Ovid's Metamorphoses (selections)

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

Ovid is absolutely one of the most fascinating and delightful writers of ancient Rome. While Vergil's poetry is utterly serious, Ovid is famous for his dangerous wit. This was perhaps a result of Ovid's own personality, but it was perhaps also the result of historical accident. Ovid belonged to the generation of poets who came after Vergil - and after the seriousness of Vergil, what other choice was there but to write tongue-in-cheek? It was surely impossible to be more serious than Vergil, so one logical strategy would be to opt for some good humor. So even when Ovid is writing about serious, even tragic, situations, you will see that he uses a kind of exaggeration or hyperbole that can be hard to interpret: is he just a bit over the top? is this Monty Python silliness, set in Rome? That is definitely something to think about as you read the stories for this week.

Ovid was born in 43 BCE, just as the Roman empire of the Caesars was beginning to take shape (Julius Caesar had been assassinated in 44 BCE, a year before Ovid was born). When Ovid died in 18 CE, the notoriously debauched Tiberius was the Caesar reigning in Rome.

Ovid had been trained as a lawyer, which was a very typical career choice for a noble Roman citizen, but instead he gave up law for poetry. He enjoyed enormous success in Rome, and his poetry was extremely popular. He wrote in a wide variety of poetic genres, such as:

Finally, Ovid also wrote a series of "exile" poems called the Tristia (Sad Things) and the Ex Ponto, or poems "From the Black Sea" (modern-day Romania) which was where Ovid died in exile. No one really knows why Ovid was exiled, but all of a sudden in the year 8 CE he was banished by the Emperor Augustus and had to leave Rome, never to return. Presumably his exile had something to do with the scandals connected to the Emperor's daughter Julia, although it is impossible to know for sure. Ovid never explains why he was exiled, and no clear explanation is provided by the Roman historians who chronicled the reigns of the Caesars.

Ovid's Metamorphoses is one of the most important sources for our knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology. Ovid based his work on earlier Greek poetry, but much of that Greek poetry has been lost. Ovid is often our only source for these ancient stories. The title, Metamorphoses, is itself a Greek word, meaning Transformations. Each of the stories in the poem concludes with some kind of transformation: Narcissus is turned into a flower, Niobe is turned to stone, Myrrha is turned into a tree, etc.

Ovid is sometimes difficult to read because he assumes that his readers are already familiar with these myths and all the gods and goddesses, and the many heroes and heroines, who populate his poem. In order to get ready for this week's reading, you should be familiar with some of the major characters, whom you may know better by their Greek names rather than by the Roman names that Ovid uses. Here are some names to watch for:

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM