BMCR 2006.03.11

Epic Succession and Dissension. Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.623-14.582 and the Reinvention of the Aeneid

, Epic succession and dissension : Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.623-14.582, and the reinvention of the Aeneid. 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.. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2005. 1 online resource (xii, 218 pages).. ISBN 9783110899016 $84.00.

The section of the Metamorphoses that deals with the adventures of Aeneas naturally invites comparison with Vergil’s Aeneid, and modern critics have often discussed the texts side by side. Some see Ovid as treading lightly out of respect, deliberately avoiding direct competition with the already canonical treatment. Others see a more polemical rewriting of Vergil in un-heroic, Hellenistic, or neoteric terms. Still others see Ovid as essentially playful and parodic, with a twinkle of anti-Augustan mischief in his eye. Stephen Hinds took an appealingly radical stance in 1998 by arguing that Ovid attempted to incorporate the model and supersede it as the master account: “Rather than construct himself as an epigonal reader of the Aeneid,” wrote Hinds, “Ovid is constructing Vergil as a hesitant precursor of the Metamorphoses.”1 P[apaioannou]’s book is a working out of the implications of this remark. She sees Ovid as attempting to take Vergil’s “epic throne” (8), and as possessed by anxiety to demonstrate his mastery of the techniques of the epic genre. This overarching thesis is supported by a series of detailed readings and comparisons between the two texts. Not all of her arguments will persuade, but P. has done a service by providing the most detailed look available at all the Aeneiadic material in the Metamorphoses from a metaliterary perspective, and she has done so in a way that is fully abreast of current developments in Ovidian criticism.

After an introductory summary of previous scholarship, Chapter 1 (with the formidable title, “Aeneads and Aniads: Offering Politics and the Politics of Offering, or Narrative Discourse on Anius’ Crater”) looks at the myth of the daughters of Orion ( Met. 13.681-99), giving it an essentially “optimistic” reading. Following earlier scholars, she sees the emergence of the Coroni from the ashes of the funeral pyre as a promise of revival and future greatness for Rome from the ashes of Troy. She adds that the Orionids are poet-figures, and that the rebirth of the dead girls as the Coroni is a quasi-apotheosis, to be seen in the context of the series of such apotheoses in the later books (Hercules, Aeneas, Julius Caesar). Anius, a priest of Apollo, is a “clear anticipation of Augustus’ appearance in the closing scene” of the epic (37).

In Chapter 2 (“Immortality and Mutability: The Sibyl and the Power of Poetic Memory”), P. observes that Ovid’s Sibyl is not the awesome supernatural communicant of Aeneid 6, but a tragic figure whose closeness to Apollo has cost her dearly. By allowing the Sibyl to tell her own story — her courting by Apollo and her failure to ask for eternal youth along with immortality — Ovid humanizes the Sibyl in a way that clashes with Vergil. This is not a “profanation” of Vergil as Bömer would have it, but a powerful statement of originality (47). Like Cassandra, the Sibyl knows her grim future but cannot prevent it. This solid analysis is followed by a series of somewhat shakier comparisons and allegories that are typical of P.’s approach elsewhere in the book. Ovid invented the figure of ten saecula for her lifespan; the detail that she has 300 more years to go makes the 700-year-old Sibyl roughly coeval with Rome, from Ovid’s perspective. Hence she in an allegory for the decline and fall of the city and the empire. “One is to assume that the worst is still ahead” (55). This makes a stark, anti-Augustan contrast to the Golden Age Sibylline rhetoric of Eclogue 4, as well as with the analysis of the Coroni episode in the previous chapter. The Sibyl will “die” while still biologically alive and exist only as a voice, as she herself predicts at 14.153: voce tamen noscar. P. places great interpretive weight on this phrase (although 14.152-3 are athetized by Heinsius and Tarrant, something she does not mention). As a “voice” the Sibyl represents poetry. As a prophet close to Apollo, she is like Homer’s Calchas, a Homeric bard figure who is himself described by Homer in words also used to describe the Muses. Like Homer’s Nestor (also a bard figure), she is in possession of an unprecedented mnemonic record. Like the allegorical figure Fama (who represents poetic creativity), the Sibyl will be known by her words. The Sibyl represents “the flux of the Word” (68). “She will define her fama (renown) among the epic successors of Vergil and Ovid not as Text (character of the Sibyl) but as Word (oracular speeches, allegories, allusivity)” (67). The Sibyl represents a mode of intertextuality. “The body of the priestess . . . may stand for the original Text, not necessar[il]y a single textual model but a literary tradition, a conglomeration of various hypotexts” (72). The Sibyl stands bewilderingly now for Rome, now Word, now Text, now Tradition; she is now a Cassandra-figure, now like Nestor, Calchas or Fama. P. seems not to be trying to show that these meanings are likely to be accessible to readers (indeed at one point she specifically disclaims concern with “the ideas and values promoted in the . . . text” [82-83]). Rather she heaps up potential allusions and metaliterary allegories to show that Ovid is capable of immensely sophisticated self-reflexivity and allusiveness, and hence is Vergil’s equal or superior.

