Twenty-one new lines of Ovid – their authenticity, as I shall explain, is beyond any possible doubt – would be exciting enough even if they weren’t guaranteed to boost the sales of a great new, competitively-priced introduction to Ovid that I happen to have written (Ovid: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2020); pp. 120; ISBN: 978-0-19-883768-8; RRP £8.99). With their appearance, securely provenanced with not a strip of cartonnage in sight, we may finally move beyond that frankly pathetic excuse for a significant survival “The Gallus Papyrus”. There will no doubt be the same outpouring of wildly implausible analyses (among which my own in Latomus 54 (1995) 79–85 stands as an isolated example of what a sober assessment of a fragment can achieve), and it is consequently sensible to get in ahead of the crowd with some securely incontrovertible observations on the new text.
To begin with the most pressing question (while also, after a moment’s consideration, the least controversial), the work to which we should trace these lines is as plain as… well, plain can be. Of course there will be the predictable champions of the first edition of the Amores (on which see Morgan (2020) 19), of the second half of the Fasti (Morgan (2020) 92–3), and of the poem inscribed under Ovid’s name on a pillar at the shrine of Hercules Curinus in Ovid’s birthplace of Sulmo(na) (Morgan (2020) 6, with sumptuous illustration overleaf), but there is an overwhelmingly more plausible candidate in the Medicamina Faciei, ‘Cosmetics for the Face’ (Morgan (2020) 6), which this fragment increases in size by 21%.
The Medicamina will undoubtedly have turned its attention in its final lines from the female face to his own, a pleasing (and highly marked) anticipation-in-reverse of the trajectory of the Ars Amatoria from men to women (Morgan (2020) 29). A text that concerns itself with such cosmetic ingredients as crushed narcissus bulbs, ground stag’s antler, carbonate of lead and foam of red nitre is the only possible context of the gourd I would confidently read in the first line. But the clinching evidence for the identity of this fragment lies in its metrical character, a scrupulous – one might almost suggest textbook – observance of bisyllabic pentameter cadence and penthemimeral caesura (Morgan (2020) 24–5).
Elision, more precisely described as synaloepha (Morgan, Musa Pedestris: Metre and Meaning in Roman Verse (Oxford, 2010) 329–32), is (typically) deployed sparingly, the one exception thus powerfully iconic: the labyrinthi ambagibus in which Theseus loses his way lose their own way as the words blend inseparably together, labyrinthiyambagibus. (It is good practice to pronounce such examples out loud and repeatedly to get a full sense of their effect.)
Taken together, there are none of the tell-tale prosodical signs of exilic composition (Morgan (2020) 41), thus placing the fragment firmly and incontestably in the years of Ovid’s poetic activity in Rome between 25 BC and AD 8, thereby matching perfectly the strong scholarly consensus regarding the date of the Medicamina Faciei (25 BC – AD 8).
No less authentically Ovidian, as any casual reader will appreciate, is the contradiction of literary propriety evident in almost every line of this composition (Morgan (2020) 96). The dramatis personae of elevated poetry here find themselves mired in the most undignified circumstances. Hercules’ heroic labours are displaced by the base physicality of cowdung, Theseus’ by the malodorous Minotaur. Did we ever, before the New Naso obliged us to, consider Horatius not for the bridge that he defended against the Etruscan aggressors but for his enormous Roman nose? The unapologetically puerile character of this poetic exercise could not be anything but Ovidian (Morgan (2020) passim).
A face is all the more attractive if it bear a mole, Ovid famously remarked, probably meaning a facial blemish rather than a burrowing mammal. It is a quintessentially Ovidian touch, needless to say, to add a nasus to his Facies.
Llewelyn Morgan is Professor of Classical Languages and Literature and Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford. He is said to be flogging a book.
|⇧1||[ The whole story checks out, Antig.]|
|⇧2||Although it is not worth the effort to do so, this fragment can be consulted semi-legally in Latin here and English here.|
|⇧3||i.e. cucumi [si vera lectio!, Antig.]|
|⇧4||[si vera lectio!, Antig.]|
|⇧5||[si vera lectio!, Antig.]|
|⇧6||It would, of course, be untrue to describe this issue as settled beyond all doubt.|