I’m currently deep into Ovid’s Fasti, possibly the world’s favourite Latin poet’s least popular poem. The Fasti is Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, originally designed to consist of twelve books corresponding to the twelve months. Ovid’s exile from Rome in AD 8 put paid to that, or at any rate Books 1-6 are all that survive for us to read. I’m studying it at this moment because we’ve just added Book 6, June, to one of our main literature courses.
Actually I need no excuse to read the Fasti as it’s probably my favourite poem of Ovid, and one thing I love about it is the way that the poet’s focus on Rome’s calendar, which automatically entails an interest in the religious festivals that make up the Roman year (and thus the history of Rome), also grounds the poem in the physical city of Rome, where stood the temples at which all the various religious festivals took place, and whose foundation dates were also commemorated in the Roman calendar. As Catherine Edwards says, “It was not possible [for Ovid] to consider the organisation of Roman time without engaging also with the spatial context through which Roman time was articulated” (Writing Rome: textual approaches to the city, p. 57): Ovid’s Fasti is a poetic calendar, but it’s also a kind of poetic city plan. I may not be selling it very well, but this is a city plan composed by the wittiest, most inventive versifier Rome ever produced.
Well, I found myself thinking very hard about the topography of Rome in a cafe in Bath last week. I had reached Fasti 6.395-396, forte reuertebar festis Vestalibus illa,/ quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est. The issue here is the first word of the second line, quae in the text I was reading, but which I instinctively felt should be qua. (Bath is an appropriate place to get fixated on Latin minutiae, I feel.) I’ll set out the passage around it with the Loeb Latin text and English translation, though as we’ll see the Latin and the translation, by the celebrated anthropologist Sir James Frazer, don’t entirely match up:
“It chanced that at the festival of Vesta I was returning by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum. Hither I saw a matron coming down barefoot: amazed I held my peace and halted. An old woman of the neighbourhood perceived me, and bidding me sit down she addressed me in quavering tones, shaking her head. ‘This ground, where now are the forums, was once occupied by wet swamps: a ditch was drenched with the water that overflowed from the river. That Lake of Curtius, which supports dry altars, is now solid ground, but formerly it was a lake. Where now the processions are wont to defile through the Velabrum to the Circus, there was naught but willows and hollow canes; often the roisterer, returning home over the waters of the suburb, used to tip a stave and rap out tipsy words at passing sailors. Yonder god (Vertumnus), whose name is appropriate to various shapes, had not yet derived it from damming back the river (averso amne). Here, too, there was a grove overgrown with bulrushes and reeds, and a marsh not to be trodden with booted feet. The pools have receded, and the river confines its water within its banks, and the ground is now dry; but the old custom survives.’ The old woman thus explained the custom. ‘Farewell, good old dame,’ said I; ‘may what remains of life to thee be easy all.'”
Forte revertebar festis Vestalibus illa, 395
quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est.
huc pede matronam vidi descendere nudo:
obstipui tacitus sustinuique gradum.
sensit anus vicina loci, iussumque sedere
alloquitur, quatiens voce tremente caput: 400
“hoc, ubi nunc fora sunt, udae tenuere paludes;
amne redundatis fossa madebat aquis.
Curtius ille lacus, siccas qui sustinet aras,
nunc solida est tellus, sed lacus ante fuit.
qua Velabra solent in Circum ducere pompas, 405
nil praeter salices cassaque canna fuit;
saepe suburbanas rediens conviva per undas
cantat et ad nautas ebria verba iacit.
nondum conveniens diversis iste figuris
nomen ab averso ceperat amne deus. 410
hic quoque lucus erat iuncis et harundine densus
et pede velato non adeunda palus.
stagna recesserunt et aquas sua ripa coercet,
siccaque nunc tellus: mos tamen ille manet.”
reddiderat causam. “valeas, anus optima!’ dixi 415
“quod superest aevi, molle sit omne, tui.”
It is the festival of Vesta, June 9, and Ovid reminisces (or claims to) about walking somewhere in the vicinity of the Roman Forum and seeing a woman walking barefoot. There follows an explanation of the oddity from an older woman, who explains that this part of Rome had once been marshy. The Nova Via or New Way (in actual fact exceptionally old even in Ovid’s day) ran along the south side of the Forum, below the Palatine Hill, and the statue of Vertumnus probably stood near the junction of the New Way and the Vicus Tuscus, which led into the centre of the Forum. (Andrew Sillett alerts me to Alessandro Barchiesi’s identification of the shape-shifting Vertumnus with the old woman, uicina loci, whom Ovid meets and speaks to, The Poet and the Prince, 188-189, which is a very good idea…) The Lake of Curtius, meanwhile, was a monument in the heart of the Forum. It is typical of the Fasti that Ovid gets his information about ritual practice by a combination of interested observation (the scholarly persona he adopts in the poem), and a knowledgeable informant explaining causae, “causes,” here the old woman of the neighbourhood to whom Ovid somewhat untactfully wishes the best for the limited period of life remaining to her. That scholarly character, the role of the informant and the interest in causes and etymologies (such as that of Vertumnus) place the Fasti very firmly in the tradition of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus.
But I’m fixated on that quae. As I’ve already suggested, the Loeb’s Latin text and English translation don’t quite match up here. Frazer translates 395-396, forte reuertebar festis Vestalibus illa,/ quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est, as if it is not quae that starts 396 but qua. A subtle change, for sure, but changing the relative pronoun from a nominative to an ablative does make quite a significant difference to the sense. Reading qua, as Frazer evidently does, Ovid is walking “along the route by which the New Way is now connected to the Roman Forum.” Reading quae, Ovid is walking along the New Way itself, and the Latin means “along the route which, as the New Way, is now connected to the Roman Forum,” or “along the New Way, which is now connected to the Roman Forum.” Qua places Ovid on a side street connecting the Forum and the New Way, in other words, while quae places him on the New Way itself. And what is weird, and quintessentially Fastian, is that while I’m worrying about a detail of Ovid’s text I’m also thinking very hard about the detailed topography of the Roman Forum.
For what it’s worth (and I tend to attach quite a lot of significance to this), the manuscript evidence is pretty unequivocal. Almost all our sources for the text of Fasti 6.396 have qua not quae. We owe the reading quae to the Danish scholar Johan Nicolai Madvig, but the longest defence of quae has been made by Franz Bömer,* who addressed the question in the course of producing a full commentary on the Fasti. I’m not personally persuaded. Bömer’s article elaborates in some detail what scenario Ovid might be describing if we go with quae, but aside from other things the upshot is a rather redundant description of the New Way, “which is now connected to the Roman Forum” (so what?) that to me doesn’t come across as very Ovidian.
The best way to positively justify qua is by means of a map, and here is the vicinity of the Temple of Vesta taken from Samuel Ball Platner’s The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome. It is always worth bearing in mind that the reconstruction of Roman topography, as it was at any specific time in Roman history especially, can be highly speculative, and that is particularly the case in this area at the edge of the Forum. But I’ve checked The Atlas of Ancient Rome edited by Andrea Carandini (a truly beautiful thing: my birthday is in June, a few days after the festival of Vesta…), and in any respects that matter it agrees with Platner. We can make out here the circular Temple of Vesta (“T. Vestae” in red), one of the most sacred locations in the city, from which it is natural to assume that Ovid was returning, and beside it the Atrium Vestae in which the Vestal Virgins who served Vesta’s cult lived. Along the other side of the Atrium Vestae runs the Nova Via, New Way. Below the Temple of Vesta is the Temple of Castor (“T. Castoris”), where the official weights and measures were kept and the Senate occasionally met, and below that the Basilica Iulia built by Julius Caesar with the spoils of the Gallic War. To the left of the Basilica is the Lake of Curtius (“Lacus Curtius”) mentioned by Ovid; the statue of Vertumnus that he also mentions seemed to have stood a little back from the top righthand corner of the Basilica.**
It seems to me that qua makes good sense of this cityscape. What Ovid is describing, the route linking the Form and the New Way, is something like what is represented by the grey band leading from beside the Temple of Vesta up to and then beyond the Nova Via. This was a staircase that allowed access from the lower-lying Forum up to the Palatine Hill. It is shown also on a piece of the Marble Plan, above the edge of the Temple of Castor,*** and it seems to be what Frazer means by “a cross-road, joining the Sacred Way and the Forum down on the flat with the New Way up on the hill” that he personally inspected in the winter of 1900-1901 and identified with Ovid’s route (The Fasti of Ovidius Vol. 4, p. 238). From the upper level of it you could, I think, see the statue of Vertumnus (iste in 409 seems to me to suggest it is visible as Ovid and the old woman converse), and it answers to what qua requires, a route connecting the Nova Via and the Forum in a way convenient for someone walking home (Ovid lived near the Capitol, Tristia 1.3.29-30) from the Temple of Vesta. It also gives a little more force to the verb used for the bare-footed woman who piqued Ovid’s interest in the first place: she is “descending” the staircase towards the Forum as Ovid climbs out of it, or that seems a natural reading. Ovid describes a recent development, it should be noted (“by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum”), so we would have to assume some work on the staircase by Augustus. Lawrence Richardson, in Ernest Nash’s Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1962) Vol. 2, 123-124, knits all the various threads together very satisfactorily, using Ovid as evidence for developments in the late Republican or Augustan period.
