BMCR 2001.04.08

Arma canant alii: Materia epica e narrazione elegiaca nei fasti di Ovidio

, Arma canant alii: Materia epica e narrazione elegiaca nei fasti di Ovidio. Florence: Università degli studi di Firenze Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Antichità "Giorgio Pasquale,", 2000. 356. L. 50.000.

E. Merli’s contribution to the recent boom in studies on Ovid’s once neglected calendar poem reconsiders the relationship between epic and elegy in the poem and in this reconsideration finds evidence of a general Ovidian “renovation” of the elegiac genre intended to present it as appropriate to singing peace and Augustan Rome. While this basic thesis is unlikely to surprise students of the Fasti, M.’s strategy of looking at the poem’s adaptation of particularly epic material affords her a more considered and careful definition of the poem’s “etiological elegy” than many have attempted. Even without the overarching argument, M.’s detailed readings of “epic” episodes and figures (especially Mars) would comprise a significant contribution to the growing body of work on the Fasti. M.’s monograph does more, however, and deserves consideration from anyone wrestling with the generic aspects of Roman elegy.

After an admirably brief preface including a two-page overview of the motivations, method, and conclusions of her study, M. introduces the body of the work through a rereading of R. Heinze’s 1919 study, Ovids elegische Erza+hluhng (henceforth OeE).1 M. summarizes Heinze’s thesis that the opposition between elegy and epic in Ovid centers on a stylistic and topical opposition between τὸ ἐλεεινόν and τὸ δεινόν, situates OeE in the body of Heinze’s work and in the historical context of post-WWI Germany, and evaluates its reception in recent work on the Fasti, especially that of S. Hinds and A. Barchiesi.2 M. argues that a scholarly rehabilitation of OeE is useful as a starting point for a reconsideration of Ovid’s “elegiac narration” that takes into account the dynamic tension between epic and elegy, but that Heinze has left open space to explore the Fasti‘s elegy in its difference from erotic elegy. The introduction concludes with a detailed plan of the study (organized in two parts and five chapters) which is helpful in tracing the argument of this rather lengthy volume.

Part I (” Deus utilis armis : aspetti (e débâcles) del personnagio Marte”) works towards a definition of the Fasti‘s etiological elegy through a reading of the passages in Book 3 in which Mars appears as a character. The introduction to the section offers an overview of Mars’ place in Roman literature, demonstrating the god’s close association with Ennian epic, and thus with a sense of the archaic.

In Chapter 1, M. gives a corrective reading of two passages (3.11-40 and 675-96) in which some scholars have seen evidence of a reduction of Mars to the status of elegiac lover. In the first passage, Mars’ rape of Ilia, M. complicates this reading through comparisons with a broad range of material both epic and elegiac. In particular, she looks to the Ennian model of Mars, but sees Ovid’s adaptation of his model not as parody, but rather as a modernization, a translation of the episode and of the character of Mars for the modern Augustan reader. In the second passage, Mars falls in love with Minerva and is tricked into marrying the old Anna Perenna instead of his beloved. M. traces the depiction of Mars as a lover in this section not to erotic elegy but rather to comic/mimic theater and argues that the passage is textually and calendrically marked as an authorized “space of transgression”. Thus this section too cannot be read simply as a reduction of the epic Mars to the generic conventions of erotic elegy.

Chapter 2 focuses on 3.167-258 and argues that Mars’ basic failure as a didactic informant serves Ovid to help draw the bounds of the Fasti‘s etiological elegy: this poetry is pacifistic, modern, and adaptable, and Mars is none of the above. An appendix to Part I uses Iliad 5 to contextualize the character of Mars both in reference to specific Homeric scenes and in terms of an epic narrative of the god’s adventures on which Ovid builds. As throughout the volume, M. is concerned here to broaden the critical vision of intertexts for the Fasti, a vision dominated on the epic front by Vergil and Ennius.

Part II (” Arma in azione: presenze epiche nei fasti“) begins from the premise that the Fasti is continuity with Ovidian erotic elegy (insisted on, for example, in the proem to Book 4) is largely located in the characterization of the elegiac genre as the poetry of peace. M. explores this premise through readings of the two most developed martial episodes in the poem: the defeat of the Fabii at Cremera (2.193-242) and Gallic siege of the Capitoline (6.349-94). In each case, M. carefully demonstrates the presence of a markedly epic style, and argues that the effect of this evocation of epic is not to undercut the poem’s program of peace but rather to emphasize the pacifistic nature of the work by illustrating the failure of arms and heroic values.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Gallic siege episode in which a strategy of defense is settled upon through a very epic concilium deorum. M. analyzes Mars’ exhortation to a traditionally heroic military defense with reference to a range of epic texts, emphasizing not only the Vergilian echoes it contains but also a broader “win or die trying” motif it shares with Homeric epic, Roman historiography, and the early Roman epic of Naevius and Ennius. Mars’ speech is unsuccessful, however, and M. sees a rival model of “heroism” expressed in Jupiter’s plan to dishearten the Gauls by having the besieged Romans throw loaves of bread over the walls of the city in a bravado demonstration of abundance. The success of Jupiter’s plan and Ovid’s emphasis on the obscure cult of Jove Pistor indicate, in M.’s reading, a valuation of flexibility and adaptability, even in the martial sphere: the episode “stages” the Fasti‘s refusal of arma. M. emphasizes Ovid’s selection from the available historical material to suppress military action (Camillus’ defense is elided, for example) and points to two other episodes in which the Fasti performs a similar suppression.

