Magna Mater and the poet unmanned (Ovid, Fasti 4.179-372)

DOI : 10.54563/eugesta.120


Ovid’s treatment of the Magna Mater festival in Fasti Book 4 resonates significantly both with his earlier work and with his exile poetry. The episode offers more than one potential figure, it is argued, for the poet and his traumatic experience of punishment at the hands of the emperor. Some significant parallels might prompt readers to perceive an analogy between Ovid, whose experience of exile is repeatedly figured as a painful wound, and Attis, the castrated acolyte of the Magna Mater. More compelling ultimately is the parallel between Ovid and Claudia Quinta, whose reputation, wrongly impugned, is vindicated by the goddess.


Already in the opening section of Ovid’s Fasti, the passage of time is conceptualised in terms of embodied experience; Romulus, conditor Urbis and originator of the city’s calendar, having, it seems, a rather faulty grasp of celestial movements, conceives the idea of a festal year ten months in duration1. Yet the ten-month arrangement has a kind of justification, Ovid suggests, in the temporal pattern of human development: “the time that suffices for a child to come forth from its mother’s womb, he [Romulus] deemed sufficient for a year” (1.33-4)2. In the Fasti, calendrical time serves to organise the physical experience of urban space, prompting the movement of bodies within that space (the festivals of Ovid’s calendar play out within the city of Rome, with an occasional foray into the nearby countryside). The poem mobilises the senses, evoking the physical experience of being a particular body navigating the city’s religious calendar and topography. In Fasti Book 4 (treating the month of April), Ovid explores the cult of Magna Mater (as he does other cults) in terms of its rituals and its history3. He describes the deity’s journey to Rome and the self-castration in a distant land of her acolyte Attis, who regularly figures as the model for Magna Mater’s particular attendants, the galli.

This festival (as Ovid represents it) harnesses a unique sensorium to engage its participants, raising very particular questions about the relationship between gendered experience, embodiment and religious cult. My focus here, however, will rather be on the relationship between the stories associated with the Magna Mater and Ovid’s own situation as the punished votary of another powerful goddess, Venus, one who is writing from the distant edge of the Roman empire about the specific patterns of space and time characteristic of the city of Rome. The treatment of the Magna Mater festival in the Fasti resonates significantly both with Ovid’s earlier work and with his exile poetry. Indeed the episode offers more than one potential figure for the poet and his traumatic experience of punishment at the hands of the emperor. Some significant parallels, I shall argue, might prompt readers to perceive an analogy between Ovid and Attis, the castrated acolyte of the Magna Mater. More compelling ultimately is the parallel between Ovid and Claudia Quinta, whose doubtful reputation is vindicated by the goddess; both of these analogies cast the trauma of Ovid’s exile in terms of a compromised masculinity which resonates with significant themes in his own earlier work.

April is the month devoted by Romulus to Venus, claims Ovid (following on from March, the month of her lover, Mars)4; in fact Venus does not feature particularly in the festivals of April but Ovid has chosen nevertheless to dedicate the month to her5. Ovid underlines Venus’ maternal aspect. At the opening of the book, she is termed geminorum mater Amorum, “mother of the twin loves” (4.1)6. It is particularly fitting that the cult of the Magna Mater should take place in the month of Venus Mater. Later in the book, Claudia Quinta, addressing the Magna Mater as alma... genetrix fecunda deorum, “nurturing and fruitful mother of the gods” (4.319), uses terms elsewhere strongly associated with Venus Genetrix (ancestress of the Julii – and celebrated as Aeneadum genetrix...alma Venus, “ancestress of the family of Aeneas, nurturing Venus” in the opening lines of Lucretius, De rerum natura 1.1). Each cult, as Ovid describes it in the Fasti, involves ritual lauatio of the goddess’s statue7.

The opening of Book 4 underlines also the poet’s personal connection with the goddess – and thus her month. Venus herself is made to taunt the poet: “quid tibi... mecum? certe maiora canebas, / num uetus in molli pectore uulnus habes?”, “What do you want with me?... surely you were accustomed to sing of loftier themes. Have you an old wound rankling in your tender breast?”8. Noting sarcastically the poet’s new preoccupation with “grander” material, Venus feels slighted. “Goddess”, he replies, “you know my wound” scis dea... de uolnere, a poignantly human response, we might feel, to this divine teasing. But what wound is he referring to here? Elaine Fantham, in her commentary, sees in the opening of Fasti 4 an allusion to Ovid’s “old wounds of love”9. Certainly the wounds of love are a constant theme of Ovid’s early work, the Amores, in which he falls victim to the arrows of Venus’ son Cupid10. But can we be sure this is the wound referred to here? We shall consider other possibilities below. Still, he declares: Et uatem et mensem scis, Venus, esse tuos, “Venus, you know that both the month and the poet are yours” (4.14)11. Touched by Ovid’s devotion, Venus offers him inspired insight into his proposed theme (4.17-18).

The prefatory section of Book 4, having noted that April is sacred to Venus, recounts the pedigree of the Julians, who are descended from the goddess12. A brief reprise is offered of the journey of Venus’ son Aeneas from Troy to Italy. Yet the conclusion to this section suddenly takes a more personal turn. Ovid notes that a comrade of Aeneas, Solymus, who came from Phrygian Ida, went on to be founder (4.79-80):

Sulmonis gelidi, patriae, Germanice, nostrae.
     Me miserum, Scythico quam procul illa solo est!

Of cool Sulmo, my homeland, Germanicus. Alas, how far it lies from Scythian soil.

The chill reality of Ovid’s personal situation obtrudes sharply into the poem here, disrupting the centripetal narrative of immigration to Italy. Ovid himself, reversing the journey of his home-town’s founder, now languishes on the eastern edge of the empire13. The poet’s own circumstances are rarely made explicit in the Fasti14, whose narrator figure speaks as if from the streets of Rome15. This address to Germanicus is the only undisputedly late passage in Book 4 (and indeed there are no such passages in subsequent books of the Fasti)16. Here the poet swiftly puts a lid on his own complaint; such matters are to be sung of with a “sad lyre”, maesta lyra – that is the subject rather of his Tristia17. As Denis Feeney comments on this passage, “the celebratory mode of the Fasti squeezes out the personal disaster of the poet”18. All the same, it is significant that the preliminaries to this particular book have been reworked in the light of Ovid’s exile, in tandem with the composition of another work primarily focused on the wretchedness of Ovid’s situation far from Rome19.

