Nomen perit:
Memory and Identity in Ovid's

Abigail E. Roberts

University of Florida

Much attention has been given to two questions about Ovid's Fasti; first, why the poet terminated a work about the Roman calendar year not in twelve, but six books, and second, whether the poem is best read as an encomium or a criticism of the Augustan principate.  This paper is intended as a piece of a larger inquiry into how an understanding of the notion of personal identity - including its formation, complications and breakdowns - might offer another perspective on both the narrative limits of the Fasti and Ovid's relation to Augustus. 

In this paper, I focus on Book I of the Fasti.  Through a close analysis of the use of nomen, I examine how notions of identity are portrayed in two major episodes: the narrator's conversation with Janus and the commemoration of the conferment of the nomen Augustus (lines 589-616). 

Ovid's own awareness of the power and fragility of identification by name is revealed in Tristia IV.V 8-16, where identity is conferred by the articulation of a nomen, and claiming a nomen as one's own is at once filled with honor and fraught with perilEmbedded also are other subtleties: what happens after one is given a name might include repercussions for incorrectness or impropriety associated with assuming such an identity, or, even if the identity is fitting, being ultimately forgotten. 

Janus' statements in Book I frame the understanding of identity with which we might read lines 589-616.  There are three salient points:  first; that initial conferment of a nomen is a rational result of one's actions; second; that a nomen as a mark of identity is not fixed, but changes because of the inevitable and uncontrollable influence of time and the attention of the aetas; third; that an individual's own memory at any time complicates one's understanding of self.  Janus' passing use of memini (a cognitive function for which one who can see all things at the same time has no ostensible need) illuminates the beginning of the unraveling of certainty that will accelerate throughout the Fasti. 

Having established the formation of identity as a phenomenal interplay between original function, natural forces, and human fallibility, Ovid presents the episode concerned with titles and naming in lines 589-616.  The first of the encomia in the Fasti, this passage is fundamentally concerned with establishment of Augustus' identity.  Like prior examples of naming in Book I, Augustus receives a name according to what others say about him.  The greatness of Augustus' power, however, inspires an inversion of the ordered process of naming already established in the narrative. 

Book I of the Fasti stands as background for how themes of identity formation and threats to the survival of one's identity play out in the remaining five books.  After identity is first delineated, confusion and the possibility of oblivion challenge first definitions.  The unraveling of themes of personal identity go hand-in-hand with the Fasti narrator's accelerating anxiety, despairing crescendo, and eventual silence. 

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