Carole E. Newlands, Playing with Time: Ovid and the Fasti. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995. Pp. xiv + 254. ISBN 0-8014- 3080-1. US$35.00
University of Natal
The flurry of scholarly activity that has been directed in the last few years at Ovid's previously neglected or disparaged Fasti has included numerous attempts to define and characterise the work. Few critics accept it solely as what its title suggests it should be, a poetic account of the Roman religious year; along with its religious and historical aspects its elegiac character, generic instability, the sincerity of its panegyric and its Augustanism have received detailed attention.[] Carole Newlands' opening sentence in Playing with Time adds an important rider to the familiar canon: `Ovid's Fasti is centrally about Roman religion, Roman history and legend, Roman monuments and Roman character' (p. 1, italics mine). She frequently points up a triangular tension, at times a conflict, between traditional ideas of what constitutes `Romanness' and the historical and the Augustan realities. Ultimately, while Newlands says much that is valid and constructive about the nature and character of Ovid's Fasti, she leads the reader (rightly, in this reviewer's opinion) to the conclusion that the work defies categorisation and definition; regularly recurring key words in her study are `open-endedness' and `ludic quality'. Her line of enquiry is clearly enunciated on p. 1: `In its acute observation of the process by which Republican myths and institutions were appropriated to serve a new dynastic system of government, Ovid's Fasti gives sophisticated, contemporary voice to the anxieties of a society in a period of experiment, negotiation and unresolved tensions.' There is little, however, to indicate how the Fasti was received by contemporary readers, or whether Ovid himself conceived of the work as speaking for them, and Newlands' concern in this book is essentially with the poet's voice, so that it is Ovid's anxieties that her readings reveal; by her closing sentence she has moved away from `the anxieties of . . . society' to `. . . Ovid's deep-seated ambivalence towards an ideological system that his poem both celebrates and resists' (p. 236).
In the `Introduction: The Problem of Ovid's Fasti' (pp. 1-26) Newlands gives a concise overview of recent scholarly work and offers a brief statement of her own position on issues that have occupied critics. She stresses that she will treat the poem as a unitary whole, that it is to be read as multivalent and open-ended, and that it consequently challenges the Augustan emphasis on harmony and progress toward a new Golden Age.
Chapter 1, `Stellar Connections' (pp. 27-50) investigates Ovid's exploitation of the astronomical aspects of the calendar to incorporate non-Roman material, Greek myths connected with the stars. The double meaning of signa (`constellations' and `military standards') is important, Newlands argues, for Ovid's thematic opposition between Caesaris aras and Caesaris arma (Fast. 1.13). Elegiac in theme and diction, the star myths link Ovid's earlier erotic poetry with the new direction in which he is taking elegy, in which the theme is essentially the celebration of peace and rejection of war, along with a sense of opposition between intellectual ideals and the values of the public sphere.
In Chapter 2, `Narrator and Interlocutors in Ovid's Fasti' (pp. 50-86), Newlands embarks on a theme that runs throughout her book: Ovid's use of his own didactic narratorial persona and his other informants to destabilise his poem. First, the exploration of the Roman past brings to light aspects that are less than commendable, and the multiplicity of explanations can afford unexpected or irreverent interpretations. Second, the unreliability of his interlocutors increases as the work progresses. Third, Ovid casts doubt on the feasibility of his own poetic project. Comparison with the praeceptor of the Ars Amatoria reveals an equally witty but less confident instructor.
Chapter 3, `The Temple of Mars Ultor' (pp. 87- 123) takes issue with the notion that Ovid's description of the temple in 5.552-98 accords with Augustan ideology by calling attention to the selectivity of Ovid's description, and the limitations imposed by its presentation from the perspective of soldiers (Mars and Octavian). Considering Book 5 as a whole Newlands notes the opposition between the gaiety of the Floralia and the seriousness of the military themes and between the female and male principle and the ancient Roman and Augustan deities. Into this thematic tension Ovid inserts a number of star myths, with their elegiac view of war as destructive and wasteful. As in previous chapters, Newlands demonstrates by study of context and allusion that a passage which seems in isolation to glorify military conquest is capable of a different construction.
Unlike earlier critics, who regard the Fasti as at best incomplete and at worst an unstructured hotch-potch, Newlands works from the premise that the books we have `should be regarded as a coherent poetic unit' (p. 6), `. . . a planned structure that reflects a general movement from optimism to disillusionment' (p. 18). In Chapter 4, `Priapus Revisited' (pp. 124-145) she argues this case by examining the problematic role of Vesta: on the one hand emblem of chastity and avenger of Caesar's murder, but at the same time victim of Priapus' attempted lechery, in a doublet of a salacious tale in Book 1. Where most critics have seen the version in Book 6 as a failed joke that would probably have been excised during the process of revision, Newlands suggests a deliberate parallelism (reinforced, she argues, by other negative mirrorings of Book 1 in Book 6) in which the apparent failure of the narration underlines the increasingly emphasised irreconcilability of Augustan themes and Ovidian elegiac.
