BMCR 2005.10.32

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

, Ovid's Metamorphoses. 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.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xii, 178 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780198035060 $18.95.

Anyone currently teaching civilization courses to English-speaking undergraduates welcomes the publication of intelligent, readable and affordable books to accompany the literary side of the curriculum; with its new series, Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature, the editors aim to fill this pedagogical need “for studies of individual works” in Greek and Roman civilization and literature courses (p. 5). Oxford is not the first press to identify a niche in the expanding cadre of Latin- and Greek-less students of classical literature. In 1985 John Herington introduced the Ovid volume in the new Hermes series (Yale) with the observation that between the “classical masters” and “the industrial complex, processing those masters into an annually growing output of technical articles and scholarship” stood the under-served “literate but nonspecialist adult” and “intelligent but uninstructed beginning student.” He offered as models for the new Hermes series the generalist works of the great scholars of an earlier generation, R.C. Jebb and Gilbert Murray, written “in the intervals of their more technical researches,” scholars who had directed the reader to “the living faces of the writers themselves … with a deep knowledge of, and love for, his subject.”1 While the new Oxford series has only published two volumes thus far, it is abundantly clear that it will approach fulfillment of the fantasy of Herington, in large part because of the years of scholarly and pedagogical experience they have tapped in their authors: Richard Hunter on Plato’s Symposium, and Elaine Fantham (F.) on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the volume under review here.

The task of introducing a non-specialist to a poem of the Met.’s length and complexity. is daunting: F.’s book undertakes a 150-pp. distillation of a 15-book epic whose twisting narrative actively resists distillation and generalizations. This may in part explain F.’s decision to organize the volume along thematic lines, and to summarize a broad selection of episodes, often at great length. While Chapters Two through Four (creation/flood/fire, Thebes, and human artistry) proceed in order through the first six books of the Met., Chapters Five through Eight (women, love, heroes, and the miraculous) are purely thematic and range more widely across the poem. F. successfully allows the poem (and Melville’s Oxford translation of it) to speak for themselves, with a minimum of authorial intrusion, perhaps less than some would prefer (see below). F.’s readable narrative is usefully complemented by efficient bibliographies for further reading at the end of each chapter, two appendices describing Ovid’s poetic career (for true neophytes a sketch of the poet’s life and times would be useful here) and providing an outline of the entire poem, and an index of persons. The general index is unfortunately overly concise; under ‘Art,’ for example, we are not referred to Chapter Four, entitled ‘Human Artistry.’ An index locorum of the works of Ovid and other ancient authors would also have been desirable, particularly for civilization students (I often encourage students to browse such indices for essay ideas).

The first chapter, ‘Transforming Bodies, Transforming Epic,’ addresses the Met. proem, the poem’s departures from its epic predecessors, and the theme of metamorphosis. Following a delightful introduction to the proem’s complexities and a very accessible account of metamorphoses in previous epics, F. rightly attributes the power of the Met. to Ovid’s ability to draw the reader into the myths emotionally, using the Io episode’s combination “of genuine pathos with comedy” as a model for his praxis (15 ff.). Metamorphosis as a theme is presented rather conventionally, in terms of punishment and justice; the cruel capriciousness of transformations such as Io’s is largely unacknowledged. This is in line with a general inclination of the book to advance what Wade Stephens called the Met.’s “glittering surface” over its dark side;2 educators will have to do the heavy lifting on the poem’s more bleak moments.

F.’s first groups of themes, which cluster in Bks. 1 and 2, are treated in Chapter Two: ‘Creation, Flood and Fire.’ The user-friendly narrative voice of this volume is exemplified at the opening of this chapter: “How does one kick-start a cosmogony?” F. couches Ovid’s answer to that question within a consideration of Plato’s and Hesiod’s important treatments of the theme, transforming cosmogony from a potentially daunting subject for students to one that arises quite naturally from the literary and philosophical tradition. F. here, as often, points out the connections between the Roman world and Ovid’s largely Greek tale: Phaethon’s chariot-ride recalls the Circus Maximus, while the tears of his sisters become the amber worn by Roman brides.

Chapter Three turns from what F. styles “natural themes” to stories of men and gods, namely Cadmus and the Theban cycle in Bks. 3-4. F. vividly captures Ovid’s descriptive powers in this book, from the catalog of Actaeon’s dogs to the events surrounding the arrival of Dionysus in Thebes. Ovid’s unique integration of, and departures from, material from Euripides’ Bacchae, Pacuvius’ Pentheus and the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus in his story of Acoetes is ably detailed, and the reader is treated to the Latin for Echo’s responses to Narcissus.The importance of the theme of “seeing and being seen” is raised in the context of the Actaeon episode but then vanishes from view; it feels like a missed opportunity to make a connection between this episode and the rapes, as well as other myths (e.g. Perseus) where vision figures prominently.

The song and poetry contests of Bks. 5-6 and Orpheus and Pygmalion from Bk. 10 are the focus of the shortest chapter in the book, ‘Human Artistry.’ The contests are, appropriately enough, treated as a continuation of the ‘men and gods’ theme. But the significance of Ovid’s extension of this theme into the realm of art deserves more attention. F. rightly considers the poetic and weaving contests and the performances of Orpheus more important a revelation of Ovid’s views than the animation of Pygmalion’s ivory girl; she concludes, “So, to my skeptical reading, this miracle is actually a less serious expression of Ovid’s belief in the powers of art than the myths of poetry and music that both precede and follow it” (60). But the contests and the Orpheus episodes, with their ultimately brutal treatment of mortal artists and their artworks, seem designed to refute the possibility of the survival of art in the face of power; it is after all only in the pages of Ovid’s own Met. that the artworks are (fictionally) recovered from annihilation.

