Ovid’s Cipus (Met. XV 553-621)

And the Intersection of Etrusco-Roman and Hellenistic Kingship

Alexis M. Christensen

Foundation rituals, as performed by kings or would-be kings, serve to unite the myths of Tages, Romulus and Cipus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.553-621).  The Cipus passage is introduced by the myth of Tages, who teaches the rites of the Etrusca disciplina (15.553-59).  Included in these rituals is a precept for the founding of a city, by plowing a furrow around the site of the city.  This very ritual was used by Romulus in the founding of Rome, and therefore serves to link the Tages myth with the subsequent story of Romulus’ spear (15.560-64), which miraculously begins to grow into a tree upon striking the earth of the Palatine Hill.   Here Romulus is cast in the role of a Hellenistic king claiming his territory by means of his spear; a Macedonian ritual frequently utilized in the Greek East from the time of Alexander the Great.  Having alluded to both Etrusco-Roman and Hellenistic rituals for establishing kingdoms, Ovid combines these mythologies in the story of Cipus, an examination of which will be the focus of this paper. 

The story of Cipus, treated briefly by scholars (e.g. K. Galinsky, TAPA 98 [1967] 181-191 and U. Schmitzer, Zeitgeschichte in Ovids Metamorphosen, [1990] 260-272), is best understood in the context of archaic Roman myth, where it can be seen as a parallel to the similar myths of Horatius Cocles (Livy 2.10, Dionysius 5.25) and Mucius Scaevola (2.13 5.35).  Each hero is rewarded for his valor in protecting the state by a gift of as much land as he could encircle with a plow and a team of oxen in a single day.  The language used in the prescription of these land gifts is the equivalent of the Etrusco-Roman foundation ritual as laid out by Tages.   I propose that this gift served to mitigate the power of the three heroes, potentially diverting them from seizing control of the state; this gift of land serves as a surrogate kingdom.  Cocles and Scaevola are further limited in their potential as would-be kings because of the injuries they sustained (the loss of an eye and of a hand respectively) in the course of their valorous acts.  Physical deformity is notoriously intolerable to Romans, the Emperor Claudius being a notable exception.  Cipus, however, stands out because he did not suffer any such physical impairment, and therefore is a greater threat to the continued existence of the Republic.  In fact Cipus’ role as would-be king is further emphasized by the spontaneous growth of horns from his forehead, an omen interpreted by an Etruscan haruspex as a mark of kingship.  These horns would have been read as a sign of kingship, not only by the haruspex, but also by Ovid’s readers, who would have been familiar with the Hellenistic practice of representing kings with horns. 

In this paper I will argue that Ovid selected and integrated the stories of Tages’ epiphany, the miraculous spear of Romulus, and Cipus because they illustrate aspects of Etrusco-Roman and Hellenistic kingship.  He derived the myths of Tages, Romulus’ spear, and Cipus from the earliest of Roman legends, providing this passage with the authority of Roman tradition.  He then explicated these myths in the context of Hellenistic kingship, perhaps reflecting the Hellenization of Rome as well as Augustus’ increasing willingness to be viewed as an oriental monarch, thereby contemporizing them and emphasizing Cipus’ rejection of that kingship. 

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]