BMCR 2003.01.34

Brill’s Companion to Ovid

, Brill's companion to Ovid. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2002. 1 online resource (xiii, 533 pages).. ISBN 1417536691 EUR 159.00/$ 185.00.

How do you like your Ovid? Generalised or particularised? Lumped or split? This question is implicitly put before students and critics alike by the publication in the same year of two companions to Ovid: the first edited by Barbara Weiden Boyd and published by Brill (under review here); the second edited by Philip Hardie and published by Cambridge — not in fact under review here, but impossible not to mention.1 “Lumping” versus “splitting” — to restate my initial opposition — is a metaphorical contrast often used to describe two sorts of opposing techniques for the study of geological strata. “Lumpers” study many strata together and are inclined to draw conclusions about large scale patterns of environmental change; while “splitters” study one stratum at a time and are inclined to build up pictures of small scale variations within a particular environment. The characteristic fault of the latter is that they can make it difficult for themselves to see the big picture. The characteristic fault of the former is that they may be oblivious to localised patterns and details within individual strata which mount a challenge to the “big picture” they have constructed.2

Something of this opposition in outlook (and perhaps in results) can be seen in the Brill and Cambridge volumes. The Brill volume offers fourteen contributions in a straightforward order. The central nine cover Ovid’s surviving works in chronological order, including one chapter apiece on the Amores, Heroides, Ars Amatoria and Medicamina, two on the Fasti, three on the Metamorphoses, and one on the exile poetry. Immediately before these central chapters are two chapters on general (social and literary) issues: one on Ovid’s context, and one on his language and style. The book ends with three chapters on various aspects of Ovid’s Nachleben: one each on the literary fate of the poet in the first to fifth centuries C.E. and in the Middle Ages, and one on the manuscript transmission of Ovid’s works. The Cambridge volume, by contrast, offers twenty contributions divided under the broad headings of “Contexts and History”, “Themes and works”, and “Reception”. The first section offers chapters on (e.g.) “Ovid and empire” and “Ovid and the professional discourses of scholarship, religion, and rhetoric”; the second offers some chapters on individual works as well as more general pieces, e.g. on “Gender and sexuality” and “Myth in Ovid”; and the third likewise offers a mix between the reception of Ovid in separate eras and the reception of particular aspects of Ovid down through the ages. Where Brill splits, Cambridge (by and large) lumps.

The differing styles of the two companions are reflected not only in the types of chapters written, but also in their most basic attitudes towards the text. Authors in the Brill volume typically — and implicitly in line with the editorial principles set out in the editor’s preface (see below) — quote (and then analyse) lengthy passages from Ovid’s works. In the Cambridge volume, while some critics (e.g. Barchiesi, Hinds) quote the text more frequently than others, most quote relatively modest passages from the poet’s oeuvre. (Interestingly, this pattern is reversed in the final chapters of the Cambridge volume, where lengthy passages of primary text are quoted, albeit here from less familiar “receptions” of the poet rather than from the “originals”.) This difference in style is reflected most starkly in the contributions of Gareth Williams, who, in an act that would surely please the wittily ironic poet of the Amores (1.3.15 non sum desultor amoris), has written the chapter on the exile poems in both volumes. In the Brill volume Williams regularly quotes passages from the Tristia and Ex Ponto of six to eight lines (and more); but such quotation is largely absent from his Cambridge version of the piece. No doubt considerations of space and the larger number of contributors played a substantial part in curtailing quotation in the Cambridge volume, but one suspects that the two fundamentally different approaches outlined above are partially reflected here. On the other hand, no paper in the Brill volume, it appears to the present reviewer, consciously tries to break new ground for long; more typically a (useful) survey and synthesis of scholarly approaches is offered. By contrast, the blurb on the jacket of the Cambridge volume promises, and to an extent delivers, “exciting new critical approaches”. The more conventional layout and approach of the Brill volume, however, makes it easier for readers new to Ovid to gain access to fundamental information about the poet and his works very quickly (less easy in the Cambridge volume), and in this sense is more truly a “companion” than its Cambridge counterpart. But, unlike the Cambridge volume, the Brill companion will not offer much in the way of excitement — particularly to readers with a good knowledge of the poet. Nevertheless the two volumes, since they are ultimately trying to do different things, may (arguably) be viewed as complementary.

I trust readers will find it useful if, to do justice to a long and detailed collection, I offer more than cursory summaries of most of the volume’s individual contributions.

