BMCR 2022.04.06

Espace et structure dans les Métamorphoses d’Ovide

, Espace et structure dans les Métamorphoses d'Ovide. Scripta antiqua, 130. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2020. Pp. 245. ISBN 9782356133403 €19,00.

The relevance of narrative space was acknowledged by Ovidian scholarship long before the term “spatial turn” was coined. For example, we may think of Segal’s 1969 study Landscape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Nonetheless, research hitherto has focused either on individual passages or on specific aspects of space in Ovid’s epic. Sarah Bach aims to fill this gap by using a more comprehensive approach to this topic. The three main chapters of her well-structured monograph deriving from her 2017 dissertation are dedicated to the geometrical, practical, and metaphorical dimensions of space, framed by an introduction and conclusion.

The first chapter (“La mise en espace du récit”) explores the geometrical dimension of space, i.e. the structure of the poetic universe as it is established in the first book of the Metamorphoses. Bach starts by evaluating the different meanings of mundus (and its Greek equivalent kósmos) in ancient literature and rightly argues that in Ovid’s epic mundus most frequently means the ordered universe in its totality. Chaos, by contrast, can be defined through the absence of forma and may therefore be called “anti-mundus” (p. 24). This section of the study is especially rich in insightful intertextual analyses: Bach explains how the poet unites various elements from previous cosmogonies, from Hesiod and the Presocratics up to Lucretius and Vergil.[1] Ovid’s well-ordered mundus contains the four “Empedoclean” elements in their spatialized arrangement. While one may generally agree that Ovid’s cosmogony can be conceived of as an ekphrasis mundi rather than as a process in time, one may equally attribute more importance than Bach does to nulli sua forma manebat (Ov. met. 1.17) as an indication of spatial movement.

As the author correctly observes, the animalia are also introduced in line with their living spaces rather than in temporal sequence. The human being, then, as a mixture of elements from different spheres of the mundus, can be termed a “hybrid” creature (p. 44) that is tied to the terrestrial sphere but in tension with the divine sphere, which can lead to the imminent return of primordial Chaos.

Next, Bach retraces the well-known Myth of the Ages. Astonishingly, the highly symbolic fifth part of the mundus, the Tartarus, receives its first mention from Ovid not in the cosmogony but only in the Silver Age (1.113). Bach focuses on the dichotomy between the Golden and Iron Ages and aptly parallels Ovid’s “aesthetics of negation” (p. 55), expressed by a wealth of negations like nondum (1.91) the poet’s description of the first age, with her former description of Chaos as “anti-mundus”. One of the most important spatial aspects of the myth is the negative image of travelling: navigation is equivalent to the transgression of boundaries, and consequently, leaving one’s own space may result in death, as we learn later throughout the epic.

As in the following chapters, the author expounds her overall thesis of a threefold spatial structure underlying Ovid’s epic: a linear progression towards Rome, thematic parallels between the opening and the concluding books, and a circularity between them created by inversions. Bach adopts a rather “positive” political reading not all interpreters will agree with: she identifies Augustus as an Ovidian equivalent of the child in Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, and sees a new Golden Age in the Metamorphoses’ final book, which she admits is not identic repetition but “rapprochement asymptotique” (p. 61).

In her second chapter (“La dynamique des espaces”), Bach investigates the practical dimension of space, i.e. space as a social and political entity where conflicts between men and gods unfold. Ovid’s Rome serves as a paradigmatic example of a place loaded with political meaning, which becomes apparent not through the city’s topography but through symbolic undertones. Bach rapidly retraces the great lines of the work’s cultural metamorphosis that can be read as translatio imperii. The author convincingly evaluates the importance of borders such as city walls and gates, and places like the Capitol and the Palatine. Nonetheless, the observations here may lead others to different conclusions: if the future caput orbis is repeatedly shown in situations of threat, and if Pythagoras evokes its rise in the context of the demise of other cities, Rome may not exclusively be a place of immortality and eternity as claimed by Bach, but the city may be less different from any other in Ovid’s world history.

We have to wait until page 73 for Bach to introduce her use of narratological terms: in the following analyses (which are of varying length), she speaks of “lieux de l’histoire” (actual settings of events) and “lieux dans l’histoire” (other localities that are only referred to), respectively. The author might have related these terms to what de Jong (2014, Narratology & Classics, 107–108) calls “settings” and “frames.” Bach develops a useful typology of travelling in the Metamorphoses (p. 91): she distinguishes between horizontal voyages and vertical ones (either descending, i.e. movements from heaven to earth or to the Underworld, or ascending, i.e. catasterisms or apotheoses). The instructive statistics hidden in two footnotes (pp. 93–95) might have deserved to be visualized in a table.

The chosen terminology is applied to various episodes, the choice of which—as the author freely admits—may of course be questioned. For example, Bach provides an interesting narratological analysis of the Phaethon episode by reading its two travel catalogues as maps (with the places mentioned being regarded as actual settings) and as tours (the places being understood as mere spatial frames), thus offering two complementary interpretations. With respect to the work’s macrostructure, she adheres to the assumption of three pentads and refrains from suggesting any new hypothesis on this issue. She notes convincingly where the structure of the text is dominated by spatial rather than temporal or other aspects.While the vertical “travels” change from exclusively descendant ones in Book 1 to ascending ones in the final book, the majority of horizontal voyages, interestingly, is not in line with the overall movement from East to West. As Bach demonstrates, this becomes particularly evident in the second pentad, where the spatial dynamics seem to be blocked in the Greek world. Therefore, she rightly ends her chapter with a caveat on her threefold main hypothesis mentioned above, especially regarding the linear progression towards Rome that is often put into question by space and time and, compared to the Aeneid, causes the work’s lack of teleology in terms of cultural movement. Nonetheless, Bach seconds an optimistic reading of the final pentad again (cf. e.g. p. 88 n. 42: “Le texte ovidien peut être lu comme une sorte d’hymne à la paix romaine”), which deviates from some of the previous scholarship.

