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The interaction between Roman religion and Ovids ostensibly religious poem, Fasti, has
only started to be appreciated in the past twenty years or so. Before this time,
scholars were typically either uncritical of Ovids poem taking it at face value
as a quarry from which to mine reliable gems of information on Roman religion
or far too critical, chastising the poet for what they saw as errors from a man
ignorant of his own national religion.1 From the mid 1980s, however, there has
emerged a better understanding of the complex nature of Roman religion.
Scholars now stress the fundamental role of exegesis (multiple interpretation) in
a religion which has no underlying orthodoxy.2 As such, it is argued that Roman
religion is not something concrete, tangible and external, to which literature
relates faithfully or otherwise, but that literature has a central role in articulating
the dynamics of the religious experience of the Romans.3

One can now duly expect and appreciate, therefore, a variety of contrasting views on
Roman religious activity presented in Fasti, without resorting to arguments about
Ovidian ignorance or the apparently incomplete state of the poem itself.4 But the specific
reasons for and effects of the poems religious polyphony are still a matter of lively
scholarly debate, with the following (by no means mutually exclusive) options presenting

i) Ovid is taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by the exegetic nature of

Roman religion itself. He may have poetic reasons for doing this and/or he
may be interested in genuine religious enquiry, i.e. he may be faithfully
representing the leading views of his day and engaging in proper theorising
for himself;5
Critical views of Ovids religious learning are abundant, for example, in Sir James
Frazers famous commentary on the poem (London, 1929) and in general works on
Roman religion; see esp. F. Altheim (1953), Rmische Religionsgeschichte, Baden, 254-
The most important contributions to this issue are: M. Beard (1987), A Complex of
Times: No more Sheep on Romulus Birthday, PCPS 33, 1-15; J. Scheid (1992), Myth,
Cult and Reality in Ovids Fasti, PCPS 38, 118-31; D. Feeney (1998), Literature and
Religion at Rome, Cambridge, 1-11.
See especially Feeney (n.2) 115-21 and D. Feeney (2004), Interpreting Sacrificial
Ritual in Roman Poetry: Disciplines and their Models, in A. Barchiesi, J. Rpke and S.
Stephens (eds.), Rituals in Ink: A Conference on Religion and Literary Production in
Ancient Rome, Stuttgart, 1-21, esp. 1-5.
For the apparent incompleteness of the poem, and the possibility that several parts of
the text may have been revised from exile, see now S.J. Green (2004), Ovid Fasti 1: A
Commentary, Leiden, 15-24.
R. Gordon (From Republic to Principate: priesthood, religion and ideology, in M.

ii) Ovid is taking advantage of the atmosphere of religious and philosophical

negotiation which developed, on the intellectual level at least, in the Late
Republic, at a time when there was a perception that traditional religion was at
its most neglected and vulnerable.6 Again, his reasons may be poetic and/or
genuine, in the sense that he is serious about religious enquiry;
iii) Ovid is being subtly subversive towards Augustus by encouraging religious
debate on key religious issues taking advantage of the two situations
outlined above at a time when the Emperor, through the mediums of
architectural iconography and public ceremony, is attempting to make his own
individual voice more publicly authorial in such matters.

It is this third option which, I feel, merits particular attention when studying Fasti. In the
outwardly laudatory sections of the poem, Ovid celebrates Augustus control over Roman
religion, in the light of the Emperors recent completion of the reconfiguration of the
Julian calendar, and duly notes many of the new festival days added to celebrate the
achievements of the imperial family.7 Read more closely, however, and one finds that this
is a poem whose very polyphony subtly undermines Augustus ability to assert authority
over religious meaning. Alessandro Barchiesi and Carole Newlands have been

Beard and J. North (eds.), Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World
(London, 1990) 185) appears to suggest that Fasti is (principally) a work of serious
religious enquiry. On the other hand, E. Fantham (Ovid Fasti IV (Cambridge, 1998), 31-
5) sees Ovids engagement in exegesis as principally an issue of poetic licence. Feeney
(n.2) 123-33 takes a more cautious stance by largely avoiding the issue of authorial
intention and concentrating on the poems reception: he sees Fasti as a work of great
intellectual activity which may reveal accurate religious details and provoke meaningful
discussion on Roman religion, so long as we are aware of its complex literary traditions
and of the distance between Ovids Fasti and the inscribed calendars, and indeed between
the calendars and Roman religious practice itself.
While Lucretius in De Rerum Natura takes this opportunity to champion a broadly
Epicurean view of the world, at times in direct confrontation with Roman religious
procedure (see below), Varro in his Antiquitates rerum Divinarum sets about
reacquainting the Romans with their own religious origins. The most detailed extant
religious negotiation occurs in De Natura Deorum and De Divinatione, in which Cicero
conducts inquiries into the true nature of the divine and divination respectively, offering
detailed criticism of the Stoic and Epicurean viewpoints in particular. For the intensity of
this debate in the Late Republic, see E. Rawson (1985), Intellectual Life in the Late
Roman Republic, London, 298-316; M. Beard (1986), Cicero and Divination: The
Formation of a Latin Discourse, JRS 76, 33-46; P.A. Brunt (1989), Philosophy and
Religion in the Late Republic, in M. Griffin and J. Barnes (eds.), Philosophia Togata:
Essays on Philosophy and Roman Society, Oxford, 174-98; M. Beard, J. North and S.
Price (1998), Religions of Rome, Cambridge, I.150-3.
For Ovids tribute to Julius Caesar and Augustus for their reconfiguration of the Roman
calendar, cf. 3.155-66. For Ovids celebration of new imperial festivals days, see for
example, the month of January: 1.637-50 (16th: temple of Concord dedicated by Tiberius,
A.D. 10); 1.705-8 (27th: temple of Castor and Pollux dedicated by Tiberius and Drusus,
A.D. 6); 1.709-24 (30th: dedication to Augustus of the Altar of Pax Augusta, 13 B.C.).