Chapter Five takes on the theme of women, clearly a favorite of F.’s. This chapter takes on the flowing nature of the poem itself, ranging more widely to link stories of gender change, of rape, and of maternal love across the poem as Ovid clearly wanted us to do. One might quibble with the narrowness of F.’s conclusion regarding the rape episodes that “Ovid’s achievement of variety is an index of both his skill and his audience’s taste” (64). F. doesn’t decisively weigh in: are these episodes for entertainment and display, or is something deeper and darker operating here? Curran’s article on Ovid’s rapes offers a more latent reading of these episodes as commentaries on power and gender in Roman society and should have a place in the chapter bibliography.3 An undergraduate would find this chapter a good starting place, and a good model, for a thematic paper on episodes concerning women and gender across the poem. The following chapter, ‘Aspects of Love,’ has many of the same strengths, discussing a large number of varied episodes in a way that pulls the poem together around this theme for the reader. Medea and Orpheus (and his stories) are the major players in the chapter, but F. gives other varieties of love the prominence they deserve but are so often denied by commentators, including married love (Cephalus and Procris in Bk. 7, Ceyx and Alcyone in Bk. 11).

Chapter Seven, ‘Heroes — Old Style and New,’ includes Perseus (Bk. 4), Theseus (Bk. 7), Hercules (Bk. 9), Aeneas (Bks. 13-14), Romulus (Bk. 14), Julius Caesar and Augustus (Bk. 15). Here, where Ovid intersects with the traditional epic project and might be thought to be at his most ironic, F.’s interest remains with the skillfulness of his vivid narrative. F. carefully reveals the theme of apotheosis from Hercules to Julius Caesar. On the touchy subject of the encomium of Augustus at the end of the poem, F. shows restraint, opting to leave aside ironic interpretation to note only “the need for courtly panegyric” (102).

Monsters, in the broadest Latin sense of the word, are the subject of chapter eight, and include those who can fly, witches, hybrid creatures, allegorical personifications, and, I think largely in response to the difficulty of fitting it in anywhere else, the speech of Pythagoras. This chapter provides a welcome review of episodes not often treated as a thematic group or in a general way. F.’s exposition of Pythagoras is superb: interesting, not overly detailed, and free from the confusions of the scholarly debate about the episode. As Pythagoras reaches the subject of the rise and fall of cities, concluding with his prediction of the rise of Rome, F. is I think overly cautious when she concludes, “It might seem to follow from the whole extended argument that this [i.e. Rome] too shall pass away, and Rome’s empire will not be eternal, but no hint is given” (117).

F.’s chapter nine, on the Met.’s generic scope, is superb, where the reader benefits from F.’s broad experience with Latin literature. The discussion is a real masterpiece of perspective on Ovidian tone, a forest without the clutter of trees, ranging between the poem’s deployment of epic and elegiac modes, and capturing here what makes the epic Ovidian: “Readers who had enjoyed Ovid’s earlier work were no doubt relieved to meet the familiar sentimentality of elegy but then disturbed to find the episode transforming as it evolved. It is not only Ovid’s characters but his stories that metamorphose, like Arachne’s web … and they shift through all the generic colors” (123). One might wish only to have found it earlier in the volume, from which vantage point its comprehensive view of the subtlety, humor, irony, allusiveness and narrative complexity of Ovid’s epic poesis might have more deeply infused the thematic chapters. Students would benefit from F.’s insight on these issues but must turn elsewhere in F.’s own oeuvre to pursue, e.g., the notion that “if Augustus had turned to the beginning of the poem, he might have questioned the reverence of a comparison between himself and great Jupiter.”4

The book concludes with a final chapter on the reception of the poem, a whirlwind survey of the poem’s traces in literature from the time of Seneca through the Christian moralists to Chaucer and Shakespeare, and in the fine arts and drama from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The chapter opens and closes with modern responses to Ovid: Zimmermann’s stage play Metamorphoses, Hughes’ collection Tales from Ovid, and John Hollander’s poems. F.’s close attention to reworkings of the Midas, Arachne and Philomela stories illustrates the vitality of this text over time and place.

This Ovidian appetizer, as F. calls it, succeeds in touching upon and inciting interest (her adjectives include ‘marvelous,’ ‘colorful,’ ‘fantastic’ and ‘vivid’) in most of Ovid’s themes, styles and idiosyncrasies, in a book that is itself a good read. This was confirmed for me when I assigned the book to a Latin seminar on Ovid last term; as F. hoped, it whetted the appetite of a class that would proceed to devour the poem with relish over the course of a semester.


1. E.g., Jebb’s translations for Encyclopaedia Britannica’s ‘Great books of the Western World’ and numerous essays, and Murray’s Euripides and His Age for Oxford’s ‘Home University Library of Modern Knowledge’ in 1946. S. Mack, Ovid (New Haven: Yale 1988) vii-ix.

2. W. Stephens, ‘Cupid and Venus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,’ TAPA 89 (1958) 287.

3. L. Curran, “Rape and rape victims in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” Arethusa 11 (1978) 213-241.

4. E. Fantham, Roman Literary Culture (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 1996) 119.