BMCR 2005.11.19

Mythical and Legendary Narrative in Ovid’s Fasti. Mnemosyne, Suppl. 263

, Mythical and legendary narrative in Ovid's Fasti. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (xiii, 299 pages).. ISBN 9789047407225 $139.00.

As another contribution to the increasing scholarship on Ovid’s ‘calendar’ in the past decade or so, Paul Murgatroyd (hereafter “M.”) has provided a welcome comprehensive treatment of narrative in the Fasti. A mere glance at the Table of Contents promises the depth and breadth of M.’s approach, and M. nicely balancing narratological theory with philological expertise delivers an instructive book notable for its clarity of argument (though M.’s penchant for parenthetical expression can be distracting at times) and nuanced reading of the Fasti, as well as its bibliographic range. Structured according to elements specific to current theories of narratology and intertextuality, this study unfolds an engaging argument for reading the Fasti as a multivalent text determined by the same poetics and ingenuity displayed by Ovid in other works.

Perhaps the greatest strength of M.’s book is the abundance of detailed textual evidence quoted in support of each conclusion, creating a very persuasive reading of Ovid. A cursory review of each chapter’s contents cannot do justice to the complexity and intricate nature of M.’s own narrative, but it should indicate the substantive character of this excellent study and invite a full reading of the text.

Aptly titled “Introduction,” the aperture of chapter one defines scope and methodology, setting the parameters for a reasonable choice of narratives (a minimum of 10 lines) and invoking familiar Ovidian poetics in narratological terms. Placing the Fasti in the didactic tradition, yet also recognizing its part in Ovid’s experiments in elegy, M. catalogs those elements informing both the selected narratives and the work as a whole. Here M. introduces the reader to the descriptive economy and function, the spatial movement and perspective, the structural and patterned variations, the visualizations comparative to modern cinema, the attention to temporality, and the rapidity of expression to be found in the Fasti, and certainly comparable to the Metamorphoses. Copious footnotes illuminate the sources of M.’s own perspective and scholarly acumen, ranging from a solid grasp of current critical theory to more traditional textual criticism, even commenting on percentages of a particular verbal or metrical occurrence.

Chapter two, “Other Voices,” begins the detailed analysis of narrative in the Fasti by an appropriate first principle: the narrator’s identity determines the meaning. Nearly a third of M.’s identified 58 narratives have internal narrators, as opposed to Ovid the poet- narrator, and they are all divine, responding to the poet’s request for more information. While M. does not elaborate here on the implicit relationship between the poet and some divinities (labeled “inspirers” by M.) as a constant reiteration of the traditional epic invocation (M. saves this discussion for chapter seven on openings), M. does give a brilliant analysis of the “other voices” in the Fasti as crucial to the reader’s reception of the text, whether it be the narrator’s character (Tiber’s senility) or credibility (Mars’ partisanship) revealed in the rhetoric and substance of a speech.

In chapter three, M. focuses on “Rape Narratives,” as a narrative type highlighted by the quantity, placement, and length of such stories in the Fasti. While M. does not fail to acknowledge the value of feminist approaches to the text , the primary methodology in this chapter is M.’s own previous study of Ovidian rape narratives based on Propp’s structuralist determination of essential and repeated “functions” within types of tales.1 By comparative analysis of such functions (broadly grouped here in three possible stages: Prelude, Contact, Aftermath — each stage containing several “functions”) M. ascertains more clearly the diversity in plotting that complements Ovid’s “polytonality” in rape narratives. From the comic (Janus and Cranae) to the tragic (Sextus and Lucretia), M. examines Ovid’s variations on the theme, and he posits how such variations stimulate or “challenge” both poet and reader, engendering consideration of such elements as intertextuality, political commentary, and literary innovation.

Focusing on intertextuality, M. devotes chapter four to “Ovid and Virgil” and then follows with later chapters on “Ovid and Livy” (chapter six) and “Ovid and Ovid” (chapter eight), perhaps a purposely ‘even’ approach (chapters two, four, six, eight) to narrative strategies and identity, foreshadowed by the “other voices” of chapter two. As may be expected, in this chapter M. confronts an embarrassment of riches in the number of illustrative examples for Ovid’s reception of Virgil. The didactic Georgics and the nationalistic Aeneid, if only as comparative sources of Roman myth and legend, implicitly challenge the Ovidian narratives and poetics in the Fasti. Here in the analysis of the Fasti, based on the wide range of Ovid’s intertextual techniques from the subversive allusion to Carmentis, Evander’s mother, to the interfigurality of characters such as Dido’s sister Anna, M. perceptively reveals both Ovid’s sportive competition with his predecessor and his “ability to ring the changes” (to quote a favorite phrase of M.), whereby the reading of both poets is enhanced.

In chapter five, “Characters,” M. considers Ovid’s modes of characterization, again emphasizing the poet’s ingenuity and wit. According to M.’s innovative analysis, in bringing to life such a varied cast, usually in quick, broad strokes, often sacrificing depth, but never vividness, Ovid’s economical narrative enables the poet both to highlight previously unsung figures and to delineate established characters through episodic recurrences. Here interestingly M. applies the “actant” models of Greimas (Subject, Object, Opponent, Helper, Sender, Receiver), much as he had used Propp’s “functions” in chapter three, to elucidate the versatility of characterization by Ovid as a thematic device, through the changeability and multiplicity of roles within specific narratives (e.g. Anna, as Helper, is also often the helped). But in the midst of frequently minimized and minor characters, Ovid does develop more fully certain figures, such as the poet’s dark portrayal of the rapist Sextus, complete with similes and epithets, and even perhaps with allusion to this horrific figure’s antithesis to the elegiac lover.