particularly influential in illustrating how certain reading strategies, whereby the reader
seeks to find connections between different entries in Ovids continuous poem, can
produce readings which pull against the general Augustan desire for religious uniformity
and instead open up a variety of different (and discordant) interpretations.8

Scholarship in this area has, however, tended to focus on specific religious festivals and/
or sacred buildings.9 But Ovid casts his religious net more widely than this. The aim of
this paper is to show the ways in which one of the most important general features of
Roman religion namely, animal sacrifice is equally subject to (uncomfortable)
intellectual scrutiny in Fasti, at a time when Augustus has been consciously promoting a
consistent line on the issue.10 Far from entering into the spirit of earlier (harmless) late-
Republican intellectual religious debate, then, I will argue that Ovids bold and public
continuation of debate can be read as a direct political affront to the Emperor.


Animal sacrifice had always been an integral part of Roman religious practice, the
principal means both of honouring the gods and of providing a channel through which to
communicate and negotiate with them.11 But this had never meant that the practice was
free from controversy. In fact, there had long existed an anti-animal sacrifice tradition,
which can be traced back to Greek philosophers and is particularly associated with the
mercurial figure of Pythagoras. Pythagorean philosophy held that no clear distinction
could be made between humans and animals because human souls could be reincarnated
into the bodies of animals: as such, animal sacrifice and meat-eating should be strictly
avoided, as they are tantamount to murder.12

Religious debate concerning live sacrifice is particularly fervent in the Late Republic.
Pythagoreanism, even though it may have been met with official disapproval13 and
See A. Barchiesi (1997), The Poet and the Prince: Ovid and Augustan Discourse,
California, 79-140; C. Newlands (1995), Playing with Time: Ovid and the Fasti, Ithaca,
See, most notably: the Temple of Mars Ultor (Newlands (n.8) 87-123) and the cult of
Vesta (Newlands (n.8) 124-45, Barchiesi (n.8) 133-40, 203-10).
This subject has gained momentum recently from some interesting scholarship by
Feeney ((n.3) 11-16), who explores the ways in which Fasti, reacting to Vergils
Georgics, presents live sacrifice in essentially negative terms as a token of the loss of the
Golden Age. Though I am in agreement with many of Feeneys points here, I feel that
Ovids handling of the issue has a more contemporary, imperial resonance (see below).
For a useful overview of the Roman religious sacrifice, see J. Scheid (2003), An
Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana, 79-110.
See especially R. Sorabji (1993), Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the
Western Debate, London, 170-9.
The evidence that we have does point to continuous (if not always heavy-handed)
official disapproval of Pythagoreanism. The most famous incident occurs in 181 B.C.,
when we are told that the stone arca of Numa was uncovered on the Ianiculum,

subject to ridicule by certain sectors of society,14 nevertheless appears to have attracted

some high-profile sponsors in the Late Republic. Most notably, Nigidius Figulus, the
intellectual scholar and friend of Ciceros, praetor in 58 B.C., seems to have had strong
Pythagorean sympathies and may have formed some sort of religious movement.15 But
even outside strictly Pythagorean circles, a number of prominent writers in the Late
Republic were inviting debate on the morality and validity of animal sacrifice in its
Roman context. Most notably, Lucretius De Rerum Natura represents an all-out attack
on Roman religious cultic practice including live sacrifice far beyond anything
dictated by Epicurean philosophy.16 In a more subtle manner, Vergil too, in the Georgics,
opens the practice up to moral scrutiny.17

