ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes and Supplements: Monday, March 4

"...To our Modern Times"


So far we have concentrated on ways of understanding some of the individual myths and mythic cycles that Ovid includes in the Metamorphoses. Although the poem has been popular and widely read almost continuously for some two thousand years, there is still very little agreement about "what it means" as a whole. Nevertheless, using some of the same analytical techniques that we have applied to its various parts, it seems possible to make at least a few tentative conjectures about the general interpretation of the poem.

Overall Structure of the Poem

We have worked to interpret the parts of the Metamorphoses by using two basic tools, stuctural and thematic alalysis. If we apply the same principles to the poem as a whole, some clear ideas about its main concerns begin to suggest themselves. If we ask "What structural principles hold the poem together?" the following points seem most important: Let us consider the implications of these structural principles:

Chronological Continuum.

The Metamorphoses begins with the birth of the universe, and ends with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, an event that took place in the year of Ovid's birth. It therefore covers all of human time. Of course, the poem's representation of "all of human time" is more than a bit skewed towards a relatively few subjects. Most of the time that it covers is the imaginary time defined by Greek mythology. Many of the stories that Ovid relates, as we have seen, deal with the historical realities of the ancient Greek world-the origins of Greek customs, foundation of cities, and so forth-but they do so in an entirely mythological, and not a historical fashion. But towards the end of the poem, the stories become somewhat more concernd with history. The Trojan War, while not itself a historical event in any conventional sense, more or less signals the end of the heroic or mythic period. Many of the Greek and Trojan heroes who fought in that war were regarded as the founders of various cities in the Mediterranean world. In particular, Aeneas, the greatest of the Trojan heroes after Hector, was said to have settled in Italy after the war, where either he or his son or grandson founded one or more cities; and among their descendants were Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome itself. After relating these events, the Metamorophoses accounts for the (legendary) history of the early kings of Rome before jumping quickly over most of the Roman history that we know as factual right to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar.

Therefore, while the poem clearly does not show much interest in history in any conventional sense, it does nevertheless link the mythical past to the historical present by concluding a sequence of mythical narratives with stories from early Roman legend. That is to say, it presents early Roman legend as a natural and inevitable continuation of Greek mythology. Needless to say, this is a very tendentious proposition. Ovid's "universal history" excludes a lot: almost everything that is not either Greek or Roman, and practically every reference to events that we know from a reliable historical record. Almost the only "historical event" included in the poem is the final episode, the apotheosis of Julius Caesar; and even this is narrated more as a myth than as a historical event: it is instructive to compare what Ovid says here with the more historical accounts of writers like Plutarch.

On this basis, we can conclude that one of the poem's main points is to use the idea of a "universal" mythic narrative to argue that Roman culture is a natural outgrowth of Greek. This of course it was not; but as wqe have seen, the Romans were fascinated by Greek culture from an early period, and adopted many aspects of it. This then becomes on of the Metamorphoses' major themes: the natural continuity between Greek and Roman culture.

This theme clearly relates to the major unifying theme of the poem as well, the theme of metamorphosis or change. Within the chronological continuity of the mythic narrative occurs a fundamental and quite noticeable shift from Greek to Roman material. Although there is no single story that enacts a metamorphosis from Greek to Roman, it is apparent that this metamorphosis is in some ways the most important one in the poem.

Once we are alerted to its importance, we see appearances of this theme in various guises throughout the poem. We have noted, for instance, that in Book 1, when Ovid depicts a council of the gods, the divine assembly is likened to the Roman senate. The greater gods are characterized as patricians, the lessaer as plebeians, according to ancient Roman social categories. They are said to have their homes in the better or the less deirable locations, according to their status, on a celestial Palatine Hill-the hill on which many members of the Roman upper classes lived, including Augustus himself. Later in Book 1 [to be continued]

aeneas, julius caesar

Structure by Books

This metamorphosis is related to the poem's second major structural principle, its division into books. As we have seen, book division is a structural device that Ovid sometimes respects (as at the beginning and end of Book 3) and equally often ignores in an ostentatious manner (the end of Book 1 and the beginning of Book 2). But beyond the importance of the individual book there is the significance of larger segments of the poem as defined by books. The fifteen-book structure of the poem as a whole seems capable of division into thirds. The first third (Books 1-5) contains stories that mainly concern the gods and their relations with mortal-principally, stories in which powerful gods become attracted to and, often, commit violence against mortal women. In the middle third (Books 6-10) the gods are somewhat less prominent as men and women (e.g. Tereus or Myrrha) take on the roles formerly assigned to gods in the disastrous love stories that Ovid favors. (In fact, the disastrous consequences of those love stories in which only human actors appear are in many cases even greater than in those involving the gods.) The final third (Books 11-15) witnesses the shift to Roman material. Thus the book-by-book structure of the poem helps us to articulate the continuous narrative into large segments that are, to some extent, thematically distinct from one another. universalizing element=universality of roman empirte, space/time

Secondary Themes

  • love/war venus/mars
  • fasti/met
  • erotic attraction (desire=violent, leads to violent acts against beloved)
  • met=poem about roman natl character
  • 'laudatory'?
  • meditation on the nature of (roman) power, character
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