BMCR 1998.01.26

The Poet and the Prince. Ovid and Augustan Discourse

, The poet and the prince : Ovid and Augustan discourse. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xi, 292 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780520202238. $45.00.

It is gratifying to see that Alessandro’s Barchiesi’s Il poeta e il principe. Ovidio e il discorso augusteo (1994) has appeared so quickly in a good English translation; even the jacket illustration is the same, although the full color of the Italian version has been reduced to two tones for the English edition—I will restrain myself from pursuing some semiotic implications. There are references to some additional bibliography, such as Nita Krevans’The poet as editor (Princeton, 1997), but by and large this is the same book.

It is an important one. In terms of the conclusions it reaches, I do not find it as compelling as many of B.’s articles, which belong to the best recent interpretations of Augustan poetry. Rather, B.’s book-length endeavor is an immensely useful and stimulating example of some basic methodological paradigms, and of their uses and limitations, that apply not only to the Fasti and Ovid, but to Augustan poetry and its context. There is a great deal to be learned, to be refined, and to be argued with—all hallmarks of a significant contribution to the understanding of the nuanced poetics of a highly nuanced period.

B’s main concern is to rescue the Fasti from two main trends of thought. 1 He resolutely tries to disprove the notion that the poem was a simple act of homage to the Julian family and, by virtue of its assumed, straightforward nature, is a nice, “positivist” sourcebook for Roman religion and cults, if not the Augustan “program” in general. And, secondly, he endeavors to demonstrate that the poem, so far from being a versified assemblage of discrete episodes and entities, fully shares in the sophisticated techniques of Augustan poetry and especially in the characteristic web of relations of themes, motifs, and allusions that constitute an integrated whole.

I’m sure I am not the only one who is in considerable agreement on both counts. B.’s reaction formation, however, is a great deal more sustained. This leads to some excess, but it is an excess that always centers on some important hermeneutical perspectives on Augustan poetry. Let me turn to the issue of “Augustanism” first.

B. realizes that the conventional dichotomy of “pro-Augustan” and “anti-Augustan” is inadequate and replaces it with the notion of “discourse,”2 defined ultimately as “an unprecedented campaign of persuasion and revision” with “its universal diffusion at all levels” (p. 253). “Propaganda” is too simple a word for it, although a reference to Ellul’s concept of propaganda of integration would have been apropos. This discourse includes the arts and architecture (again, Tonio Hölscher’s and Pierre Gros’ truly important work in this area should have been cited) and, of course, the calendar. B. has read Zanker, but makes little of Zanker’s emphasis on autonomous and mutual interactions (Zanker’s initial programmatic statement to that effect in his introduction to Augustus und die Macht der Bilder suffers, like other passages in his book, from inadequate translation in the English version; Wechselwirkungen, e.g., is translated as “varying ways”). In the end, therefore, B. does see “Augustan discourse” as firmly emanating from Augustus—this is not, to use a current analogy, a “national conversation” on issues and values with multiple participants—and Ovid’s role as oppositional. There is an Augustan “hierarchy of literary institutions” (p. 242) 3 and an “Augustan literary system” (p. 249).

According to B., the task that Ovid set himself, therefore, was this: Augustus had tried to impose a unifying theme on the calendar (as he did on other areas of Roman culture and politics) by inserting many Julian commemorations into it. Ovid responds to this by unifying the calendar in reverse, i.e. undermining or undercutting—B. generally stays away from the overused notion of “subverting”—the Augustan and Julian themes. One of his vehicles is to juxtapose them with frothier stuff; the connected thematic narrative is intrinsically bound up with the anti-Augustan Tendenz of the poem. As can be seen, in the end B. reverts to the term “anti-Augustan” (p. 272) and is not entirely comfortable with it. For there is, as he adumbrates in the final paragraph (see below) and before, an inherent contradiction: in a way, Ovid is playing Augustus’ game. He mimics him in unifying the calendar; he doesn’t really change the procedure, but simply inverts it. As always in debated passages in Augustan poetry, it’s useful to look at possible alternatives. In this case, Ovid could have nullified and deconstructed the Augustan unification of the calendar by restoring its republican shape as a collection of discrete festivals. This, in turn, would have had profound implications for the structure of the narrative. It is a fundamental tension that is open to future discussion.

B.’s interpretation of Ovid’s handling of Augustan themes generally operates in terms of two basic processes. One is a description of res ipsa, i.e. the Augustan phenomenon itself. The other is its literary treatment, including its placement into a poetic context that casts the given subject into a new and ambiguous light. There are many astute observations here, but on the whole, it seems to me that B. is too consistently trying to prove too much. At the risk of sounding like Quintilian on Ovid: less might have been more. The problems concern the nature of the Augustan phenomena themselves and the valid parameters, if there are any, of finding thematic connections.

