BMCR 2007.02.28

A Commentary on Ovid, Fasti, Book 6

, A commentary on Ovid : Fasti book VI. Ovid, 43 B.C.-17 A.D. or 18 A.D. Fasti. Book 6.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. lxxxvi, 259 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199271348. $115.00.

Table of Contents

The revival of interest in Ovid’s Fasti rolls on. In the mid-twentieth century L. P. Wilkinson could label Fasti‘trite’ and ‘insincere’ ( Ovid Recalled [1955], p. 269). Contemporary readers are more likely to locate the poem in its political context and to foreground such issues as Augustus’ reconstruction of Roman religious life (including of course the calendar) and the nature of Ovid’s engagement with Augustan politics. After Fantham’s commentary on Fasti 4 (1998) and Green’s commentary on Fasti 1 (2004), we now have Littlewood on Fasti 6. Littlewood’s commentary very much reflects current concerns.

The book begins with a lengthy introduction (71 pages) which deals with the poem’s historical context, Augustus’ reorganization of religion, genre and antiquarianism, the poem’s themes, the poet’s narrative technique and his debt to Livy in Book 6. There follow 230 pages of commentary. The absence of a Latin text is hardly a deficiency since there are several good editions available, most notably the Teubner edition of Alton, Wormell and Courtney and Goold’s revision of Frazer’s Loeb.

The first sentence of Littlewood’s introduction (‘Ovid’s Augustan poetry might be said to have begun with the Ars Amatoria‘, p. xiii) is problematic, for it implies that she views Fasti as an Augustan poem. What does this mean? Although the word ‘Augustan’ is notoriously slippery (‘concerning Augustus’, ‘favouring Augustus’, ‘belonging to the period 27 BCE – 14 CE’, it seems clear from the next sentence that she has in mind certainly the first and possibly the second of my three possible meanings, for she explains that Ars Amatoria contains a panegyric addressed to Gaius Caesar. That Fasti deals with issues central to Augustus’ reorganization of Roman society is clear. That Fasti favours Augustus is less clear.

Given that Littlewood is writing a commentary, she is wise not to devote too much space to the ‘pro-Augustan’ / ‘anti-Augustan’ question. While opposing the view that Fasti was ‘even more iconoclastic than his Ars‘ on the unconvincing grounds that the poet ‘singled out the Fasti with its dedication to the Princeps as the work most likely to demonstrate his commitment to Augustan values’ (p. xvi), she nevertheless accepts, that ‘ Fasti remained, and was to remain, intentionally, a poem fractured by misfortune: a statement no less strong than the closing lines of his Metamorphoses‘ (p. xix). Like most if not all Ovidian scholars, Littlewood sees the poem as embodying the poet’s reflections on what it was to be Roman: ‘Ovid intended his Fasti to bring to the official calendar a portrait of Romanitas in the picturesque vitality of urban and rural cults’ (p. xv).

Given Fasti’s subject matter and the particular prominence of Vesta in Book 6, it is essential that a commentator explain in detail the character of Augustus’ reorganization of Roman religion in general and his handling of his role as pontifex maximus. Littlewood notes the religious connotations of the word ‘Augustus’, highlights the princeps’ use of religion to promote dynastic goals, and rightly focuses on his manipulation of the cult of Vesta (emphasis on the myth of Trojan origins, transference of her shrine from the forum to the Palatine). Just as important was the new emphasis on divinities associated with the Palatine as opposed to the Capitol, the creation of new cults associated with the princeps (Fortuna Redux, Pax Augusta etc.) and Mars Ultor. Littlewood rightly emphasises the Actian associations of the Palatine Apollo (denied by some) and the importance of Hercules. (The evidence for Hercules’ role in Augustan ideology seems to be purely literary, but is no less convincing for that.)

At least as important was the reorganization of the cult of the Lares Compitales into a cult of the Lares Augusti, a reorganization designed to win the loyalty of ordinary Romans to the new regime. As evidence for these changes we have not only Ovid’s account of the particularly vicious rape of Lara ( Fasti 2.585-616), a story which explicitly rewrites the better known rape of Philomela in Metamorphoses 6, but also surviving compital altars. (Littlewood provides an illustration of the best known of these. This commentary needs illustrations and OUP has been generous in providing them.)

Littlewood’s discussion of Ovid’s treatment of elegy notes that the poet had previously taken elegy in unexpected directions ( Heroides, Ars), but concentrates on whether Fasti is innovative because it deals with military material and whether Ovid was closely engaged with antiquarianism on the site of Rome. Aetiological themes were prominent in the works of earlier Augustan poets (Virgil, Tibullus, Propertius). Aetiology was a politically sensitive subject precisely because, as Littlewood observes, in Augustan Rome ‘”restoration of ancient ritual” masked radical change rather than representing a “return to past values”‘ (p. xxxix). Littlewood concludes that Ovid probably enjoyed antiquarian research and that he found in this kind of study material which he could fashion in ‘stylish passages of literary complexity’ (p. xl) and that ‘Ovid took a pride in his consultation of antiquarian sources’ (p. lii).

Book 6 focuses firmly on Augustan subject matter. Littlewood begins with a discussion of political themes common to Horace’s Roman Odes and Fasti 6 and their connection to messages of Augustan iconography. She also notes the correspondences between Fasti 1 and Fasti 6. The themes of Fasti 6 upon which Littlewood concentrates are war, food, fire, survival of endangered princelings and apotheosis. The discussion of war is particularly effective, highlighting the connections between Janus (peace) and Juno (war), as well as the connections between Books 1 (peace) and Book 6 (war) and the intimate connection between Augustan Peace and Augustan War. Food too is linked to war, for food can be emblematic of moral values, a primary point of comparison between the good old days of Roman virtue and current luxury. Fire brings together Vulcan and Vesta, with Vulcan’s fire being potentially destructive and Vesta’s beneficent. Littlewood perceives a link between stories of rescued princes in Book 6 (Proca, Melicertes, Hippolytus, Glaucus) and the premature deaths of Marcellus, Gaius and Lucius. As with Metamorphoses 15, Fasti 6 presents a series of apotheoses (a clear closural gesture): Hippolytus, Aesculapius, Romulus, Hercules. Littlewood rightly sees a link between service and apotheosis, with the implication that Augustus too will be deified because of services to the Roman state. She notes that while study of the stars is the way to heaven in Book 1, military achievement is the way to go in Book 6. Littlewood observes that if Ovid had lived to complete his revision of Fasti, he might have offered a eulogy of Romulus’ and Hercules’ way to heaven to balance the eulogy of astronomers/astrologers in Book 1. A more cynical reader might point out that it is not clear that the revision of Fasti was incomplete and that the conspicuous absence of such a eulogy might be read as significant in itself.

In considering Ovid’s narrative technique in Fasti, Littlewood notes the conflict between calendrical structure and chronology (Romulus is the most significant illustration of this). She points out that elegy itself requires ‘an empathetic and anecdotal character’ (p. lxviii). This is so, but it is a truth which can be overstated. Empathetic narrative, as Brooks Otis pointed out many years ago, is a significant feature of Virgilian epic. Littlewood provides a brief account of Ovid’s self-representation (an important constituent of the poem’s meaning), a longer account of his use of varietas and an excellent discussion of his handling of the elegiac distich.

So far in this review I have concentrated on the Introduction. The Introduction is lengthy, but the book is primarily a commentary. What kind of commentary is it? It is clear that the intended audience consists of experienced scholars and graduate students. It is not a commentary for those who need help with Latin accidence or syntax.

Littlewood’s treatment of the proem (1-100) gives a good idea of the work’s nature. At the head of the discussion are abbreviated references to previous scholarly discussions in English and German. There follows a one-page discussion of the proems in the structure of Fasti, with particular attention being drawn to the poem’s organization into paired books. After that comes a two and a half page discussion of literary and Augustan discourse in the proems. This focuses on the proems to books 1 and 6, with particular emphasis on peace (Book 1) and War (Book 6); the poet’s engagement with Callimachus’ Aitia (particularly the use of divine epiphanies) and the transformation of Juno’s role.

After the preliminary discussion comes the detailed commentary. In commenting on the first twenty or so lines Littlewood draws attention to the parallels between the proems of Books 5 and 6, a textual issue ( lege versus leges in line 2), parallels for the association of heat with inspiration (line 5), the philosophical associations of semina (line 6), the connotations of uates (7-8), the literary associations of the grove (9-10), allusions to Callimachus (11-12), earlier divine epiphanies (13-14) and so on. This is all supported, in the usual way, by the use of parallels in earlier and later classical texts. All this of course is exactly what we expect to find in a commentary.

If we turn to what is arguably the most important section of Book 6, the Vestalia, we find a very thorough treatment which includes well-balanced introductions that present the necessary facts and give opposing scholarly views due weight as well as line-by-line commentary. Littlewood is not afraid to state her own conclusions, but gives such a wealth of information and argument that readers are well equipped to make up their own minds.

It will be clear that I have a number of disagreements with Littlewood’s approach to Fasti. Most readers will. There is little doubt, however, that Littlewood has made a major contribution to our understanding of Fasti. What makes this commentary valuable is Littlewood’s awareness of the richness and complexity of this text, the wealth of knowledge that she brings to it and her even-handedness in acknowledging the existence of opposing points of view.