Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

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Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

  • Seneca: Plays
  • Seneca: Letters to Lucilius
    Seneca: The Apocolocyntosis

Black Sea Letters by Ovid, translated by Peter Green

I lie at the world’s end in a lonely wasteland.
(Black Sea Letters book 1, poem 3, line 49)

One cry for help, many addresses.
(3.6 line 42)

My review of Ovid’s Tristia praises Peter Green’s compendious notes and fluent, flowing translations of the 50 or so poems from exile which that volume contains. Alongside the Tristia, Ovid wrote another 50 or so verse letters from exile which were collected in a different volume titled Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’). The difference between the two sets is that whereas the poems of Tristia sometimes address anonymous figures as part of his generalised lament about exile, each of the ‘Black Sea Letters’ is very much addressed to a specific, named individual, and the poems devote space to describing this person’s career, relationship with Ovid, before he turns to his familiar refrain of asking them to intervene for him.

Green gives the collection a slightly different title, calling it the Black Sea Letters, and both his translations – of the Letters and Tristia – are included in the same Penguin paperback omnibus edition, which is collectively titled Poems from Exile.

The reason for Ovid’s exile

In late 8 AD the Roman poet Ovid, at the age of 51, was sent into exile by the (ageing) emperor, Augustus. Although he wrote about 100 poems from his exile (which he endured from late 8 AD until his death in 17 AD) and describes his miserable plight endlessly, he nowhere specifies what crime he had committed to justify this harsh sentence.

He does mention that there were two causes: the official one, given out by the regime, was that the tendency of Ovid’s light, sophisticated and fashionable love poetry, in particular the scandalous Art of Love – which is an extended guidebook on how to pick up and conduct affairs with married women – flew in the face of Augustus’s legislative attempts to promote marriage and traditional morality (collectively known as the Leges Iuliae).

But Ovid himself, and all commentators since, regard this as camouflage, not least because the Art of Love had been published around 1 AD so had been in public circulation for nearly a decade when Ovid was suddenly summoned for an audience with Augustus, given a dressing down and told his fate.

No, the real reason is that Ovid saw something incriminating and failed to alert the authorities. He insists again and again and again that he committed no crime, intended no bloodshed or to break any laws; instead, in poem after poem he insists that he committed an error (he uses the original Latin word) of witnessing and seeing something, something criminal, something scandalous, something with infuriated the emperor but…what, exactly?

Infuriatingly, he never tells us. In an early poem in Tristia he tells us he was sworn to secrecy. In other poems he says he doesn’t want to discuss it, it is best buried in darkness and oblivion. With the result that we have 100 or so poems self-pityingly lamenting his fate – and not one clear explanation of what it was that he saw that so infuriated the emperor. Leading to 2,000 years of scholarly speculation.

Peter Green’s view is that Ovid was present at either a meeting of a group or cabal who discussed a plot to overthrow Augustus or a secret marriage which created an alliance between players and families which was a preparation for the overthrow of the dynasty.

The last decade of Augustus’s long rule (from 31 BC to 14 AD) was troubled with military defeats, famine and unrest, and numerous plots.

In 2 BC Augustus surprised Rome by arresting his own daughter, Julia (who he had forced to marry his wife’s son, Tiberius), and exiling her under very harsh conditions to a stony island off the coast of Italy, forbidden to have any visitors or travel anywhere. She was charged with adultery and treason. Augustus must have known for some time about Julia’s sexual promiscuity – which was the official reason given for this surprise move; so it was (presumably) details of a plot to overthrow him which prompted Augustus’s harsh action. We know that at the same time several of Julia’s lovers were exiled and one was forced to commit suicide. The assumption is that her sexual activities overlapped with assembling a cabal of men who were conspiring to a) get her divorced from Tiberius, then b) get rid of both Augustus and Tiberius and crown Julia and her lover. All this occurred just before Ovid published the second edition of his stylish love poems, the Amores. The assumption is that Ovid’s stylish, cynical, anti-establishment poems were popular among the promiscuous, privileged set which surrounded Julia.

What makes things a little confusing is that Ovid’s actual banishment, 8 or so years later, coincided with Augustus exiling a second Julia, Julia the Younger, the daughter of the Julia I just described, Julia the Elder, and her husband Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Born in 19 BC, Julia the Younger was 27 when she was banished in 8 AD.

According to ancient historians Julia was exiled for having an affair with one Decimus Junius Silanus, a Roman senator. She was sent to Tremirus, a small Italian island, where she gave birth to a child. Augustus rejected the infant and ordered it to be left on a mountainside to die. Harsh, eh? Absolutely unforgiving. Silanus went into voluntary exile. The plot thickens when you learn that sometime between 1 and 14 AD, Julia the Younger’s husband, Paullus, had been executed as a conspirator in a revolt.

So: modern historians theorise that Julia the Younger’s exile was not actually for adultery but for involvement in her husband, Paullus’s, revolt. And, to come back to Ovid, the view of people like Green is that Ovid’s witty, cynical, erotic poetry formed a kind of soundtrack to the amoral lifestyle of this very upper class set and that somehow, during that fateful year of 8 AD, hanging out with Julia the Younger’s people, he saw something take place which he failed, out of loyalty to the fast set, to report to the authorities, and it was this failure to speak out which was the error which he talks about obsessively in poem after poem.

But what it was, exactly…we’re back at the dead end. Again and again he says he never planned anything, never intended bloodshed, was entirely passive, that he saw something incriminating without himself intending anything criminal. Again and again Ovid insists he made a mistake but didn’t commit a crime. So you can see why scholars like Green speculate that what he saw, if it was just one activity, was either a group of conspirators discussing a seditious plan or swearing an oath or, the rather more florid speculation, that he witnessed the secret marriage of Julia the Younger which somehow bound her into the conspiracy to overthrow the emperor. Nobody knows.

Repeatedly Ovid compares himself to the mythological figure Actaeon, who accidentally stumbled into a clearing and saw the hunter goddess Diana bathing naked and so, as punishment, was transformed into a deer and torn to pieces by his own hunting hounds. Ovid says he was just as innocent as Actaeon, had no intent to do harm, stumbled upon a scene he barely understood, but has been just as harshly punished.

