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Performing Foundation: Carmentis and Mater Matuta

Carole Newlands

University of Colorado Boulder

James (2016) has noted a disturbing pattern in Rome’s foundation narratives whereby political change occurs over women’s dead and/or violated bodies--for instance, Ovid’s Lucretia, Ilia, or Lara, mother of the Lares, all passive victims. Women’s active role in foundational narratives, however, generally receives little attention. In his commentary on Book 1 of the Fasti, Green (2004) refers to Evander’s foundation of Rome. Yet, as Chiu (2016) points out, it is Evander’s mother Carmentis who has the commanding role in Ovid’s account of their arrival at the future site of Rome: she counsels her weeping son to pull himself together; she first recognizes their destination; she first greets the indigenous gods and prophesies Rome’s future greatness; and she becomes a goddess. Yet critics still tend to read the Fasti through a Virgilian lens. In Aeneid 8.337-41, Carmentis has a brief mention as a prophetic nymph who is Evander’s mother; she is not represented as an active participant in Rome’s foundation. My paper today will look at a foundational narrative where two female powers assume a positive role in the foundation of state cult, Carmentis and Mater Matuta (Fast. 6.473-568). While Carmentis first appears in Book 1 of the Fasti, her story converges with that of Mater Matuta in Book 6; Carmentis, whose name is associated with carmen, neatly bookends the extant Fasti.  The story of the two goddesses importantly stands at the intersection of race, age, class and gender. 

Mater Matuta, according to Ovid’s account, was originally the Theban queen Ino who found refuge in Italy with her son. First however she is almost torn apart by Italian Maenads, who, in a clear recall of Aeneid 7 and Allecto’s maddening of the Latin women,  have been aroused by Juno to regard her as an enemy.  But Ovid departs from the Virgilian script.  Ino is rescued by Hercules and welcomed into Carmentis’ humble house, where she is served cakes. Here the Callimachean model of the Hecale comes into play, where an old woman provides hospitality to a noble stranger who is not too proud to accept simple fare.  But again Ovid changes the script.  Carmentis grows in stature before Ino’s eyes, and prophesies the deification of Ino and her son as Mater Matuta and Portunus--which happens immediately; Carmentis’ performative speech makes them deities of cults that protect mothers and mariners respectively (6.549-50). MacAuley (2016) has argued that in the Metamorphoses extremely restricted feminine social roles are combined with the extravagant passions traditionally associated with women; yet, the mother in particular is recuperated in Ovid’s epic from her position as the repressed subtext of the Aeneid’s masculine self through the attention paid to her traumas and desires. In the Fasti the recuperative process goes further. The destructive Theban Ino of the Metamorphoses assumes as Mater Matuta a foundational, nurturing role in the Roman state; Carmentis too is a goddess associated with the protection of women as well as with prophecy and song. Furthermore, the foundation of the earliest temple to Mater Matuta was traditionally ascribed to Servius Tullius, son of a slave who as king was known for plebeian sympathies (Littlewood 2006).  This tale in Fasti 6 of motherhood, sisterhood, race and class provides a positive counterpart to Rome’s foundational tales of rape.

The hospitable female baker appears earlier in the Fasti, on the Ides of March (3.657-74). Anna of Bovillae helped the plebs during their first secession by bringing them freshly baked cakes; she was honoured with deification and a statue, and named putative founder of the plebeian cult of Anna Perenna, thus sharing the day with the memory of Julius Caesar’s assassination (Newlands 2018). The “matermorphoses” of the Fasti, to borrow MacAuley’s term, therefore have a broad scope, alerting the reader to intersectional, foundation narratives that implicitly question the Virgilian and Augustan patrilinear scripts; the humble cake, surprisingly, becomes a symbol of anti-hierarchical community, fostered by women’s creative hands.

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Variant Voices in Roman Foundation Narratives

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