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Informing and Involving the Connected Reader: A Case Study

The methodological approach I have outlined will be applied to Publius Ovidius Naso’s Libri fastorum, his commentary on the Roman calendar in its graphic form of the fasti. This book was largely composed between AD 2 and 8, and may have been almost complete as early as AD 4, about a generation after Propertius.[1] Again, the audience for this text must be sought among the Roman elite. This is true despite the diverse critical voices discernible in several late republican and early Augustan texts, from Catullus and Vergil to Horace and Propertius. It was in the communicative and social space of the elite that such poetry was instrumental. These texts “became part of the Romans’ social equipment and came to inform their view of the world,” as Sander Goldberg has shown in his study on republican Roman literature.[2] Religious practices, institutions, and history also played a substantial role in this view of the world.[3]

Ovid’s six books, covering the months of January to June, are, together with Propertius’s fourth book of elegies (to which Ovid reacts)[4] the apogee of such “authoritative” poetry in the early principate. These texts are part of the cultural revolution that Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has demonstrated to be at the heart of the Augustan “restoration.”[5] Accordingly, they were highly political statements.[6] From a broader perspective, however, the composition of these texts on Roman religion was also a part of the process of insular rationalization, which took place from the third century BC onward, and which—at least for religion—came to a halt in the Augustan era.[7]

Ovid’s elegiac poems on an epic scale are particularly fruitful material for investigations of audience and narrator construction. The homodi- egetic narrator (Genette’s terminology for the narrator fully embedded in the principal narration)[8] is not omniscient, but is himself frequently in need of further information, or he reflects on competing explanations for a single phenomenon. As Joy Littlewood puts it, “Audience involvement is essential to Ovid’s Fasti narrative, which is a personal exchange with literary Rome, the educated elite.” The short, self-contained units of elegiac distiches are especially suitable to “colloquial dialogue.”[9] Furthermore, the elaborate dedication of the Librifastorum to Augustus in the first version (probably transposed to the dedicatory opening of the second book, on February, in the final version)[10] and the dedication to Germanicus in the second and final version (written from exile, AD 8—17) obviously call for the active appropriation of every single reader. Not only do these lines argue directly and forcefully for the importance of the poems’ contents to the individual dedicatees and their supporters, but they also demand that all readers consider their importance more generally. Time and again these “connected readers” are directly addressed. The opening of the sixth book provides an example:

Hic quoque mensis habet dubias in nomine causas: quae placeat, positis omnibus ipse leges. (6.1—2)[11]

This month, too, has dubious causes for its name.

All will be listed. Pick the one you like.[12]

The form of literary communication found in the Libri fastorum is a feature of antiquarian literature that had been developing at Rome since the second century BC. In the face of imperial expansion and rapid social and cultural change, antiquarian descriptions and systematizations of Roman rituals and institutions offered a way to construe a particular cultural identity beyond military dominance; it also offered a way to negotiate change and tradition. Augustus exploited this fully; innovations could, through such literature, be rooted in a vision of religious continuity and reaffirmation.[13]

As Wallace-Hadrill points out, “ ‘Traditionalism’ brought not inflexibility, but the basis for creative adaptation. Cultural identity invested in a remote past becomes not so much a program as an alibi.”[14]

But there is more to it. It is my contention that description and prescription went hand in hand in this discourse. By tapping into different local, social, and even ethnic traditions, antiquarianism offered not only a fuller account of a common cultural heritage, but also a broad range of religious resources, practices, and beliefs for individual appropriation. This detailed and colorful image of religion does more than serve the narrow ideological function of providing identity for contemporaries; for us, it offers a glimpse into “lived ancient religion,” even if it is difficult or even impossible to determine in every particular instance whether we are dealing with actual or merely imagined lived religion. In the latter case, given the communicative and social context of this type of imagination, it is, at the very least, an imagination closely controlled by contemporaries. This holds true for the information that is supplied about religious practices as much as it does for that which is implied about a connected reader’s interest in these practices. Whereas previous research, with its interest in religious institutions, has concentrated on the former, this analysis, which aims to investigate lived religion, will concentrate on the latter.

Ovid did not invent a Roman calendar of festivals. His commentary is a reaction to a series of calendar reforms that started with the technical reform of the dictator Caesar, and that changed an age-old instrument of daily use, rendering it a prominent tool of political and dynastic propaganda. First found in the form of a large marble calendar in the sanctuary of the reformed priesthood of the Arval Brethren shortly after the battle of Actium, publicly displayed Roman fasti were quickly produced, proliferating in Rome as well as in central Italy and occasionally beyond.[15] Augustus used the calendar to represent his own achievements in the form of extended festival annotations, creating heightened awareness of the included rituals, an awareness that extended far beyond the actual participants. In turn, the local elites even of small villages, magistrates, and slave collegia were able both to display their loyalty by copying these calendars and to inscribe themselves into this Augustan world in the form of annual lists of magistrates, likewise called fasti.32 If it had been attractive to know about Roman festivals and the “Roman year,” it now became imperative to know about the fasti, the specific graphic form of the Roman calendar. Ovid embraced this necessity as a creative challenge.[16] [17]