Chapter 5, `The Silence of Lucretia' (pp. 146- 174), offers a reading of the story told in 2.685- 852 as Ovid's first engagement with issues that become prominent in Books 5 and 6, `the authority of the poet and of history'; Lucretia's story shows how `individual suffering and individual speech become absorbed and altered by a political ideology committed to an exemplary view of the past' (p. 146). Ovid's presentation of her in elegiac terms poses an antithesis between her world and the masculine world of war and politics, and whereas in Livy her suicide is intended as an inspiration for political change, and she is powerfully articulate, in Ovid she is practically voiceless, and her suicide is her personal response to violation. Newlands notes that the story of Lucretia forms the climax of a series of tales dealing with `the relationship between crime and the presence or absence of speech', and that it is part of a series of rape narratives which are thematically concerned `with violence and its transmutation into the insignia of power' (p. 155).
Underlying the term dies fasti is a sense of when it was or was not lawful to speak. In Chapter 6, `Portraits of the Artist' (pp. 175-208), Newlands maintains that issues of freedom of speech, which concerned Ovid in his later years and in exile, are implicit in the poem's title.[] Newlands offers readings of the first and last star myths told in the Fasti (Arion, 2.79-118, and Aesculapius, 6.733-62) which affirm the supremacy of poetic creativity and of the arts of healing in the pacific elegiac programme; but she paints the progress from the Arion to the Aesculapius myth as yet another facet in the poetic design by which the Fasti moves from confidence to pessimism.
Chapter 7, `The Ending of Ovid's Fasti' (pp. 209-36) offers a dense reading of the passage celebrating the restoration of the temple of Hercules Musarum (6.795-812). [] This temple epitomised the Augustan ideal, for it commemorated military success, celebrated the arts, and Newlands is at pains to demonstrate the potentiality for a prima facie reading of the ending of Book 6 as panegyric. Like Ovid himself, however, she routinely constructs a plausible text only to reveal a sub-text that subjects it to rigorous and destabilising interrogation. Here she brings into play historical and prosopographical detail which point to telling omissions and selectivity on Ovid's part, both in relation to the earlier history of the temple and to the complexity and tensions of relationships in and around the imperial family in his own day. Along with these go allusions to Ovid's poetic predecessors which reinforce both the pre-eminence of poetry in Ovid's design and the impression of intended closure of his deliberately unfinished work. And finally Ovid distances himself by voicing the panegyric through Clio. His presentation of the muse of history as not particularly authoritative casts doubt, Newlands maintains, on every aspect of the Fasti's exploration of the past.
It would be simplistic to suggest that Newlands directs us to a reading of the poem as unequivocally critical of Augustan ideology, but her very insistence on open-endedness, by repeatedly exposing the possibility of critical interpretation, emphasises Ovid's misgivings rather than his support. So does her focus on his undermining of his own and his informants' narratorial authority and on his increasing pessimism. Her views are carefully and persuasively argued, but there is a single-mindedness to her own approach that at times leads her to `protest too much'. In consequence, she sometimes neglects the possibility that Ovid's contemporary readers were not all as obsessed with underlying inferences as we are at the end of a century that has been dominated by totalitarianism and the concomitant necessity for dissembling in artistic resistance to political oppression; and, further, her central points tend to be frequently repeated (there is an unusually bad instance on pp. 233-34, where the phrase `teases us with images of completion and incompletion' occurs twice in the space of seven lines).
Occasionally Newlands' eagerness to further her argument leads to inconsistencies, as in her treatment of the Arion narrative of 2.79-118. Newlands rightly sees Arion is the paradigmatic elegiac poet, and the myth as a programmatic assertion of the Fasti's elegiac devotion to peace. But she goes too far in claiming that Ovid `in a departure from his normal procedure' (p. 179) refers at the beginning of the aetion to another story about the Dolphin which implicates the creature occultis . . . in amoribus (line 81), and asserting that Ovid thereby rejects the love themes that `were the staple of his earlier elegies'. In fact there is no `departure from his usual procedure'; Newlands herself elsewhere (e.g. p. 59) underlines Ovid's destabilising or subversive (or perhaps just Alexandrian?) propensity to introduce variant aetiologies. And in Chapter 1 she argues that Ovid used the star myths as a means to introduce erotic themes into the calendar material (p. 31-32: `The myths also play a key role in articulating the generic ideals of the Fasti, for they commonly deal with the familiar themes of erotic elegy . . .'). Further, Newlands overworks the link between the Arion story and that of Aesculapius in 6.733-62. Certainly both are connected with restoration to life, and with Apollo, the one emphasising Apollo's creative and poetic aspect, the other his healing powers. Like poetic creativity, healing is central to the pacific themes of the poem. But Newlands' reading of the Aesculapius story connects it with the silencing of the artist's voice and the problem of free speech and patronage. The link breaks down when we remember that Arion is not in fact denied free speech; it is the granting of an opportunity to sing that in fact saves him.
