Antiquarians’ Connected Readers and Individual Appropriation of Religion

Does the concept of a connected reader help us analyze ancient individual appropriation of religion? I maintain that it does. To argue this, I must systematize my findings and bolster them with further evidence. We observe, on the one hand, the very specific character of Ovid’s connected readers, and on the other, the coherence of this (of course) authorial construction throughout six books of epic length (and a re-edition). These two facts present of themselves adequate arguments that we are justified in seeking in this text a portrait of Ovid’s addressees and their concerns—as ideal readers, or even as individuals of a specific social disposition.

Ovid’s commentary on the fasti addresses the local (Roman) reader and supports his (or, as I would add in the case of Ovid, her) dominant mainstream political identity. Although this is not surprising, it is also not a necessity of antiquarian literature. Callimachus did not restrict himself to Alexandrian readers in his geographically wide-ranging Tetia.50 Propertius problematizes identities and involves his audience in journeys outside of Rome, for instance to Lanuvium (4.8).

Ovid does not presuppose a reader who is interested in ritual details for the sake of active participation or highly specific observation. Nevertheless a wide range of ritual practices are touched on, far beyond even the necessities of a commentary on the Roman fasti. This holds true for the complex rite performed by the old woman for dea Tacita (2.571-82)’1 as well as for the otherwise unattested rites for Vacuna (6.307—8).

Ovid does construe a reader who is, above all, interested in the Why and Whence. Of course, these are questions that are welcome to the narrator as they offer opportunities for storytelling. But even if the answers occasionally remain inconclusive or conflicting, the reader is supposed to regard such etymological or historical knowledge as something that can be “learned” and “remembered.” Religious practice and symbols invite questions and can be explained. Answers are neither forbidden nor dogmatic. The narrator is quite aware that his own answers are questionable. Explanation is not inimical to religion, but a part of it.’2 [1] [2] [3]

Ovid’s connected reader is understood to be interested in visible religion. He or she is made aware of temples and statues and temples without statues, and of the ritual use of otherwise undistinguished space. There is, however, no hint at the private usufruct of such ritual topography.

In place of a systematics of religion such as modern research frequently conceptualizes on the blueprint of Varro’s Antiquitates rerum divinarum—a functionally ordered “pantheon”—gods and temples and the attributes of days are quite often shown to be the outcome of historical contingencies and decisions. This conforms to a trend visible in other contemporary au- thors.[4] Here, the narrator is interested in recent changes and the latest renovation of a temple rather than in a complete chronology. Clearly, religion is presented as a field of creative action for members of the political elite, the emperor in particular.

The connected reader is interested not only in major public festivals but also in domestic and local cult, even if neither annotations in the text of the fasti nor public architecture point to the latter’s existence. Such domestic and local cult, too, is regulated by the course of the year and consists of disconnected events, in any of which participation was optional. Its performance on the part of the reader is not presupposed.

A specific cult is an opportunity, or even a duty for a specific social, gender, or age group. The connected reader is supposed to learn these specifics, and he or she is at most indirectly admonished to join in, never without arguments. The most forceful exhortations concern not highly specific cult practices, but events that involve many groups, if not everybody: even animals in the case of the Feriae Sementivae, even slaves in the case of Fors Fortuna. In all these instances it is most important for the audience to have a clear understanding of the emotional tone of the cult. This holds true for the organizers of the cult as well as for any participant.

Finally, it is not the modern bricoleur au religion that corresponds to the connected reader crafted by Ovid. Rather, it is an informed and sympathetic observer or bystander, embedded in a structured society, but free to exercise his or her own choices, knowing the possible limits of individual innovation as well as the appropriate affective regulation or deregulation when participating in traditional cult activities. Such a reader will have already reached the stage of the trained reader, able “themselves to find interesting matter and understand it,” as Quintilian put it (Inst. 2.5.13). For his didactic poetry Ovid would certainly have accepted the aim that Quintilian formulated in the following sentence: “For what else are we about in teaching than ensuring that our pupils will not always require to be taught?”[5]

Surveys, interviews, and participant observation (the methods employed in research on lived religion today)[6] are not available to the study of ancient religion. There is an abundance of evidence for a limited range of individual religious activities, such as votives, tomb inscriptions, and the material remains of funerary rituals. For other types of activity, we must rely on occasional anecdotal evidence as it appears in ancient historiography or in letters. In many instances, however, we see infrastructure rather than usage, texts rather than testimonies of their reception. Here, however, the instigators of architecture or the authors of texts step in, revealing the reactions they anticipate and focusing audience attention in direct or subtle ways. Such testimonies have been used to learn from texts what one can no longer learn about authors otherwise. But it can also be used to gather evidence, not elsewhere attested, about the character of the audience. In this chapter, my primary interest was not in Ovid, but in the religious practices of his contemporaries, presupposing that the text contains some insights into contemporary appropriation of religion. Through the lens of the connected reader (who in most cases is the inscribed, narrated hearer), Ovid’s Libri fastorum is neither the script for a complex but fixed ritual system (as the text has been usually interpreted) nor an individual’s reflection on such a system (as in more recent interpretations). Instead, it documents a field of social action, shaped and reshaped by contingent individual and group action. It documents lived ancient religion.

  • [1] I am grateful to Tony Bierl for this point.
  • [2] See McDonough 2004, 357-58.
  • [3] See in particular Beard 1987, 1988, 1989, 1993; Scheid 1992, 1993.
  • [4] Rupke 2014b.
  • [5] Translated by D. A. Russell and M. Winterbottom (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1972), 378.
  • [6] E.g., Heimbrock 2007; Bergmann 2008; McGuire 2008.
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