But with Romes first Emperor came a noticeable change of focus. During the reign of
Augustus, it is clear that animal sacrifice was being consciously advertised in the
traditional way, as an unquestionably positive institution and a most potent symbol of
religious revival under the Principate. The most spectacular example of this new
emphasis occurs during the Secular Games of 17 B.C. First held in 249 B.C. to expiate
prodigies after a consultation of the Sibylline books, Augustus transformed the Secular
Games into a celebration of a new era of Roman prosperity. An elaborate sequence of
daily and nightly animal sacrifices, conducted principally by the Emperor himself,

containing among other things Greek books of Pythagoras philosophies. These books
were subsequently burnt. Though Plutarch offers positive reasoning for this decision
that the Roman authorities thought it unlawful to publicise Pythagoras writings (Numa
22.8) the oldest view, and certainly the better attested, is that the books were burnt
because they represented a dangerous threat to state religion; cf. Cassius Hemina (fr. 37
Peter; ap. Plin. Nat. 13.86), Liv. 40.29.2-14, V. Max. 1.1.12, Lact. Div. Inst. 1.22.5-6.
Official disapproval was clearly evident during the reign of the nervous Tiberius, whose
contempt for foreign philosophies encouraged (in part) the younger Seneca to give up his
Pythagorean lifestyle; cf. Sen. Ep. 108.17-22, esp. 22. For regular policing of dangerous
foreign philosophies in general, see Beard, North and Price (n.6) I.211-44.
Horace and the satirists seem to be particularly fond of making Pythagoras the butt of
jokes: for light jokes at the expense of Pythagoras vegetarian diet, cf. Hor. Serm. 2.6.63,
Juv. 3.229; for ridicule of the notion of transmigration of souls, cf. Hor. Epod. 15.21,
Pers. 6.10-11; see further C. Segal (1969), Myth and Philosophy in the Metamorphoses:
Ovids Augustanism and the Augustan Conclusion of Book XV, AJPh 90, 280-2.
Cf. Cic. Tim. 1; see further Rawson (n.6) 94. Quintus Sextius was also active at this
time in promoting such marginalised views on religion (Sen. NQ 7.32.2), and it is
possible that Marcus Varro also had Pythagorean sympathies, in that he was interred in 26
B.C. in the Pythagorean style (Pythagorio modo, Plin. Nat. 35.160). More generally,
that Pythagoreanism was associated with the upper classes is implied from a comment of
Senecas that this philosophy was hated by the masses; cf. NQ 7.32.2 Pythagorica illa
invidiosa turbae schola.
Cf. Lucr. 1.62-78, 5.1161-203, esp. 1198-203. In marked contrast to Lucretius, Epicurus
encouraged his followers to continue their participation in indigenous religious cults; see
K. Summers (1995), Lucretius and the Epicurean Tradition of Piety, CP 90, 32-57.
See M.R. Gale (2000), Virgil on the Nature of Things: The Georgics, Lucretius and the
Didactic Tradition, Cambridge, 105-12 (see below).

established a conceptual connection between the imperial family, religious revival and
Roman fecundity.18 This connection between Augustus the sacrificer and Augustus the
benefactor was very important to the Emperor,19 resulting in several statues being erected
showing him with veiled head (capite velato), the traditional pose of the sacrificer.20
Animal sacrificial imagery is also abundant on Augustan monuments, most notably the
Ara Pacis Augustae, completed in 9 B.C., which features sacrificial processions involving
the imperial family, an altar scene and bucrania.21 More precisely, it would appear that the
actual moment of sacrifice showing the victim with head bowed as the attendant is
poised to strike with an axe becomes a powerful symbol of renewed Roman ritual.
Iconography of this kind may have formed part of the Temple of Mars Ultor,22 and it is
perhaps most famously found on the Boscoreale cups, which date from the early imperial

In summary, against a backdrop of continued debate surrounding animal sacrifice, which

had gained intellectual momentum in the Late Republic, it appears that Augustus was
attempting to assert his own imperial voice and offer a fixed way of viewing the practice:
as a positive institution, a potent sign of the reconnection of Rome with her gods and
cultic practices, and a guarantor of continued prosperity for the city under the
guardianship of Augustus and his imperial family.


By the time Ovid started composing Metamorphoses and Fasti roughly

contemporaneously from A.D. 1-2 onwards24 it is fair to assume that Augustus general

For the greater emphasis on sacrifice in Augustus transformation of the Secular Games,
see P. Zanker (1988), The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Michigan, 167-72;
G.K. Galinsky (1996), Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction, Princeton, 100-6;
Beard, North and Price (n.6) I.201-6; Feeney (n.2) 28-38. See also Horaces Carmen
Saeculare, the choral hymn commissioned by Augustus to be performed at the Secular
Games, which makes the connection between Augustus conducting of animal sacrifice
and the return of Peace and other virtues (Hor. Saec. 49-60).
See R. Gordon (1990), The Veil of Power: Emperors, Sacrificers and Benefactors, in
M. Beard and J. North (eds.), Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World,
London, 201-31
See Zanker (n.18) 126-9; Gordon (n.19) 209-11.
See Zanker (n.18) 120-3, Galinsky (n.18) 141-55; for the complexities embodied in
these sacrificial scenes, see esp. J. Elsner (1991), Cult and Sculpture: Sacrifice in the
Ara Pacis Augustae, JRS 81, 50-61.
This appears to be a reasonable inference from the iconography of the Ara Pietatis,
dating from the reign of Claudius, which depicts the moment of live sacrifice in front of
the Temple of Mars Ultor; see Zanker (n.18) 105-6.
See A. Kuttner, (1995), Dynasty and Empire in the Age of Augustus: The Case of the
Boscoreale Cups, California, 131-5.
For the dating of these works, see Green (n.4) 16 n.5.

