Today's Reading


Ovid's Metamorphoses resists easy categorization. It is, strictly put, an epic poem, but one that upturns almost every convention of ancient epic poetry. There is no main hero, no central conflict, and no sustained objective. What it is about (power, defiance, art, love, abuse, grief, rape, war, beauty, and so on) is as changeable as the beings that inhabit its pages. Its tone likewise is by turns sublime, coarse, tragic, comedic, sad, and irreverent. Yet it is precisely this lack of orthodoxy that so delights both Ovid and his readers. He positively revels, and we with him, in his refusal to tell us a simple story about ourselves, where we come from, and where we are going. The epic's vast narrative tapestry weaves together the past and the present into one grand, inextricable whole. We mortals are the strange heroes at the heart of this tale, and we too—subject as we are to time, power, and change—are anything but straightforward. The Metamorphoses reminds us that there are many ways to read or tell a story, and that every version leaves stray threads that the curious may unravel. The Metamorphoses is, in short, an epic for anyone interested in the sweeping complexity of our world.


Ovid's life has been a source of fascination to many, no doubt because of the frequency with which he writes in the first person and the tantalizing autobiographical details he offers. He regularly comes across in the popular imagination as a witty genius with a mischievous sense of humor, experienced in love and sex, and politically defiant. The irreverence of his verse frequently becomes a mark of the man himself. Already in antiquity the writer Quintilian (first century CE) declares him "naughty even in his epic verse and too in love with his own brilliance."

Yet it is unclear how much the "Ovid" we meet in his poetry corresponds to the historical Ovid, or how much he is simply inventing a poetic persona or series of personae. Most scholars nowadays would be deeply hesitant to see the "real" Ovid behind the (often hilariously inept) lothario persona of the Amores or Ars Amatoria. Even the historical reliability of what Ovid tells us about his exile has been called into question.

Ovid is our only extant source for his life. His accepted biography runs generally as follows, most of which comes from Tristia 4.10: He was born in Sulmo, Italy, on March 20, 43 BCE, roughly a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He came from an old equestrian family, the 'equites' being the rank between the senatorial and plebeian classes. He had an elder brother to whom he was devoted but who died while they were still young men. He was married three times; his first two marriages ended quickly, but he remained long married to his third wife, even during his exile. He had a daughter and two grandchildren. Ovid's intellectual talents were nurtured by an elite education in Rome, where he and his brother came as boys to study oratory in preparation for political and legal careers—a training that would later show itself in many passages of Ovid's poetry, such as the lengthy debate between Ulysses and Ajax in Metamorphoses 13. Though Ovid did embark on public life and even served in minor governmental positions, his real passion, he tells us, was always poetry. His ascent up the political ladder came to a quick end as he decided instead to pursue verse.

Ovid's biography cannot be extricated from the larger political narrative unfolding during his lifetime, the "metamorphosis" of Rome from a republic into a new system at the mercy of a single, powerful man—the first emperor, Augustus. Ovid was only a boy when the battle of Actium took place in 31 BCE, in which Octavian (later titled Augustus) defeated Antony and Cleopatra, definitively sealing the end of the Republic. Unlike the other major poets of Augustan Rome—Vergil, Horace, Tibullus, and Propertius—Ovid would have had very little personal memory of the decades of extreme civil strife that brought down the Republic. He was instead a product of the pax Augusta, the "Augustan Peace" that inaugurated a period of religious and cultural revival in Rome. The benefits of this peace are apparent throughout Ovid's poetry: the young lover of the Amores dedicates himself not to making war but to making love, while the erotic maestro of the Ars Amatoria directs his young pupils to use Rome as a playground for amorous escapades, finding lovers aplenty in Rome's newly erected buildings and at games, plays, and other pastimes of peace. The youthful "Ovid" is very much a man of the flourishing Augustan city.

