BMCR 2007.09.03

Reading Ovid: Stories from the Metamorphoses

, Reading Ovid : stories from the Metamorphōsēs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. x, 272 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780521849012. $85.00 (hb).

Is reviewing a textbook without having used it in the classroom like writing about a new car model after only looking at it in the showroom? If so, I can’t wait to take Peter Jones’ Reading Ovid out for a spin. Designed for “post-beginners,” it assumes only that its intended audience will have completed an introductory course based on a text such as Wheelock or Jones’ own Reading Latin, both of which are cited as grammar references.1 Reading Ovid would be appropriate, therefore, for the many US college students who begin Latin with Wheelock. Sophisticated as well as user-friendly, it would also be ideal for graduate students who have come to Latin late but whose work requires a knowledge of the Metamorphoses, e.g., those interested in Spanish Baroque literature. It is not an exaggeration for the blurb to claim that “No other intermediate text is so carefully designed to make reading Ovid a pleasure.”

Nineteen episodes, totaling about 2000 lines, round up many of the usual suspects, e.g., Apollo and Daphne, Echo and Narcissus, Pygmalion, but also include five not usually selected for a text of this kind—Teiresias, Arethusa, Cephalus and Procris, Byblis, and Venus and Adonis.2 J sensibly abridges or condenses some episodes, e.g., the lines about setting up the looms for Arachne’s contest are given in English translation, and both speeches and catalogues have been cut from the Phaethon episode. Each episode (J calls them “passages”) begins with a brief section of “Background” on its context in the poem and ends with a “Study section” of roughly a half-dozen items. The bulk of each episode consists of short sections of text (ca. 5-15 lines) with notes on vocabulary, grammar, etc., followed by a “Comment” section. J modestly describes these comments as “occasionally embellished paraphrase[s]” which point out important detail and the story’s unfolding logic. In fact these are interpretive gems, which expound upon typical elements of Ovidian practice, locate passages in the epic tradition and in Ovid’s earlier work, cross-reference other episodes, etc. The style is colloquial, even chatty: one finds expressions such as “pay-back time,” a reference to Phaethon’s “Granny Tethys,” and puns such as “tour de farce.”

Other ancillary matter includes a general introduction, a brief “Glossary of technical literary terms”—from “aetiology” to “tricolon” (others are defined later as needed, including locus amoenus, ekphrasis, catalogue, patronymic, and synizesis), an introduction to meter, “Suggestions for further reading” (actually a two-part bibliography), and a “Grammatical index” of features commented upon in the notes, complete with references to Wheelock and Reading Latin, as well as three maps and five other illustrations.

The sixteen-page introduction treats the usual topics, but also includes brief remarks on the sensitive issue of rape, and a sampling of scholarly opinion about the poem. The section on “Ovid and epic” locates the work as “an epic with a difference;” the section on “Style” considers three aspects of Ovid as a rhetorical poet and some features of his verse which contribute to its speed. The section modestly headed “Some features of this selection” is actually a masterful two-page assessment of Ovid’s mind at work on “the fantasies of myth.”

J’s introduction to meter is exemplary. I have never seen the rule for syllabification stated so clearly and crisply—”a syllable starts with a consonant if it can.” Nor have I ever seen this simple point about dactylic hexameter made in print—”If a foot begins – u, the next syllable must be u and the next -.” The words “quantity” and “stress” are absent from the discussion; vowels are “long” or “short,” syllables are “heavy” or “light.” He moots the question of accent, but by using the terms “heavy”/”light” and by representing dactyls and spondees as “tum ti ti and tum tum respectively, he certainly implies a system of accented downbeats. The accuracy of that is beside the point here—it is a workable first approximation for an English-speaking beginner, who is used to poetry in accentual meters and who is also probably not yet fluent in reading Latin prose aloud.