Now, Richardson assumes that Ovid means what I think he means, and Ovid is part and parcel of his reconstruction of the topography of this part of ancient Rome, so my argument could very easily get as circular as Vesta’s temple. (Barney Taylor comes to my defence, pointing out that, quae or qua, the connection between New Way and Forum mentioned should be that staircase, so Richardson’s reconstruction looks like the only one compatible with any interpretation of Ovid.) The truth remains that any reconstruction of this area of Rome in Ovid’s day is bound to be nine parts guesswork. Furthermore, Bömer’s defence of quae is much more detailed than I have given him credit for, and he has counterarguments to a number of the points I (or Frazer) might want to make in favour of qua. I’m still pretty convinced the transmitted text qua is the right one, but the most important point, whether it’s qua or quae, whether Bömer’s right or Sir James, is what this all tells us about Ovid’s Fasti, a poem embedded in the physical city of Rome, in which preferring qua to quae is all that stands between a monumental staircase and oblivion. Does it get any better than this, a poem from “the sweet witty soul of Ovid” that takes you on a tour of ancient Rome, its religious festivals and its physical monuments? And I haven’t even mentioned the stars and constellations that also feature prominently in Ovid’s calendar…
In the unlikely event you can stand any more, I wrote a short article about Ovid using Jupiter as an explanation of Rome’s topography that’s on open access here. For more geography there is another blog here (you will note I have shamefully all-but-reused a blog title), and for more calendrical stuff in Roman poetry a very succinct blog here.
*F. Bömer, “Zu Ovid, Fasti VI 396,” Bonner Jahrbücher 154 (1954), 29-31;
**M. C. J. Putnam, “The Shrine of Vortumnus,” American Journal of Archaeology 71 (1967), 177-179;
***O. Marruchi, “Recent Excavations in Rome,” American Journal of Archaeology 2 (1886), 334-341, at 335-336.
The last time I gave much thought to St George, I think, was in Afghanistan. I was researching Bamiyan, and visited a valley, Darre-ye Azhdaha, a few miles to the west of Bamiyan town. At its mouth there is now a housing development for refugees returned from Iran; but if you follow the narrow, steep-sided valley further up, it’s blocked by a high volcanic ridge associated with some interesting folklore.
According to tradition, the ridge is a dragon (azhdaha) slain by Hazrat-e Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and a figure of special importance to the predominantly Shi’i population of Bamiyan. A crevice running along the top of the ridge was made by the sweep of Ali’s sword, reddish mineral deposits around it are the dragon’s blood, the sound of subterranean water the dying creature’s groans, and the milky mineral waters that flow out from the end of the ridge its penitential tears.
This dragon, the story goes, was terrorizing Bamiyan, extorting food from the townspeople—600lb of food, two camels, and one girl per day, according to a version collected by the archaeologists Ahmad Ali Kohzad and Ria Hackin in the 1930s. Eventually salvation arrived in the form of Ali ibn Abi Talib, riding his horse Doldol and brandishing his sword Zulfiqar. Ali slew the dragon, rescued the girl, and converted the hitherto pagan people of Bamiyan to Islam, so impressed were they by his self-evidently divinely-sanctioned success.
A similar story is to be found attached to many rock formations across Afghanistan, in fact. My immediate reaction when I heard it was of course to be struck by its remarkable similarity to the tales told of St George, who also killed a dragon, rescued a girl, and converted the people, though in his case to Christianity. I wasn’t apparently the first to make the connection: English officers in the First Afghan War in 1840 were disconcerted to hear stories they associated with their national saint told of features of the landscape around Kabul.
But how do we explain more or less identical folk stories in Afghanistan and in England?
The myth of the dragon fighter is as ancient as can be, already well established in the earliest Persian and Indians texts we possess, and with parallels also in Greco-Roman myth and other ancient middle-eastern cultures. How to Kill a Dragon is the title of a book by Calvert Watkins in which he attempts to identify echoes of the poetic language of the original Indo-Europeans: it was evidently a story that was already being told, in some form, when the Indo-European ancestors were in their homeland on the steppe.
