Ovid’s Fasti – New Year’s Day

I forgot to mention, one of my ideas for this year was to read Ovid’s Fasti. I actually conceived the idea for this last February, but since the Fasti was intended to consist of twelve books representing the seasons of the year (though Ovid only wrote the first six – or, at least, only six survive), I decided to wait till we got back to January again so I could read it a month at a time.

I don’t know much about Ovid’s Fasti other than it’s about the Roman calendar, explaining the significance of all the dates in the year and the festivities which accompany them. I suppose that doesn’t appeal much to a modern audience – rather in the same manner as Virgil’s Georgics.

Here is Ovid’s intent, explained in typically concise fashion in the first line:

tempora cum causis Latium digesta per annum

Events with their causes arranged throughout the Latin year

With what I take to be a more subtle motivation slightly further down:

Caesaris arma canant alii, nos Caesaris aras

Others sing Caesar’s arms, we Caesar’s altars

So this is a book not representative of the civil wars which culminated in the rule of Augustus, as for instance the arma virumque of Virgil, but of the subsequent peace.

Ovid begins with a dedication to Germanicus, then discusses why Romulus foolishly started with only ten months (apparently to fit in with the term of pregnancy – scilicet arma magis quam sidera, Romule, noras – truly you knew arms more than stars, Romulus), but Numa added another two months at the beginning of the year, the first of which was January.

Ovid then digresses about the existence of lawful (fas) and unlawful (nefas) days (i.e. days on which you can and cannot transact business), all of which reminded me very much of the Heian Japanese who allowed a similar superstitious obsession to determine their lives. Apparently it is not the Ides you should beware of (or the Kalends or the Nones) but the day after, which was defined as ater – that is, “black”, just as we define days of particular calamity in the stock market.

One thing we shall particular look out for reading Ovid is the variety of ways he manages to introduce what we’re thinking is otherwise going to be a tedious list of events. So for January, he has the god Janus appear to explain who he is (me Chaos … vocabant – they call me Chaos), why the year doesn’t begin with spring instead (because the real turn of the year is the winter solstice), why New Year’s Day is not a holiday (because you should start as you intend to go on, and not in idleness), why we wish one another a Happy New Year (sympathetic magic – if we say it, so it will be), why we give people honey and sweet dates on New Year’s Day (sympathetic magic), why we give people small coins on New Year’s Day (sympathetic magic).

Which is as much as he says about the first day of the year, so for now is where we shall stop (this is about a third of the way through the first book already; he’s going to pick up the pace over the rest of January).

I am reading this in an 1899 edition with typically schoolboy commentary (on the basis of a schoolboy’s ability in the late c19th) but no facing English translation, so requiring me to think a bit more than usual, which is good. Ovid is reasonably easy Latin, I find.

As usual, reading Latin at times causes me to reflect on the meanings of words in English. So today I contemplate the word difficilis, which gives us the word “difficult”, which in Latin has its opposite in facilis, from which we get not “facult” (though of course we have “faculty”) but “facile”; but “facile” isn’t really the opposite of “difficult”, “easy” is. “Facile” has other connotations. English really is such a strange mishmash of languages.