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Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.511-733

Ingo Gildenhard
Andrew Zissos


3. The Metamorphoses: A Literary Monstrum

Texte intégral

  • 11 On varietas (‘variety’) in Latin literature more generally see now Fitzgerald (2016).

1In the Metamorphoses, Ovid parades a truly dazzling array of mythological and (as the epic progresses) historical matter before his audience. Aristotelian principles of narrative unity and ‘classical’ plotting have clearly fallen by the wayside. In breathtaking succession, the fast-paced narrative takes his readers from the initial creation myths to the gardens of Pomona, from the wilful intrusion of Amor into his epic narrative in the Apollo and Daphne episode to the illstarred marriage feast of Pirithous and Hippodame (ending in an all out brawl, mass-slaughter, and a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ scene between two centaurs), from the Argonauts’ voyage to Colchis to Orpheus’ underworld descent (to win back his beloved Eurydice from the realms of the dead), from the charming rustic couple Philemon and Baucis to the philosopher Pythagoras expounding on nature and history, from the creative destruction of Greek cultural centres such as Thebes in the early books to the rise of Rome and the apotheosis of the Caesars at the end. As Ovid proceeds through this remarkable assortment of material, the reader traverses the entire cosmos, from the top of Mount Olympus where Jupiter presides over the council of the gods to the pits of Tartarus where the dreadful Furies hold sway, from far East where, at dawn, Sol mounts his fiery chariot to far West where his son Phaethon, struck by Jupiter’s thunderbolt, plunges headlong into the Eridanus river. Within the capacious geographical boundaries of his fictional world, Ovid’s narrative focus switches rapidly from the divine elegiac lover Apollo to the resolute virgin Diana, from the blasphemer Lycaon to the boar slaying Meleager, from the polymorphic sexual exploits of Pater Omnipotens to the counterattacks of his vengeful wife Juno. At one point the poet flaunts blameless Philomela’s severed tongue waggling disconcertingly on the ground, at another he recounts the dismemberment of the Thessalian tyrant Pelias at the hands of his devoted daughters. On a first encounter the centrifugal diversity of the narrative material which Ovid presents in his carmen perpetuum (‘continuous song’) is bound to have a disorienting, even unsettling effect on the reader. How is anyone to come to critical terms with the astonishing variety of narrative configurations that Ovid displays in this ever-shifting poetic kaleidoscope?11

3a. Genre Matters

2The hexametric form, the cosmic scope and the sheer scale of the Metamorphoses all attest to its epic affiliations. As just discussed, the poem’s opening verses seem to affirm that Ovid realized his longstanding aspiration to match himself against Virgil in the most lofty of poetic genres. But as soon as one scratches the surface, myriad difficulties emerge. Even if we choose to assign the Metamorphoses to the category of epic poetry, idiosyncrasies abound. A tabular comparison with other well-known instances of the genre brings out a few of its fundamental oddities:




Main Theme




24 Books

Wrath and War




24 Books

Return/Civil War


Apollonius Rhodius


4 Books

Travel and Adventure




15/18 Books

Men and their deeds

Roman nobles



12 Books

Arms and the Man




15 Books



  • 12 Annals, as the name suggests (from annus = year), are year-by-year chronicles. Ennius (c. 239–c. 16 (...)
  • 13 Mack (1988) 27.
  • 14 Galinsky (1975) 41.

3The tally of fifteen books, while deviating from the ‘multiple-of-four-or-six’ principle canonized by Homer, Apollonius Rhodius, and Virgil, at least has a precedent in Ennius’ Annals.12 But Ovid’s main theme and his choice of protagonist are decidedly peculiar (as will be discussed in the following sections). And then there is the playfulness of the narrative, its pervasive reflexivity, and its often arch or insouciant tone — elements largely absent from earlier instantiations of the genre. ‘The Metamorphoses is perhaps Ovid’s most innovative work, an epic on a majestic scale that refuses to take epic seriously’.13 Indeed, the heated and ultimately inconclusive debate that has flared up around the question of whether the Metamorphoses is an epic, an eroticization of epic, a parody of epic, a conglomeration of genres granted equal rights, an epic sui generis or simply a poem sui generis might seem to indicate that Ovid has achieved a total breakdown of generic conventions, voiding the validity of generic analysis altogether. Karl Galinsky once cautioned that ‘it would be misguided to pin the label of any genre on the Metamorphoses’.14 But does Ovid, in this poem, really dance outside genre altogether? Recent scholarship on the Metamorphoses suggests that the answer is ‘no’. Stephen Hinds articulates the issue at stake very well; in reconsidering the classic distinction between Ovidian epic and elegy, he remarks that

  • 15 Hinds (1987) 121.