In the preface to the Brill volume, the editor Barbara Weiden Boyd wisely disclaims comprehensiveness, and explains editorial practice as follows: “I have asked each of the contributors to seek out a balance between a comprehensive overview of a particular topic and a focused analysis of some aspect of it. In each case, the contributors and I have attempted to focus on a feature of the work under consideration that in some way typifies or captures a crucial aspect of the experience of reading Ovid. … the close focus of each individual chapter combines with that of the others to provide what I hope will be an extended and complex meditation on the essential Ovid” (pp. ix-x). The target audience for the book is defined as “both newcomers and old and familiar companions” (p. ix). With equal wisdom, and appropriately for a volume on Ovid, the editor does not attempt to impose order on the polyphony of scholarly voices in the collection: the fundamental assumptions of (e.g.) Fantham and Tissol about the political significance of Ovid’s work are left in implicit counterpoint.

The first chapter, by Peter White, is designed to offer some orientation on Ovid’s social context and life. White deals swiftly with the problems of constructing a life for Ovid from his own poems (there is no ancient “Life”): on the one hand the persona which speaks in Ovid’s poems appears “self-aggrandizing, evasive, and inconsistent”, on the other, belief in “the grosser information that poets impart about their lives” has never been seriously shaken (p. 1). There follows a chronological survey of the three phases of Ovid’s life (“early”, “prime” and “exile”). Familiar details from inscriptional sources, and from Ovid’s own poetry, particularly the Amores and exile poetry, are rehearsed. No new ground is broken, but it is very handy to have the material collected in so convenient a place as the first article in a Companion to Ovid. White next moves on to Ovid’s milieu — so little mentioned in the pre-exile poetry — and his engagement with Augustus throughout his works, demonstrating that in all of his pre-exile poetry (including the Fasti) Ovid adheres to a strategy of “integrat[ing] Augustus into a poetic design, without putting him at the centre of it” (p. 21).

The second chapter, on “Ovid’s language and style”, by the distinguished Ovidian E.J. Kenney consists of 63 pages, the latter 33 of which are a slightly amplified version of the author’s classic piece on “The style of the Metamorphoses”; the remaining 30 pages are an entirely new contribution to the subject of the style of the elegiac poems. The portion on the Metamorphoses appeared originally in the 1973 collection on Ovid edited by J.W. Binns.3 This amplification is peculiarly appropriate to the Brill volume which — although critical fashions and concerns have clearly changed for nearly all the contributors — is nevertheless identifiably a lineal descendant of Binns’ landmark volume. This 30-year-old collection included one article each on the Amores, Heroides, Ars Amatoria, and Tristia, plus Kenney’s piece on the style of the Metamorphoses, and two on the reception of Ovid up to the sixteenth century. The total of five articles (or six including Kenney) in the Brill companion on various aspects of the Fasti (completely absent from Binns’ volume) and Metamorphoses attest strongly to the shift in the balance of critical interests in Ovid’s poetry over the last three decades. Kenney’s new contribution looks at, among other things, the implications of Ovid’s continuation of Tibullus’ practice of ending the pentameter in a disyllable, the impression of speed in Ovid’s couplets (achieved by more dactyls and fewer and lighter elisions), the poet’s use of ordinary diction to facilitate his fluent style, and his skill in overcoming the limitations of the Latin elegiac couplet as a medium for narrative. Interestingly, almost nothing is said about the language and style of the huge body of elegiac poetry which Ovid produced in exile. Of the remaining portion of the chapter, on the style of the Metamorphoses, nothing need be added here, as Kenney’s additions to his 1973 article are by his own admission “modest” (p. 89). Some stylistic and other inelegances result from what is effectively the bolting-on of an already published article to a new piece. Nevertheless, throughout this ultimately satisfying contribution the treatment is detailed but clear, and can be recommended with confidence as a source from which advanced undergraduates or graduates, studying these fundamental matters for the first time, will derive much enlightenment.

In the third chapter the editor herself tackles Ovid’s earliest elegiac poetry. In the first part of the article, Boyd considers such standard topics as “questions of literary influence, imitation, and parody; generic considerations (themes, motifs, topoi); Ovid’s style; and the structure and organization of the three books of Amores” (p. 92). Amores 2.9 and 2.9b — in line with editorial principles — are chosen as the locus of investigation for these topics: a well chosen pair of poems, illustrating as they do a common technique in the Amores of “negating a position already successfully argued” (p. 93). The treatment is detailed and wide-ranging. But a discussion of two poems, no matter how detailed, cannot do justice to the full range of the Amores. For an effective introduction to this early collection, Boyd’s article should be read alongside Ian Du Quesnay’s classic treatment in Binns’ volume.4 Later in the article Boyd covers dating and chronology; the relative absence of identifiable people and events (which leads Boyd to the percipient remark that in this regard the Amores are much closer to the Heroides than to the Ars); and the fact of Ovid’s consistent engagement, nevertheless, with “subject matter reflective — or subversive? — of Augustan family values” (p. 113).

