Wednesday, December 29, 2010


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Elaine Fantham, Latin Poets and Italian Gods. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 229. ISBN 9781442640597. $55.00.

Reviewed by Bill Gladhill, McGill University (

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

[My apologies to the editors and readers of BMCR for the long delay on this review.]

Elaine Fantham's Latin Poets and Italian Gods aims "to outline the evidence for the survival of these cults [to rustic demigods] and contrast the patterns of Roman worship of country gods like Pan, or the nymphs of Italy's springs, with the fuller picture left to us of such cult in Greece" (vii). She hopes to recapture those rural, religious experiences which declined in the face of the cosmopolitan culture of Rome and the Augustan renewal of Italian religion that "replaced piety with fantasy and emotional detachment from Italy's countryside and its gods" (xi). Generally speaking, the work of Feeney, Wiseman, and Larson sets the scholarly parameters for Fantham's analysis of the representations of country religious experiences in literature.1 The first three chapters, consisting of her three reworked Robson Classical Lectures (2003), reconstruct "the natural and supernatural world of these countrymen in central Italy, and provide historical and epigraphic evidence of actual cult offered to the country spirits" and reveal "the emotional importance of the same local deities of land and water to the sophisticated poets of the Augustan age" (5). The last three chapters reassess the material through a close reading of these gods in the Metamorphoses, carmina Priapea, and Statius' Silvae. The book also maps out the processes by which the worship of numinous springs and groves gives way to the "quaint superstitions" and "charming fictions" that arise with "post-classical Greek storytelling and the decorative arts" (7).

The first chapter, "Rustica Numina: The Country Gods of Italy and Their Reception in Roman Poetry," ranges across a number of deities. It begins with the Augustan literary images of an ancient, pastoral Rome overgrown with groves sacred to the likes of Pan and Saturn. Such Augustan fantasy does not quite capture the religious reality of demigods in Rome during the middle Republic as testified by the establishment of public cult to the enigmatic god Faunus in insula and to nymphs whose aedes Nympharum housed Rome's censorial records until its destruction during the incineration of Clodius in 52 BCE. Evidence of the worship of medicinal springs and their nymphs can be found throughout Roman poetry and in a number of representative inscriptions. Connected to these water spirits is the worship of fontes, most famously in the context of the ritual events of the Fontinalia, which provided the festive opportunity to perform religious rites to rivers and lakes en masse, with pride of place given to the god Tiberinus. The chapter returns to evidence for the worship of the aniconic deity Faunus who is encountered only as a disembodied, prophetic voice heard in uncultivated landscapes for man's benefit, hence his contested folk-etymology from fari, favere or fanum (left unmentioned by Professor Fantham, Servius auctus' in Vergilii Georgicon libros 1.10.10). Professor Fantham suggests that Faunus was relegated to a position equivalent to that of satyrs (as in Horace, Epistle 1.19.4) after the appropriation of Pan into the Lupercal cave and the Lupercalia, the (contested) incorporation of Jupiter into his temple in insula, and the proliferation of the iconic sickle-bearing Silvanus in uncultivated landscapes. Professor Fantham then moves to "The Country Gods in Augustan Elegy and Lyric," in which she focuses on Faunus in the poetry of Tibullus, Horace and, most significantly, Calpurnius Siculus, while also offering some comments on Pales, satyrs, nymphs and, in particular, Silvanus, to whom amateur poets offered artificial verse inscriptions often borrowed from lines of the Georgics and Metamorphoses. The chapter ends with a short appendix, "Inscriptions Honouring Faunus or Mentioning Faunus."

"Virgil's Gods of the Land" follows, which studies rustic deities in the Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid. In the Eclogues the Alexandrian pull of Theocritus' Idylls results in a blending of Greek and Italian divinities. Pan, Apollo and Bacchus stand center stage in the work, while nymphs are omnipresent actors and often friends of and audience for the shepherds. Priapus, Pales, Ceres, and Silvanus each make an appearance, and even when in Eclogue 7, where Corydon invokes the Olympian deities Alcides, Iacchus, Venus, and Apollo (61-2), the gods are defined in relation to their favorite trees, an act of rustic incorporation of the Olympian hierarchy into pastoral parlance. In Fantham's view, the apotheosis of Daphnis is the only formal act of religious worship in the text. The presence of the other deities is owed more to artifice and bucolic sentiment. After a brief discussion of the Georgics, the chapter turns to the pseudo-Virgilian Culex in which "the author has absorbed the country atmosphere of both the Eclogues and Georgics." The chapter ends with the narrative role of holy landscapes in the Aeneid. Fantham argues that the Aeneid magnifies an ancient Italian religion that has suffered "the spiritual loss which must come with the onset of the new order in the suppression of the old country gods" (62). While this is surely an important theme in the Aeneid, the case could be made that this epic (in particular book 8) also re-inscribes the urban environment of Rome with its rustic religious origins, grafting onto the brick and streets of the city that imaginary landscape prior to its foundation, activating the kind of idea we find articulated by Augustine in the City of God 6.2, quoting Cicero's statement to Varro that "nos…in nostra urbe peregrinantes errantesque tamquam hospites tui libri quasi domum reduxerunt, ut possemus aliquando qui et ubi essemus agnoscere".

