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Ovid, the Fasti and the stars

Robinson, M.; (2007) Ovid, the Fasti and the stars. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies , 50 pp. 129-159. Green open access

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Abstract

According to Quintilian, poetry cannot be fully understood without a good knowledge of the stars. As one example he cites the fact that poets frequently indicate the time of year by the rising and setting of stars and constellations, a device familiar to us from Hesiod onwards.1 For Quintilian, who had the benefit of a stable civil calendar, there may have seemed little reason beyond a desire for poetic expression to specify the date in this manner: but before Caesar’s calendar reforms in 45 BC, the appearance and disappearance of certain stars just before sunrise and just after sunset provided a much more regular guide to the year than the erratic calendars of Greece and Rome, which were often out of step with the solar year.2 It is therefore not surprising to find the same method of specifying the date in prose authors too;3 and lists of these stellar phenomena, arranged in various calendar-like formats, are found in both texts and inscriptions. These lists, known as parapegmata, can be traced back to fifth century Greece, but the tradition may be considerably older.4 Whatever our reaction to Quintilian’s claim, it is certainly the case that a good knowledge of the stars is important for a full understanding of Ovid’s calendar poem, the Fasti. To a large extent the poem presents itself as a poetic version of the Roman calendar: each book covers a different month, and as the year and the work progress, Ovid marks the dates of various religious festivals and historical events, as in the real fasti. However, unlike many of the extant fasti, Ovid combines this material with material from the parapegmatic tradition, giving dates for the rising and setting of various stars and constellations, and for the journey of the sun through the zodiac. The inclusion of the constellations – and of the aetiological tales explaining their presence in the sky – enables Ovid to introduce a variety of Greek myths into the Roman calendar, where they would otherwise have no place.

Type: Article
Title: Ovid, the Fasti and the stars
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: http://icls.sas.ac.uk/institute/publicat.htm#BICS5...
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Dept of Greek and Latin
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/6901
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