Tag Archive | Ovid

I’d like to report a murder

What follows is inspired by a question I was asked by my wonderfully talented friend N, but it illustrates a view of Ovid that I presented early in my very short book on the poet as his congenital inability to resist a good joke — a persistent feature of his poetry and arguably, ultimately, a blight on his life.

Ovid’s weakness for the flippant is something that sharply divides opinion about the poet among scholars today (many of my colleagues have absolutely no time for him), but it irritated ancient critics, too. Lasciuus quidem in herois quoque Ouidius et nimium amator ingenii sui, laudandus tamen in partibus, Quintilian asserted sniffily (10.1.89): “Ovid lacked seriousness even in epic and was too much a fan of his own talent, though praiseworthy in parts.” The epic that Quintilian is referring to is Ovid’s masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, and the verb lasciuire, with that same sense of being flippant and immature, is used by Seneca of Ovid’s flood narrative in the first book of the poem, a serious subject (in the philosopher’s view) ill served by Ovid’s playful treatment (Natural Questions 3.27.14). An epic should be a deadly serious undertaking, needless to say.

Well, what N asked me about was a passage in Metamorphoses Book 2 which happens to be one of my favourites. This is despite the fact — OK, directly consequent upon the fact — that I think it’s a tremendously silly moment. It features the crow recounting how she came to lose her status to the owl as the goddess Athena/Minerva’s favoured bird (for revealing that Cecrops’ daughters had seen the child Ericthonius in a chest that was not supposed to be opened); and also (since she is talkative to a fault) how she had earlier been transformed from a human into a crow by Minerva to protect her from assault by Neptune/Poseidon. N’s question to me was, What was the name of that woman who had been turned by Minerva into the crow, since Ovid never provides it?

My answer was that neither Ovid nor any other ancient author gives us a name for the pre-metamorphosis crow, but that I believed that this silence provided him with a golden opportunity to indulge that deplorable lack of seriousness Quintilian was talking about.

Let’s look at this passage a little more closely, because Ovid seems quite determined to make it as difficult as possible for his readers to follow. In particular, he introduces the autobiography of the crow in the context of a really quite similar story about the raven, and it’s a reasonable assumption that Romans found it as hard to distinguish these corvids as we typically do. As anticipated, furthermore, Ovid is far from clear and transparent about names. Here is a summary (Met. 2.531-634):

The raven is flying off to inform Apollo that the god’s lover Coronis, mother of Asclepius, is being unfaithful with a mortal man, but is waylaid en route by the crow, who shares with the raven her own backstory, specifically how, by telling tales in exactly the way the raven is planning to do, she found herself spurned by Minerva in favour of the owl; after that she describes her own transformation from human to bird. Subsequently the raven does inform Apollo, Apollo shoots Coronis dead with an arrow, regrets it (yeah, yeah), and in anger at the tale-telling turns the previously white raven jet-black .

This is already pretty convoluted, but the names take it to another level. The raven (in Latin, coruus; in Greek, κόραξ/corax) is telling tales about Apollo’s lover Coronis, whose name suggests the crow (in Latin cornix; in Greek κορώνη/corone). Meanwhile the crow (cornix, κορώνη/corone), in the course of her story, drops in the name of her human father, Coroneus (569). This detail seems to be pure invention on Ovid’s part, but given that “Coroneus” also suggests the Greek word for “crow”, κορώνη/corone, it is appropriate for the crow’s father, and if we are, like N, wondering what this woman was called, Corone or Coronis are strongly implied both by her father’s name and the fact that she becomes a crow. So we have two parallel stories associated with similar-looking birds who both talk too much, but we also have one heroine called Coronis and another apparently called Corone/Coronis. Confused? So you should be. And a reminder that a lot of the confusion is deliberately sown by means of that invented name Coroneus.

