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Metamorphoses | Book 15 | Summary

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Summary

Now that Romulus is a god, the question is raised of who will succeed him as ruler. The studious Numa is elected as the new leader. He travels to increase his knowledge, stopping at Crotona, where he hears the story of Myscelus.

A god tells Myscelus in a dream that he should leave his homeland of Argos to seek a distant land. The god threatens that there will be trouble if he does not obey. Myscelus is torn, since it is punishable by death for him to leave his homeland. But he is frightened by the god's threats and so prepares to leave. He is convicted of treason, but the verdict is magically changed in his favor. Myscelus sails away and finally reaches the land near where Croton was buried. There he builds a city, Crotona.

Pythagoras, a philosopher, lives as an exile in Crotona. He shares his wisdom freely with others, including his strong belief in vegetarianism. He believes that eating meat goes against nature and the gods. Pythagoras also discusses how transformation is the basis of all existence. He doesn't believe anything ever truly dies, only that it changes form. By this logic he predicts the rise of Rome, now that Thebes has fallen. When Numa returns to Rome his reign is peaceful, and he beloved by his people. After he dies his wife, Egeria, mourns for him. A man claiming to be Hippolytus tells her the story of his own death.

Hippolytus's stepmother, Phaedra, tries to convince him to have an affair with her. When he refuses she tells his father, Theseus, that Hippolytus assaulted her. His father exiles him. As Hippolytus is riding away a huge wave rises out of the sea, heading toward him, with a bull on top. He tries to escape but crashes his chariot and dies. Apollo's son Aesculapius brings him back to life. Diana changes his appearance by aging him beyond recognition and renames him Virbius. He becomes a minor god and tends her shrine. Hippolytus's story doesn't soothe Egeria's grief, so Diana turns her into a spring.

Cipus discovers that he has grown horns. A seer tells Cipus that the horns portend that he will become king if he goes to Rome. Cipus does not like this idea. With his horns disguised he visits Rome, where he gives a speech to its citizens. Cipus warns that someone among them will become king if they don't banish him—and that this person will have horns. Finally he reveals his horns and is forbidden from entering the city. The grateful senators of Rome give him a plot of land outside the city to farm.

Not long afterward Rome is hit by a plague. The people consult the oracle of Delphi, which tells them that Phoebus's son Aesculapius can help them. The senators travel to Epidaurus to find him, but a council of Greeks is divided on whether to allow Aesculapius to help. Aesculapius appears in a dream to one of the Roman senators, telling him not to fear, he will come but in the form of a serpent. The senators meet at a temple to ask for a sign, and the serpent appears before them. It follows them to their ship and returns with them to Rome. The snake finds an island to call home, and health is restored to the city.

His achievements have made Julius Caesar like a god to the Romans. Venus notices there is a growing plot to kill Caesar, but Jupiter prevents her from intervening. He says when Caesar is killed, he will become a god, and that will pave the way for Caesar's adopted son (actually his great-nephew), Augustus, to become a great ruler. Ovid concludes the epic with an epilogue in which he states his belief that the poem will live for eternity.

Analysis

Pythagoras's entire lecture is on transformation, the major theme of Ovid's poem. Pythagoras claims, "What was before / Is left behind; what never was is now; / And every passing moment is renewed." Pythagoras provides examples of his theory from nature, not from mythology, to back up his theory, including the four seasons, the movement of rivers and oceans, and changes in the bodies of humans and other creatures as concrete examples of transformation. Cities and nations also rise and fall, further illustrating that flux is all. After spending so much time immersed in myths in which the gods turn mortals into trees, birds, or other creatures to show a changeable universe, Ovid turns to the real world to prove that this is exactly the case.

Ovid's depiction of the transfer of power between Caesar and Augustus is significant. From a historical perspective, Caesar was assassinated because people feared he was becoming too powerful, and the Romans' reception of Augustus is a direct contrast—Augustus is a ruler who ushers in a peaceful era. Tellingly Ovid ends his epic both praising Augustus and himself, and in this way seems to be replacing the invocation to the gods with an invocation to his own work and influence. He leaves the reader with the thought that "now stands my task accomplished, such a work / As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword/Nor the devouring ages can destroy ... / My fame shall live to all eternity."

While Pythagoras's argument and the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and his son Augustus support the idea of constant change, Ovid's final statement is surprising. It could be the final startling transformation in a book of startling transformations. Myth after myth shows that the humans who suffer from hubris don't end well and that making great art risks putting the artist in competition with the gods. But Ovid is so sure of the greatness of his poem that he elevates himself beyond the gods, believing his work is too good and important for them to destroy and that it also grants him a kind of immortality. Whether Ovid was serious or said this in jest, over 2,000 years after he wrote Metamorphoses he has yet to be proven wrong.

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