Ovid, Fasti V.551-578

Mars admires the Forum of Augustus

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1 BCE to 8 BCE
Rome and Tomis
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This passage sees Mars, the Roman god of war, descend to admire and approve the Augustan Forum and the temple built in his honour. It is in fact the most detailed description of the temple that we have from antiquity. The Forum of Augustus took over twenty years to complete, and the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) dominated it, forwarding to the Roman people the idea that the new Roman state was founded on justice. The temple celebrate two of Rome’s most significant military accomplishments: firstly, the avenging of Julius Caesar’s murder, which Ovid recognises through reference to a vow taken by Octavian on the battlefields of Philippi in 42 BCE, wherein he promised to bring the killers of his adoptive father to justice (568); and secondly, the successful vengeance of Rome over its foreign enemies, as the temple also came to house the standards recovered from the Parthians in 20 BCE after Crassus’s embarrassing defeat at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Ovid’s account here consists of a combination of physical description and panegyrical motifs (Elaine Fantham, “Ovid’s Fasti,” p. 206), which furthers imperial ideology of the time, in part centred on the notion of just war (Carole Newlands, Playing with Time, p. 89). The description itself is framed by the name Augustus (552 and 556), which Mars himself is in awe of when he reads it on the front on the temple (557).

The opening passage of the Fasti (I.1-26) appears to praise peace, rather than war, and up until book five, war is distinctly supressed – certainly not indulged in, so it is interesting that we have here such a different angle, with the god of war honoured at length. Indeed, some scholars have interpreted the somewhat bloodthirsty language of 574-576 as Ovid’s subtle criticism of the civil wars (see, for example, Anthony Boyle, “Postscripts from the Edge,” p. 14. As Carol Newlands identifies, however, in addition to his role as an avenging war god, Mars was also the ancestral god of Rome, with various monuments displaying him in this fatherly role as Rome’s protector. When the temple was dedicated in 2 BCE, Augustus also assumed the title pater patriae (father of the country), and therefore connected himself with the protective aspect of Mars (Carole Newlands, Playing with Time, p. 94). The fact that Ovid describes the decoration of the Forum and temple from the perspective of Mars means that we are offered a glimpse not only into its physical characteristics, but also into the character of the god. The issue of genealogy is crucial to this passage; at the beginning of the text Ovid makes reference to Romulus: Mars “no otherwise ought Mars to dwell in his son’s city” (554), referring back to Rome’s mythical origins, and thereby implying the close association between Augustus and Rome’s earliest founders (Mars’s affair with Venus, mother of Aeneas, symbolically linked him to Julius Caesar, the adoptive father of Augustus, who claimed Venus as his ancestor). It is significant that the only individuals that Mars names are those to whom he is genealogically or symbolically associated (Aeneas, Romulus, Caesar and Augustus) (Carole Newlands, Playing with Time, p. 101). We are told of the two galleries housing Rome’s distinguished heroes (563-566), including the famous image of Aeneas, “burdened” with both the weight of his father and the Penates on his shoulders, fleeing from Troy (563). This, of course, forwards one of the state’s most important virtues – pietas, which is cleverly balanced with the military action of Romulus, depicted on the opposite side, who is described as carrying weapons (565). The ideal medium of peace and appropriate warfare is therefore clearly represented. 

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