BMCR 1996.02.14

1996.2.14, Herbert-Brown, Ovid and the Fasti

, Ovid and the Fasti. An Historical Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 249. $.

Studies of Ovid’s Fasti have flourished in the past several years. A recent review article by E. Fantham surveying much of this work ( CP 90 [1995] 367-78) includes numerous titles (to which one might add J. F. Miller, Ovid’s Elegiac Festivals: Studies in the Fasti [ Studien zur klassischen Philologie 55, Frankfurt 1991]). As its subtitle suggests, Herbert-Brown’s book is an historical investigation, a study of how Ovid treats imperial themes in his twice unfinished poetic calendar. She responds, both directly and indirectly, to R. Syme’s History in Ovid (Oxford 1978), and takes as her point of departure on many occasions the immensely influential work of P. Zanker, especially his Augustus und die Macht der Bilder (Munich 1987). H.-B. also engages some recent literary interpretations of the Fasti, particularly those asserting a subversive Ovidian stance vis-à-vis the emperor. In fact, although she deals in detail with only a small percentage of the nearly five thousand lines, H.-B. herself sketches an overall interpretation of the poem.

In her preface H.-B. announces that “the purpose of the present study is to show that the Fasti is an important contemporary witness to late Augustan ideology and dynastic politics” (viii). She therefore concentrates on the entries explicitly concerned with Augustus or members of the imperial family. Tonal differences (among other things) have led some scholars to read the overtly panegyrical passages as a thematic strand only tangentially related to the narratives, hymns, and antiquarian musings that constitute the body of the work, in spite of the fact that Ovid dedicated the Fasti to Augustus and then rededicated it to Germanicus after Augustus’ death. Others have been questioning whether Ovid is such a straightforward panegyrist after all. S. Hinds ( Arethusa 25, 1992) and C. Newlands ( Playing with Time [Ithaca 1995]), for instance, argue that several textual elements destabilize or call into question Ovid’s imperial laudations. H.-B. not only takes seriously Ovid’s claim (addressed to Augustus at 2.9) that the Fasti is his militia, that is, his service of the Princeps; she sees this dedicatory statement as the driving force behind the conception and execution of the poem.

In an introductory chapter (“Why Fasti ?”) H.-B. claims that Ovid would not have chosen a format as unwieldy as the Roman calendar without extraneous pressure. He first decided to produce a major work in honor of Augustus, and opted for a calendrical scheme because he felt the Princeps attached special significance to the calendar. Evidence of this imperial interest was easy for any contemporary to see: the ever growing number of calendrical honors afforded to the Julians changed the look of the official fasti, at the same time that calendrical inscriptions were proliferating. The most important surviving example is the Fasti Praenestini of Verrius Flaccus, tutor in the imperial household. Verrius most probably dedicated his annotated calendar to Augustus, which would have offered a model for Ovid’s gesture of militia. H.-B. usefully highlights the significance of contemporary interest in the calendar as background for Ovid’s poem, but to privilege the new Augustan dimension of the fasti in the conception, and so in the overall meaning, of Ovid’s Fasti, is as mistaken as F. Boemer’s contrary view (“Was ihn letzlich zu diesen Stoffen trieb, war aber nicht der Kaiser, sondern der Schatten des Kallimachos,” Einleitung to his commentary 1.15, not cited by H.-B.). The literary historical context must claim at least equal weight, even though none of Ovid’s predecessors provides a precise model for a calendrical poem. It is one thing to brush aside the lost hexameter poem Months written by the Hellenistic poet Simmias of Rhodes—about which we know next to nothing—or even the prose work on calendars by Callimachus, whose elegiac Aitia was arguably the greatest poetic influence on the Fasti. More problematic is H.-B.’s overstatement in denying to Propertius 4 any role in “Ovid’s decision to write elegy on an epic scale, or to versify the entire Roman calendar” (14). The epic resonance of the Propertian pronouncements in 4.1 are well known. To be sure, Propertius did not have a poetic calendar in mind when he announced sacra diesque canam (4.1.69). That Ovid at Fasti 2.7 does when he picks up his predecessor’s wording in a spirit of aemulatio ( idem sacra cano signata tempora fastis; cf. 1.7-8) should not diminish the importance of the Propertian formulation to the new poetic undertaking. We will probably never know exactly what or who first inspired Ovid to chose the calendar as his format. In announcing his topic to the reader, however, in the twin proems to Books 1 and 2, Ovid clearly has his literary predecessors no less than Augustus in mind.

