Ovid’s Is Published

Ovid’s epic of change, the Metamorphoses, provided what became the best-known poetic accounts of Rome’s gods, heroes, and history to the death of Julius Caesar.

Summary of Event

The Metamorphoses (English translation, 1567) by Ovid is a Latin epic poem of fifteen books, written in 11,983 lines of dactylic hexameter, the metrical form of Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). The poem is not so much a story as a collection of stories, including some fifty longer stories and two hundred shorter ones. Because many are myths that explain how things came to be as they are, they are sometimes called etiological (concerned with cause), and the same term is applied to the whole poem by extension. Because almost all the stories involve some sort of transformation (metamorphosis), the tales are collectively called the Metamorphoses. Ovid follows the philosophical drift of Lucretius in his De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1682); however, Ovid is openly philosophical only in the last book, when the philosopher Pythagoras discourses on his doctrine of metempsychosis, and even that speech has elements of parody. Ovid

Born at Sulmo (now Sulmona, Italy), in the Appenine Hills east of Rome, into a family of equestrian rank, Ovid was educated in Rome. His rhetorical training was meant to prepare him for a career in law and politics. However, he showed an early preference for poetry. He belonged to a circle of poets patronized by Gaius Maecenas, and he counted among his friends the poet Horace (65-8 b.c.e.). After great success as a writer of amorous poems, often from the woman’s point of view, Ovid began work on the Metamorphoses c. 2 c.e. He read various episodes in public over the next few years. He concluded the poem with praise of Julius Caesar and of his adopted son and heir, Augustus. Ironically, however, Augustus banished him from Rome in the very year when the Metamorphoses was officially made public. Ovid never gave the cause for his relegation to Tomis, on the Black Sea (now Constanţa, Romania), where he spent the rest of his life. He only mentioned “a poem and a mistake,” presumably his Ars amatoria (c. 1 b.c.e.; The Art of Love, 1612) and some complicity, perhaps accidental, in the notorious infidelities of Augustus’s granddaughter Julia, who was exiled in the same year.

The poem is organized as a gigantic rhetorical demonstration with an introduction, three supporting arguments, and a conclusion. Ovid begins by saying, “My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms.” He continues with an invocation of the gods and an account of the creation (1.2-451). He ends by predicting that his poem will defy change and will survive as long as Rome. He states finally, “Through all the ages shall I live in fame” (15.879). Ovid’s first demonstration of change is an encyclopedic account of the gods (1.452-6.420), his second an equally thorough account of the ancient heroes (6.421-11.193), and his third a retelling of human history from the fall of Troy through the rise of Rome (11.194-15.870). Like Vergil, whose epic tale of Aeneas he summarizes in book 14, Ovid regards Rome as the new Troy. Unlike Vergil, he does not write anything like state propaganda. He is prepared to suggest that the Romans of his time have the same shortcomings as some of the mythological figures he describes, and that he is as deserving of apotheosis as Augustus is said to be.

Although the large narrative design is clear when the poem is viewed as a whole, it is difficult to detect in the midst of any given myth or in the transitions from one myth to another. Indeed, Ovid’s invocation of the gods pretty well leaves the design in their hands, recognizing that a poem the size of his can be full of changes. Critics have accepted the Metamorphoses as an epic that breaks all the norms. It has no single hero, like Achilles in the Iliad or Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), and no great action to unify the whole work, only a playful reworking of epic devices such as the extended simile and a theme worthy of epic treatment. Recent critics especially enjoy Ovid’s elusiveness. He does not appeal to readers’ emotions, as Vergil did, as much as to their sense of humor.

Ovid’s humor includes some wicked revisions when he offers new variations on familiar myths. He states, for example, that Orpheus changed his sexual orientation after the death of Eurydice and became the “author” or inventor of pederasty (10.83). He does this largely to surprise the reader, who expects the story to end with the “ardor” of the women he shuns after Eurydice (10.81) and the traditional account of dismemberment at their hands. However, he also prepares for the story of Ganymede, which follows shortly afterward.