Now it should be said that we’d get even more out of this passage if we had the mini-epic Hecale of Ovid’s great Greek model Callimachus. One reason we don’t have it, as Adrian Hollis explains in his edition of the poem’s surviving fragments* (p. 40) is a bunch of marauding Frankish crusaders who sacked Athens in 1205 and as they did so quite possibly destroyed the last surviving complete copy of the work. One had apparently existed in the library, likely on the Acropolis itself, of Michael Choniates, Archbishop of Athens. In the course of Callimachus’ poem, in any case (the evidence now mainly coming in papyri from Egypt), there was a scene, possibly immediately after the death of the title character Hecale, that involved a crow (κορώνη/corone) telling another bird about Ericthonius, possibly again with a view to dissuading the other bird from sharing the unwelcome news of Hecale’s death. Callimachus’ crow then went on to prophesy (crows being considered both very old and prophetic creatures) that the raven (κόραξ/corax) would one day be turned from white to black for telling Apollo about Coronis’ infidelity (fragments 70-74 Hollis, although frs. 75-7 may also be spoken by the crow). Clearly Ovid owes a lot to Callimachus, then, and while piecing together fragmentary texts is a confusing exercise at the best of times, I suspect that Callimachus was already in the game of writing a narrative involving the punishment of too many corvids, and deliberately making it tricky for his readers to disentangle.

(Incidentally, this is all, as Hollis remarks, deeply poignant, as the myth of the crow’s rejection was supposed to explain why crows avoided the Athenian Acropolis, where it is possible that the very last complete copy of Hecale was to be found.)

What I’m suggesting, in any case, is that Ovid constructs a confusing narrative situation, somewhat indebted to Callimachus and built on an existing human confusion between indistinguishable birds, and deliberately exacerbates it through a play with names. (Incidentally, it’s typical of Ovid that the effect hangs simultaneously on something so refined as a sophisticated understanding of myth and literary history, and something so universal as the inability to distinguish a crow from a raven.) In particular he strongly encourages his readers to supply a name for one heroine, by naming her father Coroneus, which will be indistinguishable from that of another very famous heroine (cf. Pindar, Pyth. 3.5-46 as well as Callimachus). I’ll come back to this latter idea, but some further evidence first that I’m not alone in being confused by Ovid’s corvid narrative. When Chaucer in The Manciple’s Tale retells the story of Apollo and Coronis, it is a “crowe”, not a raven, that tells the tale and suffers a change in plumage. Edgar Allan Poe, meanwhile, in a reasonably famous poem associates a raven bringing news of some mysterious kind with a bust of Pallas Athena, not Apollo. Sir James Frazer struggles with what is a very complex web of stories even before Ovid gets hold of them, and suggests a deeper mythical kinship between Athena/crow and Apollo/raven.

Donald Hill’s commentary* on this passage gets what I think is going on by not getting it, I would respectfully suggest. He comments on 569:

Coroneus: not otherwise known, but the name was presumably chosen to encourage the reader to supply for the name of the crow herself the Greek word for that bird, ‘Corone’. Her name is certainly not ‘Coronis’, as in the plot summaries of some medieval manuscripts and renaissance editions, for that would produce intolerable confusion.

Those are my italics. But to put Hill’s argument another way, Ovid has successfully provoked lots of medieval and Renaissance (and no doubt ancient) readers to supply the name “Coronis”, but that can’t be right as it would be far too confusing. Alison Keith, in a clever and detailed treatment of the passage in the context of the whole book, reads the overlapping parallels between Ovid’s crow and raven narratives as supporting in various ways the characterisation of their encounter — not as intolerably confusing, then, but as complexity with a coherent narrative purpose. There’s every chance she’s right, but I find myself closer to Alessandro Barchiesi*, who’s more inclined to see the complexity, our feeling as readers that we have lost our way, as an end in itself for Ovid. The watchword with Ovid’s poem, I’ve suggested, is its lasciuia, frivolousness, mischief, indiscipline. The joke is its own justification. Here, Ovid mischievously brings into collision readily confused birds, and myths, and caps that confusion by drawing us to conclude that both myths centre round women who share the very same name. Far from “intolerable confusion” being a reason to resist a particular reading of the Metamorphoses, this is exactly what this poet is regularly aiming to inflict on his readers, preferably provoking them to laugh at the same time — and when the crow’s father is revealed to be called Coroneus, we really should be laughing.

I would love to be able to see a way of relating Coronis and [Coronis] to the symbol, yet another thing called “coronis”, which marked the end of an ancient book (Ovid is very interested in the physical actuality of his book rolls), but that is eluding me. Nevertheless, if we do lose our bearings in this story, I’m confident that we’re doing what Ovid wanted us to do. It’s hyper-sophisticated, it’s thoroughly daft (lasciuus), and (for good or ill) it’s Ovid through-and-through.

