Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.02

Niklas Holzberg, Ovids Metamorphosen. C.H. Beck Wissen.   München:  C.H. Beck, 2007.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 978-3-406-53621-2.  €7.90 (pb).  

Reviewed by John Jacobs,
Word count: 1628 words

In this charming little book, Niklas Holzberg offers a strikingly original (and yet, still very balanced) introduction to that most charming of big books, Ovid's Metamorphoses. The volume appears to be the first dedicated to a piece of classical literature in a series published by C. H. Beck, appropriately entitled "Wissen", with various offerings in no fewer than a dozen different categories. "Wissen" is the German equivalent of the "Very Short Introductions" published by Oxford University Press and the "Que sais-je?" series published by the Presses Universitaires de France: indeed, it appears that each and every "Wissen" covers its material in exactly 128 pages, just as the "Que sais-je?" titles do.1 Holzberg is well known to all Classicists for his work on a wide variety of subjects, including recent introductions to the life and works of Catullus, Vergil, and, of course, Ovid (e.g., the third edition of Ovid: Leben und Werk [2006], also published by Beck). Ovids Metamorphosen will take its rightful place among these gems as yet another informed and informative vade mecum.

The title under review consists of four major parts: "Vorwort"; "Werkübergreifende Aspekte"; "Werkanalyse"; and "Überlieferung und Nachleben". At the end of the book, there is also a helpful short bibliography of "Weiterführende Literatur" and a similarly brief but useful "Register".

In the "Vorwort", Holzberg charts the remarkable resurgence of Ovidian studies over the past half-century, argues for the need for a good "Einführung" to the Metamorphoses, and fondly dedicates the work to his son. An introduction to the "Werkübergreifende Aspekte" follows, with a focus on the basic historical and literary contextualization necessary for understanding Ovid and, more specifically, his very difficult and challenging perpetuum...carmen (Met. 1.4). First, in "Ovids Werdegang bis zu den Metamorphosen, Holzberg undertakes a comparatio between Ovid's career leading up to the great epic and Vergil's leading up to the Aeneid, with an analysis punctuated by several insightful remarks on the self-referential nature of their (and, of course, all other) poetic endeavors. Next, in "Der augusteische Kontext", he considers the larger literary and historical contexts (Vergil, Horace, Tibullus, and Propertius, as well as Caesar and Augustus), including the poet's exile, the result of the famous(ly obscure) carmen et error (Trist. 2.207). Then, in "Die literarische Tradition", Holzberg outlines the place of the Metamorphoses in these larger contexts, with observations on a whole host of topics ranging from the carmen perpetuum and the carmen deductum, and Callimachus and "Kleinpoesie", to the cosmogonic material in Met. 1.5-88 and the Augustan building program, and the relationship between Ovid's masterpiece and the similar works by Nicander of Colophon and Antoninus Liberalis. Finally, in "Die Werkstruktur", he explores how Ovid deftly complicates the overall pentadic arrangement of the poem via other structural effects, such as the manipulation of closure at book-ends and the elision of narrative boundaries between individual episodes. Altogether, this introductory section covers just the right material in just the right way.

The "Werkanalyse" constitutes the core of the book, in which Holzberg presents a detailed exposition of the Metamorphoses according to the triadic arrangement endorsed at the end of the introduction. Each book receives individual treatment in terms of structure and theme, and, in addition, Holzberg selects an episode from each pentad for a more extended discussion. Thus, in "Die erste Pentade", he concentrates on "Apollo und Daphne" from book 1; in "Die zweite Pentade", "Dädalus und Ikarus" from book 8; and, in "Die dritte Pentade", "Caesar, Augustus und Ovid" from book 15. Holzberg himself succinctly characterizes the three phases of the epic: "Die drei Pentaden unterscheiden sich dadurch voneinander, dass in der ersten Göttermythen dominieren, der zweiten die Sagen über Heroen der Zeit vor dem Trojanischen Krieg ein wesentliches Gepräge geben und von der dritten die mit diesem Krieg beginnende und bis zur Verstirnung Caesars im Juli 44 v. Chr. reichende 'historische' Zeit umfasst wird" (p. 24).

"Die erste Pentade" covers the material from Ovid's short proem and the cosmogony in 1.1-88 to the rape of Proserpina in 5.250-678. As in his treatment of the other two pentads, Holzberg begins with a short overview of the five books under discussion and then turns to the book-by-book analysis. Also as in his treatment of the other two pentads, he opens the analysis of each book with a structural outline (e.g., p. 30) and then examines each of the major episodes in order, with literary and historical observations of varying depth, importance, and quality. Thus, while Holzberg's remarks on the influence of Ovid's erotic poetry will certainly help the reader to understand the atmosphere of the story of Apollo and Daphne, the same cannot be said either for his proposed connections between the story and the Augustan marriage legislation or for his passing observation on the intertextual link between Daphne's plea in 1.486-487 and the similar plea uttered by Artemis in Call. Dian. 6. (Indeed, such intertextual material appears throughout the book, although it is of only questionable significance for the presumed audience of newcomers to Ovid and Classical literature in general.) Amid the many illuminating readings of individual episodes, it is unfortunate that, in his treatment of Pyramus and Thisbe, Holzberg has little to say about the thematic importance of the couple's collective suicide as a paradigm both for the self-destructive suicide of civil war (e.g., Vulteius in Lucan) and for the melodramatic plot of the novel. Consideration of these larger issues (admittedly, intertextual) would have been far more useful for understanding the story than the favorable citation of Carole Newlands' remark on the potential sexual connotations of eiaculari in 4.124: "'Pyramus' manner of dying suggests a gigantic orgasm'" (p. 50).

