and Identity in Ovid's Fasti
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 peril. Embedded 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.