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Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.511-733

Ingo Gildenhard
Andrew Zissos


692–733 Pentheus’ gruesome demise

Texte intégral

1With the completion of Acoetes’ lengthy embedded tale, the narrative reverts to the ‘frame’ level, and proceeds at a quicker pace and in a terse — almost fragmentary — manner to its conclusion. Pentheus orders the captive to be taken away for torture and execution; but despite being chained and incarcerated, the stranger — so rumour has it — miraculously and effortlessly extricates himself. Pentheus then hastens to Mount Cithaeron, where he is assailed by a troupe of Bacchants led by his mother and aunts, and literally torn limb from limb. In Euripides’ more detailed version, the build-up to the sparagmos is treated with ingenious psychological twists that Ovid has not explicitly included: Pentheus is persuaded by Dionysus/Bacchus to dress up as a Bacchant before proceeding to Mount Cithaeron, and experiences hallucinations induced by the god (so that he famously sees two suns and two Thebes). After setting Pentheus in a tree on Cithaeron, ostensibly to afford him a better view of the rites, the god abruptly disappears, after signalling to the Bacchants that their prey is at hand. (For detailed comparison of the Euripidean and Ovidian versions, see Intro. §5a).

2 692–93 praebuimus … posset. Ovid’s separate embedding of subject (Pentheus) and verb (inquit) of the main clause within the direct speech they introduce is an intricate effect that visually encircles and ensnares the Theban king in longis … ambagibus (explained below).

3The mild circumlocution praebuimus … aures is rather like the English idiom ‘lend an ear’; the lofty tone is enhanced by the ‘poetic’ plural of the verb. The indirect object (that to which Pentheus lent his ears) is longis … ambagibus (‘your long winding account’). The figurative use of ambages (literally ‘a circuitous path’) extends to all forms of discourse (OLD s.v. 2): in the following book the Fury Tisiphone cuts off Juno when she needlessly adds justifications to her commands: non longis opus est ambagibus;… facta puta quaecumque iubes (‘No need for long explanations; consider done whatever you command’, Met. 4.476–77). ut introduces a purpose clause whereby Pentheus explains why he sat through Acoetes’ longwinded account: in case his wrath might have lessened through the delay (mora is ablative of means) — i.e. if Acoetes’ (perceived) guilt had not been so great as to make that impossible. Ovid is clearly attempting to account for — or, perhaps better, archly to signal — the implausibility of Pentheus’ impetuous anger allowing him patiently to sit through Acoetes’ lengthy account.

4 694–95 praecipitem … nocti. The -que after cruciata links the two imperatives rapite and demittite. praecipitem (modifying hunc) is used in lieu of an adverb, which would go with rapite. The insistent and unsettled syntax and the dactylic rhythm (verse 694 is metrically ‘praeceps’) reflect Pentheus’ agitated frame of mind. The famuli addressed here are no doubt the same attendants who were earlier ordered to arrest Bacchus (562–63, 572–73 nn.). In the second main clause we have interlaced word order reinforced by enjambment: attribute1 (cruciata) — attribute2 (diris) — noun1 (corpora) — noun2 (tormentis). Diris … tormentis is instrumental ablative dependent on the participle cruciata, which modifies the ‘poetic’ plural corpora. Much like dare leto (545–48 n.), Stygiae demittite nocti constitutes an elevated periphrasis for ‘kill’ (the prosaic term would be interficere). The adjective Stygius is formed from Styx, the Greek name — ‘loathsome’, from στυγέω — for one of the main rivers of the Underworld, the realm inhabited by the dead (or more precisely, by their ‘shades’ or ghosts); and nox is in itself a conventional metaphor for death in Latin poetry (e.g. Cat. 5.6; Hor. Carm. 1.28.15; Virg. Aen. 6.390). Pentheus’ murderous commands are freighted with tragic irony, inasmuch as he is the one who will presently undergo bodily mutilation and death.

5 696–700 protinus … catenas. Ovid creates an intriguing rift in his account of what happens next. Acoetes’ initial experience, which is in conformity with Pentheus’ orders, is reported in the vivid present (clauditur, parantur). But in proceeding to the miraculous liberation that follows, the poet seems to distance himself from the factuality of his account with fama est (‘there is a story’). In fact, Ovid may be ‘quoting’ earlier literary versions here (on the probable literary implications of fama est, see Additional Information below). The statement introduced by fama est (i.e. 699–700) is strikingly similar to Euripides’ account at Bacch. 447–48 ‘Of their own accord, the chains were loosed from their feet and keys opened the doors without human hand’ (αὐτόματα δ᾽ αὐταῖς δεσμὰ διελύθη ποδῶν | κλῇδές τ᾽ ἀνῆκαν θύρετρ᾽ ἄνευ θνητῆς χερός), even if the situation is slightly different: see Additional Information below.