To construe the Fasti as above all else an ‘Augustan’ poem not only devalues the literary impulses evoked in Ovid’s intertextual play, but also misrepresents the experience of reading the poem. The latter problem emerges prominently in H.-B.’s bold suggestion that Ovid adapted the structural plan of the Fasti from contemporary architecture. She compares monuments featuring carefully chosen symbols in tune with the state’s official mythology that were set in the midst of much tangentially related ornamentation. Just so, “the Julian anniversaries provide the central focus of the Fasti,” while “the poet has given himself freer reign” in treating “the ‘filigree’ in which those anniversaries are embedded,” viz. the traditional festivals, often (but not always) handled in a lighter vein and more expansively (30). But how many readers have ever taken the relatively few lines devoted to the newer Augustan feasts as “the central focus of the Fasti“? Who can believe, as H.-B.. suggests, that Ovid lavished his attentions on the lively narratives, Callimachean aitia and antiquarian disquisitions in the entries for the older festivals, i.e. on the non-Augustan dimensions of the calendar, primarily as a means to attract attention to his commemoration of the imperial anniversaries, to a poem that was to be above all else a tribute to Augustus? The evidence suggests rather that Ovid’s project was to versify the calendar rather than to praise Augustus Caesar.

The next four chapters constitute the body of the investigation. The first studies the references to Augustus as “a unique documentation of how a contemporary interpreted and publicized the function of Augustus in the last decade of the Princeps’ long life” (32). The five sections are devoted to the principal aspects of Augustus commemorated in Ovid’s calendar: restorer of temples, Pater Patriae, Pontifex Maximus, descendant of Venus, and avenger of Caesar and Crassus. Each contains stimulating insights and fresh approaches to traditional Streitfragen, the most convincing of which address historical problems. On Augustus as pontifex maximus, H.-B. offers a masterful discussion of the new, intimate relationship between the office and Vesta, and of how Ovid’s testimony is crucial to understanding the dynastic associations of the changed cult. Ovid is shown to retroject the idea of Julius Caesar as sacerdos Vestae, and to enhance the pontifical vocabulary with Trojan motifs and by explicitly styling Vesta the cognata of Augustus. On Mars Ultor, she vindicates Ovid’s dating of the temple to May 12, and uses the entry in the Fasti to date the association of Mars Ultor with avenging Julius to 12 B.C. or later. By reminding us of the connection in 2 B.C. between the dedication and Gaius Caesar’s ultimately failed expedition, she points to the lack of an enduring justification for the temple in contemporary terms and consequently to a literary challenge for Ovid. The poet met the challenge by fashioning a “double historical myth.”