A. Barchiesi, Ovidio, Metamorfosi, Vol. 1: Libri I-II (Milan, 2005);

D. E. Hill, Ovid, Metamorphoses I-IV (Warminster, 1985);

A. M. Keith, The Play of Fictions: Studies in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 2 (Ann Arbor, 1992);

A. S. Hollis, Callimachus, Hecale (Oxford, 1990);

The source of the illustration at the top is here; and the image at the bottom, a coronis from a papyrus marking the conclusion of the Persians of Timotheus, is from here.

Iphis & Ianthe, full stop.

Youth with a scroll, from the Casa del Cenacolo, Pompeii, photo by Dr Sophie Hay

My Ovid: A Very Short Introduction is edging ever closer to publication, and I’ve been blogging snippets as I’ve gone along. Here’s a final thought on the subject of Iphis and Ianthe, the intensely satisfying story that concludes Metamorphoses IX. (It has been brilliantly retold, relocated to a mildly surreal but very contemporary Scotland, by Ali Smith in Girl Meets Boy.)

The story of Iphis and Ianthe, first of all. Iphis’ father has told his pregnant wife Telethusa that if her child should prove to be a girl she must not be allowed to live. But the goddess Isis appears to Telethusa in a dream and orders her to disobey her husband and raise the child whatever the gender. Iphis is born a girl, but raised by Telethusa as a boy, and her husband never becomes aware of her deceit. Iphis is betrothed to a girl named Ianthe, and they are deeply in love with each other. But Iphis (and Telethusa) live in dread of the marriage day when their secret will be revealed, to Ianthe as well as to Iphis’ father. A desperate appeal by Telethusa to Isis follows, and when Iphis and her mother emerge from the goddess’ temple, a metamorphosis has occurred:

sequitur comes Iphis euntem
quam solita est maiore gradu nec candor in ore
permanet et uires augentur et acrior ipse est
uultus et incomptis brevior mensura capillis,
plusque uigoris adest habuit quam femina. nam quae
femina nuper eras, puer es!

“Iphis follows her mother closely as she goes/ with a stride larger than usual, and the whiteness is no longer/ on her face. Her strength increases, and her very features/ are sharper, and her hair shorter and untidy:/ she has more vigor than she had as a woman. For you who/ were just now a woman, are a boy!”

Iphis and Ianthe, now boy and girl, are married, and so the tale ends.

But why do I call this narrative intensely satisfying? Well, partly because a love story that faces an insurmountable challenge but achieves unexpected resolution and eventuates in a happy marriage answers a few of the requirements of the archetypal narrative plot, and Ovid structures and paces his story to perfection (Ovid is aside from anything else a superb storyteller). Latin also has the resources, in Ovid’s hands at least, to end the story with the two names “Iphis Ianthe” lying next to each other in the last two words of the book.

Partly that, then, but, at the risk of appearing hopelessly cold and donnish, what I like more than anything about this story is how it plays with poetic form. This can perhaps be forgiven the author of a whole book on Roman metrical form, and here in Met. IX there’s a metrical dimension to things, as I’ll explain. But the form I have more in mind is that imposed by book divisions. Metamorphoses has fifteen books in modern editions, and that corresponds to an ancient text divided into fifteen separate uolumina or book rolls (the young man in the image at the top is holding a uolumen). A physical multi-book poem in antiquity would thus have been a great deal more cumbersome than a modern paperback, but so also would the reader’s experience of passing from book to book. The end of Book I and beginning of Book II of the Metamorphoses was not simply a matter of turning the page, but putting aside (and potentially also rewinding) one roll and then locating the next among fourteen others.

Ovid, a poet ever alert to the mechanics of composition (and of reading), has lots of fun with the ends and beginnings of his books, in particular avoiding Virgil’s practice in the Aeneid of tying up an episode tidily in one book. More typical of Ovid’s approach is the end of the previous book, Book VIII, where the horned river god Achelous points to a horn he is missing from his forehead, but we have to wait until Book IX to learn how he lost it in combat with Hercules and how it became the Cornucopia. (Horns proliferate at the end of Ovid’s books, and it’s something to do with the fact that the cornua, “horns”, were the ends of the stick around which books were rolled, and “rolled out right to its horns” was synonymous with “read right to the end”, see Martial 11.107.1: Ovid wants us to be very clear what he is doing with these bookends.) The disorderliness that this lack of respect for book divisions brings to Ovid’s narrative is one of many ways in which Ovid allows the principle of instability, intrinsic to a work about change, to seep into every aspect of the poem.

