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Metamorphoses

Ovid

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Ovid, one of Rome’s greatest poets, predicted that his fame would live on forever. So far, his prediction has proven accurate. Ovid was born Publius Ovidius Naso on March 20, 43 b.c., a year after the death of Julius Caesar. He was born in Sulmo, to a wealthy family. When Ovid was twelve years old, the battle of Actium put an end to a civil war that had been raging between Anthony and Octavian. Octavian, the victor, became emperor. (He was later known as Augustus.) Because he lived in a time of calm and prosperity, and because of his family’s wealth, Ovid was able to write in peace. Ovid’s work draws on the great literary traditions of Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman cultures. His writing owes a debt to the works of Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Theocritus, Callimachus, Virgil, Tibullus, Horace, and Propertius. Some critics view Ovid’s opus as the culmination of ancient poetry.

After Ovid’s early education in Sulmo, his father sent him to Rome to study rhetoric in preparation for a life in politics. However, Ovid claimed that whenever he tried to write prose, only poetry came out. After a short stint in government, he decided to pursue poetry. His father disapproved of Ovid’s choice and incessantly reminded him of the fate of Homer, who died a poor man. Ovid’s father was wrong to worry, however. Ovid found immediate success. Around 20 b.c., he published the Amores, or Loves, which consisted of three books on the theme of love. Ovid’s next work, the Heroides, or Heroines, took him into uncharted territory. In this novel work, comprising fourteen letters written by legendary women to their husbands or lovers, Ovid puts the narrative in the hands of historically voiceless, mistreated, or overlooked women. Around this time, Ovid also wrote a tragedy about Medea, a popular figure of power, magic, and revenge. This work has not survived, but there is good evidence that Ovid’s contemporaries judged it a success. Quintilian, a Roman critic of literature, and Tacitus, a Roman historian, comment favorably on it.

Ovid continued to experiment. In the next stage of his career, he moved into the realm of didactic (“how to”) poetry. Rather than explore traditional didactic topics such as farming (as Virgil does in Georgics) or science (as Lucretius does in On the Nature of Things), Ovid wrote on the art of seduction and the art of falling out of love. Around 1 b.c.. or a.d. 2, he wrote the Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), Medicamina Faciei Femineae (Makeup for a Women’s Face), and the Remedia Amoris (Remedies of Love). In these works, Ovid consciously played off other, familiar didactic works, particularly Virgil’s Georgics. He subverted what had been an essentially serious genre and said ridiculous, comedic things about love. With a straight face, he posited that young men and women should spend time learning how to commit adultery and seduce each other. While working on the Metamorphoses, Ovid was also writing another piece, the Fasti, a poem describing the Roman religious calendar. It seems he never finished this work, although it is valuable for the many fascinating antiquarian details it contains.

Ovid is most famous for the Metamorphoses, a single poem of fifteen books, which was probably completed around a.d. 8. By writing the Metamorphoses in dactylic hexameter, the meter of epic, Ovid intentionally invited comparisons with the greatest Roman poet of his age, Virgil, who had written the epic the Aeneid. In form, rhythm, and size, the Metamorphoses falls squarely in the category of epic. In content, however, the Metamorphoses has little in common with such epics as the Aeneid, which are characterized by a single story line and one main protagonist. In fact, Ovid explicitly pokes fun of the epic genre. The Metamorphoses more closely resembles the work of Hesiod and the Alexandrian poets, who favored a collection of independent stories connected by a theme. The Metamorphoses’ roughly 250 stories are linked only by their common theme of metamorphosis.

Shortly after the publication of these two poems, Ovid found himself in great peril. In a.d. 8, Augustus exiled Ovid and banned his books from the libraries of Rome. The reason for Ovid’s exile is not entirely clear, but one can surmise that Augustus took offense at Ovid’s lecherous poetry. Poems on the art of seduction would have hardly pleased Augustus, who sought to institute moral reform. Moreover, Augustus must have been especially incensed when he exiled his own daughter, Julia, for adultery. All Ovid writes concerning his exile is that a “poem and a mistake” caused his downfall. In exile, Ovid penned his last works at Tomis, a colony by the Black Sea. His final three works are the Tristia, or Sadness, Ibis, and the Epistulae ex Ponto, or Letters from Pontus. These works largely concern his hardships in a foreign land and his desire to dwell in Rome again. However, despite all his pleas to Augustus and later to Tiberius, he would never see Rome again. Ovid died in a.d. 16 or 17.

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