Yet the darker side of Augustus' imperial power left an indelible mark on Ovid's life when in 8 CE he was "relegated" to Tomis on the Black Sea (modern Constana, Romania). Relegation was a milder form of banishment that did not involve the loss of one's citizenship— and thus left open the possibility of return (for which Ovid repeatedly entreats Augustus in his exile poetry). Ovid gives two frustratingly imprecise reasons for his banishment: a carmen (poem) and an error (mistake):

It was two offences undid me, a poem and an error: on the second, my lips are sealed— my case does not merit the reopening of your ancient wounds, Caesar: bad enough to have hurt you once. But the first charge stands: that through an improper poem I falsely professed foul adultery.

(Tristia 2.207-12, trans. Peter Green)

The poem is most likely the Ars Amatoria, Ovid's three-book instruction manual on the art of being a lover. Although he professes at the start that he is not teaching his "pupils" to pursue married women, the actual strategies put forth (whether or not we are meant to take them seriously) can certainly be read that way. It would thus fly in the face of Augustus' newly established laws that criminalized and heavily penalized adultery and encouraged legitimate marriage and childbearing.

The Ars Amatoria, however, was published a decade prior to Ovid's relegation, so while it may initially have met with Augustus' displeasure, it did not on its own lead to his exile until compounded by his error. Though Ovid keeps silent about what exactly this error was, buckets of scholarly ink have been spilled trying to deduce its nature. Ovid tells us only that it involved something criminal he saw, thereby making his eyes guilty (noxia lumina), and he compares himself to Actaeon inadvertently angering a powerful divinity through his accidental gaze (Tristia 2.103- 110). Numerous theories have been put forth, many of which suggest that Ovid saw something connected to the adultery of Julia the Younger, Augustus' granddaughter, who was banished the same year as Ovid. Yet the exact nature of Ovid's error must remain irrecoverable, as enticing as it may be to speculate. It is hard, moreover, not to read the many defiant, and punished, artists of the Metamorphoses, such as Arachne and Marsyas, as anticipating Ovid's later exile. Ovid, it seems, had a prescient understanding of power. Despite his poetic pleas to Augustus, Ovid was never allowed to return to Rome and died in exile in 17 or 18 CE, four years after Augustus' own death.


Ovid's poetic output was substantial, and he leaves more verses to us than any other Augustan poet. Most of his surviving works are written in elegiac couplets, elegy being traditionally the genre of lament, whether from grief or love. In the hands of Ovid's elegiac forebears, such as Tibullus and Propertius, Roman elegy was above all the genre of erotic passion, with the elegiac persona fashioned as a young man helplessly devoted to a mistress who does not return his affection. The elegiac hero is thus a lover, not a fighter, and more likely to spend his days in bed (whether lazing or lovemaking) than in traditional "masculine" pursuits. Ovid himself adopts such a persona in his Amores, published in its current form in around 83 BCE. In the Ars Amatoria, this life devoted to love becomes an art that can be mastered, and Ovid takes on the persona of a "teacher of love," devoting two books (c. 2 BCE) to young men on how to find and win women and a later (c. 2 CE) book to women on seducing men. He continues in this didactic role in his Remedia Amoris ("Remedies for Love," c. 2 CE) and the (now fragmentary) Medicamina Faciei Femineae ("On Women's Makeup").

Much of Ovid's elegiac output, however, does not involve such defiant young urban lovers. In his hands, Roman elegy is a very flexible genre. The Heroides explores mythology from the perspective of its women in a series of epistolary poems purportedly written by characters such as Ariadne and Dido to the male heroes who jilted them. By adopting female personae, Ovid questions traditional male heroics and highlights their costs. He continues to explore the full range of elegy in his Fasti (c. 8 CE), a six-book work that takes up the Roman calendar and explores the origins of religious festivals. This interest in origins, or etiology, goes back especially to the Hellenistic Greek poet Callimachus, who lived and worked in Alexandria, Egypt, during the third century BCE, and whose Aetia was a four-book work on origin myths. Callimachus' immediate influence is also clear in Ovid's elegiac Ibis, an elaborate curse poem dated to his exile, in which Ovid attacks an unnamed antagonist; it takes its title from Callimachus' (now lost) poem of the same name. Ovid's final elegiac poems are his exilic letters, the Tristia (9-12 CE) and Epistulae ex Ponto (13-16 CE), in which he desperately tries to maintain connections to the city and pleads for return. The long-standing associations of elegy with lament rather than erotics are central to these epistolary poems. We know that Ovid also wrote a play, Medea, but it has been lost.