In earlier centuries, Ovid has offended critics who want literature to provide moral lessons and not to corrupt young minds. He seems to relish the infidelities of the gods and to regard rape as the normal way for gods to interact with humans. Agriculture begins when Jupiter lusts after Io, but in order to avoid the jealousy of Juno, his wife, he turns Io into a cow. Human history begins when he disguises himself as a bull, abducts Europa, and with her sires the first Greeks. It continues when he reappears, disguised this time as a swan, to abduct Leda. It gets into full swing when Leda’s daughter Helen is abducted by the prince of Troy, and her Greek husband rouses an army to reclaim her. To be sure, there are good and faithful couples such as Philemon and Baucis, but this seems to be world history as written by a love poet. Attempts to “moralize” the Metamorphoses, explaining the rapes and infidelities as allegories, have never succeeded for long. Ovid too obviously takes delight in the incongruous couplings.

Ovid’s epic touches on the story of Eurydice and Orpheus.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Ovid drew from a wide variety of ancient sources, Greek and Latin, and reshaped them with considerable artistry. The mini-epic of Phaeton, who loses control of Phoebus’s solar chariot (1.747-2.400), combines the tragic adult of Euripides’ Greek drama with the comic child of Latin poems to create what has become the standard account of overly ambitious adolescence. It also supports the etiological purpose of the epic, helping to explain why Africa has deserts and black people.


Even before the Metamorphoses, Ovid was the most popular poet writing in Latin. Lines from his sometimes bawdy love poems have been found on the walls of excavations at Pompeii. Although his poetry was officially banned when he was banished from Rome, the Metamorphoses enjoyed a large and appreciative audience of readers and listeners. The poem’s last word, vivam, or “I shall live,” was truly prophetic. Although many other pagan poets were forgotten during the Christian Middle Ages, Ovid never ceased to have his admirers, including popes such as Innocent III, theologians such as Peter Abelard, and reformers such as Martin Luther.

With the Renaissance and the revival of interest in antiquity, the Metamorphoses became a major focus of study and a guide to ancient myths, good Latin style, and Roman culture in general. Translated into the vernacular languages of northern Europe, the poem reached even further. Arthur Golding’s English translation was one of the playwright William Shakespeare’s favorite books, from which he drew such famous tales as those of Venus and Adonis, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Jason and Medea.

Ovid’s influence declined as English studies replaced the classics but was still clearly evident in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) and Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 (1995). Ironically, Ovid’s new twists on old myths such as that of Narcissus have become the standard versions.

Further Reading

  • Grant, Michael. Myths of the Greeks and Romans. Rev. ed. New York: Meridian, 1995. A standard account of classical mythology with many quotations from English poetry and nearly one hundred black-and-white illustrations. Has an excellent chapter on Ovid.
  • Mack, Sara. Ovid. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977. Fine general introduction to the poet and his poems. Includes full chapters on his contemporary reputation, his later influence, and his epic poem. Emphasizes the humor in Ovid’s storytelling.
  • Otis, Brooks. Ovid as an Epic Poet. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Offers a chapter on the plan behind Ovid’s Epic, plus an appendix that traces the sources of major stories. The second edition points to elements of parody to show that the Metamorphoses is “anti-Augustan,” correcting the first edition’s emphasis on Augustan elements in the epic.
  • Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid: A New Verse Translation. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Harcourt, 1993. A very readable blank-verse translation. Includes a list of major stories at the start of each book.
  • Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid: Translated with an Introduction and Commentary. Translated by Michael Simpson. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. Includes an extensive commentary on each book; intended for the nonspecialist.
  • Tissol, Garth. The Face of Nature: Wit, Narrative, and Cosmic Origins in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. A challenging but accessible study, reflecting recent interest in the ways that Ovid’s poem invites yet frustrates the search for order. Like Mack, Tissol emphasizes the humor in Ovid’s narrative.

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