Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.55

K. Sara Myers (ed.), Ovid. Metamorphoses, Book XIV. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. ix, 237.  ISBN 9780521007931.  $32.99.  

Reviewed by Joseph B. Solodow, Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University (

Sara Myers's commentary is a notable addition to the well-known series of green-and-yellow volumes, and is surpassed by none in its penetrating and thorough presentation of a part of the Metamorphoses. It is a fitting “successor” to Neil Hopkinson's distinguished commentary on XIII in the same series (2000), and, like that commentary, it capitalizes brilliantly on the particular nature of the book's content. Book XIV, which completes Ovid's redoing of the Aeneid and conducts the narrative to Italy, provides a rich field for instructive comparisons, not only with Virgil but also with, inter alios, the historians of early Rome, Ennius, Propertius (Vertumnus is the subject of 4.2), and Ovid himself, who works some of the same material in the Fasti. And in doing so, XIV gives the commentator the opportunity to uncover a host of intriguing literary allusions and ingenious intertextual play. Myers's sophisticated literary insights are matched by the exceptionally careful attention paid to identifying the historical, geographic, and cultural backgrounds, revealing characteristic features of the poem as a whole, and dealing with textual and grammatical difficulties. Her hallmark is thoroughness. Nothing of any importance has escaped her eye, and all that she sees she presents with great learning and clarity and a fine sense of proportion.

The Introduction, which says nothing about Ovid's life or other works, sets Book XIV within the context of the whole poem. It elucidates its characteristic chronological schemes and narrative structures, describes the role of apotheosis (those of Aeneas, Romulus, and Hersilia take place in XIV), and analyzes perceptively the relation between Ovid and Virgil. Myers makes clear “Ovid's overall project of a critical and tendentious reading of the Aeneid” (p. 17). Whereas other critics have been Ovid as undermining the Aeneid's vision of Roman history, she sees him as drawing attention to its “other voices,” the tensions existing within the Aeneid, such as those created by the destructive force of passion and the devaluation of Homeric heroism--a critical stance that is no less fertile than appealing. Nor does she neglect themes that run through the Metamorphoses: eros, violence, the act of story-telling, the clash of genres, the creation of authority. About metamorphosis itself, however, she says nothing. Myers ends the Introduction with a brief yet helpful survey of some features of the poet's style, matters like internal narrators, diction, and word-play. All this prepares the reader to appreciate the book and the commentary thereon.

Decisions about the fullness and explicitness of the commentary were made thoughtfully. Greek is usually translated, but, when appropriate, quoted too (292, for example). On 605-07 Myers not only gives references to four Greek authors who associate nectar and ambrosia with apotheosis, but indicates the particular situations as well, which makes the note far more meaningful. She does not merely refer to Wackernagel's Law (158), but states it for the reader's information. Another general matter: literary critics who are old dogs, like me, will learn a few new terms--“gesture towards” as in “avidum gestures towards the Greek etymology of Charybdis' name from the verb ‘to swallow‘” (75), and “activate” as in “activates ... the theme of speech” (101-02)--and indeed may find them useful.

To convey the breadth and excellence of the commentary, let me single out some choice comments, grouped under rough headings. Information geographical and historical, more in point here than in earlier books: essential facts about Zancle and Rhegium (5); an exemplary treatment, full, clear, and concise, of the deification of Romulus (805-28). Exposition of ancient realia, unfailingly engaging: cheese and rennet, with a side-comment on poets' use of caseus and coagulum (274); pruning and leaf-stripping (649-50); the Kids as weather sign (711). Humor, never remote from Ovid's temperament: manu magna “with mighty strokes,” a phrase with so many epic antecedents as to be a cliché, referring to swimming here, where, taken literally, it also suggests the usefulness of large hands to a swimmer (8). Multiple aptness of words: exstat, applied to a promontory, meaning both “is extant” and “projects forth” (73).

Indirectness and ingenuity of literary reference: “Ovid hints at Vertumnus' own literary antecedents as a statue in Propertius 4.2 by having him narrate a statue tale which draws heavily on amatory elegiac models of the paraclausithyron” (698-761); the metapoetic joke in Achaemenides being improviso ... repertum by the Trojans (160-61), because this isn't the place where the reader expects to come upon him either (he turns up earlier in the Virgilian version; other metapoetic moments at 167, 473, 730-31)--but the commentator fails to call attention to the wit and the novelty in rendering stylish the Ennian phrase in caerula caeli / templa by clipping the last word (814). Ovid's spotlighting his own originality by appearing to deny it: notissima ... facta referring to the story of Iphis and Anaxarete, which was anything but well-known (696-97); dicitur seeming to promise a traditional tale yet really signalling an Ovidian innovation (333-34).

Narrative patterns and conventions found in Latin literature: mid-day as a time of danger (53-54); ululare “often used for the cries of exotic or frightening rituals, esp. of the dogs associated with Hecate” (405). Features typical of the poem: raucus often used for the animal voice of a metamorphosed person (100); a sequence of enjambments marking Ovid's “fast-forwarding mode” (85-90, 609-21); Virgil “corrected” (157, 205-06, 218); confidence in their own beauty invariably leading mortals to disaster (32); characteristics of a creature anticipated before its metamorphosis (337, 344-45, 391-92, 693); the fact that all internal narratives presented as exempla fail to warn their hearers (693-97)--but at 509, [volucrum ... forma] ut non cycnorum, sic albis proxima cycnis, Myers could have pointed out the poet's fondness for describing in-between states (see Joseph Solodow, The World of Ovid's Metamorphoses [1988], pp. 186-88); and, had she been able to consult Gianpiero Rosati's Fondazione Valla commentary on V-VI (2009), on en ego (33) she would surely have reported his fine observation (ad 6.206).

Excellent comments on Ovid's language are found at every turn. On the phrase pensas ... herbas, which refers to the ingredients of Circe's magical potions, Myers notes that the participle, suggesting pensum “quantity of wool to be woven,” slyly hints at her activity of weaving in the Odyssey and the Aeneid (270). luridus ... horror (198) she helpfully translates “fear which turns one pale.” Though a faithful practitioner of the technique Ovidium ex Ovidio explicare, she here misses the chance to cite the apt 1.147 lurida ... aconita, and also to reveal that in Latin poetry other adjectives are used in this factitive fashion: compare (with Bömer) 9.290-91 frigidus ... horror “fear that chills one,” or Hor. Carm. 3.21.8 languidiora vina “wines that make one lazier.” In a similar vein, on ab illo /... certior in 289-90 her comment is “sc. factus.” Here too a general point might have been made, that in poetry adjectives are often treated as if they were participles: a familiar example is Hor. Carm. 1.5.6-7 aspera / nigris aequora ventis, where aspera = asperata.

Some of the observations Myers presents are found in Bömer, to be sure, but not many, and not the really interesting ones. If thoroughness is her hallmark, interpretation is her forte. She notices the kinds of things Ovid would have wanted his readers to notice.

The requirements of the somewhat inexperienced reader are taken into account no less than the desires of the literary sophisticate--an extremely welcome stance. Even a small segment of the commentary serves to reveal both Myers's sensitivity to the former's needs and her success in meeting them. The first i of semianimes, she explains, is treated as a consonant (209). She doesn't just stick labels on phenomena, but defines and explains them, as with hysteron proteron (219) and epanalepsis (223-24). The placement of the copulative in ad litusque is characterized as standard in prose (219). Hippotaden is identified as a Greek accusative singular (224). Even something as common as the connective (or introductory) relative is pointed out (225). Elsewhere, she identifies an antecedent incorporated into a relative clause (283) and the use of licet as a conjunction = “although” (686). (I wonder, however, whether citation of Kühner-Stegmann and the OLD was really needed to buttress the claim that at at 663 means “but” and implies a contrast). Recently, with a third-year class of mine I read Horace's Epistles I in Roland Mayer's edition for the same series (1994), which boasts many fine features, especially the priceless introduction on poetic style, but which failed to answer some questions of language for the students. Myers opens her text to a wider range of readers.

One aspect of her thoroughness is the long lists of references she supplies both to passages of ancient literature (nine quoted which attest the association of virtus with the deification of benefactors of mankind, ad 581) and to scholarly works (twenty-six cited in introducing the story of Pomona and Vertumnus, 622-771). Is this overkill? I think not. Her practice in regard to scholarly references may be justified by the sensible observation of her teacher and present colleague, Edward Courtney, that the reader's library may include some of the books listed but not others (quoted in Stephen Oakley's preface to Volume III of his commentary on Livy VI-X [2005], p. v). However that may be, the references, far from being an obstacle, constitute a store-house upon which the reader may draw at will. Myers, who published an extensive survey of recent work on the Metamorphoses in JRS for 1999, here produces a very large bibliography (nineteen pages--contrast Hopkinson's five); of course, it also contains the many works tangentially related to the poem that got cited in the commentary. The numerous entries are not otiose, however, nor is the volume overlong as a result. The book, let it be noted, is virtually free of typos: the gravest slips I noticed are the two diaereses omitted over French words in the bibliography.

The text, finally, may cause some puzzlement. Myers says (p. 23): “The present text relies primarily on readings reported in the Oxford Classical Text of R. Tarrant (2004).” The relationship in fact is much closer than these words imply, since the text she prints hardly differs from Tarrant's. The thirteen places where it does differ, since they are listed nowhere in the volume, may be listed here for the reader's information (the OCT is cited first): 83 sedes : sedesque; 152-53 (delet) : (recipit); 159 Ulixis : Ulixei; 269 quoque : quove; 305 illum : illis; 323 veram : verum; 345 contractus : constrictus; 427 iam longa : in gelida; 523 obticuit : os tacuit; 651 (delet) : (recipit); 671 Ulixi : Ulixis; 765 formae ... senili : formas ... in omnes; 843 quem : quae. Six of these textual cruces are discussed in the commentary, along with about twenty others. The discussions are balanced and instructive--although at 201 she fails to heed her own logic, retaining in the text a verse against the genuineness of which she argues forcefully in the commentary. She offers no novelties of her own. In regard to the (very slim) apparatus criticus, Myers has adopted a scheme of drastic economy: M represents the entire manuscript tradition, m a part of it. Yet in a tradition where there are no decisively preponderant manuscripts and where much horizontal contamination is found, as a result of which texts are invariably eclectic, this makes a good deal of sense. Readers who desire a fuller account of the bases of the text will need to turn to the OCT.

Profoundly insightful commentaries on the Metamorphoses, like those of Myers, Hopkinson, Barchiesi, and Rosati, which collect, consolidate, focus, and considerably extend the scholarship of the past quarter century, justify today's readers in feeling that we are truly living through an aetas aurea Ovidiana.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 10:15:31, Thursday, 17 March 2011