… in the opening lines [of the Metamorphoses], the epic criterion is immediately established as relevant, even if only as a point of reference for generic conflict… Boundaries are crossed and recrossed as in no poem before. Elements characteristic of elegy, bucolic, didactic, tragedy, comedy and oratory mingle with elements variously characteristic of the grand epic tradition and with each other… However, wherever its shifts may take it, the metre, bulk and scope of the poem ensures that the question implied in that opening paradox will never be completely eclipsed: namely in what sense is the Metamorphoses an epic?15

4In other words, denying the Metamorphoses the status of epic (or at least epic aspiration) means depriving the text of one of its most intriguing constitutive tensions. Ovid needs the seriousness, the ideology and the reputation of epic as medium for his frivolous poetics, as the ultimate sublime for his exercise in generic deconstruction and as the conceptual matrix for the savvy of his metageneric artistry (i.e. artistry that self-consciously, if often implicitly, reflects on generic matters). Within this epic undertaking, most other genres find their place as well — not least in the set text where elements of epic, oratory, hymnic poetry, tragedy, and bucolic all register (and intermingle).

  • 16 Johnson (1996) 9.
  • 17 Tissol (1996) 151–52.
  • 18 For generic dialogue see Farrell (1992); for ‘generic enrichment’ Harrison (2007).

5Scholars are again divided on how best to handle the multiplicity of generic voices that Ovid has included in the Metamorphoses. Are we perhaps dealing with ‘epic pastiche’? One critic answers in the affirmative: ‘For my purposes… the long poem in hexameters is a pastiche epic whose formal qualities are shaped by an invented genre that is at once ad hoc and sui generis, one with no real ancestors but with many and various offspring’.16 But another objects that ‘it is a mistake often made to identify one section of the Metamorphoses as “elegiac”, another as “epic”, another as “comic”, another as “tragic”, as if Ovid put together a pastiche of genres. Actually, elements of all these genres, and others as well, are as likely as not to appear together in any given story’.17 Arguably a more promising way to think critically about the generic presences in Ovid’s poem is to see the genres in dialogue with one another in ways that are mutually enriching.18 All genres have their own distinctive emphasis and outlook, and to have several of them at work at the same time challenges us, the readers, to negotiate sudden changes in register and perspective, keeping us on our toes.

3b. A Collection of Metamorphic Tales

  • 19 Gildenhard and Zissos (2013) 49–51.

6Its hexametric form aside, the most striking formal feature of the Metamorphoses is that, as its title announces, it strings together a vast number of more or less distinct tales, each of which features a metamorphosis — that is, a magical or supernatural transformation of some kind. In composing a poem of this type, Ovid was working within a tradition of metamorphic literature that had blossomed a few centuries earlier in Hellenistic culture. In terms of his apparent generic aspirations, Ovid’s main theme (and hence his title) is unequivocally — and shockingly — unorthodox: before him, ‘transformative change’ was a subject principally cultivated in Hellenistic catalogue poetry, which is about as un-epic in scope and conception as literature can get.19

7Nicander’s Heteroeumena (‘Changed Ones’), datable to the 2nd century BCE, is the earliest work dedicated to metamorphosis for which we have reliable attestations. The surviving fragments are scant, but valuable testimony is preserved in a prose compendium written by Antoninus Liberalis. The Heteroeumena was a poem in four or five books, written in dactylic hexameters, which narrated episodes of metamorphosis from disparate myths and legends, brought together in a single collection. An overarching concern was evidently to link tales of metamorphosis to the origin of local landmarks, religious rites or other cultural practices: Nicander’s stories were thus predominantly aetiological in orientation, very much like Callimachus’ Aetia. At the close of the Hellenistic period, Greek metamorphosis poetry evidently found its way to Rome, along with its authors. So, for example, Parthenius, the Greek tutor to Virgil, who came to Rome in 65 BCE, composed a Metamorphoses in elegiacs, about which we unfortunately know next to nothing.