In regard to the former, it is a basic characteristic of Augustan culture in general, and not just Augustan poetry, to exhibit fluidity and more than one dimension. The historical and political aspects of the age resist stereotyping, pigeonholing, and monolithic categorization as easily as does Augustan poetry; an underlying commonality binds up the poetry with its highly differentiated historical, political, and cultural context. B. sometimes ignores this variety in favor of all too straightforward presentations, not to say somewhat dated cliches, of Augustan religious or historical subjects, while he would rightly discard analogous methods in literary interpretation as traditional at best and unsophisticated at worst. The simplification of Augustan phenomena to serve as convenient foils for Ovid’s manipulations runs the risk of weakening B.’s interpretations when they could be strengthened with a more refined approach. To give some examples:

Libertas (pp. 87-89, apropos the brief notice on the Temple of Iuppiter Libertas in Fasti 4.621-24). B. leads off his discussion by stating that “Libertas is an ideological construct not overfavored by the Augustan political climate … and suffers a complete eclipse,” notably in Augustan coinage. It does figure programmatically, however, in the very first sentence of the Res Gestae and the restoration of the Temple of Iuppiter Libertas is prominently mentioned in RG 19.2. Further comment is needed on Ovid’s combination of the anniversary with that of Iuppiter Victor. Was all this a response to Asinius Pollio’s Atrium Libertatis; if so, what were the relations between Pollio and the princeps? “In a world that celebrates the anniversary of the battle of Mutina, can it really be true that Libertas corresponds perfectly with the situation of the Roman people?” Good question, especially if the emphasis is on “people” rather than the senatorial oligarchy, and some answers could be found in Momigliano’s review of Syme’s Roman Revolution and, more comprehensively, in Brunt’s lengthy and discerning discussion of “Libertas in the Roman Republic.”4 Libertas, as Brunt states concisely and unsurprisingly, meant “different things to different people”; the notion is as open to multiple viewpoints as are Augustan poetic texts and it cannot be confined to one reading. The coinage is not probative; there is a complete absence, e.g., in Augustan coinage of any heralding of the legislation on morals and marriage nor is Libertas a frequent theme in Republican coinage.

The Lares (pp. 106-10, apropos F. 5.131ff.). The Lares Praestites are a shadowy bunch, attested only by one Republican coin, if that (here we go again), a brief reference in Plutarch, and the Ovidian verses; Plutarch and Ovid may have drawn on Varro. There is no adequate basis for construing the Ovidian passage in the sense of “Augustus, the systematic destroyer of republican Rome” (p. 110), replacing a thriving, or once thriving, cult of the Lares Praestites with that of the Lares Compitales and the conjoined Genius Augusti. We know nothing about the cult of the Lares Praestites in the Republic; their signa, Ovid says, “had been made to collapse by the might of the passing years” (5.143-44). What was there for Augustus to restore? It is by no means untypical that he did not put many of Varro’s antiquarian reconstructions into practice. By contrast, the cult of the Lares Compitales was very much alive and underwent the well-known transformation. But here again, Zanker’s careful study of the artistic evidence suggests that more than a directive from the top was involved. 5

Romulus (pp. 112-23, 141-79, apropos various passages, esp. in Book 2). The main issue here is whether Augustus claimed Romulus as a genealogical ancestor; Ovid’s gibes at Romulus in that case could be read to reflect on Augustus. To me, the evidence suggests that such was not the case 6 some historians report that Octavian toyed with the idea of taking “Romulus” as a surname, but discarded it. Augustus, ever the Great Synthesizer, went on to blend many models. Romulus’ appearance in Augustus’ funeral cortege proves no more that he claimed descent from Romulus than Pompey’s appearance there proves that Augustus was Pompey’s descendant. In a selective ideological sense, yes; in a genealogical sense, no. There would be enough left for B. to operate on that basis rather than push the envelope. Similarly, B. should not have truncated the famous Vergilian characterization of Aeneas in Aeneid 4.448-49, which he connects with Ovid’s characterization of Romulus in F. 4.845-47 (p. 162), by leaving out lacrimae volvuntur inanes, a multivalent phrase that ancient readers such as St. Augustine took as referring to Aeneas. The legend of Romulus has so many intrinsic downsides 7 that B. would have enough to fall back on for his arguments. 8

