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  • Ovid and the Fasti: An Historical Study
  • Joseph Farrell
Geraldine Herbert-Brown. Ovid and the Fasti: An Historical Study. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. xiv 1 249 pp.

This revised doctoral thesis is a learned and closely argued work that reads Ovid’s Fasti essentially as a historical document. This clarity of purpose is at once the book’s great strength and its principal weakness. To summarize the basic argument: The Fasti is a particularly reliable witness to the development of Augustan ideology. Its form not only attests the regime’s use of the state calendar as a vehicle for propaganda, but is so inherently unpoetic that only under official compulsion can Ovid have accepted the challenge it presented. Passages written at Rome and dealing with Augustus himself and members of his family must closely reflect how the ruling house wished to be portrayed at any given time. The revisions made during Ovid’s relegation to Tomis are pathetic attempts to curry favor on the part of a poet who is no longer in touch, with the result that they should be seen as producing exactly the opposite of their intended effect. Herbert-Brown’s argument is set forth in five chapters—(1) Why Fasti? (2) Augustus, (3) Julius Caesar, (4) Livia, (5) Germanicus—a brief epilogue, and a substantial appendix on omissions in the Fasti, all of which are accompanied by a bibliography, an index of passages cited, and a general index. The book is well organized and produced, despite quite a few annoying typographical errors.

There is no question but that the author has a thorough command of the historical evidence that bears on her subject. Her imagination is vivid and detailed, her attempts to reconstruct the ideological forces that shaped Augustus’ Principate and Ovid’s poem always challenging and instructive. In placing the Fasti within this milieu she makes several important advances. Her method of assessing the presence of Julius Caesar in the poem (109–129) is exemplary, and the argument concerning Vesta (66–80) is in a similar class. But the author’s claim “to have revealed how a mythology could be created to transform Republican titles into roles of monarchical stamp” (214) is overstated: that the Augustan regime relied on and worked to promote such a mythology is hardly a revelation. Nevertheless this study does manage to extend our understanding of how the state religion was manipulated so as to suggest that Augustus and his family ruled almost by divine right.

The idea that the unfinished, partially revised condition of the poem makes it not a snapshot of, but something like a running commentary on, a developing imperial ideology is a reasonable and promising hypothesis. On the other hand, the author’s insistence on treating the Fasti only in this way seems to me to distort her understanding not only of the poem but to some extent even of the historical forces that shaped it. So intent is she on minimizing the poetic character of the Fasti that she argues, “It is difficult to believe that [Ovid] would choose something as problematic and unwieldy as the Roman calendar to set to verse unless extraneous pressure were being applied. For this reason it is [End Page 641] more feasible that Ovid’s decision to produce a major work as a tribute to Caesar Augustus came first; his decision to versify the calendar was the result” (1). There are of course two glaringly obvious problems with these assumptions. In the first place, Roman poets had for a long time been following their Hellenistic predecessors in taking up challenging and unpoetic topics. The generation that preceded Ovid had produced wonderful poems that masqueraded as farming manuals, treatises of literary theory, astronomical guides, and so forth. Ovid too had already distinguished himself in the mock-didactic tradition; the more serious, but still light-hearted Fasti represents a greater challenge of a not dissimilar kind. In a related vein, Herbert-Brown’s effort to distinguish the Fasti as much as possible from Callimachus’ Aetia strikes me as particularly unfortunate. Differences, of course, there are, but when all is said, the Fasti is the single surviving ancient...

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