Metamorphoses

by: Ovid

Book XV

Summary Book XV

Summary

Numa leaves his hometown, Cures, and makes his way to Croton to learn about the nature of the universe. An old man tells him about the miraculous founding of the city. Hercules appears in a dream to Myscelus, the son of Alemon, and tells him to establish Croton. Myscelus is afraid to follow this order, because the penalty for leaving one’s land is death. After Hercules again comes to him in a dream, Myscelus establishes Croton and goes unpunished.

Numa learns the principles of the universe from Pythagoras, a great philosophical thinker. Pythagoras urges people to refrain from eating meat. He says it is a savage practice that runs counter to the universal principle that all things are in a state of flux and nothing dies. He explains this principle further, saying that landscapes change over time, as people do. Even Hercules’ muscles sag and Helen grows wrinkled. Cities fall and rise. Sparta, Mycenae, and Thebes are no longer great, while Rome is unknown now but will become the center of the world.

When Numa dies, his wife, Egeria, mourns deeply. Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, counsels her to limit her grieving. To comfort her, he tells her about his problems with his father’s wife, Phaedra, and his terrible suffering. Egeria continues to weep and finally is transformed into a spring of water. Hippolytus tells the story of Cipus, whom the Etruscan high priest predicted would be king after seeing his horns. Cipus rejects kingship.

After these stories, a terrible plague breaks out in Rome. Human effort is in vain, so the Romans appeal to the gods for help. They need Apollo’s son, Asclepius, to overcome the plague. Asclepius appears to them first in a dream and then in person. The Romans worship him as a god and bring him to Rome, at which point the plague ceases. Ovid recounts the murder and deification of Caesar and the rise and future success of Augustus.

Analysis

Pythagoras’s speech, which encompasses roughly half of Book X, provides a quasi-philosophical underpinning for Ovid’s theme of transformation. Pythagoras’s many examples of change come directly from the pages of the Metamorphoses. Pythagoras’s speech also contains a miniature replication of the Metamorphoses. Just as Ovid does in his poem, Pythagoras in his speech takes the theme of change from the creation of the world up through Rome’s domination. Ovid is playfully suggesting that no less a thinker than Pythagoras agrees with him.

Pythagoras’s speech concludes with his prophesy that Rome will be greater than Troy or any of the cities seen in ages past. This prophesies do not take long to fulfill, since in a few hundred lines, Ovid concludes his poem with Caesar’s rule and the rise of Rome. The fulfillment of Pythagoras’s broader prophesy is only implied. If cities rise and fall and everything is in flux, it follows that Rome will eventually fall. Although Ovid does not predict Rome’s decline in his own poem, he certainly means for us to read it into Pythagoras’s speech.