messages about sacrifice had sufficient time to establish themselves. Ovid first25 deals
with the issue in Metamorphoses 15 during a long speech attributed to Pythagoras. In a
meeting with Numa, Pythagoras expounds to the king at great length (Met. 15.75-468) the
nature of the universe and the theory of transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), and
lays particular emphasis on the importance of vegetarianism, a topic which frames the
speech (Met. 15.75-110, 453-78). Not surprisingly, Pythagoras call for abstinence from
meat-eating and animal bloodshed leads (briefly) into a condemnation of animal sacrifice
(Met. 15.110-42). The philosopher makes the case that animal sacrifice is: an impiety
which grows out of a carnivorous lifestyle, since human participants get to eat sacrificial
meat (Met. 15.111, 138-9); an evil which is not sanctioned by the gods (Met. 15.127-9);
an act of betrayal against our bestial colleagues/fellow-workers (Met. 15.116-26, 139-42);
tantamount to murder, given the theory of metempsychosis (Met. 15.458-62) and the
human-like sensibilities of the animal victims (Met. 15.130-5, 463-6).

Coming as it does at the end of the Metamorphoses, in the most Roman book of the
poem which will end with the apotheosis of Augustus (Met. 15.745-870), it is important
to assess the impact of Ovids treatment of sacrifice here within its contemporary
Augustan context.26 Taken in isolation, the sentiments here are undoubtedly
uncomfortable given Augustus emphasis on animal sacrifice during his Principate; as
such, these comments might provide further evidence for the charge of irreverence
which is frequently made against the poem. Looking more widely, however, it appears
that the impact of these sentiments is dampened in various ways. Most obviously, the
anti-sacrifice viewpoint is put into the mouth of Pythagoras, such that the views
expressed become natural and in character, if a bit awkward for some readers. This is
an important point, because Ovid (in his role as epic narrator) creates some distance
between himself and the philosopher by calling into question Pythagoras credibility just
before he speaks: cf. Met. 15.73-4 primus quoque talibus ora/ docta quidem solvit, sed
non est credita, verbis (His lips, learned indeed but not believed, were the first to
release such words as this.). In so doing, Ovid appears to offer some support to
contemporary scepticism towards and ridicule of Pythagorean philosophy.27

In short, Metamorphoses manages simultaneously to highlight and undermine

Pythagorean views on live sacrifice, in a way which might avoid claims of direct
opposition to Augustan discourse. It is important to bear this in mind for Ovids next
Granted that establishing the relative chronology of Metamorphoses and Fasti is not
crucial to intertextual study, it is generally held that Metamorphoses 15 was composed
before Fasti 1. Moreover, there is a strong case for suggesting that Ovid intends us to
read Metamorphoses before Fasti, given the ways in which Fast. 1 picks up several of the
themes from Met. 15; see Green (n.4) 28-9.
In an interesting study of sacrifice in the Metamorphoses, Feldherr argues that
Pythagoras philosophy in Met. 15 only makes explicit a blurring of categories between
human and animal which has been evident throughout the poem, especially in the Theban
narrative of Met. 3; see A. Feldherr (1997), Metamorphosis and Sacrifice in Ovids
Theban Narrative, MD 38, 25-55. But this study does not consider the Augustan context
nor the relationship with Fasti.
See n.14.

treatment of the same topic in Fasti.

Fasti, addressed to the imperial family28 and based as it is around the revised Roman
calendar, is a poem which cannot escape being intricately connected to Augustan
religious discourse. Moreover, for our purposes, it is worth noting that Ovid even
purports to make central to his project a celebration of Caesaris aras (Caesars altars,
Fast. 1.13), the very location of imperial animal sacrifice.

In spite of this, the poem as a whole is frugal in its support for Augustus voice on such
religious matters. On the contrary, I will argue that Ovid creates a tension between, on the
one hand, a positive, traditional and, one might say, Augustan view of sacrifice and, on
the other, a distinctly Pythagorean viewpoint, encouraged by a series of intertextual
links between the early parts of Fasti 1 and Pythagoras condemnation of animal sacrifice
which we have just seen in Metamorphoses 15.29

In spite of the intertextual connections, it is important to make clear right at the start how
much more provocative Fasti is in this regard compared to Metamorphoses. First, the
(intermittent) Pythagorean viewpoint that we will see in Fasti now emanates from the
poets own authorial voice: no longer can anti-sacrifice views be explained away as the
rant of a discredited and marginalised philosopher. Secondly, Pythagoras viewpoints in
Metamorphoses are distanced from Augustus by being placed in an early Roman
timeframe (the reign of Numa), nor does Metamorphoses have anything to say about live
sacrifice in Augustan times;30 in Fasti, however, as we will see shortly, anti-sacrifice
sympathies and imperial sacrificial procedure are brought into close proximity so as to
invite direct comparison.


