Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Matthew Robinson (ed.), A Commentary on Ovid's Fasti, Book 2. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 572. ISBN 9780199589395. $165.00.

Reviewed by Joy Littlewood, Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxon (

Version at BMCR home site


The value of a long gestation is convincingly vindicated by Matthew Robinson's impressive commentary on the second book of Ovid's Fasti. Wide-ranging source material and perceptive textual criticism, astronomical, philological and historical discussion are aligned with comparative opinions from modern Fasti scholarship and presented with confidence and understanding derived from his long familiarity with Ovid's complex work. While this commentary's breadth of scholarship will satisfy experts in the field, less experienced students at the graduate, perhaps even undergraduate, levels will learn a great deal from its clarity of exposition, which is agreeably enhanced by an elegant style and dry humour.

The reader is alerted to Robinson's thoughtful selectivity and the intelligent construction of his commentary by his choice of general points in the slender introduction, which aims to avoid duplicating introductory material present in other recent Fasti commentaries. Broadly speaking, these cover astronomy, generic range and variety and divergence between a 'suspicious' or 'supportive' reader-audience. A final section of the introduction, on Text, on Alton, Wormell and Courtney's Teubner version, directs readers to the online availability of Burman's 1727 commentary with its wealth of conjectural material by Nicolaus Heinsius.

Students of Fasti will welcome the clarity of Robinson's scientific introduction to Ovid's astral phenomena—modestly described as 'a little basic astronomy'—which is followed by a summary of literary astronomical studies written during the past 15 years by himself, Hannah, Gee and Fox. An illuminating feature of the commentary is a close engagement with astronomical information to extend his interpretation, suggesting, for example, sexual innuendo in the various risings of Arcturus and Arctophylax (164-5) and a possible literary subtext in the tale of the Raven, the Bowl and the Snake (197-200).

A discussion of the predominance of metapoetic and generic play in Book 2 is initiated by linking Fasti with Propertius' fourth book through the programmatic character of Ovid's two-faced Janus and Propertius' Protean Vertumnus (pp. 3-7). Defining Book 2's proem (lines 1-18) as a literary introduction to Fasti, 'a dense nexus of allusions to various proemic, closural and otherwise metapoetic passages', Robinson neatly disposes of the troublesome enigma of this proem's relationship to Book 1 and the possibility that it might have been a (discarded) dedication to Augustus. The commentary contains many enlightening explorations of literary play such as, for example, Ovid's generic adaptation of Livy's 'Rape of Lucretia', multiple voices in the Laudes Termini (659-78) and the extensive negotiation of the source material which Ovid might have drawn on for his story of Arion (114-117) and the song of the dying swan (128-134).

Robinson's allusion in his introduction to the discontinuity of Ovid's calendric narrative (7-9) invites engagement in the commentary with links which the poet may have intended to signal, or at least to adumbrate, between juxtaposed but apparently disconnected passages. This aspect of Fasti has been aptly described as the poet's 'hermeneutic alibi'.1 Guiding his readers' through February's etymological association with purification, he establishes, by way of a group of mythical Greek murders, a link by chthonic association between the two major festivals of this month: the Lupercalia, a state ritual of purification, and the Parentalia, when offerings are brought to ancestral tombs. This is the first of many such links which enhance our appreciation of Ovid's internal structuring: to cite just a few, the impia facta (line 38) of the Greek family crimes with the pia facta mentioned in line 117, namely the virtue of Arion's dolphin, as well as the impiety of family miscreants (procul impius esto!) from Greek tragedy who are unwelcome at the Roman family feast of the Caristia (623-6). Similarly, the lilies of Gabii, decapitated by Tarquin in a coded message (706-8), herald, as symbols of violated innocence, the rape of Lucretia (789-90). Most intriguing is Robinson's argument that the festivals of Quirinalia and Feriae Stultorum are linked by the credulity of the early Romans who accept the newly deified Quirinus as meekly as they once accepted Fornax, the goddess of the oven. His conclusion, that 'comparison between these two passages, which we might have initially expected to be unthinkable, is now unavoidable' (321), won over this, initially sceptical, reviewer during the period of writing the review.

