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Love and the Family: Augustus and the Ovidian Legacy

From: Arethusa
Volume 30, Number 1, Winter 1997
pp. 103-123 | 10.1353/are.1997.0005

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Arethusa 30.1 (1997) 103-123

Every story one chooses to tell is a kind of censorship, it prevents the telling of other tales.

Salman Rushdie

Much of the writing on the intersection of the two characters, Ovid and Augustus, centres on the account of the events of a.d. 8 and on speculations as to the exact cause of these events. Taking the censorship of the Ars Amatoria as a starting point, I propose to examine some of the issues arising from the censorship, while attempting to avoid rewriting them as issues leading to censorship. The first part of this paper is concerned with Ovid's and Augustus' common adoption of the magisterial or didactic persona, with particular attention paid to their use of exempla to reinforce their teaching. Of especial interest is the exemplary use by both praeceptores of the Danaid myth. Here I will foreground Ovid's portrayal of Hypermnestra in Heroides 14, as well as look briefly at Ovid's incorporation of Augustus' representation of the same myth into his erotic discourse. The Danaid portico, in my argument, becomes a landmark, within Ovidian poetry, of Augustan Rome, and reappears in the Tristia in the new context of estrangement. More than a physical landmark, however, the Danaid portico marks the ideological boundary of amor and pietas, a boundary which is always already problematised, not only within both Ovidian/erotic and Augustan/family discourses, but also by the possibility of describing these two ideological areas in the same terms, as I have already indicated by focussing on their common didactic purpose. Beyond the confusion of amor and pietas inherent in the story of the Danaids can be seen a further element to the story, that of the violence inherent in the foundation of a race or a city. Consequently I have chosen to focus also on Ovid's erotic appropriation of two other foundation myths, that of Romulus (which appears in passing throughout this paper), and the already eroticised story of Dido in the seventh poem of the Heroides. The second part of this paper is almost entirely to do with the exile poetry. Although these poems are represented by Ovid as signs of a radical change in his poetics, this representation is undermined by the similarity of terms with which both erotic and exilic writing can be figured. Furthermore, while expressing his alienation and rejection by Augustus from Rome, Ovid simultaneously continues to appropriate both Rome and Augustus, thus making his much-vaunted exile into an ironic strategy of poetic incorporation. It is with a sense of sympathetic irony, therefore, that I began this discussion with a quote from Salman Rushdie's novel of 1983, Shame.

In a recent article, the polarisation of literature into "Augustan" and "anti-Augustan" is demonstrated to be no more than one way in which we can make an account of ancient literary history. Hence, in the process of deconstructing these polarities, it is remarked (I shall not say concluded) that, "Ovid's ironic and flippant appropriation" "helps to render legitimate the moral and religious programme of Augustus." Although I am interested in presenting the respective works of Ovid and Augustus in what could be termed "oppositional" ways (namely the representations of Augustus which serve both to legitimate and occlude his position of domination, and Ovid's reinscription of those Augustan representations), nevertheless I take the point that the term "oppositional" itself sustains the domination which it purports to examine. For my purposes, a preferable way of describing the relation between Ovidian and Augustan representations is "pivotal," that is to say, these representations are focussed around a common domain of themes, as I have outlined above.

Ars Augusta

Paul Zanker has demonstrated how iconography of the Augustan era can be interpreted as a series of representations aimed at sustaining a political programme, indeed a particular political figure, in a position of domination. The medium of such representations betrays a concern not only with present image but with that of posterity. Augustus' extensive building projects, his abandoned autobiography, and his manifesto, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, can be seen to be directed at both contemporary Romans and future generations. To this may be...


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