6Notice the ‘iconic’ word order in 696–97, with solidis… in tectis ‘enclosing’ the prisoner Tyrrhenus Acoetes and thereby illustrating the verb clauditur. For the epithet Tyrrhenus, see 574–76 n. The conjunction et (after tectis) is adversative in force. Although crudelia instrumenta, ferrum, and ignes are all subjects of parantur (all linked by-que), the last two explicate the first: the instruments of torture are iron and fire. Iussae … necis depends on instrumenta: ‘of the death that had been ordered’ (referring to Pentheus’ command Stygiae demittite nocti at 695). fama est introduces an indirect statement that falls into two parts, linked by the-que after lapsas: infinitive (patuisse) + subject accusative (fores); infinitive (lapsas, sc. esse) + subjective accusative (catenas). lacertis is ablative of separation (the simple ablative without a preposition is a feature of poetic language: in prose de or ex would be used). The ablative absolute nullo solvente is concessive in force (‘even though no one, i.e. no human, freed him’); it is semantically redundant after the emphatic *anaphora of sponte sua (equivalent to Euripides’ αὐτόματα) at the beginning of verses 699 and 700, but contributes to the sense of wonder (or disbelief).

Additional Information. fama est is a stock phrase, often used by Roman authors to signal awareness of earlier literary treatments: it functions as the poetic equivalent of a footnote. In a sense, then, Ovid is here outsourcing responsibility for the truth-value of his account, saying that he is covering material he has found elsewhere, without necessarily vouching for its veracity. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure which text (or texts) he is referencing here, not least since we do not have Pacuvius’ play from which he took the name Acoetes (see Intro. §5b-iv). There is a similar scene of liberation in Euripides’ Bacchae, though it features captured and imprisoned bacchants who are set free the moment that Pentheus’ servants bring the bound Dionysus onto the stage: ‘the Bacchae whom you shut up, whom you carried off and bound in the chains of the public prison, are set loose and gone, and are gambolling in the meadows, invoking Bromius as their god. Of their own accord, the chains were loosed from their feet and keys opened the doors without human hand’ (Eur. Bacch. 443–48). At which point, Pentheus himself orders Dionysus’ bonds to be loosened, reckoning him to have no means of escape, and in what follows he is fooled into thinking that he has the stranger imprisoned.

7 701–03 perstat … sonabat. The sense of perstat is that, Acoetes’ cautionary tale and his miraculous release from bondage notwithstanding, Pentheus persists in his obtuse and impious rejection of Bacchus. The powerful simplicity of the verb is enhanced by its emphatic initial position in both verse and clause. For the patronymic Echionides, identifying Pentheus, see 513–14 n. nec iam in combination with sed ipse signals the fateful transition: Pentheus no longer orders his attendants about, but opts rather to venture out in person and look into matters himself. iubet introduces an indirect statement with infinitive ire and a subject accusative (famulos vel sim.) implied from what precedes; cf. Pentheus’ earlier command to his attendants at 562 ‘ite citi’ (famulis hoc imperat), ‘ite…’

8 Cithaeron, the subject of the ubi-clause, is a mountain range in the vicinity of Thebes associated with the worship of Bacchus, for which its wild character was well suited. The construction electus with ad + gerundive expressing purpose is prosaic: Bömer (1969, 619) detects hints of religious language here, which would be appropriate for what amounts to an oblique religious aetiology. bacchantum = bacchantium (from bacchantes, a substantive derived from the present participle of bacchor): the gen. pl. in-um is a common poetic licence for participles (AG §121b. 2). Here the genitive stands *apo koinou with both cantibus and clara… voce, which are causal ablatives with sonabat. Notice how the repetition of the letter c in the ubi-clause (electus, facienda, sacra, bacchantum, voce) serves to enhances the already striking alliteration Cithaeron cantibus et clara.

