This morning I started weeping as I read about the Agonalia.
Simon Price was an amazing scholar, a brilliant teacher and one of most kind and humane men I’ve ever known. He gave me my first teaching job. Back summer term of 1997 I had a series of undergraduate tutorials with him on Roman religion. I’d been to his lectures the previous term and was in awe of all the rich materials, tidbits of evidence from here and there he marshaled together into a captivating narrative, a narrative that showed something of all the questions left to be asked. He’d stand by the window in his black robe and look out of the room as he talked, making sense of the patchwork quilt of sources he’d assembled on a single handout.
The tutorials were good, but it was summer and Oxford was full of distractions. I found the way of thinking about the history of religion, very different from reading Polybius. The Isis essay was fine, a novelty really, but boy did I struggle the week on Ovid’s Fasti. He wanted me to answer the question what use is this poem to the historian. I thought I’d never read anything quite so dull.
This morning I started by reading the Fasti. I love every bit of it. Like a sibylline book, every time I read it, it seems new again and perfectly relevant to my project at hand. I never seem to be able to see or understand or remember a passage of it until the moment I need it. Simon was right, of course. He tried to teach me to read it. At least I got there eventually.
I regret most fervently never writing to him before he passed away about what he meant to me. Or just to say thank you. If there is someone you should write to, trust me it will be better to do it now, than redraft the letter over and over again in your mind for all the years to come.
Linneaus that great classifier of living things called this woodpecker Picus Martius, the Black Woodpecker as it’s generally known. Its modern scientific name is Dryocopus Martius, picus now being used for another genus of the woodpecker family.
But for the classicist the Picus Martius is an important bird. Ovid puts Mars’ bird, the woodpecker, as a defender of Romulus and Remus on par with the wolf. (You’ll notice a theme running over the last few posts…) Pliny has lots of fabulous anecdotes about the bird and its importance in auguries and how it will defend certain flowers or how its beak can be worn as a charm against wasps. Among other things at NH 11.123 it is described as having a tufted head.
…per medium caput a rostro residentem et fulicarum generi dedit,cirros pico quoque Martioet grui Balearicae, sed spectatissimum insigne gallinaceis, corporeum, serratum…
Not – to be sure – an uncommon trait for woodpeckers and one can see why Linneaus thought the Black Woodpecker a good candidate for Mars’ totemic bird. I’m sure I’m not the first to deduce this, but I think this is the more likely candidate:
Today, this beauty is the Picus Viridis or European Green Woodpecker. The first reason I came to this conclusion was largely based on typical range of the two birds. The Black is rarely spotted below the Appenines today, where as the Green is known throughout the Italic Peninsula. Then there is this bit of Virgil:
There Picus, the Horse-Tamer, sat, holding the lituus, the augur’s
Quirinal staff, and clothed in the trabea, the purple-striped toga,
and carrying the ancile, the sacred shield, in his left hand,
he, whom his lover, Circe, captivated by desire, struck
with her golden rod: changed him with magic drugs
to a woodpecker, and speckled (sparsit) his wings with colour.
Of course how do we know that this Picus is Martius Picus? Well this seems likely from Servius’ commentary:
fabula autem talis est. Picum amavit Pomona, pomorum dea, et eius volentis est sortita coniugium. postea Circe, cum eum amaret et sperneretur, irata eum in avem, picum Martium, convertit: nam altera est pica. hoc autem ideo fingitur, quia augur fuit et domi habuit picum, per quem futura noscebat: quod pontificales indicant libri. bene autem supra ei lituum dedit, quod est augurum proprium: nam ancile et trabea communia sunt cum Diali vel Martiali sacerdote.
