Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.18

Kirsty Corrigan, Virgo to Virago: Medea in the Silver Age.   Newcastle upon Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.  Pp. ix, 300.  ISBN 9781443846554.  £49.99.  

Reviewed by Anke Walter, University of Rostock (


The figure of Medea has fascinated authors throughout antiquity, but, as far as Latin literature is concerned, it is to its ‘Silver Age‘ that we owe the most extended surviving representations of the heroine. Kirsty Corrigan, in a book that began its incarnation as her Kent PhD thesis, examines the treatment of Medea in Ovid (the Heroides and Metamorphoses in particular), Seneca’s Medea and Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica. The book fills a real gap in the scholarship1 and is easily accessible even for the non-specialist. Its greatest virtue is Corrigan’s careful and nuanced examination of the different portrayals of Medea.

The book neatly falls into three main chapters, one on each of the three authors treated, plus an introduction and conclusion. Before summarizing the findings of each chapter in greater detail, I wish to discuss one central element of the book’s larger argument: the way the notion of the “Silver Age” is employed. In her introduction, Corrigan, largely following Williams,2 lists as characteristic traits of the literature beginning with Ovid the “striving for novelty”, “the influence of rhetoric”, the “desire for sensationalism” and excess, as well as “an especial taste for the macabre, cruel and gruesome” (6-7). Corrigan is aware of other scholarly opinions on this matter (6 n. 24; 262 n. 3) and at times carefully discusses whether what she finds in the texts fits in with the supposed features of the Silver Age or not (e.g. 231). Yet too frequently she employs statements to the effect that a writer includes certain elements in his presentation “to satisfy his contemporary audience’s taste for the fantastic and gory” (230; cf., in a similar vein, e.g. 32; 149; 212). This not only overlooks the fact that the poets, even while responding to a certain contemporary “taste”, at the same time also shape it in their turn. More worryingly, ending discussions of the text in this way runs the risk of obscuring the larger questions raised. How does, for instance, a particularly gruesome depiction of Medea’s magic fit in with the broader concerns of the text in question, its attitude towards violence and power? Does the portrayal of Medea destabilize or reinforce certain values expressed elsewhere in the text? And what could this tell us about the way each individual text relates to the political and cultural climate of its day?

After this more general concern, I turn to Corrigan’s individual chapters. In the introduction, in reviewing the general features of and contradictions inherent in the myth of Medea (1-5), as well as the characteristics of the Silver Age of Latin literature (5-7), Corrigan notes that the figure of Medea provides a topic that particularly suits the literary taste of the Silver Age. The author then describes her approach as “that of a character study, through analysis of the text” (7), with the aim of gaining “a complete overview of the character in the Silver Age”, with particular focus on the handling of the “dark aspects” of Medea’s character and the question if the writers show signs of admiration or sympathy for Medea (8).

The first chapter is dedicated to Ovid’s Medea, as depicted in Metamorphoses 7 (11-41) and Heroides 12 and 6 (41-73). In a more cursory fashion, Corrigan also treats Medea in Ovid’s other works (74-93). For the Metamorphoses, she traces what she identifies as the four stages of Medea’s transformation from an innocent young girl into an evil witch, with Ovid exploiting the extreme aspects inherent in her character. In the context of the elegiac Heroides, Corrigan examines in detail the letters written by Medea (Her. 12) and Hypsipyle (Her. 6) to Jason. Letter 12 is read as “a psychological study of the inner workings of her [sc. Medea’s] mind” (45), at a time when Jason has just left her for Creusa. Rather than as a formidable sorceress, Medea is here presented as “a hurt and rejected woman and wife” (65), deserving of the reader’s sympathy. Concerning letter 6, Corrigan concludes that “it is Hypsipyle who appears to have the more violent and vengeful streak and who has become more like the stereotypical Medea, rather than Medea herself” (73). Given Ovid’s fascination with the character of Medea, it is hardly surprising to find her referred to on various occasions in both his amatory and exile poetry, as well as in the Fasti. Taking her cue from the extended references to Medea in Tristia 3.9, Corrigan comes to the conclusion that it is mostly Medea’s villainous aspects that are to the forefront when Ovid refers to her as an exemplum or as an illustration of the disparate concerns expressed in his wide-ranging oeuvre. However, Ovid — just as he had expressed the extremes of Medea’s ambiguous character — does not fail to arouse some sympathy for the heroine, even while referring to the evil deeds for which she was notorious.

In her second chapter, Corrigan goes through the text of the Senecan Medea, with the aim of finding out whether the play betrays any signs of sympathy for Medea, or whether she is exclusively depicted as a villain. Corrigan also traces Ovidian influence on Seneca’s Medea, as well as significant differences between the Senecan and the Euripidean Medea. In her analysis, Corrigan brings out the many paradoxes in Medea’s conflicting roles (human vs. divine, wife vs. mother etc.). The “witch passage” is interpreted as “the crowning glory of the text” (186) and placed in the context of Silver Age taste. For all the wickedness of Medea’s deeds, Corrigan also sees her as controlled by overwhelming emotions, with Seneca, at least in part, exonerating his heroine from responsibility for her actions, at times even rousing pity for her. Corrigan stresses that the Senecan Medea’s concern for piety towards her family betrays a decidedly Roman sense of duty, which had already been an aspect of Ovid’s depiction of Medea.