In Fasti Book 4, Ovid moves on to an extended celebration (4.91-132) of the generative power of Venus (again echoing the opening of Lucretius’ great didactic poem). He acclaims her as potent everywhere – but especially so in the city of Rome, where her temples are thronged with worshippers: urbe tamen nostra ius dea maius habet, “the goddess wields greater power in our city” (4.118)20. The first festival of the month naturally celebrates Venus. But the fourth of April opens with a blast of the Berecyntian horn (4.181-2), heralding the opening of the Megalensia (4.183-7):

ibunt semimares et inania tympana tundent,
     aeraque tinnitus aere repulsa dabunt:
ipsa sedens molli comitum cervice feretur
      urbis per medias exululata uias.
scaena sonat, ludique uocant. spectate, Quirites.

Eunuchs will march and thump their hollow drums, and cymbals clashed on cymbals will give out their tinkling notes: seated on the unmanly necks of her attendants, the goddess herself will be carried with howls through the city centre’s streets. The stage resounds, the games are calling. Look on, Quirites!

Within Rome, the Berecyntian horn, the cymbals, the drums, are sonic markers solely for this cult. The same particular combination of instruments features in treatments of the Magna Mater cult in Lucretius (2.618-20), Catullus (63) and in Ovid (as well as in fragments of Varro’s Menippean satire, Eumenides, which concerns the cult of the Magna Mater)21. All emphasise the tympana – the drum or tambourine (Cat. 63.8-9, 29, Lucr. 2.618, Fasti 4.183) and the cymbals (Cat. 63.21, Lucr. 2.618, Fasti 4.184). Lucretius and Ovid highlight the cornu (the curved horn, Fasti 4.181-2)22. Ovid associates these instruments otherwise only with the rituals of Bacchus, as they are described in the Metamorphoses (at Fasti 3.713-90, the worship of Bacchus in Rome itself is a much tamer affair)23. As for the human sounds, Catullus referred to the acutis ululatibus of Maenads worshipping Cybele (63.24); the verb ululo is particularly characteristic of women, notably in mourning – and barbarians. The term Ovid associates more specifically with the cult of Cybele is, as here, exululare24.

The aural impact of this festival is its most striking feature, in Ovid’s account; the overwhelming nature of the distinctive Megalensian soundscape is further emphasised, as the poet underlines his physical reaction: me sonus aeris acuti / terret et horrendo lōtos adunca sono, “I am daunted by the shrill cymbal’s clash and the bent flute’s thrilling drone”25. We might compare Catullus’ characterisation of Attis’ singing as tremebunda, “quivering”, “vibrating” (63.11)26. Evocative, too, is Varro’s description, Phrygios per ossa cornus liquida canit anima, “The Phrygian horn sings through the bones with its liquid breath” (139 Cèbe, Wiseman trs.). This haunting music exerts a visceral effect on its auditors. The possible exception of Varro aside, Ovid’s seems to be the first poetic treatment to locate the cult firmly within the spatial and temporal structures of the city of Rome27. There is a striking irony in Ovid’s personalised evocation of this deeply physical experience so intimately tied to a place from which he is thousands of miles distant and to which he will never return (even if the cult of Cybele also seems to be surprisingly well attested at Tomis)28.

The narrator is permitted to interrogate Erato, the Muse of erotic poetry, one of the goddess’s granddaughters29. She sets out the origin of this intense and distinctive noise associated with the cult, which was, she explains, first devised to conceal the cries of the infant Jupiter, in order to protect him from his murderous father30. The poet has another question: unde uenit... sua membra secandi / impetus?, “‘From where came’, said I, ‘the urge to cut their genitals?’” (Fasti 4.221-2). There is some scholarly debate as to whether the galli were indeed eunuchs and we should perhaps not assume that all were31. However, Ovid (here) and several other Roman authors do refer explicitly to their self-castration. In particular, Catullus’ poem 63, set on the slopes of Mount Ida in Phrygia, offers a devastating first-person articulation, in the voice of a young Greek, of the experience of religious frenzy, which has driven him in the opening lines of the poem to self-castration with a sharp stone acuto... silice (63.5). Blood drips on the ground (63.7), as Attis shakes her tympanum (Catullus’ language marks a change of gender) and calls to her companions to worship the goddess. She invokes the sharp – again acutus – cries of the Maenads (acutis ululatibus 63.24) as they, too, offer worship. Yet, when the following dawn breaks, Attis is filled with regret. Attis is now in perpetual exile from their patria, where once they were the glory of the gymnasium, as he/she laments in the latter part of the poem (63.56-60)32. The figurative role of wounding is particularly significant here, at the heart of an oeuvre deeply concerned with the wounds of love33.

Ovid’s version, though sharing some elements, differs in significant ways. In Erato’s response to the poet’s question in Fasti 4, the Phrygian boy Attis (there is no indication here that he is originally Greek), having sworn perpetual devotion to the goddess casto amore, breaks his vow, falling in love with a Naiad. The goddess attacks his new love (4.231): Naida uolneribus succidit in arbore factis, “by wounds inflicted on the tree she cut down the Naiad”34. Attis himself becomes mad (through what agency is not made entirely clear)35 and runs up Mount Ida, convinced he is pursued by the Furies (4.237-40)36:

ille etiam saxo corpus laniauit acuto,
     longaque in immundo puluere tracta coma est,
uoxque fuit “merui! meritas do sanguine poenas.
      a! pereant partes, quae nocuere mihi!

He mangled, too, his body with a sharp stone, and trailed his long hair in the filthy dust; and his cry was, “I have deserved it! With my blood I pay the penalty that is my due. Ah, perish the parts that were my ruin!

Attis has betrayed a powerful goddess. Her response is to inflict wounds on the tree in which his new love dwells. Attis, in his madness, inflicts punishment on his own body, specifically by attacking his genitals with a sharp stone, the saxo... acuto here (237) echoing the acuto... silice with which Attis castrates himself at Catullus 63.5. But, as Littlewood underlines, a voluntary action, which was a cause of remorse to Attis in Catullus’ poem, is considered a punishment he has deserved meritas... poenas by the Attis of the Fasti37; it remains unclear whether he is mad or sane at the moment when he declares the justice of this punishment.

