Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.04.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.09

Lee Fratantuono, Madness Transformed: a Reading of Ovid's Metamorphoses.   Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2011.  Pp. xxv, 487.  ISBN 9780739129449.  $46.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ioannis Ziogas, Australian National University (

Lee Fratantuono’s Madness Transformed is a systematic reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Unlike most books on Ovid, Madness Transformed attempts an interpretation of the Metamorphosesas a whole by following the structure of Ovid’s epic. The book consists of a brief introduction and fifteen chapters corresponding to the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses, and is a sequel to Fratantuono’s Madness Unchained: A Reading of Virgil’s Aeneid. It is basically a running commentary on the Metamorphoses, examining Ovid’s epic as a response to Virgil’s Aeneid. Fratantuono further comments on the ways in which the Metamorphoses resonates with the politics of Augustan Rome; in his political commentary, the author distances himself from anti-Augustan readings of Ovid’s work.

Arguing that Ovid’s epic is a response to the Aeneid is certainly a well-trodden path, but Fratantuono has many original ideas. He mostly points out parallels between the texts and comments on Ovid’s attempts to surpass his predecessor. Several connections between characters in Virgil and Ovid are particularly convincing. The discussion of Virgil’s Camilla and Ovid’s Atalanta, for instance, is quite compelling. Other comparisons, however, are rather tenuous. For instance, the parallel between the death of Cyllaros in Metamorphoses 12 and the wound of Aeneas in Aeneid 12 strikes me as far-fetched. Cyllaros is wounded in the heart and dies, while Aeneas survives after Venus’ intervention. Even if we acknowledge the allusion, it is unclear what the point would be in drawing a parallel between the death of a centaur and the wound of Aeneas. Fratantuono goes on to argue that the effect of the reminiscence is “to give the seemingly lumbering narrative of Ovid’s poem a real cohesion and a close connection to its epic predecessor”, but this explanation strikes me as rather vague and speculative.

Another example is the parallel between the Virgilian Gates of Sleep and the statues of Picus. In Virgil, Picus has a wooden statue, while in Ovid a marble one. For Fratantuono, wood corresponds to horn and ivory to marble. But there is really nothing in the text to suggest such a correspondence. And again, even if we acknowledge the parallel, it remains unclear what Ovid’s point would be in connecting the Gates of Sleep with the statues of Picus.

Fratantuono makes an interesting observation that Virgil and Ovid use the first and last letters of names to draw associations between characters. But is it enough that Tlepolemus and Thersites have identical first and last letters in the Latin alphabet to draw a connection between Hercules’ son and the worst of the Achaeans? Many Greek male names begin with an alpha and end with a sigma, and a connection between Achilles and Asclepius based on the first and last letter of their names seems unconvincing.

Equally problematic are some of the historical readings. For example, Fratantuono reads the story of Phaethon against the background of the issue of Augustus’ successor. While the parallel between Ovid’s Phaethon and Virgil’s Pallas is well-argued, the connection between Phaethon and Augustus’ successor is less compelling. As I read the episode, the Sun, unlike Augustus, has a son but does not seem to have any anxiety about anyone succeeding him. The focus is on Phaethon’s anxiety to discover whether the Sun is his real father, which is quite different from Augustus’ problem in adopting the right person to succeed him.

The book is also marred by a number of factual errors and inaccuracies. Some examples: vivam is erroneously identified as present indicative (xxii; it is correctly identified as future indicative on p. 459). Lycaon does not have a chance to make an attack on Jupiter (p. 11-12), he simply plots (see Anderson, W. S. 1989 “Lycaon: Ovid’s Deceptive Paradigm in the Metamorphoses.”, ICS, 14, 91-101). Enipeus is described as the mortal husband of Tyro (p. 158), but Tyro’s husband is Cretheus, while Enipeus is her river-god lover. Hipponome (three times on p. 351 and also listed in the index) is presumably Hylonome. It is also more relevant to refer to Persephone as Jupiter’s daughter rather than his niece (p. 157-8). In the context of the weaving competition, this is an important detail: Arachne’s target audience is Minerva, Jupiter’s virgin daughter; by depicting Jupiter raping Persephone, his own daughter, Arachne aims at shocking Minerva. What is more, the weaving competition follows the singing contest in which Calliope sang of Ceres’ visit to Jupiter and the goddess’ appeal to his paternal love towards his daughter Persephone (Met. 5.514-16). Now Arachne depicts a strikingly different version, according to which Jupiter raped his own daughter.

The structure of the book, a linear reading of Ovid’s epic, makes it easy to follow, but sometimes the train of thought is not clear. There are abrupt transitions and signs of hasty revision. For instance, Fratantuono has an interesting discussion of Caeneus’ transformation into a unique bird. He cites Mopsus’ words and draws a parallel with Turnus’ calling Camilla the virgin glory of Italy. Then he suddenly moves back to the centaurs taunting Caeneus for his sexually ambiguous identity. Then he says that Nestor’s speech is over and moves on to discuss Tlepolemus’ reaction. But in the next paragraph he goes back to Mopsus’ speech and further comments on Caeneus and Camilla. Then he comments again on Caeneus’ gender issues and the double nature of the centaurs. Finally, he moves on to Nestor’s response to Tlepolemus’ objection (p. 353-5). This is not quite a linear reading of Ovid’s epic; it rather gives the impression of neat but unstructured notes.

Even though Fratantuono offers a careful reading of the entire epic, he has little to contribute to explicating the structure of the Metamorphoses. The book is presented as the most comprehensive commentary on the epic’s structure, but, in my view, this is not really the case. Madness Transformed includes many informed and sensitive readings of the Metamorphoses but not much about the structure of the work as a whole. A commentary on all the episodes of Ovid’s epic is one thing and a book on the structure of the Metamorphoses another.

Some of the book’s strengths are the usually clear summaries of myths, references to primary sources, and nice discussions of several textual problems. Students and (dare I say) scholars who cannot read German or Italian may find Fratantuono’s book handy and use it as a comprehensive English commentary on the Metamorphoses. The book can be consulted for particular episodes and the readers should not be put off by its length and density.

My favorite parts of the book are the discussions about Lucretius in Ovid. Fratantuono is right to point out that the divine maker of Ovid’s universe would have disturbed Lucretius and has an interesting discussion about Pythagoras’s attacks on Lucretian philosophy. He is also right to argue that passages subversive of Lucretius do not mean that Ovid had anti-Lucretian sentiments.

In sum, Madness Transformed is a unique book, a hybrid of commentary and monograph. It gives an overview of Ovid’s much discussed epic and is essentially, as the author himself admits, an idiosyncratic reading of the Metamorphoses.

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