Term 1, HANDOUT 5.Transforming Epic: Ovid S Metamorphoses

Term 1, HANDOUT 5.Transforming Epic: Ovid S Metamorphoses

Politics and Poetics 3.11.2016

Term 1, HANDOUT 5.Transforming Epic: Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Key dates: Ovid 43BCE-17CE

Met. written approx. between 2 and 8CE

Poet banished to the Black Sea in 8CE, apparently never to return.

  1. Why Ovid’s Met? How to deal with the politics of form?

Features of the poem to think about…

a)The pressure it puts on teleological authority

b)Structure: Ovid writes epic as an intricate tapestry of interwoven tales, the connections between which are often oblique; transitions between tales often span books – the shape of the epic book has loosened.

c)Where has the epic hero gone?

d)Where has militaristic epic gone?

e)How are Ovid’s gods and divinities characterised?

f)How much of the Met is ‘elegiac’, or ‘Alexandrian’? How weird is this?


g)Ovid’s career trajectory (Amores, Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amoris, Medicamina, Heroides. Plus – after/alongside the Met:Fasti, Tristia,Epistulae Ex Ponto)

  1. Ovid’s politics: commitment to/engagement with/reinvention of the ‘Augustan programme’


b)Elegy as counter-cultural? See e.g. Amores 1.15.1-8:

Why, biting Envy, do you charge me with slothful years, and call my song the work of an idle wit, complaining that, while vigorous age gives strength, I neither, after the fashion of our fathers, pursue the dusty prizes of a soldier’s life, not learn garrulous legal lore, nor prostitute my voice in the ungrateful forum?...But my quest is glory, through all posterity, and to be known forever in song throughout the earth’

c)‘Ovid engages profoundly with the regime’s own programme, insistently probing the underpinnings of its authority’ (Gareth Williams).

d)Subversive OR imperialist? (esp. exile poetry as flattery or as satire….)

3. Metamorphoses: the proem

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas

corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)

adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi

ad mea perpetuum deducite temporacarmen! 4

My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms. O gods, for you yourselves have wrought the changes, breathe on these my undertakings, and bring down my unbroken song from the world’s very beginning to the present times.

  • deducite…carmen (deducere = to bring down, lead down the wool, spin out to make finer, thinner):

Compare Virgil Georgics 3.10-11: primus ego in patriam mecum… / Aonio rediens deducam vertice Musas,

and Horace Odes princeps Aeolium Carmen ad Italos /deduxisse modos.

  • Tempora = times, temples of head

Compare Tristia 2.557-60, alluding to theMet proem: ‘If only you (i.e. Augustus) would recall your mood from anger for a moment, and order a few lines of this be read to you when you are at leisure, the few lines in which after beginning with the earliest origin of the world I have brought down the work to your times, Caesar (in tua deduxi tempora, Caesar, opus).’

Nb: Ovid’s Fasti begins with the word tempora (1-2: tempora cum causis Latium digesta per annum / lapsaque sub terras ortaque signa canam).

Is tempora code for ‘My calendar poem’?

  1. Earlier transforming bodies: the Amores

Arma gravi numero violentaque bella parabam

edere, materia conveniente modis.

par erat inferior versus—risisse Cupido

dicitur atque unum surripuisse pedem.

Amores 1.1.1-4

Arms and the violent deeds of war I was preparing

To sound forth – in weighty rhythm, with matter suiting measure.

The second verse was equal to the first, but Cupid laughed,

They say, and stole away one foot.

  1. Metamorphosis: endless change, or terminal states?

a)How do the theme and narratives of metamorphosis fit (or not) with the Augustan idea(l)s of aeterna Roma, or imperium sine fine?

b)Can there be permanence in changeability?

c)What about expansionism, or the need to endlessly reiterate foundation?

6. Growing, ever-changing Rome?


‘And now fame has it that Dardanian Rome is rising, and laying deep and strong foundations by the stream of Tiber sprung from the Apennines. She therefore is changing her form by growth, and some say shall be the capital of the boundless world! So, they tell us, seers and fate-revealing oracles are declaring. And, as I myself remember, when Troy was tottering to her fall, Helenus the son of Priam said to Aeneas, who was weeping and doubtful of his fate, “O son of Venus, if you keep well in mind my soul’s prophetic visions, while you live Troy shall not wholly perish!...”

  1. The relationship between Ovid’s Met and Virgil’s Aeneid: BRAINSTORM

a)To what extent is the Aeneid (also) about transformation and change?

b)Can you think of any tales of (proto-Ovidian) metamorphosis in the Aeneid?

c)Think also of similes and metaphors: does Virgil sometimes imagine his characters as (transformed into) animals?

Re. c)

E.g. Aeneid 12.746-55

Aeneas, slowed though his knees were by the arrow wound

That hampered him at times, cutting his speed,

pressed on hotly, matching stride for stride,

Behind his shaken foe. As when a stag-hound

Corners a stag, blocked by a stream, or by

Alarm at a barrier of crimson feathers

Strung by beaters, then the dog assails him

With darting, barking runs; the stag in fear of nets

and the high river bank attempts

To flee and flee again a thousand ways,

But, packed with power, the Umbrian hound hangs on, 753

Muzzle agape; now, now he has him, now

As though he had him (similisque tenenti), snaps eluded jaws

And bites on empty air.

  • Analyse the effect of line 753.
  1. Ovid Metamorphoses 3: introductory points
  • Exceptionally, a book about a city, unified by this location
  • Thebes not Rome
  • Not successful foundation, but failed, tragic foundation
  • Civilization undone by civil war
  • Epic becoming tragedy/infected by elegy?
  • Met.3 a key book in terms of exploring Ovid’s response to the Aeneid

Political readings of Met.3

….as an index of the Metamorphoses’s provocative ‘reversal’ of the Aeneid’s civilization-building teleology.

…as a book that, in indirect and subtle ways, does important ideological work by elaborating a negative mirror-image of Rome and its evolution.

….as a complex meditation on civil war and its role in Roman history

…as a suggestive portrayal and examination of the theme of artistic failure, and of the punishment of artists by tyrannical powers (cf. especially Tristia 2.105-8, where Ovid compares himself to ‘innocent’ Actaeon).

…as paradigmatic of an ideologically loaded reflection on modes of representation (visual, written, oral) in Ovidian poetry.