8Considered against this literary backdrop, Ovid’s initial announcement in the Metamorphoses that this would be a poem about ‘forms changed into different bodies’ (in nova… mutatas formas | corpora, 1.1–2) might well have suggested to a contemporary reader that Ovid was inscribing himself within a tradition of metamorphosis poetry tout court — setting himself up, that is, as the Roman exemplar of the sub-genre of Hellenistic metamorphosis catalogue poetry represented by such works as Nicander’s Heteroeumena. But Ovid’s epic was vastly more ambitious in conception, and proved to be no less revolutionary in design. Nicander’s Heteroeumena and other ‘collective’ metamorphosis poems from the Hellenistic period are characterized by a discontinuous narrative structure: each included tale constitutes a discrete entry, sufficient unto itself, so that the individual stories do not add up to an organic whole. Ovid’s Metamorphoses marks a radical departure from these predecessors: while each individual tale sports the qualities we associate with the refined and sophisticated, as well as small-scale and discontinuous, that Callimachus and other Hellenistic poets valued and cultivated, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

9What distinguishes the Metamorphoses from these precursors is that it is chronologically and thematically continuous. In strictly formal terms, it is this chronological framework that constitutes Ovid’s innovation within the tradition of ancient catalogue poetry. He marshals into a continuous epic narrative a vast assortment of tales of transformation, beginning with the creation of the cosmos and ending in his own times. Every ‘episode’ within this narrative thus needs to satisfy two conditions: (i) it must follow on from the preceding episode in some kind of temporal succession; (ii) it must contain a metamorphosis. The second condition is sometimes met by resort to ingenious devices. The set text is a case in point: the story of Pentheus, as inherited from Euripides and others, did not contain an ‘orthodox’ instance of metamorphosis, i.e. of a human being transforming into flora, fauna, or an inanimate object (though of course it does feature the changeling god Bacchus in human disguise and hallucinating maenads who look at Pentheus only to see a wild animal). To make good this deficiency, Ovid includes an inset narrative told by the character Acoetes, who delivers, as a cautionary tale for Pentheus, a long-winded account of how Bacchus once transformed a group of wicked Etruscan pirates into dolphins. Now some readers, particularly those coming to Ovid from the earlier tradition of metamorphic catalogue poetry, might regard this as ‘cheating’; others, however, might appreciate the ingenuity with which Ovid explores the limits and possibilities of metamorphosis, combining orthodox instances of transformative change with related phenomena, such as divine allophanies (‘appearances in disguise’) or hallucinations (‘transformations in the eyes of a beholder, based on misperception of reality that is nevertheless frightfully real in its consequences’). What is at any rate remarkable is that such ‘tricks’ as Acoetes’ inset narrative are comparatively rare: on the whole, the Metamorphoses meets the daunting, seemingly impossible, challenge of fashioning, in the traditional epic manner, an ‘unbroken song’ (perpetuum… carmen, 1.4) from disparate tales of transformation.

3c. A Universal History

  • 20 Or, by a pun on tempora, to Ovid’s ‘temples’ (i.e. to his cranium).

10Ovid’s epic is a work of breathtaking ambition: it gives us nothing less than a comprehensive vision of the world — both in terms of nature and culture (and how they interlock). The Metamorphoses opens with a cosmogony and offers a cosmology: built into the poem is an explanation (highly idiosyncratic, to be sure) of how our physical universe works, with special emphasis on its various metamorphic qualities and possibilities. And it is set up as a universal history that traces time from the moment of creation to the Augustan age — or, indeed, beyond. In his proem Ovid promises a poem of cosmic scale, ranging from the very beginning of the universe (prima ab origine mundi) down to his own times (ad mea tempora).20 He embarks upon an epic narrative that begins with the creation of the cosmos and ends with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. The poet’s teleological commitment to a notional ‘present’ (the Augustan age in which the epic was composed) qua narrative terminus is subtly reinforced by frequent appeals to the contemporary reader’s observational experience. The result is a cumulatively compelling sequence that postures, more or less convincingly, as a chronicle of the cosmos in all its pertinent facets.

11Taken in its totality, Ovid’s epic elevates the phenomenon of metamorphosis from its prior status as a mythographic curiosity to an indispensable mechanism of cosmic history, a fundamental causal element in the evolution of the universe and the story of humanity: the Metamorphoses offers not a mere concatenation of marvellous transformations, but a poetic vision of the world conceived of as fundamentally and pervasively metamorphic.

  • 21 More on this matter below; for detailed discussion see Gildenhard and Zissos (2004).
  • 22 Any mention of Amores 3.12, as John Henderson reminds us, has also to invoke the Liar’s Paradox at (...)