The chapter on the Heroides is the work of Peter Knox, who attempts to grab our attention with an opening assertion that “with the exception only of the Metamorphoses, the Heroides have been Ovid’s most influential work from antiquity until very recent times” (p. 118). (Experienced Ovidians will be familiar with this sort of captatio benevolentiae: it is conventional to claim either that one’s slice of Ovid was predominantly influential during some golden age in the past, or that it is currently the most neglected of all Ovidian works.) After that we settle down to more mundane matters such as authorship, and background and genre. Knox suggests reasons why Amores 2.18 should be taken seriously as a guide to genuine epistles, reviews questions of authenticity, rounds up the usual literary suspects for forerunners of the Heroides, succinctly outlines the crucial differences between Ovid’s collection and Propertius 4.3, and pursues Duncan Kennedy’s influential argument that each letter “refers self-consciously to a specific source in earlier literature” (p. 127). In the heart of the article — on the single epistles — Knox sets himself the task of pursuing the relationship of the Heroides to their literary tradition. The treatment here is detailed and useful, particularly in those cases where it is demonstrated how Ovid’s treatment of the tradition (in persona) may cause readers to question the values represented in the primary source. The piece ends with a review of the double Heroides and some illuminating remarks on the place of the collection in Ovid’s development as a narrative poet.

The chapter on the erotodidactic poems falls to Patricia Watson. After a short review of the Medicamina, the author sets herself eight topics to cover in respect of the Ars, including the poem’s relationship with didactic and elegy, Ovid’s didactic persona, the use of myth, Ovid and Augustus, and Ovid’s attitude to women. Watson’s commitment (p. 146) to summarising scholarship, rather than to writing a more personally engaged piece with a line to push, results in the re-opening of a number of debates which have long since lost their vigour, and in a curiously dispassionate style of treatment. In general the article appears to lack confidence in itself, and the treatment is a little thin; nevertheless its updated bibliography and generalised treatment make it a suitable companion piece to Adrian Hollis’ still-useful study in Binns’ volume.5 On Ovid’s flouting of Augustus’ adultery law, Watson offers the interesting suggestion that Ovid may have calculated he would be safe because the spectacle of Augustus denouncing the poet “would draw greater public attention to the unpalatable truth that his adultery laws were having little or none of the desired effect on the mores of the Roman upper classes” (p. 157). The piece ends with a review of the main themes and critical issues in the Remedia Amoris.

With the sixth chapter we reach the first of two pieces devoted to the Ovidian work which has grabbed most attention in recent years, namely the Fasti. In the first piece J.F. Miller sets himself the formal and technical subjects of style, structure and time. The piece begins with consideration of the issue of revision in exile and of the political significance of the poems before moving onto the text itself. Here Miller deals first with the issue of the relationship of Ovid’s Fasti to Roman calendars and calendrical research (particularly that of Verrius Flaccus and his Fasti Praenestini), then the influence of the Aetia, and the poem’s generic identity — where Miller rehearses the familiar Hindsian view of “genre as a dynamic principle rather than … a static category” (p. 181). (As the author goes on to note, “Given the doubts in some quarters that genre resonates much in Augustan literature’s extensive “crossing of genres”, it is surprising that no one has mounted a sustained counter argument” [p. 182].) Next Miller charts the structural uniqueness of the poem, bringing out well the reader’s sense of an interplay between “apparent randomness and shared concerns in the succession of days” (p. 186). In the final section the author examines narrative techniques and tonal complexity in the Fasti.

In the second of two chapters on the Fasti, Elaine Fantham deals with the complementary topics of “politics, history and religion”. Starting from Augustus’ consistent supplementation of the Roman calendar with anniversary celebrations of his own and from the prominence of some of these anniversaries in the Fasti, Fantham reviews their treatment or indirect reflection by Ovid. All this leads naturally enough to the key question of the seriousness of Ovid’s apparent homage to the princeps. With regard to the hyperbole of Ovid’s praise, Fantham makes the unfashionable point that “the criterion of [its] success is not credibility but originality and the freshness of word-play, even wit” (p. 208). Fantham signals that she could go further down this route, but, understanding that the times are against her, judiciously decides to move off in the direction of the religious content of the Fasti. The article ends with a sample detailed investigation of Ovid’s treatment of a major feast day, here the Vestalia (wherein Fantham takes issue at length with Gareth Williams’ 1991 treatment).6 The author adds a useful appendix containing a bibliographical note on Roman religion.