But if books have a habit of not ending the way they should, it can be a metamorphically disruptive move to do the opposite, too. Alternatively, there’s no more satisfying a conclusion than one that comes after a string of indecisive examples. The story of Iphis and Ianthe is the last story of Book IX, and with its conclusion the book also ends: “Iphis Ianthe” are the final words of the book, as I’ve mentioned. That conclusion, as I’ve also suggested, is heavily underlined in other ways: a narrative neatly wrapped up, a wedding, the newly-weds tucked up in bed. But in formal terms, too, Book IX of the Metamorphoses ends in a very, very conventional way. In fact I’d say that there’s no other book in the Metamorphoses that concludes quite so tidily and conclusively, with the necessary exception of the very last, Book XV.

To make explicit an extra point on form that’s been hovering about the discussion so far, this satisfactory closure operates at a macro and a micro level. On the one hand there is strong narrative resolution coinciding with the end of a book roll; on the other we have the very last line of the book, conueniunt, potiturque sua puer Iphis Ianthe, where the names of the lovers fit to perfection the cadence of the line, the “adoneus” or dum-di-di-dum-dum which ends most hexameter lines, and which in Latin feels most conclusive when, as here, word accent shadows rhythm, Íphis Iánthe.

When I find Iphis and Ianthe such a thoroughly satisfying story, then, it’s partly because at this point everything about the narrative, down to the relation of that narrative to its physical vehicle, the book roll, and even to the placement of words in the verse end, is just tickety-boo.

Genre, gender (& some genitalia)

A seasonal blog about how heroes die. Draw your own conclusions about my state of mind at the end of 2018.

One of the most celebrated/notorious episodes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the Calydonian boar hunt in Book VIII (270-444), and it typifies Ovid’s irreverent approach to epic narrative. An impressive band of heroes (Theseus, Jason, Peleus, Telamon, Laertes, Nestor and many more: the generation before the Iliad, so in principle even more heroic than Achilles, Ajax or Odysseus) gathers together to help Meleager deal with a monstrous boar that is wreaking havoc in Calydon, but Ovid turns material that might make a very acceptable epic narrative into a “boisterous comedy”, in Nicholas Horsfall’s words.* Telamon trips over a tree root, for example, and Nestor polevaults onto a branch. Most outrageously of all, it is a woman, Atalanta, who shows most physical prowess, drawing first blood from the boar.

Ovid’s approach to writing epic, in simple terms, is not to do what an epic is supposed to do, but at the same time constantly remind us what a respectable epic should be doing. An essential characteristic of epic, perhaps its quintessential quality, is its masculinity, its concern with males who are more male than ordinary males and excel in stereotypically male activities, warfare and violent physical activity especially, but also forceful speech and charismatic leadership. Promoting a female character at the expense of the male suits Ovid’s aims perfectly: the prominence in Ovid’s telling of this myth of a woman huntress, alongside male heroes falling far short of the heroic ideal, strikes epic at its core.

Which brings us to the business of this blog. Ancaeus is another hero who meets a humiliating end in the course of the boar hunt, but his mode of death is particularly meaningful. An exaggeratedly male, bombastic hero, wielding a double axe, Ancaeus responds to Atalanta’s success by commanding his comrades to stand back and “Learn how far men’s weapons surpass women’s,/ and make way for my action” (discite femineis quid tela uirilia praestent/ o iuuenes, operique meo concedite, 392-3), before being peremptorily despatched by the boar with a blow from both tusks in the groin. There is nothing coincidental about the location of Ancaeus’ terminal wound. As I wrote a few years ago,** citing Adams’ seminal reference work The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (p. 93 n. 3), “tela, uirilia, and opus are all terms regularly used of the penis, and ‘there was a marked tendency for adjectives of the base femin- to be applied… to the female parts.'” Alternative translations of operique meo concedite may suggest themselves. But if epic is all about uirtus, “manhood”, this caricature of an epic hero dies a death that encapsulates Ovid’s contrarian attitude to the genre he’s supposed to be writing.

