BMCR 1997.10.11

Playing with Time: Ovid and the Fasti

, Playing with time : Ovid and the Fasti. Cornell studies in classical philology ; v. 55. xii, 254 pages. ISBN 9780801430800.

It has become the fashion of much current literary criticism of Ovid’s Fasti (represented by e.g., Barchiesi, Hardie, Feeney, Harries, Hinds) to judge the poem a record of a cynical, ambivalent, defiant, or even subversive Ovidian stance vis-à-vis the Augustan regime. The poet himself claimed that the Fasti was his gift to the Augustan state. He was banished before its completion, but after the death of Augustus he revised and re-dedicated it to Germanicus in the hope that it would mitigate his sentence. Yet the louche poet of lewd verse was never allowed (for reasons unknown) to redeem his reputation as a good citizen in the eyes of Augustus or Tiberius. Nor indeed has he been allowed to in the eyes of his modern critics, who are perhaps driven by a need to find ubiquitous poetic justification for the regime’s unrelenting rejection of Ovid, or even by a need to construct an anti-hero in an age of despotism. Notwithstanding the increasing desperation of his exile years (pace the revisionist theories of Fitton Brown et al. that he never went into exile at all but remained in Rome writing fictional appeals to factual people), the sincerity of the declared intention of the Fasti‘s author is being constantly impugned in current scholarship, as it is again now in this recent literary/historical study by Carole Newlands (N.).

It should be pointed out first of all that N.’s work has already received excellent reviews elsewhere from colleagues in the field of literary criticism. As N.’s study makes both literary and historical claims, however, a review by an historian is not inappropriate. Yet when I first read the book sent me by BMCR I decided I could not go through with it because I disagreed with its methodology and historical interpretation so profoundly, and because I have met the author with whom I felt a great rapport on a personal level. The reason I feel compelled to proceed now is because of a concern that the weight of the combined auctoritas of eminent Latinists such as N. and the scholars listed above is establishing an orthodoxy in judging the Fasti as (to a greater or lesser extent) subversive. When an alternative view was presented in my Ovid and the Fasti: An Historical Study (Oxford, 1994) it was, for some mysterious reason, reviewed not by historians but by literary critics, who (naturally enough), compared it unfavourably with the work of other literary critics without debating its historical arguments against the subversive view. The present review will be devoted to scrutinising the methodology used in the arguments for a subversive interpretation. I hope it will succeed in opening up this historical cul-de-sac into which the unwary are being lured by this school of literary criticism.

N. makes a conscientious attempt to locate Ovid’s poem in and engage it with its distinctive cultural and political context, i.e., the latteryears of Augustus’ reign. She ably demonstrates her awareness of all the sources by bringing into her discussion not just other literary texts but also the calendar, coinage, monuments, sculptural programmes, iconography, and all evidence available pertaining to Augustan ideology at that time. In adopting this more holistic approach and lifting her sights beyond “the text”, she distinguishes herself from scholars who view the work as a purely literary exercise on the part of the poet in an historical vacuum. N. sees that Ovid’s choice of subject for his poem was not a politically neutral decision, for the calendar was a genre specifically associated with the Julian gens, and necessitated the incorporation of the military, civil and religious achievements of the emperor and his household.

Yet instead of reading Ovid’s calendrical poem as a Roman calendar, i.e., as a unifying framework containing numerous but unconnected categories of information within the diurnal divisions (old and new religious festal-days, astronomical movements, anniversaries of historical/mythological events, temple dedications etc.), N. tells us in her introduction “Problems in Ovid’s Fasti”, that Ovid’s information is only apparently disconnected, that his myriad exegeses on the different categories making up the extant six books (including those reworked from exile) should be read as a planned poetic unit. We are left to assume, then, that for some reason Ovid departed from the convention of exegetical method found on epigraphical calendars and in the exegetical texts of Callimachus, Varro, Verrius Flaccus and Plutarch, which sought no sense of unity or coherence in their aetiological explanations of odd customs.

Without reference to that convention, N. claims that no entry should be treated in isolation in the Fasti. Although there is no narrative thread linking one entry to another, thematic interconnections are created, not by the ingenious transitions found in the Metamorphoses, but by “savage juxtapositions” which succeed in bridging episodes to address common issues (p. 17). Despite N.’s assertion that “the poem is neither a failed panegyric nor a failed critique of the imperial system”, that it is “both panegyrical and subversive” (p. 6) and her constant subsequent reiterations that Ovid’s text is multivocal and “permits a myriad of different readings”, it is the cynical and subversive voice which persistently speaks to her throughout. Her analysis leads her to the conclusion that Ovid sustains an intention to destabilize and undermine the laudations of Augustus and his family incorporated in his calendar, and in so doing betrays his underlying resistance to the ideology of the regime itself.