Ovid’s situation as an exile rarely surfaces in the Fasti, as we have seen. It is nevertheless tempting to trace an analogy here between the wounded Attis and the poet himself, who has also received what he himself sometimes terms deserved punishment from an angry god38. Having offended the princeps, he has been relegated to the edge of the empire. His Tristia, composed, as was noted earlier, in tandem with the reediting of the Fasti, explores with maesta lyra the poet’s beleaguered condition. Ovid is confined to a settlement on the empire’s north-eastern edge. Sent as an emissary back to Rome, his new work, the Tristia, is to serve as his representative, joining the works already ensconced in the city39. But in libraries Ovid’s corpus is a mutilated one – for the Ars amatoria – the Art of Love, usually regarded as the carmen which provoked the emperor’s anger – is absent, as the opening poem of the Tristia underlines: qua meruit, poenas iam dedit illud opus, “that work has now paid the penalty which it deserved” (Tristia 1.1.68)40. Although in the Tristia passage the poem is to blame rather than the poet, we might note the verbal similarity here with the Fasti passage concerning the penitent Attis, who exclaims, meritas do sanguine poenas (4.239).

To refer to the corpus, the body, of Ovid’s work, is perhaps to stretch a point. This use of corpus for the oeuvre of a poet is one which only comes into use rather later, as Ralph Hexter notes41. Nevertheless, as Hexter observes: “throughout his career Ovid plays at the very edge, presenting a range of border phenomena that test and stretch body limits”42. Indeed, as Hexter also points out, Ovid himself anticipates this usage of corpus to refer to an author’s oeuvre at Tristia 3.14.8, where he beseeches an unnamed friend to maintain the profile of his poetic works in Rome: “so far as may be, keep my body in the city”, quaque potes, retine corpus in urbe meum. The physical distance separating the poet from the readers of his work poignantly highlights “the intertwined sinews of the poet’s two bodies”, in Hexter’s suggestive phrase43. Joseph Farrell, also reflecting on the multiple significance of the term corpus in Ovid, notes that when the term is applied to a literary work, the point is precisely to emphasise its vulnerability as a physical object, a quality shared with the human body44.

In his exile poetry, Ovid often compares himself to embattled figures from myth. In the first poem of the first Book of his Tristia, indeed, he aligns himself with a succession of tragic figures, Phaethon (1.1.79-82), Icarus (1.1.89-90) and Telephus (1.1.99-100)45. The Telephus analogy casts Ovid as a man who has sustained a terrible wound. Telephus could only be cured by the one who had harmed him, Achilles. uel qui mihi uulnera fecit / solus Achilleo tollere more potest, “or, on the model of Achilles, only the man who wounded me can relieve the wound” (1.1.99-100); in Ovid’s case, of course, the wound of exile was inflicted by the emperor, the only man with the power to recall him46. This programmatic first poem, as Stephen Hinds notes, “gives circumstantial encouragement to the idea that all stories told in the exile poetry, including stories of bodily mutilation, are really about Ovid’s own relegation”47. Imagery of wounding pervades the exile poems. In Tristia 4.1.97, for instance, Ovid, again writing about his exile, observes: corque uetusta meum, tamquam noua, uulnera nouit, “my heart feels the old wounds as if they were fresh”48.

Could this injury, we might ask, correspond to the uetus uolnus of the poet, of which he complained to Venus in the opening lines of Fasti 4? Surely the passage referring to his exile, even if a later addition, introduces this possibility. And might the self-inflicted wound of Attis in Fasti 4 perhaps figure for this wound? Earlier in Tristia 4.1, Ovid compares himself to a wounded bacchant roaming Mount Ida in terms strongly suggestive of the Magna Mater cult: utque suum Bacche non sentit, saucia, uulnus, / dum stupet Idaeis exululata modis, “As the wounded bacchant is numb to her injury, while she shrieks in ecstasy to the Idaean beat” (Tristia 4.1.41-2). The term exululare (as noted above) is particularly associated by Ovid with the cult of Magna Mater. Like Catullus’ Attis, once flower of the gymnasium who will never return to the civilised amenities of his Greek homeland (63.60-4), Ovid, once the most urbane literary star among his contemporaries, is condemned by an act of (self?-)harm to perpetual exile from his patria; he can never again be the man he once was.

Poem one of the Epistulae ex Ponto, Ovid’s second exilic series, serves as prologue to the first three books of that collection and asks for this work to be allowed an audience in Rome (1.1.37-40):

Ecquis ita est audax, ut limine cogat abire
     iactantem Pharia tinnula sistra manu?
ante deum Matrem cornu tibicen adunco
    cum canit, exiguae quis stipis aera negat?

Is there any so brazen as to force from his door one who shakes the ringing sistra of Pharos in his hand? When before the mother of the gods the piper plays upon his curved horn, who denies him a few coppers?

Though the poem begins urging the addressee to harbour Ovid’s book as his representative, at this point in the poem he seems to refer rather to himself, the poem’s author. Invoking the examples of the marginalised individuals who worship Isis and the Magna Mater, Ovid casts himself as the lowly acolyte of another deity, Augustus (gentis Iuleae nomina sancta fero, “I come bearing the holy names of the Julean clan” 1.1.46)49. He goes on to observe that the gods are known to welcome the testimony of those whom they have punished, testimony which advertises their power (51-6). He bears witness to examples (1.1.51-4):

uidi ego linigerae numen uiolasse fatentem
    Isidis Isiacos ante sedere focos
alter, ob huic similem priuatus lumine culpam,
   clamabat media se meriusse uia.

I have seen one who confessed to have outraged the deity of linen-wearing Isis sitting before Isis’ shrine. Another, deprived of light for a similar cause, was crying out in the middle of the street that he had deserved it.

The emperor, he suggests, might welcome such wretchedness as a graphic demonstration of his own potency. While the worship of Magna Mater is not mentioned at this point in the poem, her acolytes were coupled with those of Isis just a few lines earlier (37-45). Here, too, we might perhaps be tempted to align Ovid, the punished but repentant votary of Augustus, with the wretched Attis of the Fasti. The experience of exile after all is itself represented as a kind of emasculation. Ovid’s laments echo those of the abandoned women whose voices he ventriloquised in his earlier Heroides; as Patricia Rosenmeyer observes, “Ovid sets himself up as an abandoned heroine”50.