In Chapter 4, M. focuses on the most stylistically epic episode of the Fasti, the narration of the massacre of the Fabii at Cremera. Though this episode has received a good deal of critical attention in recent years, a thorough demonstration of its epic traits and models has been lacking; M. begins her discussion by filling this void, maintaining her characteristically broad critical view in searching out epic comparanda. M. argues that both stylistic and narrative elements mark the Fabii as a unified, singular hero, and particularly as a hero on the model of Patroklos, Euryalus, or Lausus: young, inexperienced, desirous of glory, and doomed. The epic “aristeia” of the Fabii is framed and presented in such a way that it challenges epic as a model for interpreting and transforming reality and presents an alternative heroic and generic model in the laudatory epilogue to Fabius Maximus Cunctator.

The final chapter of Part II examines the Fasti‘s version of the duel between Hercules and Cacus (1.543-86) against the Propertian (4.9.1-20) and Vergilian ( Aen. 8.184-275) versions to explore Ovid’s delineation of the genre of etiological elegy. M. argues that Ovid corrects Propertius at several points in the episode, always on points on etiology, and also moves away from the bucolic and fantastic tones of Propertius’ account to find a middle tone appropriate to serious etiological poetry. Ovid’s version is structurally modeled on Vergil’s, but in details it finds a balance between Vergil and the prose antiquarian tradition: the Fasti‘s Cacus is decidedly more human and less monstrous than the Aeneid‘s. Ovid nonetheless uses distinctly epic patterns in describing the battle between Hercules and Cacus and Cacus’ death. Thus the episode, rather than parodying or deforming the epic model, challenges it as a source for antiquarian information and “corrects” its primitive and bestial elements. Through this reading, M. likewise “corrects” Heinze’s reading of this episode, which characteristically emphasizes τὸ ἐλεεινόν. M. concludes that Ovid developed in the Fasti a genre more appropriate than epic to the expression of the city’s modern and multi-faceted present and to the negotiation of diverse and incompatible Roman pasts. His epic models are nonetheless necessary and central to the operation of the poem.

While M.’s argument is more cumulatively than logically structured, this difficulty is ameliorated by a continual contextualization of her readings in the introductions and conclusions of her chapters. The expansiveness of the book’s critical scope, encompassing a broad range of comparative material, is also a potential weakness in that it extends to the inclusion of only tangentially relevant material (see, for example, the section on Nerio on p. 126 and n. 77, or the appendix on pp.131-40). Often these excurses seem to be dedicated primarily to the rehabilitation of the poem’s literary reputation, a project which is perhaps no longer as pressing as it was ten years ago. The section on Heinze’s OeE seems likewise superfluous: the study is not so widely influential in recent scholarship that it warrants such attention, nor does it play a major role in M.’s subsequent discussion. The book is otherwise well-organized and free of substantial errors.

M. has done students of the Fasti the favor of rethinking the poem’s generic position, both in extension of Heinze’s classic study and in relation to modern scholarship. In so doing, M. has certainly hit upon a significant element of the Fasti‘s function and nature in its challenges to epic as a model for understanding the realities of Augustan Rome; through her chosen passages she illustrates this facet of the poem elegantly and thereby expands our understanding of the poem’s generic position. Her careful avoidance of the easy assumption that epic elements in this “poem of peace” are parodic allows her to move to more complex and fruitful readings. One complaint with this strategy: M.’s corrective readings often unnecessarily exclude or elide the Fasti‘s generic play with erotic elegy; as important as epic is to the delineation of this new genre of etiological elegy, erotic elegy is often evoked and adapted in the same passages as epic. In a genre whose hallmarks are adaptability and flexibility, as M. herself argues, the selection of passages examined can greatly alter the view of the poem as a whole, so that M.’s study cannot, of course, be the last word on the Fasti‘s genre. It is, nonetheless, a substantial contribution to the discussion.


1. R. Heinze, Ovids elegische Erza+hlung (Leipzig, 1919). Reprinted in Vom Geist des Ro+mertums, ed. Erich Burck (Stuttgart, 1960).

2. A. Barchiesi, The Poet and the Prince: Ovid and Augustan Discourse (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997). S. Hinds, The Metamorphosis of Persephone: Ovid and the self-conscious Muse (Cambridge, U.K., 1987).