BMCR 2000.02.01

Ovid: Fasti Book IV

, , Fasti. Book IV. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. x, 291 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 0521445388. $24.95.

The appearance of the first Cambridge Latin Classic on Ovid’s Fasti is cause for celebration. This is the first English language commentary since Frazer’s edition of all six books in 1929, and Hallam’s of 1881, which excised “all passages unfit for a boy to read”. Unlike Frazer’s, which uses anthropological parallels as explanatory models for Roman religion, Fantham’s is an historical, literary and linguistic commentary and is aimed at an undergraduate/graduate audience being introduced to Ovid’s calendar for the first time. This is something of a breakthrough in the study of classics. Even in the late 20th century many a graduate has never studied the Fasti, a unique testimony to the political and religious transformations occurring during the late first and early second Principates. Fantham’s commentary should do much to remedy that deficiency by bringing the work within the reach of students and so finally into mainstream studies of Augustan Rome. It is hoped that commentaries on the remaining five books will not be long in making their appearance.

It is not stated why Book IV, comprising the month of April, has been chosen to begin the series when chronologically, Book II might have made more sense. (Book I was substantially revised by Ovid in exile, so is the latest of the six.) Possibly Fantham was given the choice, in which case that choice is understandable. April, the month of Venus, is particularly rich in festivals: the Megalensia, the Parilia, Vinalia, Veneralia, Robigalia, Fordicidia, Floralia, Agonalia, Cerealia, Palatine Vesta and others. April is a month of holidays.

The frontispiece of early to mid-1st century denarial coinage depicts some of the cults represented in Fasti IV. This appropriate beginning provides tangible evidence of the fusion of politics and religion in Roman society, as well as the traditional nature of much of the material treated by Ovid. It is followed by a preface, a fifty-one page introduction, a tabular list of Fantham’s emendations of the text, a summary of Ovid’s April calendar entries, twenty-nine pages of Latin text (with no apparatus), one hundred and eighty-nine pages of commentary, a seven page select bibliography, a two-page index of Latin words, and a five page general index.

In the preface F(antham) makes the claim to “incorporate as far as possible the ideas and approaches of recent discussions on Augustan monuments and ideology, on the Augustan calendar and on both early and Augustan religious practice.” Her substantial introduction, however, covers a broader range than this, and her ability to compress that range into fifty pages is a feat in itself. It is divided into five parts.

The first section (pp.1-4) situates the Fasti within Ovid’s oeuvre and its historical context. It gives a potted history of events from 2 BC to Ovid’s rewriting of Book I (and possible re-workings of other narratives) after the death of Augustus. It includes a discussion of the date of the poem and of the missing six books which Ovid claimed to have written but of which no trace remains.

The subsequent twenty pages (4-25) are devoted to Genre. This section is itself divided into five sub-headings. The first, “Problems of genre and generic history. Epic and elegy: elegy as ‘not epic'” poses the question: what kind of elegy was the Fasti ? F. discusses the poem’s innovatory aspects and the self-consciousness with which Ovid contrasted the dignity of his material with his chosen, lightweight genre. She looks to Callimachus of Cyrene as the one who set the pattern of justifying or defining his own genre against the standard of epic. F. notes that Callimachus criticized not so much epic as long poems, however, both post-Homeric epic and elegiac compositions. The innovation in the Roman elegiac poets was that they expanded Callimachus’ rejection of the long poem into a rejection of heroic epic in general as a means of creating their own distinctive genre for the unique circumstances of their own time.

In the second sub-section: “Cross-fertilizing the genre: the Hellenistic elegists”, F. looks beyond Propertius’ fourth book of elegies and Callimachus’ Aitia to the broader tradition of Hellenistic elegy for antecedents for or influences on the Fasti. The third sub-heading, “Callimachus’ Hymn 5 and Aitia as a precedent for Fasti“, covers the numerous features these works share with Fasti 4. F. detects the most important distinction between Callimachus and his Roman emulators as being one of detachment. Callimachus was writing for a cosmopolitan, immigrant Alexandria poetry which was generically Greek rather than patriotic. The Roman elegists were writing at the seat of empire, whose dominating culture excluded Italic languages which would have found a counterpart in the Ionic and Doric dialects of Callimachus. F. concludes that Ovid and Propertius must have exploited local cults and monuments to appeal to their public through the familiar rather than the bizarre.

Under the fourth sub-heading, “Blending the genres: the contribution of hexameter poetry” F. considers how Hellenistic hexameter narratives with non-heroic protagonists and preoccupations, or as didactic, versified learning, influenced Virgil and Ovid. The fifth, “The transformation of Roman elegy” sketches the emergence of the distinctive device of recusatio and homage in miniature in the age of Augustus, citing usage by Vergil and Horace, its development by Propertius, and his influence on Ovid. F. sees that the Fasti, with its subject of Roman religious festivals, was Ovid’s chance to reconcile his poetic tastes with a demonstration of his patriotism and loyalty to Augustus. Ovid thus embarked on a new kind of elegy, one which could encompass patriotic themes in the lighter medium more congenial to his talents.

