Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.08.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.08.03

Maurizio Bettini, Il dio elegante: Vertumno e la religione romana. Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi. Nuova serie, 645.   Torino:  Giulio Einaudi editore, 2015.  Pp. ix, 221.  ISBN 9788806220211.  €24.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Tyler T. Travillian, Pacific Lutheran University (

cartis doctis … et laboriosis!

Bettini’s incredibly thorough study of Vertumnus—“the elegant god,” as our author terms him—fills a notable gap in the scholarship. From the modern perspective, Vertumnus is a minor god with only sporadic attestation, but he was especially important in Augustan-era poetry, with Varro even telling us that he was “deus Etruriae princeps”.1 The name “Vertumnus” may have faded, but for Bettini the god’s spirit remains strong in venues as disparate as Woody Allen films, Carnevale, Halloween, and wherever we celebrate change.

The volume is ostensibly a “biography” of the god Vertumnus, but it is in effect an extended commentary on Propertius 4.2, moving through that poem in order and using its passages as springboards to discuss historical, mythological, and poetic aspects of Vertumnus. Each chapter is formatted as a series of essays, which makes it easy for the reader to identify distinct sections and topics of interest. While the format makes the book easy to read, it also precludes the book from building an argument and encourages frequent essay-length digressions on related topics. Some of these are of dubious value, as for example the six-page excursus on fractals (pp. 103-108) 2 and the entirety of chapter 10 on the mythological and etymological origins of Mamurius. Others are quite useful: a long digression on the god Proteus sets the stage to discuss Vertumnus as a god of social change and as the persona (in its technical senses) of the Romans (pp. 81ff.), as opposed to Proteus and the other sea gods, who are gods of natural change.

Il dio elegante: Vertumno e la religione romana will be a useful addition to scholars concerned with the nature of Roman divinities per se, with Vertumnus in particular, with book 4 of Propertius, book 15 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Despite its title, the book does not concern itself with the practices of Roman religion and only tangentially touches on theological questions. The text primarily concerns itself with literary interpretation and historical speculation surrounding Vertumnus.

The volume contains: a brief introduction; 13 chapters, ranging from 3 pages to about 20 and each composed of a series of shorter essays; 3 appendices; a bibliography; and an index of names. An overview follows, with the chapters grouped by general topic.

Chapters 1-2 form an extended introduction. Chapter 1 announces that Propertius 4.2, the “autobiography of Vertumnus,” will serve as the frame through which the book approaches the god, whose nature invites the multiplicity and polyvalence of the Callimachean aesthetic. Chapter 2 considers the nature of how identity is assigned to gods in an polytheistic society. According to Bettini, identity is determined by various overlapping but non-coincident features, including epithets, imagines/simulacra, fabulae, oracular manifestations, and connections to the calendar. These give us categories by which Bettini can investigate the nature of Vertumnus.

Chapters 3-6 form the core of the volume. Chapter 3, “Origin, Citizenship, Nationality,” attempts to understand and reconcile Vertumnus’s connections to three ethnicities: Roman, Etruscan, and Sabine, considering the god’s own self-description in Propertius 4.2, possible etymologies of the name, and reasons for the placement of his statue in the Vicus Tuscus. Chapter 4 considers the first two of the three etymologies for “Vertumnus” that Propertius gives—vertere + amnis and vertere + annus—along with what they reveal about Roman understandings of the god. The chapter includes an excursus on Vertumnus’s love for the goddes Pomona. Chapter 5 continues with the third etymology, vertere + omnis. This chapter suggests—unconvincingly—that that Vertumnus, despite usually appearing as a youth, is characterized by not having a fundamental form (a “se stesso”), that his “se stesso” is in fact constant change. More convincing is the argument that where Proteus is a god of natural/physical change, Vertumnus is in contrast a god of social change, traversing the gap between rus and urbs. Chapter 6 builds on the conclusion of chapter 5, using Horace, Serm. 2.7 as a springboard to talk about Vertumnus as the god of inconstancy, specifically within an individual’s persona or self-representation and social status. This chapter might more profitably have been incorporated into the argument of the previous chapter.

