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Playboy of the Roman World

Even more disconcerting is what Barchiesi describes as “an extended comparison…between Augustus and Romulus, the other pater patriae,” in which

Ovid picks out almost all the aspects of Romulus that could upset or at least irritate the Augustan re-creation of the ideal of pater patriae—Romulus the autocrat, the fratricide, the rapist, the small-town imperialist—so that he can insist on Augustus’s superiority, point by point…. This encomium of the prince oversteps the acceptable limits of Augustan rhetoric…. It runs the risk of destroying the image of Romulus, and Romulus is not just one of the many heroes of the past: he is the very symbolic foundation chosen by Augustan political discourse as the base on which to construct the idea of the prince as pater patriae.

One might add that Ovid’s handling of the other great Augustan symbolic founder, Virgil’s Aeneas, is just as unsettling. He connects the March festival of Anna Perennis, a goddess of the year (annus), with Dido’s sister Anna, spinning a tale of her escape, after Dido’s suicide, from her brother to Italy, where, blown ashore by a storm, she meets Aeneas and his faithful Achates out for a walk. Aeneas takes her home and recommends her warmly to his wife, Lavinia, who suspects the worst and prepares to get rid of her. Warned by a vision of Dido appearing to her in the night, she runs out, only to be swept away by the river Numicius and become one of his nymphs. This trivializing sequel to the Aeneid, with its picture of Aeneas as a husband saddled with a jealous wife, seems like a deliberate mockery of the great poem that had become the charter myth of Rome’s beginnings, especially since the story seems to be Ovid’s own invention.

Yet the tenor of the poem as a whole is celebratory and its program unmistakably crafted to further Augustan propaganda. At the end of Barchiesi’s illuminating analysis of the ambiguous, ironic, and duplicitous voice of Ovid in the Fasti, he sums up the critic’s dilemma: Is that voice Augustan or anti-Augustan? “The ‘opponents,”’ he writes, “pay a high price; they are forced to read the text with the eyes of an informer or ‘mole,’ and are therefore profoundly vulnerable to the totalizing ideology that they say they want to reshape.” (He has quoted, a few pages earlier, the words shouted by a Stasi officer to a dissident: “I forbid you to write poems with double meanings! Or poems with triple meanings either! We have experts who can decipher anything!”) “The ‘Augustans,’ for their part,” he continues, “are welcomed with a smile and escorted to the empty seat of the privileged spectator, who is seized unawares by the narrative and by its theatrical games.” And he adds a final footnote: “I would not know how to place myself outside this contradiction.”

The Fasti was not the only poem Ovid worked at in the years before the imperial edict consigned this Playboy of the Roman World to the outer darkness of the frontier. He also produced a major work which, he announced in its closing lines, was his warrant for eternal fame: “Wherever Roman power rules over conquered lands I shall be read, and through all centuries, if poets’ prophecies speak truth, I shall live.” The poem was known by the title Metamorphoses,12 a Greek word meaning “changes of shape”; its opening lines proclaim its theme—“My mind is intent on singing of shapes changed into new bodies.” In the Metamorphoses, by far the most ambitious of his poems (and also the longest—over 12,000 lines divided into fifteen books), he abandoned the elegiac couplet, the metrical form used in all his other extant work. For the Metamorphoses he chose the hexameter, the line in which Homer sang of the wrath of Achilles and the wanderings of Odysseus, which Ennius adapted for the Latin language in his celebration of the great wars of the early republic, and Virgil shaped to majestic music for his tale of Aeneas and the origins of Rome.

It was a meter Ovid had once publicly rejected. The opening couplet of his first collection, the Amores, presents a comic apology for not celebrating the wars of Augustus in hexameter verse. He was about to do so—“Arms and the violence of war were to be my theme, in solemn meter, the subject suited to the verse. My second line was as long as the first.” But he was thwarted—“Cupid, they tell me, burst out laughing, and slyly docked it of one foot.” The first word of the poem—arma—a deliberate echo of Virgil’s Arma virumque, makes even more pointed Ovid’s expression of his disinclination to celebrate the glories of the Augustan age in epic verse. And now that he has abandoned the verse form of which he had made himself the supreme master, the theme he chooses for his new medium has little to do with heroic action or the Roman national tradition.

Initially, it seems much broader; he begins with the original great metamorphosis, the emergence of our universe from primeval chaos, a magnificent account of the Creation based on the writings of the Stoic philosophers, which suggests perhaps that his model is neither Ennius nor Virgil but Lucretius, whose great poem De Rerum Natura expounds in epic verse the doctrines of Epicurus. The next metamorphoses, however—the passage of the human race through the changes from Golden, through Silver and Bronze Ages to the Age of Iron, suggest Hesiod as the model. But at this point Ovid charts his own path with the story of Lycaon, the tyrant whose savagery and contempt for the gods so enrages Jupiter that he changes him into a howling wolf.