The notes proper, accurately described by J as “need to know,”3 are no more technical than need be, e.g., he wisely explains instances of “metonymy” and “synecdoche” without resorting to those terms, nor does he specify the type of conditions—the meaning is usually clear enough in context.4 Besides glosses on grammar and vocabulary, there is the usual kind of translation help: “Begin translating with. . . ,” “Take x with y,” “Supply the appropriate noun,” and so on. Many good notes ask leading questions or make comments which require the student to pay closer attention to detail. Most of these concern lexical or grammatical points: “The word generis is from ” genus, not gener !” “[C]ontrast quoque (scansion!)” with quique earlier in the same line. Is emoriar“subj. here, or fut.? What would be the difference in meaning?” Other questions are more interpretive and speculative: “[D]oes ereptam patri reflect her [Io’s] point of view?” J also explains the case endings of Greek names and defines meaningful ones (e.g., the Sun’s horses), glosses mythological references, and provides other pertinent cultural background. J’s notes diligently alert readers to poetic devices and effects—metrical and sound effects (including all metrical anomalies); the studied arrangement of words (including chiasmus, golden and approximately golden lines, antithesis, juxtaposition); paradox and irony; puns and other word play (including polyptoton and syllepsis).

In his treatment of vocabulary—that nemesis of beginning and intermediate students—J is particularly thorough and systematic. Vocabulary which both Wheelock and Reading Latin expect students to learn is not glossed in the notes, but it does form the core of the “Total Learning Vocabulary” at the back of the book. Words glossed in the running vocabularies of episodes 1-8 and preceded by an asterisk are meant to be learned; they are not glossed in subsequent episodes, but they too are included in the “TLV.” Words not in the “TLV” are glossed every time they occur in episodes 9-19, so these can be read out of order—a desirable feature, since most instructors will find more than a semester’s worth of material here. This “TLV” helpfully cross-references items likely to elude beginners such as reduplicated perfects, degrees of irregular adjectives and adverbs, and oblique cases of pronouns. Both the running vocabularies and the “TLV” indicate the base of nouns and adjectives with hyphenation, always give a noun’s declension (1, 2, etc.) as well as gender, and provide full information on idiomatic usage.

J doesn’t err by glossing an unknown Latin word with an unfamiliar English one, e.g., vittae are “bands” or “headbands,” not “fillets,” and “sedge” (the meaning given for ulva is further explained as “marsh grass.” Often a literal definition is followed by a figurative one appropriate to the context. Sometimes the meaning requires a fuller context-specific clarification, e.g., that the ablative absolute eliso aere alludes to wind resistance met by Cupid in flight. J has a fine-tuned ear for idiomatic turns: mora : is “gradually;” a voice which is raucus is “husky;” census is “personal fortune;” and Medusaeus is “Medusa-like.” He virtually never supplies an English cognate as a definition (students are only too capable of doing that for themselves!), and adjectives which are the functional equivalent of a genitive singular are suitably defined, e.g., virilis (“man’s”), nocturnus (“of the night”), and arboreus (“of a tree”). J is especially good on particles and interjections; the latter are often glossed with a functional explanation instead of an English meaning.5

Starting with episode 12, words followed by an asterisk appear in the notes without definitions, because readers are expected to guess them. A good idea, but sometimes “guessability” is in the eye of the beholder, e.g., how will a student who doesn’t know Italian (or music) guess subitus ? Intentional redundancy in presenting vocabulary reinforces learning. Words are not only glossed as they occur, but occasionally throughout each episode asterisked words are listed in a “learning vocabulary” and all of an episode’s asterisked words are similarly listed at the end of it Instructors can use the intermittent learning vocabularies as the basis for vocabulary quizzes, and students can refer to the learning vocabularies for whole episodes in reviewing for tests. Conscientious use of these learning vocabularies will equip students with a good basic vocabulary for reading other Latin poetry.

Another feature aimed at novice readers of Latin poetry is a system of text markings, in addition to macra, to help them construe grammar and scan meter. In the first three episodes, final vowels are underlined to indicate elision. A system of carets and asterisks is used to provide “linking devices” for words which go together, i.e., to link nouns to their adjectives, and antecedents to their relative pronouns; starting with the fourth episode these are used more sparingly, when the linked words are in different lines or when linked words are of different declensions so that their linkage is less immediately recognizable (e.g., talibus . . . dictis, 3.287). These linking devices are easy enough to follow, but I can’t speculate on how well they will serve their intended audience. Print is not the ideal medium for this kind of help; computer software would be better, because linkages could be shown in color and be toggled on and off.

J is adept at anticipating any confusion or an objection on a novice reader’s part, the kinds of questions which come from not knowing the story and not being able to read on quickly for the answer, e.g., why, in the story of Actaeon, is the water from Diana’s pool ultrix ? and, what does it mean to say that Teiresias has known Venus utraque ? Elsewhere he provides information which makes Narcissus seem less dense about his reflection, and Pygmalion less delusional about his statue. Much of this information addresses cultural literacy, another of this book’s strengths. Among the ancient customs and institutions explained are: the use of nets in hunting; standards of female beauty (pale and plump, not tan and thin); the emphasis on illusion in the visual arts; and “catasterism” in myth. There are occasional misses, e.g., krater is glossed as a bowl for “mixing” wine, without explaining why the ancients mixed it. Some of this material is more practical lore, e.g., why a thrifty persons banks a fire, and how wool is spun. J explains spinning in detail and illustrates it with a photograph of a woman (from Ithaca!) at work doing it. Of course cultural literacy includes the literary tradition: J expressly concentrates on the epic tradition—both its conventions and specific passages from Homer and Virgil (he’s especially good on similes)—and on Ovid’s love poetry, but he occasionally goes beyond those limits, e.g., Callimachus’ version of Teiresias’ blinding, and “tragic” aspects (in the strict, ancient sense) of a story.

Gradually phasing out text markings is one way in which this book guides readers to increasing sophistication. Another of its outstanding features—the “Study sections”—is similarly designed. The first item in the “Study section” for the first ten episodes consists of lines for written scansion. Another item in the first five episodes is a reminder that enjoyment can result from reading a work of literature—”Take any five lines, consecutive or not, and explain why they give you pleasure.” After that simple beginning, which should be the alpha and omega of all literary scholarship, comes a great variety of increasingly sophisticated topics—Ovid’s use of his sources; his handling of different episodes of a similar kind; his reception by later authors and visual artists.6 In the very first “Study section” students are already asked to consider an alternate text reading, and late in the book they are invited to try their hand at emendation. Editorial decisions about capitalization and punctuation, and issues of lexicography (i.e., Ovidian citations in the OLD) are also considered. Scholarly opinions are quoted for discussion; the final “Study section” item invites readers, in effect, to critique the introduction’s sample of scholarly assessments. Broad literary issues are raised; readers are invited to speculate about Ovid’s interest in “realism,” and to offer a feminist perspective on the Io episode. J also provides the opportunity for students to respond imaginatively—by asking them to produce such things as an Ovidian-style description of one of Teiresias’ two sex-changes, and a sermon based on Midas. The abundance of this material, all of which promotes critical thinking, can provide material not only for class discussion, but also for test questions and essay topics.

These “Study sections” are so well-conceived, so varied, and so well-structured in a sequence of increasing sophistication that it seems churlish to quibble. When students are asked to compare Ovid’s Baucis and Philemon with the account in Genesis 19:1-26 of the angels sent to punish Sodom and Gomorrah, J speculates, “If there are enough similarities . . . would that demonstrate that Ovid’s tale is of Jewish origin?” Either this question assumes that instructors will know something about Near Eastern myth as a common source for Greek myth and Hebrew scripture, or else its naiveté is a departure from J’s usual sophistication.