The condition of exile

Thus it was that in December 8 AD Ovid was ordered to make his way by ship from Italy, past all the islands and promontories of Greece, through the Dardanelles and into the Black Sea and onto the frontier settlement known as Tomis (modern-day Constanța in Romania), 70 miles south of the massive marshy delta where the river Danube empties into the Black Sea. And this was to be his home for the remainder of his life, for the next nine years (scholars think he died sometimes during the winter of 17/18).

Here in Tomis, as the Tristia poems make abundantly clear, Ovid fell into a deep depression, lost his appetite and weight, grew pale, suffered anxiety, often felt suicidal. The reasons included:

  • the miserable scenery about Tomis, which was flat and bleak and windswept
  • the extreme cold, such that during the long winter the Danube and even parts of the Black Sea froze over
  • the lack of even one person in the town who spoke Latin; almost everyone spoke one of the two or three local tribal languages – this was crushing for a man who had spent his entire life enjoying and playing with the Latin language, and whose art depended on reading his poems out loud to an audience and getting intelligent feedback; not in Tomis
  • but above all, the constant fear of attack by the fierce tribes who lived outside the town, who routinely swept into the area, looted all farmers’ properties, either taking them off to slavery or murdering them on the spot – several times Ovid mentions being forced to buckle on a sword and take part in the defence of the town, which only survived these assaults because of its good defensive position and wall (which Ovid perpetually worries about being too low and too weak)

One minute he was a pampered poet sauntering through the salons of fashionable Rome, a few weeks later he was frozen, isolated, unable to talk to anyone, and terrified for his life

Poems of exile

In exile Ovid wrote two distinct volumes of poems. The Tristia (which can be translated as ‘Poems of Desolation’ or ‘Lamentation’) consists of five ‘books’ of 50 or so short poems (a page or two in length, with the exception of book 2 which consists of one 580-line poem, which is a sustained address to Augustus proclaiming his innocence and asking for his exile to be ended). I have reviewed the Tristia in the excellent translation by Peter Green.

The other set of poems he wrote is the Epistulae ex Ponto or ‘Letters from Pontis’ (Pontis being the name of the Roman province on the north coast of the Black Sea). Green translates this as Black Sea Letters. Both the Tristia and the letters are included in one excellent Penguin edition, translated with extensive notes by the America-based English academic Peter Green.

Black Sea Letters

The ‘Black Sea Letters’ is a collection of verse epistles describing Ovid’s exile in Tomis written in elegiac couplets (the ‘six-five beat’ as he calls it in book 3 poem 3) and addressed to his wife and a wide variety of friends and contacts back in Rome.

The academic consensus is that the first three books were composed between 12 and 13 AD. They give every evidence of having been carefully assembled and ordered to create an artistic effect. The fourth book, by contrast, is believed to have been published posthumously, not least because it has a more miscellaneous feel.

The themes of the poems are identical with those of the Tristia (‘same theme different title’, as Ovid himself puts it in 1.1) namely:

  • the grimness of his place of exile, the cold, the wretched scenery, the lack of company
  • his deteriorating state of health
  • terror at the constant threat of violence from rampaging tribesmen
  • requests to intercede with the emperor on his behalf, if not to rescind his exile, to at least post him somewhere less bleak and terrifying: both the Julias were sent to islands off Italy, why can’t he get the same?
  • excoriations of his enemies and critics back in Rome

So a lot of the subject matter is already very familiar from the Tristia. The main difference with the Tristia is that all these poems are in epistolary format which means that almost all the poems are addressed to named individuals, unlike the 50 poems in Tristia which all address unnamed, anonymous figures. Ovid highlights this difference in the very first poem of the collection.

Augustus features heavily in the collection, as he does in Tristia, as absolute arbiter of Ovid’s fate. In between these begging passages, are appeals to Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the emperor Tiberius, who was widely seen as a civilised, gracious, moderate influence.

All to no avail. No-one in authority gave any hint of relenting and Tiberius, when he replaced Augustus at the latter’s death in August 14 AD was, if anything, even more adamant against Ovid. When his highest-ranking correspondent, the senator Paullus Fabius Maximus, died in the same year as Augustus, Ovid’s last hopes petered out, and the collection ends on a deeply depressed note, the final letter being to an enemy who is bad mouthing him. Then…silence.

Books 1 to 3 were conceived of as one unit and are topped and tailed by poems to Ovid’s publisher and editor in Rome, one Brutus. Green, as usual, gives very thorough summaries of other scholars who have found deeper patterns in the structuring of the three books. There’s no doubt they were carefully arranged.

Book 1 (10 poems)

Letters to Brutus, Paullus Fabius Maximus, Rufinus, his wife, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Publius Pomponius Graecinus, Messalinus, Severus, Flaccus.

1.1 To Brutus

The set opens with an envoi to Ovid’s publisher, Brutus, asking him to accept this volume of verse letters and slip them into the gap created by Ovid’s now-banned Art of Love. He argues that the works of more subversive figures (Mark Anthony and Brutus the assassin) remain publicly available. He makes some fancy comments about worshippers of Isis or the Great Mother but then bursts out in anguish:

I repent, I repent! If the damned have any credence,
I repent, I’m tormented by the thing I did.

Misery: his mind is melting like snow, being eaten away like rust, being eaten into like bookworms eat books, suffers a perpetual canker of anguish. Maybe, maybe, the all-powerful Jove will remit his punishment and move his place of exile to somewhere less appalling.

1.2 To Paullus Fabius Maximus (150 lines)

Ovid’s most high-ranking contact, who had married a first cousin of the emperor and accompanied Augustus himself on a secret mission to Agrippa Postumus in exile. Ovid rehearses the same old themes, giving a vivid variation on the theme of the terrifying tribesmen who regularly assault Tomis’s walls and fire off their poisoned arrows. The cold is endless, winter turns into winter. It’s his fourth year and he weeps continually with misery.

What is my life? Stark bitterness never-ending,
torment exacerbated by time.

He dreams of home, of his wife, but that makes awaking even harder to bear. Often he prays for death. He asks Maximus to aid his exile ‘with a kind word or two’. He optimistically claims that Augustus (‘that god’) can’t possibly have known how bleak and horrible it was in Tomis, otherwise he wouldn’t have sent him. And God forbid he dies and is buried there, far from all his friends and family, his spirit abandoned on a bleak windswept shore. Ovid’s wife came from Maximus’s household so, if only for her sake:

Speak up for me…Petition to have my place
of exile moved nearer home.

