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Publius Ovidus Naso (Ovid) was born on March 20 in 43 BC at Sulmo (now: Sulmona) about nine miles east of Rome. Later his father sent him to Rome to attend the schools of famous rhetoricians. But Ovid came to see that his talent lay with poetry rather than politics: poetry flowed from his lips of its own accord, he writes.

Ovid abandoned his official career to cultivate poetry, and he began to visit and be among literary Romans and enjoy the festive and rather witty Roman society. There was plenty of space for a talented young poet to enjoy himself there, and Ovid did so very much. Soon he became a leading member.

His first two books were addressed to men. A third was added for women. In various passages of his first four works his skill as a story-teller was revealed. His fifth published work was devoted solely to tales. The book, called Metamorphoses, which means 'transformations' (which are certain changes), was completed by AD 8 in the form of a poem. In this book, good stories were originally linked and garnished so that a reader is seldom aware how he is led on from one story to the next. Furthermore, Ovid's language skills and advances in technical construction made for rapid narrative and description. Through his "gift for fantasy, Ovid is one of the great poets of all time," writes Encyclopedia Britannica [s.v. 'Ovid'].

Wikipedia about Metamorphoses

Wikipedia writes that 'Metamorphoses' is from Greek words that mean "changes of shape". The Latin narrative poem consists of fifteen books. They describe the history of the world from its creation to the time Julius Caesar was called divine. Ovid's work is recognised as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature, and was the most-read of all classical works during the Middle Ages. The tales and mythological parts continue to influence Western culture.

In the poem, Ovid jumps from one transformation tale to another. Love, Amor, is a recurring theme. The work elevates humans and human passions while the gods and their desires and conquests are mocked. In short, this is what the fifteen books of the poem are about:

  • Book 1: Cosmogony, Ages of Man, Giants, Daphne, Io;
  • Book 2: Phaëton, Callisto, Jupiter and Europa;
  • Book 3: Cadmus, Actaeon, Echo and Pentheus;
  • Book 4: Pyramus and Thisbe, Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, Perseus and Andromeda.
  • Book 5: Phineas, the Rape of Proserpina;
  • Book 6: Arachne, Niobe, Philomela and Procne;
  • Book 7: Medea, Cephalus and Procris;
  • Book 8: Nisos and Scylla, Daedalus and Icarus, Baucis and Philemon;
  • Book 9: Heracles, Byblis;
  • Book 10: Eurydice, Hyacinth, Pygmalion, Myrrha, Adonis, Atalanta, Cyparissus;
  • Book 11: Orpheus, Midas, Alcyone and Ceyx;
  • Book 12: Iphigeneia, Centaurs, Achilles; Aesacus
  • Book 13: the Sack of Troy, Aeneas;
  • Book 14: Scylla, Aeneas, Romulus;
  • Book 15: Pythagoras, Hippolytus, Aesculapius, Caesar.

[Wikipedia, s.v. "Metamorphoses"]

Ovid's Work

Ovid was working on a poem on the Roman calendar when the Emperor in AD 8 expelled him to Tomis (or Tomi; near modern Constanta, Romania) on the Black Sea for some unknown offence which Ovid insists was an indiscretion, an error, but not a crime. In the Roman society such distinctions meant terribly much.

In Tomis he continued to write, turned more melancholy in dominant outputs, spoke longingly of Rome for a great long while, while the pardon he sought from the Emperor was never granted. Ovid died in his exile in AD 17.

From about AD 1100 the fame of Ovid began to surpass that of the very famous Latin writer Virgil. Ovid's popularity continued to grow through the Renaissance, and his work formed a good avenue to Greek riches of story-telling. He managed to inspire troubadours and poets of courtly love, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Johann W. von Goethe.

Very few Latin works have appealed to a wider public and had more efect on later literature than this book by Ovid. He has gathered many sorts of tales here. What they have in common is that they deal with transformations, another word is changes.

He tells us of:

  • chaos changed into ordered harmony;
  • animals turned to stone;
  • men and women who become trees, animals, stones or stars.

On this platform we find fifteen minor sections ("minor books") inside a big book. In it, he uses mythical characters to impress on readers examples of obedience or disobedience toward higher authority; actions are rewarded or punished by a final transformation into some animal, vegetable, or astronomical form. The innermost theme of the poem (book) is passion, yough. And the work has been said to hold the reader's attention and fancy captive to the end. There is good entertainment in many of the stories.

Ovid is an excellent story-teller. He collected tales from Greek poets, and such tales were important in the education of Romans as cultural heritage and as signs of being well educated. Ovid also drew on Latin folk-lore, not only Greek myths, and even stories from Babylon and the East. What is more, he fanned new life into the old stories.

The result is a book that is a treasure-house to some. It was read with delight in his own times, and has charmed generations afterwards. Thus, European literature has derived celebrated inspiration from this one source.

Ovid, who writes about love, seduction, and mythological transformations, is traditionally ranked alongside Virgil and Horace as one of the three canonic poets of Latin literature.


Metamorphoses by Ovid, Literature  

Fantham, Elaine, tr. 2004. Ovid's Metamorphoses. New York: Oxford University Press.

Liveley, Genevieve. 2011. Ovid's Metamorphoses: A Reader's Guide. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Ovid. 1983. Metamorphoses. Tr. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ovid. 2004. Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation. Tr. David Raeburn. London: Penguin Books.

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