BMCR 2005.05.51

Ovid, Fasti 1. A Commentary. Mnemosyne, Suppl. 251

, Ovid, Fasti 1 : a commentary. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 251. Leiden: Brill, 2004. xii, 365 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004139850. €90.00.

Ten years ago, when I began working on Ovid’s Fasti in graduate school, the only aid for an advanced-level student of the poem was Franz Bömer’s 1958 German language commentary — indispensable, but often no help on the questions I was asking. Brief French commentaries on Books 1 and 2 by Henri Le Bonniec (1961 and 1969) were available, but they were sparse and intended for a lower-level reader. Bryn Mawr had recently published a commentary by John Miller on Book 2 pitched at a similar level (1985) and has since added one on Book 5 by Betty Rose Nagle (1998). In addition, both Nagle (1995) and A. J. Boyle and Roger Woodard (2000) have produced English translations of the poem with notes. All of this greatly improves the outlook for teaching the Fasti to undergraduates, whether in Latin or English. For the advanced-level student, however, only Elaine Fantham’s excellent Cambridge commentary on Book 4 (2000) had begun to fill the void before Steven J. Green’s (henceforth G.) new commentary on the first book of the poem. G. offers a brief introduction to the poem as a whole and line-by-line commentary on Book 1, interspersed with more discursive discussions of issues raised by particular passages of the poem. The introduction and the discursive sections are strongly engaged with the last fifty years of scholarship on the Fasti, and especially with more sophisticated literary approaches to the poem that have emerged in the last twenty. This book will be an enormous aid to any advanced student approaching the poem for the first time, combining explanatory material necessary to even a basic understanding of the text with a primer in the current scholarship on Book 1. Its strength for more experienced readers is in its innumerable valuable comments on details of Ovid’s style and diction, often easy to lose sight of in pursuit of broader interpretive questions.

The first section of G.’s introduction gives a clear summary of the broad landscape of scholarship on the Fasti, organized around a reading of the poem’s introductory section (1.1-62). G. explores in detail the expectations set up by these first lines but also argues that the poem asks its reader to continually re-evaluate the information provided in the proem. He thus takes what is at base a reader-centered approach, though not a heavily theorized one. The second section of the introduction continues this basic approach in a discussion of the interpretive problems presented by the enigmatic history of the Fasti‘s composition and revision: begun around 2 CE, the poem’s composition was interrupted by the poet’s exile in 8; between that date and the death of Augustus in 14, Ovid may or may not have continued work on the poem, but a number of passages (most of them in Book 1) show that he certainly did revise it after Augustus’ death. While critics in recent years have made a project of arguing that many further passages show exilic revision (e.g. Fantham [1985], Feeney [1992], Newlands [1995]), G. demonstrates the difficulty of determining with certainty whether these passages have in fact been revised and if so when. He suggests therefore a very practical critical stance: since the poem was certainly published after or not long before Ovid’s death in 17 BCE, its readers will always have been aware of the poet’s exile as both a biographical fact and a literary artifact constructed by his exilic writings; therefore, whether revised or not, “all parts of the poem have the potential to admit of an exilic reading” (22). This argument informs an open approach to such readings in the commentary which is generally successful, though it occasionally results in over-reaching: a reference in line 32 to Romulus’ excusable error in giving the year ten months rather than twelve is thus linked to Ovid’s own famous ( carmen et) error. Green nonetheless does not fully disavow what he terms “the ‘Ovidian Intention’ approach”, taking the firm position that Book 1 has been “thoroughly revised” after Augustus’ death and shows “a sustained focus” on Germanicus, its new dedicatee.

The body of the commentary is in general useful, insightful, and thorough. Green provides fairly substantial introductory discussions of the interpretive issues raised by a section of the poem before he turns to line-by-line commentary; these discussions serve not only to equip the reader for a productive reading of the coming lines, but also to situate Book 1 in the larger context of the poem. As we approach Ovid’s interaction with Janus, the poem’s first divine interlocutor, for example, Green discusses 1) other ancient discussions of the god, 2) the interview technique in the Fasti, and 3) the oft-discussed links Ovid constructs between this god and the poem. Some other issues that receive focused attention of this sort are the interpretation of the Fasti‘s astronomical passages (on their first occurrence in the poem), the poem’s comic rapes (prompted by the narrative of Priapus and Lotis), and the role of Evander (in the course of the Carmentalia passage). The discussions for the most part summarize current critical discussion of the issues, and provide good preliminary bibliography on the questions, though G. does occasionally put forth a critical argument of his own that he continues to promote in the commentary that follows. So, for example, his view that the poet-figure’s skills as an interviewer develop over the course of the book (a position expounded by G. at greater length in a 2001 Latomus article) is mentioned on p. 70, and recurs in the commentary on lines 149-60, 191-92, 227-28, etc.