History is not poetry, as Aristotle knew, and in chapter six, “Ovid and Livy,” M. explicates how Ovid transformed Livy, an obvious source for the saga of early Rome and thus the origins of the Roman calendar. The key element is, of course, the difference between genres, i.e. between poet and historian, as M. argues. The ‘remythologizing’ of a purportedly factual narrative, the leavening of moral seriousness, and an emphasis on entertainment, all fundamentally distance Ovid from Livy; in overview, the poet is not bound by the strictures of a single narrative voice, credible evidence, or chronology. In the analysis of four specific examples of what M. labels “renarration” (the Fabii, Gabii, Lucretia, and Tullia), it becomes abundantly apparent that for Ovid the story’s the thing. Whether in Ovid’s unparalleled and symbolic choice of lilies instead of Livy’s poppies in Tarquin’s ‘coded’ message to Sextus or in Ovid’s simile of lamb and wolf to heighten the pathos of Lucretia’s rape, devices more often associated with epic (e.g. simile, diction, tone, imagery), as well as Ovid’s own skill in compressed narrative, contribute to what M. calls Ovid “out-Livying Livy.”

In the beginning is aperture, but “Aperture” is chapter seven in M.’s text. In a clever opening to the chapter, M. himself practices the manipulation of a reader’s response, pointedly leading to his own ‘narrative hook’: the declaration that this chapter will “provide the first detailed analysis of the beginnings of the mythical and legendary narratives in the Fasti.” M. offers Bonheim’s typology of narrative openings (Comment, Description, Report, Speech) as a useful categorical approach, noting that “report” is most frequent (especially dramatic openings, such as the story of Ino) and that “comment” is almost never used (only two brief references), with “description” (e.g. the “locus amoenus” for Proserpine’s rape) and “speech” (an important instrument for characterization) of some frequency. Overall, asserting Ovid’s purposeful direction, or even misdirection, of the reader by artfully arranged introductions or preambles, M. demonstrates the poet’s clear intention to establish tone, characterization, mood, expectation, allusion, even mystification, with and within a carefully worded aperture designed to engage the reader as quickly as possible.

In chapter eight, “Ovid and Ovid,” M. brings his intertextual readings of the Fasti full circle by returning to the poet’s own influence on himself: Ovid’s “self-imitation.” First revisiting, but also reworking, the familiar scholarship on doublets in the Fasti and the Metamorphoses, M. elaborates on how the alternative versions, often determined once again by the compressed style of the Fasti, may compel a closer and thus richer reading of the narratives, even to the point of questioning the reliability of narrators, as for example in the rape of Lotis. After proposing that, in general, self-references and internal links within the Fasti (the intertextual becoming intratextual) represent “an intentional process” for structuring the entire work, M. extends his analysis to a more detailed intertextual reading of other passages. Here M. shows how Ovid reworked episodes and even re-used language (from half-lines to whole couplets) from his other works, for example, the “segmented narrative” of Ariadne (Heroides, Ars Amatoria, Metamorphoses, with further multiple allusions to Catullus 64).

Appropriately titled “Closure,” chapter nine concludes M.’s study. M. notes at the outset that the study of closure in the narratives of the Fasti has been completely neglected; yet, somewhat disappointingly, this is the shortest chapter in the book. Returning to previously examined episodes (e.g. Faunus and Hercules), M. first attends to the ‘standard’ elements and functions of Ovid’s closures in the Fasti (e.g. resolution, framing, focus), mostly related to the narratives being driven by an ‘aetion’ and by Ovid’s proven penchant for the dramatic and striking, usually with some impressive poetics underscoring the finale. Yet Ovid is never predictable. Thus, M. also examines the blurred, deceptive, false, and surprise endings occurring in the stories of Mars, Bacchus, and finally Lucretia. In Ovid’s closure to the narrative of Lucretia, M. finds the ultimate distinction between historian and poet, between the “facts” of the Roman calendar and the art of the Fasti, and it bears quoting: “whereas the historian presents Lucretia as just a factor in the momentous business of political change and highlights that, the poet presents the constitutional consequences as just a factor in the story of Lucretia and highlights her” (p. 287). On which note M. need only write his final paragraph: “The end”.

In conclusion, the presence of meticulous scholarship and absence of unexplained recondite jargon, the tempered didactic tone, the rhetorical flourishes (clever asides aside), and even M.’s frequent, if justifiable, implicit and explicit claims to being “first” in his multilateral analyses, all contribute to the creation of an engaging, pawky, even Ovidian, reading of the mythical and legendary narrative episodes in the Fasti. With M. as an engaging narrator and guide, and with the unexpected education in narratological theory and intertextuality, this book is a worthy addition to the volumes of Mnemosyne Supplementa. For understanding and applauding the remarkable achievement of “Ovid’s Fasti as a poetic enterprise” (to quote Elaine Fantham from “Ovid’s Fasti: Politics, History, and Religion” in Brill’s Companion to Ovid, ed. B.W. Boyd, 2002, p. 230), this book deserves a place on the shelves of every academic library. It is a book rich with instructive insights for students and scholars alike.


1. P. Murgatroyd, “Plotting in Ovidian Rape Narratives”, Eranos 98 (2000) 75-92.