9 704–07 ut fremit … ira. Ovid now rolls out a simile, likening the impact of the ritual Bacchic shrieking on Pentheus to that of a military trumpet on a spirited war horse: in both cases, sound quickens the emotions, inducing an (automatic, unthinking) eagerness for hostilities. This reprises, on an abstract and figurative level, Pentheus’ misconception of Bacchus’ advent as a military incursion (531–63 passim), a culminating assertion of the mentality that proves to be the king’s undoing. Ovid’s protagonist is in this respect starkly different from his Euripidean counterpart, who goes up the mountain as a cross-dressing voyeur (see Intro. §5b-ii).

10The formulation of the simile is conventional, with ut introducing the ‘vehicle’ (the war horse responding to the battle trumpet), and sic the ‘tenor’ (Pentheus reacting to Bacchic howling). In the first part, the -que after pugnae links fremit and adsumit; acer equus is the subject of both. The conjunction cum meaning ‘when’ takes an indicative verb to indicate a general case rather than a specific occurrence; the verb is frequently, but not always, in the present tense (AG §547). fremo is used of various animal noises occasioned by excitement or anger (OLD s.v. 1b), most often growling; in the case of horses, of course, it speaks to neighing. The sense of acer is ‘spirited’; the application of this adjective to horses is found earlier at Lucr. 4.420. The military scenario, which the epithet bellicus promptly announces, is fleshed out in Roman terms (for such ‘Romanizing’ tendencies, see 538–40 n.). A tubicen is a trumpeter, i.e. one who sounds the tuba, a straight trumpet, which was one of the principal signalling instruments used in the Roman army (others include the cornu and the bucina, sounded respectively by the cornicen and bucinator). By additionally deploying the metonymic expression aere canoro (‘tuneful/ melodious bronze’) for the trumpet (quite literally an ablative of instrument!), Ovid etymologically connects the musician — tubicen is a compound derivative from tuba + cano — and his instrument. The signal (signa is ‘poetic’ plural) in question here is of course the battle signal. pugnae is an objective genitive dependent on amorem.

11The ‘tenor’ of the simile is formulated with hyperbolic poetic indirection. Instead of saying that the Bacchic cries incite Pentheus (for the accusative form Penthea, see 559–61 n.), Ovid says that it is the sky, reverberating with the cries, that moves him (audito clamore in the following clause expresses the notion more mundanely). aether is a stock poeticism for ‘the heavens’ or ‘the sky’; the idea of its reverberation is conveyed by the metaphor of it being ‘struck’ (ictus is the perf. pass. part. of icio), by the long-continued howls of the Bacchants. For ululatibus applied to the ritual howling, see 528 n.; notice that longis is temporal in force. The prolonged sound-track moved Pentheus into action and his wrath flared up again. The simile concludes with an apt metaphor: recanduit (‘grew white with heat again, rekindled’) equates Pentheus’ anger with fire. Ira (‘wrath’) is of course a quintessentially epic emotion — it provides the keynote to the Iliad.

Additional Information. The epic simile is a conservative literary element that exhibits a high degree of continuity over time. The present example is a case in point, for the comparison of a hero to a horse is widespread in Greek and Latin poetry. Important precedents include Hom. Il. 6.506–11 (Paris) = 15.263–68 (Hector), Ap. Rhod. 3.1259–62 (Jason), Enn. Ann. 535–39 Sk (of an unidentifiable hero), Virg. Aen. 11.491–97 (Turnus). Ennius clearly follows Homer and Virgil both Homer and Ennius. All compare the war-like spirit of their heroes to a horse that has broken its tether and runs exultantly across the plain. Notice how Ovid has reversed the terms of the comparison vis-à-vis these predecessors: his hero is not going to war, whereas his horse is. Ovid refuses to engage in the explicit rewriting process that so conspicuously links Homer, Ennius, and Virgil; and in so doing he also refuses to insert Pentheus into a line of epic heroes that includes Paris, Hector, and Turnus.

