BMCR 2021.02.20

Ovid: a very short introduction

, Ovid: a very short introduction. Very short introductions. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 144. ISBN 9780198837688. $11.95.


Ovid, one suspects, would have relished the challenge of writing a Very Short Introduction: the author who managed to summarize the heart-breaking plot of the fourth book of Vergil’s Aeneid in four sprightly hexameters (Met. 14.78-81) would have enjoyed finding ways of reducing even a topic as complex as his own life and career to the 35,000 words that is Oxford University Press’s version of a carmen deductum. As it happens, Ovid has found a kindred spirit in Llewellyn Morgan, who has succeeded in telling the story of the most brilliantly playful of Roman poets in 111 pages, touching all the bases and producing a pleasantly readable libellus.

Morgan has opted for a straightforward structure: an introductory chapter on Ovid’s life and poetic oeuvre is followed by five chapters on the poet’s individual (groups of) works: love poetry, Heroides, Metamorphoses, Fasti, and the exilic corpus. Throughout, Morgan shows himself attuned to the ways in which Ovid has been read through the centuries, ending each of Chapters 2-6 with a couple of vignettes from the reception history of the poem(s) in question. The author is not out to present a new and original version of his subject: Morgan’s Ovid is the sophisticated postmodernist found in Latin scholarship of the last few decades, an old acquaintance whom many readers will be delighted to meet again.

Morgan stresses Ovid’s irreverent humor—he was “a man, and a poet, constitutionally incapable of resisting a good joke” (2)—and does an excellent job at unwrapping the sheer exuberance of his poetic innovation. Steeped in the Callimacheanism of the contemporary literary scene, Ovid takes the inherent poetic self-consciousness of Latin literature to new extremes, with the result that “no Roman poet is more interested in his own status as a poet than Ovid is” (20). As the archetypal elegist, Ovid is continuously playing with genre, transgressing boundaries left and right and, in the process, even managing to produce what might be called an elegiac epic in his Metamorphoses. Morgan in this context shows himself especially attuned to Ovid’s use of the elegiac couplet, in keeping with the interests of his earlier book on the poetics of Latin meter.[1] Of course, Ovid is also an accomplished master of intertextuality, though Morgan does not use this term, keeping his discussion laudably jargon-free.

Throughout Ovid’s career, the world view projected in his poetry was rubbing uncomfortably against the Augustan narrative unfolding at the same time, a development culminating in Ovid’s disastrous exile. Morgan (who is willing to take the carmen, viz. the Ars, more seriously as a cause of the banishment than other scholars) provides commonsensical discussion of the politics of Ovidian poetry but does not get bogged down in fruitless speculations about potential subversiveness. Similarly, he is sensitive to questions of gender and upfront about instances of sexism (coining the term “Romansplain” [32] to describe the young man’s holding forth at the triumph in Ars 1.219-28—surely the best portmanteau in Latin studies since Alison Sharrock’s “womanufacture”[2])—without making heavy weather of them.

To the seasoned Ovidian, Morgan’s book affords an enjoyable reunion with an old friend. However, Very Short Introductions are, of course, not aimed at scholars but at the interested general public. For someone who knows the subject matter it is very difficult to judge how something written by a fellow specialist will play with those who do not have the same expertise. Even so, I venture the guess that Morgan’s Ovid might just be the ideal present to give to those of your nearest and dearest who keep asking you what that fascination with millennia-old texts is all about.


[1] Musa pedestris: Metre and Meaning in Roman Verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[2] “Womanufacture.” JRS 81 (1991), 36-49.