Certainly, Ovid regards himself as suffering from a self-inflicted wound, a punishment he has, he professes, deserved for his offence against the emperor. And yet the analogy between the poet and Attis has its limitations. Indeed we might see Ovid as offering a corrective to any readers who might be tempted to align the poet with the faithless acolyte of Magna Mater, to see his punishment as fully merited, despite his protestations. For the Fasti passage shows little obvious sympathy for Attis, who broke his oath to Cybele. Ovid steps away from this identification; Ovid’s Attis is very different from the narrator of Catullus 63. Elsewhere, indeed, Ovid expresses revulsion rather than sympathy for the galli, the eunuch acolytes of the Magna Mater. In earlier, more frivolous times, Ovid had invoked them as paradigms of an over-refined grooming male readers of his Ars amatoria should firmly reject (1.505-9):

Sed tibi nec ferro placeat torquere capillos,
    nec tua mordaci pumice crura teras.
ista iube faciant, quorum Cybeleïa mater
   concinitur Phrygiis exululata modis.
Forma uiros neglecta decet.

But take no pleasure in curling your hair with the iron, or in scraping your legs with sharp pumice-stone. Bid them do that by whom mother Cybele is hymned in howling chorus with Phrygian beat. A casual beauty suits men.

Ovid associates hair-curling and leg depilation with these most conspicuous examples of “not men”, whose otherness is marked by their distinctive “Phrygian” cries. In his Ibis, composed during his exile years, Ovid casts his arch enemy as a gallus, termed nec femina, nec uir “neither man nor woman” (455), in the course of what Gareth Williams characterises as a “great catalogue of obscure maledictions”51. How could any Roman uir want to resemble these irredeemably alien creatures52? Rather than align Ovid with Attis, I would like to suggest we consider an alternative possibility.

There are notable parallels between the poet and another figure, who comes to the fore in the concluding part of the Cybele episode, an individual who is misunderstood – but ultimately vindicated. Ovid eventually asks the informative Erato to explain how Cybele came to Rome. She almost followed Aeneas, he is told – but fate did not yet call her. Later, however, the Romans sought her out in response to an oracle: mater abest: matrem iubeo, Romane, requiras, “The mother is absent; Roman, I order you to find the mother” (4.259)53. Erato recounts her journey in some detail, giving Mount Ida as the deity’s original home (an association which reinforces the cult’s connection to Troy, 4.249)54. She also recounts Cybele’s arrival at the mouth of the Tiber, where the ship stuck fast, despite all the efforts of a large group of men hauling on ropes55. Magna Mater was only to be liberated by a single Roman woman, one of noble birth, Claudia Quinta, whose virtue, previously doubted by disapproving elders, was thereby vindicated56; the oracle had earlier specified that the mother should be received with casta... manu, “chaste... hand” (4.260). Erato makes clear this story must be believed – on the perhaps disconcerting grounds that it is also staged in the theatre (4.326)57.

While Claudia Quinta has a place in Livy’s version of the story (29.14.12), where her reputation is also in question, in Ovid’s treatment she has a much more prominent role58. Here, as often elsewhere in the Fasti, Ovid “feminises” the traditional stories of “higher” genres59. As Jacqueline Fabre-Serris comments: “If we are to believe Cicero and the historians who recounted this episode, the arrival of the Mother of the Gods saved the Urbs from the dangerous threat posed by Hannibal. In Ovid, the only thing this woman saves... is her reputation”60. It was Claudia Quinta’s elegance, reports Erato, which had prompted doubts about her chastity (4.307-10)61:

casta quidem sed non et credita: rumor iniquus
    laeserat, et falsi criminis acta rea est;
cultus et ornatis uarie prodisse capillis
   obfuit, ad rigidos promptaque lingua senes.

Chaste she was, though not reputed so. Unjust rumour had wronged her, and a false charge had been trumped up against her: it told against her that she dressed elegantly, that she went about with her hair ornately and variously dressed, that she had a ready tongue for stiff old men.

Ovid’s description of Claudia Quinta has made more perceptive readers pause. We might note the provocative celebration of cultus generally in the Ars Amatoria (the erotic didactic poem which would play a key role in Ovid’s downfall), strikingly at 3.127, where the poet embraces his own age precisely quia cultus adest “because culture is with us”. As Fabre-Serris underlines, cultus (in a more specific sense) is a crucial term in the advice on grooming, in the same book of the Ars, which Ovid offers female readers looking to attract the male gaze62. Angeline Chiu, noting also Ovid’s suggestions to his female readers on how to dress and arrange their hair in Book 3, nicely observes: “The Claudia Quinta of the Fasti is apparently a woman who knew her Ars amatoria63. The details of Claudia Quinta’s appearance are described in terms which seem to recall Roman poets’ descriptions of their mistresses, her hair, for instance, suggesting the ornato... capillo of Propertius’ Cynthia. And there are disconcerting echoes of Catullus in the phrase ad rigidos promptaque lingua senes64. We might remember that Erato herself (the narrator of this section) is the muse of erotic poetry, as Ovid notes when he introduces her: mensis Cythereius illi / cessit, quod teneri nomen amoris habet, “it fell to her to speak of Venus’ month, because her own name is derived from tender love” (4.195-6). Erato is also the only Muse to be invoked in Ovid’s Ars amatoria: “favour me” he asks Venus and Cupid, and nunc Erato, nam tu nomen amoris habes, “now you, Erato, for your name is a name of Love” (2.16)65. Once again, elegy’s irresistible tendency toward the feminine inflects Ovid’s ostensibly more serious project.

Claudia Quinta, in Erato’s Fasti narrative, laughs (risit) at the “untruths” mendacia other people tell about her (4.311) – and yet she knows how ready people are to believe rumours. Having made conspicuous ritual preparations, Claudia swears an oath, invoking dire punishment on herself if she is not truly chaste, as she addresses the goddess (321-2):

Casta negor. si tu damnas, meruisse fatebor;
    morte luam poenas iudice uicta dea.

They say I am not chaste. If you condemn me, I shall confess I have deserved it; by the verdict of the goddess, I shall pay the penalty with my life.