Newlands makes much of dissonances between the popular folk elements of religion and the official establishment version of Augustan ideology (e.g. in her reading of the three views of Vesta in 6.249- 472, which she calls `basically incompatible' [p. 132]). But the Augustan re-writing of so much of Roman religion and mythology did not replace tradition, and ancient societies were tolerant of inconsistencies in their mythologies; likewise, there must have been many levels of belief and commitment. Have we any evidence that the existence of conflicting versions would have troubled Ovid's readers as much as it troubles us? - and therefore that his frequent presentation of conflicting versions is intended to make the reader question the authority of the narrator or the text and thence to cast doubt on the Augustan representation?
Similarly, how are we to read Ovidian wit? What seems to us inappropriate levity in serious contexts may have been quite acceptable to his ancient readers. (By way of comparison, while modern critics differ in the degree to which they regard Horatian or Propertian combination of public and private themes, encomium and drinking parties, as `anti-Augustan' there is little evidence that contemporaries found them offensive.) Although - as Newlands herself stresses - Augustus had become less tolerant in his latter years, we can only suspect, not prove, that he would have objected to poetic wit and irony directed at his `programme'. Despite her emphasis on the ludic quality of the poem Newlands does not deal satisfactorily with the wit, let alone the genial good humour and sheer fun of much of the Fasti.[]
Newlands makes illuminating use of Ovid's intertextual allusiveness in eliciting the several levels of meaning in his narration. Even so, there is perhaps still more work to be done on the compositional and intertextual relationships both between the Fasti and the Metamorphoses and the Fasti and the exile poetry (she herself allows that some readers might feel that `the Fasti in its truncated state emblematizes the exiled Ovid's own personal rupture with Rome's past . . .' [p. 236]).[]
There are a couple of errors and quibbles to be noted. On p. 27 `relgion' for `religion'; on p. 215 `combines' for `combined'. `The Augustan mythographer Hyginus' (p. 29) is perhaps not so securely Augustan as to pass without a footnote, while in the index (p. 252) Ovid's friend is listed as `Fabius, P. Maximus' although he was not P(ublius) but - as rightly given in the body of the text - Paullus.
These few demurrals notwithstanding, this is a careful, perceptive and thoroughly readable study of the Fasti. Newlands' detailed reading of passages draws not only on poetic aspects like sensitivity to tensions of genre and content and to Ovidian allusiveness and irony, but also on relevant archaeological, historical and prosopographical material. To say that she has benefited greatly from recent critical approaches which have given new depth to literary analysis, on the one hand by increased appreciation of the import of intertextual allusion and on the other by awareness of the impact of the social, cultural and political context in which a work was composed (see n. 1) is in no way to deny Newlands' own originality. One of the strengths of her book is her awareness of context, in two senses: both the historical context in which Ovid was writing and the actual arrangement of material in a series of sections or a whole book of the Fasti are shown to affect the surface meaning of passages and invite variant, even contradictory, interpretations. Few studies of the work have taken it seriously as a coherent whole; Newlands' decision to treat it as such (despite giving too little weight to the non-narrative in comparison with the narrative sections) opens up a wealth of inter-connections and results in thought-provoking readings, particularly in her studies of Lucretia and of Book 6. This is a book that should be in every university library and on the shelves of every teacher of Ovid. Even the tendency to repetitiveness has the advantage that sections are sufficiently self-contained to be appreciated by undergraduates working perhaps on short sections of the poem, and the book could well be as useful to the student beginning to read Ovid as it will be to the specialist.
[] For an overview of the preoccupations and trends of scholarship in the field see Elaine Fantham's review article, `Recent readings of Ovid's Fasti', CPh 90 (1995) 367- 378, where the importance of the intersection of literary and archaeological and historical studies for understanding the work's `cultural context' is duly stressed (p. 367).
[] Here Newlands calls attention to Denis Feeney, `Si licet et fas est: Ovid's Fasti and the Problem of Free Speech under the Principate', in Roman Poetry and Propaganda, ed. Anton Powell (Bristol 1993) 1-25.
[] Some of the material appears also in Newlands' contribution to Roman Literature and Ideology: Ramus essays for J.P. Sullivan, ed. A.J. Boyle (Bendigo 1995) 129-143, `The Ending of Ovid's Fasti'.
[] A surprising omission from her otherwise comprehensive bibliography is L. Winniczuk, `Humour and wit in Ovid's Fasti', Eos 52 (1974) 93-104.
[] Cf. the study of Ovid's dissembling of failing poetic powers in Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto in another recent book which uses intertextuality even more intensively than Newlands does: G. D. Williams, Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid's Exile Poetry (Cambridge 1994).