BMCR 2007.02.38

Desiring Rome. Male Subjectivity and Reading Ovid’s Fasti

, Desiring Rome : male subjectivity and reading Ovid's Fasti. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006. xi, 328 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780814210208. $9.95 (CD-ROM).

Late twentieth- and early twenty-first century scholarship on Ovid has grappled profoundly with the Fasti‘s treatment of the relationship between the nature and meaning of the Roman calendar on the one hand and its cultural and political importance on the other. The focus of study has varied widely: form and content; religion, cult and myth; literary tradition and political ideology; gender, sexuality and identity. Despite a sharp divide over perceptions of the poem’s emphasis — as Augustan tribute or critique — there seems to be a widespread recent consensus that the text should be read as a unified whole reflecting a carefully crafted continuity. Richard J. King (hereafter K.) is interested in many of the same concerns, but he engages with the Fasti by way of other perceptions, namely the poem’s qualities of fragmentation and incompletion, and its negotiation of homosocial rivalry among elite Roman men. Rather than categorizing the problems inherent in any continuous reading of the Fasti, K.’s Desiring Rome‘explores how these qualities call for recognition and dialectical encounter with the exiled author of the broken form’ (p.xi). The degree to which this approach proves useful will be addressed after a brief synopsis of K.’s argument.

K. introduces his study by urging us to view the Fasti as Ovid intended his readers to do, that is, from a vantage point that accommodates a non-traditional interpretation of his clearly discontinuous and unfinished poem (‘Introduction. Desire and Ovid’s Fasti‘: pp.1-15). Conditioned by the generic tension between epic and elegy and modelled by the author’s projection of his own subjectivity through the adoption of an autobiographical voice, the Fasti encourages its readers to adopt ‘angular’ or ‘skewed’ modes of reading about Rome and its calendar (p.4). K. acknowledges the connection between Ovid’s calendar-poem, the inscribed marble calendars that proliferated in the late Republican and early Imperial period of Roman history, and the men who displayed them. He then contrasts the Fasti itself with these calendars and their makers by identifying Ovid’s poem as an artifact of the cultural process described by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan as the ‘screen’. Under this theoretical rubric, Ovid can be seen to play with the calendar as a ‘psychosocial screen of his own identity in relation to a Roman national identity figured by the calendar’ (p.5). According to K., what determines the success of this use of the calendar as a fantasy-screen of Roman culture is Ovid’s ability to deploy in the service of his poetic project the dynamics of co-operation and antagonism which underlies homosocial bonding among elite male Romans.

In Chapter One (‘Elite Males, the Roman Calendar, and Desire of Mastery’, pp.17-40), K. surveys the manner in which Roman civic calendars represented elite male self-image. This overview comprises a synchronic analysis of extant calendars, particularly aspects of their visual design that not only facilitated communication of spatial and temporal information associated with civic and commercial activities but also encoded knowledge requiring discursive explanation. K. then provides a diachronic history of men publicly displaying the calendar — regal [Romulus’ lunar proclamations, Numa’s luni-solar reforms, Ancus Marcius’ posting of the sacra publica ]; Republican [Gnaeus Flavius’ posting of dies fasti, nefasti and legal formulae (ca. 300 BCE, M. Fulvius Nobilior’s monumental fasti with commentary in the temple of Hercules Musarum (179 BCE, Julius Caesar’s revolutionary solar calendar], and Imperial [Augustus’ reform of the Julian error of intercalation and his incorporation of time into the spatial landscape of Rome, Verrius Flaccus’ innovative Fasti Praenestini ] — to demonstrate how the calendar functioned as a medium for indicating a sponsor’s desire for position within a competitive network of homosocial relations. K. concludes his survey by cataloguing the differences between the traditional manner of display inherent in elite male representations of the civic and religious calendar and Ovid’s unfinished poem. Unlike Flaccus’ Fasti Praenestini, the poet’s failure to resolve temporal events satisfactorily within the calendrical code exposed him and his text to the judgement of his readers, and his autobiographical recognition of exile placed his poetic voice outside the symbolic order of Roman society. In sum, Ovid’s Fasti performs the same function, and may be viewed as an exemplary instance of, the Lacanian ‘screen’.