The adjective casta occurs four times in 4.313-24; there is a suggestive parallel here with the earlier oath sworn by Attis, vowing chastity in the service of Cybele, an oath whose violation Attis later avenged on his own person (227-8)66:

Ille fidem iussis dedit et “si mentiar”, inquit
  “ultima, qua fallam, sit Venus illa mihi.

He promised obedience, and, “If I lie”, he said, “may the love for which I break faith be my last love of all”.

Ovid’s readers are primed to recognise the high stakes of Claudia’s vow. Claudia, however, in contrast to the faithless (and severely punished) Attis, is vindicated by the goddess, whose ship, previously immovable in the mud, miraculously comes free at Claudia’s touch.

According to Macrobius (writing centuries later), the emperor Augustus, when he heard rumours about the adulterous behaviour of Julia, his sophisticated daughter, took consolation from the mythical story of Claudia Quinta, proved chaste, despite her racy appearance and her witty retorts: talem fuisse apud maiores Claudiam credere audebat, “he dared to believe that Claudia Quinta of old had been just like that” (Sat. 2.5.4). Julia, too, was known for her witty comebacks. Macrobius goes on to report an episode where Julia had been attracting attention when she attended the games in the company of smart young men (in contrast to the respectable companions of her step-mother Livia). Augustus sent a note reproving her; eleganter illa rescripsit: ‘et hi mecum senes fient’, “to which she neatly wrote back, ‘these young men too will become old – when I do’” (2.5.6)67.

Much to the emperor’s chagrin, the analogy between Claudia and his daughter would not ultimately prove an apt one; in 2 BCE the weight of evidence was such (it seems) that he felt obliged to find Julia guilty of adultery and punish her with exile68. Ovid’s allusion to the restoration of the temple of Cybele in 3 CE (at Fasti 4.348) makes clear this part of the poem was composed after Julia’s exile. Some have read Ovid’s Claudia Quinta, maligned but guiltless, as figuring for Julia – or perhaps for her daughter, the Younger Julia, who was herself found guilty of adultery and sent into exile in 8 CE69. Claudia Quinta’s description here certainly corresponds to features in the tradition concerning both the Elder Julia and the Younger. Ovid himself, we should remember, is generally supposed to have been implicated in some way, perhaps as a witness, in the Younger Julia’s offence70. This was, many have assumed, the error which, together with his carmen (the Ars amatoria), prompted the thunderbolt of relegation71.

Yet we might also read Claudia Quinta, I would like to suggest, as figuring not for Julia or at least not only for her/them (the Elder and the Younger) but also for the poet himself 72. In Tristia 2, Ovid describes himself as one whose reputation for sexual impropriety has no foundation in his personal behaviour (2.349-57)73. He urges (353-4):

crede mihi, distant mores a carmine nostro-
   uita uerecunda est, Musa iocosa mea

I assure you, my character differs from my verse (my life is moral, my muse is playful).

Ovid, too, has been wrongly suspected of immorality by those who judge on appearances – and as a consequence of this he has been condemned to a terrible punishment. Strikingly, his Remedia amoris (composed just after the Ars around the turn of the century) refers to his own works in words which clearly foreshadow his comment in Fasti 4 on Claudia Quinta. In the Remedia, too, defending himself from the charge that his work is “forward” proterua (362), Ovid draws a contrast between the figure of Andromache, proper to tragedy, and that of Thaïs, the type of the comic meretrix (385-8)74:

Thais in arte mea est; lasciuia libera nostra est;
    nil mihi cum uitta; Thais in arte mea est.
si mea materiae respondet Musa iocosae,
  uicimus, et falsi criminis acta rea est.

Thais is the subject of my art; free is my love-making: I have no dealings with matron’s fillets; Thais is the subject of my art. If my Muse meets the charge of playful themes, I have won, and she is accused on a false charge.

A sharp distinction is (ostensibly) drawn between the “respectable” women, women subject, we should note, to particular constraints under the Augustan adultery law (the lex Iulia de adulteriis of 18 BCE), and those, such as women who had been enslaved and sex workers, who were not liable to prosecution for adultery75. Ovid’s protestation, making clear his work is not destined for respectable Roman matrons, reiterates the disclaimer of Ars 1.31-4 (which Ovid also echoes in Tristia 2.245-52). As he plays (little knowing the seriousness such charges might bear in future) with the idea that he might be accused of impropriety in writing erotic verse, Ovid excuses himself, making clear that the women in his poems (specifically in his Ars, indeed) are not grand figures appropriate to the tragic stage (that is to say respectable matrons) but individuals of much lowlier status. His muse, he asserts, is accused on a false charge. Years later, when, against all expectation, his Ars amatoria had been deemed so offensive as to render its author deserving of relegation to the ends of the earth, he chose to reuse the very same phrase, falsi criminis acta rea est, in this case of the smart and sophisticated Claudia Quinta – falsely suspected of impropriety, but able, thanks to the Magna Mater’s intervention, to demonstrate her true virtue. Even if this passage in Fasti 4 was not added or edited when Ovid was in exile, attentive readers may well have responded to these lines in the light of the author’s drastically changed circumstances76. The poetics of conspiracy, mobilised by the exile poems with regard to their own interpretation, might readily infect readings of Ovid’s other work77.

The impotence of the exile is explicitly lamented in Ovid’s Tristia and his Epistulae ex Ponto, where the poet is figured repeatedly as having sustained a physical wound. In the Fasti, by contrast, Ovid generates an almost seamless illusion of his own presence in the city of Rome; his treatment of the festival of the Magna Mater vividly evokes the unique sensorium of this highly distinctive ritual, the bodily experience of the Roman onlooker. But in the light of Ovid’s exile, his handling of the figure of Attis and his account of the Magna Mater’s transfer from a remote region to Rome take on a particular and paradoxical resonance for the poet, whose person had been displaced from Rome to the edge of empire and whose poetic corpus had suffered what the author experienced as a catastrophic mutilation. The episode serves to thematise issues which had taken on a pressing personal significance, divine anger, punishment, guilt, and injured innocence. The critical role played by the maligned Claudia Quinta resonates in relation to the poet’s new situation. The sexual behaviour of women, especially aristocratic women, had been drastically politicised under Augustus, not least through legislation. The emperor’s decision to inflict conspicuous punishment on his daughter and granddaughter for their alleged affairs made it all the clearer that in Augustan Rome, as in that of Claudia Quinta, cultus might engender suspicion, accusation, condemnation. Ovid himself, the playful standard-bearer for cultus, had discovered this to his great cost. In his own case (as indeed in that of Julia and her daughter), there would never be a deus ex machina – or mother goddess on a boat – to ease a journey (back) to Rome.