12The claim that the Metamorphoses amounts to a universal history may well sound counterintuitive, and for two reasons in particular. First, chronology sometimes seems to go awry — not least through the heavy use of embedded narrative — so that the audience is bound to have difficulty keeping track of the trajectory that proceeds from elemental chaos at the outset to the Rome of Augustus at the end. But upon inspection, it turns out that Ovid has sprinkled important clues into his narrative that keep the final destination of his narrative in the minds of (attentive) readers.21 The second puzzle raised by the historical orientation of Ovid’s epic concerns its principal subject matter: instances of transformative change that are clearly fictional. Ovid himself concedes as much. In one of his earlier love elegies, Amores 3.12, he laments the fact that, owing to the success of his poetry, his girlfriend Corinna has become the toast of Rome’s would-be Don Giovannis. Displeased with the prospect of romantic competition, he admonishes would-be rivals to read his love elegies with the same incredulity they routinely bring to bear on mythic fabulae — and proceeds to belabour the point in what almost amounts to a blueprint of the Metamorphoses (Am. 3.12.19–44). Ovid’s catalogue of unbelievable tales includes Scylla, Medusa, Perseus and Pegasus, gigantomachy, Circe’s magical transformation of Odysseus’ companions, Cerberus, Phaethon, Tantalus, the transformations of Niobe and Callisto, Procne, Philomela, and Itys, the self-transformations of Jupiter prior to raping Leda, Danaë, and Europa, Proteus, and the Spartoi that rose from the teeth of the dragon slain by Cadmus at the future site of Thebes. The catalogue culminates in the punchline that just as no one really believes in the historical authenticity of such tales, so too readers should be disinclined to take anything he says about Corinna at face value:22

Exit in inmensum fecunda licentia vatum,
     obligat historica nec sua verba fide.
et mea debuerat falso laudata videri
     femina; credulitas nunc mihi vestra nocet.
(Am. 3.12.41–43)

The creative licence of the poets knows no limits, and does not constrain its words with historical faithfulness. My girl ought to have seemed falsely praised; I am undone by your credulity.

  • 23 Little (1970) 347.

13The same attitude towards tales of transformative change informs his retrospect on the Metamorphoses at Trist. 2.63–64, where Ovid adduces the implausibility of the stories contained within his epic: Inspice maius opus, quod adhuc sine fine tenetur, | in non credendos corpora uersa modos (‘Look at the greater work, which is as of yet unfinished, bodies transformed in ways not to be believed’). As one scholar has observed, ‘a critic could hardly wish for a more explicit denial of the reality of the myth-world of the Metamorphoses’.23

  • 24 Feeney (1991) 229 with reference to earlier scholarship in n. 152.

14In light of how Ovid presents the theme of metamorphosis elsewhere (including moments of auto-exegesis, where he tells his own story), it comes as no surprise that ‘the Metamorphoses’ challenges to our belief in its fictions are relentless, for Ovid continually confronts us with such reminders of his work’s fictional status’.24 But this feature of his text is merely the result of his decision to write fiction as history. Put differently, what is so striking about his project is not that Ovid is writing self-conscious fiction. Rather, it is his paradoxical insistence that his fictions are historical facts. From the start, Ovid draws attention to, and confronts, the issue of credibility. A representative instance comes from his account of how Deucalion and Pyrrha replenish the earth’s human population after its near extermination in the flood by throwing stones over their shoulders:

saxa (quis hoc credat, nisi sit pro teste vetustas ?)
ponere duritiem coepere …
Met. 1.400–01)

The stones (who would believe this if the age of the tale did not function as witness?) began to lose their hardness…

15In his parenthetical remark Ovid turns vetustas (‘old age’) into a criterion for veritas (‘truth’), slyly counting on, while at the same time subverting, the Roman investment in tradition, as seen most strikingly in the importance afforded to exempla and mores maiorum (that is, ‘instances of exemplary conduct and ancestral customs’). His cheeky challenge to see fictions as facts (and the ensuing question of belief) accompanies Ovid’s characters (and his readers) throughout the poem, including the set text, where Pentheus refuses to believe the cautionary tale of Bacchus’ transformation of the Tyrrhenian pirates into dolphins — with fatal consequences.

16The situation is further complicated by the fact that some of the narrative material is historical. The reader must remain ever alert to the programmatic opening declaration that the Metamorphoses will proceed chronologically from the birth of the universe to the poet’s own times (Met. 1.3–4, cited and discussed above). Ovid is, in other words, combining myth and history, with the latter coming to the fore in the final books, which document the rise of Rome. The end of the Metamorphoses celebrates the ascendancy of Rome to world-empire: terra sub Augusto est (‘the world lies under Augustus’, 15.860) observes Ovid laconically of the comprehensive sway of Roman rule in his own day (15.876–77). This is presented as a culminating moment in world history.