The focal part of N.’s argument of destabilization relies upon her reading of what she calls the “star proem” (F.1. 295-310). This she analyses in depth in Chapter One, “Stellar Connections” (pp. 27-50) and harks back to it constantly as a reference point as she proceeds through her study as a whole. The methodology underpinning her interpretation is to sleuth out philosophical concepts and linguistic similarities from Ovid’s literary predecessors and his own earlier elegiac poetry, match them up and then extract a meaning from the Fasti through them. For example, she seeks out Vergil’s and Lucretius’ portraits of the ideally good man (p. 34), construes Ovid’s “virtuous astronomer” (p. 37) from that standpoint, and reformulates it through Ovid’s elegiac persona. It is Ovid’s words of praise for those who sought an intellectual pursuit of the stars and led a life apart from the world of politics and power which N. understands as encapsulating both the poetic identity of the author and his philosophical stance for the Fasti as a whole. This is Ovid’s way of exhorting a philosophical rather than political access to the heavens by offering an alternative code of values to those of Roman militarism and active public life which he categorically rejects. Ovid “aligns his description of the ideal astronomer with his own elegiac ideals” and “indicates his continuing adherence to the political aspect of elegy, its ability to challenge Roman norms and articulate a poetry of peace” (p. 38).

It is in this pivotal chapter that the flaws in N.’s approach become apparent. There is no doubt that the identification of generic links and conceptual roots of Ovid’s portrayal of the astronomers is useful for understanding its literary background, but it is hazardous for a literary/historical study to interpret the Fasti on those grounds alone. This methodology neither interprets Ovid’s words in the light of contemporary Augustan concerns and contemporary literature, nor does it accommodate the importance of the time and circumstances in which this particular passage of the poem was written.

For example, if N. had compared Ovid’s star proem with the remarkably similar concepts evident in the contemporary Astronomica of Manilius[1] (who is disastrously dismissed as different from Ovid in a footnote on p. 30), against the background of Augustus’ long-held desire to politicize the skies, she might have considered that Ovid was not eulogizing astronomers as apolitical scientists or philosophers, but in their Augustan role as astrologers. Astrologers played a vital role in Augustus’ efforts to legitimize his position by showing that his destiny was divinely fated in the stars. Tiberius used them too, as did probably Germanicus. Yet these astrologers posed a difficulty. They were unofficial advisers, even foreigners, and had replaced the official diviners regulated by and drawn from the Senate in the Republic.[2] How could their role be justified? Ovid comes to the rescue. In language reminiscent of Vergil’s and Lucretius’ ideally good man, he praises the first astrologers (primis) to disguise the novelty of the influence of this new breed of men in Roman government, accords dignitas to their art by dissociating them from Venus et vinum (the debauchery and drunkenness usually attached to foreign religious practitioners), and exonerates them from the senatorial activities of officium fori, militiae labor and their related vices to defend the fact that they were not drawn from that venerable Republican institution. Ovid is explicitly endorsing the “scientists” who bolstered Augustan/monarchical ideology. The passage, written or revised from exile and so unable to mention Germanicus’ astrological fate to rule while Tiberius was still alive, or even of his interest in astrology since Augustus’ decree of A.D. 11 (look what happened to Libo Drusus!), is no more a “philosophical stance” of the Fasti’s author than is any other passage in the poem.[3]

So it is not surprising that N. finds that the subsequent star myths “do not reflect the philosophical position of the proem” (p. 43), or believes that Ovid makes no attempt to reconcile the two worlds of Roman imperialism and Greek learning (p. 41)! Her conjuring up and juggling of selected philosophical and intertextual allusions from an author’s literary predecessors is a methodology which makes construction from the text anyone’s game. For an object lesson read also Barchiesi, who uses the same technique to come up with a quite different but equally creative interpretation.[4]

Second, N.’s thesis that Ovid uses ‘savage juxtaposition’ to undermine laudations of Augustus and his family is too strained too often. For example, she concludes that in this star proem, with “its juxtaposition with the preceding passage celebrating Germanicus’ military triumph”, the relationship between the two passages is in part oppositional. Ovid’s Germanicus had just won a military triumph that achieved pacification of the Rhinelands (285), yet in the star proem military pursuits are condemned (302). Germanicus’ success as a lawyer in the forum is praised (21-22), yet in the star proem, legal pursuits in the forum are condemned (302). Thus Ovid in the star proem condemns Germanicus’ two major spheres of action, the legal and the military, as misguided activities which break lofty hearts (p. 41).