The third section of F.’s introduction is devoted to “Themes” (25-42), which is also divided into sub-headings. The first, “Ovid’s material and sources for the Fasti” looks at tempora as the poem’s formal theme against the background of the Roman calendar as reformed by Caesar, the civil and religious characters of the days, and named days marking the phases of the moon, fixed and movable feasts, and the personal and dynastic anniversaries of the emperor. The second, “Causae: aetiology and origins”, provides a summary of the history of and research into the Roman calendar from Fulvius Nobilior down to Verrius Flaccus and Ovid’s development of Verrius’ material. F. shows that as etymology was important to Callimachus and all the Augustan poets, so too it was to Ovid, as attested by his discussions in the preface to each month.

The third, “Sacra”, touches upon the problem Roman religion has posed for modern scholars in interpreting the Fasti, for a long time the primary source for the subject. F. makes the distinction between the public festivals which were not religious acts “in the strict sense”, and the acts of purification, prayer and sacrifice, detailed in the Fasti, and which filled everyday Roman life, which were. The fourth, “Signa: astronomy and myth in service to the calendar” stresses that the Greek astronomy announced in the first pentameter is as important as the Roman themes announced in the opening hexameter. F. lists Ovid’s forebears and successors who wrote of the stars and the myths associated with them (although she mysteriously omits the name of his contemporary, Manilius), and notes that even after Caesar’s calendar came into force, inaccuracies abounded in the texts, including the Fasti. She believes, however, that Ovid was more interested in the stars for their mythical associations than in the precision of their risings and settings.

The second section of “Themes” is “The structure of book IV: combination and variation”. F. surveys the similarity of design and content which links the proems to all the months and divides the self-contained books into pairs. F discusses the lengths of the entries in book IV and the contrasts between them to find balance rather than symmetry in the structure. Thematic relationships and parallels link the festivals and games to create a sense of poetically constructed symmetry which F. believes is more felt than identified. The final “Theme” is “Augustan ideology: the poet and his readers”. F. draws attention to Ovid’s uniqueness amongst the poets in witnessing the changing political and social scene of the later years of the reign and stresses the importance of Augustan architecture and the Julian calendar as complementary to his poem as evidence. A summary of recent scholarly debate about Ovid’s intentions vis-à-vis the emperor follows. Was Ovid a successful panegyrist or a covert critic of official values? F. finds the Fasti less ironical than Ovid’s earlier texts, so settles for the former. In so doing she goes against the general trend in recent scholarship, which inclines toward the latter. At the same time F. concedes that post-exilic re-workings could contain some critical implications. But she will leave it to readers to decide how each passage should be interpreted.

Section four, “Style” (42-49) is discussed under two sub-headings. The first, “Diction and narrative technique” exemplifies a rich array of linguistic devices employed by Ovid in creating such features as puns, colloquial dialogue, humble or elevated narrative, solemn speech, sound and visual effects, pathos, mock-epic or shift in pace of movement or time. The second, “Versification”, notes the regularity, variety and exceptions in Ovid’s use of metre in book IV and provides statistical information to show that his use of internal pentameter rhyme, although confined mainly to the narrative sections, still matches the Ovidian average of 20% cited by Platnauer.

The final section of the introduction, “The Text” provides a succinct summary of the Fasti textual tradition. F. explains that her text depends on the apparatus criticus of the Alton, Wormell and Courtney (A-W-C) Teubner edition of 1978/1985, but that a number of readings of the 17th c. scholar Heinsius and other early editors have also been reinstated. The edition also punctuates less heavily than A-W-C (which is better for a Fasti aficionado perhaps but maybe less helpful to the first-time reader?). A tabular list of 36 variant readings where F.’s text diverges from Bömer’s and A-W-C’s follows. Unfortunately there are three proof-reading slips on this page: at line 24, tuos under Bömer should read suos; at line 286, Veneris under Bömer should read Veneri; line 881 should read 880.

F.’s introduction is both lucidly written and packed with goodies to assist the Fasti reader with the broadest range of tastes. Just two omissions struck me as noteworthy. April is a month of mainly women’s festivals, but the opportunity for an overview of the function of the female in Roman religion and myth is missed; second, F.’s discussion of Roman religion (the Fasti is a “poem about religion” 43) is interesting and informative but perhaps lacks some essentials for the first-time reader. The role of exegesis and its multiple nature in religious texts in general, and in the Fasti in particular, is not mentioned (29-30). And the categorising of religious aspects into various themes such as sacra, tempora, signa, myth, causae, etc. without including an overview of the evolutionary features of the religion at the time tends to obscure the sense of the work as a whole. To read the Fasti is to witness a hybrid, localised religion adapting itself, after centuries of fragmented authority in the form of republican aristocratic rule, to the social and political revolution which produced a religious head of state and universal monarch. A beginner approaching the poem with a Judaeo-Christian need to detect a religious truth, or even with a secular compulsion to make sense of it, will be lost unless this basic principle is understood.

