BMCR 2012.02.09

Ovid. Blackwell introductions to the classical world

, Ovid. Blackwell introductions to the classical world. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. x, 147. ISBN 9781405136426. $104.95.


Volk knows exactly what sort of book she intended to create, and she has gone about it admirably. It is a book for Ovidian neophytes, specifically “readers of Ovid who would like to know more about what they are reading” (p.3). She includes in this group students, scholars in a variety of disciplines, and the “general audience”; she excludes classicists, but in this she does herself a disservice. Apart from scholars of Latin poetry, who will indeed already be well-versed in the book’s subject matter, I think that most classicists will find a great deal more than a few “points of interest” within these pages.

The intended audience has placed a number of restrictions on Volk, which she briefly details: a minimal quotation of Latin, a minimal documentation of scholarly opinion (but lack of documentation does not imply lack of engagement; she has a nice habit of inserting critical readings of Ovid into her narrative without actually digressing to discuss a given theoretical approach), and a plethora of “generalizations” that fly in the face of Stephen Hinds’ 1987 advice to the contrary (as Volk forthrightly observes, p.3).1 But while she puts a repeated emphasis on her own oversimplification and generalization, these are, in fact, both effective and broadly accurate, and what she calls “generalization” is frequently actually a synthesis of the best Ovidian scholarship. I will begin by giving an overview of Volk’s organization and general tendencies, after which I will address the very few, very minor points (both specific and general) to which I have objections.

Volk arranges her book thematically, rather than moving chronologically, in an attempt “to bring out the internal coherence of Ovid’s work” (p.4); this arrangement is highly successful and requires surprisingly little repetition. The chapters and even sometimes subsections generally begin with helpful road-maps, and the book itself reflects this on a grander scale, with a road-map for the entire book occupying the last two pages of the Introduction. Each chapter (Work, Life, Elegy, Myth, Art, Women, Rome, Reception) is concerned with a different aspect of Ovid’s poetry, invariably construed far more broadly than the chapter title might suggest—for instance, the chapter on “Women” actually also addresses sexuality and constructions of gender, while the chapter titled “Myth” includes a subsection on “Time.” The types of art that Volk discusses in “Art” (which, incidentally, she considers to be the “central concern” (p.5) of Ovid’s poetry as a whole) include such far-flung topics as: art as a learned or taught skill, the Ars Amatoria, rhetoric, manmade art versus nature, the figure of the artist, and artifice or deception. For her final chapter on “Reception,” by contrast, she begins by acknowledging the impossibility of treating this enormous subject in a single chapter; her solution is precision strikes, isolating three points in time and in three different media.

A few recurring themes run throughout Volk’s discussion. One such theme is Ovid’s frequent prolonged revision of his works, including the Amores (“It is … possible that the poet worked on the Amores, on and off, for about twenty-five years,” p.7), the Metamorphoses, and the Fasti. Other themes are, for instance, the need to be cautious about a potential difference between Ovid’s fictional literary persona and the historical poet Ovid,2 or the repeated caution that we must interpret Ovid’s poetry in its social context, not our own—earlier generations, says Volk, were repeatedly guilty of reading Ovid against their own societal expectations, and we are equally guilty. These themes are frequently warnings about the potential difficulties of reading Ovid, but another, different, theme is Ovid’s apparent “modernity,” which Volk sees as being responsible for the resurgence of interest in Ovid starting in the late 20 th century.

Volk also touches on a number of never-ending scholarly debates, and those which she takes up are well-chosen for an overview of Ovid.3 These include debates on whether all 21 Heroides are Ovidian, whether Ovid was “really” exiled, what Ovid’s error could conceivably have been, Ovid’s putative “feminism” versus his putative “misogyny,” and whether Ovid’s poetry is “pro”- or “anti”-Augustan. While Volk does sometimes eventually come down on one side or the other, she always attempts to air each side of an issue as seriously and neutrally as possible before letting her own opinion on the matter shine through.

Before I turn to the aspects of the book which bothered me in some fashion, I need to make it very clear that the book is excellent from cover to cover—while my list of problems will be longer than my list of praises, that is only because properly singing the book’s praises would require a review the length of the original book, and to any question of “does Volk discuss X?” the answer will almost certainly be “yes.”

The most pervasive problem with the book arises from Volk’s uncertainty as to her intended audience—or perhaps it is more an uncertainty as to where to come down within the very broad definition of her intended audience. For instance, she cavils at using the “critical” term “persona” (p.20) but throws in the word “topos” (p.41) without second thought. Similarly, I cannot understand why Volk shies away from saying explicitly that the Metamorphoses actually metamorphoses its sources; instead, she says that “Ovid in the Metamorphoses is in a continuous process of creative engagement with his sources” (p.55). It might be a slightly reductive point, but at the same time, I think it is another example of Volk not necessarily being entirely sure about what level of audience she is writing for. The well-versed scholar who is not a classicist (or Ovidian) will presumably spot the underlying implication immediately; an undergraduate might or might not put two and two together. By contrast, a note that is clearly aimed at an unknowledgeable audience is her explanation of Latin non-capitalization (p.65) so that she can make the connection between Ovid’s ars and his Ars.