1.3 To Caius Vibinius Rufinus (94 lines)

A senior figure who shared in Tiberius’s triumph of 12 AD and went on to serve as proconsul in Asia. The poem makes it clear that he has sent Ovid a consolatio or message containing philosophical precepts designed to cheer him up. Ovid thanks him and tells him it has been some comfort (‘I was down but your message revived me’) but cannot fully heal his heart. He gives examples from medicine, of which he obviously knew something.

But all humans want to return to the land of their birth, even to a wretched hole like Tomis, and he cannot find peace till he returns to Rome. Lines repeating the wretched flat landscape and continual fear of attack by tribals. Nobody in all history has been exiled to a remote of nastier spot.

1.4 To his wife (58 lines)

A sad poem to his wife saying he has aged, his hair is white, his face is lined, she’d no longer recognise him. It’s not just age, it’s ‘unremitting hardship, distress of mind.’ He embarks on an extended comparison (known as a synkresis) between himself and Jason who led the Argonauts because the land of Colchis that they sailed to was identified with the east coast of the Black Sea. But the comparison is designed to bring out how Jason was surrounded by comrades and friends, whereas it is Ovid’s complete isolation, with no friends or support, which has ground him down.

He hopes to be reunited with her soon, soon, and vividly imagines the tears and hugs of their reunion.

1.5 To Cotta Maximus (86 lines)

By all accounts an unpleasant young man, Cotta was, nonetheless, rich.

Ovid apologises for the poverty of his verse, claims his talents have atrophied and the Muse cannot be persuaded to visit distant Scythia. This poem, like others of the same ilk, were forced out of his mind with no pleasure. Now he regrets having written so much frivolous verse. So why does he keep writing? Because he can’t give it up. Every man has his vocation: Ovid’s is writing. There it is. He doesn’t expect fame or reward. He writes because it passes the long empty days and fills his mind, distracting him from his misery.

1.6 To Caius Pomponius Graecinus (54 lines)

Graecinus was suffect consul in 16 AD, an old friend of Ovid’s. He is quoted in Amores 2.10 arguing that no man can love two women at the same time. Graecinus had now become a friend and drinking buddy of the heir apparent, Tiberius, so Green detects in this poem a cooling of the friendship, now that Ovid is persona non grata.

Ovid testifies to their friendship and Graecinus’s interest in the liberal arts, says Graecinus was one of the bulwarks of his heart, repeats that it isn’t ‘safe’ for him to describe his ‘culpable error’ explicitly.

Strikingly, Ovid lets slip that he has contemplated suicide, held a sword in his hand, but the goddess Hope intervened. He begs that Graecinus add some words in his favour to the emperor.

1.7 To Valerius Messalla Messalinus (70 lines)

Messalinus was a distinguished soldier and consul who accompanied Tiberius on his campaign in Pannonia. (Pannonia was a Roman province consisting of present-day western Hungary and parts of eastern Austria several Balkan states.) Ovid wrote Messalinus three poems/letters because of the poet’s friendship with Messalinus’s influential father, but all betray a certain nervousness as if he knew that Messalinus’s closeness to Tiberius meant he would do nothing for the disgraced poet.

Ovid nervously acknowledges that Messalinus might not be pleased to receive a letter from him, or it might be inappropriate for him to reach out to a friend of the Caesar’s. He nervously repeats that he committed no ‘crime’ just a ‘folly’, which leads him on to bless Augustus’s clemency, mildness and restraint. Maybe they weren’t that friendly, maybe he attended his brother’s house more than his: still, would Messalinus mind lending his voice to his cause.

1.8 Severus (74 lines)

Opens, as always, with a brief summary of his woes – illness, depression, bitter cold and the ever-threatening natives with their poisoned arrows. He sadly describes how in his mind’s eye he walks through Rome, visiting his wife and daughter, strolling past the theatres and temples. He remembers the scenery of the Field of Mars, canals, orchards which he helped plant with his own hand. Are they still there? In fact he’d love to be a farmer here, plough the soil and sow and water it – but that’s impossible because of the endless raids by the barbarian Getans, murdering farmers, burning down their farms, carrying survivors off into slavery.

He asks Severus to intercede with Augustus with a modest request: to have him moved somewhere peaceful, not exposed to warfare, to somewhere he could farm land in peace.

1.9 To Cotta Maximus (56 lines)

The poem opens with a lament for the death of one Albinovanus Celsus. Green points out in his notes that both Cotta and Celsus had dodgy reputations, Celsus (according to Horace) for plagiarising other people’s poetry. The fact that Ovid refers to them as his bestest friends reflects poorly on the poet.

Ovid tells Cotta that Celsus was one of the few friends to stick by him when disaster struck, came to visit him, put his arms round him, shed tears and restrained Ovid when he talked about suicide, telling him Augustus was merciful so he should live in hope of a reprieve.

He praises Celsus for his loyalty, laments his death, wishes he could have attended the funeral, praises Maximus for supervising the funeral obsequies with ceremony and honour. Well, just as he behave honourably and dutifully for Celsus – so should he now do the same for his suffering friend Ovid.

1.10 To Licius Pomponius Flaccus (44 lines)

Flaccus was brother to Graecinus addressed in 1.6 and was another high-ranking soldier and drinking companion of Tiberius. Suetonius claimed he was given the governorship of Syria solely for accompanying Tiberius on a long drinking session. He may or may not have shared the future emperor’s predilection for kinky sex but his general profligacy makes it (deliberately) ironic that this poem is devoted to describing how Ovid’s physical appetites have all atrophied.

He’s lost his appetite, is pale and listless, has lost weight. Green speculates he might have had recurring diarrhoea caused by the bad or brackish water of the region (he claims never to have been a drinker of wine). He ends, as usual, by begging that Flaccus and his brother Graecinus put in a good word for him with ‘Caesar’s godhead’, not to be allowed to return, just the milder request to be exiled somewhere less appalling and depleting.

Book 2 (11 poems)

Letters to Germanicus, Messalinus, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Atticus, Salanus, Publius Pomponius Graecinus, Cotys of Thrace, Macer and Rufus.

2.1 (68 lines)

Ovid imagines Tiberius’s triumph through Rome on 27 October 12 AD.

