Aufer, Vesta, Diem!
Inventing the Augustan Goddess in Ovid's Fasti
In the world of Ovid's Fasti, Vesta is a deeply complex figure, arising
from a past without a mythology of her own. Ovid, by inventing myth for Vesta,
invents a place for her in which she emerges as the main goddess of Augustus's
new Roman identity. In order to do so, Ovid must first make a space for Vesta,
and then define that space. As we will see in the course of this paper, Vesta
claims a place for herself at the express expense of Venus; the goddess of
love is displaced and replaced as Augustan patroness by the somber, retributory
The displacement of Venus is clearest in Fasti 3's account of the
Ides of March (3.523-699). The account unfolds with themes congenial to Venus—lovers
at a springtime festival (3.526), elements of love elegy (3.538), the reappearance
of Aeneas as lover, not warrior, in an elegiac retelling of the Aeneid (esp.
3.611-2). The account progresses to a sex farce that is specifically called
nec res hac Veneri gratior ulla fuit (3.694). But then Vesta suddenly appears
and hijacks the festival by ordering the poet to tell of Caesar's assassination
and the vengeance of Augustus (3.697-99). The poet complies, and the
tone of the festival changes drastically. The games pleasant to Venus are
swept aside by Vesta and her more somber prerogatives.
In Fasti 4 and 5, the sensuous goddess Flora becomes a proxy for Venus, and she too
is displaced by Vesta. Ovid hails Flora as patroness of a playful, erotic
stage (4.943-47), and later her intimacy with him (5.183-378) echoes his
familiarity with Venus (4.1-18). But as soon as Ovid mentions her in book
4, he displaces her in favor of Vesta—aufer, Vesta,
a sober statement on the Augustan settlement (9.49-54). Flora's calendar
space must yield to Vesta's. Control and constraint are at issue, and the
more pleasurable goddess hurries off stage before the austere, uncontestable
Vesta. More, Venus had opened book 4 with a flirtatious conversation
with Ovid, a passage in direct counterpoint with the end of the book, where
the poet hails a stern and silent Vesta.
Finally, Vesta assumes Venus' attributes when she appears in Fasti 6. The
poet greets her in terms (6.249), which recalls his invocation of Venus (4.1).
Her invisible presence is manifested in the rosy, glowing earth (6.252),
appropriating a characteristic that is famously associated with Venus (Homer,
Iliad 3.396-397; Virgil, Aeneid 1.402, 2.590; Lucretius, DRN 1.9). Vesta
has displaced Venus to a degree where she can assume Venus's famed epiphanic
characteristic without even appearing herself.
The final test case for the ascendancy of Vesta and her prerogatives over
Venus's in the Fasti is the pair of Priapus's rape attempts: on the nymph
Lotis in 1.391-440 and on Vesta herself in 6.319-348. Priapus, foiled in
both, is at the center of laughter in the Lotis version—a sexual joke
much like the Anna Perenna's (1.437-438). But in the Vesta version is no
joke—there is no laughter, and Priapus is frightened by threats of
violent retribution: per infestas effugit ille manus (6.343). Erotic
jokes have been quashed.
In sum, Venus yields to Vesta. More, Vesta placed into a playfully erotic
world reconfigures it into one of behavioral boundaries, where transgressions
are penalized, not indulged with laughter. Sexual morality is on trial (note
too the leges Iuliae of 18 BC). But in the world of the Fasti, what is and
is not acceptable now finds its definition not in Venus, but in Vesta. The
invention of the stern Augustan goddess is complete.