12With the respect to the ‘vehicle’ of the simile, Ovid’s conception of the spirited war horse has suggestive parallels elsewhere in ancient literature, including a passage in the Georgics discussing various breeds in which Virgil suggests that the superior horse will rise to the sound of arms: tum, si qua sonum procul arma dedere, | stare loco nescit, micat auribus et tremit artus, | collectumque premens volvit sub naribus ignem (‘Again, should he but hear afar the clash of arms, he cannot keep his place; he pricks up his ears, quivers in his limbs, and snorting rolls beneath his nostrils the gathered fire’, Virg. G. 3.83–85). Another noteworthy treatment is found in the Bible at Job 39.20–25 ‘[the horse] paws in the valley and rejoices in his strength — he goes forth to meet armed men. He mocks at fear and is not affrighted. The quiver rattles against him, as do the glittering shield and the spear. He swallows up the ground with fierceness and rage; nor does he believe that it is the sound of the trumpet. He says “ha!” among the trumpets and he smells the battle far off, the thunder of the captains and the shouting’.

13 708–09 monte … campus. Ovid prepares the grim denouement with a description of the setting in which Pentheus’ dismemberment will occur. Such ‘topographical introductions’ (a type of ekphrasis), are stock elements of epic narrative, which serve, inter alia, to focus attention on what follows. They almost invariably open with est, which critics have dubbed the ‘timeless’ present, followed by either locus (the ‘generic’ formula, already attested at Enn. Ann. 20 Sk, reprised by Virgil at Aen. 1.530) or a particular landscape element, such as nemus, specus, etc. — as here with the long-delayed campus. Ovid brings the setting of the final showdown gradually into focus. monte fere medio (ablative of place) situates it about half-way up the mountain. cingentibus ultima silvis, an ablative absolute, indicates that it is fringed with trees: ultima is n. acc. pl. with the sense ‘edges’, serving as object of cingentibus. Finally, the slightly odd-looking purus ab arboribus (the preposition is redundant) informs us that the field is itself free from trees. These characteristics turn the clearing into a natural theatre, perfectly suited for the performance of religious rites — or the denouement of a tragedy.

14 710–13 hic oculis … sorores. The breathless, asyndetic sequence videt, est… concita, violavit, punctuated by the powerful triple *anaphora of prima, reaches its climax with the postponed subject mater, surely one of the most devastating enjambments in Latin epic (for Pentheus’mother Agave, see 513–14 n.). Ovid seems here to have had his eyes on Eur. Bacch. 1114–15 πρώτη δὲ μήτηρ ἦρξεν ἱερέα φόνου | καὶ προσπίτνει νιν (‘his mother was the first, as priestess of the rites, to begin the slaughter, and fell upon him…’), the basic elements of which he has subjected to rhetorical intensification. Not to be overlooked here is the broader pattern of repetition initiated in these lines whereby successive verses open with the same word: just as verses 711 and 712 begin with prima, so 714 and 715 begin with ille, and 718 and 719 begin with iam. This is a very striking, and clearly deliberate, *anaphoric sequence, reminiscent of hymnic language.

15 hic is the adverb (‘here’), rather than the demonstrative pronoun, connecting the narrative to the just completed description of the setting. Notice that the participle cernentem, itself the accusative object of videt, has its own internal object sacra (n. acc. pl.): ‘she sees (Pentheus) observing the rites’. oculis… profanis, an instrumental ablative, refers to the eyes (pars pro toto) of Pentheus, who is uninitiated in the Bacchic rites, and therefore not permitted to be present (pro = ‘before/outside’; fanum = ‘holy space’; cf. the Sibyl’s ritual warning at Virg. Aen. 6.258 procul, o procul este, profani!). Euripides uses the more precise ἀβακχεύτοισιν (‘uninitiated in the Bacchic rites’, Bacch. 472) in a scene of enticement motivating Pentheus’ spying that Ovid has excluded from his account (see Intro. §5b-ii). This compressed sequence nonetheless constitutes the realization of Tiresias’ ominous prognostication at 517–18. The use of the reflexive adjective suum (‘her own’), which modifies Penthea (for the ‘Greek’ accusative form, see 559–61 n.), sets up the aforementioned enjambed shocker mater, and is fraught with pathos. The import of misso … thyrso, which functions instrumentally with violavit, is that Agave hurled her thyrsus as if a javelin — a (mis) application of the cult object prefigured at 666–67; at 542 Pentheus himself dismissed the thyrsus as a weapon: his contempt is now coming back to haunt him. For the interjection o, see 540–42 n. Agave calls upon her two sisters Autonoe and Ino (named at 720 and 722 respectively) to join in the attack: geminae here simply means ‘twofold’ (OLD s.v. 5; cf. 662 gemina… ope with n.), without implying a shared birth; none of Cadmus’ daughters were twins. Notice that the kinship terms mater and sorores ‘frame’ verse 713.

