Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00

“VENUS” AS VENERIUM

The luckiest throw in the game of dice, obtained when the four die each showed a different number, was called ”venerium” by the Romans. This illustrates the relation between Venus and success. While seduction seems connected to an unhappy destiny, and love reciprocated has been wittily defined by Samuel Beckett as a short circuit, venusian charm is inseparable from success and a happy ending. Thus to remain locked within the metaphor furnished by the game of dice is misleading: Venus has nothing to do with chance. Her protégé would be like a player who ”executing 100 throws, 100 times gets the venerium,” but for the Romans such pretension would be an expression of the arrogance that is precisely the opposite of the venusian spirit. Presumptuousness Livy calls it ”iactantia” - was the sin of the inhabitants of Praeneste who believed they could always win because they were protected by Fortuna Primigenia, who is foreign to the spirit of the Roman religion. Fortune, mere chance, does not at all occupy an eminent position in the Roman religious cosmos, and the idea of an essential and absolute originality is opposed to the experience of a city that was born and developed through assimilating and distorting mechanisms. It is not by chance, then, that sources exhibit traces of a polemical attitude on the part of the Romans with respect to the Praenestine cult of Fortuna, an attitude apparent in the prohibition on consulting its oracle. The Roman suspicion of the concept of fortune has a philosophical basis: it depends upon the contrast between a voluble and uncertain ”fortuna” and the venusian ”felicitas”, ”solid and sincere”. That Servius Tullius, son of a slave and patron of slaves, fortunately conceived and made king, had according to tradition dedicated a temple to Fortune tallies perfectly with this assertion. As Angelo Brelich observes, ”Fortuna” in Rome is the goddess of slaves and those who live by their wits (”sine arte aliqua”), of those whose only remaining hope is for a stroke of luck. The goddess ”Spes” is in fact associated with Fortuna in the Praenestine sanctuary. The success of Venus`s protégé is not due to aleatory factors, for he is not under the sign of hope, which awaits events that may or may not happen. Nor must he be tainted by arrogance, and hence does not depend upon the presumption that certain favorable events necessarily occur. ”Felicitas” consists in considering whatever happens to be favorable. Sulla, to whom the cult of Venus Felix is attributed, seems to have cultivated this idea implicit in the notion of venusian charm. He seemed to attribute greater value to his own image as ”felix” than to real political power and in any case attributed the latter to former. According to Plutarch, he maintained this opinion of himself to the very end, in spite of suffering from a horrible intestinal ulcer that destroyed his flesh, transforming it into lice and dirtying him with an unarrestable flow of rotten matter. Despite this infirmity, which forced him to immerse himself in water several times a day with no results whatsoever, he never ceased to consider himself ”felix”. Two days before his death he ended his memoirs, asserting that ”after he had led a life of honor, he should conclude it in fullness of prosperity”.
By associating the concept of ”felicitas” with that of ”Victoria” and inaugurating cults and temples dedicated to this new goddess, Pompey also put himself under the protection of a Venus Victrix. Such a choice did not prove a felicitous one, since it conflicted with Caesar, who placed Venus in person among his ancestors! Appianus recounts that the night before the battle of Pharsalus, Pompey dreamed of decorating the temple of Venus amid the applause of the people. Awakened suddenly, he realized that the dream was not in his favor and, profoundly unsettled, went toward defeat substituting the battle cry ”Venus Victrix” with ”Hercules Invictus”. The episode demonstrates that venusian charm is not reducible to a hope for a military victory: it transcends the good or bad outcome of a single conflict. It is not success in itself that makes one charming, but charm that predisposes one for success. The very concept of success loses its objective characteristics in the venusian perspective and becomes an attribute of enchantment: the Romans knew quite well that there were victories that were worse than a defeat, and defeats more providential than a victory. Caesar`s decision to erect a temple not to Venus Victrix, who had helped him at the Battle of Pharsalus, but rather to Venus Genetrix is illuminating: he considered victory merely a consequence of venusian protection.

Translated from italian by Barbara Spackman
Published in Giovanna Borradori (ed.), ”Recoding Metaphysics. The New italian Philosophy”, Evaston (IL): Northwestern University Press, 1988
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