The third chapter (“Espace et pouvoirs”) examines the metaphorical dimension of space: above all, the tension between forces of Chaos and harmony (expressed in Ovid’s discors concordia, 1.433) and the ontological connection between changing spaces and changing one’s nature. By help of detailed linguistic analyses, Bach retraces Ovid’s “poetics of Chaos” emerging from the cataclysmic events in the two opening books. What is particularly enlightening here is her evaluation of the parallels between the Aeginetan pestilence and the episodes of Phaethon and the Great Flood: in all these cases, the disappearance of the ordered universe leads to a new “anti-mundus”. The dynamics of space are brought to the fore again by the various interactions between characters and space. Jupiter, of course, is the paradigmatic example of a god who warrants the spatial order of the universe and violates it at the same time, but also female divinities such as Venus sometimes act accordingly. Bach lucidly retraces the Metamorphoses’ “spatial theography” (p. 172), i.e. the spatialization of divine power. While it comes as no surprise that heaven is defined as a divine sphere, parts of the terrestrial sphere, too, where the communication between gods and mortals takes place, can become divine spaces.[2] As examples like Ceyx show, leaving one’s regular space may easily result in death or even, more generally, in the return of Chaos by the mingling of elements formerly separated.

The dynamics deriving from transgressions of spatial and ontological borders are quite complex: via places of transition or communication between divine and profane, the world of the Metamorphoses oscillates between harmony (of a lost Golden Age) and the imminent return of Chaos, as Bach repeatedly states. According to her, the surviving of the mundus depends on the type of interaction between humans and gods, which underlines the intimate connectedness between the geometrical and practical dimensions of space. Bach shows how Ovid depicts the earth as a transitional space where gods and humans communicate and the latter’s identity is negotiated. Depending on the individual type of metamorphosis, characters may get access to spheres formerly closed to them. One example of such a terrestrial threshold between mortal and divine spaces is the Palatine hill, as emerges from the apotheoses of Romulus and Hersilia. Finally, Bach re-examines the role of mortals in intermediary positions between men and gods: as examples like Ganymede show, the equation mortal/immortal ~ man/god is not always true.

The monograph under review is rounded off with a bibliography comprising roughly 350 entries of secondary literature, somewhat dominated by French scholarship (ca. 50%).[3] Inevitably, some important studies are missing.[4] The book includes some helpful maps and tables and contains three overall very useful indices (terms, names, places); however, it lacks an index locorum that would have helped to retrace the manifold intertextual observations. In the index of terms, I missed an entry for translatio imperii, and the index of names also has numerous vacancies (e.g. Ganymede), which complicates things for readers who are looking for any particular episode. The main text and footnotes show some typos and other infelicities that do not subtract from the argument.[5]

To conclude, this is a welcome contribution to scholarship on Ovid and poetic space. Bach succeeds in illustrating the relatedness of spatial and structural aspects in the Metamorphoses. She admirably validates one of the basic assumptions of the spatial turn, i.e., that narrative space is far more than a mere ornamental, static background to the plot. Only rarely does she seem to run the risk of overestimating the relevance of space with regard to other aspects of Ovid’s epic. Bach rightly highlights the dynamic interactions between the three spatial structures she identifies, and wisely sets the poem’s general linear motion towards Rome against the fluid microstructure created by the various movements of the individual characters. As admitted on page 224, sometimes she loses sight of a “pure” narratological approach, but her additional use of structuralist and symbolical readings seems equally suitable for the chosen topic. Though not being exhaustive (there are some omissions regarding horizontal borders: think of episodes such as the Actaeon story, for example, or the various interactions between city and countryside)[6], Bach’s study very much helps bring order into space as one important aspect of Ovid’s narrative chaos.


[1] On Ovid’s reception of Empedocles and Lucretius, esp. on the programmatic concept of discors concordia, see now Schmidt (2021), Ovids Epos und die Tradition des Lehrgedichts.

[2] Speaking of the “vertical continuum”, Bach might have built upon Hardie, “The Vertical Axis in Classical and Post-Classical Epic”, in: Finkmann et al. (2018), Antike Erzähl- und Deutungsmuster, 219-37.

[3] Two entries display factual errors (Gildenhard/Zissos 2004 must be “… in the [not: “Ovid’s”] Metamorphoses”, Holzberg 1998 must be “Ter [not: The] quinque volumina …”). In some cases, page ranges for book chapters are either missing or displayed in a deviant style, apart from other quibbles.

[4] Bach omits citing her own article “Problématiques spatiales dans lʼarmorum iudicium ovidien des Métamorphoses”, FEC 32 (2016), which is nearly identical to the relevant section of her monograph.

[5] For example, I spotted some references to incorrect book numbers (pp. 67, 85, and 96), two instances of Latin text cited incorrectly (p. 133 similimus must be simillimus, p. 158 coniux must be coniunx as cited correctly one page before), and two errors in Latin terms stemming from Bach, both meant as nominatives (p. 61 caelesti, p. 88 urbis).

[6] On this topic, see Behm (forthcoming), Städte in Ovids Metamorphosen.