16In line with his cursory treatment of the denouement (692–733 n.), Ovid does not elaborate on why Bacchus selects Pentheus’ mother and aunts (i.e. Agave, Ino, Autonoe) as executioners. Euripides motivates this detail by making Semele’s sisters (i.e. the same trio) responsible for the calumny that Zeus/ Jupiter was not her lover, for which Dionysus/Bacchus exacts revenge via the unwitting kin murder (Bacch. 26–31). Ovid’s redeployment of the calumny as a ‘suspicion’ voiced by Juno (in disguise) to lure Semele to her doom (3.279–86) and his attribution to Ino of a secret role in the upbringing of the infant god (3.313–14) would seem to weigh against assuming that he is implicitly following the Euripidean version on this matter.

17 714–15 ille aper … aper. Agave in her delusional condition misrecognizes her son, in effect ‘transforming’ him into a boar, and thereby making him a legitimate target for violence. It was entirely appropriate — indeed, it was regarded as a manifestation of divine inspiration — for Maenads to tear to pieces any wild animals they came across during ritual bouts of Bacchic frenzy. This becomes a popular theme in art: perhaps most famously, the Derveni Krater (4th century BCE) includes an image of Maenads tearing apart a deer. In Euripides Bacchae, Agave likens the maenads to hunting dogs and hunters (Bacch. 1189–90, 1202–04).

18Although not an ‘actual’ metamorphosis in the fictional universe of Ovid’s epic, Agave’s ‘delusional transformation’ of Pentheus into a boar is only too ‘real’ in its consequences. Indeed, a few verses down Pentheus will respond to this perceptual metamorphosis by invoking the case of Actaeon, thereby comparing the Bacchants (turning them into) the hounds that tore apart their master. The Pentheus frame narrative thus crosses ontological lines via delusion and hallucination: both perpetrators and victim reduce each other to a sub-human level in their discourse and imagination.

19The connections to the Actaeon episode are subtly reinforced by Agave’s use of errat of the boar/ Pentheus: the creature has unwittingly wandered into the ritual space (nostris… agris). Very much like Actaeon, who stumbled across Diana and her nymphs in the nude and paid for it with a canine sparagmos, the ‘boar’ is in the wrong place at the wrong time. As we already had occasion to note, Ovid insists at the outset of the tale that Actaeon did not mean to commit a crime: quod enim scelus error habebat? (‘what crime was there in a mistake?’, 3.142) And he reinforces the point later on in the narrative: ecce nepos Cadmi dilata parte laborum | per nemus ignotum non certis passibus errans | pervenit in lucum: sic illum fata ferebant (‘lo! Cadmus’ grandson, his day’s toil deferred, comes wandering through the unfamiliar woods with unsure footsteps, and enters Diana’s grove; for so fate guided him…’, 3.174–76).

20From the point of view of word order, these one-and-a-half verses ingeniously convey the deranged condition of Agave’s mind. Note (i) the migration of the attribute maximus into the relative clause; (ii) the repetition of ille aper and shift in stress from aper (714) to apér (715); (iii) the postpositive location of the relative pronoun qui; (iv) the hyperbaton in nostris… agris; (v) the *ellipse of est. Rejigged in standard prose, the sentence would read: ille maximus aper, qui in agris nostris errat, mihi feriendus est. The effective use of *anaphora in the initial position of successive verses (see 710–13 n.) continues here with ille. The repetition of aper also helps to underscore the deviation from Euripides’account, in which Agave and her companions mistake Pentheus for a lion (additional variations are found in later Roman poets, with Valerius Flaccus opting for a bull at Arg. 3.264–66, and Martial a calf at Ep. 11.84.11).

21 maximus is a so-called superlative ‘of eminence’ (AG §291b), with no implication of a distinct comparison: ‘this very great boar’. The gerundive feriendus is part of a passive periphrastic structure with est suppressed (as noted earlier), and mihi a dative of agent.

22 715–18 ruit … fatentem. On the motif of many versus one, see 513–14 n. Deranged, murderous crowds are standard fare in mythic Thebes — indeed they are part and parcel of the city’s very foundation, in the form of the mutual slaughter of the Spartoi (described earlier at 3.122–23 exemploque pari furit omnis turba, suoque | Marte cadunt subiti per mutua vulnera fratres, ‘The same dire madness raged in them all, and in mutual strife by mutual wounds these brothers of an hour perished’).

23Notice how the word order mirrors the action in 715–16: omnis … turba furens encircles in unum, an effect reinforced by the two attributes of turba (omnis, furens). The pattern of *anaphora at the beginning of successive verses (710–13 n.) continues with iam in 717 and 718, reinforced by a pair of additional mid-verse repetitions. The relentless, ‘hammering’ effect of the sequence iam trepidum,… iam… loquentem | iam… damnantem,… iam fatentem generates a sense of panic as it builds to a *climax. Adding to the effect is the repetition of trepidum, which contrasts pointedly with Pentheus’ earlier scorn.

24The -que after trepidum links coeunt and sequuntur; the accusative object of the second verb is an implied eum or Penthea with which trepidum agrees in predicative position: ‘they follow him alarmed as he is now’. The implication of sequuntur is, of course, that the panicked Pentheus has taken to flight. The accusatives trepidum, loquentem, damnantem, and fatentem all stand in apposition to the implied eum just mentioned. All are linked by the *anaphora of iam, but Ovid varies the construction: first the lone adjective trepidum (picking up on the trepidum of the previous line if the text is sound), then two participles (loquentem, damnantem) with accusative objects (verba minus violenta, se), and finally a participle (fatentem) that governs an indirect statement (se peccasse) — all in another breathless asyndetic sequence. The three participial phrases brilliantly capture the progression in Pentheus’ change of sentiment, culminating in a moment of ‘recognition’ (or to use Aristotle’s term: anagnorisis). After his belligerent rejection of the new god and his rites, Pentheus at the moment of his demise acquires (and articulates) insight into his fatal blindness: cognita res (511)... Too late!

25 719–20 saucius… umbrae. Whereas the first explicit plea of Euripides’ Pentheus is addressed to his mother (Bacch. 1120–21, quoted below), here he demonstrates superior ‘mythographic competence’ by making his initial appeal to his aunt Autonoe, mother of Actaeon. This prima facie counterintuitive shift from his mother, who is leading the attack, enables Ovid to link the fate Pentheus is about to experience (gruesome dismemberment) to the fate of his cousin Actaeon, recounted earlier in Book 3: he was torn limb from limb by his own hounds after his transformation into a stag. The invocation emphasizes repetition: in Thebes, such horrific events not only occur, they re-cur. Only, this time, out in the wilds beyond the city, it’s the big one, the king’s turn, ultimately one more mother’s son out of his league.

26 tamen should be understood with what precedes: although acknowledging his guilt, Pentheus nonetheless cries out for mercy. The vocatives matertera and Autonoe go together: Pentheus first specifies the kinship-relation, then adds the personal name of his addressee. moveant is a jussive subjunctive, taking umbrae (a ‘poetic’ plural), on which the genitive Actaeonis depends, as its subject and animos (supply tuos) as accusative object.

27 721–22 illa quis … raptu. The -que after dextram links nescit and abstulit. illa refers back to Autonoe; nescit introduces the indirect question quis Actaeon (with sit omitted): she is so crazed that she does not recognize the name of her own son. precantis (a present participle) is dependent on dextram and indicates that Pentheus is holding out his right hand in entreaty, a pathetic gesture that compounds the horror. The shocking verb abstulit, the effect of which is (again) enhanced by enjambment, implies an immediately prior act of dismemberment; after ripping it out of its socket, Autonoe carries off the imploring limb. The subject of lacerata est is altera (sc. manus), i.e. the left arm. The adjective Inoo (from the name-based adjective Inous,-a,-um) modifies raptu, an instrumental ablative: translate ‘by a wrenching heave from Ino’. The assonance lacerata altera evokes the mangling of Pentheus as his arm is torn from its socket.

28 723–25 non habet … ait. The climactic encounter with his mother unfolds over six gut-wrenching verses, beginning here with Pentheus, now armless, making a final, futile appeal to his mother. Actaeon likewise found his gesture of supplication thwarted by a want of limbs (3.241), as did Io (1.635–36). Notice also the similarity to the metamorphic experience of the Tyrrhenian sailor described earlier at 3.679–81 alter ad intortos cupiens dare bracchia funes | bracchia non habuit truncoque repandus in undas | corpore desiluit. He, too, lost his arms (and experienced the wish of using these appendages no longer there) and was reduced to a ‘trunk’ — though of course retaining his life.

29The two main verbs are (non) habet and ait, linked by sed (724). bracchia is the accusative object of habet, as well as the antecedent of the relative pronoun quae, which, together with the subjunctive tendat, forms a relative clause of purpose (AG §531.2). Since no later than Virgil’s Dido episode, infelix is the stock epithet of a tragic protagonist turned victim.

30The ablative absolute dereptis… membris refers back to the sundered arms, informing the somewhat odd trunca… vulnera (‘mutilated wounds’), a bold instance of transferred epithet involving an elided noun (trunca properly applies to corpora vel sim.), which serves as accusative object of ostendens. The participle presents its own conceptual difficulties: how exactly does the armless Pentheus gesticulate? His speech is, at any rate, short and to the point: ‘Look, mother!’ Euripides’ Pentheus makes a more fulsome plea to Agave: οἴκτιρε δ’ ὦ μῆτέρ με μηδὲ ταῖς ἐμαῖς | ἁμαρτίαισι παῖδα σὸν κατακτάνηις (‘Have mercy, mother, and do not slay your son on account of his faults’, Bacch. 1120–21).

31 725–28 visis … nostra est. Following Pentheus’ very brief appeal, the focus switches to Agave, with a sequence of four paratactic clauses linked by -que after colla, movit, and avulsum: ululavit (725) — iactavit (726) — movit (726) — clamat (728). The verbs focus very much on her — and none concerns her beheading of her son. Indeed, this act is elided: it has already happened when the reader gets to 727, where Agave is holding (conplexa) the torn-off head (avulsum caput) in her bloody fingers. This curious omission is certainly not due to squeamishness on Ovid’s part — see above 521–23 n. — and could be meant as an ingenious metageneric nod to tragic performance, in which the decapitation would occur off-stage, so that the audience would be witness only to the aftermath. Notice the shift from perfect (ululavit, iactavit, movit) to present (clamat) just as the narrative skips over the moment when Pentheus loses his head.

32With visis supply vulneribus from what precedes, and construe as an ablative absolute. colla… iactavit is unsettlingly ambiguous: whose neck is in agitated movement here? It could be Agave’s neck as a manifestation of Bacchic frenzy (collum iactare = ‘toss one’ s head about in ecstasy’); or the reference might be to her brandishing of Pentheus’ head (though colla as a synecdoche or metonymy would be a bit unusual). If the plural colla is not ‘poetic’, then both necks could be understood. The next phrase is similarly equivocal: movitque per aera crinem indicates that Agave makes hair stream or flutter (in the air). The ‘natural’ reading (but what is natural here?) is that Agave does this to her own hair — and Bacchants did go about with hair unbound, as we are informed just a few lines later in the next episode (crinales solvere vittas, 4.6). But we are also free to imagine that, in brandishing her son’s head, she makes his hair flutter in the air. The punchline that reinforces the ambiguity as an anticipation of the climax comes in the following verse: Pentheus’head is off (avulsum caput).

33The exclamation io (Greek ἰώ) is used in various contexts in Latin. Fundamentally, it is a call to attract attention (so used earlier by Narcissus at 3.442 io silvae!, and later by Athamas at 4.513 io, comites, his retia tendite silvis!). Its specific use to express jubilation, as here, is seen in the quintessential Roman cry io triumphe (Hor. Carm. 4.2.49). victoria nostra is predicative complement to opus hoc: ‘this deed is our victory’. Agave’s exultant declaration is an aggravation, very much in the Euripidean manner, of the catastrophe.

34 729–31 non citius … nefandis. Ovid sums up the sparagmos of Pentheus with a simile likening the dispersal of leaves from a wind-blown tree in autumn to the disintegration of his body. The simile harks back to Tiresias’ prophecy at the beginning of the set text that Pentheus would be scattered into a thousand pieces (521–23 and n.). Regarding the startling ease with which the women achieve the dismemberment, it is worth noting that Euripides describes a more strenuous act (Bacch. 1125–27) and offers an explanation absent from Ovid’s account: Agave rips off one of her sons limbs ‘not by her own strength, but the god gave facility to her hands’ (οὐχ ὑπὸ σθένους | ἀλλ’ ὁ θεὸς εὐμάρειαν ἐπεδίδου χεροῖν, Bacch. 1127–28).