The introductory chapter which engages with Ovid's attitude to the regime sensitively replaces the now dated labels of 'Augustan' and 'anti-Augustan' with the more flexible 'supportive' and 'suspicious' readers. These new designations serve Robinson well in his commentary where, having cited relevant scholarship on both sides, he is well-placed to prolong critical interpretations with new points, intimating the reactions of 'supportive' or 'suspicious readers,' and countering these with possible objections. Two examples of this, which take their starting points, respectively, from Ovid's comments on the magic rites of the goddess Tacita (355-7) and the swallow's early arrival (853-6), lead into a penetrating discussion of the recurrent theme of speech and silence in Fasti 2.

Violence and political uneasiness surface not infrequently in the second book of Ovid's Fasti. There are hints of this in the heading which Robinson gives to his account of the Parentalia, the day on which offerings were taken to family tombs, on page 331: Romulus, Remus, the Parentalia and the Lemuria. The commentary on this passage is rich in Roman funerary ritual, supported by useful source material for the chthonic nature of the Lares. At the same time the sinister undertones which link Ovid's story of the Parentalia with his Lemuria (Fasti5. 419-92) are emphasized and Dea Muta's mutilation by Jupiter and rape by Mercury on their journey to the Underworld, followed by the birth of the Lares, (2.583-616) is cogently interpreted with reference to Augustus' purposeful appropriation of the cult of the Lares Compitales. As the Princeps intrudes again in the feast of the Caristia, where family losses evoke memories of civil conflict, readers are reminded that February 21st was the anniversary of the death of Augustus' grandson, Gaius Caesar.

In a book in which three rapes—of Callisto, Lara and Lucretia—are rendered horrific by the brutal silencing of the victim, the myth of Tereus, Procne and Philomela hovers persistently at the edge of Ovid's readers' consciousness. Robinson examines the climax of Fasti2, Lucretia's rape in the context of the Regifugium in over 80 pages of meticulous critical analysis with close reference to its divergence from and correspondence with Livy's version of the same story. His emphasis is, rightly, on interpreting Ovid's powerful narrative of Lucretia's violation to satisfy a tyrant's whim. The passage concludes with the founding of the Roman republic and the poet wondering whether spring is about to follow the first swallow. This reminder that the coming of spring traditionally heralded better times is accompanied by a sharp observation that vernal anticipation directly follows (and is disappointed by) Ovid's unsettling contrast of Augustus with Romulus (lines 149-52).

Largely unsullied by typographical errors, the commentary is supported by a substantial bibliography and three thoughtful indices (verborum, locorum, nominum et rerum). It is directly followed by two useful appendices. The second gathers together in tabular form all the February festivals inscribed in different Roman Fasti. These are aligned with the contents of Fasti 2, providing at a glance an illustration of Ovid's close correspondence of material, the thematic connections within each group of narratives and the revolution of the constellations. The first engages with the thorny question of Fasti's revision. While indicating the principal areas of scholarly contention and the validity of 'exilic' and 'pre-exilic' readings, Robinson concludes that, regardless of the date, or even location, of Fasti's composition, the focus of Ovid's calendar poem is Augustus and his engagement with Roman religion, while the poet's exile in AD 8 inevitably imposes on a wide variety of passages both new significance and poignant resonances. Dynastic change and Ovid's personal misfortune during the last decade of his life sensitizes our perception of 'multiple voices and multiple perspectives' (531).

The second book of Ovid's Fastiis one of the most powerful and most unsettling of the surviving six. Robinson's close engagement with Ovid's wide-ranging source material, together with his own depth of understanding, accentuate the impact of this narrative of death and purification, placation of ancestral spirits and peremptory silencing of violated women. At the same time his unflinching, but not over-imaginative analysis of latent meanings, implied by juxtaposition or a pregnant phrase, penetrates the political undertones which appear to lie not far beneath the surface.2 This commentary is a splendid contribution to Ovidian studies and a valuable reference book for specialists in Augustan literature.


1.  Stephen Hinds, (1987), 'Generalising about Ovid', Ramus 16, 4-31.
2.  Cf. Quintilian Inst. 9. 2. 65: id genus quod et frequentissimum est…in quo per quamdam suspicionem quod non dicimus accipi volumus…latens et auditori quasi inveniendum.

1 comment:

  1. all a bit too clubby. Robinson gave Littlewood a glowing review of her commentary on Fasti book six in JRS 2008. She has now returned the favor. She should have made a disclaimer to that effect so that her reader could assess the impartiality of her review of his book.


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