One or two inconsistencies mar F.’s discussion of the date for the poem and her assertion that Verrius Flaccus was a source for Ovid. F. believes that the Fasti was begun in AD 1, “if not before”. She suggests that Ovid had decided “quite early” to forgo the pleasure of celebrating July and August, that the poem was deliberately left incomplete. She does not explain her reasons for believing this, even though she says elsewhere that the poem was intended to show Ovid’s “patriotism and loyalty” to the Julian dynasty (25). This “quite early” must be after April, AD 3, the date of the restoration of the temple of Cybele mentioned in book 4. This accords with the date suggested by Syme, that Ovid ceased composition of the poem in AD 4, after Tiberius became Caesar on 26 June (F.’s text reads “January” (2) but this is a misprint). Yet all through her commentary F. assumes that the calendar of Verrius Flaccus was the principal source for Ovid, even though she knows it cannot have been erected at Praeneste much before AD 10 (29), and even though she is aware of discrepancies between the two (30). Verrius’ calendar could not have been a source for Ovid, whether you believe the Fasti was originally interrupted in AD 4, as Syme says, or in AD 8, as Ovid says. Ovid’s was either written first, or the two calendars were composed concurrently. (The ‘lost literary version’ of the Fasti Praenestini, so often invoked as a source for Ovid by scholars, is not a fact but a hypothesis of Mommsen’s). Perhaps it was Verrius who consulted Ovid, whose poetic persona carries lightly the weight of its creator’s erudition. Perhaps each author worked independently of the other, in which case each one’s testimony of engagement with his own culture is all the more valuable for a period so poorly documented in extant literature.

F.’s commentary is divided into sections, each beginning with a brief explanation of what is to follow, e.g. the significance of inter- and intra-textual allusions, the history of a cult, the actual calendar entry of a festival (and variant readings where they are controversial), corresponding or contradictory evidence to Ovid’s statements, or Ovid’s artistic motives and procedures in adapting the rituals to his poem. A select bibliography on specific topics is usually included. The detailed examination comprises translations of tricky phrases, discussions of parallel passages, syntax and vocabulary, analogies, precedents, sound effects, Ovidian wit and mannerisms, etymologies, possible exilic interpolations, puns, word-play, metrical assistance for foreign words, touches of comedy, colloquialisms, geographical locations, political implications, and so forth. Stylistic, historical and grammatical analyses are brought together successfully, but perhaps F. sometimes forgets she is addressing undergraduates, many of whom are now newcomers to Latin as well as the Fasti. The inclusion of a glossary of technical terms would have made this self-contained commentary more user-friendly for beginners of all categories.

The textual emendations are of primary importance in producing a new commentary, and most of F.’s changes signal an improvement. Her justifications range from common sense, sound effects and idiomatic construction to parallels with other Ovidian constructions and educated guesses where no Ovidian parallels exist to serve as a control. Topographical motifs and even olfaction are invoked, as at line 741 where maris rores is chosen over mares oleas because the context requires perfume as in the rosemary herb rather than firewood as in oleander. Yet inevitably a doubt occasionally obtrudes. For example, at line 21 ( hic ad te magna descendit imagine mensis), F. retains imagine from A-W-C over the alternative origine, even though, as she says, imago here is rather odd given that Caesar’s genealogy is about to begin with Venus, not a curule magistrate which the waxen image would represent. F. admits that origo would be “highly appropriate” yet seems to reject it against her better judgment. Bömer’s origine (v. his commentary) is more convincing here than imagine.

At one point F. adopts a methodology which baffles. During the long genealogy which begins with Jupiter and ends with Romulus (4.19-60, 130) F. decides that it belongs to Romulus ( auctores rettulit … suos at line 24) rather than to Ovid’s addressee, Caesar ( tuos) because “Ovid nowhere calls Mars ancestor of the Julii”. F.’s observation induces her to opt for a reading which she concedes is not adopted by “most editors”. This issue is fundamental to the way in which Augustus incorporated himself into Roman history, so requires some attention here. My response to F.’s observation is: why should he? Mars did not have to be ancestor of the Julii in order for Augustus to annex him, the father of Rome’s Founder (and ideological ancestor of any subsequent Founder) into his personal heritage. Ovid, in fusing two mythical cycles (a fusion anticipated at 1.39-40), is showing us how it was done. The genealogy he provides resembles the traditional fusion of the Trojan legend of Aeneas and the city’s foundation by Romulus, but unlike some accounts (cf. the list in Dion. Hal. 1.73) includes the important detail that Romulus and his mother Ilia were descendants of Iulus, grandson of Venus and founder of the domus Iulia (line 40). The focus of the passage is on the revelation that the Julian goddess Venus is an ancestor of the son of Mars. The slow-witted Romulus discovers he is the link between the more ancient Julians descended from Venus and the more recent Romans descended from Mars. Both Venus and Mars are thus the parentes of Romulus and all his secuturi nepotes (v. 57-60).1