In Chapter 3 (“Centralizing the Marginal: The Anamorphosis of Achaemenides”) P. approaches the Achaemenides episode ( Met. 14.154-222) as Ovid’s commentary on how Vergil reads Homer and a demonstration that he can do the same kind of creative imitation. Vergil’s Achaemenides calls Odysseus infelix twice ( Aen. 3.613, 691). This highlights only half of Homer’s Odysseus, in whom the interdependence of suffering and trickery is a leading motif. The trickery of Odysseus is portrayed by Vergil as mere treachery and malice ( Aen. 2.90, 164). Thus Vergil produces a creative misreading of Homer, the kind of which Bloom approves in The Anxiety of Influence. Ovid’s Achaemenides reverses this when he calls Odysseus experiens ( Met. 14.159), which, according to P., translates Homer’s πολύτροπος. “Ovid’s Ulixes . . . is modeled on the character of his Homeric counterpart . . . in an ambiance unmistakably Homeric [which] may reflect a deliberate reaction to Vergil” (89). But this argument is based almost entirely on the single word experiens, and no attempt is made to show that the episode is pervasively Homeric. The cannibalism of the Cyclops is described in all three versions, Homer’s, Vergil’s and Ovid’s. In contrast to Homer’s concise version with its homely similes ( Od. 9.288-93), Vergil has Achaemenides describe the cannibalism as a spectacle ( Aen. 3.616-654). Ovid composes a mockery of this by recasting the spectacle in the mode of an observation (102). The distinction between spectacle and observation, based on one made by J. Croty, is that a spectacle is “impulsive and subjective,” while an observer “appropriates the pictura she describes” (99). The waters get muddier, however, when P. claims that Ovid actually fuses these two distinct types of viewing. The Achaemenides episode as a whole is a commentary on Vergil’s approach to Homer, and an emulation of Vergil, “intended to highlight his (Ovid’s) mastery over the governing rules of textuality” (110).

In Chapter 4 (“Marginalizing the Central: Macareus’ Anamnesis”), P. argues that the Macareus episode ( Met. 14.223-440) addresses Ovid’s capital concern of establishing himself as Vergil’s direct epic successor. Ovid challenges Vergil by styling his Circe as a spurned lover, after the pattern of Dido. But besides the fact that the two are rejected by men, the argument rests on very slender props. P. lays great stress on the fact that Circe wears a golden brooch at Met. 14.345, as Dido wears a golden fibula at Aen. 4.139. The literary ancestor of both is Odysseus’ brooch at Od. 19.225-7, all of which shows “Ovid’s skill in inferring [sc. alluding?] to textual models from multiple sources” (123). But there is no attempt at a broader comparison of the two characters or acknowledgment of the obvious differences between them.

Chapter 5 (“Experimentation on a Narrative Chain I: Poetology, Epic Definition, and the near-Swans of Diomedes”) deals with one of the notable metamorphoses in the Aeneid, that of Diomedes’ men into swans ( Aen. 11.271-274). Ovid revisits this, at six times the length ( Met. 14.484-509), but he curiously has the men change into “near swans” ( ut non cycnorum, sic albis proxima cycnis 14.509). P. believes that the episode serves as another allegory for Ovid’s poetic style. Swans are symbolic of literature; Diomedes is a bard figure; thus the metamorphosis of Diomedes’ men into near swans means that Ovid’s epic will be similar to Vergil’s, yet different. P. here argues thoroughly and provides an interesting solution to a puzzling passage.