The Metamorphoses (c. 8 CE) is Ovid's only surviving work that is not elegiac in form, though elegy—both erotic and etiological—has left its imprint all over this epic. In many ways, it conforms to the generic expectations of ancient epic poetry; most important, it is in dactylic hexameter, the meter of Greek and Roman epic going back to Homer's Iliad' and Odyssey. Its fifteen-book length, moreover, is indebted to Ennius Annals (second century BCE), the first major Roman historical epic. Ovid includes many set pieces familiar from the epic tradition, including battle sequences, catalogues, councils of the gods, and visitations to the Underworld. Yet he also inverts and even parodies many such epic conventions. As noted above, the Metamorphoses has no central hero, such as Achilles in Homer's Iliad or Aeneas in Vergil's Aeneid. There is no central struggle or goal, such as Odysseus' homecoming in the Odyssey. There are plenty of angry gods, but none who consistently takes center stage, like Juno in the Aeneid. If any divine power is supreme, it is Venus and her son and soldier, the cherubic Cupid, who wields his tiny weapons in service to the power of love throughout. Yet even Venus' divine presence is not consistently sustained as Ovid gives us a parade of gods and goddesses who help, hinder, and punish those beneath them.

The very idea of an elegy-infused epic would have seemed contradictory to the Roman mind, especially coming on the heels of Vergil's Aeneid of 19 BCE. Whereas Aeneas is famously pius, "dutiful" or "loyal" to the gods and to the state, elegiac lovers instead serve their individual interests while reveling in an inverted moral code. Epic heroes were also traditionally expected to exemplify virtus, "virtue" but also "manliness" (translated throughout this version as "manly valor"). Yet Ovid's heroes more often than not parody this trait and reduce it to hyperviolent machismo. Their subjection to the power of love, moreover, frequently renders them incapable of "masculine" imperturbability. Like elegiac lovers, Ovid's epic heroes are "softened" by and in the thrall of erotic desire. Nearly every male god and hero we meet is taken down a peg or two by love and stripped of epic grandeur; as Ovid says of Jove at 2.914-15: "majesty / and love must clash—they cannot coexist."

The length of epic poetry would also seem to work against elegiac aesthetics as formulated especially by Callimachus and adopted by the Romans. In the opening of his 'Aetia', Callimachus complains that his critics (whom he terms the Telchines) have criticized him for not adopting epic length or subject matter: "The Telchines, who are ignorant and no friend of the Muse, grumble at my poetry, because I did not accomplish one continuous poem of many thousands of lines on kings or heroes, but like a child I roll forth a short tale." He goes on to claim that Apollo himself ordered him to "feed the victim to be as fat as possible but . . . keep the Muse slender." In another short epigram (fr. 465), Callimachus famously says that a "big book" (mega biblion) is equivalent to a "big evil" ('mega kakon'). Though Callimachus' attitude toward epic has been debated, Roman poets often present him as a proponent of the highly wrought short poem over the long, turgid epic, and they adopt his aesthetic principles as a way of championing the "slimness" of their own short verse. In 'Eclogues' 6.5, for instance, Vergil imitates Callimachus by having Apollo tell him that "a shepherd ought to feed his flock fat but sing a fine-spun song" (deductum carmen).

It is therefore surprising when Ovid, in the Metamorphoses's opening lines, asks the gods to "spin out unceasing song" (perpetuum deducite tempora carmen), using the same word for "spinning" (a woolworking metaphor) that Vergil uses in Eclogues 6 to describe slender non-epic. He couples this word, moreover, with what Callimachus had earlier rejected, a continuous, "unceasing" poem. From the very beginning, therefore, Ovid makes it clear that his epic will undermine our generic expectations by taking on the seemingly antithetical attributes of short verse. Though it is true that Ovid presents us with a "continuous" narrative from the beginning of time to his own day, he hardly offers us a sustained narrative. Instead, he gives us about 250 (often loosely connected) short tales, termed nowadays epyllia ("miniature epics"), a type of story popularized during the Alexandrian period by, unsurprisingly, Callimachus and others. Additional Alexandrian elements include the focus on psychology rather than action, the witty and at times comedic treatment of serious themes, the incorporation of extremely learned mythology, and a focus on side adventures and side characters.