Ovid had obviously received an account of it, either by letter or from a visitor, because he describe the way the weather was rainy for days beforehand but cleared up at the last moment. It’s noticeable that although it was Tiberius’s triumph, Ovid chooses to not to name him but instead to address Germanicus, the much more charismatic figure (‘flower of our youth in peace and war’) who, he hoped, would intercede for him.

2.2 To Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus (126 lines)

Same addressee as (probably) Tristia 4.4. Same appeal, mentioning his father, praising Augustus and the health of his extended family – then asking Messalinus to use all his charm, exert all his influence, to win Ovid a change of exile.

2.3 To Cotta Maximus (100 lines)

The usual themes and pleas: notable because it describes the scene when Ovid was holidaying on Elba and Augustus’s abrupt, angry summoning of the poet arrived along with rumour of what his offence was. Ovid describes how Cotta was shocked, disappointed, but then persuaded that Ovid had committed no crime, merely made an ‘error’ – and then it was all tears and condolence.

2.4 To Atticus (34 lines)

All that’s known about this Atticus derives from Ovid’s two or three poems to him, namely that the friendship was of long standing, back in Rome they went everywhere together, he criticised Ovid’s work and, since Ovid’s fall, had grown cool towards him.

2.5 To Cassius Salanus (76 lines)

Not much is known about this Cassius Salanus except that he was tutor to Germanicus. To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BC to 19 AD) was a Roman general noted for his victories in Germany, and a powerful member of the Julian-Claudian dynasty. He was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia the Younger and was the nephew of the future emperor Tiberius. In 4 AD he was adopted as legal son by Tiberius. His connection to the Julii was consolidated through a marriage between himself and Agrippina the Elder, a granddaughter of Augustus. The agnomen Germanicus was added to his full name in 9 BC when it was posthumously awarded to his father in honour of his victories in Germania. Germanicus was central to the line of emperors in that he was the older brother of Claudius, the father of Caligula and the maternal grandfather of Nero.

Obviously the later emperors were in the future. For Ovid’s purposes, Germanicus had emerged as a young, successful, charismatic figure, far more open and sympathetic than his grouchy adoptive father, Tiberius. In the Black Sea Letters the reader can increasingly see Ovid adopting what Peter Green calls ‘the Germanicus gambit’ with more and more space given to praise of ‘that Prince of the Youths’ (line 41).

Green points out that, as the letters progress, old patrons are dropped (the family of Messalla Corvinus) or die (Paullus Fabius) and Ovid focuses on figures in Germanicus’s circle. However, this didn’t exactly endear him to the adoptive father, Tiberius – especially the way Ovid chose to end his poem describing Tiberius’s ‘Pannonian triumph’ of 12 AD with a digression in praise of Germanicus, which – Green says – friends pointed out to him had offended more than pleased Tiberius.

This poem is interesting to me because of a throwaway reference to the fact that Ovid’s heard that Salanus liked and praised the poems he’s sent from the Black Sea and that his approval ‘helped them’. This raises, for me, an issue Green doesn’t clarify, which is: what was the status of these poems of exile? Was each of the five books of Tristia despatched as he completed them to Rome? Who published them, the shadowy Brutus addressed in poem 1 of the Letters? If the Ars Amatoria had been banned from Rome’s libraries, how come the emperor allowed these poems, obsessed as they are with Ovid rehearsing his unhappiness and grievances, to be published? Were they copied and so freely available that someone he didn’t know very well, like Salanus, came across or was given a copy?

If they were made generally available, what was the feedback from Rome? What did contemporaries make of them? Do we know?

And even more mystifying, how did Ovid find out what contemporaries thought? Green makes a passing comment to the possibility that a visitor to Tomis gave Ovid an eye-witness description of Tiberius’s triumph. But this raises the huge question did Ovid receive visitors from Rome? He never mentions any in the poems. Or did Green mean something more like a visiting trader or merchant or government official?

Now I reflect on it, many of the poems in Tristia and the Letters respond to things he’s heard about from Rome, from word that this or that individual is bad mouthing him or has insulted his wife. So he was receiving letters from Rome, but how many and how regularly? Ovid repeatedly asks people to write to him more but this begs the question of how much mail he received and how often.

Back to the poem itself, the sickly sweet over-praising of Germanicus is astonishing.

2.6 To Caius Pomponius Graecinus (38 lines)

Also addressed in 1.6. Ovid is clearly replying to a letter in which Graecinus chided him, telling him to count his blessings, and that his ‘crime’ merited a much worse punishment (death?). Ovid replies, what’s the point warning him now and being wise after the event? It’s too late.

Ovid delivers a perfunctory blessing for Graecinus’s family before delivering a far more powerful denunciation if he should abandon his hapless friend (‘shame on you’). Then delivers a little list of mythological figures famous for the steadfastness of their friendship (Pylades, Orestes, Theseus, Pirithoüs) winding up by promising that, if Graecinus continues his support, and if Ovid’s verse endures, then he will make his name immortal. As he has done.

2.7 To Atticus (84 lines)

Also addressed in 2.4. It’s worth copying Green’s summary of the poem as a good example of what had, by this stage, become a very stereotyped layout:

  • Ovid admits he exaggerates his fears (5 to 20)
  • he gives a list of adynata ‘I’d sooner number the ears in a Libyan wheatfield’ than reckon up all the woes he’s suffered (25 to 30)
  • he parades the usual troubles and worries (31 to 48)
  • over-sensitivity produced by excess of suffering (37 to 45)
  • others achieved fame through the liberal arts, but they have destroyed him (47 to 48)
  • his prior life was blameless (49)
  • his friends have failed to be active enough on his behalf (51 to 52)
  • he was not on the spot when the storm broke (53 to 54)
  • he was forced to take ship at the worst possible time of year (with the stock comparison of himself to long-suffering Ulysses) (57 to 60)
  • his travelling companions robbed him (61 to 62)
  • his place of exile is a hellhole with constant threats to life, impossible to pursue agriculture (63 to 70)
  • endless cold, undrinkable water (71 to 74)
  • all that keeps him going is hope that Augustus’s anger will abate (79 to 80)
  • he addresses ‘you few friends’, begging them to continue the battle on his behalf

In fact so standardised has this list of complaints become that you can almost feel him going through the motions. I wonder why he didn’t just write the same stock letter and just change the first few lines of greeting and a few details in the middle and send them to everyone he knew back in Rome? Is it because he knew they’d be handed round, read widely, that he had to go to the trouble of making each one individually tailored to its recipient?

