Ovid gives the foundation of Rome notoriously short shrift in the Metamorphoses (a mere five words, across 14.774-775). In some ways, his persistent refusal to engage overtly (and in prolonged fashion) with foundation myth is a narrative frustration that provides marked contrast to the relentless teleological drive of the Aeneid, where the fabled city of Rome looms large over the epic, an unavoidable presence of destined futurity; its most persistent ‘absent presence,’ to borrow a motivating concept assigned by Hardie to Ovidian poetics. Rather, in the Metamorphoses, the developed, urban city of Rome appears as an immanent narrative truth from the moment Ovid compares the Milky Way to the Palatine (1.175-176), the first in a series of ‘monumental’ allusion to the Roman cityscape (cf. Barchiesi and Boyle). This paper explores the references made to contemporary Rome in the first two books of the Metamorphoses to understand Rome’s Ovidian atemporal omnipresence here in contrast to the multiplicity of references elsewhere in the Ovidian amatory corpus to both a structurally and culturally palimpsestic Rome, where an aureate splendor of empire has interactively refaced a rustic artlessness. Contemporary Rome intrudes upon the world-beginnings of the Metamorphoses in two overtly notable ways: in Apollo’s reference to the Capitoline triumphs and the laurel that custodially honours the house of Augustus (1.560-565) and the amber that adorns Roman brides (2.335-336). The elegiac sensibilities that underpin both of these surrounding narratives (Daphne, Phaethon) and the aspects of cultus conjured in both make each of these textual junctures ripe for reconsidering in light of the progressively civilizing role the city plays across time in the Ars amatoria, where cultus is both a cultural and textual obsession. While Ovidian self- and cross-referencing is a well-known poetic trope, there has been little connective tissue drawn between the beginnings of the Metamorphoses and the Ars amatoria; locating the contemporary references to Rome as having textual roots in the Ars amatoria allows for a renegotiation of what ‘Roman’ space and time means for the beginning of Ovid’s epic. The laurel, as the first addition to the Ovidian landscape and a multivalent symbol of poetry and imperial power, provides an especially complex nexus of significance to unravel, as it most tellingly represents (in irreverent poetic shorthand) Rome in a state simultaneously originary and culturally developed. The Ovidian short-circuiting of Roman foundational myth through these temporal irruptions reroutes the reader to a different kind of Roman foundation—of the Ars amatoria as a text that has already inscribed the boundaries of the urbs by delineating amor as what Roma truly is and means.
Variant Voices in Roman Foundation Narratives