Prof. G. Steinberg
Study Sheet
Ovid's Metamorphoses



Ovid allegedly had an affair with the daughter of Augustus Caesar.  Whatever the truth or falsehood of this alleged affair, the Emperor wasn't very happy with Ovid's free and easy ways and exiled him to what is now Romania (to what was then a distant outpost of the Empire).

Ovid wrote a great many things, including a manual on how to pick up women (called the Ars Amatoria).  He is often perceived as a rival and critic of Virgil (although Virgil died when Ovid was only 24 years old).

As we read the Metamorphoses, I'd like us to compare Ovid to the other two Roman writers we've read -- Plautus and Virgil.  What picture of Roman culture do we get from Ovid?  What kind of world does Ovid create in the Metamorphoses?  Is it like the world in Plautus? in the Aeneid?  Why would people see Ovid as a rival and critic of Virgil?  Do Ovid's values clash with Virgil's?

When we were discussing Plautus, we commented on the lack of strong female characters and on the harshness of Plautus's world.  When we discussed Virgil, we commented on the way Virgil underrates love and women in his overriding adoration of the glory and destiny of Rome.  So, as you read Ovid, think about two areas:

  1. What is Ovid's world like in the Metamorphoses?  Who prospers in Ovid's world?  Who loses?  How do the winners and losers in Ovid's world compare to the winners and losers in Plautus and Virgil?  Is Ovid's world like the harsh, grasping world of Plautus?  Is it like the fateful, glorious world of Virgil?  Is it like neither? both?  Would you want to live in Ovid's world?  Is it a safe place? a wicked place? a fun place? a wonderful place? a stable place? an unstable place?  What role do the gods play?  How do they compare to Virgil's gods?
  2. How does Ovid view relationships between men and women?  Are Ovid's women, like Virgil's, just a distraction and an obstacle to the destiny of men?  Are they, like Plautus's women, mere statues -- objects of male desire without feelings or character?  How do the male-female pairs in Ovid compare to Aeneas and Dido? to Calidorus and Phoenicium?  Are the results of love in Ovid like the tragic results of Dido's love for Aeneas in Virgil?  Are they like the superficial consummation between Calidorus and Phoenicium in Plautus?  How does Ovid view love?  Is it a good or bad thing?
Focus in on three stories in particular -- Apollo and Daphne, Ceres and Proserpina, and Venus and Adonis.

In the story of Apollo and Daphne, we are introduced to love, Ovid-style.  What do we learn about the power and nature of love from this story?  What do we learn about the world and the gods from the story?  Is love a good thing? for the lover? for the loved?  How does Ovid's conceptualization of love differ from Virgil's?  How does it relate to Plautus's?

The story of Ceres and Proserpina is told as a story within a story within a story.  Ovid tells us how the Muses told Minerva how Calliope told the story of Ceres and Proserpina in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus.  So, what is the point of the story of Ceres and Proserpina?  The daughters of Pierus were disrespectful toward the gods (by telling the story of the Giants and their war against the gods in very flattering terms).  Presumably, the Muses, being goddesses themselves, choose a story that contrasts with this disrespectful tale.  How does the story of Ceres and Proserpina reinforce respect for the gods?  All the elements of the story fit together, believe it or not.  What do the relationship between Ceres and Proserpina, the "rape" of Proserpina by Pluto, the story of Triptolemus, seeds, and the story of Arethusa all have in common?  What do mothers who lose their daughters to men, the seasons, farming, and cool spring water have to do with one another (and what do they all have to do with the gods)?  Virgil saw the whole world as directed by destiny.  Plautus saw the whole world as directed by greed.  What directs Ovid's world?  What holds it all together and keeps it going?

The story of Venus and Adonis is very strange.  Once again, we're told a story within a story.  In the course of the story of Venus and Adonis, Venus tells Adonis the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes.  How is the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes related to the larger story of Venus and Adonis?  What do we learn about love and life from Atalanta and Hippomenes?  The story of Atalanta and Hippomenes is really more like two stories -- the story of Atalanta's reluctance to marry and the story of Hippomenes's behavior after he has won Atalanta.  What is the moral of the story of Atalanta and her footrace competition?  What is the moral of the story of Hippomenes and his insatiable lust?  Based on those two morals, what is Ovid trying to tell us about love?  How does the lesson he is trying to teach us fit into the story of Venus and Adonis?  Are Venus and Adonis parallel to Hippomenes and Atalanta in any way?  What is Ovid saying about love and life and destiny and glory?


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