In Chapter Two (‘Ovid, Germanicus, and Homosocial Desire’, pp.41-65), K. deploys Eva Sedgwick’s literary model of male homosocial relations to examine the significance of Ovid’s re-dedication of his poem to Germanicus ( Fasti 1.1-6). He argues that Ovid composed the Fasti‘within a network of male social relations that ranged from intimate bonds of friendship to hierarchical relations of patronage to hostile competition’ (p.44). According to this view, by providing an unfinished, potentially inaccurate calendar-poem for Germanicus’ critical inspection, Ovid represented himself as an errant poet in an apparently passive or ‘feminized’ position, subject to another man’s direction and correction and open to moral, religious, and literary criticism from his elite male readers. Normally, assuming such a subject-position would incur anxiety about how others perceived the author’s uirtus — both his manhood and his Romanness. K. sees Ovid incorporating this problem of perception into the structure of the Fasti. By framing his dedication to Germanicus in the form of a deuotio, Ovid performed a type of male self-surrender characteristic of the soldier and the gladiator. In this instance, the poet reconfigured the intention of physical self-sacrifice associated with religious deuotio to accommodate a display of literary abjection by which he publicly submitted his calendar-poem for Germanicus’ critique and completion. To exemplify Ovid’s poetic reworking of this relationship between his own passive literary position and Germanicus’ commanding guidance and inspiration, K. compares the Fasti‘s dedication with the introductions to the months of March and June and earlier examples of the poet’s love elegy. As part of this comparison, K. explores Ovid’s use of the personified pagina as ‘a grammatically feminine “screen [or support] for the projection of [rival male] desire”‘ (p.42).

In the next two chapters, K. examines the manner in which Ovid negotiates anxieties in his readership about his own elite male identity arising as a result of his literary deuotio. Chapter Three (‘ Fasti, Fantasy and Janus: an Anatomy of Libidinal Exchange’, pp.66-102) argues that Ovid’s encounter with the Roman god of doorways and beginnings in Book One replicates the anxiety elite male Romans display in the face of the critical gaze of their peers. More than this, K. sees in Ovid’s curiosity about what Janus’ two-headedness really means and in the poet’s interpretation of the prayers and New Year’s gifts exchanged between men a creative expression of the nature of Roman homosociality and the kind of male subjectivity that results from it. In K.’s terms, ‘Janus provides a literary and visual symbol of this uncertain literary and social bond between men and a careful emblem of a prospective textual completion that Ovid supposedly seeks with Germanicus himself’ (p.102).

Chapter Four (‘Monthly Prefaces and the Symbolic Screen’, pp.103-143) tests this thesis by examining in turn each of the prefaces in the remaining books of the Fasti. K. finds that Ovid used this element of the calendar-poem’s structure to encapsulate metaphorically the process of elite male maturation. He argues that the poet represented symbolically the shift from the frivolous pursuits of the adolescent male to the serious passions of Roman manhood. From February to June, Ovid represents this physical and civic development in terms of his own shift from the superficial pleasures of elegy to the high genres of tragedy and epic. In parallel with this movement from shallowness and levity to tradition and responsibility, Ovid positions himself as poet-in-exile at key points in the sequence of prefaces. For K., this allows Ovid to expose the flaws and conflicts inherent in the symbolic order of the Roman calendar and of Roman masculinity, and helps to explain ‘why various ideological readings of Ovid’s Fasti are possible’ (p.143).

To demonstrate how this instability of elite Roman masculinity informed the themes and interpretation of the Fasti, K. moves from the level of months to examine Ovid’s representation of male subjectivity during the days of January and February. Chapter Five (‘Under the Imperial Name: Augustus and Ovid’s “January”, pp.144-183) looks at Ovid’s representation of the nomen Augusti in Fasti 1.587-616, focusing on the juxtaposition of the princeps‘ name as a site of stability and anxiety in Rome’s symbolic order. In terms of Lacanian theory, K. traces the poet’s characterization of Augustus’ name as a ‘quilting point’ of elite male identity. According to this view, Ovid situated Augustus within a network of cultural signifiers that on the one hand helped to identify the elite male subject’s place within the ideological system of imperial order, but on the other presented it as an object of male rivalry, potential failure and anxiety. K. argues that Ovid figured this contradiction by his poetic choices: the Fasti‘s syntax and vocabulary encompassed the objective order of the Roman calendar; its figurative language and phonemic effects alerted the reader to a subjective register of antagonistic desires excluded from the calendar’s ‘screen’.

