Summary of the Work
Ovid himself sums up his poetic intention in the introductory quatrain (four-line unit) of the Metamorphoses:
My intention is to tell of bodies changed
To different forms; the gods, who made the changes,
Will help me — or I hope so — with a poem
That runs from the world’s beginning to our own days.
These few lines explain that he will sing about changes: that the changes were brought about by the gods; and that he will sing a continuous song, encompassing tales from the creation of the world to his own time. Accordingly, the poem begins with the first change—when God or Nature ended the original chaos, separating land from water and sky, and the denser air from the light, fiery ether of the stratosphere. From that modest beginning, the Earth globe, the winds, stars, beasts, and mankind, evolved. History itself may be divided into four periods: the Golden Age, the Age of Silver, (and with it the four seasons), the Age of Bronze, and the Age of Iron, including the present.
When mankind became violent and wicked, Jupiter destroyed the world with the Flood; but the goddess Themis arranged a second creation by means of changing stones to people. A particularly vicious man, Lycaon, had already been turned into a wolf. A pattern had been established.
Almost imperceptibly, Ovid shifts from the story of the second creation into his main narrative: how the Earth had brought forth Python, a monstrous serpent; how Apollo killed Python with his arrow, founded the sacred Pythian games, and ordained that the winners should be crowned with oak leaves because the laurel of later victories did not yet exist. From this casual mention of the laurel, the poem moves effortlessly to the story of how the laurel came into being, the story of Apollo and Daphne. Daphne became the innocent victim of a wanton contest between Apollo and Cupid. To prove that even Apollo may be wounded by Cupid, the young god of love shoots an arrow into Apollo which causes him to become obsessed with desire for Daphne. Daphne is shot by another arrow which drives all love away. In a desperate flight to avoid Apollo’s unwanted advances, Daphne seeks divine intervention and is turned into a laurel tree.
This account of innocent maidens fleeing the rapaciousness of male gods is one of the typical story lines in the Metamorphoses, but the variations on it are endless. They explain how nymphs were turned into birds, flowers, reeds, and stones; how certain stars were placed into the Heavens; how the younger generation of gods and demigods came into being. The poem flows along almost like a stream, and it carries the reader with it.
More careful reading, however, reveals that this apparently seamless garment is artfully constructed. While it appears to be a chronological account of world history, certain pieces are placed out of chronological order into a thematic scheme. Toward the end, when the poem is already recounting the early history of Rome and approaching the poet’s own times, the undoing of the city of Croton seems to be included mainly to give occasion to introduce the teachings of Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher and mathematician, who, as a refugee from his native island, came to Croton and taught the citizens there. By setting forth the revolutionary thoughts of Pythagoras, (relative to vegetarianism and reincarnation), Ovid departs from tales of mythical gods and goddesses to champion Pythagoras’ causes. So eloquent is he in showing the evils of killing animals for food that all his arguments could have been written by modern-day vegetarians. But then Ovid skillfully returns to his narratives—King Numa, successor to Romulus, had listened to the teachings of Pythagoras! After Numa’s death, his wife Egeria mourns for him so piteously that she is scolded by Theseus’ son Hippolytus. This, in turn, provides an opportunity for Ovid to introduce the story of Hippolytus a young man, an innocent victim of slander, who was brought back from death, proving Pythagoras’ thesis of the immortality of the soul and the indestructibility of matter. With the threat of his banishment hanging over him, Ovid hastened to bring his tale up to date, ending with the deification of Julius Caesar, Augustus’ adopted father. He announced confidently that the work will endure and that the immortal part of himself, his soul, will survive.
Estimated Reading Time
The poem is divided into fifteen Books. Allowing two to three hours per book, the student should be able to read the entire Metamorphoses in 30 to 45 hours.
The Life and Work of Ovid
The title, Metamorphoses, is Greek and means “transformations” or “changes.” The author, Ovid, used ancient Greek myths as his principal subject matter and used the idea of changes as his leading motif—connecting the individual episodes within the poem.
Ovid was born as Publius Ovidius Naso in 43 B.C. in what is now central Italy. He died in Tomi, now Constanta, in A.D. 18.
His father, a landowner of some means, spared no expense in educating him; Ovid studied in Rome, and traveled over much of the Roman Empire to acquire knowledge. However, he refused to go along with his father’s ambitions to make him into a public official. Instead, the young man devoted all his energies to the writing of poetry and became both rich and famous. He had a happy, amorous disposition and was for a while very popular with the “smart set” of Roman society. He married three times and became the father of a daughter.
Unfortunately for him, the mores of Roman society swung back to the puritanical ideals of an earlier age, frowning upon moral licentiousness both in public life and in literature. The Emperor, Augustus, spearheaded this change. At the very peak of his popularity and fame, Ovid invoked official censure and was sentenced to be banished to a desolate, faraway shore. The official charges against him were based on the supposed immorality of some of his poems, but public opinion held that there were other, unnamed reasons for the extreme severity of the sentence—perhaps a personal grievance of the Emperor. Ovid’s third wife, who remained in Rome, championed his case loyally, but to no avail. He had to live out his life in Tomi, and die there, far from his beloved home, friends, and family.
His extant works—all but the Metamorphoses are written in elegiac couplets—fall into three principal groups. The Amores (Loves) traces a fictitious romance between the poet and a woman named Corinna—perhaps a composite of several of Ovid’s lovers. The Heroides consists of imaginary letters written by famous women in literature and history, treating the female sex with sympathy and understanding, which was unusual in that age and culture. It also contains three pairs of correspondences between lovers. A book on makeup (a relevant aspect of the art of love) was followed by the notorious Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love, 1 B.C.) a handbook on seduction in three volumes, two for men and one for women.
From 1 B.C. onward, Ovid worked concurrently on his two masterpieces: the Metamorphoses and the Fasti (Roman religious holidays). The latter was planned to take the reader through the Roman calendar year, but he finished only the first six months at the time of his banishment. The work on which he hoped to base his claim to immortality, in any case, was the Metamorphoses, one of the world’s supreme literary masterpieces.
After A.D. 9, the time of his exile, his main works were Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea). To this day, they are the most consummate expressions of homesickness and pleading.