2.8 To Cotta Maximus Messalinus (76 lines)

Cotta has sent the poet two images in silver, two ‘Caesars’ (presumably Augustus and Tiberius) and one of Livia (Green debates whether they might have been statuettes or medallions).

The poem is one of the most embarrassingly fulsome acts of lavish sycophancy in Roman literature. He calls Augustus:

  • that Celestial being
  • he embodies our country’s image
  • his virtues eclipse the boundless cosmos
  • imperishable glory of our era
  • lord of the world

Plus extravagant praise of Livia and his extended family, all leading up to grovelling begging to have his place of exile moved to somewhere less appalling.

2.9 To King Cotys IV of Thrace (80 lines)

Because in 12 AD Augustus divided the kingdom of Thrace between two client rules, King Cotys IV and his uncle Rhescuporis. Ovid is writing a celebration of Cotys because his kingdom would form a buffer between the Hellenised colonies of Moesia and the savage tribes of the hinterland. (According to the Wikipedia article, Ovid must be talking about Moesia Inferior, which you can see on the map [just about] forming a buffer between the coast at Tomis and the untamed interior.)

He hails Cotys and straightaway asks him to grant his plea to be moved to a less dire location. He argues that the great feature of power is to grant appeals for the powerless, otherwise what is the point of the sacrifices made across the Mediterranean by everyone from peasants to emperors to the mighty gods, unless they hear and grant appeals?

Let him be worthy of his noble father. The liberal arts, which he is known to cultivate (Cotys wrote poetry) soften a man’s heart. In fact the writing of poetry creates a bond between them. As ever he mentions he is guilty of two offences, 1) writing the Ars Amoris 2) one which cannot be named.

2.10 To Macer (52 lines)

Precise identity unknown, maybe the companion of Ovid’s Grand Tour of Greece when he was a student and, according to the poem, some kin with Ovid’s wife. Macer is, apparently a poet, but unlike the foolish subjects which got Ovid into trouble, he apparently wanted to write another poem about the Trojan War. So Ovid repeats the stock trope that all poets are linked by their trade (‘a cult they all share in common’). Then moves onto a vivid description of their tour round the sights of the Mediterranean (lines 21 to 42).

2.11 To Rufus (28 lines)

We know nothing about this Rufus except what Ovid tells us in this short poem (Rufus was one of the most common cognomina or surnames in ancient Rome). Green makes the point that the addressees of book 2 become more peripheral to the centres of power, more literary and familial as it progresses. He has worked through his list of influential powerful contacts and is getting to the bottom of his address book.

Briefly, Ovid thanks him for his tears of sympathy back in Rome when the news was announced. He thanks Rufus for guiding and advising his wife (apparently he was her uncle). And thanks him for carrying out Ovid’s ‘instructions’.

Book 3 (9 poems)

Letters to his wife, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Paullus Fabius Maximus, Rufinus, an unknown friend and a group of unknown friends.

3.1 To his wife (166 lines)

The longest poem in the entire exilic corpus, complex and problematic. The first page (30 lines) gives a vivid portrait of how awful Tomis was, in the style of his earlier poems i.e. full and detailed. One of the best passages in the poems. Only at line 31 does he address his wife and then in bitter ungracious terms, accuses her of not doing enough for him. He says some call her a model wife, but she must up her game and work harder to get him freed. In return he will make her name last for ever, give her the immortality of other famous wives from mythology. (The massive irony is that we don’t, in fact, know her name for sure.)

He goes on at length about how their marriage contract, her upbringing, the house she came from, and a host of classical examples, all demand she do more for her tragic husband’s cause.

The poem ends with a passage about Livia (‘possessing Venus’ beauty, the character of Juno’), second only to Augustus in wisdom etc etc. Ovid advises his wife to be cautious about approaching her; do it now, when the city is at peace, when there have been no deaths, no public grief – not if she’s busy and distracted with other matters; and only on an auspicious day, if the auguries are favourable; kindle a fire on the altar of Augustus, offer incense and wine – that’s the time when his wife should make her approach.

Ovid tells his wife not to try to defend him, it’s best to simply admit his guilt: but be free with tears, bow down, fall prostrate, reach out your arms, ’embrace those immortal feet!’

Worth noting that Livia was 71 when this poem was written (so much for Venus’ beauty) and Juno was famous, if anything, for prolonged spiteful vendettas against heroes (Hercules, Aeneas). So, as Green points out, Ovid doesn’t seem above to prevent ironic and ambiguous elements entering everything he wrote; even when he’s trying to be grovellingly sycophantic, he still manages to give the impression that Livia is a monstrous ogre.

3.2 To Cotta (110 lines)

The fifth appeal to Cotta in the letters, with one more to come. Ovid praises Cotta for his loyalty to him and magnanimously forgives those friends who quickly abandoned him – he understands they were just scared to death of Augustus’s anger. He gives the usual roll call of loyal friends from mythology (Orestes, Theseus) before letting slip that he has learned how to speak ‘the native tongue’. This triggers a note by Green discussing just how much of the native tongues Ovid knew. His own testimony is mixed and confusing. Sometimes he writes that he’s learned enough Getan to contemplate writing poems in it. Other times he emphasises that he can only make himself understood by sign language and that the natives laugh at his Latin and attempts to speak their language. Green’s conclusion is that Ovid probably learned the local Greek-based pidgen or patois, used to facilitate trade but not the two local languages we know about, Getic and Sarmatian.

The poem is notable for introducing a mythical story, in the manner of the Metamorphoses, in this case he uses the device of having an local old man tell the story to him of Iphigeneia and Orestes, the point of which is to say that, if these local barbarians can value friendship, then how much more so should a civilised Roman like Cotta.

3.3 To Paullus Fabius Maximus / Eros (108 lines)

This is an interesting departure from the grind of repetitive poems. Same could be said of the opening section of 3.1 and the old man’s story in 3.2.

Anyway 3.3 opens with Ovid telling Cotta about a dream he had, first painting the picture of a balmy evening, him sleeping and dreaming he had a visit from the god of Love, so familiar to him from his umpteen appearances in the Amores. And the poem turns into a dialogue with Eros, son of Venus, with his bow and arrow. Ovid blames Eros for inspiring him to write that ‘stupid poem’ which got him into so much trouble, then mounted a spirited defence that it was never intended to lure married women into adultery and thus (the key point, from Augustus’s point of view) ‘raise doubts about whose heir is whose’.

