The Metamorphoses of Ovid Analysis

Ovid

Historical Context

About the time of Ovid’s birth in 43 b.c., Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Octavianus, the grandnephew of Julius Caesar and more commonly known as Augustus, came to Rome as a young man to assert control over the estate his granduncle had bequeathed to him. For the next twenty years, Augustus methodically gained power over his adversaries, and, by the time Ovid began writing poetry at the age of twenty, Augustus was firmly established as the emperor of Rome and had long since set about to exact measures to purify Rome of its immoral influences.

Although far from being considered a prude himself, Augustus nevertheless saw sexual licentiousness as a lifestyle that could undermine the power and efficacy of the state. The Roman Empire itself had experienced decades of upheaval. Roman civil wars alone had killed some 200,000 Italians, and the empire’s outposts were continually on guard against invasions. Augustus’s great achievement was to end the wars and work to establish a sense of stability throughout the empire. In large part, he was highly successful, and in many ways history views him as the greatest of all the emperors.

Part of his successful strategy was to give Romans a sense of the morally upright state. If Romans were to love anything at all, Augustus reasoned, they ought to love the state. Thus, he set out to pass laws regulating such activities as premarital sex and enforced economic measures that penalized individuals for avoiding...

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Literary Style

Dactylic Hexameters

Dactylic hexameter is the meter that traditionally was used in Greek and Latin epic poetry. From the Greek meaning “finger,” a dactyl is a metrical arrangement that consists of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Hexameter literally means “six metra.” The term dactylic hexameter is a metrical pattern that per line consists of six successive dactyls. Virgil’s Aenid is an example of an epic written in dactylic hexameters. Beginning with the second line of the Metamorphoses, Ovid employs dactylic hexameter for his epic.

Epic

An epic is a long poem that deals with mythical, legendary, or historical events, or a combination of the three. Homer is considered to be the first, and arguably greatest, epic poet. Although the stories that make up the Metamorphoses do not form a single narrative whole—that is, while the stories may be linked thematically, they are not connected sequentially in terms of plot—the Metamorphoses is an epic because it is long and because it takes as its main subject the origins of the created universe and the history of humankind up to the Roman era.

Mythology

The themes of change and power are presented in the first twelve books of the Metamorphoses through mythic stories. Many of the stories in Ovid’s work were orally transmitted over the centuries and...

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Compare and Contrast

8 A.D.: Christianity does not yet exist. Romans continue to pray to their gods, and Augustus moves to restore ancient temples for prayer.

Today: The Vatican, which is located in Rome, is the home of the pope, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. Italy itself is overwhelmingly Catholic, and the ancient Roman religion, in later centuries called paganism, no longer exists as an institutional religious force.

8 A.D.: Rome is the mightiest empire in the West. Its reign extends across the known world, made up of all of the Mediterranean basin and extending through much of Europe. Augustus is the most powerful leader in the West.

Today: Italy is a relatively small democratic nation. Although it is an advanced Western society, it is no longer considered a military or political power.

8 A.D.: Ovid’s place of exile, the port of Tomi, on the Black Sea, is a distant outpost of the Roman Empire.

Today: Tomi is known as Constantsa, Romania, and is a shipping port and resort on the Black Sea coast.

8 A.D.: Slavery plays a large role in Roman society. Nearly three million of the empire’s eleven million inhabitants are slaves.

Today: Slavery has long been prohibited in Italy.

8 A.D.: Exile is a common form of punishment for men and women who are classified as enemies of the state.

Today: So-called...

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Topics for Further Study

The story of Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha is often referred to as an “archetypal” flood story. What is meant by that term? What is an archetype? Find flood stories in other traditions and compare them to the flood story in Metamorphoses.

Epic poems usually tell historical and mythical tales of war or conquest, yet Metamorphoses is considered an epic poem. Research the characteristics of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid and compare them to the characteristics of Metamorphoses. What are the major similarities and differences between the works? Do you think the Metamorphoses should be referred to as an epic poem? If not, how should it be labeled?

A portion of Book 1 in the Metamorphoses is devoted to the theogony, or the heredity of the gods. Ovid drew much of his information from Hesiod’s Theogony. Research Hesiod’s work, and list significant differences in his account from Ovid’s.

In Genesis, man is said to be formed “from the dust of the ground.” In the creation story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, humans are similarly created from the ground when the oracle calls on Pyrrha to toss the “bones of her mother” behind her. When was Genesis written? Would Ovid, or any of his contemporaries, have had widespread access to the stories in Genesis? If not, what do you think accounts for the similarities between the stories?

In many...

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Media Adaptations

The Ovid Project: Metamorphosing the “Metamorphoses,” http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/ovid/ is the University of Vermont’s online, digitized collection of illustrations from the 1640 edition of the Metamorphoses by George Sandys and the 1703 edition from seventeenth-century German artist Johann Wilhelm Bauer. The illustrations are taken from the university’s private rare book collection and offer a rare glimpse into some of the English translations’ early artistic depictions of the classical tales.

The University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/latin/ovid/ hosts an extensive database of Metamorphoses resources, including the original Latin text, five English translations, and many related links.

While the breadth of movie adaptations of Ovid’s tales is extensive, one notable example is the 1959 Cannes Film Festival Prize–winner and that year’s Academy Award–winner for Best Foreign Film, Black Orpheus. Set in Brazil with an all-black cast and a jazz soundtrack that went on to sell over a million copies, the movie is an adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend and is available widely on video.

Perhaps the most famous of all adaptations of an Ovid story is George Bernard’s play Pygmalion, which was based on the story told by Orpheus in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses and which in 1964 was made into the hugely successful movie My...

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What Do I Read Next?

In 1988, German novelist Christopher Ransmayr published The Last World to widespread critical acclaim. Ransmayr’s novel is set in Tomi shortly after the death of Ovid and tells of a Roman admirer of the poet who is in search of a lost manuscript of the Metamorphoses.

Tristia is Ovid’s personal account of his banishment. Although he never reveals the reason for his exile in the book, he expresses his most personal and deep-seated feelings about his exile.

Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron (1997) tells the story of a dying elderly South African woman during apartheid. The war between blacks and whites is at its fiercest, and the letters the woman writes to her daughter who is in voluntary exile in America make up the narrative of the novel. Although not directly related to Ovid, Coetzee’s work is a prime example of how the Metamorphoses has been used as a model for writers of all genres and styles through the years.

After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (1995), edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, is an anthology of poetry that includes the works of forty-two poets from around the world whom the editors commissioned to “translate, reinterpret, reflect on, or completely reimagine” Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The poets include Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Amy Clampitt, and Charles Simic among others.

I, Claudius and Claudius the...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Quotations from Metamorphoses are taken from the following translation:

Ovid Metamorphoses. Translated by Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

Other Sources:

Anderson, William S. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Books 6–10. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. I–II. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Random House, 1948.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown, 1942.

Hill, D. E. Ovid: Metamorphoses...

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