The New Naso: A Few Thoughts on Authorship and Date

Philomen Probert

Of the fragment’s eleven pentameters, all end in a disyllable,[1] and in four this disyllable begins with a vowel: agi (line 3), olor (13), amant (17), and eo[2] (21). The percentage of vowel-initial words in this position (4 out of 11 disyllables, or 36%) is broadly in line with Ovid’s practice, although it is on the high side even for Ovid. According to Bertil Axelson[3], 27.6% of the disyllables that end a pentameter begin with a vowel in Amores I, 25.6% in Heroides I–X, almost 30% in Ars Amatoria I, and 33.4% in Fasti I. Such words are useful to elegists in this position because they can follow a word with trochaic termination and word-final consonant (in our fragment the relevant words are intus, vincit, carmen, aptus), a very common Latin word shape. But as Axelson demonstrates, vowel-initial disyllables with the necessary pyrrhic or iambic shape are rather rare in Latin, and even fewer have any currency in elegiacs.

Of the four vowel-initial words that close a pentameter in our fragment, three are unremarkable for Ovid: in Axelson’s sample, forms of ago occur in this position ten times, forms of eo eleven times (plus another five instances in compounds), and forms of amo sixteen times.[4] The same sample contains no pentameters closed by odor or olor ‘smell’, however, and until now we knew of only one such pentameter in all of Ovid’s elegiacs: Ars Amatoria II.656 (on which see further below). But the significance of the new fragment goes beyond the addition of one further instance (and of the by-form olor, unless odor was corrupted to olor under the influence of olor ‘swan’, generally more familiar in poetry): given the subject-matter of the fragment, if we had the whole poem we might well find that the poet found further opportunities to use the same word in the same position.

Moreover, given the usefulness to elegists of pyrrhic (ᴗ ᴗ) and iambic (ᴗ –) disyllables beginning with a vowel, this point begins to explain the poet’s apparently bizarre choice of subject matter.[5] Nor would this be the only instance in which form takes precedent over content in Latin elegy: Axelson[6] demonstrated that water is mentioned considerably more often in Latin elegy than in other poetic genres, and that the usefulness of the word aqua at the end of the pentameter is the decisive factor: “Merkwürdig stark ist also, wenn man so sagen darf, der Wassergehalt des lateinischen Distichonschlusses.”[7]

If Ovid is indeed the author of our fragment, the work belongs to a period in which he expanded his metrical resources at the expense of rather smelly content. Perhaps this was a period of youthful experimentation, destined to give way to watery restraint by the time he composed the Amores. If so, the reference to stinking bulls’ hides at Ars II.655–6 conceivably alludes to the Minotaur exemplar of our poem: the couplet in Ars II provides an exemplar for improvements brought by the passage of time, and could be read as a metapoetic reference to the youthful poetic practice from which Ovid has since moved away. Alternatively, might our fragment belong to a late exilic work, representing a final triumph of metrical technique over sensible content? Morgan notes the absence of tell-tale prosodical signs of exilic composition, and so we must be cautious, but we have only a small sample, and twenty-one-line stretches of the Tristia, Epistulae ex Ponto, or Ibis that lack, for instance, polysyllabic pentameter endings are hardly difficult to find.

One might ask whether depellere stercus (8) points away from Ovidian authorship altogether: it is generally accepted today that Ovid did not allow a word-final short vowel before s + consonant, except when the word with s + consonant was Greek. But the new fragment will make it worth re-examining the evidence on which the communis opinio on this point is based. Numerous instances of word-final short vowel before s + consonant have been emended away over the years[8], and the arguments brought against them have seemed sound enough.

Yet in the light of the new evidence, it will be worth re-assessing the arguments against, for example, olentia stagna at Epistulae Ex Ponto II.10.25.[9] Indeed, Ex Ponto II.10 smells distinctly of our fragment: not only does Ovid gratuitously mention the strong smell of the pools of Palicus, but he deploys forms of his name Naso twice in the space of fourteen lines (Nasonem, 2; Naso, 15). This was the smallest known distance between forms of Naso within the same Ovidian poem, until now: the new fragment has two occurrences in a mere eight lines (Nasoni, 14; Naso, 21).

If indeed the two poems resonate, this opens up yet another possibility for the date and circumstances of composition of the work to which the new fragment belongs. In Ex Ponto II.10, Ovid famously hints at the reasons for his exile: nulla factus es Arte nocens (12), and Naso parum prudens, artem dum tradit amandi, | doctrinae pretium triste magister habet (15–16). He is traditionally taken to be alluding to the Ars Amatoria, but perhaps the offending poem was rather the intertext to which our fragment belongs (note the co-occurrence of Naso with the second allusion to his exile). Arte and artem dum tradit amandi might seem to suggest otherwise, but the modern habit of capitalising the former may be misleading, and the new fragment is suggestive of a poem that offers advice to lovers too: note especially lines 16–17.[10]

All this holds out hope of a solution to a long-standing problem: why on earth was Ovid exiled for writing a licentious poem, when writing licentious poems was hardly a new or unusual thing to do in Rome? If the offending poem was not so much licentious as unbearably smelly – and there must have been a risk that such things became fashionable – Augustus’ reaction becomes rather more comprehensible.

Philomen Probert is a philologist to whom Ovidian scholarship is a new adventure, and a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.


1 Cf. Morgan in this series.
2 [si vera lectio!, Antig.]
3 ‘Der Mechanismus des ovidischen Pentameterschlusses: eine mikrophilologische Causerie,’ in N. I. Herescu (ed.), Ovidiana: recherches sur Ovide (Paris, 1958) 121–35, at 124–5
4 See Axelson, ibid., 124
5 Despite suggestions to the contrary, it is thus unnecessary to read the poem as covertly being about sex or anything other than what it seems.
6 ibid., 127–9
7 “So, it may be said, water-related material is unusually common at the close of the couplet.”
8 See especially Isidor Hilberg, Die Gesetze der Wortstellung im Pentameter des Ovid (Leipzig, 1894), and Maurice Platnauer, Latin elegiac verse: a study of the metrical usages of Tibullus, Propertius & Ovid (Cambridge UP, 1951) 62–3 n. 3.
9 The Latin can be read conveniently here, the English here.
10 Or was the offending poem called something like Ars Olendi? If so, artem dum tradit amandi at Ex Ponto II.10.15 might be corrupt for Artem dum tradit Olendi, an easy corruption once the Ars Olendi had been successfully suppressed.