Pete nunc propiore loco (Met. 15.637-40): Ovid's Aesculapius Episode and Rome as Center of the World

K. F. B. Fletcher

University of Michigan

One of the final episodes of Ovid's Metamorphoses is the arrival of Aesculapius in Rome to cure the plague, which scholars read as establishing Rome as a new religious power in the world.  A key part of the episode, however, remains unsolved: the Delphic oracle's response to the Romans about the plague, which tells them that they should have sought in a 'closer place' (15.637-40).  This riddle has puzzled scholars, since the Romans correctly go to Epidaurus to summon Aesculapius, though Epidaurus is in no way closer to Rome than Delphi is.

Through a comparison of other accounts of this and similar events, it is clear that the 'closer place' is actually Rome, or – more specifically – the Sibylline Books.  That the Romans already have the answer at home serves to write Delphi out of the picture, putting more focus on Rome as a religious center.  But this ideological frame involves more than just this one episode, for Aesculapius' role in saving the city was already alluded to in a prophecy at Met. 2.640-58.  In this way (and many others) Rome is always the focus of Ovid's poem and the center of the world, which helps to explain other elements of the Aesculapius episode, like the invocation to the Muses: the event is not just historical, which is unfortunately how scholars try to read it.  Rather, it goes beyond a simple notion of history or a division of history and myth.  The most historical event in the poem is in turn also the  most mythological, for it best illustrates the position of Rome as an ideological power.  

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