Before any further details are addressed, the implications even of the generic identification of the poem, not only as a didactic text but also as a commentary, must be pointed out. The poem functions only if the connected reader is using a personal copy of the calendar to actively follow the chronology. The poem assumes that the reader does this, and it is a requirement without which it would be hard, at times impossible, to understand the text.[18] The locus classicus is Ov. Fast. 5.727—28: “The next place comes with four marks, which, read in order, / denote a sacred rite or the king’s flight.” The connected reader is, therefore, very active.[19] The abbreviations, brief notes, and names that are found on the calendar itself are the primary prompts for questions (and at times answers). Ovid introduced treatments of the rising and setting of constellations, thus necessitating other devices, “parapegmata,”[20] and requiring an even more active reader. Here, we find implicit in Ovid’s treatment a criticism of contemporary calendars in the face of the growing popularity of astrology; according to his model, important astronomic data ought to be integrated into the fasti. This initiative was later adopted by popular forms of domestic calendars found throughout the Roman Empire.[21]

In terms of reader construction, the Libri fastorums main feature is the directly apostrophized reader in the second-person singular. This was a well-known technique for involving readers (or listeners), relinquishing the magisterial authority of the omniscient narrator to exert a subtler influence over readers’ interests. In Ovid, the narrator’s questions are attributed to the narrated reader, as if the narrator’s answers are prompted by the interjections of a present interlocutor. The questions raised by the narrated reader are identical to those raised by the narrator, who asks these questions and either simply answers them, or addresses them to more knowledgeable entities, sometimes human, but more often the deities concerned or the Muses.

Posing such questions was normally an honorable enterprise, but it can also have its risks, as is illustrated by the example of Ino. On her arrival in Italy, Ino shows an inquisitive attitude—like the narrator of the Librorum fasti. Her inquiry into the race of the Maenads (6.505) is not very well received; Saturnian Juno stirs up the Maenads by suggesting: “She is a spy and aims to learn our sacred rites” (6.511). Clearly Juno prepares for Ino a fate parallel to that of Pentheus.[22] And yet the phrasing of Ino’s questions, as well as the forcefully critical characterization of Juno as insidiosa (6.508), suggest that Ovid is well aware of parallel situations of inquiry. His readers, too, might have known that this inquisitive author was, by the time of the publication, himself exiled—for whatever reason. Finally, stories about Soranus, who was allegedly executed for pronouncing the secret name of the tutelary deity of Rome, might already have been in circulation.[23] [24]

Question and answer is the basic mode of discourse. It is usually a single narrator or reader who poses questions. The verb “to ask,” quaerere, occurs twenty-nine times, but interestingly, only five times in the plural, quaeri- tisf Cur, “why?” is the quintessential question, found forty-five times in the poem. Similarly inquired after are origins (origines, eleven times) and causes (causa/causae, ninety-one times). The distribution over the books is fairly even in all cases. Answers may be supplied even in the absence of explicit questions: in response to nothing more than the narrator’s tacit astonishment, an old woman gives the “cause” for her naked feet (6.415). In the following, I concentrate on examples taken from book 6. I aim to offer an argument that combines economy with a careful contextual reading: I will select representative examples while attending closely to the image of the connected reader as it is drawn within the framework of a typical unit of reception.

  • [1] For the title and genre, see Rupke 1994. Contrary to common usage, I use the fuller title tocombat the widespread misunderstanding of the poem as versified calendar. For a brief discussionof the date (which does not accept the earlier terminus post quem, to which I tend), see Littlewood2006, xx.
  • [2] Goldberg 2005, 207.
  • [3] See in general Feeney 1998; for history, see Feeney 2007a; Rupke 2012i, 165—73.
  • [4] In particular Ov. Fast. 2.7—8; see Rupke 2009d.
  • [5] Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 236, 239.
  • [6] See Wallace-Hadrill 1988; Barchiesi 1994; Feeney 1994; Herbert-Brown 1994; Fantham2002.
  • [7] Rupke 2012e, where I claim that this process predates the first century, which is the periodproposed by Moatti 1997. Feeney 2007b is right, however, to point out the numerous innovationsof the second half of the first century BC.
  • [8] See Genette 1980, 1988.
  • [9] Littlewood 2006, lxviii—lxix and lxxiv, quotations lxix and lxxiv.
  • [10] I follow the thesis of Peter 1874, 10 (accepted, e.g., by Bomer 1958, 19; rejected by Miller1991, 143—44 with no new arguments).
  • [11] For the most part I follow the text of Alton, Wormell, and Courtney (Ovidius Naso 1985).
  • [12] The translations of Ovid in this chapter are taken from Boyle and Woodard 2004, who render the colloquial style nicely.
  • [13] See Rupke 2012e, in particular 144—51.
  • [14] Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 239.
  • [15] See Rupke 2011b for a reconstruction of the process, and Rupke 1995 for a review of thepreserved calendars.
  • [16] Rupke 1997a, 1997b; Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 246.
  • [17] Rupke 1994; see also Rupke 2009d.
  • [18] The arbitrary and incomplete introduction of some calendar indications in our editionssince Rudolf Merkel’s editio maior of the nineteenth century has obscured this fact.
  • [19] It is not simply “authorial passivity” that invites “co-authorship” on part of the reader, as claimed by King 2004, 199.
  • [20] Rehm 1949; Rupke 1996a; Lehoux 2007.
  • [21] Goessler 1928; Wagner-Roser 1987; Rupke 2014c, 101-17. See also Stern 2012, 218.
  • [22] Thus Littlewood 2006, 161.
  • [23] The incident occurred in the early first century BC; its earliest attestations are Plin. NH3.65 and Plut. Quaest. Rom. 61.
  • [24] These are found only in the second half of the poem, from book 4 onward: 4.878; 5.1, 526;6.195, 551. This might point to an imagination of (or even experience with) an audience of severallisteners rather than of isolated readers.
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