One more: the Ides of March (pp. 123-30, apropos F. 3.697-710). The main argument here involves Ovid’s privileging the joyous festival of Anna Perenna: “In the midst of this carnival atmosphere, one cannot help feeling that the ides of March ought to be famous for at least one other reason” (p. 124). Again, Ovid or, less authorially, the text, challenges the reader to sort out the alternatives. Celebrate Caesar’s assassination? Even Ovid wouldn’t be that anti-Augustan. While Ovid elides the occasion, B. still feels that the phrase “gladios in principe fixos is not perhaps the most sympathetic way of describing a sacrilegious murder” (p. 128). But compare Augustus’qui parentem meum trucidaverunt ( RG 2), which is just as graphic. Ovid then segues into Octavian’s ultio and the battle of Philippi and we soon arrive at the Liberalia (5.714-26). To controvert the argument for a moment: what if Ovid had chosen to highlight the commemoration of Philippi rather than the two joyous festivals that frame the mention of Caesar’s murder and its aftermath? It could be argued just as easily that this would have been offensive to Augustus, especially in the late stages of his reign, as he was trying to put the messy memory of the civil wars behind him and the Roman people.

As B. himself states, “this episode can naturally be seen in different lights” (p. 125). And he does acknowledge, even if he doesn’t choose to treat this aspect more fully, that “the Fasti is also a poem of praise, and the interpretations made in my seven chapters are dependent on this function; without its official voice, without addressees who will accept it, the poem is an abortive game” (p. 252).

To turn, somewhat more summarily, to the other central interpretive issue. In constructing thematic and allusive relationships between various episodes B. is confronting problems, questions, and solutions all too familiar to interpreters of Augustan poetry since the New Criticism, where similar procedures involved the validity of verbal echoes and allusions. As I said initially, B.’s fine literary sensibilities have produced some excellent results with such methods, but he may be trying too hard at times to make this approach work throughout the Fasti. This is, to be sure, a matter of individual judgment: there is no safe guide to the hermeneutics of ingenuity. And, typically of him, B. makes no exaggerated claims, but his book is laced with phraseology that reflects the absence of certitude: “We cannot rule out the possibility of an invitation, even if only a momentary one, to the reader to draw certain lines of interaction” (p. 113); this “may remind us, by association” (p. 121); “one cannot help feeling” (p. 124); “we cannot rule out the possibility” (p. 139); “it is not impossible to think” (p. 142), and so on. Of course, and I know it only too well, one doesn’t like to hem and haw constantly, and with this comes the next instance of appeal: “These implications may be, and mostly are, the result of a biased reading of the text, but Ovid has done very little to neutralize them” (p. 129). Poets seldom do so—after all, that would be intentionalism—and even if they give plentiful hints, contemporary interpreters won’t be deterred: “No text is resistant to interpretation” may be a fishy phrase, but is enjoying a continuing heyday; we can always “negotiate with the text,” especially that of a dead poet. One of the many virtues of B.’s discussion is that he returns to this complex of questions frequently. In the end, “we cannot exclude anything, because the Fasti is a poetic text, and as such is infernally prolific in generating connotations and internal references” (p. 139). Yet while nothing can be excluded, everything still can be scrutinized for validity and cogency; B. himself scrutinizes and excludes other views, such as John Scheid’s or, more generally, the view of the Fasti as apolitical entertainment. Parameters, then, are mostly judgmental and will vary from reader to reader.

The examples B. presents throughout his book, and especially in Chapter 2 (“Syntagmatic Tensions”) are instructive and will elicit different responses. In her recent review of Carole Newlands’ book on the Fasti in this journal, Geraldine Herbert-Brown has illustrated how this approach can be taken ad absurdum; her application of it to the sculptural decoration of Augustus’ Forum should be part of the materials collection for any graduate course that deals with such questions. 9 In a very serious vein, Jas Elsner has recently applied a similarly deconstructive approach to the Ara Pacis 10—who are we to say he is wrong? Any student of Augustan poetry and art will constantly encounter such possibilities or invitations by the text or artifact. Following up on B.’s discussion of the Magna Mater (pp. 192-202), couldn’t we extend the argument by speculating that the prominent place Vergil assigns Cybele in conjunction with Romulus and and Augustus ( Aen. 6.784-87) is fraught with ambiguous possibilities? My point about the instances produced by B. is an obvious one: some strike me as convincing and others as strained. Not all in the latter category are necessary to demonstrate the narrative cohesion of the Fasti.

