The Poet and the Nose: An Encrypted Message in the New Naso

Jerzy Danielewicz

I wish to start on a personal note. When on 1 April 2021, on my birthday, I saw the scholarly edition and commentary on the ‘New Naso’ (the Fragmentum Gigglesvicense) on the Antigone website, I was touched not only by the fact that I was facing one of the most important discoveries in the history of Latin literature, but also by the coincidence of dates. Hence, I felt somewhat morally obliged to get involved in the international discussion about this work.

The aforementioned circumstances encouraged me to adopt an approach resembling Reader-Response Criticism, but in its modified version that I am tempted to call Disclose – rather than Close – reading.[1] Of course, such an excellent poem eludes schematic interpretations, so, as we shall see, the principle of “just the words on the page” will little by little cease to apply.

Ovid’s elegy is, as it stands, unfortunately deprived of its beginning, the reconstruction of which calls for an urgent research endeavour that will undoubtedly be undertaken by specialists in the field. The text currently available to us, already primo obtutu exhibits the features typical of the hymnic genre: its pars media emphasises the role of the nose in the deeds of mythical and historical heroes.

After a masterful linking element that ends with a recapitulation in the form of a proverb (lines 12–13),[2] the poet strikes personal tones. From then on, his attention is focused on his nose (no wonder, considering Ovid’s cognomen Naso), treated as an inalienable constituent of his mental and bodily self. It is this final part of the work that, in my opinion, deserves a particularly thorough examination, as it shows Ovid at his best when it comes to formal refinement. By that I mean the metapoetic statements hidden in an extended anagram, constituting the author’s commentary of a sort on creative freedom, in which an admirable balance between Naso, the poet, and nasus, the organ of smell, is maintained.

My bold statement, fairly enough, requires some justification. One can assume that the first thing wordplay researchers would look for in such a situation are so-called ‘signposts’, namely clues suggesting that the text contains some additional hidden layer. Here we go, then: lines 14–15 read as follows:

iam quoque magna mihi Nasoni condere versus[3]

meta manet, nasum dummodo rite sequar.[4]

Let us look at the expression meta manet, which draws attention to the end (meta)[5] of the elegy. The phrase condere versus is ambiguous since it can mean both “to compose” and “to conceal/hide” verses. Finally, the clause nasum dummodo rite sequar indicates the correct way of reading the word nasum as a condition for reaching a goal. As for the direction of reading, it is suggested by the noun versus, which, significantly, can denote a turning round of the plough’[6]

At this point, we can move on to the verse that is – from our point of view – crucial, line 20 (or, more specifically, to its last three words):

o fortunatum natum me Caesare nasum!

To decipher the supposed anagram, the phrase should generally be read right-to-left, with the following distinction: the last six letters backwards, the next six letters (underlined below) bidirectionally, in a mixed fashion,[7] and the last two letters (me) without changing their direction. Let us visualise it with a pictorial diagram:

As a result, two anagrammatic readings emerge:

Musa, ne arceas me (scil. quaeso) 

Oh Muse, do not shut me up / constrain me (please!). 


Musa, ne careas me (scil. quaeso)

Oh Muse, do not be without me / abstain from me (please!).

In the former case, me can denote either a person (me poetam) or a thing (me nasum); in the latter, it refers to an object rather than a person (me naso). Both readings, as mentioned above, have a metapoetic dimension, and the inclusion of the ‘nose’ in literary-critical terminology is particularly striking. Undoubtedly, the nose symbolises poetic intuition as an important factor supporting the process of creation.[8]

In conclusion: the ‘New Naso’ not only significantly enriches our knowledge of Latin poetry by being a hitherto unknown and extremely interesting text, but also, at a latent level, it also contributes to Roman literary criticism, supplementing it with these new and fascinating rhinological aspects.

Jerzy Danielewicz is Professor Emeritus of Classics at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań. As a pastime, he enjoys tracking acrostics, anagrams, and other word games in ancient poetry.


1 I hope that the following analysis will more than justify the term I have coined.
2 namque ut pons ripas, ita iungit lumina nasus; / nil odio est nobis; omnia vincit olor. [Because of reports that the translation of the “Hoopoe of Jesus” is too loose to allow hard-nosed scholarly analysis, we provide a more precise rendering courtesy of Google Translate: “For, to the banks of a bridge, so he joins the lights of the nose; / We do not hate; All wins swan.” Antig.]
3 [si vera lectio!, Antig.]
4 [“As Nose is my name, I too must verses fine compose, / A sacred goal, which will be won by following my nose” – so the Turdus Turlensis. Professional critics may more properly rely on Google Translate: “Naso to me now, too, to build towards the great goal remains the same, provided they are properly will lead on the nose.” Antig.]
5 It is a pity that Ovid did not yet know the modern use of the word as denoted by terms like ‘meta-level’.
6 Cf. the Greek term βουστροφηδόν (boustrophēdon), “turning like oxen in ploughing” (of writing from left to right and then right to left alternately).
7 These letters make up the word Caesar. The fact that the word must be sliced to obtain the expected part of the anagram allows us to deduce a convincing etymology of this name (not from caesaries, “beautiful hair”, but from caedere, “to cut to pieces”).
8 Cf. the expression “to have a nose for something”.