My mind turned back to poor Ancaeus a couple of weeks ago when preparing a MOOC for my old student Chris Tudor (Massolit is a great resource, incidentally, which I enthusiastically recommend). I was talking about Aeneid XI, and one of my lectures was on Camilla, the female warrior whose exploits occupy the latter part of the book (and who is a key model for Ovid’s Atalanta). Here also we find an epic investigating its own gender biases, but Virgil’s poem is altogether more conventional in this respect than Ovid’s. Camilla is a formidable warrior, dominating the battlefield and seeing off a number of male antagonists (aduenit qui uestra dies muliebribus armis/ uerba redargueret, “the day has come for a woman’s weapons to refute your words”, she vaunts over one victim, 687-8). But her death is occasioned by a dramatic reversion to (a stereotype of) conventional female behaviour: Alison Keith^ talks of “a Greco-Roman stereotype regarding women’s excessive interest in clothing and personal adornment” (p. 29). Distracted by the sight of a gorgeously bedecked Trojan priest called Chloreus, Camilla forgets her military priorities and goes in pursuit, burning “with a womanly desire for plunder and spoils” (782). Her defences down, Camilla is easily picked off by a nonentity called Arruns (whose own, weirdly anonymous, death shortly after is one of the eeriest passages in the Aeneid).

Camilla’s death seems in some respects like a crude replay of Dido’s departure from Virgil’s epic. In a similar way, a woman’s presence in this overwhelmingly male space of epic is condoned for as long as she acts like a stereotypical man, in Dido’s case as a head of state and dux, in Camilla’s as a fighter. But when women start to behave like (the ancient stereotype of) women, falling in love, acting and speaking irrationally, indulging their own selfish interests, distracted by beautiful superficialities, their time in epic is limited.

Of course Virgil, in this as in other respects, was well able to exploit the rigid generic expectations he inherited by contravening the rules for effect, and the intrinsic power of these female characters derives not least from their anomalous status in epic. “Ce qui fait l’expressivité, c’est la règle enfreinte”, as Joseph Hellegouarc’h^^ succinctly expressed it: classical literature is rule-bound, but drew much of its power of expression from that very fact. Ultimately, however, Virgil’s treatment of women in the Aeneid cannot fail but represent an endorsement of the misogyny enshrined in epic poetry, the most culturally authoritative of ancient poetic genres.

Returning to topic, a case in point is the detail that reminded me so strongly of Ancaeus, another mortal blow delivered in a significant location. Arruns’ spear strikes Camilla below her “exposed breast” (exserta papilla, 803): Camilla is portrayed as dressed for the fight like an Amazon, one breast uncovered, the archetypal ancient image of a fighting woman. (What made this the archetypal image is worth contemplating: see Adrienne Mayor,^* Chapter 5.) Again, the death of a warrior, and the location of the terminal wound, defines the character of the poem, Virgil’s conventional epic focusing on Camilla’s gender as she exits the poem, as Ovid had highlighted Ancaeus’s.

But what imperils those tidy categories just a little bit is the episode that immediately precedes Camilla’s death, again foregrounding gender/genre-defining concerns and indeed clearly setting the scene for what follows. The Etruscan leader Tarchon, mythical founder of Virgil’s hometown Mantua, rallies his cavalry against Camilla’s by hurling himself into the heart of the enemy forces, actually seizing hold of one of them, Venulus, and carrying him off bodily on his own horse. It is a spectacular exercise in male bravado: Tarchon grapples with Venulus while still on horseback, snapping off the point of Venulus’ spear and trying to drive it into his opponent’s throat. And as he gallops forward Tarchon berates his own men for their effeminacy in failing to resist Camilla. femina palantis agit atque haec agmina uertit?, 734, “Is a woman driving you off in disorder and routing these ranks?!”, he asks incredulously.

Virgil sums up this peculiar scene in a very suggestive way: uolat igneus aequore Tarchon,/ arma uirumque ferens, “Tarchon flies like fire over the plain, bearing the man and his weapons”, 746-7. Arma uirum, “Arms and the man”, deliberately recalls the opening words (and alternative title) of the Aeneid, and the central role it promises for the uir, the heroic man, the embodiment of uirtus. Back in Book 9 the Latin warrior Numanus Remulus in a vaunting speech had dismissed the Trojans as eastern effeminates, and there also the poet had implied that “toxic masculinity” was of the essence of his own poem: sinite arma uiris et cedite ferro, Numanus tells the Trojans, “Leave weapons to the men, and renounce the sword” (Aen. 9.620). “Virgil’s readers will take sinite arma uiris in the further sense of a command to leave the world of martial epic”, Philip Hardie comments.*^ Epic is male territory. If the Trojans are indeed inadequately male, as Numanus suggests, they have no role to play in it.

