Aen. 6 (and even with the figures on the shield in book 8). If he had these passages in mind, Ovid achieved both a curious reGreekifying of Roman ritual, and (if Miller is right about the humor) a parody of Vergil's Augustanism.

Miller finds humor in irony (he never clearly defines the Ovidian significance of these terms) to be pervasive, but "over all, the humor and wit in the Fasti express Ovid's bemused detachment from the religious world that he observes, but which he also find endearing and engaging" (99). The ways that the comedic undermines serious matters is consistent, argues Miller, with the tone of the Amores and the Ars Amatoria. He discussed the merchants' festival on the Ides of May as a parody, which derives in part from allusion to Horace's poem to Mercury (O. 1.10). Miller's close reading assumes a similar detailed familiarity with the model on the part of the reader. Such knowledge, surely, is variable among centuries of readers. Miller juxtaposes this reading with a brief one of the magic rites of the dies parentales in February.

Miller's final chapter argues that in the Fasti Ovid shows greater sympathy for Rome's rural past, and present, than he did in the love elegies. His presentation of popular rituals observed in both the City and the country typically emphasizes the rustic aspects. For Miller, while this perspective is the most powerful demonstration of Ovidian humanitas, it is also evidence of the poet's ironic detachment, for he is not a country poet. Ovid derives important elements of his treatment of popular festivals from Tibullus. Miller shows that in his first description of a rustic festival, the Feriae Sementivae, Ovid closely imitates the first poem of Tibullus' second book. By doing so, he intends a tribute to his colleague, and also a programmatic statement about his own intention to follow "the tradition of Tibullus" (116), in recording the year's agricultural rites. These will include the Parilia and the Terminalia, "one of the most effective descriptions of simple rustic piety in all Latin literature" (120). In his treatment of this ritual, Ovid relates "public and private, urban and rural, versions of the same feast" (124), suggesting in his discussion of boundaries, the boundless, the boundless dominion of the Roman world.

The mastery with which Ovid combines the personal and the public, the country and the City, humor and seriousness, aetiology and vivid description, are typified for Miller by the passage on Anna Perenna. Miller's approach, too, is typified by this example, for it is a close reading made to fit generalized arguments. It leads him to an almost inevitable conclusion, in which he shows that Ovid's debts to his own and others' earlier poetry, his ironic stance even toward his own persona, his fascination with variation in tone and perspective, allow us to view Augustus' Rome through shifting prisms.

Miller's two basic ideas, that the Fasti develops techniques of love elegy while creating an innovating Roman aetiological poem, are the thread that holds together these "Studies in the Fasti." His readings suggest the strengths as literature of an underappreciated poem, and most of his arguments are both compelling and learned. It is Miller's own irony that this attempt to bring to life a strange, even inaccessible, poem demonstrates its variety, humor, liveliness, and complexity, but shares too its general monotony. This book assumes more learning on the part of its reader than most college students will have, but could profitably be used in conjunction with Miller's commentary on Fasti 2 in the Bryn Mawr series.