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  • Weighty Words, Suspect Speech:Fari in Roman Culture
  • Maurizio Bettini

When he set out to recount the legend of Tarpeia—that ill-fated Roman maiden who, out of love for the Sabine Tatius, allowed Rome's enemies inside her gates—Propertius did not neglect to preface his poem with a solemn declaration of his intentions, as was customary for ancient poets. Tradition demanded that this preamble somehow advertise the subject of the poem; only on this occasion, Propertius's choice of words was rather particular (Elegiae 4.4.1–2):

Tarpeium nemus et Tarpeiae turpe sepulchrumfabor et antiqui limina capta Iovis.

The Tarpeian grove and Tarpeia's appalling tomb will Ising, and the captured threshold of ancient Jupiter.

Why did Propertius choose the strange term fabor? He could have said referam or referemus (as, in fact, he does in the case of the Temple of [End Page 313] Palatine Apollo, which he also "sings": Palatini referemus Apollinis aedem, 4.6.11), or used a similar word such as canam or dicam. I suggest that, by choosing this precise expression, Propertius intended to describe himself as a poet-seer, a priest or vates, and thereby to claim the right to employ a mode of speech endowed with discernible qualities of sacredness and power in Roman culture. In this paper, then, I will attempt to characterize as fully as possible the mode of speech that the Romans classify with the verb fari. As I will demonstrate, fari represents a way of speaking that far surpasses other normal utterances in terms of its authority, efficacy, and credibility. However, it is for this very reason that fari also, rather paradoxically, always risks losing its trustworthiness and credibility. In the course of this study of fari, moreover, I will consider some key terms in Roman culture such as facundia, fama, and fabula, and the cultural models that these terms represent.

1. Words of Revelation and Words of Power

Fari is an archaic word. Cicero considered the compound effari already obsolete by his own day (de Oratore 3.153). Furthermore, the simplex fari came to be used to describe the normal way of speaking only in highly stylized contexts, such as epic poetry (cf. Vergil Aen. 6.389: fare age, quid venias? "Come then, tell me: why do you come?"). This fact alone suggests that fari connotes a very specific way of speaking that is different from those implied by more common terms such as loquor, aio, and dico. This impression will be confirmed by more detailed analysis.

Already in archaic poetry, the verb fari describes the speech of soothsayers or a "voice" that reveals hidden secrets: thus we find Anchises, to whom the goddess Venus fari donavit, "gave the power to predict the future" (Ennius Ann. frags. 15–16 Skutsch); and Aeneas, who, in a dream, ef-fatus, "prophesied" (frag. 46 Skutsch) to his daughter the misfortunes she will have to endure. Likewise, ancient Roman religion knew of two divinities Fatuus and Fatua whose names undoubtedly derive from fari and whose province was prophetic speech.1 This way of speaking was the characteristic [End Page 314] mode of speech of the prophet, therefore, e.g., Seneca's Oedipus implores Tiresias to explain the meaning of Apollo's oracles, commanding the seer, "Resolve the oracle's meaning and reveal (fare) the name of that man whom we should punish!" (Seneca Oed. 291–92). Later, when Manto presses Tiresias to explain the terrible events unfolding before her eyes, he responds, "What could I possibly reveal (fari), wandering, ruined as I am, through this mental turmoil?" (328–29).

That fari means "to reveal" helps to explain its connection with fateor, "to confess," through the participle fatus:2 "confession" is fundamentally a mode of "revelation," and it is quite natural for these two actions to be designated by terms derived from the same root. The link between the verb fari and prophetic expression is probably also reflected in the curious grammatical idiosyncrasy that fari never appears in the first person in the present indicative but only in the future indicative (Macrobius frag. 25 Keil). Fabor, rather than *for, is the form that Roman authors employ: in other...


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