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'Romanae spatium Urbis': Ovidian Narrative and Roman Space in the 'Fasti'

Leon Grek

Although the Fasti declares its subject to be Roman time (tempora cum causis Latium digesta per annum, 1.1), Ovid’s aetiological elegy is also profoundly concerned with Roman space. Ovid not only describes the ritual and mythological associations of particular sites in and around the city, but also, as this paper argues, carefully inscribes the Fasti’s own narrative within the cityscape, as the poem’s narrator wanders the streets, encountering the city’s priests, gods and other inhabitants. Although the significance of place in the Fasti has been the subject of recent scholarship (Egelhaaf-Gaiser 2012; Labate 2012), Ovid’s narrative representation of space has received less attention. Building on important recent work on narration in the Fasti (Green 2008; Geue 2010), as well as on Bal’s (1985) discussion of narratology and space, this paper will show how Ovid consistently represents Roman space in subjective and perspectival terms, both in his narrative of his own movement through the city, and in his descriptions of particular places to his reader-addressees. The reader of Fasti is thus immersed in a sophisticated mimesis of urban spatial experience, a literary accomplishment with important implications for the poem’s relationship with the cultural and epistemic transformations of Augustan Rome.

In making this argument, I identify two sets of passages in which space becomes a particularly important category for the narrative and didactic workings of the Fasti. The first consists of a series of moments in which Ovid represents his access to aetiological knowledge as contingent on his having been in the right place at the right time. The poem’s account of the Robigalia in Book 4, for example, is occasioned – or so Ovid tells us – by a more or less chance encounter with a traffic jam caused by worshippers: hac mihi Nomento Romam cum luce redirem, / obstitit in media candida turba via (4.905-6).

These moments have their readerly or didactic corollary in a second group of passages in which Ovid provides topographic information in relational, rather than abstractly cartographic terms. Recording the dedication of a temple of Mars on the Via Appia outside the Porta Capena, Ovid locates the temple by identifying a point from which it could be seen: lux eadem Marti festa est, quem prospicit extra  / appositum tectae porta Capena viae (6.191-2). To interpret the notice, readers must both draw upon their prior visual memory of the city and orient themselves imaginatively within the urban landscape. In the paper, I focus on a particular moment in the Fasti in which these two narrative devices coincide, Ovid’s discussion of the archaic forum with the anus vicina loci in Book 6. True to her epithet, the old woman’s emplacement in the Forum both occasions Ovid’s chance encounter with her within the Fasti’s antiquarian fiction and conditions her highly focalized descriptions of the Lacus Curtius and Vertumnus’ statue, which are only legible to a reader who is already familiar with both the forum and with its textual realization in Propertius’ Vertumnus elegy (4.2).

Newlands (1995) has argued that the partial perspectives of interlocutors such as the anus vicina loci produce an “epistemological crisis” in the Fasti. I suggest instead that Ovid’s perspectival representation of space constitutes a sophisticated response to significant contemporary shifts in ways of knowing the city. As Wallace-Hadrill (2008) has shown, the emergence under Augustus of new documentary and cartographic modes of representing Rome’s urban space radically transformed older oral and experiential knowledge of the city. In the Fasti, figures such as the anus vicina loci both enact traditional ways of knowing the city and mark their generational passing. At the same time, I argue, with Green (2004, 2008), that Ovid’s immersive reproduction of Roman space in the Fasti reflects the exiled poet’s personal nostalgia for Rome. Constructing a textual city from distant Tomis, Ovid produces in his calendar poem a remarkable testament to the appeal and fragility of urban experience in Augustan Rome.

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Ovidian Poetics, Ovidian Receptions

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