The third chapter is devoted to the portrayal of Medea in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica. Corrigan examines the way Valerius’ presentation corresponds to or deviates from that of his predecessors. She demonstrates how Valerius seems fascinated with the heroine, mentioning her in his epic long before the Argonauts actually reach Colchis. Once Medea enters the epic action, the poet portrays her with sympathy, understanding and admiration. Valerius emphasizes Medea’s role as an innocent young maiden, provoking a feeling of pity for her, while the gruesome and macabre character of her deeds is brought out as well. There is a strong Ovidian influence in Valerius’ depiction of Medea’s emotional battles. As was the case with Ovid’s and Seneca’s Medea, she shows again a distinctly Roman sense of filial pietas. Corrigan concludes that “Valerius’ Argonautica emerges as Medea’s story: the tale of her love and her adventure” (258).

Finally, Corrigan summarizes the main results of her discussion in a conclusion (261-71).

Overall, she presents a careful, detailed analysis of the texts and the different and shifting presentations of Medea. Her argument is generally well balanced, and she does not fail to acknowledge Medea’s ‘weaker’, maidenly side (particularly in Valerius’ Argonautica). In general, Corrigan’s work could have profited from a deeper awareness of the (admittedly large) bibliography on the representation of myth in literature (and other media).3 Anchoring her findings on the portrayal of Medea in the larger context of studies on the interface of myth and literature — or in the context of the reception of figures from Greek myth in Roman literature — might have increased the depth and relevance of her book.

One glaring absence in the treatment of Medea’s “witch scenes”, in Valerius at any rate, is Lucan’s Erictho. Corrigan examines Medea’s characterization as a “witch” in all three authors in detail, but her discussion would have profited from at least a brief glance at the notorious and far more gruesome magic of Erictho (who in her turn is influenced by earlier representations of Medea), and at the question of whether and how she might have influenced Valerius’ portrayal of Medea’s witchcraft. In the context of both Seneca’s and Valerius’ Medea, Corrigan cites allusions to Vergil’s Dido (e.g. 115; 228). Her discussion of these allusions could have gained in depth and nuance by taking into account that one of the literary models of Vergil’s Dido was Medea herself, as presented in the Greek tradition.

In her discussion of Heroides 12, Corrigan pays attention to the extent to which Medea does or does not live up to her own literary reputation. The question of how much Medea’s actions are determined by her long-established literary reputation is briefly taken up again in the conclusion, but it could profitably have been examined in more detail in the context of Seneca’s Medea and Valerius’ Argonautica (a work no less self-conscious about its literary status than the poetry of Ovid). Fama is mentioned a number of times in the texts quoted by Corrigan in her chapter on Valerius, yet without receiving detailed comment.

The text is free of jargon and written in a very clear style. It could serve very well as the basis for an undergraduate or graduate course on Medea. It is highly accessible even to the neophytes in the field. All Latin is translated, and each chapter begins with an introduction to the author and the work in question. These are clearly addressed to beginners (more seasoned scholars hardly need to be reminded, for instance, that Seneca the Younger was the “son of the rhetorician Seneca the Elder”, 99). Corrigan gives a thorough overview of the main discussions in the secondary literature, which is helpful for those who want to find their way into a fascinating and rewarding topic.4 However, while French and Italian literature are quoted, German literature is conspicuously absent from Corrigan’s bibliography, which leaves her otherwise valuable overview of the scholarship incomplete.

The text is remarkably free from typos and other errors.5 However, I noted two problems with the Latin. In her interpretation of Her. 12.33-4 (nec notis ignibus arsi, / ardet ut ad magnos pinea taeda deos), Corrigan mistakenly states that “the adjective taeda, applied to the pinewood, can have the meaning of ‘wedding’ as well as ‘torch’” (49), although clearly pinea is the adjective and taeda the noun. In her chapter on Seneca, Corrigan refers to Medea’s order that helped Jason succeed, quoting the words cum iussu meo, 469, to illustrate that point. Cum, however, here functions as a conjunction and does not belong with iussu meo.

Despite some reservations, bringing together the representation of Medea in the three works in question represents a highly commendable undertaking. Corrigan’s careful examinations make her book a worthwhile read.


1.   But see now also G. Manuwald, “Medea: transformations of a Greek figure in Latin literature”, Greece & Rome 60 (2013), 114–135.
2.   G. Williams, Change and Decline: Roman Literature in the Early Empire (Berkeley 1978).
3.   I mention only L. Edmunds (ed.), Approaches to Greek Myth (2nd edition; Baltimore 2014).
4.   The only ones I noted: on p. 182, read “gods’” instead of “gods”; p. 230, read “lead her to decide”.
5.   For the discussion of the Heroides, Alessandro Barchiesi’s Speaking Volumes: Narrative and intertext in Ovid and other Latin poets, edited and translated by Matt Fox and Simone Marchesi (London 2001) might have been helpful.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010