This is the first of a long and dazzling succession of transformations, over 250 of them. People are changed into animals, birds, fish, insects, flowers, plants, trees, rivers, fountains, rocks, mountains, islands, and stones; stones are turned into people as are ants; men are changed into women and vice versa; and, in one famous case, a statue is changed into a woman. The stories are told with such graceful charm and wit, and sometimes with a terribilità worthy of Dante at his most infernal, that they have been appropriated by poets and artists ever since. Shakespeare plundered Medea’s appeal to Night and Hecate for the great speech in which Prospero abjures his “rough magic” and burlesqued one of Ovid’s most famous tales as “the most lamentable comedy and cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Bernini, in a miraculous metamorphosis of his own, transformed into marble the limbs of Ovid’s Daphne as they become trunk, twig, and leaf of the laurel.

In the first six books the transformations are for the most part the result of divine action. Daphne becomes a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s pursuit and Syrinx a reed to escape Pan. Io is changed into a cow in an attempt on Jupiter’s part to conceal his coupling with her from Juno. Callisto is changed into a bear by Diana because she has been made pregnant by Jupiter. Coronis becomes a crow to escape rape by Neptune. Arachne is changed into a spider for challenging Minerva to a spinning contest—and so on. In the next six books, though the actual transformation has to be the work of a god, it is the result of human passion and crime.

So far, the myths Ovid has been using, and often radically recasting, are Greek, but toward the end of Book XIV Roman myth takes over as Aeneas starts on his long journey to Italy, though his progress is often interrupted by more Greek stories—Galatea, Polyphemus, Glaucus—before he reaches his destination and, his mission accomplished, is changed into a god. But before the final metamorphosis—the spirit of Julius Caesar changed into a star—Numa, the Roman lawgiver king who succeeded Romu-lus (also changed into a star), goes to visit the Greek mystic and philosopher Pythagoras, who, in a 400-line speech, explains to him the nature of the universe and our lives. It is a majestic sermon on the instability not only of the universe but also of our own identities, for, according to Pythagoras, the individual spirit does not perish, but after the death of the body enters some other shape. This transition from metamorphosis to metempsychosis, together with Pythagoras’ eloquent diatribe against eating animal flesh, casts an intriguing backward light on the transformations of human beings into animals in the poem, suggesting perhaps that when we see a cow, instead of thinking of meat we should see the animal as an Io transformed, just as we should see a stag as Actaeon, a bear as Callisto, and that when we instinctively move to crush a spider we should remember Arachne.

There is a further resonance to Pythagoras’ great speech. Though toward the end of his long litany of impermanence he foresees Rome’s dominance of the world and the deification of Augustus, he does not promise permanence. There is no exception to the rule Nihil est quod perstet in orbe—There is nothing in the world that does not change. There are other passages, too, that remind us of Ovid’s incurable habit of writing poems “with double or even triple meanings.” When Jupiter, after changing Lycaon into a wolf, decides to annihilate the whole human race, he calls a council of the gods to announce his decision. Though they were all worried about the consequences (“Who would bring incense to their altars?”), they approved, “some with speeches that sharpened Jupiter’s anger, some in silence.”

Ovid’s epic model is of course the divine councils in the Iliad and Odyssey, where, however, disagreement is often expressed and the will of Zeus sometimes (though never openly) opposed. Here, as William S. Anderson points out in his illuminating commentary, “it becomes clear that Jupiter plays the role of Augustus and that the gods are the obsequious senators for whom, a century later, Tacitus expressed such contempt. This poetic Council and its mythical subject suddenly have contemporary repercussions, which generates a mixture of tone that is provocatively elusive.”13 Ovid makes sure that his readers will not miss the point by his description of the council’s location: “This is the place which, if such audacity be permitted, I would not hesitate to call the Palatine Hill of the wide heaven”—the area where the Roman aristocracy, including Augustus, maintained their stately homes. Just to make everything perfectly clear Ovid adds that the lower-class gods (he actually calls them the plebs) live somewhere else.

But in the main body of the poem, framed by the account of Creation and Flood at the beginning and the discourse of Pythagoras toward the end, Ovid avoids such “contemporary repercussions”; he is the master story-teller who enchants the reader by the variety and strangeness of his tales of passion, violence, and young love as he makes his swift and often surprising transitions from one to another. Many of them speak directly to the concerns of the modern reader; they have, to quote the editors’ introduction to After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, “direct, obvious and powerful affinities with contemporary reality. They offer a mythical key to most of the more extreme forms of human behavior and suffering, especially ones we think of as especially modern: holocaust, plague, sexual harassment, rape, incest, seduction, pollution, sex-change, suicide, hetero- and homosexual love, torture, war, child-battering, depression and intoxication form the bulk of the themes.” Noting that “Ovid is again enjoying a boom,” they invited a number of poets to translate an episode, ending up with forty-two contributions from Britain, Ireland, America, Australia, and New Zealand.

  1. 12

    Ovid never uses the word, but later writers (Seneca, for example) refer to the poem under this title.

  2. 13

    Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books I-V, edited with a commentary by William S. Anderson (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), p. 168.

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