RECENTLY, WE TOOK A CLOSE LOOK at the account of the Great Flood that appears in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and found that, although it superficially resembles a similar account found in the Bible, its meaning was shaped by its context in the story. As we now turn to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and consider the Great Flood account included in this poem (just one part of the overall story), once again context will be crucial for us to figure out the significance of the Flood story and how it relates to the poem as a whole.
Context is always crucial for understanding anything. If you see a circle drawn on a piece of paper, without something else in the drawing to give it context, you can’t tell if it is meant to represent a ping-pong ball or the Earth seen from the Moon. And if you are lost in a forest and pull up a Google Earth photo to figure out where you are, you will still not have a clue to your own whereabouts unless you zoom out to see your location in relation to recognizable landmarks. “Oh, I’m just half a mile west of the trail, and a quarter-mile south of the river? Great! Now I can find my way back to my car.” Similarly, when we are reading — and particularly when we are focused on a particular part of something we are reading,—we need to know what kind of thing we are reading before we can tell what the author was trying to do or how the bit we are interested in relates to the whole. So,
A New Kind of Story
First, as we did with the Epic of Gilgamesh, we need to consider the rhetorical context: the author, his cultural milieu, and his audience, as well as the kind of literature the poem is.
Let’s start with the last first: what kind of literature is the Metamorphoses? It’s a long poem of fifteen “books” (or chapters) of about 800 lines each. Rather than following a single story line or character, as epics and modern novels generally do, the poem knits together many stories from Graeco-Roman mythology and sets them in order, roughly, from the creation of the world up to the poet’s present day. All of the myths woven into this larger whole are stories of literal transformation (metamorphosis), that is, people being changed into things, and (less frequently) things into people, at the whim of some god or other.
I really can’t think of any other poem that is quite like it. Scholars, who insist on classifying everything, disagree about how to classify Metamorphoses. Some would like to call it an epic, but who is the hero? One suggestion is that Eros (Roman Cupid, the god of amorous desire) is the protagonist, but a protagonist is not the same as a hero. Heroes are always mortals (although often descended from a god) and they face struggles that test and change them; gods cannot change, however, and change (transformation) is essential to any good story. At any rate, the god Eros/Cupid himself does not actually appear in most of these stories, although erotic passion is a theme that connects the stories. By the time Ovid wrote, the epic was a well-established genre governed by deeply rooted conventions, so it seems that his poem, Metamorphoses, was not intended to be an epic.
In fact, the Metamorphoses in a category all its own (what a Roman would have called sui generis), which I believe is exactly what the poet wanted. Composing an epic was usually the capstone of a poet’s career, attempted only when his skills had acquired their highest polish. Vergil’s great epic of Roman beginnings, The Aeneid, was completed about ten years before Metamorphoses, the greatest Roman exemplar of the form, and Ovid no doubt felt it unwise to compete directly with such a masterpiece. Since we can’t rely on generic conventions to help us figure out what the poem is all about, we need to take some other considerations into account.
The Poet and His Audience
Ovid was a well-established poet by the time he wrote his Metamorphoses, so he would have a ready-made audience for this, his masterwork. These would have been educated people above the middle social rank in Rome, sophisticates and would-be sophisticates alike, including those who had enjoyed and admired his earlier works. These included several that are still well-known today, his Amores (“The Loves,” poems chronicling a love affair) and Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love,” on how to seduce and keep a woman), as well as his Remedia Amoris (“The Cure for Love,” how to get over a past love affair). These earlier poems develop some of the ideas embedded in Metamorphoses, for instance, that love is fickle and, while it can be sweet, it can also be a kind of affliction. By making love a pervasive theme in the Metamorphoses, the poet is able to make oblique reference to his own past poetic triumphs, positioning this poem, which spanned all of human history, as the kind of ultimate story about love.
That brings us to the question of the author himself. Modern readers know him as Ovid, but his full name was Publius Ovidius Naso. Born in 43 B.C., he was a Roman citizen but born in the provincial town of Sulmo (modern day Sulmona). He went to Rome for his education and stayed to make a name for himself, much as young writers and artists today gravitate to New York or Los Angeles. To put his career in historical perspective, we should note that the year before Ovid was born, Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome, was assassinated in the Senate by his friends and associates because they suspected that he was going to let himself be declared King of Rome. This event precipitated a long, bloody civil war which culminated in Julius’s adopted heir, Octavian, becoming Rome’s first Emperor. Octavian, under the name Caesar Augustus, was still reigning when Ovid finished the Metamorphoses around A.D. 8, the year that Augustus exiled the poet to the far ends of the empire (Pontus, on the Black Sea), and banned his books from Rome. Ovid, like Icarus, had been a high flier, but he suffered a mighty fall: Pontus was regarded — probably rightly so — as the arse-end of the mighty Roman empire, a most ignominious place to wind up. Ovid died there in A.D. 17 or 18, just a year or so before Augustus himself passed into eternity.
A Response to Perilous Times
Anyone who writes in such tumultuous times is bound to be influenced by the events that shape his world. In Ovid’s case, we see that the poet’s entire life was bracketed by the rule of the man we know today as Caesar Augustus. Ovid, like his great contemporaries Livy, the famous historian of Rome, and Vergil, the poet who composed The Aeneid, wrote, to one degree or another, in response to the civic upheavals through which they lived. Ovid chose apparently more frivolous topics that Livy or Vergil, both of whom tried to put contemporary events into historic perspective; turning away from bombastic nationalism, Ovid preferred to devote his poetic talents to the apparently more trivial topic of love.
Writing about love offered a relief from the revolutionary events of his age. We might say that “love is eternal,” for no matter what happens in the world there will always be people falling into, and out of, love. Already established as the “poet of love,” Ovid seems, in this his greatest and final poetic work, to be ringing a new change on a familiar theme, in his Metamorphoses: although love itself is eternal, individual loves are notoriously fickle, always changing, therefore fitting with his chosen theme of transformation. But as we shall see, this “apparently trivial” topic provides an attractive screen for a more serious underlying purpose, one that the poet did not wish to address more openly.
Despite the obvious differences between their works, I think Ovid’s purpose in the Metamorphoses was similar to that of Livy in his Ab urbe condita, the history of Rome, and Vergil in The Aeneid: to reassure his readers, living through shocking and demoralizing times, of certain enduring truths while also reminding them of the lessons of the past, lest they be repeated in the present. The truth that seems to drive the Metamorphoses is not, as Vergil’s epic affirms, that Rome has an undying, god-given destiny to rule world, nor, as Livy’s history shows, that good governance requires both prudence and adaptability, but rather that “the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself.” In this poem, the whole history of the world presented as constant upheaval and transformation, an endless series of one thing changing into another.
Next time: Ovid’s Story of the Great Flood
You may have noticed that this examination of context doesn’t yet tell us much about Ovid’s poem about lovers who are literally transformed, so we’ll need to get closer to the story to see what the connection is. In the next installment, I’ll focus on the Flood story in the poem and see if it contains details that indicate how this episode fits in with the poem as a whole.
If you have not read the Metamorphoses, there are some good English translations online, such as this one at the Perseus Project Online or this one by A. S. Kline. For our purposes, I recommend reading at least all of Book I and all of Book XV, with some liberal sampling of what goes on in between (it doesn’t much matter which middle bits, since there is not much “plot” to tie them together). Until next time, read well and prosper!