The terms of the debate are established early on. At the beginning of the poem proper,
during a description of the inaugural ceremony of the new consuls on the first day of the
year (1.75-88), Ovid offers a positive view of animal sacrifice which is in the spirit of
Though the principal addressee of Fasti is Germanicus (1.3), adopted grandson of
Augustus, it is generally believed that Augustus was the original dedicatee for the poem;
see Green (n.4) 15-17.
The intertextual links between the discussion of animal sacrifice in Fasti 1.317-456 and
the Pythagoras episode in Met. 15 are extensive: with Fast. 1.327, cf. Met. 15.134-5; with
Fast. 1.349-52, cf. Met. 15.111-13; with Fast. 1.353-60, cf. Met. 15.114-15; with Fast.
1.361, cf. Met. 15.115; with Fast. 1.362, cf. Met. 15.116-21; with Fast. 1.380, cf. Met.
15.252-3, 255-7; with Fast. 1.383-4, cf. Met. 15.116-19; for more detail, see Green (n.4)
165 and on the specific lines.
The brief references to animal sacrifice which do crop up in passing in the Roman
books of Metamorphoses cf. Met. 13.636-7 (Anius and Aeneas), 14.84 (Aeneas),
14.157 (Aeneas), 15.483 (Numa), 15.573-6 (Cipus), 15.695 (the Roman people), 15.733-
5, 15.794-5 (by inference) do little more than reinforce the religious character of
Aeneas and the Romans.

Augustan discourse (1.83-4):31

colla rudes operum praebent ferienda iuvenci,

quos aluit campis herba Falisca suis.

Bullocks, unused to farm labour, offer their necks to be struck, bullocks that the Faliscan
grass has nourished on its plains.

Ovids phraseology here colla praebent almost suggests that the animals accept their
position in the scheme of things and are even willing to perform their duty in the
ceremony. Moreover, as the Romans were obsessed with correct ritual procedure, which
stressed the importance on the animals compliance,32 the sacrifice here appears to be
proceeding with good omens.

Later in Book 1, Ovid offers an equally positive, Augustan picture of animal sacrifice
when he is speculating on the origins of the term Agonalis for the festival Agonalia

nominis esse potest succinctus causa minister,

hostia caelitibus quo feriente cadit,
qui calido strictos tincturus sanguine cultros
semper agatne rogat nec nisi iussus agit.

The origin of the name may lie with the robed attendant,33 by whose blow the victim
falls to the heavenly beings: for when he is about to stain the brandished knife with warm
blood, he always asks whether he should proceed, and not until he is bidden does he

A very solemn picture of animal sacrifice and strict ritualistic practice is offered here,
with particular emphasis on the very moment of sacrifice: the attendant stands next to the
animal with knife drawn. This description specifically recalls the powerful Augustan
imagery for sacrifice found most famously on the Boscoreale Cups.34

Perhaps the most positive picture of animal sacrifice comes at the end of Book 1, when
Ovid, in the guise of Master of Ceremony, orchestrates the religious proceedings at the
Altar of Augustan Peace (1.719-22):

I have used the Teubner text of Ovids Fasti by E.H. Alton, D.E.W. Wormell and E.
Courtney (Stuttgart 1978) with some reservation (see below on Fast. 1.451-2).
Cf. Suet. Iul. 59 (Julius Caesar is viewed as reckless for not putting off an expedition
against Scipio and Juba despite the bad omen of the victim escaping during the initial
sacrifice); Plin. Nat. 8.183; Serv. Aen. 2.104; Beard, North & Price (n.6) I.36; Scheid
(n.11) 83.
This is a possible allusion to an obscure term ago, -onis (attendant); see Lactantius
Placidus on Stat. Theb. 4.463.
See n.23.

tura, sacerdotes, Pacalibus addite flammis,

albaque perfusa victima fronte cadat;
utque domus, quae praestat eam, cum pace perennet
ad pia propensos vota rogate deos.

Add incense, o priests, to the Peaceful flames, and let a white victim fall with drenched
forehead, and ask the gods, who are favourably disposed to pious prayers, that the house
which assumes responsibility for peace live forever with peace.

In this ceremony, every process is correct. The live victim offered to the goddess Peace is
the proper colour and has been duly prepared for sacrifice by having wine poured over its
brow (perfusa fronte, with drenched forehead).35 Through this properly-observed act,
the priests are in a position to petition the favourable gods for perennial peace for the
imperial family and Rome. Augustus could have asked for no greater promotion of the
connection between animal sacrifice, imperial family and Roman prosperity than this.

So, albeit only in snapshots, a positive view of sacrifice is accessible at the beginning of
Fasti, which is in line with Augustus own promotion of the institution. But this does not
constitute the full picture, as the status of animal sacrifice is compromised in other parts
of the opening book. We saw a little earlier the positive image of animal sacrifice at
1.319-22. Consider now the lines that follow this section, in which Ovid delves further
into the possible etymologies of Agonalis (1.323-4, 327-8):

pars, quia non veniant pecudes, sed agantur, ab actu

nomen Agonalem credit habere diem.

an, quia praevisos in aqua timet hostia cultros,

a pecoris lux est ipsa notata metu?