Beyond this interplay with elegy, Ovid also incorporates material from a number of additional genres into the Metamorphoses. The opening cosmogony, for instance, is deeply indebted to Hesiod's didactic poem, the Theogony (seventh century BCE). Greek tragedy is especially prominent, particularly in the tales that take up the Trojan War cycle, such as those of Ajax, Hecuba, and Polyxena. The Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, Callimachus' Alexandrian contemporary, is behind much of Ovid's treatment of Jason and Medea. Even the epics of Homer and Vergil get thoroughly incorporated (though in drastically truncated form) into the cosmic framework of the Metamorphoses. Philosophy, too, is interwoven throughout, as Ovid alludes to various philosophical ideas about the cosmos, such as those of Empedocles, Pythagoras, and Epicurus. Lucretius's philosophical epic, the De Rerum Natura, is a major intertext, as Ovid remythologizes much of what Lucretius had attributed to natural physical processes. No literary genre is off-limits to Ovid's all- encompassing epic. At the same time, Ovid never simply rehashes his literary sources, and often takes great pains to condense what they include and expand on what they omit, giving us a sense that there is always more to old stories than meets the eye. And at every turn Ovid leaves it tantalizingly unclear whether he is deferring to his literary predecessors or defying them...



My spirit moves to tell of shapes transformed
into new bodies. Gods, inspire my work
(for you've transformed it, too) and from creation
to my own time spin out unceasing song.


Before the sea and land and vaulting sky,
all nature looked the same throughout the world.
Chaos they called this rough and knotted mass,
nothing but sluggish weight and battling seeds
of things just loosely joined in one big heap.
No Titan yet endowed the world with light,
no Phoebe waxed, restoring her new horns.
And in surrounding air no globe hung poised
and balanced by its weight, nor with her arms
had Amphitrite hugged the land’s long edge.
And though the earth and sea and air existed,
you could not stand on earth or swim the wave,
and air was void of light. No shape was fixed.
Everything clashed, since in a single body
hot was at war with cold, and wet with dry,
and soft with hard, and weightless things with weighty.
A god and better nature stopped this strife:
he cut off land from sky and waves from land
and cleaved bright heaven from the close-packed air.
He disentangled these from that dark jumble,
then bound them, now discrete, in friendly peace.
The fiery, weightless force of dome-shaped heaven
shot up and occupied the highest summit.
Below this is the air, not quite as light.
The denser earth attracted heavy matter
and sank beneath its weight. The ocean’s course
enclosed the land and took the final place.

When he (whichever god it was) had carved
that now neat heap and shaped it into parts,
he next, to make it equal all around,
sculpted the earth till it became a sphere.
He poured out seas, then ordered them to swell
with gales and wrap the shores of circled land.
He added springs, great lakes, and ponds. He shut
the sloping rivers in meandering banks—
some of these are absorbed by earth, while others
flow to the deep and, welcomed in its vast
expanse of water, pound not banks but shores.
He ordered fields to spread, valleys to sink,
leaves to enshroud the woods, and peaks to rise.
And as two zones divide the sky’s right side
and two the left, the middle fifth one warmer,
just so the god partitioned earth within,
imprinting it with tracts of this same number.
The middle zone is far too hot for life,
the outer two too deep with snow. He placed
two more between, a blend of heat and cold.
Above these floats the air, outweighing fire
by just as much as land weighs less than water.
He ordered mists and clouds and thunder (dread
of human minds) to dwell here, and the winds
that fashion flashing lightning bolts. Nor did
the world’s artificer grant these free range
in air—they scarcely now, when each directs
his blasts through his own tract, are kept from tearing
the world apart. Such is the strife of brothers.
Eurus went eastward to Arabia’s realms,
to Persia and the heights beneath Dawn’s light.
Zephyr kept to the west, those shores kept warm
by the setting sun, while chilly Boreas
took Scythia and Big Dipper’s seven stars.
Relentless storms and rain from Auster drench
the facing land. Above the air he placed
bright, weightless ether, free of earthly dregs.
He’d just penned everything into set bounds
when constellations, long obscured by mist
and gloom, flared up across the firmament.
And so no region would lack living beings,
the stars and forms of gods won heaven’s seat,
the waves became the home of shimmering fish,
earth took the beasts, and buoyant air the birds.


