In Ovid's Metamorphoses, the poet lists four different ages of humankind, whereas Hesiod describes five ages in his Works and Days. What are the differences?

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Hesiod's Works and Days, a poem written in dactylic hexameter in Greek, has been dated as early as the 700s BCE. Ovid's Metamorphoses, a poem written in dactylic hexameter in Latin, was composed in the final years of the first century BCE.

Both epic poets describe the various ages through which human beings have progressed. Both poets describe a paradise-like Golden Age, over which Cronus (Hesiod)/Saturn (Ovid) presided; both poets have a Silver Age, where conditions for humans have become a little bit worse and over which Zeus (Hesiod)/Jupiter (Ovid) presides; both poets describe a Bronze Age, in which human beings become rather savage and over which Zeus/Jupiter still presides. Finally, both poets have an Iron Age, in which human behavior has reached the height of wickedness.

Because conditions during the age of iron are so harsh, Hesiod wishes that "that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards." In contrast, Ovid does not explicitly identify himself as living during this age, but his description of the Iron Age was undoubtedly meant to remind his fellow Romans of the years of civil wars out of which they had emerged in the 30s BCE:

War came, whose struggles employ both, waving clashing arms with bloodstained hands. They lived on plunder: friend was not safe with friend, relative with relative, kindness was rare between brothers. (A.S. Kline translation)

For Hesiod, the Iron Age is the fifth age, whereas Ovid lists this period fourth. As a fourth age, Hesiod describes a race of heroes. These were people like Cadmus, Oedipus, and the heroes who fought during the Trojan War. Ovid omits the age of heroes. Instead, Ovid uses his description of the Iron Age and its depravity to lead into the story of Lycaon, the person whose wickedness led Jupiter to decide to flood the world.

Read the study guide:
The Metamorphoses of Ovid

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