Evan Leach's Reviews > The Metamorphoses of Ovid

The Metamorphoses of Ovid by Ovid
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Apr 28, 12

bookshelves: poetry, roman-literature, 0-999, 6-star-books, epic-poetry, religion-and-myth
Read from March 26 to April 27, 2012

The Romans have a reputation as the great copycats of antiquity. After all, these were a people who borrowed a large amount of their culture, including most of their gods, from their neighbors. This reputation for imitation certainly holds true when looking at Roman literature. Plautus and Terence borrowed wholesale from Menander and other Greek playwrights. Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, for all of its merits, is basically restating the views of Epicurus. Catullus and Propertius imitated Callimachus. Horace imitated the Greek lyric poets (the Odes) and Archilochus (the Epodes). Virgil was inspired by Theocritus (the Eclogues), Hesiod (the Georgics), and Homer (the Aeneid).

Img: Icarus

“In all this world, no thing can keep its form. For all things flow; all things are born to change their shapes. And time itself is like a river, flowing on an endless course.” Ovid, Metamorphoses

And then there’s Ovid. By 8 BC, Virgil, Horace, and Propertius were all dead, leaving Ovid as the foremost living poet in Rome. By the time of Ovid’s death around 17/18 AD, Ovid’s poetic output was more than that of Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, and Horace combined. Ovid wrote in a variety of poetic genres, and while some of his early love poetry was imitative he also showed an originality that was unique among his peers. First in the Heroides, and later with his masterpiece the Metamorphoses Ovid showed an originality of thought that causes him to stand out amongst his contemporaries to this day.

Img: The Rape of Europa

The Metamorphoses is a long poem divided into 15 books. The poem recites a history of Greco-Roman mythology, from the creation of the universe to the deification of Julius Caesar, and mostly moves in chronological order. However, the poem is not simply a catalogue of familiar myths and legends. Although the poem touches almost all of Greek mythology’s high points (Perseus, Theseus, Hercules, Jason, Achilles, and all the rest appear at some point), the Metamorphoses is not interested in telling the full story for all of its characters. The poem assumes that its readers have some background knowledge of these stories anyway, and instead weaves a long mythological history using the concepts of metamorphosis and change as a unifying theme. It’s an incredibly ambitious idea, but Ovid pulls it off beautifully. I mentioned in my review of the Heroides that I think Ovid has a real gift for getting inside the heads of these mythological characters and treating them as real people with genuine emotions and depth. Those skills are on full display here. This book may not be the best introduction to Greek mythology (although you could do far worse), as it does assume a certain level of familiarity and skips over some things. But the Metamorphoses is on par with Homer’s epics as the most impressive retelling of Greek mythology I’ve ever read.

I’m not the only person to gush so shamelessly over this poem, which was wildly popular in Roman times. There were a few dicey years towards the end of the Roman Empire, when Christian leaders condemned the poem as shamelessly pagan, but the brilliance of Ovid won out and the poem survived to influence thinkers in the Middle Ages and beyond. The poem continued to be extremely popular throughout this time, and the Metamorphoses was one of the most popular books in the Western world for over a thousand years (over 400 manuscripts survive from the Middle Ages alone, which is a lot). It has inspired countless artists, poets, and writers throughout this time. W.R. Johnson pretty much summed it up in stating that “no other poem from antiquity has so influenced the literature and art of Western Europe as has the Metamorphoses.” That’s a pretty good legacy, and one that Ovid predicted in the final lines of his poem:

“And now my work is done: no wrath of Jove nor fire nor sword nor time, which would erode all things, has power to blot out this poem…my name and fame are sure: I shall have life.”

Img: Orpheus

To sum up, this was an incredible book and, in my humble opinion, the only truly original piece of literature surviving from the Roman Republic/early Roman Empire*. If somebody wanted to read just one book from this period, I’d still probably recommend The Aeneid, which is the “most Roman” book in a lot of ways and a little more representative of the period. But I think the Metamorphoses was the best work of its era. 6 stars, a must read for anyone with an interest in classical literature (both for the poem's own merits and for the influence it has had throughout the centuries).

I read the Mandelbaum translation, which was stellar.

*Certainly the stories within the Metamorphoses are not original. They had been told countless times for hundreds of years before Ovid’s birth. And you could point to the Theogony of Hesiod as an example of an earlier catalogue of mythology. But this goes far beyond the Theogony in size and scope, and the idea of linking all of these stories with the theme of metamorphosis and change is so novel that I don’t think you can really compare the Metamorphoses to anything that had come before.
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03/30/2012 page 77
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Wonderful review, Evan.

Evan Leach Stephen wrote: "Wonderful review, Evan."

Thanks Stephen - this was a fun one to write and if this book ever wanders onto your Easton Press pile I'd certainly recommend it!

Richard This is a very scholarly review Evan. I like the illustrations too.

Evan Leach Richard wrote: "This is a very scholarly review Evan. I like the illustrations too."

Thanks, Richard. I wanted to find some pieces to show how this book continued to assert its influence centuries after Ovid's death and I was spoiled with choices. I see that you gave this one 5 stars too and I'm glad to know that I'm not alone in my admiration for this poem.

I also see that Plautus is on your classics shelf...he is up next on my 'to review' list and that will be decidedly less gushy.

Richard When I first started reading poetry, I had a volume of Keats. One of my favourite poems was "Lamia," in which this woman transforms into a snake. I'd have to do some checking to see if he got the actual story from Ovid, but it's a good bet he did.

Plautus was all right, but not my favourite classical author...

David Sarkies It certainly is a work of poetic art. I'm glad the fundamentalists of early Christianity did not destroy the poem - it has been too much of an influence on our culture.

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