Chapter 6 (“Experimentation on a Narrative Chain II: Vergilian Ships and Ovidian Nymphs, and a Play of Literary Identities”) tackles Ovid’s reworking ( Met. 14.527-565) of the much-criticized metamorphosis of the Trojan fleet in the Aeneid (9.77-122). Once again she pushes slight verbal parallels hard to argue for a grander metaliterary intent. Elaine Fantham in a well-known article pointed out the structural importance of Vergil’s references to the fleet, especially the parallel between Neptune’s rescue of the fleet after the storm in Aeneid Book 1 and Cybele’s rescue of it from Turnus in Book 9.2 P. claims that Ovid perceived this naval leitmotif in the Aeneid, and alluded to it, as follows: Ovid’s Cybele in Met. 14 is modeled on Juno raising the storm in Aeneid 1 (both goddesses are called memor, and both are introduced with cum-inversum clauses). The storm Cybele creates to thwart Turnus at Met. 14.542-5 reworks the opening storm scene of the Aeneid (both storms include thunder). Once transformed, the nymphs play ( lusibus 14.556), a reference, P. asserts, to the play of Aeneas’ ships at the funeral games of Anchises ( ludos, Aen. 5.113). The assistance the nymphs give to passing ships in Met. 14.561 ( supposuere manus) alludes to the assistance Portunus gives to one of Aeneas’ ships at Aen. 5.241 ( euntem impulit). Why all these references to Vergil’s Trojan fleet? “In a display of sublime artistry Ovid captures within a single scene of the epigonal epic a miniature of a distinct structural layout of the prototype” (180); that is, Ovid is referring to the way (noted by Fantham) in which Vergil makes the Trojan fleet symbolize Troy itself, and uses the fate of the fleet as a structural device. Such arcane allusivity is a product of Ovid’s anxiety. A clear reference to a Homeric ship metamorphosis at 14.564-5 ( rigescere puppem . . . Alcinoi) shows Ovid’s “eagerness to share his anxiety about poetic succession even with a less observant reader” (179).

The seventh and final chapter (“Epic Conclusion and Epic Closure: The Fall of Ardea”) discusses the short section on the end of the war with the Latins, the destruction of Turnus’ city, Ardea, and the emergence from its ashes of the heron or ardea (14.574-580). These events are of course not in Vergil’s Aeneid. But P. sees them, rather than the longer section on the apotheosis of Aeneas at 14.581-608, which she does not discuss, as the finale to Ovid’s “little Aeneid.” Her reasoning is that this avian metamorphosis is structurally parallel to another avian metamorphosis, that of the Memnonides from the pyre of Memnon, the event which closes the “little Iliad” ( Met. 13.600-620). P. insists on this structural relationshipbecause it allows her to argue that the Ardea passage is a kind of summation of the entire epic tradition. Ovid’s Memnon is like Achilles (both have divine parentage and grieving mothers). Memnon is like Hector (both have notable funerals and are mourned by women). Ovid’s Turnus is like Hector (both are identified with the fate of their cities). Thus, if we grant that the fall of Ardea recalls the death of Memnon, it “masterfully combines a recollection of the earlier epic tradition in its entirety” (194). Not for the first time in the book a small amount of text is made to do a huge amount of work.

I have focused perhaps unfairly on what I see as the flaws in the argumentation. The overall thesis, that Ovid is a Bloomian “strong poet” competing to rival if not surpass Vergil, has much to recommend it. P.’s readings are detailed, thoroughly researched, and often suggestive. What is inevitably missing from this kind of approach is a sense of Ovid’s playfulness. I wish that more use had been made of the work of Gérard Genette, whose terminology P. favors (hypotext, paranarrative, metadiegesis). Genette’s urbane and learned discussion of terms like parody, travesty, satirical pastiche, and caricature in his book Palimpsests (which P. mentions but omits from the bibliography), could have lent much greater precision to a discussion of what Ovid is doing with/to the Aeneid; and a little of Genette’s appreciation for wit would have been a welcome relief from the persistent anxiety.3 This book is beautifully produced, as one expects from Walter de Gruyter, with no seriously confusing typos, though something seems to be missing at the top of p. 80 or the bottom of p. 79.


1. Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 106, quoted, not quite correctly, by Papaioannou on p. 8.

2. Elaine Fantham, ” Nymphas . . . e navibus esse : Decorum and Poetic Fiction in Aeneid 9.77-122,” Classical Philology 85 (1990) 102-119, at p. 110.

3.Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, translated by C. Newmann and C. Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, French original 1972).