What is not mentioned is that Germanicus’ success in the forum is mentioned over 250 lines earlier than the star proem. In between we have over thirty lines of Ovid’s remarks on the mechanics of the Roman calendar (1. 27-62), and over 200 lines on the Roman god Janus on 1 January (63-289). N. does not tell us what codes of meaning the star proem imposes upon this very large intervening section. It is at the end of the Janus section that Germanicus is mentioned again in what N. calls “a celebration of Germanicus’ military triumph”, but this is in one couplet only, not a passage (1.285-6). (N. describes it elsewhere for a different argument as “only two lines that emphasize peace” (p. 90)). So it can’t be described as “the preceding passage”, for even this couplet is separated from the star proem by six lines noting the anniversary of the temple dedication to Aesculapius and Jupiter. Yet N. proceeds to speak of “the interaction between the passage on Germanicus’ triumph and the passage on the stars” (p. 41).

This juxtaposition theory also forces N. to be highly selective. Why, for instance, is it only officiumque fori militiaeve labor which reflect a condemnation of the values of Germanicus? What are we meant to do with Venus et vinum, which Ovid has placed at the top of his list? Assume that Ovid meant Germanicus to be regarded as a drunken adulterer, an inebriated elegist, or that he simply worshipped the genetrix of the Julian gens with libations of wine? Elsewhere, N. says the justification of arma in the celebration of the temple of Mars Ultor must be considered along with the tragic view of war in the myth of Chiron (p. 121). Both statements beg questions for which there is not the space to go into here, but it needs to be pointed out that Ovid tells us about Chiron under 3 May, with lengthy stories about the Lemuria and Orion on 9 and 11 May intervening before he gets to Mars Ultor on 12 May.

The one real juxtaposition which N. points to is that of Anna Perenna with the death of Julius Caesar. She says that on the Ides of March, a festival devoted to the pleasures of song, dance, love, and drink and defiant of social boundaries is prioritized over the political events of Julius Caesar’s assassination and apotheosis (p. 61). Julius Caesar’s murder is an apparent after-thought, on the prompting of Vesta and he devotes to it only fourteen lines after spending 171 on the festival of Anna Perenna. Her argument supposes that Ovid preferred the populist strain in Roman religion to the new moral and political decorum promulgated by the Julio-Claudian family. Yet N. engages in no discussion of Ovid’s Julius Caesar or how it fitted in with the Fasti‘s nature as gift to the Augustan state. Without such a analysis, comparing the line-count of each episode is a meaningless exercise.

N.’s ‘juxtaposition’ technique brings another problem to light. In contriving connections and conjuring up associations not actually drawn or made by Ovid, she also expresses a cynicism for astrology and the (often humorous) religious and moral paradoxes of Roman religion which smacks too much of a Protestant perspective. For example, she says that the star myths in the poem devalue the idea of political apotheosis, and asks how we could take seriously the apotheosis of Romulus or Julius Caesar if they were to be in the company of a thirsty raven, a washing bowl, a dolphin and a woman’s crown (p. 43). Elsewhere she queries how we should read Ovid’s reference to Livia as the monogamous wife of Jupiter when that god was also known as the most infamous of heavenly philanderers (p. 45).

The problem is that the resort to association of images which may or may not be conjured up in the mind of the reader at the mention of a zodiacal sign or particular deity is not a valid criterion by which to judge Ovid’s Fasti as being subversive to the Augustan state.

The deficiency of this approach is made palpable if it is applied, by way of comparison, to Augustus’ projected interpretation of himself vis-à-vis Roman religion and history. For example, we must believe that Octavian, by identifying Caesar with a star and styling himself filius divi, was deliberately sending up the concept of deification by catasterism and parodying both the science of astrology and the credibility of his own future apotheosis; or that Augustus was deliberately satirizing his own moral reforms by claiming descent from the most notorious pair of adulterers in the Graeco-Roman pantheon, and depicting them (Mars half naked, Venus wearing an off-the-shoulder filmy chiton clinging to her breasts with Amor perched on her bare shoulder) on the pediment of the greatest monument to his self-advertisement, the temple of Mars Ultor. (On the Algiers relief Amor is holding Mars’ sword up to Venus!!) The pairing of Venus (presented as the classical Aphrodite type, according to Zanker’s Macht der Bilder[5]) with Mars, both on the pediment and inside the temple, would have inevitably recalled their illicit love affair immortalized by Homer, regardless of any attempt to shift the focus to their role of ancestors of Augustus.