The line-by-line commentary encompasses a broad range of textual, historical, religious, calendrical, and literary notes, but its strength is certainly the last. G. makes astute observations on Ovidian metrics, figures of speech and diction and provides ample intertextual references throughout that will serve his reader well. There is a good deal of repetitiveness in G.’s comments, but my noticing it may be a function of the rather artificial approach a reviewer takes to a commentary. Someone actually using the commentary, especially if she were only checking on the occasional line or passage, would likely not be bothered by repeated statements of the same point, and indeed the repetition might actually be a boon to a real user.

In general G. takes a generous approach to interpretation: if a reading is plausible, it is given its moment in the sun. While this inclusiveness is in some senses admirable, it does at times verge on the noncommittal, when commitment might in fact be warranted. Thus, for example, G. refuses to choose between the various possible members of the Julio-Claudian household referred to in the prophecy at lines 529-534. The prophetess Carmenta addresses Vesta, telling her to receive the Trojan Penates, for, “there will come a time when the same man will watch over you and the world / and a god himself will perform the rites / and the guardianship of the nation will remain with the Augusti ( penes Augustos): / it’s ordained that this house hold the reins of empire.” The passage’s activation of the late-Augustan concept of the domus Augusta as a ruling house (which G. does acknowledge) and the possible references as well to a shrine of Vesta established in or attached to the house of Augustus (which G. only marginally acknowledges by means of a reference to discussions elsewhere [ad 528]) militate quite strongly for an identification of the “god himself” with Augustus. G. notes that “the general nature of this statement allows for two different candidates for deo, namely Julius Caesar and Augustus,” and refuses to choose between them. This results in an equally noncommittal comment on the next couplet, where the nepos natusque dei who takes over next ( inde) really must be Tiberius; G. allows for an alternate reading where natus refers to Augustus, and the deus is again Caesar: for G. “either (and both) renderings are acceptable.” For the most part, nonetheless, this open approach to interpretive questions is preferable to pedanticism, and will allow the discerning reader to make her own choices.

Only in the treatment of the inscribed calendars and the poem’s relation to them does G. go seriously astray. When the topic first arises at Ovid’s mention of the pictos … fastos in line 11, G. quite appropriately emphasizes that these calendars were not “detailed or prescriptive documents” (but surely not quite “memory-aids” either) and makes reference to the work of John Scheid (1992) and Denis Feeney (1998) on the subject: both authors point to the exegetical nature of the inscribed fasti, making it clear that their contents were not officially regulated in any way and for that very reason the calendars are not in any sense doctrinal religious documents. Despite this unobjectionable first approach to the inscribed calendars, G. persists in the remainder of the commentary in referring to them as “the official calendars” (pp. 133, 134, 144, 146, 152, 212, 213, 303, 304). Two other passages likewise show troubles with calendrical questions. In lines 49-52, Ovid mentions a kind of day marked in the calendar as having a divided nature, so that juridical activities disallowed in the morning (before a public sacrifice) were allowed in the afternoon. G. reads Ovid as referring to the very rare designation QRCF ( quando rex comitiavit fas), and in this case fails to mention the quite plausible option that Ovid is referring here to the more common EN days (see J. Rüpke, Kalender und Öffentlichkeit [de Gruyter, 1995], 268-69 and n. 76; Bömer, ad loc.), and indeed proceeds to build an argument precisely on the premise that Ovid is not referring to the EN days. A broader misconception is indicated by G.’s comment ad 1.289-90, where Ovid claims to have consulted the fasti concerning the kalends of January and found commemorations of two temple dedications on that day: “If Ovid does have any particular Fasti in mind here, they are the Fasti Antiates Maiores or Fasti Praenestini, both of which mention the two temples in question” (G. 133). While it is entirely possible that Ovid had seen the monumental late-Augustan calendar at Praeneste, the republican calendar from Antium does not seem to have been on public display. More importantly, G.’s comment fails to recognize the accidents of preservation involved: Ovid surely had many more fasti to consult than we do.

The commentary is based on the text of Alton, Wormell and Courtney’s Teubner edition, with only a dozen readings that vary from it. G. provides a good current bibliography on the Fasti, though it does not list works cited only once in the commentary. In addition to a useful general index, G. includes an index of Latin and Greek words and phrases, and separate indices of cited passages from Ovid and from other authors. Infelicities of expression and typographical errors are few and minor. All told, G.’s commentary constitutes an indispensable addition to the tools available for an advanced student approaching the poem’s first book.