Ovid may have acquired this genealogy from the late Republican historian of the Julian gens which claimed Romulus and Mars as well as Aeneas and Venus in its ancestry.2 There are indications that Julius Caesar intended to annex Mars to his personal heritage, and it may have been he who invented the Julian epithet Ultor as a step towards conflating Julian with national interests.3 Octavian took such a step when he elicited the support of Mars, not Venus, in performing his filial duty of avenging the death of Caesar. In order to attach Mars visually and inextricably to his Julian heritage, Augustus acquired the site next to the Forum Iulium as his private property, was prepared to limit the size of his proposed Forum because of space restriction (Suet. Aug. 56.2), and to break with tradition by bringing the war-god into the city for the first time. He did this so the dynastic fusion could receive monumental expression in the accretion of the two fora in which the temples to Venus Genetrix and Mars Ultor were the focus. Access to the temple of Mars was not possible without passing through the Forum Iulium and the precinct of Venus Genetrix first.4 Ovid’s celebration of Mars as avenger both of Caesar and of the Roman standards at 5.545ff merges Julian with Roman, as had his eulogy to the young Julian heir as he embarked upon his war of revenge against the Parthians: Marsque pater Caesarque pater, date numen eunti (AA.1.203).

Augustus was not merely bringing opposites together by pairing Venus with Mars. But in his mission of annexing Rome’s ancestry to his own it was Romulus who proved to be both essential and problematic. When Livy and others made his assassination by senators exquisitely reminiscent of the death of Caesar, certain aspects of this ancestry would have to be handled with care. The new Pater Patriae and Second Founder could not be seen to be an emulator of the first (F. 2.119-144),5 nor indeed of his father, the Dictator, even though their deified status was essential to the filius divi in his programme of divine destiny. In the line up of Julian exemplars in the Forum Augustum, the dictator perpetuo is missing, and the eponymous Founder stands not with them but opposite, with the summi viri, and so is kept at arm’s length as a model of Julian conduct in Augustan image-making. Ovid, however, bridges the gap and reminds us of the dynastic connection by having an ancestral Mars descend to the Forum and spy not his own son but the son of Ilia ( hinc videt Iliaden at 5.565), the matronymic which recalls Romulus’ Trojan/Julian affiliation in the genealogy under discussion (4.23). The authority of Mars synthesises the two mythical cycles, a synthesis reflected in the ubiquitous iconographic pairing of Venus and Mars, whose joint ancestral status endorses Augustus’ claim on all Rome’s divine ancestry, Julian and Romulean, and his presentation of himself as Founder of its future dynasty at the centre of his Forum.

To say that Ovid nowhere calls Mars ancestor of the Julii, then, misses the dynastic implications in post 2 BC Augustan ideology which Ovid imparts in his unique fashion in the Fasti. It is not a convincing reason for selecting suos over tuos in the text, especially when tuos belongs to the best manuscripts. F. rightly says that the suos of line 24 links with suos in line 57, but tuos at line 24 could also be linked with tuus at line 22. In the end, of course, the pronouns are interchangeable, for the genealogies of Romulus and Caesar are the same.

The few reservations I have expressed here do not vitiate the importance of F.’s achievement. It may be fanciful to suppose that the Fasti will secure a place in an undergraduate curriculum of Latin literature while the Metamorphoses and amatory poetry remain competitors, but it is not fanciful to suppose that it will secure a place in every undergraduate curriculum of Roman history. There is no excuse now.


1. A major theme of Ovid’s proem to the month of April is the defence of the antiquity of Venus, whose right to the Roman Calendar was controversial. See G. Herbert-Brown, Ovid and the Fasti (Oxford, 1994), 81-95.

2. S. Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford, 1971) 17, 128-9, 183; L.R. Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (Middletown, Conn., 1931) 59, 61, 64. The Julius Proculus who witnessed the apotheosis of Romulus and mentioned by Cicero, Livy and Ovid, is likely to have figured in that history.

3. Weinstock, op. cit.

4. A. Kuttner, Dynasty and Empire in the Age of Augustus: the Case of the Boscoreale Cups (University of California Press, 1995) 24.

5. For the problems Romulus posed for Augustus, see G. Herbert-Brown, op. cit. 43-63.