Very occasionally, Volk’s generalizing is too gross an oversimplification—for instance, while she usually steps back from coming down firmly on a given side of an issue, she states the case of the Metamorphoses ’ divisions far too simply: “The poem is divided into three blocks of five books each, a structure that corresponds to the chronological progression of the work’s subject matter” (p.11). In fact, this is just one type of division into which the poem falls, and perhaps it is merely an oversight that Volk makes such a bald statement here. Another instance of probable carelessness is Volk’s translation of Catullus’ odi et amo as “I love and I hate,” rather than “I hate and I love” (p.37); there seems to be no good reason for the inverted translation, especially since she goes so far as to quote the Latin, for once. But such slips are rare.

One instance of a possibly intentional omission solely for the sake of her argument comes in Volk’s discussion of the Fasti ’s meter. She completely omits any mention of Callimachus here, and while introducing this explanation for the elegiac meter might undercut her very reasonable argument that “Ovid uses the work’s elegiac meter as a justification of the introduction of erotic material into what might otherwise have been a rather dry subject matter” (p.48), it seems slightly facile not to mention the Aetia at all.

Volk gets around the issue of scholarly references within the text by having a final chapter devoted to “Further Reading.” All of my following comments on possible supplements to this section are to be taken in the understanding that Volk naturally had to make difficult and presumably arbitrary choices of what to include or omit, given the wealth of material and the ferociously limited space available.

For the Heroides, since Volk does not exclusively restrict herself in this chapter to works in English, she might have mentioned the several Italian commentaries on the Heroides published in the Florentine Serie dei classici greci e latini —several of these, with commentaries by leading Italian scholars, cover poems not included in Knox’s Green and Yellow edition (specifically 3, 9, and 12, with commentaries by Barchiesi, Casali, and Bessone respectively) and thus fill gaps in Volk’s list of commentaries.4 For translations of the Metamorphoses, since she focuses on “recent” translations (p.131), it is odd that Raeburn’s is the only translation she cites of at least four published in the 2000’s. (A handy overview and comparison of nine older and more recent translations (1955-2004) is now Boyd’s “Ovid in Modern Translation.”)5 I am also uncertain as to why Volk left the volume edited by Herbert-Brown out of the Fasti bibliography; surely it is no less “a group of renowned scholars” (p.132) who have contributed to that volume than those who contributed to Arethusa 25 —indeed, several contributors (Miller, Newlands, Fantham) are the same.6 Volk suggests no Latin text of the Ibis; the best available is probably La Penna.7

Finally, let me briefly address those issues of production which have nothing to do with Volk. The copyediting is excellent; I discovered one typo (a missing comma after “not” at the bottom of p.60) and one anchorless reference in the index (purportedly, Medea is discussed on p.79). The only real problem is the reproduction of Correggio’s Jupiter and Io (Figure 2, p.119): Volk spends a good deal of time discussing the animal’s head visible in the lower right corner of the painting—but the relevant animal is almost entirely invisible in the printed image, especially before one knows exactly what one is looking for. (It is somewhat more visible in the eBook edition when viewed on a backlit computer screen.) Since Volk spends so much time discussing this head (half of p.120), it seems unfortunate for the reader not to be able to make a judgment for himself, the presumable availability of the internet and Google Image Search notwithstanding.

In conclusion, I must reiterate that the book is truly first-class. It will, I believe, become invaluable for any course in which Ovid is a central component, even at the graduate level. Those of the book’s intended audience who pick up the book will come away knowing as much, if not more, about Ovid than the general classicist. And those classicists who pick up the book will at the very least find their knowledge incisively refreshed, and quite possibly significantly augmented.


1. S.E. Hinds, “Generalising about Ovid,” Ramus 16 (1987), 4-31.

2. Understandable, given K. Volk, “ Ille Ego : (Mis)Reading Ovid’s Elegiac Persona,” A and A 51 (2005), 83-96.

3. Despite this, Volk’s choice of debates may sometimes have the unintended effect of skewing a reader’s perception of what the major critical arguments in Ovidian scholarship are. For instance, although Volk briefly mentions the disputed authorship of the Epistula Sapphus at pp.8-9, she essentially sweeps aside the heavy uncertainty that still surrounds Sappho’s letter. (For arguments of inauthenticity, see especially R.J. Tarrant, “The Authenticity of the Letter from Sappho to Phaon ( Heroides XV),” HSCP 85 (1981), 133-53; for arguments of authenticity, see G. Rosati, “Sabinus, the Heroides, and the Poet-Nightingale. Some Observations on the Authenticity of the Epistula Sapphus,” CQ 46 (1996), 207-216 and J.P. Hallett, “Catullan Voices in Heroides 15: How Sappho Became a Man,” Dictynna 2 (2005) [ online ].) As a result, the non-Ovidian reader would be forgiven in thinking there to be less current scholarly furor over this issue than over whether or not Ovid was really exiled.

4. Volumes 1, 3, and 6: A. Barchiesi, P. Ovidii Nasonis Epistulae Heroidum 1-3 (1992); S. Casali, P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroidum epistula IX: Deianira Herculi (1995); F. Bessone, P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroidum Epistula XII: Medea Iasoni (1997).

5. In B.W. Boyd and C. Fox (eds.), Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ovid and the Ovidian Tradition. New York, 2010. (BMCR 2011.05.11) This book, handy for numerous reasons and well worth noting for much of Volk’s intended audience, was presumably not yet available when Volk’s book went to press.

6. G. Herbert-Brown (ed.), Ovid’s Fasti: Historical Readings at its Bimillennium. Oxford, 2002. (BMCR 2003.09.34)

7. A. La Penna, Publi Ovidi Nasonis Ibis. Florence, 1957.