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1 I am very grateful to Jörg Rüpke for inviting me to take part in a panel on Urban religion in Augustan literature at the London meeting of FIEC in 2019, as well as to other members of the panel, and also to seminar participants at Durham University and to Eugesta’s anonymous reviewers for their very helpful suggestions. Warm thanks are due to Lynn Roller for sharing her work with me at a time when libraries were inaccessible. Return to text

2 quod satis est, utero matris dum prodeat infans / hoc anno statuit temporis esse satis. Translations are adapted from the Loeb editions. Return to text

3 On the aetiological elements in the Fasti, see Barchiesi 1997: ch. 6, Newlands 2002, Porte 1985 and, focusing particularly on Books 5 and 6, Loehr 1996. Return to text

4 Romulus thus paid homage to his ancestress (4.28-9). See Herbert-Brown 1994: 88-95 on Ovid’s engagement with scholarly controversies concerning the etymology of Aprilis. Return to text

5 See Herbert-Brown 1994: 90, Boyd 2003: 16-18. Return to text

6 Amor and Cupido (Fantham 1998 ad loc.). The line echoes the opening of the last poem of the Amores, 3.15, tenerorum mater Amorum. In that poem (3.15.18) Ovid had proposed “higher things” as new project. On the opening of Fasti 4, see Barchiesi 1997: 194-7. Return to text

7 That of Magna Mater at 4.337-40, that of Venus 4.135-8. See Pasco-Pranger 2006: 158 (who also notes parallels between the importation of Magna Mater and that of Venus Erycina at Fasti 4. 875-6, 2006: 134-7). On the lauatio of Venus, see Barchiesi 1997: 219-28, Ziogas 2014. Goddesses associated with fertility feature strongly in Book 4, as scholars have noted, with Ceres to the fore at 393-620. See particularly Boyd 2003 on these resonances. Return to text

8 Barchiesi 1997: 57 notes echoes of Sappho’s words to Aphrodite (1.15-18 L.P.). See Feeney 1992: 16-17 on Ovid’s self-exculpation in this section. Venus also serves as the poet’s inspiration in Ars amatoria (at 1.30 she is invoked as mater amoris). On the paradox of Ovid’s choice of elegiac metre to explore this “grander” material, see Hinds (1992: 85-7). Return to text

9 Fantham 1998: 88. Return to text

10 Amores 1.22. See also e.g. 2.9.4-7 (suggests Fantham 1998 ad loc). Cf. AA 1.21-2 et mihi cedet Amor, quamuis mea uulneret arcu, / pectora, “and to me Love shall yield, though he wound my breast with his bow”, 1.165-6. Return to text

11 Fantham (1998 ad loc.) underlines the relationship between the opening of the proem to Book 4 and that of Book 1 (dedicated, in the reedited version of the Fasti, to Germanicus). Return to text

12 Herbert-Brown 1994: 88-95. Return to text

13 Ovid is the earliest attested source for the claim that Sulmo’s founder was a companion of Aeneas (Fantham 1998 ad loc). There are further allusions to Sulmo at 3.95 and 4.685-6 (though without reference to Ovid’s exile). At Tr. 4.10.3-4, Ovid describes it as his place of origin: Sulmo mihi patria est, gelidis uberrimus undis, / milia qui nouies distat ab urbe decem, “Sulmo is my native place, a land rich in ice-cold streams, ninety miles from the city”. Martelli (2013: 108-11) reads the presence of Sulmo here as a gesture towards the sphragis, which conventionally indicates the region of the author’s birth (albeit in the middle of the poem – and stopping just short of an authorial signature). Return to text

14 Though see Green 2004: 20-21 identifying moments in book 1 (e.g. 479-96) which resonate with Ovid’s plight without making it explicit. Return to text

15 On the fiction of the poet’s presence at the festival as a Callimachean feature, see Littlewood 1981: 387. In Tristia 2.549-56, Ovid presents his Fasti as interrupted by exile. On the degree to which the Fasti was revised after Ovid’s exile, and further after the death of Augustus, see also Fantham 1985, 1998, Feeney 1992: 14-19, Boyle 1997, Green 2004: 15-25. Return to text

16 Book 1, with a new dedication to Germanicus, seems to have been more thoroughly revised (Green 2004: 5-25), though see below for other possible revisions of Book 4. Return to text

17 Hinds (1992: 106-7) includes this among a number of passages in the Fasti where a turn to elegiac lament helps to disarm “epic” themes. Return to text

18 1992: 14. He goes on to claim persuasively that “important sections of the poem were re-written from exile so as to make the Fasti read like a poem whose licentia has been suppressed” (1992: 15). His essay concludes: “The silent second half of the work has, in its own way, as much to say about the principate and its ideology as the vocal first half” (1992: 19). Return to text

19 References elsewhere, placing Ovid in Italy (such as a comment at 4.683-90 on Ovid’s experience of stopping off at Carseoli en route to his Paelignian estate) take on a corresponding poignancy. Return to text

20 On the particular manifestation of Venus in Fasti Book 4, see Boyd 2003. Intriguingly, Venus herself once received a wound as she bore arms for Rome’s ancestral Troy, as Ovid observes in his account: gemuit teneram cuspide laesa manum, “she groaned, wounded in her delicate hand by a spear” (4.120). Return to text

21 On the Lucretius passage, see Gale 1994: 26-32, Summers 1996, Luciani 2016. The order of the Varro fragments (preserved by Nonius and Augustine) and their interpretation is disputed. See Rolle 2017. Return to text

22 See also Ex Ponto 1.1.39-40. According to Varro (LL 5.117), this was originally horn but later made of brass. Return to text