  • 25 Lee (1953) on Met. 1.167ff., citing Hom. Il. 8.1ff., 20.1 ff.; Od. 1.26ff., 5.1ff; Enn. Ann. 51–55 (...)

17The combination of myth and history was, of course, hardly new. The Hebrew Bible, to name just one precedent, began in the mythological realm with Genesis, proceeded to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the deluge, and so on before moving on to more overtly historical material. And whereas this was long considered (and in some quarters still is considered) a historical document throughout, Ovid, as we have seen, is more willing to probe the implausibility of the traditional mythological tales that he has placed side-by-side with historical material. But readers of the Metamorphoses should be wary of placing too much stock in the dichotomy of myth and history. From an ideological perspective, the real issue is less the truth-value of specific events narrated in the epic, than the way they make sense of — and shape perceptions of — the world. The subtle anticipations of Roman geopolitical domination in Ovid’s early books are scarcely less significant for being embedded in Greek mythology. A case in point arises in the opening book, where Jupiter summons all the gods in assembly in reaction to perceived human depravity, as epitomized in the barbarous conduct of Lycaon. Here, it would appear, Ovid puts on display his generic bona fides: any ancient epic worthy of the name could hardly omit a concilium deorum. From Homer onwards an assembly of the gods had been an almost compulsory ingredient of the genre.25 But for all the seeming conventionality of his set-up, Ovid provides a decidedly eccentric rendition of the type-scene. The oddities begin with a striking account of the summoned divinities hastening along the Milky Way to the royal abode of Jupiter:

Est via sublimis, caelo manifesta sereno;
lactea nomen habet, candore notabilis ipso.
hac iter est superis ad magni tecta Tonantis
regalemque domum: dextra laevaque deorum
atria nobilium valvis celebrantur apertis.
plebs habitat diversa loca: hac parte potentes
caelicolae clarique suos posuere penates ;
hic locus est, quem, si verbis audacia detur,
haud timeam magni dixisse Palatia caeli.
Met. 1.168–76)

There is a highway, easily seen when the sky is clear. It is called theMilky Way, famed for its shining whiteness. By this way the gods cometo the halls and royal dwelling of the mighty Thunderer. On either sidethe palaces of the gods of higher rank are thronged with guests through folding-doors flung wide. The lesser gods dwell apart from these. In this neighbourhood the illustrious and mighty heaven-dwellers have placed their household gods. This is the place which, if I made bold to say it , I would not fear to call the Palatine of high heaven.

  • 26 Lee (1953) on Met. 1.167ff.
  • 27 Ginsberg (1989) 228.
  • 28 Feeney (1991) 199, citing Suet. Aug. 29.3 and the discussion of Thompson (1981).

18In these lines, Ovid describes a celestial Rome. Jupiter’s abode, the palace of the great ruler, is situated on a heavenly Palatine; the Milky Way is like the Sacer Clivus which led from the Via Sacra to the Palatine Hill in Rome, where of course Augustus lived. As with the Romans, the gods are divided into nobles and plebeians; the former have magnificent and well-situated abodes, complete with atria teeming with clientes; the latter must make do with more humble and obscure quarters. More strikingly, celestial patricians and plebs alike have their penates (household gods).26 And the analogies don’t end there. The assembly that meets in Jupiter’s palace follows procedures that are recognizably those of the Roman Senate.27 Indeed, ‘the correspondence with Augustan Rome is particularly close at this point, since we know that Augustus held Senate meetings in the library attached to his temple of Apollo on the Palatine, which was itself intricately linked with his residence’.28

  • 29 The notion of penates makes a suggestive appearance in the set text as well: see Comm. on 538–40.
  • 30 Which is not, of course, to deny the rich ironies inherent in Ovid’s parallelism between Jupiter an (...)

19The comical audacity of this sequence has elicited reams of commentary. Since Homer, the traditional epic practice was to model divine existence on human analogy, but to attribute household gods (penates) to the Olympian gods themselves is humorously to extend and expose the convention.29 At the same time, though, Ovid achieves a more profound effect, for the episode hints at a kind of politico-historical telos: the Olympian political structures and those of contemporary Rome are in homology. For all the humorous touches — and we certainly do not wish to deny them — Ovid has inscribed Augustan Rome into the heavens. Since Jupiter’s rule is to be eternal, there is an implication, by association, of a corresponding political-historical closure in human affairs. From the very beginning, then, the disconcerting thematic implications of potentially endless metamorphosis — which Pythagoras will assert as axiomatic for geopolitical affairs — are being countered or ‘contained’ with respect to Roma aeterna. Heaven has stabilized — the final challenges to the Jovian cosmos, those of giants and their like, are now ‘in the books’ — and will suffer no further political upheavals of significance. An equivalent state of affairs is subsequently to be achieved on the terrestrial level. The human realm will, over the course of Ovid’s narrative, evolve into the Jovian paradigm — which is already, by the comic solipsism just discussed, the Roman paradigm. The majestic declaration in the final book terra sub Augusto est (15.860) neatly signals that the princeps has achieved the Jovian analogy; this is the language of divine power, which is to say, the earth being ‘beneath’ Augustus makes both his power and figurative vantage point god-like.30

