BMCR 2008.09.42

Ovid Before Exile. Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses. Wisconsin Studies in Classics

Patricia J. (Patricia Jane) Johnson, Ovid before exile : art and punishment in the 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.. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. 1 online resource (x, 184 pages).. ISBN 9780299224035 $50.00.

In recent times, several scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which stories about mythical artists, especially those contained within Ovid’s Metamorphoses, hold a wider significance beyond their immediate narrative context. Typically, these stories are explored for their timeless points about the nature of artistic creation, gender and literary genre.1 Patricia Johnson (hereafter J.) develops this line of enquiry by attempting to use three stories of artistic creation in Metamorphoses to shed light on a specific time, namely the sparsely-documented period of the poem’s production.

Taking on board the socio-political information to be gleaned from Horace ( Epistles 2) and Ovid ( Tristia 2), the major premise of Johnson’s study is that working conditions for a Roman poet changed dramatically between the times of Horace and Ovid. In the early years A.D. especially, a diffident Augustus was beset by domestic tragedy and dynastic setback, all of which resulted in a more nervous environment in which irreverent free speech was no longer tolerated (pp. 13-20). This change in poetic climate, Johnson contends, is detectable in the Metamorphoses, a work whose traditional dating positions it in the early years A.D. In so arguing, Johnson challenges the standard view that tends to divide Ovid between the states of a joyous and carefree writer (before his exile in A.D. 8) and a remorseful pleader (after his exile in A.D. 8): on Johnson’s reading, Ovid is already starting to adapt to changing poetic circumstances after his production of the Ars Amatoria in c. A.D. 2.

Johnson centres on three stories — the poetic contest between the Emathides and the Muses ( Met. 5), the weaving contest between Arachne and Minerva ( Met. 6), and the songs of Orpheus ( Met. 10-11). These stories are specifically chosen because they are felt to articulate most effectively and most fully the issues of: the motivation behind artistic composition; the social context for art, its audiences both intended and unintended; and the effects of art on the artist and audience. In essence, Johnson argues that these stories of artistic performance take on a contemporary didactic feel, in that they offer formulae for success for the contemporary Roman poet operating in the presence of a powerful audience.

This is, in general, a very good book, with stimulating readings of Ovid’s stories set out in a clearly expressed and readable fashion. I will take each of the stories in turn, highlighting the strengths of Johnson’s readings, before concluding with one reservation.

The contest between the mortal Emathides and the divine Muses takes place in a distinctly bucolic setting. But this bucolic setting only underscores the fact that this is not the sort of collegiate contest that one typically associates with the pastoral world. On the contrary, both the contest itself and its later recollection to Minerva (the actual story in the Met.) are noticeably stacked in favour of the Muses. In the contest itself, there is a significant power imbalance between divine and mortal contestants: the jury are nymphs, much more closely associated to the Muses by virtue of their semi-divine status. In terms of its recollection to Minerva, the story is narrated from the subjective viewpoint of the Muses: it is the victors who control the telling, and it is noticeable that they present their own song at length and verbatim whilst relegating their opponents’ song to a few reported statements. Johnson draws particular attention to the figure of Minerva, as this marks her first known occurrence in a story of the Muses. Minerva is characterised as a military figure and patron of arts, obviously superior to the Muses, who address her in hymnic language. As such, Johnson suggests that Minerva might be seen as an Augustus figure, himself a military man and literary patron.

The Muses’ retelling of the contest to Minerva reads as an object lesson in the benefits of tailoring a narration to the needs of a powerful (imperial) audience. The Emathides had chosen to sing a Gigantomachy, though they had apparently (according to the Muses) emphasised the gods’ flight and cowardly transformation during the war and had omitted any mention of the eventual Olympian victory. This would undoubtedly have offended the semi-divine nymphs and especially Minerva, as she played an active part in the war with the Giants. Aware of the need to play to rather than offend powerful listeners, the Muses proceed to make amends by offering (verbatim) their own song about Ceres and Proserpina. The Muses nominate Venus and Cupid as responsible for the abduction of Proserpina — a novelty within the mythical tradition. Venus is further portrayed in their story as a tyrannical figure, an empire-builder who wishes to enforce sexuality. This negative presentation of Venus, originally designed to appeal to the jury of chaste nymphs, works equally well for the retelling to Minerva, the goddess of chastity. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Muses are judged the winners, the Emathides are punished, and Minerva approves.

Straight after this story, and causally linked to it, is the weaving contest between Arachne and Minerva. Though Ovid suggests that the webs were constructed simultaneously, and though he narrates Minerva’s tapestry first, Johnson offers a reading on the basis that Minerva’s tapestry is constructed (swiftly) as a direct response to Arachne’s web. This may be a little awkward, but it is worth the indulgence: besides, we might be inclined to permit such licence/skill to an Olympian deity!

