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Ovid’s Council of the Gods (Met. I) and Jupiter’s Tribunicia Potestas

Francis Newton

Duke University

Ovid’s epic Council of the Gods (Met. 1.167-252) is convened by Jupiter to deal with the problem of the wicked Iron Age race of men on earth.  The passage draws many subtle parallels between Jupiter and Augustus, and the first simile in the poem (1.200-205) makes the comparison explicit.   In his first speech to the council, Jupiter explains that the plebeian demigods –nymphs, Fauns, Satyrs, and Silvanuses—live on the earth and that they are endangered by those Iron Age humans.  He asks (1.196), “an satis, o superi, tutos fore creditis illos?” (do you think that they will really be safe?), and decides to destroy the wicked race in a great Flood.  Galinsky, following Bömer and Heinze, took Jupiter’s announcement of concern for the safety of the demigods as an “absurd reason” for the decision to send the Flood. It has not been observed, however, that Jupiter’s concern here, to make the world safe for the plebeian demigods, reflects exactly the role of the Roman Tribunus Plebis.  It was possession of the tribunicia potestas that was a fundamental cornerstone of Augustus’ legal standing, a power conferred on the Princeps for life (Res Gestae 10).   Even the specific language of the passage (plebs, tutos) is traditional in relation to the office of tribune; in the uprising that led to the creation of tribunes of the plebs, Livy’s plebeians (2.23) complain that freedom of the plebs (libertatem plebis) was safer (tutiorem) in war than in peace. Tacitus on the first page of the Annals (1.2) says that Augustus presented himself as “ad tuendam plebem tribunicio iure contentum” (content with the tribunician right to keep the plebs safe).    The very terminology of Ovid’s Jupiter is that of the Augustan principate.   But the Great Flood is followed in Met. I by the Great Betrayal.  When Jupiter with rape in his heart attempts to persuade the (plebeian) nymph Io to enter an Argive forest, he says (1.594-595), “praeside tuta deo nemorum secreta subibis, / nec de plebe deo” (you will be safe entering the secluded woodland, with a god as your protector, and not a plebeian god).   At the moment of betraying his high undertaking to keep the plebeian gods safe, Jupiter repeats his earlier high, serious concept-words.  The implications for the poem’s view of the earthly possessor of the tribunicia potestas are, it seems, obvious; it is not so much that Ovid was conformist or anti-conformist, but rather that in Met. I he was delving into the very  arcana imperii (Tacitus, Ann. 2.36).   The implications were probably obvious to Augustus, for it was in the year (8 CE) when the Met. had begun to circulate in Rome, that Jupiter’s thunderbolt descended on the poet.

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