  • 31 Ingelbert (2014) 256.

20In writing a universal history, its eccentric narrative voice and hexametric form notwithstanding, Ovid is performing a peculiarly Roman operation. For some scholars, indeed, history first became universal in Roman times; on this view it was the creation of the Roman Empire that allowed history to become ‘global’ in a geographical sense.31 This version of history adopted more or less consciously an ethnocentric or ‘Romanocentric’ perspective that freely incorporated mythical elements in explaining Roman supremacy in terms of both surpassing virtus (making the Romans superior imperialists) and surpassing pietas (guaranteeing them the privileged support of the gods).

21Together, the record of supernatural powers and transformed human beings that the Metamorphoses chronicles adds up to a unique combination of ‘natural’ and ‘universal’ history, in which cosmos and culture evolve together and eventually (in the form of a Roman civilization that has acquired global reach under Augustus) coincide.

3d. Anthropological Epic

  • 32 That Ovid chose to write, for the most part, fiction did not prevent him from presenting his fictio (...)
  • 33 Ennius’ Annals features several main characters, and a case could be made for Apollonius Rhodius’ A (...)
  • 34 For this approach to the poem, see Solodow (1988) 37–55, also discussed at Comm. on 568–69.
  • 35 Schmidt (1991).

22To use the theme of metamorphosis as the basis for a universal history did not just strain, it shattered prevailing generic norms. From Homer to Virgil, the stuff of epic was war and adventure, heroes and their deeds; in Ovid, it is — a fictitious phenomenon.32 A related curiosity arises over the question of protagonist. In the other epics of our tabular comparison (see above, § 3a), it is a simple matter to identify the main character or characters.33 That is decidedly not the case in the Metamorphoses: Ovid’s frequently un-heroic personnel changes from one episode to the next, to the point that some scholars have suggested that the hero of the poem is the poet himself — the master-narrator who holds (and thinks) everything together and, in so doing, performs a deed worthy of immortality.34 There is, to be sure, much to be gained from focusing on the ‘composition myth’ in this way, but it does not rule out pinpointing a protagonist on the level of plot as well. As Ernst Schmidt has argued, a plausible candidate for this designation is ‘the human being’.35

23There are some difficulties with this suggestion (one might well ask: what about the gods?); but all in all the thesis that humanity as such takes centre-stage in the Metamorphoses is attractive and compelling. At its core, the poem offers a sustained meditation on what it is to be human within a broader cosmic setting shaped by supernatural agents and explores the potential of our species for good and for evil. These concerns (one could label them ‘anthropological’) are set up by the various forms of anthropogenesis (‘accounts of the origins of humanity’) in the early episodes, which trace our beginnings to such diverse material as earth and a divine spark, stones cast by mortal hands, and the blood of slain giants. From an ethical point of view, the outcomes are as diverse as the material: Ovid explores a wide gamut of possibilities, covering the full range from quasi-divine and ethically impeccable human beings (witness the blissful rectitude of the golden age at 1.83–112) to bestial and blasphemous (the version of our species that descended from the blood of giants, described at 1.156–62). In the Deucalion and Pyrrha story (a ‘pagan’ variant on the tale of Noah’s ark), Ovid makes the aetiological connection between the kind of material from which humanity is manufactured and our respective qualities explicit: originating from stones, ‘we are hence a hard race, experienced in toil, and so giving testimony to the source of our birth’ (inde genus durum sumus experiensque laborum | et documenta damus, qua simus origine nati, 1.414–15). As the reader proceeds through the poem, encounters with such atrocious human beings as Tereus or such admirable individuals as Baucis and Philemon serve as vivid reminders that accursed and salvific elements are equally part of our DNA. A ‘rhetoric of origins’ also plays an important role in the set text: Pentheus tries to rally the citizens of Thebes against Bacchus and his entourage by reminding them of their descent from the teeth of the dragon of Mars (3.543–45) — a belated anthropogenesis on a local scale that re-enacts the opening theme at a later stage of cosmic history.