There are very few typographical errors. The most significant glitch is the failure to append the version of Daedalus and Icarus from the Ars amatoria to one of the “Study section” items on p.184 (also cross-referenced on p.180).7

Reading Ovid is an alternative primarily to such predecessors as Dunmore’s Selections from Ovid and Musgrove’s The Student’s Ovid. Dunmore cannot meet a neophyte’s needs, however, and even Musgrove would work best for those at a a solidly “intermediate” level. Inadvertently perhaps, however, J has designed a textbook for more mature “post-beginners” which resembles Dunmore and Musgrove much less than it does Anderson and Frederick’s textbook in a series for secondary school students.8 Their four selections from the Metamorphoses are divided into 15-20 line sections; the text appears at the top of the right-hand page, vocabulary and notes are on the facing page, and study questions come after the text. Like Reading Ovid, this reader uses a system of asterisks for basic vocabulary, and like it, contains a list of technical terms, and passages for comparison. I’ve used this text for years, as a lead-in to either Dunmore or Musgrove, valuing its approach but wishing there were a longer and more sophisticated version for college students. Reading Ovid is that version.

Students and instructors who use Reading Ovid are in for a treat. The explanatory material is so helpfully user-friendly that a diligent “post-beginner” should indeed be able to read Ovid with fluency and pleasure. So much is explained, in fact, that an instructor might at times feel superfluous, except as a moderator of discussion and a reader of essays on topics from the “Study sections.”9 As a long-time scholar and teacher of the Metamorphoses, I have naturally found points to quibble with,10, and other specialists will certainly do so as well, but J has also corrected some long-held misunderstandings of mine—that Pyramus and Thisbe’s wall is an internal party wall—and supplied plausible answers to questions which have stumped me—what, exactly, is Arachne’s motive for suicide? Users of this text should conclude their experience of it with an appreciation of Ovid’s poetic, rhetorical, and narrative techniques; a familiarity with his habits of thought and style; and an understanding of the work’s place in the epic tradition and in Ovid’s corpus. They should have acquired a working knowledge of basic Latin poetic vocabulary; much improved skill at close reading; and greater familiarity with the variety of topics pursued by literary scholars. Because I won’t, unfortunately, be able to “test drive” Reading Latin any time soon, I encourage readers of this review who do use it with students to email me about their experiences.


1. Peter Jones and Keith Sidwell, Reading Latin: Grammar, Vocabulary, and Exercises (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); F.M. Wheelock, Wheelock’s Latin, 6th ed., rev. R.A. LaFleur (New York: HarperCollins, 2000).

2. Only the first two appear in Charles William Dunmore, Selections from Ovid, Focus Classical Reprints (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing 2003), and none in Margaret Musgrove, The Student’s Ovid: Selections from the Metamorphoses (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

3. One notable exception is an excursus on the mechanics of Daedalus’ wings, and another on the direction of his flight.

4. When he does refer, however, to a “‘vivid’ pres. subj. in an unfulfilled condition” (p.67) it might have been more helpful to say that this is not a future less vivid condition, but a poetic use of the present subjunctive in a present contrary to fact condition.

5. One may quibble with some of these glosses. Occasionally, they are not vigorous enough, e.g., “drive from below” for succutio rather than “shake or jolt from below” when used of the action on Phaethon’s out-of-control chariot. Sometimes J gives a figurative meaning without the literal one, e.g. “kindling” for the faces which Baucis has split for her fire, rather than “material prepared for use as a torch” ( OLD 6. The meaning of alienus (for Actaeon’s horns) is given at OLD 2 as “unnatural” rather than “strange.” When the adjective vivus is applied to rock it is better rendered “natural” than “living.” The limen from which the humiliated Procris fled is only a “hearth” by substitution of one English metonymy for another ( OLD 2.a. cites Met.13.628 as an example of its use, by metonymy, to mean “house” or “home.”

6. J includes four different versions of Cephalus and Procris for comparison with Ovid’s. Students are asked to compare Arethusa’s autobiographical account of Alpheus’ attempted rape with the third-person narratives about Daphne and Io, and the treatment of Daedalus and Icarus here and in the Ars Amatoria. Milton’s Eve is to be compared with Narcissus; Golding’s translation of Pyramus and Thisbe, with both the original, and the rude mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For Venus and Adonis, students are asked to consider Ovidian aspects of Shakespeare’s style in his version of that episode, and to compare Titian’s and Rubens’ versions with each other, with Ovid, and with Shakespeare.

7. Other slips include: p.20 Under item 5, “passages 12-16” should be “12-19.” — p.64 The verb niteo is misidentified as deponent. — p.68 The convention of using first a caret and then an asterisk for linkages that overlap is reversed for those in 1.651-52. — p.82 Sun and Moon are “siblings,” not “brothers.” — p.132 The first line “77” should be “74.” — p.179 The single use of ad loc. appears here; it isn’t listed with the other abbreviations (x). — p.183 There are three errant or at least inexplicable question marks in the “Comment section” (perhaps meant to suggest Jones’ uncertainty about something?). — p.236 The verb viderit is a jussive subjunctive, like the cross-referenced citation, not an imperative.

8. William S. Anderson and Mary Purnell Frederick, Selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1988).

9. The amount of detailed explanation may reflect J’s experience with writing texts for self-instruction: Learn Latin (London: Duckworth, 1997) and Learn Ancient Greek (London: Duckworth, 1998). The great length of the explanations in the 610-page Grammar, Vocabulary, and Exercises volume of Reading Latin is the main criticism in W.A. William’s review of it ( The Classical Review 37.2 (1987) 234-35; he praises the quality while objecting that the “bulk poses huge problems.”

10. Here is a selection of these: — p.36 J explains Cephisidas undas correctly as a reference to the Castalian spring; a tradition that the Cephisus river flowed into it is not speculative, but attested at Pausanias 10.8.10. — p.63 It’s too cryptic to refer to Argos as “Juno’s ‘home’ town,” even in quotations marks. — p.69 The note gives a fine explanation of Phoronidos in 668, but then calls this “a dramatic way of referring to Io,” without any mention of the Roman taste for recherché allusions. Similarly, J finds it “odd” to refer to Thebes as “Agenor’s house” (p.107), yet he himself calls Teiresias the “great-grandson of Cadmus’ dragon,” a reference that made me hesitate a beat. — p.103 Ovid does not say that Juno “alone refuses judgment” of Semele’s fate, rather that her response is not detached and rational, but emotional ( gaudet, 3.257). — p.105 J makes too much of what the passive voice implies about Juno’s relationship with Jupiter in qualis ab alta / Iunone excipitur, 3.284-85. — p.115 For the phrase sub Iove . . . suo (referring to Echo’s fellow-nymphs’ dalliances with Juno’s spouse), Jones comments archly “literally!,” without also giving a figurative meaning (“out in the open,” “under the open sky”). — p.125 Throughout Echo and Narcissus, J accurately comments on parallels with Ovid’s earlier love poetry, but uses the words “elegy” and “elegiac” without clarifying what those words mean in a Roman context. — p.155 Why such a vague clarification of “aegis”—”a breastplate or shield of some sort” (my emphasis)? — p.156 It’s not entirely correct that “we know no detail” about the Pygmy woman on Minerva’s tapestry—her death precipitated the fight between her people and the cranes — pp.177-78 J, otherwise so perceptive a reader of Ovid, is puzzled and disappointed by the poet’s extremely compressed version of Theseus’ great adventure, and even speculates that in revision this might have been expanded. But J does comment that Ovid treats Ariadne’s desertion in Heroides 10, he elsewhere observes that Ovid doesn’t revisit what’s already “been done,” and most to the point, his introduction characterized this poem as “an epic with a difference.” J is similarly obtuse on p. 236 about Atalanta’s compressed reference to the marriage Hippomenes desires with her as thalamos . . . cruentos. — p.216 Here and elsewhere J says that similes “decorate,” even though he always points out that they occur at emotional and narrative high points., i.e., have a function beyond mere decoration.