Some believe that, because the animals do not come, but are driven, it is from this
driving that the day takes the name Agonal
Or is it that, because the victim fears the knife which it has seen beforehand (reflected) in
the water, the day has taken its mark from the animals fear?36

As with 1.319-22, the focus is maintained on the very moment of sacrifice, but the
viewpoint has now shifted from human to animal. Thus far in Book 1, the sacrificial
victim has been seen as little more than a prop in Roman ritual: now, for the first time, we
are invited to empathise with it. Far from offering their necks, as suggested at 1.83-4,
the victims, we are now told, need to be driven to the altar (323), a sentiment which
suggests compulsion. Moreover, the victim is revealed as a creature with human-like
emotions: it is fearful and even knowledgeable, aware of its imminent death after
For the practice of offering white victims to the heavenly deities, cf. e.g. Am. 3.13.13ff.,
Pont. 4.9.49ff., Verg. A. 9.627ff. For the pouring of wine over the victim, cf. e.g. Met.
7.593-4, Verg. A. 4.60-1 with Pease ad loc., 6.243-4.
Ovid is here forging a bold and disturbing link between the term Agonalis and the
Greek (mental struggle, LSJ s.v. III.6) or (agony, anguish, LSJ s.v. 3).

catching sight of the knife. This sentiment has particularly anti-sacrificial overtones: not
only is it closely linked to a similar comment made by Ovids Pythagoras in
Metamorphoses 15;37 it is also, in general thematic terms, reminiscent of the most
outrageous religious act in Roman poetry, the sacrifice of Iphigeneia in the first book of
Lucretius.38 To the astute reader, therefore, Ovid is already attempting to elicit sympathy
for the animals and encourage us to think negatively about sacrifice from a specifically
Pythagorean standpoint. Indeed, this Pythagorean voice will continue intermittently
throughout the entire section in which Ovid charts the history of animal sacrifice (1.349-
456).39 Emotional involvement aside, the situation described in 1.323-4 is deeply
problematic from the perspective of Roman religious procedure, where distress or
unwillingness from the victim was supposed to bring about a termination of

In the opening book of the poem, therefore, two sides of an animal sacrifice debate find
voice.41 From this point onwards, Ovids attitude towards animal sacrifice remains
ambivalent: he seems to endorse a positive interpretation at one time, only to undermine
it the next.


As we saw earlier, particularly in the cases of the Secular Games and the Ara Pacis
Augustae, one of Augustus key ideological messages was that animal sacrifice to the
Cf. Met. 15.134-5 [victima] percussaque sanguine cultros/ inficit in liquida praevisos
forsitan unda (when the victim has been struck, it taints with its blood the knife that it
perchance saw beforehand reflected in the clear water). The verb praevideo is used by
Ovid in only these two places. Note that Ovid achieves even more pathos for the animal
in the Fasti imagery by making the victim aware of its pending doom; cf. the ignorance
of the victim at Met. 15.132 (ignara). As such, the sentiment in Fasti is closer to the
Callimachean source on which both Ovidian phrases are modelled (Call. Aet. fr. 75.10-11
Both Ovid and Lucretius include poignant details of the sacrificial knife and the
victims fear, and both focalise the event through the victim; cf. Lucr. 1.87-100, esp. 89-
92 et maestum simul ante aras adstare parentem/ sensit et hunc propter ferrum celare
ministros/ aspectuque suo lacrimas effundere civis,/ muta metu terram genibus summissa
petebat (and as soon as she felt her grieving father standing before the altar, and the
priests beside him concealing the knife, and the people shedding tears at the sight of her,
dumb with terror she sunk to her knees), 95 tremibundaque (and full of fear).
See n.29.
See n.32.
In fact, the general movement we find in Book 1 from simple acceptance of live
sacrifice to a position of sympathy for the suffering animals is one which has also been
subtly detected in Vergils Georgics; see Gale (n.17) 101-12. As ever, Ovid may be
showing himself to be Vergils closest reader, but our poets sentiments carry more
contemporary imperial resonance, coming as they do towards the end of the Emperors
reign, at a time when the Augustan discourse on sacrifice has had time to establish itself.

gods would help to ensure long-lasting peace for Rome. Therefore, at least on a
subliminal level, Augustan discourse observes what we might call the traditional
hierarchy of species, whereby the killing of an animal acts as a fitting substitute for a
human victim.

Ovid in Fasti, however, has an ambivalent attitude towards the traditional religious
hierarchy of man and beast. In places, Ovid readily endorses it. In Book 3, Numa is called
upon to expiate thunderbolts that have been sent by Jupiter (3.285-360). Jupiter appears
before the ancient king and reveals the appropriate expiation rite (3.337-44). Ovid
informs us that Jupiters advice was ambiguous and alarming (3.337-8) and it is easy to
see why (3.339-42):

caede caput dixit; cui rex parebimus inquit;

caedenda est hortis eruta cepa meis.
addidit hic hominis; sumes ait ille capillos.
postulat hic animam; cui Numa piscis ait.

Cut off a head, said Jupiter: to him, king Numa replied, We will obey: an onion must
be dug up from my garden and cut up. Jupiter added, Something belonging to a man:
Numa responded, You will have a mans hair. Jupiter then demanded a life, to whom
Numa responded, (You will have) a fishs life.