Chapter Six (‘Patrimony and Transvestism in February’, pp.184-222) explores the theme of fatherhood in Book Two of the Fasti. Dramatized in Ovid’s celebration of Augustus’ status as pater patriae on the Nones of February ( Fasti 2.119-144), K. demonstrates how Ovid skews this focal point of the father-son relationship between the princeps and his male subjects to suggest anomalous social and political notions. K. examines in turn a cluster of episodes around the item for February 5 — the myths of catasterism relating to Arion and Callisto ( Fasti 2.79-118; 153-192); the encounter between Hercules and Omphale (2.267-474); the retelling of the foundation legend keyed to Lucretia and Brutus (2.685-852) — that suggest to the reader ways of viewing Augustus in terms not usually associated with the epithet ‘father of the fatherland’. According to K., looking forward and back at the emperor’s installation as pater patriae through a lens of transvestism, feminine manhood and tyrannical excess compelled Ovid’s readership to recognize and confront those aspects of elite male identity within the new imperial order that threatened their personal and collective autonomy.

K. concludes his analysis (‘Epilogue. Ovid and Broken Form’, pp.225-228) by providing a brief synthesis of Ovid’s acknowledgement and incorporation of his exile and of the Fasti‘s incompletion as essential elements of the poet’s attempt to represent and address the late Augustan and early Tiberian symbolic order.

First and foremost, it should be clear from this synopsis that Desiring Rome uses the language of literary and cultural studies to examine the form and meaning of the Fasti. For those interested in assessing the merit of K.’s argument, familiarity with the terminology and approach of recent scholarship in gender studies and Lacanian film theory is essential. K.’s explanation of the significance of Ovid’s calendar-poem — as a textual representation of elite male identity and homosocial relations in early imperial Roman society — assumes a readership at ease with speaking about matters of ideology, class and gender in terms outside the traditional apparatus of literary criticism and social history. This is not to diminish the usefulness or originality of K.’s book. Rather, the interested reader should be alert to the emphasis on the role of Ovid’s poetry in and as a reflection of elite male Roman life and to the dense and sustained manner in which K. communicates his cultural interpretation of Ovid’s representation of this aspect of historical experience under Rome’s first emperors.

K.’s study rewards the patient and attentive reader with insights into the material culture of Roman calendars (Chapter One), the literary culture of poetic composition and reception (Chapter Two), the social economy of elite competition and exchange (Chapter Three), the symbolic structures of elite male life (Chapter Four), and the patrimony of imperial rule under Augustus and Tiberius (Chapters Five and Six). He grounds his argument within an impressive framework of foundational and contemporary historical scholarship. For instance, his treatment of pre-Julian and early Imperial inscribed Fasti in Chapter One effectively relates material studied traditionally by Mommsen, Degrassi and Michels to theoretical views of the social function of commemorative texts and memorial poetry espoused by Lacan and Bourdieu. Similarly, K. convincingly links significant historical practices like the military deuotio, the gift exchanges of Rome’s New Year ( strenae), the registration of citizen males in the militia and census, the construction of the horologium Augusti and the ritual of the Lupercalia to his interpretation of Ovid’s poetic intentions. Throughout, K’s argument is supported by a generous apparatus of end-notes (pp.229-295) and a comprehensive bibliography (pp.296-315). A list of ancient textual references and a general index rounds off the book.

While Desiring Rome‘s subtitle foregrounds the book’s focus on ‘male subjectivity’ in the Fasti, it is disappointing that K. ignores entirely female reception of the calendar-poem. Given Ovid’s ability to open up a poetic space within which men and women can reflect on their identity, it would have been interesting to consider how elite women may have encountered or interpreted the poet’s representation of Roman masculinity. An inclusive gendered reading of the Fasti would have contextualized further K.’s explanation of that anxiety reflected in Ovid’s poetry and to which the male Roman constituency seemed particularly prone during times of social and political crisis.

Taken as a whole, K.’s survey of the Fasti demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between cultural history and literary interpretation. He uses traditional philological and linguistic tools in service of a nuanced theoretical interpretation of Ovid’s calendar-poem and situates his discussion of elite male rivalries at Rome within a coherent historical frame. It is not a book for the novice or casual reader. Even with a chapter-by-chapter summary of the author’s approach and key ideas, only those well-versed in Ovid’s oeuvre, the social history of the elite Roman citizen-male and the language of literary culture will successfully come to grips with K.’s closely packed ideas and complex written style at a first reading. Nonetheless, Desiring Rome extends the boundaries of current literary scholarship and provides a strong argument for viewing the literary artifacts of ancient Rome as opportunities for author and reader to challenge, negotiate and redefine key signifiers of shared identity.