More than any other Latin poem, Ovid’s Fasti has been mined for evidence about the bizarre complex of beliefs and practices we call “Roman religion” (Hejduk 2009: 45-46). Yet those using Ovid as a source should consider not only the biases of a poet facing imminent or recent exile, but also the particular slant of the elegiac Fasti compared with its rough contemporary, the epic Metamorphoses (Hinds 1987: 99-134). The two poems’ contrasting treatments of Jupiter, whom Ovid increasingly associates with Augustus, reveal how the poet shapes his “religion” to suit disparate thematic aims: if the Metamorphoses Jupiter is a tyrannical nightmare (Segal 2001), the Fasti, in many ways, shows the Jupiter of the poet’s dreams.
The story of the singer Arion (Fast. 2.79-118), proverbial in antiquity as a fable that beggars belief (Gibson 2003: 229), highlights the two poems’ utterly different Jupiters. Attacked by sailors for the wealth he accumulated through his art, Arion leaps overboard and rides to safety on a dolphin entranced by his song; Jupiter then rewards the dolphin with catasterism for his “pious deed” (117). Such spontaneous Jovian benediction of a poet and his aquatic fan would be unimaginable in the Metamorphoses universe, where Jupiter “rewards” only his own family members, rape victims, and worshippers. Ovid marks the episode’s conclusion as wistful fantasy with an acrostic, SI SIC DI, “If (only) the gods (were) like this!” (112-18)—especially in their treatment of poets.
Flora (Fast. 5.183-378), the elegiac goddess par excellence (Newlands 1995: 105-110; Boyd 2000: 75-78), similarly contributes to the Fasti’s theme of wish-fulfillment, horizontally and vertically. Her own story begins in letter-play (Greek theta becoming Latin F) and describes Zephyr’s rape of her in astonishingly bland and forgiving terms. Most strikingly, the god “emends the violence,” vim emendat (205), by marrying her and making her goddess of flowers; an acrostic, VI EA VIVA EA, “Through that violence, she is alive/life-giving” (201-210), literally emends VI (ablative of vis) to make it VIVA. The fantasy of defusing male sexual aggression continues in her outlandish version of the birth of Mars, traditionally the most violent of Jupiter’s offspring, through Juno’s parthenogenesis of the war god by means of Flora’s magical flower. The vertical voice calls attention to the contrast between this gentle generation and Jupiter’s usual modus operandi with yet another SIC acrostic, AN SIC EO EUNTI, “Is it like this when he comes?” (237-48).
Finally, the poems’ theoxenies, Baucis and Philemon (Met. 8.611-724) and Hyrieus (Fast. 5.495-536) (Griffin 1991), point up the contrast between the Metamorphoses’ divine tyrant and the Fasti’s more benign ruler. The Baucis and Philemon episode is full of dark and ironic touches, such as the similarity to stories where Jupiter and Mercury go trolling for girls, the obliteration of the aged couple’s community, and the transformation of their quintessentially happy hut into the god’s temple (Green 2003). The Hyrieus episode markedly lacks these elements: the addition of Neptune to the Metamorphoses’ divine duo removes predatory overtones, no humans are harmed, and the gods’ miniature “flood” has only the positive effect of giving the lonely widower a son.
Especially in the absence of other sources, scholars will and must continue to turn to the Fasti for evidence about Roman religion. But “literature people” and “religion people” will get the best results by pooling their efforts, especially when a mercurial poet like Ovid handles a subject as important to him poetically, politically, and personally as the god who is so often a projection of the emperor, from whose thunderbolt the poet never fully recovered.
Roman Religion and Augustan Poetry (organized by the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions)