Happy Birthday, Ibis!

Since David Meadows is on vacation, I suppose it falls to me to point out that today is the Dies Alliensis, and therefore the birthday of Ovid’s fictional enemy Ibis. Here are the more amusing bits from Part IV of A. E. Housman’s paper “The Ibis of Ovid” (JPh 35 [1920], 297-318, reprinted in Classical Papers, 3.1028-42):

Who was Ibis? Nobody. He is much too good to be true. If one’s enemies are of flesh and blood, they do not carry complaisance so far as to choose the dies Alliensis for their birthday and the most ineligible spot in Africa for their birthplace. Such order and harmony exist only in worlds of our own creation, not in the jerry-built edifice of the demiurge. Nor does man assail a real enemy, the object of his sincere and lively hatred, with an interminable and inconsistent series of execrations which can neither be read nor written seriously. To be starved to death and killed by lightning, to be brayed in a mortar as you plunge into a gulf on horseback, to be devoured by dogs, serpents, a lioness, and your own father in the brazen bull of Phalaris, are calamities too awful to be probable and too improbable to be awful.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The 91st poem of Catullus and the 5th and 17th epodes of Horace, however little accordant with modern fashions, are masterpieces without which no anthology of Latin poetry is complete or representative. And the first 250 lines of the Ibis are another masterpiece: Ovid has written no passage of equal length which has equal merit.

From that point onward the poem is merely a display of erudition. Ovid, at the date of his exile, was bursting with information rather recently acquired. In his young days he had been by no means a learned poet; and Propertius, in the season of their sodality, must often have exhorted him to lay in a larger stock of those examples from mythology with which his own elegies are so much embellished or encumbered. But by the time he was fifty he had at his disposal more examples from mythology than he knew what to do with. His studies for the metamorphoses and some of his studies for the fasti (notably in the aetia of Callimachus) had furnished him with a far greater number of stories and histories than could be crowded into those two poems; and he felt the craving of the opsimathés to let everyone know how learned he had become. Here was his chance: history and mythology alike are largely composed of misfortunes as bad as one could wish for one’s worst enemy; and he could discharge a great part of his load of knowledge through the channel of imprecation.

Some desultory comments:

  1. Why did the Journal of Philology use neither italics nor capitals for ‘metamorphoses’, ‘fasti’, and ‘aetia’?
  2. Is Housman’s admiration for the Ibis perhaps a bit influenced by his own taste for invective?
  3. If the poem is “little accordant with modern fashions”, is it more accordant with today’s postmodern fashions? If so, why do so few read it? Too difficult? Perhaps I should say that I have read it, and found it much more diverting than the Medicamina and for that matter the Tristia. Then again, I’m rather fond of invective.
  4. The Ibis’ reputation for obscurity is exaggerated. I recognized most of the myths without consulting the notes in Ellis’ edition, though the gruesome deaths of various Hellenistic tyrants such as Apollodorus of Cassandreia were new to me.
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