To explain the similarity of St George and Hazrat-e Ali, though, we probably don’t have to peer quite so far back in time. The dragon slayer was a particularly important image for the Sasanians, the pre-Islamic rulers of Iran. What the story of the dragon slayer has always essentially been about is the triumph of order and civilization over the forces of chaos. A key element of the story was often the securing of water, the essential commodity for agriculture, essential in turn for settled and civilized existence. In St George folklore water is often being hoarded by the dragon until released by the hero, and this is a common feature also of the story told in the East: in the Rigveda the divine hero Indra made the world when he slew the dragon and “let loose to flow the Seven Rivers,” for example, while the two ancient Iranian festivals of Nowruz and Mehragan were both associated with stories of dragon slaying that restored and maintained fertility. (Water flows through and out of the Azhdaha at Bamiyan, too.) But in pre-Islamic Iran the popularity of stories of dragon slayers, whether Garshasp or Feridun or many others, also reflected more profound doctrines of the Sasanian state religion, Zoroastrianism, which understood world history as a perpetual battle between sharply defined realms of Good and Evil: the story of hero destroying monster encapsulated that perennial duel.
(On all of this the article “Azdaha” in the wonderful online Encyclopaedia Iranica is extremely interesting.)
When Zoroastrianism was superseded by Islam, the thinking goes, the folklore persisted, only with Ali taking the role of the Persian hero, and the dragon assuming an Islamic rather than Zoroastrian religious significance.
Meanwhile, far to the west, St George was very much a product of Middle-Eastern Christianity. Jewish and Christian imagery and doctrine had long borrowed from their Zoroastrian neighbours, but the specific story of St George’s conquest of the dragon is quite a late development, first attested in the eleventh century AD. It seems to have enjoyed a particular popularity in Georgia and the Caucasus—territories that lay on the borders of the Iranian world and were profoundly influenced by Persian traditions of art and thought (cf. Sara Kuehn in her detailed study The Dragon in East Christian and Islamic Art).
So when Hazrat-e Ali in Bamiyan reminded me of St George, killing the dragon, rescuing the girl and converting the kingdom, what I may well have been seeing was the same essentially Persian myth, an expression of the Zoroastrian conflict between Light and Dark so powerfully definitive that it survived the eclipse of Zoroastrianism, and fed into both Islamic and Christian folklore at opposite edges of the Iranian plateau.
It’s still a fair distance from the Caucasus to England. But St George’s transformation into England’s patron saint was apparently an indirect consequence of the Crusades. The warrior saint’s tomb and cult centre was at Lydda in the Holy Land, and the town, known as St George by the Crusaders, remained under Christian control for most of the following two centuries. This brought him a growing following in Western Europe, and he slowly rose to prominence in England, although it was not until Edward III established the Order of the Garter in 1348, with St George as its patron and St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle as its home, that the association of “England and St George” was fixed for good.
Back in Bamiyan, that geothermal dragon has in the past received a lot of attention from archaeologists trying to reconstruct the Buddhist history of the valley. One popular theory was that this roughly 1,000-foot long geological formation was the very same as the fabled 1,000-foot “Parinirvana” Buddha (the Buddha lying on his deathbed, at the point of achieving ultimate release) mentioned by our best witness to Bamiyan in its Buddhist period, the seventh-century Chinese monk and traveller Xuanzang. It’s a tempting idea, but also unlikely: as a rule Xuanzang is impressively accurate in his topographical detail, and he locates the 1,000-foot Buddha a couple of miles to the east of Bamiyan, not five miles to the west. As for the gigantic size of the Buddha he saw, it’s probably nothing more dramatic than a corruption that has crept into the text of Xuanzang’s account.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Azhdaha wasn’t also a cult site when Bamiyan was Buddhist. So deep were the roots of this myth that when Buddhism came to what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan even the peaceable Buddha turned into a dragon fighter. Later in his journey Xuanzang visits Udyana (Swat), and recounts how a dragon had prevented the water of the river Swat reaching the crops of the valley people until the Buddha split the mountain with his diamond mace, the Vajra, cowed the dragon, and released the waters. It’s not impossible that a similar story was once told of the Dragon Valley in Bamiyan.
So are Hazrat-e Ali and St George so similar because they’re both really Feridun? I can’t personally think of a better explanation of such a striking coincidence. And while it’s easy to be disheartened by the way the tribes and religions of our world all line up behind their separate banners and champions, it’s perhaps quite heartening to ponder that those various competing heroes may all, basically, be one and the same