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A Blight on the Golden Age: The Robigalia in Ovid's Fasti

Morgan Palmer

University of Maryland

In the Fasti, Ovid gives a detailed account of the mysterious Robigalia.  He describes his encounter with the Flamen Quirinalis performing the rites for Robigo, and quotes the priest's address to this destructive deity known for harming crops (Fast. 4.905–942).  The Flamen Quirinalis entreats Robigo to cause weapons to rust, but to leave farm tools and crops unharmed (Fast. 4.921–930).  Ovid's description of the Robigalia is the most detailed extant source for the festival (Scullard 1981), but it must be read within its historical and poetic context.  In this paper I argue that Ovid appropriates the anxiety underlying the religious ritual in order to subvert the ideal of the Augustan golden age.

The Flamen Quirinalis was associated with Quirinus, the deified Romulus (Burkert 1962; Dumézil 1966) and was also under the authority of the pontifex maximus (Vangaard 1988), a role which Augustus claimed for himself (R.G. 7.3, 10.2).  Hinds (1992) and Barchiesi (1997) have argued for Ovid's subversive portrayals of Romulus, and by extension Augustus.  In addition, Hinds (1992) has noted the tensions underlying Ovid's references to arma in the Fasti.  Dumézil (1966) has observed that the Flamen Quirinalis' emphasis on peace would have resonated in the age of Augustus, but no study has yet argued for a subversive reading of Ovid's Robigalia.

In this paper I will use literary and epigraphic evidence to suggest that Ovid integrates the anxiety underlying the Robigalia into his subversive program.  First, I will compare Varro's explanation of the Robigalia at De Lingua Latina 6.16.8 ("Robigalia dicta ab Robigo; secundum segetes huic deo sacrificatur, ne robigo occupet") with the portrayal of the rites on the Augustan Fasti Praenestini ("ne robigo frum[e]ntis noceat") (Degrassi 1963; cf. Wallace-Hadrill 1987).  These examples illustrate that the purpose of the ritual was to prevent Robigo from causing harm, and imply fear of the deity's destructive power.  Next, I argue that when the Flamen Quirinalis says "utilius gladios et tela nocentia carpes:  nil opus est illis; otia mundus agit" (Fast. 4.925–26) he subverts the ideal of otium by highlighting the continuing presence of tela nocentia (cf. Fantham 1998).  Nocentia parallels noceat on the Fasti Praenestini; the tela share with Robigo the power to cause harm.  The priest emphasizes this potential in his entreaty to Robigo:  "nec teneras segetes, sed durum amplectere ferrum, quodque potest alios perdere perde prior" (Fast. 4.923–24).  The Flamen Quirinalis makes it clear that iron, like Robigo, continues to threaten destruction during the golden age.  Next, I suggest that when the priest entreats Robigo to spare Ceres and to be content with the vows of the colonus (Fast. 4.931–32), Ovid recalls his description of the Cerialia earlier at Fast. 4.407–408 "pace Ceres laeta est; et vos orate, coloni, perpetuam pacem pacificium ducem," subverting the idea that peace may be taken for granted.  Finally, I argue that these anxieties must be read within their broader historical and poetic context.  It is notable that these subversions occur after Ovid calls the emperor's attention to this particular month and its association with Venus, the Julian ancestor goddess (Fast. 4.19–30).  The role of the Flamen Quirinalis must also be contextualized with subversive portrayals of Romulus and Augustus in the Fasti.  A Romulean messenger voices contemporary fears that threaten to undermine the pax augusta, and he does so in a way designed to catch the emperor's attention.  In short, Ovid appropriates the anxiety underlying the Robigalia in order to subvert the Augustan message of peace, putting a blight on the golden age.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Religion and Augustan Poetry (organized by the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions)

Session/Paper Number

38.5

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