Then there were all those salacious associations connected with the two chief moral exempla for Rome standing proudly in their place of honour in the Augustan Forum : Romulus, offspring of Martian rape and multiple rapist himself, and Aeneas, offspring of Venereal adultery and seducer of Dido. Their fornications and bastard origins were inseparable from the history of Rome. Augustus declared that he wanted to be judged by the standard set by those leaders of old (Suet. Aug. 31.5).

The Roman populace must have been doubled up as it viewed the gods and heroes famed for this welter of wanton behaviour. With Augustus firmly ensconced as Pater Patriae and centrepiece to all these “paradigmatic associations” or this “imaging of Roman history”[6] served up to the public on a monumental scale, why would Ovid need to undermine the ideology of the Princeps? Even he could not hope to rival the burlesque staged by the Augustan Forum. When it came to subverting Augustan values by the association of ideas, noone had done a more splendid job than Augustus himself.

Perhaps most importantly of all, N.’s methodology does not allow her to appreciate the uniqueness of the post 2 B.C. Julian portraits in the Fasti (for which Ovid had no religious, literary or political model to draw upon), or to notice that, inserted amidst the mass of indeterminate, competing and contradictory aetiologies, they represent the only constant in the entire poem. She has therefore missed the historical significance of this important document which freezes in time a step in the lengthy progression from the widely diffused, decentralized religion of the Roman Republic to the gradually focussing, centralizing religion of the Principate.[7] The effect of this is that the historical value of the work is lost. For a crucial period of the late first Principate so short of its full quota of evidence, this is indeed a matter of regret.

Finally, N.’s methodology is challenged by her dependence upon errors and distortions to support her case. Livia was never given the title (sic) of univira (pp. 45, 47) and Augustus’ legislation of 17 B.C. did not revive that status as an aspiration for Roman matrons (p. 152).[8] The adoption of Tiberius on 26 June is not “a particularly significant omission” (p. 221).[9] Chiron’s appearance as a horse is mentioned by Ovid (p. 115) (at F. 5.380) so his equine qualities are not “totally suppressed” (p. 116). Ovid’s Lucretia does not devalue war (p. 150), show no concern with vengeance (p. 151) or give “no indication that she desires to be an inspirational sign either of chastity or of political action” (p. 152). And surely it is Ovid’s economically-worded Lucretia, not Livy’s more loquacious one (Livy’s version is described as canonical! p. 147), who is the model Augustan matron. If Augustus restricted the speech of his women to that which could be put on record as Suetonius says (Aug. 64.2), it is not surprising that Ovid’s Lucretia is a woman of few words and reluctant to speak of her rape (2.825-26). The different code of behaviour for men and women which Ovid “points to” (p. 152) had already been explicitly defined by Augustus, not least by his moral legislation.

The fact that Ovid’s Fasti can provide so much meaning for twentieth century feminists and literary theorists is testimony to its richness as literature (N.’s Ovid is among other things a social critic and concerned with sexual violence against women). N. not infrequently draws out engaging Ovidian portraits such as a slow-witted Mars uncomfortable in the ambience of an elegiac poem (p. 68), or Mercury, the pragmatic businessman (p. 70). Yet Ovid’s text is too often sacrificed in favour of N.’s ‘subtext’. Indeed, so many of the ‘rich allusions’ and intertextual hints/play which N. detects are so abstruse, so much is ‘covertly’ alluded to, or deeply ‘encoded in the text’ that it is impossible to follow the maze of the cryptic puzzle or trace the clues to her solution which invariably fit her thesis of destabilization and or subversion. In the end, half of this book’s claim to be a literary/historical study must be deemed misleading. It is not about Ovid playing with time, but about N. playing with Ovid’s text. For literary buffs only.


[1] E.g., Manilius Astronomica 1.40-52; 2.105-125.

[2] See T. Barton, Ancient Astrology 1994, 38 ff.; J. North, ‘Diviners and Divination at Rome’ in Pagan Priests (M. Beard and J. North eds.) 1990, p. 65.

[3] I am presently engaged in writing an article on F. 1.295-310 to refine and elaborate upon the points I have summarized here.

[4] A. Barchiesi, Il Poeta e il Principe 1994, pp. 166-7.

[5] P. Zanker, Augustus und die Macht der Bilder 1987, pp. 199-201.

[6] ‘A Complex of Times: No more sheep on Romulus’ birthday’ in PCPhS 33, 1 (1987), p. 7.

[7] See M. Beard, ‘Priesthood in the Roman Republic’ in Pagan Priests (M. Beard and J. North eds.), 1990 pp. 19-48.

[8] See my Ovid and the Fasti pp. 147-8.

[9] See my Ovid and the Fasti pp. 229-33.