Well, Virgil’s narrative enacts a similar judgement on Camilla and Dido, expelling them when they start acting too much like women. But it is well said that Ovid finds almost all the material he needs to mock epic values already present in conventional examples of the genre like the Aeneid, working on details in Virgil or Homer that threaten the clear-cut definitions epic aspires to project. Ovid fashions Atalanta from Virgil’s Camilla, but Tarchon isn’t so different from Ancaeus, either. The hyperbole that makes Tarchon a character worthy of epic, superhuman and extraordinary, is also what makes Ancaeus’ overblown antics so absurd. What distinguishes the two is not much more than the license Ovid gives us to laugh at his creations (there is much of great value in the Aeneid, but very few laughs). Tarchon’s exploit carries a hint of the ritual of devotio, the last word in Roman military heroics whereby a general ensured victory by hurling himself into the midst of the enemy and vowing himself and the enemy to the gods of the underworld (for Tarchon and devotio see Matthew Leigh in this volume of Proceedings of the Virgil Society),^*^ which is a further disincentive to laugh at him.

Once again, though, especially if we happen to writing a chapter about it, we can say thank God for the Metamorphoses, and Ovid’s acute sense of the instability of epic bluster. After reading Ovid on Ancaeus, certainly, it’s hard to take Tarchon very seriously.

The Latin for “toxic masculinity”, by the way, is temeraria uirtus (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.407).

^A. M. Keith, Engendering Rome: women in Latin epic (Cambridge, 2000);
*^P. R. Hardie, Virgil, Aeneid Book IX (Cambridge, 1994);
^*A. Mayor, The Amazons: lives and legends of warrior women across the ancient world (Princeton, 2014);
*N. Horsfall, “Epic and burlesque in Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII,” CJ 74 (1979), 319-32;
^*^M. Leigh, “Hopelessly devoted to you: traces of the Decii in Virgil’s Aeneid,” PVS 21 (1993), 89-110;
^^J. Hellegouarc’h, Le monosyllabe dans l’hexamètre latin; essai de métrique verbale (Paris, 1964);
**Ll. Morgan, “Child’s play: Ovid and his critics,” JRS 93 (2003), 66-91.

Dunno much about topography

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.

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*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.

Vulgaria

Version 2

Photo courtesy of Sophie Hay

Two thoughts on Roman city dwelling here, first shared a couple of years ago, retooled for the world of COVID-19. They originate in a weekly graduate seminar I was helping to coordinate on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto 4, the very last poems composed by Rome’s second- or possibly third-greatest and most influential poet, and some research I was doing on Aeneas and Roman priesthoods, forthcoming later this year in Classical Quarterly (a publication on Ovid is on its way, too, feel free to pre-order). So what follows concerns a passage that particularly struck me from Ex Ponto 4.9 and a piece of priestly equipment I had hitherto not been aware of. The common factor is something like personal space and keeping one’s distance.

The city of Rome was loud, smelly and crowded: Horace talks of the beatae/ fumum et opes strepitumque Romae, “the smoke and riches and hubbub of prosperous Rome” (Odes 3.29.11-12). One’s capacity to enjoy a comfortable existence within it essentially depended on one’s wealth and class. The satirist Juvenal gives a splendidly exaggerated account of what it was like for the little guy (3.243-8):

                                       nobis properantibus obstat

unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos

qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro

alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.

pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna

calcor, et in digito clauus mihi militis haeret.

“As I hurry along, the wave ahead impedes me/ and the people that follow me in a massed rank crush my kidneys./ One smacks me with his elbow, another with a hard pole./ This guy bashes my head with a beam, that guy with a wine cask./ My legs are caked with mud, and now I’m trampled by huge feet on every side,/ and a soldier’s hobnail boot is planted on my toe.”

The rich man, according to Juvenal, avoids all this hassle by riding in a litter the size of a ship, and reads or writes or even sleeps as he’s effortlessly conveyed over the crowd.