There follow three chapters on the Metamorphoses. For many years this poem was decidedly more fun to read than to read about; if anything, reading about it spoiled the fun. But, as these three articles indicate, sophisticated research on the poem in recent years has begun to alter this state of affairs. The first article, by Alison Keith, covers Met. 1-5 from the viewpoint of genre; the second, by Gianpiero Rosati, considers narrative techniques, particularly in the central books; while the final contribution, by Garth Tissol, looks at issues of history and politics in the final triad. Alison Keith begins at the beginning and reads the prologue of the poem for those elements which align the poem with the epic tradition. Surprise is expressed that there are still people out there who are reluctant to classify the poem as epic. This fails to do justice to the power of the objections raised, among others, by W.S. Anderson (whose important 1993 article is not in the bibliography).7 Nevertheless, Keith offers a good introduction to the interpretive opportunities presented by the poem and sets out a detailed and illuminating examination of the Perseus narrative of Met. 4 and 5, designed to explore Ovid’s adaptation of heroic epic, particularly Homer and Vergil. Noting in the proem, however, “a Callimachean resonance that complicates the poem’s high epic pretensions” (p. 246), Keith studies the erotic narratives the Met. 1-5. The elegiac and other complicating elements in these narratives are argued to produce a tension congruent with the generic tension implicit in the proem. In the final section of the article, Keith examines the debt of Met. 1-5 to Ovid’s only other foray outside elegy, namely tragedy. The piece ends with a reflection on “Ovid’s self-confident play with sources and genres in the Metamorphoses, as he thematises a poetics of transformation in self-reflexive commentary on his models” (p. 268).

In the next chapter, the distinguished Italian scholar Gianpiero Rosati contributes (in English) probably the single best, and certainly the most conceptually rigorous, article in the collection. Rosati starts with the observation that the multiplicity of internal narrators in the poem maintains the reader’s awareness that we are hearing narratives of events. The result has been, as the author emphasises, greater critical emphasis on the figure of the narrator and the rhetorical strategies that govern the relationship of narrators to audiences. The heart of the article looks first at how the use of internal narrators in the Metamorphoses “allows material which would otherwise be difficult to insert into a rigidly chronological framework to be brought together” (p. 277). In the long central section of the Metamorphoses all sense of “real” chronological succession is in effect lost, and is replaced by a chronology based on the narrative sequence of the stories (“time of the narration” vs. “time of the world”). But any claims for Ovidian success here should be read against the stringent comments of Hexter (p. 430) on why no medieval poet tried to imitate the Metamorphoses on a structural level. Next Rosati turns to the issue of the characterisation of individual narrative voices. While there is a certain uniformity of tone to the Metamorphoses as a whole, Rosati insists, nevertheless, that “to ignore the poem’s change of voices obliterates shades of meaning important to the comprehension of the poem” (p. 283). Next the author considers the process whereby readers are made aware that particular narrators may be less than objective or reliable. The piece ends with a detailed investigation of the contest between Minerva and Arachne in Met. 6, which the latter famously looses not because of artistic inferiority, but for reasons of power. Rosati rightly points up the significance of Ovid’s failure, as a narrator, both here and in the earlier contest between the Muses and Pierides, to “assume a position openly in favour of a just interpretation or against a mistaken interpretation” (p. 297).

In third chapter on politics and history in the Metamorphoses, Garth Tissol notes that “indirection and unpredictability remain characteristic of the narrative even as Ovid draws historical and Roman material within his scope” (p. 307). Yet, in the course of Tissol’s exposition, “Ovidian slipperiness” and “interpretive instability” are too often asserted rather than demonstrated. Subjects covered in the following pages include the foundation of Troy; the apotheosis of Caesar’s soul (“intentionally incoherent, presenting the reader with irreconciliable interpretive options” [p. 321]); Ovid’s “little Aeneid”, where severe abbreviation and vast expansion of the original alternate; and the apotheosis of Romulus. On Ovid’s failure to offer more than a drastically compressed account of Rome’s origins. Tissol acutely observes that the poet has set a hermeneutic trap: “his text demands interpretation without providing the resources to arrive at one” (p. 328). Illuminating comments are also made on the poor allegorical fit between Augustus and the Romulus of the Metamorphoses.