The first half of chapter three, "Ovid's Fasti and the Local Gods of the City," is unified by the analysis of various gods who either inhabited a wilderness Rome or are themselves autochthonous beings--representations of the landscape itself. The discussions of Janus, Saturn, Carmentis, Mater Matuta and the Tiber emphasize the repeated westward migration of gods to Rome up the Tiber, in effect repositioning the central theme of the Aeneid within the progressive development of Rome's religious foundations. Furthermore, issues related to the Carmentalia, Vestalia, Lupercalia, and Parentalia and rituals like the straw dummy sacrifice to Tiber are addressed. The second half of the chapter, "From the Friendly Tiber to Rome's Urban Groves," studies the role of groves in the context of the Lupercalia, Numa and Egeria, Faunus and Picus, and the rites of the Fordicidia. The chapter ends with mention of the Sementiva, the Caristia and Terminalia, along with a coda on the Consolatio ad Liviam and its relationship to the Fasti.

The second half of the book, "Counter-Examples, and the Triumph of Artistry over Fading Devotion," begins with "Ovidian Variations: From Friendly Flora to Lewd Salmacis and Angry Acheloüs," which is itself divided into three sections. Part one ("Flora, Vertumnus, and Pomona: Agricultural Deities Revived") discusses the goddess Flora in the Fasti, where she is associated with the titillating, mimed strip teases during her ludi. Omitted by Virgil and Livy, Ovid reintegrates the goddess into the religious experience of his text, emphasizing the very aspect of her divine persona that warranted Augustan (and Catonian) disapproval. After a brief discussion of the narrative of Pomona and Vertumnus, Fantham engages with the role of "River-Gods in Greek and Roman Poetry." After spanning rivers in Greek poetry from Hesiod to Callimachus, the lusty and violent rivers Acheloüs and Alpheus in the Metamorphoses are characterized as inversions of the Tiber and Anio, designed to magnify the purity of Italian rivers. The final section of the chapter, "Hylas and Hermaphrodite: Gender Reversal and Sexual Agression," turns away from aggressively sexual river gods to the equally aggressive nymphs who seize Hylas or mingle with Hermaphroditus.

Chapter Five, "Gods in a Man-Made Landscape: Priapus," studies a diverse range of texts--from a lost poem by Caesius Bassus to the collection of Carmina Priapea --that all approach different qualities of this virile divinity, erected in privately cultivated gardens to guard against thieves and birds or to punish transgressors with his phallus. However, the sophisticated poetry of pseudo-Virgil, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid and Martial presents a Priapus who is known for his obscenity, sexual potential, and the generic formalities cultivated in his garden. Working from Richlin and Grimal,2 Fantham reveals the range of religious and cultural activity ascribed to this god.

The final chapter, "Gods in Statian Settings," begins with a short history of villa gardens before it follows the nymphs and river gods discussed in the previous chapters into the ecphrases of the gardens depicted in Statius' Silvae. While the various villas in the poems (1.3, 1.5, 2.2, 2.3, 3.1, 4.3) are "as varied as are their settings…[they] all share the motivation of bestowing compliments on his patrons and friends…based on the interpretation of Nature herself, or on appropriate, if lesser, gods as paying homage to the villa and its owner" (165-6). This merging of the natural landscape and the villa achieves a wonderfully cosmic impression, for example, in personifying plumbing as nymphs (166) or on Pollius' estate, described at Silvae 2.2, "where the sea once flowed, the cliffs are steeped in the juices of Bacchus, and the demigods of sea and land compete to pluck the grapes and grow tipsy with the vintage" (171). Such insight by Fantham illuminates Melior's villa in Rome (2.3) and the praise to Domitian by the river god Volturnus for channeling his course through feats of engineering (4.3). The chapter and book conclude with "Country Gods in the Pastoral World of Statius' Thebaid." In the Thebaid the pastoral world of Nemea is filled with nymphs and river-spirits, but their position in the narrative is an afflicted one. They suffer as the epic moves through their natural spaces, often found sharing in the violence performed against their rivers and woods.

Latin Poets and Italian Gods is written for a general audience, in keeping with the book's genesis from a series of public lectures. The sparse documentation of secondary material in the endnotes is more aimed at further study than the detailed bibliographical edifice that one might expect in a book written for academics. Latin texts are accompanied by translations. Only translations of the Greek are included. The book includes a general index and an index of passages discussed. One leaves the book having a more sensitive appreciation of the religious and poetic associations that grant rustic deities their various forms. As Fantham states, this book is a diptych (ix). The last three chapters are very different from the first three. The second half of the book is more focused, as each chapter tackles a single problem. The first three chapters retain much of the oral character of their original performance. In them, the material on the rustic gods, even when studied in the context of a single author, sometimes reads like a summary of primary texts. The reader moves from one episode to another without clear signposts that might allow for a more satisfying appreciation of the interesting material outlined. In this sense, the first three chapters are rather a tour of Italian literary landscapes and the minor deities who fill them than an analysis of these landscapes for the sake of argument. This organization allows the reader to engage with the second half of the book with the kind of necessary literary and religious background that reveals important insights into the character of Italian divinity.

Table of Contents

Part One: Honouring the Italian Gods
Chapter One: Rustica Numina: Country Gods of Italy and Their Reception in Roman Poetry
Chapter Two: Virgil's Gods of the Land
Chapter Three: Ovid's Fasti and the Local Gods of the City

Part Two: Counter-Examples, and the Triumph of Artistry over Fading Devotion
Chapter Four: Ovidian Variations: From Friendly Flora to Lewd Salmacis and Angry Acheloüs
Chapter Five: Gods in a Man-made Landscape: Priapus
Gods in Statian Settings

Principal Editions Cited
General Index
Index of Principal Passages Discussed


1.   Feeney, D. (1998) Literature and Religion at Rome. Cambridge, Wiseman T.P. (1995) Remus. Cambridge and (2004) The Myths of Rome. Exeter, Larson, J.L. (2001) Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore. Oxford.
2.   Grimal, P. (1943) Les Jardins romains. Paris, Richlin, A. (1992) The Garden of Priapus. 2nd ed. New Haven.

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