23 Met. 11.16 (the sound of Orpheus’ lyre is drowned out by the uproar of Berecynthian flutes, discordant horns, drums, Bacchei ululatus), 3.533-4 (worship of Bacchus), 537 (this involves cymbals, the curved cornu, obsceni greges, inania tympana). Cf. Catullus on Bacchus’ entourage 64.261-4 (barbara... tibia and cornua); Virg. Aen. 11.737. Bacchus and Cybele also share an association with Phrygia. Return to text

24 As Fantham 1998 ad loc. underlines. We might note also a brief return to the music of Cybele at end of the section 4.341-2. Cf. Ars 1.508 (quoted above), Tr. 4.1.42 Bacche non sentit saucia uulnus, dum stupet Idaeis exululata modis, “As the wounded bacchant is numb to her injury, while she shrieks in ecstasy to the Idaean beat” (here of a Maenad worshipping Bacchus). Return to text

25 Littlewood 1981 compares this with Callimachus’ “eye-witness” approach in the Aetia. Newlands (2002: 208) reads terret here as serving to undercut the authority of Lucretius’ description of the same rites (with the explicit aim of dispelling fear) at DRN 2.598-660). Return to text

26 Interestingly Caesius Bassus notes (in relation to a Maecenas fragment) that he used galliambic metre: quo magis hic uersus, quod mater sacer est Idea, uibrare uideatur, “in order that the verse, since it is sacred to the Idaean mother, should seem more frenzied” Keil 1874: 255-72, cited by E. Courtney, The Fragmentary Latin Poets (Oxford, 1993). Return to text

27 Wiseman (1985: 269-72) argues the Varro satire is set in Rome, stressing the reference to an aedile. Cèbe (1977), by contrast, interprets the action as set in Greece. Return to text

28 Ruscu 2014: 143-4. Return to text

29 A Callimachean move, as Littlewood notes (1981: 387-8); see Callim. Aet. Fr. 137a.8 Harder). Barchiesi (1997: 191-5), discussing the authority of divine informants in Ovid, explores the significance of Erato as narrator, as do Miller 1982, 1983 and Newlands 2002: 207-13. Return to text

30 A mythical origin which conflates Mount Ida in Phrygia, NW Anatolia (associated with Cybele) and Mount Idea in Crete (associated with Rhea and the Corybantes). Return to text

31 Vermaseren 1977: 96-101, Alvar 2008: 246-50, though see now Van Haeperen 2019: 29-30. Explicit references to their castration include Val. Max. 7.7.6; Juv. 6.511-21; Martial 3.81, Pliny NH 35.165, as well as Ovid’s question. Christian authors are vehement in their denunciation of the practice, e.g. Augustine, Civ. dei 7. 24, on the shameful cruelty inflicted on the galli in the service of the Magna Mater (ista turpitudine crudelissima). As Lightfoot (2002) emphasises, ancient discussions of the galli converge significantly with references to the eunuch acolytes of the Syrian goddess. Return to text

32 See Harrison 2004. Return to text

33 For instance, at 11.24, where love spurned is compared to a flower cut down by the plough, tactus aratro est. See Nauta 2004 on poem 63 in the context of Catullus’ oeuvre. Cf. Quinn (1972: 250-1) for an autobiographical reading of 63. Skinner (1997) reads the scenario in relation to a more Foucauldian concern with elite emasculation. Return to text

34 Cybele turns Attis into a pine tree in Ovid Met. 10.104 (Virgil, too, stresses Cybele’s particular power over trees, Aen. 9.77-122). Return to text

35 For Littlewood (1981: 390) it is Attis’ violation of casto amore which provokes the goddess’s punishment. Fantham (1998 ad loc.) observes: “hic furit following illa perit suggests his madness was caused by shock at her death rather than directly sent by Cybele”. Later, explaining the origin of the name Galli, given to the acolytes of Magna Mater, Erato connects their self-castration with the madness said to afflict those who drink from the waters of the river Gallus (4.363-6). Return to text

36 Littlewood highlights the appropriateness of a punishment normally associated with matricides (1981: 391). Return to text

37 1981: 391. Note also Lucretius 2.614-7 where castration of the galli is interpreted as a punishment for violating the majesty of the mother. Return to text

38 E.g. Ex Ponto 2.2.19, meritam... Caesaris iram, “Caesar’s anger, which I deserved”. Further instances are discussed below. Return to text

39 E.g. 1.1.15-16, 1.1.58. See Hinds 1985. Return to text

40 Similarly 2.29, 3.1.51-2 in quo poenarum, quas se meruisse fatetur... causam, “the cause of whose punishment, which he admits he has deserved”. At Tristia 4.1.30, Ovid, referring the circumstances of his exile, describes himself as carmine laesus yet still carmen demens... amo, “madman that I am, though song has injured me, it’s still song that I love”. Return to text

41 1999: 345 “it is only in the third and fourth centuries that it becomes standard to employ corpus for the complete works of one author”. Cf. TLL s.v. corpus esp. coll. 1020-21. Farrell (1999: 130) notes the occasional use of corpus to refer to an individual literary work composed of multiple libri. Return to text

42 1999: 331. Return to text

43 1999: 331. Return to text

44 1999: 131. See also Krasne 2012, Frampton 2019. Dinter (2012: 27-49), in his discussion of Lucan’s metapoetic use of the mutilated body, notes Ovid’s slippage between literary and corporeal imagery in the Metamorphoses, notably in his treatment of Orpheus, the paradigmatic poet. Return to text

45 Hinds (2007) deftly explores Ovid’s use of “mythic victimology” with a particular focus on Tristia 3.9. Return to text

46 Cf. 2.19-20, also 4.1.36 quodque mihi telum uulnera fecit amo, “I love the very weapon that made my wounds”. Return to text

47 2007: 198. Return to text

48 We might note also the medical imagery of Ex Ponto 1.3 comparing Ovid to wounded Philoctetes; 1.5.23, Ovid’s miserabile uulnus “wretched wound”; 1.6.22 tractari uulnera nostra timent, “our wounds shrink from being handled”. Return to text

49 On Ovid’s treatment in the exile poetry of Augustus as a divinity to be worshipped see McGowan 2009: chs. 3 & 4. Return to text

50 Rosenmeyer (1997: 47). Return to text

51 Williams 2002: 243. On the under-appreciated themes of this poem, which insistently wishes dismemberment on its addressee, see Schiesaro 2011 and Krasne 2012. Return to text