  • 36 Barchiesi (1999).

24In line with both Ovid’s elegiac past and his ‘anthropological’ interest in humanity, the Metamorphoses is chock-full of sex and gender issues — though readers will have to venture beyond the set text to discover this: the chosen episode is relatively free from erotic entanglements. In fact, Ovid has in many ways ‘de-eroticized’ earlier versions of the Pentheus-myth, such as the one we find in Euripides’ Bacchae, which features cross-dressing, prurient interest in orgiastic sexuality, and voyeurism. But browse around a bit before or after the set text and you’ll see that Ovid never departs for long from erotic subject matter. You’ll find that, as discussed below (§5b-i), the sober figure of the blind seer Tiresias who introduces the Pentheus-episode first features in the poem as a divinely certified ‘sexpert’ on male and female orgasms. More generally, sex and gender are such pervasive preoccupations that one scholar has plausibly characterized the Metamorphoses as a ‘hymn to Venus’.36

3e. A Reader’s Digest of Greek and Latin Literature

25In the process of laying out a vast body of mythic tales, both well known and recondite, Ovid’s Metamorphoses produces something like a ‘reader’s digest’ of Greek and Latin literature. Whichever authors came before him — Homer, Euripides, Callimachus, Apollonius Rhodius, Theocritus, Ennius, Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, you name them — he worked their texts into his own, often with a hilarious spin or a polemic edge. In Ovid, the literary heritage of Greece and Rome begins to swing. His poetics — his peculiar way of writing poetry — is as transformative as his choice of subject matter. In the Metamorphoses, one intertextual joke chases the next as Ovid puts his predecessors into place — turning them into inferior forerunners or footnotes to his own epic mischief. To appreciate this dimension of his poem requires knowledge of the earlier literature that Ovid engages with. In the set text, Ovid’s partners in dialogue include, but are by no means limited to, Homer, the author of the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, Euripides, pseudo-Theocritus, Pacuvius (a 2nd-century BCE Roman tragic playwright whose work survives only in scant fragments), and Virgil. Even this partial enumeration, consisting as it does of authors and texts that have come down to us more or less intact as well as those that have all but vanished, points to an occupational hazard for anyone interested in literary dialogue: so much ancient literature that Ovid and his readers would have known intimately is lost to us. Literary critics (including the present writers: see below, §5a) will inevitably tend to stress the intertextual relationships between texts that have best survived the accidents of transmission (in our case: the Odyssey, Euripides’ Bacchae, the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, the pseudo-Theocritean Idyll 26, and Virgil’s Aeneid). So it is worth recalling that, as far as, say, tragic plays about Bacchus and Pentheus are concerned, Ovid would have had at his disposal not only Euripides’ Bacchae, but a number of other scripts that are lost to us or have only survived in bits and pieces, notably Pacuvius’ Pentheus. This does not invalidate the exercise of comparing Euripides and Ovid — far from it. Even if it is salutary to bear in mind that we are almost certainly seeing only part of the full network of intertextual relationships, we should take solace from the fact that, as John Henderson points out, ‘plenty of ancient Roman readers were in the same boat as us: Ovid catered for all levels, from newcomers to classical studies to impossibly learned old-stagers. And the main point remains, that, just as verse form always brings change to a tale, so too a myth can never be told in anything but a new version — stories forever mutate’.

  • 37 Brown (1999) 1.
  • 38 For specific examples in the set text, see Comm. on 568–71 (Shakespeare) and 664–65 (Seneca); 670–7 (...)

26The ‘reader’ s digest’ effect of the Metamorphoses works in tandem with its cosmic scope, totalizing chronology and encyclopaedic ambition to endow it with a unique sense of comprehensiveness. More fundamentally still, Ovid’s epic codified and preserved for evermore one of antiquity’s earliest and most important ways of making sense of the universe: myth. As a result, it has become one of the most influential classics of all time: instances of reception are legion, as countless works of art that engage with the mythic heritage of antiquity found their ultimate inspiration in Ovid’s poetry. The Metamorphoses has been called ‘the Bible of artists and painters’ and ‘one of the cornerstones of Western culture’.37 It is virtually impossible to walk into any museum of note without encountering artworks that rehearse Ovidian themes; and his influence on authors, not least those of the first rank — from Dante to Petrarch, from Shakespeare to Milton — is equally pervasive.38 ‘Bible’ and ‘cornerstone’, though, with their implications of ponderous gravity and paradigmatic authority, are rather odd metaphors to apply to Ovid’s epic: they capture its importance through the ages, but unwittingly invert why the Metamorphoses has continued to resonate with so many creative geniuses (as well as the average reader). After all, Ovid’s intense exploration of erotic experience in all its polymorphous diversity and his vigorous celebration of transformative fluidity (or, indeed, eternal flux) in both nature and culture make of the poem a veritable counter-Bible, offering a decidedly unorthodox vision of the universe and its inhabitants.