It is, I admit, a matter of perspective. One score and ten years ago, at the tender age of 25, I wrote an article on latent anti-Augustanism in an episode of the Metamorphoses 11 which, only a few years later, I would have been glad to disavow (maybe that it why its approving citations continue with a vengeance): it was simply too easy to construct such instances. I am not saying, of course, that they do not exist. Similarly, at the beginning of a seminar on the Metamorphoses, before the students have read the whole poem, I often pick three stories at random from different books and then ask the class to look for thematic connections and the like. There are always some; seek and ye shall find. 12 This is not to discourage the students from exploring this important aspect of both the Metamorphoses and the Fasti, but to suggest some parameters of diffidence for our creative ingenuity and sophistication.

Closure A (a continuation of B.’s closing vignette): “But it is precisely the poetic text, with its erratic irony, that creates and makes necessary these contrasting roles of the Augustan and anti-Augustan. The “opponents” pay a high price; they are forced to read the text with the eyes of an informer or “mole,” and are therefore profoundly vulnerable to the totalizing ideology they say they want to reshape. The “Augustans,” for their part, are welcomed with a smile and escorted to the empty seat of the privileged spectator, who is seized unawares by the narrative and its theatrical games” (p. 272) Continuation: But there are many other seats in the theater, occupied by spectators who are not sitting in a box and whose view is, therefore, less obstructed. They are enjoying the narrative and the theatrical games, staged by both Ovid and his interpreters, from many different perspectives, including such non-generic notions as irreverence, wit, and jeu d’esprit.

Closure B: B.’s book is a must read for anyone seriously interested in Augustan poetry. Besides the main aspects I have mentioned, it discusses other matters, such as genre, with which B. has dealt before. He also touches on the crucial question of the audience; again, here is a starting point for further discussion. There is not a page in this book that I have left unannotated; often keen praise—there are several interpretational gems, such as his discussion of Hesiod (pp. 183ff.)—and bemused consternation oscillate on the same margin. In a most important way, B. has done Ovid justice: the Fasti is a challenge for the reader. So is B.’s The Poet and the Prince.

Closures A and B are, of course, complementary. And as we know from recent work on the subject of closure, they can even be revisited. I hope they will.

1. For a judicious comparison of historical and literary approaches to the Fasti, I refer the reader to the review article by Elaine Fantham in CP 90 (1995) 367-78 of B.’s Il poeta e il principe and G. Herbert-Brown, Ovid and the Fasti. A Historical Study (Oxford 1994). I have deliberately chosen, in this review, not to go over many of the points with which Fantham is dealing.

2. In view of the frequent use and different meanings of “discourse” in current literary studies a clearer definition by B. early on of how, and how not, he understands the term, would have been helpful.

3.”Augustan culture did not envisage, in the hierarchy of its literary institutions, a form so open and various that it could combine the prince’s Parthian victories with ithyphallic misadventures.” Correctives to this view are the creation of the pantomime, which became the quintessential (sub)literary form of entertainment of the Augustan age and in which the emperor took an inordinate interest, and the variety of contemporary wall decorations. Not to mention the thesis that the Forum of Augustus resembles a gigantic phallus.

4. Momigliano in JRS 30 (1940) 75-80; P. A. Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays (Oxford 1988) 281-350.

5.”Über die Werkstätten augusteischer Larenaltäre und die damit zusammen-hängenden Probleme der Interpretation,”BCAR 82 (1970-71) [1975] 147-55.

6. See the extended discussion by Herbert-Brown (note 1, above); cf. Fantham (note 1, above) 375.

7. Their exploitation by Greek writers led scholars like H. Strasburger, Zur Sage von der Gründung Roms (Heidelberg 1968) to posit that the Romulus legend was invented by a hostile Greek tradition; this is unlikely, but anti-Romanism precedes anti-Augustanism.

8. Similarly, the Augustan concept of the Golden Age (pp. 229-38) was not simply the projection of “the utopia of the Return” (p. 237) in which case B. would be right to call it a “hypocritical fantasy” ( ibid.). Instead, it was a highly differentiated notion and Ovid, throughout his poetry, thoughtfully contributed to that discussion; see my Augustan Culture (Princeton 1996, rev. paperback ed. 1997) 90-121.

9. BMCR 97.10.11, esp. p. 5.

10.”Cult and Sculpture: Sacrifice in the Ara Pacis Augustae,”JRS 81 (1991) 50-61; revised version in his Art and the Roman Viewer (Cambridge 1995) 190-210; cf. my dubitations in AJA 96 (1992) 474-75.

11.”The Cipus Episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,”TAPA 98 (1967) 181-91, cited in B.’s bibliography.

12. Cf. G. Graff’s comment on the methods of the New Criticism: “Given the convenient elasticity of terms such as paradox and irony, not many poems could fail to reveal these qualities somehow, under the right kind of close inspection ( Professing Literature. An Institutional History [Chicago 1987] 206).