Chapters 7-8 look at other facets of Vertumnus. Chapter 7 addresses the problem of divinities whose names occur in the plural, as for example, the Veneres Cupidinesque of Catullus 3.1. Bettini considers grammatical, theological, anthropological, and literary reasons for pluralizing seemingly singular divinities, concluding that gods are like fractals: multipresent and multiplicitous while still single entities. Why this section was not included with Chapter 2 on identity, which broached many of the same concepts, is unclear. Chapter 8 likewise expands on the etymological understandings of Vertumnus begun in Chapters 4-5 (where this argument might more profitably have been included). Bettini looks at Vertumnus as god of outcomes (how events “turn out”), and so his identification with the divine Casus in an inscription at Trier, as well as Vertumnus as god of exchange, buying and selling, especially in Spring (ver).

Chapters 9-11 turn to Vertumnus-as-statue, both the poetic statue in Propertius 4.2 and the historical statue situated on the Vicus Tuscus. Chapter 9 considers that the statue in Propertius 4.2 can speak with an “ego” precisely because it was made by the mythical Mamurius, i.e., the artist made its characteristics changeable just like those of the god himself. Bettini considers whether the historical statue could have been an articulated “dummy” (manichono) that could be rearranged in different poses, whether some portions of the face and clothing might have been changed, or if there were other methods of altering the statue in order to change its imago. Chapter 10 is a lengthy digression on the nature of the mythological artist Mamurius, this includes discussion of the obscure phrase “tellus Osca,” a passage from the Byzantine John Lydus’s de mensibus, and the festival of the Mamuralia. This chapter as a whole, while learned and interesting, has little to do with the god Vertumnus. Bettini does not tie his discussions back to the god or even to the god’s statue in Propertius 4.2. Chapter 11 ruminates on the philological nature of the phrase “formae caelator aeneae” (“carver of its bronze form”) (Propertius 4.2.61), which describes Mamurius as he crafted the statue on the Vicus Tuscus. Bettini sees a discrepancy between chiseling (caelare) a statue and pouring (fundere) bronze. Since Mamurius’s statue replaced a previous wooden statue, Bettini concludes that the statue may have been a sphyrelaton, a carved wooden statue encased in hammered bronze. He does not, however, consider changes in the meaning of the word caelare, which, by Propertius’s time, had come to be regularly used of casting metals (in Cicero and, later, Quintilian), of composing poetry (in Horace), and even of weaving (in Valerius Flaccus, though also later).

Chapters 12-13 form a kind of conclusion or coda, returning to the question: “What is Vertumnus the god of?” Chapter 12 circles back to questions of iconography raised in Chapter 9 and identity raised in Chapter 2. Representations of gods are, according to Bettini, recognized primarily by their iconography. Vertumnus has no set iconography but takes on the iconography the persona he represents at the moment, and so he is the god of non-identity. This is clearly an overstatement, which Chapter 13 rectifies. Vertumus is more specifically the god of decus, which Bettini translates as “elegance.” He is characterized by taking forms appropriately – at the right time, in the right way, and seeming fitting when he wears them. The difference between dressing up for a carnival and what Vertumnus does is decus: he is not entertaining observers, but taking on very the forma of the persona.

The three appendices include (1) an Italian translation of Propertius 4.2, the guiding text for the volume, (2) a commentary on the textual issues in the reading of Plautus, Curculio 482-84, important for the discussion of the Vicus Tuscus on pp. 127ff. and for reading Vertumnus as a god of “exchange,” and (3) the Greek text of John Lydus, de mensibus 4.49 (without translation, since that occurs on p. 150) along with a commentary. The translation of Propertius 4.2 varies between direct translation and paraphrase, but renders the sense well, for example: “indue me Cois, fiam non dura puella” (23) becomes “Mettimi vesti di Cos, sarò una fanciulla che si fa amare.” The commentary on Curculio 482 is primarily concerned with “vorsant” vs. “vortant” and “vorsentur” vs. “subversentur.” Bettini follows Lanciotto (Urbino, 2007) in reading “vel qui ipsi vorsant vel qui aliis ubi vorsentur,” taking it as a reference to transformation: “those who transform themselves or who give to others a place where they may transform themselves.”

The Bibliography (pp. 201-213) is extensive, and, though heavily weighted toward English and Italian materials, does include works in the other European languages.


1.   de lingua latina V.46.
2.   While the Mandelbrot set and the Sierpiński triangle are fascinating, they do little to illuminate the nature of the Roman godhead.

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