  • 39 For the cautionary tale of how some classical students took the Euripidean Bacchus all too close to (...)

27It is a fundamental principle of narration, as John Henderson reminds us, that ‘a tale tells on its teller — all these stories came into Ovid’s mind-and-repertoire, and these are his versions, so “about” Ovid’. And (he adds) ‘tales mean to have designs on those on the receiving-end, and now that includes us, and that means you. There are many reasons why the Metamorphoses (plural) keep bulldozing their way through world culture, but this (singular) is what counts the most. As Horace put it: de te fabula narratur’.39


11 On varietas (‘variety’) in Latin literature more generally see now Fitzgerald (2016).

12 Annals, as the name suggests (from annus = year), are year-by-year chronicles. Ennius (c. 239–c. 169 BCE) wrote his epic history of Rome towards the end of his life.

13 Mack (1988) 27.

14 Galinsky (1975) 41.

15 Hinds (1987) 121.

16 Johnson (1996) 9.

17 Tissol (1996) 151–52.

18 For generic dialogue see Farrell (1992); for ‘generic enrichment’ Harrison (2007).

19 Gildenhard and Zissos (2013) 49–51.

20 Or, by a pun on tempora, to Ovid’s ‘temples’ (i.e. to his cranium).

21 More on this matter below; for detailed discussion see Gildenhard and Zissos (2004).

22 Any mention of Amores 3.12, as John Henderson reminds us, has also to invoke the Liar’s Paradox at work here: the person whose only true claim is that he is lying is — lying. ‘So whatever else Ovid “challenges” us to read, it is all tainted with mendacity. There is no true instruction for the reader coming from this author: I’d be lying, wouldn’t I, if I said that we’re on our own, with “myth”, fictions that (like histories) tell truths by lying (esp. by telling [hi]stories)’.

23 Little (1970) 347.

24 Feeney (1991) 229 with reference to earlier scholarship in n. 152.

25 Lee (1953) on Met. 1.167ff., citing Hom. Il. 8.1ff., 20.1 ff.; Od. 1.26ff., 5.1ff; Enn. Ann. 51–55 Sk; Aen. 10.1ff. One could add Lucilius, who, in his Satires, also featured a concilium deorum (‘Council of the Gods’), at which an individual called Lupus (Latin for ‘wolf’ — a distant intertextual relative of Ovid’s Lycaon, surely) was put on trial. Ovid here follows the example of Homer’s Odyssey and Ennius’ Annales in placing his concilium deorum at the beginning of his narrative.

26 Lee (1953) on Met. 1.167ff.

27 Ginsberg (1989) 228.

28 Feeney (1991) 199, citing Suet. Aug. 29.3 and the discussion of Thompson (1981).

29 The notion of penates makes a suggestive appearance in the set text as well: see Comm. on 538–40.

30 Which is not, of course, to deny the rich ironies inherent in Ovid’s parallelism between Jupiter and Augustus: see e.g. Johnson (1970), 146. John Henderson offers some characteristically trenchant observations here: ‘The ugly indiscriminate speciescide perpetrated by the Almighty is… just the first modelling of the exercise of autocratic power in Ovid’s poem: the set text will picture one young monarch among the horde populating mythland attempting to play the tough guy. In the Julio-Claudian Rome of the Caesars, myths were becoming (a way to get) real, all over again’.

31 Ingelbert (2014) 256.

32 That Ovid chose to write, for the most part, fiction did not prevent him from presenting his fictions as facts: see the previous section on ‘universal history’.

33 Ennius’ Annals features several main characters, and a case could be made for Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica featuring a collective protagonist, i.e. the Argonauts as a group.

34 For this approach to the poem, see Solodow (1988) 37–55, also discussed at Comm. on 568–69.

35 Schmidt (1991).

36 Barchiesi (1999).

37 Brown (1999) 1.

38 For specific examples in the set text, see Comm. on 568–71 (Shakespeare) and 664–65 (Seneca); 670–72 (Marlowe).

39 For the cautionary tale of how some classical students took the Euripidean Bacchus all too close to heart, see Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.


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