52 The paradoxes of the Magna Mater’s cult (and particularly the role of the galli) have been made by a number of modern scholars to offer suggestive insights into Roman identity (Beard 1994, Butler 1998, Orlin 2010) and into Roman constructions of masculinity (Roscoe 1996, Roller 1997, 1999, Latham 2012, Rauhala 2017). Return to text

53 As Barchiesi notes (1997:195), the oracle here counsels a journey in the opposite direction to that advised in the Aeneid, antiquam exquirite matrem “search out your ancient mother” (3.96), a veiled (and initially misunderstood) instruction to Aeneas to head for Italy. Return to text

54 Gruen compares the versions of Cybele’s journey offered by Livy and by Ovid (1990: 5-34). He notes that aside from Herodian (1.11.3), only Ovid links the acquisition of Magna Mater from Mt Ida with the Romans’ Trojan ancestry (1990: 15-16). Return to text

55 Newlands (2002: 213-5) notes the Virgilian and elegiac resonances of Cybele’s journey in Ovid’s version. Myers (2020) analyses Cybele’s journey alongside the journeys of Ceres (also involving notable geographical catalogues), which feature later in Fasti 4. Return to text

56 Claudia Quinta is first associated with the arrival of Magna Mater by Cicero (Har. resp. 13.27, noting priscam illam seueritatem; Pro Caelio 34), while Livy is the first to mention her dubious reputation (29.14.12). Return to text

57 Wiseman proposes, plausibly enough, that the story of Claudia Quinta was regularly featured on the stage (1994: 68-85). However, as Barchiesi notes (1997: 196) “the narrator’s stress is placed on the difficulty of believing her” (i.e. Claudia Quinta); cf. Fabre-Serris 2013: 100-1. See Torre (2008) for some suggestive resonances with the notably theatrical Pro Caelio of Cicero, a speech first delivered during the Megalensia. Return to text

58 By contrast, as Chiu notes (2016: 49-50), Scipio Nasica, who features prominently in Livy’s account, is mentioned only fleetingly by Ovid (Fasti 4.347). Return to text

59 Hinds notes the Fasti’s insistent feminisation of epic action (1992: 110). Return to text

60 2013: 99. Return to text

61 Ziogas (2014) sees a suggestive connection with the description of the Veneralia at 4.133-4, where Ovid, he argues, similarly destabilises assumptions that a woman’s social/sexual status can be inferred from her dress. Ovid’s version of the story is followed by e.g. Sen. De matr. Fr. 80f, Plin. NH 7.120 and others (Littlewood 1981: 384). On the challenges of interpreting the signs of pudicitia in the various versions of this story, see Langlands (2006: 65-72). Return to text

62 Citing e.g. Ars 3.100 ordior a cultu “I begin with care of the body” (2013: 103). Return to text

63 2016: 47, referring to Ars am. 3.133-6. As she goes on to note (2016: 50), “the entire episode is... a poetic vindication of the elegiac sensibilities of spirited feminine beauty and refinement”. Return to text

64 Barchiesi 1997: 197, observing parallels with Cat. 5.2 rumoresque senum seueriorum, as well as Prop 1.2.1 ornato... capillo. Cf. Pasco-Pranger 2006: 157, Torre 2008: 474-9. Return to text

65 As Miller points out, 1989: 404. Erato (invoked by Apollonius 3.1-5 and Virg. Aen. 7.37-44) might also suggest epic. See also Newlands 2002: 207-9, Chiu 2016: 43. Return to text

66 Littlewood 1981: 394. Return to text

67 On the significance of these passages for our interpretation of Ovid’s Claudia Quinta, see particularly Fabre-Serris 2013: 103-4. Return to text

68 Vell. Pat. 2.100.1-5, Sen. De clem. 1.10.3, Pliny, NH 7.149, Tac. Ann. 1.53, 3.24, Suet. Aug. 65. Return to text

69 See e.g. Fantham 1998 ad 305-12 (arguing that this episode is therefore likely to have been reworked after Ovid was sent into exile). Torre (2008) also explores parallels with Julia, as does Chiu 2016: 45-6. Leach (2007: 4) sees Ovid as engaging here with Cicero’s deployment of Claudia Quinta (Pro Caelio 34) as a reproach to the sophisticated and much gossiped about Clodia (a parallel also noted by Newlands 2002: 210, Langlands 2006: 70, Torre 2008: 477-82, Fabre-Serris 2013:103). Ovid’s glamorous Claudia Quinta, whose virtue is wrongly suspect, could serve as a defence of Clodia, maligned by Cicero. Return to text

70 See e.g. Syme 1978: 215-29, though we should note Hinds’ comments (2007: 195) on “the great murky corpus of conjectures about what kind of offence against Augustus... got Ovid into trouble”. Return to text

71 Tristia 2.103-5, 207-8 carmen et error. Ovid will not revisit the latter for fear of reopening the uulnera of Caesar. Return to text

72 Fabre-Serris (2013: 105) notes in passing the parallel between Ovid’s own situation and that of Claudia Quinta. Elsewhere, too, Ovid invokes female role models, e.g. Tr. 5.13 and Ex Ponto 1.10, as Rosenmeyer notes (1997: 48). Return to text

73 A somewhat paradoxical statement situating Ovid in the tradition of Catullus 16.5-6: nam castum esse decet pium poetam/ ipsum, uersiculos nihil necesse est, “For the reverent poet ought to be chaste himself, though his poems need not be so”. Cf. Martial 1.4.8. Return to text

74 A character called Thaïs features in Terence, Eunuchus (cf. Juvenal 3.93-4). Return to text

75 On the categories deployed by the law, see McGinn (1998, esp. Ch. 5). Strong (2016) explores the stereotypes of matron and prostitute and some of the ways this distinction was, in practice, blurred. Return to text

76 Fantham 1998: 155-6 infers at least some of this passage was written during Ovid’s exile. Others, e.g. Fabre-Serris (2013: 105), are less convinced. Return to text

77 See Hinds (2007: 212) on the “poetics of conspiracy”. Return to text


Electronic reference

Catharine Edwards, « Magna Mater and the poet unmanned (Ovid, Fasti 4.179-372) », Eugesta [Online], 11 | 2021, Online since 01 janvier 2021, connection on 13 juillet 2024. URL :


Catharine Edwards

Birkbeck, University of London