Jupiters progressive calls for a decapitation (3.339 caede caput), something human and
animate (3.341-2 hominis animam) naturally suggest that a human sacrifice is being
demanded. But, in a brilliant game of words, the clever Numa is able to satisfy all of
Jupiters conditions with a fish, some human hair and an onion. Jupiter shows by his
smile (3.343 risit) that he is pleased with the outcome.42 The story, then, observes the
traditional hierarchy of sacrificial victims: alarm turns to laughter, as the potential
sacrifice of a human being is cleverly substituted for a fish.

A similar respect for this hierarchy can be found in the story of Cranae, who rescues king
Procas child from the blood-sucking Harpies-like birds (6.131-68). In a bid to help the
child, Cranae offers the birds the sacrifice of a sow (6.159-62):

atque ita noctis aves, extis puerilibus inquit,

parcite: pro parvo victima parva cadit.
cor pro corde, precor, pro fibris sumite fibras:
hanc animam vobis pro meliore damus.
I do not believe that Jupiter was seriously demanding a human sacrifice here; rather, he
is testing the intellect and resourcefulness of Numa by articulating his request in such an
alarmingly ambiguous way. That is surely the point of verum ambage remota/ abdidit
(Jupiter hid the truth in obscure riddles, 3.337-8): the truth here is that a regular live
sacrifice is sufficient, the obscure riddle refers to Jupiters deceptive rhetoric which
implies a human victim. Jupiters smile, then, demonstrates pleasure that Numa has
passed the test, rather than good-humoured acknowledgment that he has been fobbed off
with a lesser offering.

And so she said, Birds of the Night, spare the boys innards: a small victim falls for a
small boy. Take up, I pray, a heart for a heart, entrails for entrails. We offer this life to you
for a better one.

The use of meliore (better, 6.162) and the repetition of pro confirm both the hierarchy
of human over animal and the suitability of sacrificing animal life as a substitute for
human life.43

In the above stories, then, a distinction is maintained between human and animals. But
this is not a consistent trend in the poem. In fact, one common Ovidian strategy is to blur
these distinctions. For example, a popular tactic of Ovids is to describe mating beasts as
husband and/or wife.44 Such metaphors are nothing new to Ovid.45 But their use may
be problematic in discussions of sacrifice, especially if Ovid is keen for us to keep open a
Pythagorean channel of thought. As Ovid encourages us to think about animals in human
terms, he may only make us ask more critical questions of live sacrifice: how different
are animals really from us? Are we, in effect, committing murder by sacrificing them?46

A good example of this tension can be found in Ovids description of the sacrifice of the
dove, popularly recognized as sacred to Venus (1.451-2):

ergo saepe suo coniunx abducta marito

uritur in calidis alba columba focis.

For that reason, the white dove burns upon hot hearths, the wife often torn away from
her husband.

The dove is described as a coniunx (wife), her mate is her maritus (husband). Now, it
is true that the dove is particularly prone to such marriage metaphors, as it was always
reputed to have a strong bond with its mate.47 But the imagery serves an important
additional purpose here to point up the irony of the sacrifice: Venus is goddess of love,
responsible for bringing lovers together; and yet the sacrifice to her is described in terms
of the splitting up of a married couple.48 The use of the metaphor, then, is provocative in
The repetition of pro might have been a ritual formula in such sacrifices of
substitution; see D. Porte (1985), tiologie Religieuse dans les Fastes dOvide, Paris,
For its usage in descriptions of the mating bull, cf. Am. 2.12.25, 3.5.15-16, Met. 9.48; of
the horse, cf. Met. 10.326; of the ram, cf. Fast. 4.771.
For the metaphor in general, cf. e.g. Theoc. Id. 8.49, Hor. Carm. 1.17.7 with Nisbet/
Hubbard ad loc., Verg. Ecl. 7.7; see further Green (n.4) 158-9.
Ovid may well have borrowed this particular tactic (once again) from Vergils Georgics,
where Vergils consistent humanisation of livestock only makes talk of sacrifice more
unsettling; see Gale (n.17) 105ff. In any event, Ovid develops the tactic to create new
ironies (see below).
Cf. e.g. Cat. 68.125ff., Prop. 2.15.27-8, Ov. Am. 2.6.56, Plin. Nat. 10.104.
The metaphor might also be enhanced by the verb abducere in 451, which is sometimes

that it forces us to re-examine the contradictions inherent to this particular sacrifice and,
in turn, increases the Pythagorean readers sense of disgust.49

But Ovid can also blur the distinctions between humans and animals in more subtle ways.
Let us consider two episodes from Book 4.50 In Book 4, Ovid tells the famous myth of the
goddess Ceres wide-ranging search for her daughter, Proserpina, who has been abducted
by the god of the Underworld. Ceres is in emotional turmoil because she cannot find her
daughter. In order to convey the depths of her feelings, Ovid feels it appropriate to use a
simile: he suggests that Ceres is like a cow looking for her lost calf (4.459-62):

ut vitulo mugit sua mater ab ubere rapto

et quaerit fetus per nemus omne suos,
sic dea nec retinet gemitus, et concita cursu
fertur, et a campis incipit, Henna, tuis.