Another way of keeping your distance from other people was the commoetaculum, an item that might be of some considerable use in our current circumstances. You can see a commoetaculum, a kind of wand, in the hand of the figure in the middle of the image at the top: the man holding it is a flamen, a variety of Roman priest, and may well be the most important flamen, the flamen Dialis who was the priest of the chief god Jupiter.

The flamen Dialis and his wife the flaminica (the priesthood really consisted in the family group as a whole) were obliged to live a life that segregated them from the rest of humanity. Their lives were dedicated to the gods they served, to the extent that they came to be regarded as offerings to the god or as their embodiments on earth: the flamen Dialis was “a sacred and animate statue” of their deity, as Plutarch memorably puts it (Roman Questions 111). Other taboos laid on the flamen (we typically hear more about him than the flaminica), a prohibition on oaths, on knots in his clothes, on seeing humans at work, all served to distance the priest from the domain of profani, ordinary people, and to make him sacer, sacred, the possession of the gods.

The commoetaculum was a practical aide to this end: people were kept at a physical remove from the priest with a judicious prod of his wand. There might not seem an obvious class dimension to all this, except that the character of this priesthood was felt to reflect in important ways the behaviour and lifestyle of the ancient elite of Rome, a kind of ideal original family. You could only be flamen or flaminica Dialis if you were a patrician, a member of the ancient Roman aristocratic class, and if you and your parents and your spouse’s parents had all been married by an arcane ritual called confarreatio, a ceremony that was again restricted to the patrician class. So there is in fact a very aristocratic quality to this implement designed to maintain a proper distance between a Roman of high status and the general populace.

Ovid was posh, too, perhaps the most socially elevated of all the Roman poets. But by the time he was writing Ex Ponto 4, he couldn’t afford such scruples. Ovid has been banished, partly for obscure reasons seemingly related to conspiracies against Augustus, and partly for his risqué poem The Art of Love, to the edge of the Empire, Tomi on the Black Sea in modern Romania. A consistent theme of the poems he writes back to men who might help him overturn or mitigate his exile (superbly crafted and moving poems, as I’ve also suggested before) is how desperately he misses his home city. In general Roman authors could always conjure up a bit of ambivalence about Rome, as we’ve seen. Ovid had no such qualms, delighting unapologetically in the vibrant society and culture of Augustan Rome.

To send such a man away from Rome was unusually vindictive, and that’s no doubt partly why Augustus did it. In exile Ovid dwells obsessively on the city from which he is banned, to the extent that, as a colleague put it during the seminar, we get a lot more detailed information about the city of Rome from Ovid far away on the Black Sea than we do from authors actually domiciled there.

In Ex Ponto 4.9 he celebrates the consulship won by Pomponius Graecinus, another old associate he hopes will be able to make his case with the Emperor (Tiberius by now, as Augustus had recently died; but Tiberius proved no more sympathetic). Ovid imagines being on the spot as Graecinus goes through the elaborate ritual of inauguration, and it could not be more different from that fastidious priest with his pointy stick (4.9.21-8):

nec querulus, turba quamuis eliderer, essem,

sed foret a populo tum mihi dulce premi.

prospicerem gaudens quantus foret agminis ordo

densaque quam longum turba teneret iter,

quoque magis noris quam me uulgaria tangant,

spectarem qualis purpura te tegeret.

signa quoque in sella nossem formata curuli

et totum Numidi sculptile dentis opus.

Nor would I complain, though bruised by the crowd;/ at such a time it would be pleasant to feel the crush of the people./ I would behold with joy how long was the line of the procession/ and how dense the throng all along its route./ And that you may know how trivial things appeal to me,/ I would examine the texture of the purple you wear./ I would even inspect the figures carved on your curule chair,/ all the sculpted work of Numidian ivory.”

What “touch” (tangant) Ovid are uulgaria, a wonderfully suggestive word: trivial things, ordinary things, popular things. Ovid the toff rejoices here in exactly what Juvenal would later complain so bitterly about, getting manhandled by crowds, emerging physically battered from a walk through the city. But it is the touch, the sensation of Rome that Ovid yearns for: Graecinus’ consular robes with their purple border, and the ivory carvings on his official consular chair–in his imagination Ovid seems almost to be running his fingers over them. He cannot get enough of the city of Rome, cannot get too close to it.

But the poem to Graecinus may be the very last poem that Ovid ever wrote. This Roman never did emerge from his confinement.