To which Eros gives a very tendentious reply, affirming that Ovid’s poems never misled or corrupted anyone and concludes with an uplifting assurance that Augustus will change his mind and relent. This is all interesting, colourful and much more dramatic than most of the poems.

Then the poem concludes with grovellingly sycophantic praise and thanks to Cotta (93 to 108).

Green makes the interesting point that the setting – falling asleep on a divan – recalls the famous Amores 1.5.

3.4 To Rufinus (116 lines)

Ovid asks Rufinus to support the poem describing Tiberius’s triumph which he sent him. In fact it goes on to be an extensive lament on what he missed out on, and how his poem must fall short, by virtue of not seeing it at first hand, but only hearing second hand reports.

Then he laments the poem will have been poor because he is simply unaccustomed to joy and celebration, seeing as he lives in a land of woes: he has forgotten happy words!

And then he claims it can take up to a year for a poem of his to travel the journey from Tomis to Rome so that, by the time it arrives, everyone is glutted and bored with the subject so his poem is ignored.

As with quite a few of these letters, Ovid repeats the idea that poets make up a secret fraternity (with the implication that he misses the support, the practical criticism and advice he enjoyed from belonging to the fraternity of Roman poets).

The last 30 lines of the poem claim to be direct inspiration from ‘the god’ who predicts a second German triumph for Tiberius (though not mentioning him by name; Ovid had a strange reluctance to do so) though he does mention Livia and tells her to hasten to make the elaborate arrangements for her son’s soon-coming parade!

3.5 To Cotta Maximus (58 lines)

Cotta has thoughtfully sent Ovid copies of ‘the clever speeches you made to a packed forum’, which the latter has enjoyed reading and asks for more. In exile modes he laments the fact that he wasn’t there in Rome to witness the speeches being given and no approval in person. In his mind’s eye he can escape his wretched location ‘among the shaggy Goths’ and walk around Rome once more and meet and chat to Cotta like in the old days. Then he asks querulously, have people forgotten him? Do they still read his poems? Do they still talk about him?

3.6 (60 lines)

Ovid tetchily writes to an unknown addressee asking why he insists on not being named in the letter: what has he to fear from the cosmically magnanimous Augustus – ‘no god’s more moderate than our Prince’? If Ovid sent letters not naming the addresses that wasn’t out of doubt of Augustus’s wisdom and mercy, but more out of his own panic fear when the bombshell struck. Now he’s calmed down a bit he doesn’t mind adding the name but will politely wait till his correspondent gives him permission to.

The poem mentions Augustus’s establishment of a cult and shrine of Justitia Augusta, on 8 January 13 AD. Unsurprisingly, Ovid argues that ‘Justice’ must necessitate moderation of his punishment i.e. removal to somewhere less hostile.

3.7 To his friends (40 lines)

Now I’m out of words, I’ve asked the same thing so often;
now I feel shame for my endless, hopeless prayers.
You must be bored stiff by these monotonous poems…

For the first time Ovid acknowledges that maybe his exile won’t be abated, he won’t even be allowed to move somewhere nicer. Maybe all his pleas and poems and letters have been a waste of time. Why kick against the pricks and swim against the current? Hope brings only endless disappointments. Some wounds are made worse by meddling. Better than drown than prolong the agony of thrashing around in ‘mountainous seas’. He adds the bitter sting that he expected hope and remedy from his friends’ efforts but won’t make that mistake again. So it’s bitter recrimination as much as Stoic acceptance.

3.8 To Maximus (24 lines)

This is a spirited little number, one of the best of the poems because it is short and pithy and mostly empty of self pity. He wonders what present to send the addresses (one of the Maximuses, either Cotta or Fabius) and the poem consists of a miserable list of all the facilities and goods Pontus does not possess, until he comes to the sting in the tail and says the one thing it is notes for is its poisoned arrows. So he’s sending a quiverful so that they may ‘be reddened with your enemies’ blood!’

3.9 To Brutus (56 lines)

Green repeats the scholarly consensus that the first 3 books of Black Sea Letters weren’t just assembled at random but carefully arranged to form a pattern of addressees. The most basic proof of this is the way the collection starts and ends with a poem to the same person, Ovid’s publisher in Rome, Brutus.

Ovid writes in reply to Brutus who has, apparently, told him that critics back in Rome are criticising Ovid for the monotony of theme of his poems. (Green humorously summarises the message of the entire Black Sea Letters as ‘Get me out of here!’)

He gives an insight into his poetic practice i.e. initial creation, then going back over the verse to amend words and phrases. He apologises to Brutus but says, know what? He can’t be bothered any more. It hardly seems sane taking the immense trouble required to polish his poems amid savage Goths who don’t understand a word of Latin.

As to the accusation that his Pontic poems are monotonous, well, guess what?

Cheerful, I wrote cheerful verses; sad, I write sad ones. (line 35)

And:

Of what should I write but the faults of this bitter region,
what pray for, but to die in a better place?

One last point: when a poet makes something up he is free to introduce the themes and variations he wants. But Ovid’s theme was dictated by his pitiful situation. He didn’t write these poems to achieve high poetic repute but a bread-and-butter practical means to a practical end. The variation, such as it is, came from varying the exact content to be appropriate to each addressee:

Not to make a book, but to send the appropriate letter
to each person – this was my object and my care.

In fact, in his commentary Green comes down quite hard on Ovid, accusing him of, ultimately, defeating his own ends by boring his readers with the monotony of his subject matter and complaints until they stopped listening. Better if he’d made the effort to diversify his subject matter; that might have had more impact. Maybe. Unlikely, though.

Book 4 (16 poems)

Letters to Sextus Pompeius, Cornelius Severus, Brutus, Vestalis, Suillius, Graecinus, Albinovanus, Gallio, Carus, Tuticanus and an unnamed enemy.

Scholars think that books 1, 2 and 3 of the Black Sea Letters were carefully assembled and shaped by Ovid, a literary operator to the end. However, the scholarly consensus is that the fourth book of letters was added later, possibly after his death, for several reasons:

  • it’s longer than all the others, 16 poems 880 lines
  • its addressees are new to the series
  • Ovid’s wife is conspicuous by her absence
  • in some places Ovid displays embarrassment at not having communicated with new addressees before

So it’s considered a mopping up exercise, collecting the best of the rest.