Just as a mother cow, whose calf has been snatched from her own udder, groans and
seeks her offspring through every grove: so the goddess did not hold back her groans and
carried herself along at speed, starting from your plains, Henna.51

Instead of humanising animals, as in the previous example, Ovid here invites us to view
humans/ gods on an animalistic level. What is important for our purposes is that Ovid
regards the cows search for her calf as entirely comparable to a human/ divine mother
looking for her daughter. If the simile is to work at all, no distinction is to be made
between human and animal experiences: both situations demand our sympathy. A
connection between human and animal experiences is reinforced a little later in the same
episode, when Ceres is compared to a bird mourning its lost sibling (4.481-2):

quacumque ingreditur, miseris loca cuncta querellis

implet, ut amissum cum gemit ales Ityn.

Wherever she approached, she filled every region with her pitiable complaints, just as
when the bird groans for its lost Itys.

used of (forceful) marital divorce (as the antithesis of deducere, to lead into marriage);
cf. e.g. Pl. Stich. 17, Ter. Hec. 545, Ad. 661, Ov. Her. 8.86, TLL 1.61.3-5.
Note also the deceptive manner in which the couplet unfolds. Line 451 leads us to think
in terms of a married (human) couple; the emphasis on heat in the opening part of 452
uritur in calidis note that calidis is the majority MS reading here may lead us to think
(erroneously) of the couples metaphorically burning love; it is only with the final three
words that the true horror of the situation emerges.
These passages have also been analysed recently to determine whether or not Ceres is
represented consistently in the poem as a goddess in favour of live sacrifice; see E.
Fantham (1992), Ceres, Liber and Flora: Georgic and Anti-Georgic elements in Ovids
Fasti, PCPS 38, 39-56; Feeney (n.3) 13-16.
For this simile, Ovid is clearly indebted to Lucretius (2.352-9), in a passage which
makes explicit that the lost calf has been used as a victim for sacrifice.

The simile above draws on the myth of the dysfunctional family of Tereus. Procne kills
her son Itys to avenge her husband Tereus rape of her sister Philomela: all three are
eventually turned into birds.52 The comparability of human and animal emotions is
effectively conveyed here by the juxtaposition of ales Ityn, which creates slippage
between the individuals former human and present avian forms: a bird is still human
enough to mourn a human.

Once Ovid has finished telling the story of Ceres and Proserpina, however, he soon
moves onto a different day of the year and the festival of Fordicidia, which involves the
following sacrifice (4.637-8):

ast ubi visceribus vitulos rapuere ministri,

sectaque fumosis exta dedere focis,

But when the attendants have snatched the calves from the womb (of their mothers) and
have offered the cut entrails to the smoking hearths

It is striking that the sacrifice here is described in terms of calves being snatched away
from their mothers, the same idea and language as in the earlier simile in the Ceres myth:
note the repetition of parts of vitulus and rapio. The reader is now faced with a dilemma.
If we were right to show sympathy for the mother cow in the simile in the Ceres myth,
what should our response be here? Should we change our response, consider that animals
are not the same as humans after all, and accept this sacrifice at the Fordicidia
unproblematically? Or are we being invited to reflect on the morality of this sacrifice: is
the abduction of child from parent in the Fordicidia sacrifice, in fact, just as worthy of
our pity as the abduction of Proserpina from her mother? Ovid does not force us into one
viewpoint or the other: but he does force us to acknowledge and come to terms with the
hypocrisy in our emotional responses.


In summary, I would suggest that Fasti, building more boldly upon earlier sentiments in
Metamorphoses, sets up a contemporary debate on animal sacrifice which centres around
two opposing viewpoints: a traditional, Augustan viewpoint, which highlights the
practice as a solemn tradition in Roman religion, and a Pythagorean viewpoint, which
invites sympathy for the animal victims by inviting us to break down barriers between
human and animal experiences. Throughout, Ovid does not resolve the tension, nor does
he direct us on how we should respond: he gives both views their own space and lays the
interpretative burden on the individual reader.53 Is animal sacrifice positive or negative?
For the myth, cf. e.g. Ov. Met. 6.424-674. It is unclear to which member of the family
ales in 4.802 refers: either Tereus (a hoopoe), Philomela (a swallow) or a repentant
Procne (a nightingale) could be mourning their Itys.
As such, Ovid may be (playfully) mimicking the strategies of the Roman philosophical
treatises on Roman religion, especially Ciceros De Natura Deorum and De Divinatione,
in which different theories are presented without any final authorial judgment; cf. Cic.

Is the actual moment of sacrifice a potent sign of the (re)connection of Augustan Romans
with their gods and cultic practice, or is it a locus for the most intense and pitiable animal
anguish? By refusing to champion the positive over the negative connotations of animal
sacrifice in Fasti, Augustus is ultimately denied the overarching, positive interpretation of
the institution that he appears to have enjoyed in the city of Rome itself.

University of Leeds

Div. 2.150, Fat. 1.1.