On the repostor templorum commemorated on February 1, H.-B. entertains the intriguing hypothesis that Ovid is correct about an early temple of Juno Sospita on the Palatine. She rightly singles out this entry as an example of how the calendar hardly determined Ovid’s manner of treating an individual feast. But why did Ovid effusively celebrate Augustus as the restorer of temples on the anniversary of a defunct monument? To bring out by contrast, she argues taking Ovid at his word, what Augustus had achieved. Others may sense a more mischievous spirit behind the dissonance, especially in view of the site of the ruined temple on Augustus’ beloved Palatine Hill. H.-B. suggests that Ovid is punningly establishing a connection between Juno the Preserver (Sospita) and Augustus as positor and repostor templorum, even though one may doubt that these two apparent coinages can resonate thus six lines after the single naming of the goddess. On Pater Patriae, she takes on the emerging orthodoxy that Ovid means to subvert Augustan ideology with his extravagant syncrisis on the Nones of February, in which Romulus is denigrated to elevate the Princeps. After some methodological sleight of hand wrongly equating the views of Wallace-Hadrill and Hinds, and pitting herself on Ovid’s side against them as critics of successful Ovidian panegyric (which in fact distorts the view of Hinds), H.-B. offers a well-focused counter-argument. She situates Ovid’s admittedly burlesque treatment of Rome’s founder in the earlier tradition of an ambiguous Romulus, reminds of Roman traditions of humor in handling some religious matters, and argues that criticizing a seminal figure from the Roman past actually harmonizes with the late Augustan celebration of the age’s present achievement—to argue for irony against an enshrined past is, she suggests, to use the misplaced criteria of earlier Augustan culture. These views deserve serious consideration. Finally, on Augustus and Venus, H.-B. carefully charts the ancient scholarly controversy surrounding Venus’ association with April. She overstates the matter, however, in attributing Ovid’s forceful rejection of the competing etymology from aperire solely to his wish to bring out an Augustan idea, Venus as the joint ancestress of Rome and the Julii. Venus was more promising poetic material than aperire for a variety of reasons. Similarly, H.-B. reads the Lucretian-style eulogy of Venus at 4.85 ff. in reductionist fashion, which blinds her to elements at variance with the more solemn Augustan dimensions. If Ovid here shows “his determination to obliterate the associations of the Venus of his love poetry” (92), what are we to make of the sexual punning on initus at 4.94? The image at 4.129-30 of Venus attached to Mars H.-B. claims “might well convey the message Augustus intended with his refurbished Venus and the grouping of the divine pair in his great temple of Mars Ultor” (93), but the phrase ut solet clearly evokes a more playful sort of “joining” ( continuata) on the part of the two notorious adulterers of myth, which in fact does call Ovidian love elegy to mind. A more promising recent approach to Venus in the Fasti is that of A. Barchiesi, who terms the entire section a “prism” refracting several (sometimes conflicting) views of Venus ( Il poeta e il principe, Rome-Bari 1994, 45-55, appearing simultaneously with H.-B.’s book).

The remaining chapters treat Julius Caesar, Livia and Germanicus. H.-B. finds support in the Fasti for Syme’s theory (challenged by P. White) that after Actium Octavian/Augustus sought to distance himself from his adoptive father, the Dictator. Of the three Julian anniversaries installed in the calendar’s first six months, Ovid includes only one (Thapsus), which he seems to suggest is a dim memory for the public at large amidst the colorful events of the Megalensia. Elsewhere Ovid tends to subordinate Julius to Augustus, even in his commemoration of the assassination on the Ides of March. The four mentions of Livia are shown to reflect Ovid’s changing situation vis-à-vis the imperial family. The two pre-exilic references emphasize the model wife and ultimately praise the Princeps more than Livia. In the revisions after Augustus’ death, the banished poet seeking recall speaks of Livia in divine terms, with a new name, Julia Augusta, and as the mother of the new emperor. H.-B. advances the view that the entire section on Carmentis (1.461-542) was written after the death of Augustus and specifically for the purpose of eulogizing Julia Augusta. Similarly, she argues that Ovid rededicated the Fasti to Germanicus because he was at the time of writing confident of the heir’s favor with Tiberius. The scholarly tradition therefore errs in believing Ovid’s “literary fiction” about why he chose Germanicus as dedicatee. Because of growing tensions between Tiberius and Germanicus around 16 A.D. Ovid lost confidence in the latter’s powers as patron, for which reason he abandoned his work on the Fasti.

The detailed Appendix should put to rest once and for all Syme’s tentative suggestion, entertained more recently by C. R. Phillips, that Ovid may have slighted the imperial family by omitting certain anniversaries. H.-B. here further develops her contention that Ovid wrote the Fasti in the years immediately preceding 8 A.D., where Syme had suggested 1-4 A.D. The reader will find too many misprints in a book otherwise attractively produced.

If H.-B.’s approach to Ovid’s poetic achievement in the Fasti is lacking, her penetrating study has advanced our understanding of Ovid’s engagement with Augustan ideology. Students of the late Augustan period will profit much from reading this book.