The chapter on Ovid’s exile falls to Gareth Williams, and what is offered here is more or less an expansion of the article found in the Cambridge Companion. Study of the letters from exile begins with an examination of Ovid’s projection of his own inner turmoil onto the landscape and peoples of Tomis; the resulting portrait is “believable only at an emotional level” (p. 344). Williams looks also at the generic complexity of the exile poems: Ovid’s detachment from Rome, it is argued, is matched by the detachment of his poems from the elegiac tradition to which they belong. Other topics surveyed include the deracinating effects of exile pictured through Ovid’s transformed perceptions of time (which in Tomis turns out not to be a healer); the poet’s strategic insistence on his own poetic decline; and the poet’s refusal to name his addressees in the Tristia, resulting in the projection onto Rome of an anxiety-ridden and oppressive atmosphere. Williams goes on to construct a middle way between those who see the exile poetry either as straightforward flattery of the emperor or as an exercise in defiance by insisting on the ambivalence of Ovid’s treatment of Augustus. Particularly good here is the treatment of the tension between between Ovid’s “loyal” Roman persona and his first hand experience of the edge of empire, where Roman power manifests itself as negotiation and compromise rather than domination. The piece concludes with a study of the Ibis, and with an insistence on the continuity between the exile poetry and Ovid’s earlier output, particularly the Metamorphoses.

The remaining three chapters of the book cover Ovid’s survival and reception in the centuries following his death: Michael Dewar looks at Ovid in the first to fifth centuries A.D.; Ralph Hexter at the poet in the Middle Ages; and John Richmond at the manuscript traditions and transmission of Ovid’s work. These chapters offer, as the editor points out in her preface, “the opportunity for a synoptic view of Ovid’s poetry” (p. ix). In the first Dewar starts off in familiar territory with Ovid’s influence on the metre and style of later poets, particularly Seneca and (in some detail) Statius. He broaches the important issue of whether a passage in which modern scholars detect ironies must also be presumed ironical when exploited by later poets (a particularly pressing issue in panegyrical poetry). The detailed treatment given to Statius leaves little room for other poets, and Dewar alots just over a half page to Martial before leaping forward to more extended consideration of a panegyrical passage in Claudian. On the chapter on Ovid in the Middle Ages, Hexter, no doubt sensibly, confines himself to a selection of Latin works from the early and high Middle Ages (excluding the vernacular works of the late Middle Ages) and organises his material under the headings of exile, mythographer, and lover. Comment on this chapter is well beyond the competence of the present reviewer, but the style is lively (“by sending Ovid to the fringes of the empire, Augustus virtually placed him in a time machine and set the dial to 650 C.E.” [p. 416]), many comments are thought-provoking, and the material is a sheer pleasure to work one’s way through. The book ends with a substantial contribution from Richmond surveying the general transmission and editing of Ovid down through the centuries, followed by a systematic review of the manuscript traditions of individual works. The former section, when read alongside Hexter’s immediately preceding contribution, saves the piece from appearing anomalous in the context of the volume as a whole.

There is a very long and extremely useful General Bibliography, a detailed Index Locorum (there is no equivalent in the Cambridge volume), and a good General Index. The text is set out and printed, and the book bound, to Brill’s usual high standards; typing errors are very few. There are occasional inaccuracies in the citation of dates of published works, and the editor perhaps ought to have forcibly inserted more cross-references between papers if the individual contributors were not able or willing to make the connections for themselves.

In sum a useful and reliable volume — rather conservative perhaps, but with some excellent contributions. It is probably best suited (rather ironically given the price) to undergraduates studying Ovid in depth for the first time. Perhaps Brill can be persuaded to bring out a paperback edition.


1. P. Hardie (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ovid (Cambridge, 2002).

2. For a restatement of this divergence in slightly different, but very illuminating, terms, see J. Ma, “Black hunter variations”, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 40 (1994) 47-80, at 75-8.

3. J.W. Binns (ed.), Ovid (London and Boston, 1973).

4. I. M. Le M. Du Quesnay, “The Amores” in Binns (n. 3 above), 1-48.

5. A. Hollis, “The Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris” in Binns (n. 3 above) 84-115.

6. G. Williams, “Vocal variations and narrative complexity in Ovid’s Vestalia: Fasti 6.249-468”, Ramus 20 (1991) 183-204.

7. W.S. Anderson, “Form changed: Ovid’s Metamorphoses” in A.J. Boyle (ed.), Roman Epic (London and New York, 1993) 108-24