"Die zweite Pentade" continues this book-by-book analysis, from Arachne in 6.1-145 to the "Orpheïs" in book 10. In this middle section of the poem, Holzberg well emphasizes the self-reflexive and metaliterary aspects of the narrative (especially in the Arachne and Orpheus stories at the beginning and the end of the pentad). Moreover, the detailed treatment of Daedalus and Icarus well illustrates how an intertextual analysis can be useful for understanding Ovid, as Holzberg elegantly links patriae tremuere manus in 8.211 with patriae cecidere manus in Verg. Aen. 6.33, both referring to Daedalus (pp. 71-74). In his outline of the intricate structure of books 7-9, Holzberg helpfully explains how Ovid nests a "Kephalis" (7.490-8.5) within a "Minoïs" (7.453-266) within a "Theseïs" (7.404-9.97): this "Theseïs", in turn, overlaps with a "Herculeïs" (9.1-438), as Theseus and Hercules contend both for the title of "hero" and for control over the narrative. The pentad ends with an "Orpheïs" and more "musings" on the nature of the poet, but the "Orpheïs" itself does not end with the pentad.

"Die dritte Pentade" brings the book-by-book analysis to a conclusion, covering the material from the death of Orpheus and the end of the "Orpheïs" (11.1-84) to Ovid's own grand proclamations of immortality in the epilogue (15.871-879, especially exegi in 871 = Hor. carm. 3.30.1). This final section of the poem develops a reworking of many of the major themes and motifs from the previous two pentads: the Midas story playfully recalls the "Golden Age", and Troy and Rome function as twin narrative poles, with the first city's fall marking the beginning of historical time and the second city's fall, its end. In the midst of a discussion of the relationship between Ovid's Trojan material and his Homeric and Vergilian antecedents, Holzberg does not sufficiently acknowledge the presence of subversive elements in Ovid's "panegyric" of Julius Caesar and Augustus, though he does nicely link the apotheoses of Hercules (book 9), Aeneas (14), and Romulus (14) with those of Julius Caesar (15) and, of course, Ovid himself (15). Thus, in 15.622-744, I read the narrative of the pestis as an historical metaphor for the "disease" of civil war, and the importation of Aesculapius in the form of a serpent as another historical metaphor, for the rise of Augustus and his efforts to "cure" that "disease". The legend that Apollo appeared to Atia in the form of a serpent and fathered (the future) Augustus on her underpins the identification of the emperor with the serpent, another son of Apollo, here in Ovid (Suet. Aug. 94.4 and D. C. 45.1.2, cf. Sid. carm. 2.121-126). And yet, any story about a serpent entering a city cannot but remind the reader of Aeneid 2.201-249, where the two serpents from Tenedos destroy Laocoon and his sons, before entering the city of Troy and seeking out the temple of Minerva. Here, the two serpents function as part of a larger complex of images and motifs, including the Trojan Horse and Pyrrhus Neoptolemus: indeed, they may even represent Agamemnon and Menelaus themselves, returning to the plains of Troy after their feigned retreat to Tenedos.2 Read in this light, the Aesculapius serpent (and, by implication, Augustus) comes to Rome to bring not relief for the city but only total destruction, and the "panegyric" of Julius Caesar and Augustus correspondingly falls flat, dead on arrival.

Following the "Werkanalyse", Holzberg briefly outlines the "Überlieferung und Nachleben" of Ovid and the Metamorphoses. After an initial aetas Ovidiana from the eleventh to the thirteenth century and a second flourishing during the Renaissance, the poet and his epic are back and more popular than ever. The book concludes with a brief list of suggestions for "Weiterführende Literatur") and a stream-lined "Register". Both serve their purpose, although the lack of either an alphabetical or a chronological arrangement in the list of "Ausgaben, Kommentare, Übersetzungen" is simply odd.

Ovids Metamorphosen is an excellent introduction to the world of the poet and his poem, and readers will put the book down having acquired a solid grasp of the structure and themes of the epic. One can only hope that Holzberg will produce a similar volume on the Aeneid.


1.   For more on the "Que sais-je?" series, see the recent review of Jean-Baptiste Gourinat's "opuscule" on Stoicism by Andreas U. Schmidhauser in BMCR 2008.08.48.
2.   See Bernard M. W. Knox, "The serpent and the flame: The imagery of the second book of the Aeneid," AJPh 71.4: 379-400.

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