The New Naso: A Preliminary Appreciation

Katharina Volk

This sensational find – which is quickly becoming known, even in the popular press, as the “New Naso” – revolutionizes our understanding of one of Rome’s most beloved poets, providing a fascinating glimpse of the early career of none other than Ovid, the famously large-nosed elegist. Without a doubt we have here a precious relic of the first, five-book edition of the poet’s Amores, a work that Ovid decided to curtail and reduce from five books to three (see the epigramma ipsius that precedes standard editions).[1] The fact that two books of vintage Ovid were thus designated to the dustheap of history by none other than the exasperating author himself is one that Ovidians throughout the centuries have found hard to bear. All the greater the reason for rejoicing presented by the New Naso, therefore, which finally offers a scrap of the lost books – and what a delectable scrap it is!

As will be obvious to any specialist, the text constitutes the end of a poem, and most likely the end of the entire original collection. It is what classicists call a sphragis (Gk σφραγίς), a “seal” that the poet impresses on the conclusion of his work to identify himself by name (Naso) and state his poetic program and ambitions. It would seem that in the final edition, the poem represented by the New Naso was replaced with what is now Amores 3.15, an obviously inferior production.[2]

Just as in 3.15, the poet of the fragment looks back on his past achievement, the leve carmen (17) beloved by his readership (ever the feminist, Ovid stresses his success specifically among virginibus … pulchris, 16) and looks forward to a greater work (magna meta, 15; cf. area maior, Am. 3.15.18). But while Amores 3.15 is but a conventional celebration of Ovid as Rome’s foremost elegist (duh) and Sulmo’s most distinguished son (what’s the competition?), the New Naso shows the poet at his most nasutus.

The genius of the piece consists in the poet’s inspired use of his proboscis as a metapoetic signifier. As anthropologists have long been aware, the nose plays an outsized role in Greco-Roman mentality as an organ not only of olfaction but also of cognition or even wisdom. By means of both mythological and historical exempla, as well as references to his own life and work, Ovid constructs his own status – both realistically and nominalistically – as “the man with the nose” in order to demonstrate that he is amply provided with both prerequisites for poetic success, viz ingenium and ars.

Inherently bivalent (note the two nostrils), the nose stands for both natural endowment and critical acumen. Thus, Theseus (2–3) when killing the Minotaur relies both on his heroic prowess and his sagacity in “sniffing out” the noisome brute. Similarly, Hercules (6–9) uses the brute force of his hands (manibus, 8) to clean the Augean Stables, while also cleverly availing himself of a Lucretian honey-rim to protect his sensitive schnoz (9). Finally, the daring image of the Horatian bridge (with a window allusion to Flaccus via Cocles?) places our Naso firmly on both sides of the nature–nurture divide, pointing to the always implied (but hardly ever supplied) différance between nose and rose. Omnia vincit olor, indeed!

Before the poem comes to its triumphant conclusion of nasal alliteration, the nosey poet throws the reader a brilliant Ciceronian curve ball (20). Citing the unfairly maligned line from De consulatu suo (fr. 7 Soubiran – really nothing to sniff at), Ovid deftly aligns himself with the master of Roman oratory whose life was snuffed out the very year our poet was born (43 BC). In a synchronismós (Gk συγχρονισμός) that doubles as a scene of translatio nasi, Cicero hands on his unparalleled sense for Latin diction to his worthy successor. In addition, however, the Paelignian babe eclipses the very man who “cut down” (Caesar from caedere) his unfortunate (contrast fortunatum) predecessor: instead of Octavian Augustus, Ovid himself (me) presides as the new emperor and bridge-builder (pontifex maximus) over the glorious birth of his own sublime nose.

Katharina Volk likes to stick her nose into things Ovidian and is Professor of Classics at Columbia University.


1 This may be read most conveniently here.
2 The poem can be endured here.