Like the Emathides, the mortal contestant Arachne (unwisely) produces a piece of artwork which belittles the majesty of the gods, by only highlighting their capacity for transformation for the undignified purpose of rape. Her tapestry is described as realistic in its display of divine sexual antics, and this impression is maintained by the primary narrator of the story (‘Ovid’) in his use of sexual euphemisms to describe the tapestry. This tapestry is a potential affront to Minerva not only because of its overt sexual material, but also because it is an uncomfortable reminder of the hypocrisy in her own existence: she is patron of virgins, and yet she is loyal to her father Jupiter, the classic rapist. Minerva quickly addresses the need to reassert her own majesty by composing a web that presents the gods in all their moral and regal dignity. Though Minerva can find no artistic flaw in Arachne’s web, she inflicts punishment nevertheless by turning her into a spider, thus condemning her to a life of artless web construction (and, in the process, refusing her the option of suicide, a distinctly Roman way to deny one’s enemy a noble death and provide further degradation).

Finally, two songs of Orpheus, presented verbatim, are read by Johnson as providing the clearest didactic exempla of best and worst practice in artistic performance in the late Augustan period, as the renowned mythical poet finds himself working with two different audiences under different social conditions and pressures. His success or failure hinges on his ability to meet the tastes of different audiences. Ultimately, Orpheus is successful when he can clearly identify his audience, but he fails when he cannot.

In the first scenario, Orpheus is addressing the king and queen of the Underworld in an attempt to rescue Eurydice. Of the twenty-two verses of his song, twelve are taken up with elaborate tokens of deference to his regal audience. The song itself is very ‘rhetorical’, with very little ‘thematic content’ relating to Eurydice or Orpheus’ love for her. The appeal is a success — the only real example of a successful artist in the Metamorphoses — as the infernal rulers are unanimously moved to release Eurydice. Johnson detects a wider message here: when in the presence of a powerful audience, one should give more weight to their needs than to the aesthetics of the song, if one is looking to remain safe and achieve success.

Later, back in the upper world, Orpheus offers a second song for an audience of trees. As these are metamorphosed humans who have lost the capacity to speak (and hence to divulge what they have heard), Orpheus feels more secure in his environment, and this results in his choosing a less guarded topic for the song: a didactic piece on illicit forms of love, pederasty, incest and adultery. Though this topic is most suitable for his arboreal audience, many of whom were transformed because of such affairs, there is, unbeknownst to Orpheus, another group of listeners lurking in the background, the daughters-in-law of the Cicones, whose wifely status is offended by such stories. They tear Orpheus to pieces and, as his ultimate punishment, reduce him to a ranting, incomprehensible floating head.

Johnson contends, then, that the three stories together articulate a series of valuable lessons for the poet of Ovid’s own day: meet the needs of a powerful listener and do not confront him or her directly; prioritise their needs over artistic concerns; and beware the hidden audience.

Stimulating though these readings undoubtedly are, there is one major and surprising omission in the book: nowhere does Johnson discuss and justify her view on the dating of the Metamorphoses, situating it within the scholarly debate. Johnson appears to follow the ‘traditional’ theory that the poem was started well before the poet’s exile (c. A.D. 2); she certainly assumes that Books 5, 6 and 10-11, which contain the stories under discussion, were completed before exile. This is a particularly noticeable omission because, without it, the compelling nature of Johnson’s readings might well lead the reader (among which I include myself!) to discern post-exilic composition.

This is particularly tempting in the case of Orpheus. I find myself very convinced by Johnson’s perceptive reading of the two songs, so much so that I cannot help but feel that Ovid is here commenting on his own predicament from exile. After all, the fate of Orpheus — teacher of illicit love affairs, undone by the presence of an unintended audience of married women, destined to continue speaking in artless form to no audience — strongly suggests to me a self-reflective commentary on the censorship of the Ars Amatoria and the subsequent fate of its author. A more general case for exilic resonance could be advanced for all three of Johnson’s episodes: all three condemned (sets of) artists misjudge their audience and, though allowed to live on, are cut off from practicing art in any meaningful sense.

The possibility of exilic readings of these episodes is acknowledged briefly by Johnson, but the discussion is insufficient. Johnson stresses that it is not necessary to assert exilic reworking. This seems to me the wrong way of approaching the issue. More to the point, I feel, is that readings informed by his real exile seem much better and cannot be disproved, especially in the absence of any argument for a dating of Books 5, 6, and 10-11 before A.D. 8, and in the absence of any theory from Johnson positing early condemnation of Ars and punishment for its poet in the period between A.D. 2-8 (which would certainly seem possible, given the curious time gap between the traditional date for production of Ars and Ovid’s exile). Why is it not justified to argue for exilic readings in these episodes, just as Johnson argues for exilic reading of the sphragis at the end of the poem (p.122)?

However, even if her readings may lead the reader to different conclusions on dating to that of the author, Johnson should be congratulated on a very good book with clearly-expressed, convincing analyses of the wider significance of three important stories of artistic performance in Ovid’s epic.


1. I am thinking in particular here of the work of Alison Sharrock: for exploration of gender, cf. e.g. the story of Pygmalion ( Met. 10) with A. Sharrock (1991), ‘Womanufacture’, JRS 81, 36-49; for exploration of artistic creation and literary genre, especially the difference between epic and elegy, cf. the stories of Daedalus in Ars and Met. with A. Sharrock (1994), Seduction and Repetition in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria 2, Oxford, 87-195.