35The simile is structured around (non) citius and quam, introducing, respectively, its ‘vehicle’ and ‘tenor’. The subject of the initial clause is the long-delayed ventus; the verb is rapit. It takes as accusative object frondes, which is modified by two participles (linked by the-que after iam): tactas (with autumni frigore an ablative of agency without a/ab) and (male) haerentes, with the latter expressing the consequences of the former (the sense of male is ‘barely’). Alta … arbore is ablative of separation — prose usage would require ab or ex. The topsy-turvy word order of the second clause evokes the disorderly multitude of hands grabbing and ripping off Pentheus’body parts. The clause is formulated in the passive voice, with membra the subject, viri (referring to Pentheus) genitive of possession, and manibus nefandis ablative of agent. Notice that the attribute nefandus (literally ‘unspeakable’, hence ‘blasphemous’) signals a switch from Pentheus committing a religious outrage to the unwitting women doing so. In tragic Thebes, everyone gets stained, the audience/reader, too.

Additional Information: Many readers and critics have found fault with this simile, and in particular the stark disjunction, both in terms of ease and number, arising from the equation of the scattering of autumn leaves and the dismembering and dispersal of the parts of a single human body. Whatever its merits, the peculiarity of the simile is enhanced by the fact that Ovid has deployed a ‘vehicle’ belonging to an established tradition of anthropological reflection via similes that reaches back to Homeric epic (Il. 6.144–49, generations of men likened to leaves) and includes lyric poetry (Mimnermus fragment 2 West). (If ‘Autumn Leaves’ makes you think of the unforgettable song of romantic regret, take note that its original, the Jacques Prévert poem ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’, was written in 1945, when fighting to forget could only bring back a worldscape of tragic carnage.) Ovid’s most immediate model is Virg. Aen. 6.305–14 huc [ad cumbam] omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat | matresatque viri, defunctaque corpora vita | maganimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae, | impositisque rogis iuvenes ante ora parentum; | quam multa in silvis autumni frigore primo | lapsa cadunt folia, aut ad terram gurgite ab alto | quam multae glomerantur aves, ubi frigidus annus | trans pontum fugat, et terris inmittit apricis (‘Hither rushed all the throng, streaming to the banks; mothers and men and bodies of high-souled heroes, their life now done, boys and unwedded girls, and sons placed on the pyre before their fathers’ eyes; thick as the leaves of the forest that at autumn’s first frost drop and fall, and thick as the birds that from the seething deep flock shoreward, when the chill of the year drives them overseas and sends them into sunny lands’). In comparison with the countless multitudes forming the ‘tenor’ of his predecessors’ similes, Ovid’s application of the image of numberless leaves to one man’s sparagmos is indeed bizarre — just how many body parts can be generated by even the most conscientious dismemberment? But the rift between human horror show and vindication of divine power is the stake of the myth: the points of view (awful <=> aweful) can’t be reconciled, there is in the end only submission. So, now he’s made us retch, the poet-priest-hymnodist is here finally to tell us wretches that we’ve been watching, and acting out, ‘the natural order’ all along. That, however much gentle commentators would like to go easy on you and spare you, bleak ‘winter’ is where the Ovid set-text ‘leaves’ us. What it turns out, hereabouts, to be like. In Thebes and...

36 732–33 talibus … aras. The subject of all three clauses, which form a *tricolon, is Ismenides, ‘the daughters of Ismenus’, a poeticism for ‘the Theban women’ (Ismenus being a river in the vicinity of Thebes). monitae, which modifies Ismenides, takes talibus exemplis (referring, in ‘poetic’ plural, to Pentheus’gruesome demise) as ablative of means. The three main verbs frequentant dant colunt are linked by -que after tura and after sanctas). The sense of tura dant is ‘offer incense’; this forms a *hendiadys with sanctas… colunt aras: i.e. the women offer incense on the sacred altars.

37In the Bacchae, Euripides has Agave return to Thebes proudly bearing Pentheus’severed head, calling for him so that he might nail her trophy — his own head — to the palace doors. Ovid does not attempt to replicate this culminating stroke of tragic irony. He proceeds instead to a moralizing ending which in truth is weird, given that Pentheus was said to be the only one who had not yet joined in the Bacchic revels (513 ex omnibus unus with n.). Put differently, the other inhabitants should not really need his ghastly exemplum to worship the divinity: they were said to do so joyfully and voluntarily at the outset. But these closing verses serve to set up the opening of Book 4 (rather than conclude Book 3), where the story of reckless defiance continues…


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