What the new addressees almost all have in common is service under or support for Germanicus (see 2.5, above), for example Sextus Pompeius, recipient of four epistles, related to Augustus and an adherent of Germanicus.

Because when Augustus died in August 14, Ovid stood no hope of clemency from Tiberius, sterner than Augustus and under the powerful dominance of his mother Livia. So Ovid turned his hopes towards the emperor’s adopted son, the famously charming, civilised and accessible Germanicus.

4.1 To Sextus Pompeius (36 lines)

Pray accept a poem composed, Sextus Propertius,
by one who owes you his life…

Pompeius takes over the role of prime addressee performed in earlier books by Fabius Maximus and the sons of Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sounds nervous and embarrassed that he hasn’t written to him before, saying he meant to, often wrote his name by mistake at the head of previous letters etc. In a moment of weird hyperbole, Ovid claims that Propertius made him into a work of art.

4.2 To Cornelius Séverus (50 lines)

What you are reading, Séverus, great bard of mighty monarchs,
comes to you all the way from the long-haired Goths…

Séverus was an epic poet (he wrote an epic poem about the Sicilian War) and in the same literary circle as Ovid, that of Messalla Corvinus. Like many of the other poems, he apologises for not having addressed a poem to him before but, interestingly, writes that they have been keeping up a correspondence in verse. What happened to all those letters to and from Ovid for those ten long years?

The poem is an opportunity to complain that his inspiration has left him, he is ploughing the seashore. He has writer’s block because he has no intelligent audience or critical feedback. Paradoxically this poem about poetic barrenness throws up one of the most quotable lines in all the 100 exilic poems:

Writing a poem you can read to no-one
is like dancing in the dark.
(lines 33 to 34)

4.3 To Unnamed (58 lines)

A generic poem castigating a close friend, known since boyhood, who has not only not written to him, but denied they were ever a friend of his. Traitor and dissembler. Ovid warns him just how fickle Fortune is, as light as a breeze, and lists great men brought low (Croesus, Pompey). One day he might fall low and need other people’s help, then he’ll regret abandoning his friends.

4.4 To Sextus Pompeius (50 lines)

A variation on a stock poem or subject, the laudatio consulis i.e. in praise of someone about to be appointed consul for a year. Scholars point out it resembles stock letters that Cicero sent to about-to-be-installed consuls. It invokes and plays against the conventions of the form. Also notable because Ovid introduces the figure of Rumour which gives the sense, not often mentioned in the poems, that he was, all the time, carrying on a busy correspondence in prose with friends and family back in Rome.

He paints a scene of himself walking along the barren seashore when the voice of the allegorical figure of Rumour whispers in his ear that the coming year will be one of joy for ‘the consul will be Pompeius, your dearest friend in the world’ and this leads him into a vivid imagining of the sights and scenes involved in a consul’s entry into power, which Ovid conjures up to console himself.

4.5 To Sextus Pompeius (46 lines)

The poem is an envoi, conceived as a messenger sent to Pompeius who has now commenced his consular year (14 AD).

Go, lightweight elegiac, to our consul’s ultra-learned
ears, take this message for the man of honours to read.

And paints an interesting picture of how the poem-messenger must make his way through the throng around Pompeius as he performs his duties, until he can speak to him and remind him of its sad author. Interestingly, Ovid says he owes his life to Pompeius, that he ‘ensured safe passage for [Ovid] through the wilds’ and has, subsequently, given him ‘life-sustaining gifts.’

The imperial family feature in the poem as those Pompeius must praise and placate but it’s interesting that Germanicus gets the longest mention, 6 lines, Augustus 2, and Tiberius isn’t mentioned at all.

4.6 To Brutus (50 lines)

Ovid’s publisher and literary confidante whose full name we don’t know. He says he’s moving into his second five-year spell in exile (14 AD) and that he’s heard the new that Augustus is dead (August 14) so it must have been written about October-November of that year. Ovid optimistically writes that Augustus ‘had begun to forgive my unwitting error’. Seems optimistic. He says he’s sent Brutus a poem celebrating the new deity i.e. the deification of Augustus. He mentions it in other exile poems, too. it hasn’t survived, but it would have been a treat to see just how oleaginous Ovid could be.

The poem praises Brutus for being compassionate and so surprising many by his forensic ferocity in prosecuting law cases. And implies he’s fat (‘the great frame of yours!’) And claims that ‘the greater part of [his] private circle] abandoned him, denying all knowledge of him.

4.7 To Vestalis (54 lines)

Vestalis was the ‘son of a native prince’ and ‘scion of Alpine kings’, who rose through the ranks of the Roman army and was appointed prefect to the coast of Pontus i.e. across the Black Sea from Tomis.

Since you’ve been posted to the Black Sea’s shore, Vestalis,
to keep the peace in these sub-polar lands,
you can see for yourself the kind of country I lie in,
can testify that mine are no feigned complaints.

The poem turns into a long list of Vestalis’s achievements as a soldier and commander, vividly describing various battles and victories, notably Aegisos. To quote A.S. Kline’s notes, “Aegisos was a Moesian town on the Danube delta. The modern Tulcea, it lies about forty miles inland from the southern mouth of the delta and about seventy miles north of Tomis. It was retaken by Roman forces led by Vestalis in AD12 after a Getic incursion.” hence this poem in praise of Vestalis, comparing him to Ajax before Troy:

conspicuous in your gleaming armour,
ensuring your brave deeds could not be missed,
with great strides you charged the swords, the strong position,
stones thicker than wintry hail,
and neither the downflung rain of javelins could halt you
nor arrows envenomed.

4.8 To Publius Suillius Rufus (90 lines)

Ovid was connected to Rufus twice over. He had married Ovid’s step-daughter, Perilla, in around 12 AD, 5 or 6 years after Ovid’s relegatio; and he was quaestor to Germanicus, Ovid’s last best home of forgiveness.

This explains why the poem morphs into an appeal to Germanicus, in three parts: a) Ovid cannot offer Germanicus money but he can offer him poetic immortality:

Let opulent houses and cities present you with temples; Ovid’s
gratitude will be shown through his sole riches – verse.

b) His (Ovid’s) praise will amplify his fame and reputation. This launches an extended example of the common trope that poems of praise are the best and longest lasting monument. Not only famous contemporaries but the great men of legend and even the gods themselves are to some extent kept alive – we have heard of them – because of poetry.

