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The Satyr Who Stirred up the Hornets’ Nest: Ovidian “Satyr Play” in the Fasti

Sergios Paschalis

Harvard University

Despite the absence of concrete textual evidence for satyric drama in Rome there are several indirect testimonies of the cultivation of the satyric genre in the Republican period, which include references to satyric productions and titles of satyr plays, while in the Augustan period we find in Horace’s Ars Poetica (220-250) the most important theoretical treatment of satyr play in the ancient world (Wiseman 1988; Shaw 2014). Critics have advocated Ovid’s familiarity with and interest in the satyric tradition by suggesting connections between episodes of the Metamorphoses and satyr plays (Sutton 1980; Ambrose 2005). The most prominent examples of Ovidian “satyr play”, however, are the “sexual comedies” of the Fasti featuring Priapus and Faunus’ frustrated sexual assaults and Anna Perenna’s ruse to seduce Mars (Littlewood 1975; Fantham 1983). It has been argued that these comic interludes display conspicuous affinities with the Attic satyric drama in terms of themes, setting, and characters and that their parodic allusions to elevated texts reflect the satyr play’s parody of tragedy (Barchiesi 1997).

A Fasti narrative with significant satyric associations that has nevertheless received very little attention by scholars is the episode of Bacchus’ institution of apiculture and Silenus’ comical failure at mimicking the god’s discovery (3.735-762) (Fantham 1983; Wiseman 2002). This paper argues that the Silenus story can be read as a miniature elegiac version of a satyr play, on the grounds that it features central topoi of the satyric genre, including its stock characters (satyrs and Silenus), the rustic and exotic setting, the theme of wondrous invention (Bacchus’ discovery of honey), farcical humor, and happy ending (for the generic traits and typical themes of satyr play, see Sutton 1980; Seaford 1984). In this context I will explore the relationship of the Ovidian story with Horace’s discussion of the ideal satyric style in the Ars. Conceiving satyric drama as a middle genre between tragedy and comedy Horace praises the Greek tragedians for producing humorous and yet decorous satyr plays, in which heroes and gods maintained their nobility by avoiding obscene diction and thereby obliquely criticizes contemporary satyric authors for representing characters that use shameless language typical of comedy (Wiseman 2002; Shaw 2014). Barchiesi (1997) argues that the stylistically elegant and non-vulgar “satyric” episodes of the Fasti adhere to a certain extent to Horace’s doctrine for writing proper satyric drama, but does not include the Silenus narrative in his discussion. I will attempt to demonstrate that this episode illustrates most clearly Ovid’s adherence to Horace’s artistic principles concerning satyr play, in that his story contains charming jesting and mocking satyrs, but at the same time Bacchus preserves his nobility by avoiding base language and behavior.

Finally, I will contend that the Silenus narrative engages in a subtle intratextual dialogue with the Pentheus episode in the Metamorphoses (3.511-733), itself an epicized tragedy, by implicitly reworking in a humorous fashion its main themes, characters, and scenes. The interaction between the two Ovidian stories may thus be viewed as evocative of the interplay between tragedy and satyr play in the 5th-century Athenian tetralogy. Classical satyric drama bears close generic affinities to tragedy as evidenced both by its use of similar subject-matter, diction, structure, and meter as well as by its ironic and parodic relationship to tragedy (Arnott 1972; Taplin 1986; Shaw 2014). In an analogous fashion Pentheus’ hybris to Bacchus and his gruesome punishment at the hands of the maenads finds its farcical counterpart in Silenus’ “irreverent” endeavor to replicate Bacchus’ beekeeping and the old satyr’s amusing punishment in the form of an assault by a swarm of hornets. In fact, all the main characters of the Metamorphoses episode have their foil in the Fasti narrative: Silenus plays the role of Pentheus; the bees mesmerized by the Bacchic music recall the Theban people eager to participate in the Dionysiac rites; and the aggressive hornets are reminiscent of the frenzied Bacchants.    

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