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Metamorphoses | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Ovid's Metamorphoses, written in 8 CE, is often considered one of the great Latin epics. Metamorphoses offers a mythologized history of man from the creation of the world to the height of the Roman Empire (in which Ovid himself lived). As the title suggests, constant change and the fallibility of man is a common theme in the Metamorphoses. Coming from a culture that worshipped a pantheon of flawed deities—Roman gods were often portrayed as sinful, lustful, and deceitful—Ovid wrote a lengthy meditation on human imperfection and progression. Metamorphoses served both as an allegorical history of civilization, as well as an explanation for how humankind developed spiritually and socially.

Metamorphoses has been profoundly influential. Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare drew upon the myths of Metamorphoses for their own works, despite Ovid's epic predating the Christian framework that these later authors wrote from. In addition to functioning as an important document of classical antiquity, Metamorphoses also serves as a cornerstone for many famous works of medieval and Renaissance fiction.

1. Metamorphoses was inspired by a poem that described humans turning into birds.

Metamorphosis poetry was its own genre in classical times, and Ovid had many works depicting the transformation of man to use as inspiration for Metamorphoses. Many scholars agree that Ovid's work was heavily influenced by Boios's Ornithogonia, which describes people metamorphosing into birds. Very little is known about Boios himself, but his Ornithogonia was translated into Latin by Ovid's friend, the poet Aemilius Macer, likely making Ovid very familiar with the text.

2. Ovid was likely Shakespeare's favorite poet.

Although Shakespeare never declared it himself, scholars agree that Ovid was likely the Bard's favorite poet. Ovid is the only classical literary figure that Shakespeare ever named in any of his plays, alluding to him in Love's Labor's Lost. In addition, Shakespeare writes that his characters have read Metamorphoses in both Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline. Even Romeo and Juliet draws inspiration from Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe about two forlorn lovers.

3. During Roman Christianization, Metamorphoses was considered "dangerous."

From around 300–500 CE, the Roman Empire experienced a rapid change in religion from Roman pantheism to Christianity. During this theological and cultural shift, Metamorphoses was regarded as notoriously pagan and corrupting due to its sexually explicit scenes, as well as the very notion of the metamorphosis of man. St. Augustine, a famous early Christian philosopher, regarded Ovid's work as "dangerously pagan." A prose summary of the poem, described as "inoffensive," was circulated during late antiquity to allow the work to live on while keeping in line with the conservative moral culture that had developed.

4. Ovid's first major work was a collection of erotic poems.

Before crafting Metamorphoses, Ovid wrote a collection of erotic poetry around 16 BCE entitled Amores, or The Loves. The poems praise an imaginary woman named Corinna, described as beautiful and lustful. Although studied less frequently in modern times than Metamorphoses, Ovid's Amores was quite popular at the time of its creation.

5. Metamorphoses allowed medieval scholars to write on sex and love outside the framework of Christianity.

During the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, works containing sexually explicit content were often disdained and forbidden, even for the purpose of scholarly study. However, Ovid's enduring popularity allowed Metamorphoses to exist outside this framework, and medieval scholars were able to read and comment on the poems without the "scrutiny routinely given to commentaries on the Bible."

In the 16th century, however, Catholic educators began to view Metamorphoses with more skepticism and often cut passages from the text. Finally, in 1599, religious officials in England ordered that the newest translation of the text be publicly burned.

6. Not even a fragment of the Metamorphoses's manuscript survived from Ovid's era.

By the time of Ovid's death, Metamorphoses was essentially a published work, in that numerous manuscripts circulated around the ancient world. However, not one of these original manuscripts survived to the present day. The preservation of Ovid's Metamorphoses is likely due to early medieval transcriptions of the original manuscripts, as well as the classical oral tradition of transmitting epic poetry.

7. Metamorphoses is one of only two Latin epics to include an epilogue.

Ovid included an epilogue to conclude Metamorphoses—a highly unusual choice at the time. The only other known Latin epic to end in this way is Statius's Thebaid, which tells of an invasion of Thebes by the champions of Argos. In Metamorphoses Ovid uses his epilogue to reinforce the poem's overarching theme of change, even in relation to the seemingly unshakable Roman Empire. The epic concludes:

Now stands my task accomplished, such a work/As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword/Nor the devouring ages can destroy.

8. Ovid was forced into exile by Augustus Caesar.

Around 8 CE, Ovid was exiled from Rome by Emperor Augustus Caesar. Historians are not entirely certain why the emperor demanded Ovid leave, but many speculate that one of Ovid's poems offended Caesar. Ovid himself noted that his exile was due to "a poem and a mistake." This most likely refers to Ovid's Amores, where he satirizes Roman society and "acceptable" forms of love. Ovid was sent to Tomis, Romania, where he lived in exile until his death in 17 CE. Following his banishment, Ovid's texts were removed from the Roman libraries.

9. Ovid's father did not approve of his son's desire to become a poet.

Ovid was born in 43 BCE to a wealthy family in Sulmo, a small town near Rome. His family, and his father in particular, wished for him to enter public service. Ovid was trained in rhetoric and law, but he detested both subjects. Although his father convinced him to return to Sulmo briefly to serve as a minor judicial figure, Ovid subsequently left for Rome to pursue writing and poetry as a career.

10. There is an animated Japanese film adaptation of Metamorphoses.

An animated film version of Metamorphoses was released in 1979 by Saniro, Ltd., most famous for the Hello Kitty franchise. The film retells several stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and it features a soundtrack with music from Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones.

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