No godlike creature, fit for lofty thought,
as yet existed that could rule the rest.
Humanity was born—either that worker
of things, the author of a better world,
fashioned them out of seeds that were divine,
or earth, still fresh and lately split from lofty
ether, retained her kinsman heaven’s seeds,
which Iapetus’ son combined with rain
and molded to resemble sovereign gods.
Though other animals gaze down at land,
he gave a towering countenance to humans
and ordered them to look up at the heavens
and raise their lifted faces to the stars.
Thus earth, which had been formless and unwrought,
was changed, adorned with strange new human shapes.


The golden age came first. Not forced by law,
its people freely honored loyalty
and right. There was no fear, no punishment,
no threatening words for all to read on bronze.
No begging throng shrank from the judge’s face.
With no defender, they passed life in safety.
No pine had yet been felled, leaving its hill
to sail bright waves and see the foreign world,
and mortals knew no shores beyond their own.
Deep trenches did not yet encircle towns.
There were no horns of straight or twisted bronze,
no helmets, and no swords. The nations, safe
without an army, lived in easy leisure.
Earth by herself, unasked, untouched by hoes,
unmarred by plows, provided everything.
Content with food produced spontaneously,
they gathered berries from arbutus trees
and mountain strawberries and cornel cherries
and blackberries that clung to hardy brambles
and acorns fallen from Jove’s spreading tree.
Spring was eternal, and the gentle zephyrs’
warm winds brushed flowers no seed had produced.
Soon earth, unplowed, was even bearing grain,
and the unfallowed field turned white with wheat.
Rivers of milk, rivers of nectar flowed,
and yellow honey trickled from green oaks.
With Saturn tossed to murky Tartarus,
Jove’s rule began. Then came the silver race,
worth less than gold but more than tawny bronze.
Jove shrank the season of the ancient spring
and measured out the year into four spans:
the winter, summer, inconsistent autumn,
and fleeting spring. Then first the burning air
began to glow with desiccating heat,
and icicles hung frozen in the wind.
Then first they entered homes—their homes were caves
and compact shrubs and branches bound with bark.
Then first the seeds of Ceres were concealed
in lengthy furrows. Pressed by yokes, bulls groaned.
Third, after that one, came the race of bronze—
fiercer in spirit, quicker to dread arms,
but yet not wicked. Last came hardy iron.
At once into this age of lesser metal
all crime burst forth as shame, integrity,
and trust took flight, replaced by fraud and tricks
and schemes and force and wicked love of gain.
They set sail on the winds, which sailors still
did not know well, and boats that just had stood
on lofty peaks danced in the unknown surf.
And with a lengthy borderline the careful
surveyor marked the land that had belonged
to everyone, like sunlight or the wind.
They did not merely ask rich soil for crops
and food they’d sown but went into earth’s bowels
and dug up wealth—that goad to sin—concealed
near Stygian shades. Now deadly iron had
come forth, and gold, still deadlier than iron.
Warfare came forth, which battles with them both,
the weapons chiming in its blood-stained hand.
They live on loot. Guest is not safe from host,
father-in-law not safe from son-in-law,
and even brothers rarely share affection.
Men threaten wives with death, and they their husbands.
Terrible stepmothers brew ghastly poisons.
Sons try to forecast their own fathers’ deaths.
Piety lies subdued. The virgin Justice
is last of gods to leave the gore-soaked lands.


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