Metamorphoses: Putting Ovid's flood in context

blank billboard w/ "you are here" in center
Without context, we can't tell where we are,
or what we're looking at.
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. Context is always crucial for understanding anything — if you see a circle drawn on a page, without seeing it in relation to something else, you can’t tell if it’s mean to represent a ping pong ball, the Earth, or a freckle. The same is true when we are reading — you can’t understand what a story is intended to mean if you don’t know something about who is telling it, to whom he’s telling it, and in what circumstances or for what purpose. So as we now consider the Great Flood account in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, once again context will be crucial if we want to see what Ovid was getting at.

Before we look at the context of the Flood account within the larger poem, then, we need to consider the rhetorical context, that is, who wrote it, when, and for whom, as well as the kind of thing it is.

A poem without peer

Let’s start with the last first: what kind of writing is The Metamorphoses? It’s a long poem that 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 were selected because they are stories of literal transformation (metamorphosis) — people being changed into things, and (less frequently) things into people, at the whim of some god or other.

detail from Pygmalion et Galatée, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Wikimedia Commons
If the Metamorphoses has a hero,
it must be Love itself.
Scholars, who like to classify literary works into specific genres, disagree about whether this poem can be called an epic, because it seems to lack an identifiable hero. Some say that Eros (Roman Cupid) is the hero, although heroes, strictly speaking, are never gods.  Heroes are always mortals, probably because gods cannot change 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 (in the sense that I discussed that term here in an earlier post) is a theme that connects the stories.

The fact is, The Metamorphoses is sui generis, i.e., in a category all its own, which I believe is exactly what the poet wanted. It is unlike any other poem before or since. By the time this poem was written, epic was already a well-tested genre (it was written nearly two thousand years after the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance). 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, completed about ten years before The Metamorphoses, was the first (only) great Roman exemplar of the form, and Ovid no doubt felt it unwise to compete directly with such a masterpiece. At any rate, we should note that by this time epic is definitely a literary genre with a long pedigree. By “literary,” I mean not only that is was written (not passed on orally, as more ancient poems had been), but that it makes deliberate, albeit often oblique, reference to earlier written poems. The poet could expect his readers to be familiar with these earlier stories and recognize the references.

Written for an educated and sophisticated audience

So let us consider who his intended audience was. These would primarily have been educated people above the middle social rank in Rome, sophisticates and would-be sophisticates alike, including those who had enjoyed and admired Ovid’s earlier works. Of his various poetic works, the two that are best-known today are his Amores (“The Loves,” poems chronicling a love affair) and Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love,” or 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 The 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, as well as to other literary predecessors.

By a poet who wants to make a name for himself

fresco of P. Ovidius Naso, detail
A provincial lad made good, Ovid
immortalized himself through his poetry,
yet died in ignominious exile.
That brings us to the question of who the author was. He is known to modern readers as Ovid, but his full name was Publius Ovidius Naso. He was a Roman citizen, although not a native of the city itself but from the provincial town of Sulmo. 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 that career in historical perspective, we should note that the year before Ovid was born in 43 B.C. 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 Augustus exiled Ovid 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.

As a response to perilous times

Thus the poet’s entire life was bracketed by the rule of the man we know today as Caesar Augustus, a fact that I believe is highly significant if we are to understand The Metamorphoses and Ovid’s version of the Great Flood story. Ovid — like his contemporaries Livy, the famous historian of Rome, and Vergil, the poet who composed the Aeneid, an epic glorifying the great Trojan progenitor of Rome — wrote, to one degree or another, in response to the civic upheavals through which they lived. In Ovid’s case, his response was largely to turn away from bombastic nationalism and devote his poetic talents to the apparently more trivial topic of love.

Why love? First, perhaps, because love is notoriously fickle, always changing, so it fits with the theme of transformation. For another reason, because lighter fare goes down more easily in troubled times. Also, love was a subject in which Ovid was already well-versed. But finally, I believe, because this “apparently trivial” topic provides an attractive screen for a more serious underlying purpose, one that the poet did not wish to address more nakedly. I will have more to say anon about what I believe that graver purpose was.

The Fall of Icarus, attr. Pieter Brueghel the Elder
As with the Metamorphoses which inspired it, there is more going on here
than is immediately apparent.
At any rate, despite the obvious differences, I think Ovid’s purpose was similar to that of Livy in his Ab urbe condita, his 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.” Hence Ovid’s subject, transformation (metamorphosis), the whole history of the world presented as a series of one thing changing into another.

Next time: Ovid's story of the Great Flood

There is plenty more that could be said about the rhetorical and literary context of this poem, but that’s enough to be getting on with. In the next installment, I’ll look more closely at the poem as a whole and the way the Flood story fits into it.

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!

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