This little silenos figure on a lid of cista no. 45 in the Pierpont Morgan Library collection is labelled EBRIOS. Ebrius is the Latin adjective meaning ‘drunk’. Think English inebriation. Not an inappropriate name for a dionysiac character. I wonder if there is any relation to the river name where Ovid says the Bacchic throng discovered honey (Fasti, book 3):
liba deo fiunt, sucis quia dulcibus idem 735
gaudet, et a Baccho mella reperta ferunt.
ibat harenoso satyris comitatus ab Hebro
(non habet ingratos fabula nostra iocos);
iamque erat ad Rhodopen Pangaeaque florida ventum:
aeriferae comitum concrepuere manus. 740
ecce novae coeunt volucres tinnitibus actae,
quosque movent sonitus aera, sequuntur apes;
colligit errantes et in arbore claudit inani
Liber, et inventi praemia mellis habet.
Reading for leisure is complicated when one reads as a primary professional obligation. As early as my undergraduate days I rationed novel reading by imposing strict rules: 1) only on weekends or school breaks, 2) never, ever start a book after 4 pm [to avoid being up all night]. Now, I read fewer novels, and usually old “friends”, sometimes from childhood, who’ve been read many times before. When I read something new, I like a guarantee of plot resolution. Somewhere in grad school I picked up poetry as a means of leisure reading that stands repetition and is low on time commitment. My tastes run highly rhythmic: Fenton, Auden and honest: Sexton, Addonizio.
What I haven’t read enough of is Greek or Latin poetry. Somewhere the ‘historian’ label interfered with my perception of such literature as particularly useful or engaging. A old well-grooved prejudice. One that protects poetry as a modern pleasure thoroughly divorced from my professional concerns. This is ridiculous. Ovid, Martial, Propertius and their friends tell us far more about the landscape of Rome itself and the attitudes and preoccupations of the people who inhabited it than Cicero. Or, if not more, than differently, with nuance and layers of meaning. Rich depths for the historian to plumb. With playful and pleasurable language to boot. Heck, Cicero in the pro Archia even tells us the value of the poetic perspective on history. I even like such literature, as literature.
I think, perhaps, a graduate seminar ‘Latin Poetry for Historians’ would be a fabulous course to develop post sabbatical. Something that honors the genre as an art form, while also exploring the diversity of the evidence it offers, and the complications of deploying such evidence.
I just ordered up via ILL a piece of German scholarship which from the abstract seems to redate some early Roman coins (aes grave with a prow and the quadrigati) and connected them with the events of 241BC. I’ll reserve judgement on that until I see the article. However, it also reminded of this portion of Ovid’s Fasti, calendar of the Roman year in poetic form:
I spoke these words to the god [sc. Janus] who holds the key.
‘Indeed I’ve learned much: but why is there a ship’s figure
On one side of the copper As, a twin shape on the other?’
‘You might have recognised me in the double-image’,
He said, ‘if length of days had not worn the coin away.
The reason for the ship is that the god of the sickle
Wandering the globe, by ship, reached the Tuscan river.
I remember how Saturn was welcomed in this land:
Driven by Jupiter from the celestial regions.
From that day the people kept the title, Saturnian,
And the land was Latium, from the god’s hiding (latente) there.
But a pious posterity stamped a ship on the coin,
To commemorate the new god’s arrival.
I myself inhabited the ground on the left
Passed by sandy Tiber’s gentle waves.
Here, where Rome is now, uncut forest thrived,
And all this was pasture for scattered cattle.
My citadel was the hill the people of this age
Call by my name, dubbing it the Janiculum.
Asses did stay in circulation for a very very long time and were minted very sporadically during the late Republic. Ovid’s Augustan age testimony provides evidence that worn base metal coins had become the norm but that the types were generally known. The prow however did not hold a particular meaning for a contemporary viewer. Ovid has the god explain that the prow commemorates Saturn’s arrival. This would have seemed plausible because Saturn was the god of the treasury, even if it is unlikely to have been the original inspiration. Crawford suggests the visual inspiration comes from this beautiful type of Antigonos Doson, c.227 BC (See RRC p. 42 esp. n. 5):
Naval imagery first appears on Roman coins, unsurprisingly, when they become more adept as a military power. And it has even been argued that naval imagery on aes signatum commemorated the very battle in which the bronze itself was captured in the form of rams, armor, and other spoils from the Carthaginian enemies. However awareness of symbolism slips away as particular images stop resonating with contemporary audience, hence Ovid’s deduced explanation.