Ovid was ignored by classical scholars for a long time as being frivolous and just not serious enough. He has now been rehabilitated and Metamorphoses is recognised as being one of the most complex, sophisticated and problematic poems of the age of Augustus - as well as one of the wittiest and most accessible.
Too often regarded as a compendium of Greek and Roman myths, Metamorphoses should be read as a continuous poem telling the story of the world from the creation to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar - but in Ovid's own inimitable and often funny and scurrilous fashion. Along the way, he takes in almost every story ever told in the ancient world: Narcissus and Echo, Orpheus and Eurydice, Pygmalion, Medea, Venus and Adonis, the Trojan war, the foundation of Rome, Romulus and Remus.
His style is witty, urbane and sophisticated, and he plays games with every genre of literature: love poetry, epic, philosophy, Greek science. The ostensible theme of the poem that unifies the 12 books is change, but modern scholars recognise that this too is part of the game Ovid is playing with his readers, and the debate continues over what Ovid is 'about'. More interesting, perhaps, is the way in which he plays with our preconceptions of gender, power, status and authority - but all with the lightest of touches that never reduce the brilliant story-telling to mere polemic.
Writing after Vergil, on one level Metamorphoses is a response to and a dialogue with the Aeneid, and has sometime been read as an antidote to the supposedly pro-Augustan sympathies of Vergil. Certainly Ovid was banished from Rome by the Emperor Augustus just after the poem was published though the true reason cannot be known due to the loss of all sources relating to the the incident. However, many scholars now recognise the other subversive voices within the Aeneid itself, questioning the imperial mission of Rome and Augustus, so maybe Ovid and Vergil are not so far apart at all...
In any case, the Metamorphoses remains one of the most brilliant examples of the pure power of superb story-telling, and has inspired artists from Shakespeare to Bernini to Ted Hughes. Read it.
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