Than time
there’s nothing in existence has greater strength.
The written word defies the years.

c) Germanicus is himself an author – they have ‘rites in common’ – and so all the more should free Ovid from his horrible exile among ‘the savage Goths’.

4.9 To Graecinus (134 lines)

Same addressee as 1.6 and 2.6, Graecinus was an old friend of Ovid’s but also a drinking buddy of Tiberius’s so had probably made the sensible move of dropping his old friend.

Graecinus was appointed suffect consul in 14 AD so in this poem Ovid: a) imagines the scene of his installation, saying how much he’d have liked to have been there to offer congratulations in person; b) hopes Graeconus will use his position to intercede with the emperor.

Ovid then goes on to celebrate the happy fact that Graecinus will be replaced as consul by his brother, Lucius Pomponius Flaccus. Since Flaccus served as commander of a district on the Black Sea coast (where he distinguished himself in a campaign of 12 AD), Ovid asks Graecinus to get his brother to confirm Ovid’s descriptions of the miserable climate, warlike tribes and so on.

Ovid describes how he is esteemed in Tomis, how his behaviour has won him privileges and exemptions. He goes on to describe how he has a shrine to the entire royal family, Augustus, Livia, Tiberius and the two adopted grandsons Drusus and Germanicus. He asks Graecinus to ask anyone how zealous he is in offering incense to this little group of statuettes every single morning – poor desperate grovelling man.

It’s an unusually long poem and ends with a vision of Augustus, now deified, up in heaven looking down on Ovid, appreciating the poems on his deification which Ovid mentions having recently written.

4.10 To Albinovanus Pedo (84 lines)

Ovid says he’s writing this in his sixth summer. If he departed Rome in December 8 and arrived in the spring of 9, this makes it 15 AD. Albinovanus Pedo was a soldier who’d served under Germanicus. Some of his exploits are described in Tacitus’s Annals and, rather amazingly, he wrote an epic poem about the huge storm which wrecked Germanicus’s fleet in the North Sea in 16.

Anyway, this poem is unusual because, although it raises some super-familiar topics about Tomis – the bleakness of the flat plain, the sea freezing over, the barbarian Goths with their poisoned arrows – there is, surprisingly, no pitiful begging and pleading for help. On the contrary, Ovid, for once, boasts about his toughness, his duritia, at having survived it all.

Can you
compare any flint or steel, dear Albinovanus,
to my endurance?…
All things but me, then, time that great corrosive,
will destroy: even death holds off, quite overcome
by my toughness…

He has heard that people back in Rome simply don’t believe his stories about the cannibal tribes or the sea freezing over, let them come and see for themselves! In fact he goes on to give a technical explanation of why the shore-sides of the Black Sea do freeze over in the winter which Green, in his notes, points out is, unlike most natural history written by the ancients, scientifically correct.

4.11 Junius Gallo (22 lines)

Gallo was a noted rhetorician and friend of the elder Seneca. In one of his typically full and fascinating notes, Green tells us that Gallo’s senatorial career was cut short years later, in 32 AD, when he suggested that ex-praetorians should be given seating privileges in the theatre. ‘Tiberius reprimanded him, removed him from the Senate and sent him into exile.’ Crikey! This fact is more interesting than the poem, a striking insight into the immense importance of hierarchy and precedence and procedure in ancient Rome. Sent into exile! For suggesting a minor change in the seating plant at the theatre?

Anyway, in this short poem Ovid greets Gallo, apologises for not having written earlier, and commiserates on the death of his wife. He laments it takes so long for his letters to travel to Rome (Green, in his notes, says the period of a year is a gross exaggeration). So Ovid speculates that, given this long delay in Gallo’s letter reaching him, maybe he has remarried!?

4.12 To Tuticanus (50 lines)

Although Ovid describes him as an old friend (‘through all the long years we’ve enjoyed together/I’ve loved you like a brother’) and that they developed a very close relationship through sharing and critiquing each other’s poems, Tuticanus hasn’t appeared in any earlier poem and so Green detects a (by now fairly familiar) tone of embarrassed apology in this poem.

Ovid tries to make a joke by pointing out that it is impossible to fit Tuticanus’s name, which consists of a double trochee, into the tight metrical scheme of his elegiac metre. Ovid runs through the various distortions he could make of his friend’s name to fit it in, but says they’d all be laughed at. You don’t have to totally understand the metrical variations which he describes to grasp the point that the kind of verse Ovid (and his contemporaries) wrote was extremely strict in every single syllable of its beats and measures. So when he read his poetry aloud to a literary audience and they critiqued it, as often as not it would be about the strict mathematical count of the metre as about the things we moderns care more about (metaphors and sentiment). Maybe it can be summarised as saying that Roman poetry as considerably more mathematical than we are used to.

Tuticanus has clearly asked in a poem what Ovid wants, but by now, demoralised and defeatist, Ovid confesses he doesn’t know:

I can find nothing to do, or want, or not want,
nor do I clearly know what’s best for me.

4.13 To Carus (50 lines)

We know little about Carus except that he, too, was a poet and, according to this poem, a tutor to Germanicus’s two young sons (Nero and Drusus III). Well-placed, then.

But this poem is noteworthy because in it Ovid claims he has mastered enough of the local lingo to be writing poetry in it and to have become ‘a Getic bard’. Green doubts this means Ovid had become fluent in the local tribal language. More likely he had mastered the bastardised Greek or Greek patois used at this remote trading post. Thus Ovid’s verse technique, based on counting syllables, would still work in a language which retained Greek syllable counts. It is extremely unlikely this syllabic technique could be applied to a non-Mediterranean language based, more than likely, on stresses and beats.

Anyway, he tells Carus he’s had a popular hit among the natives with a poem praising the imperial family, describing how Augustus’s soul had gone to heaven and his virtues been inherited by his wise and good successor (as usual, he can’t bring himself to use Tiberius’s name). Then he jokily describes the scene of assembled Goths, who have listened in silence, at the poem’s end breaking into applause, nodding and shaking their quivers full of arrows – a cartoon scene.

Then he has one of the Getic leaders asking why, when he writes such wonderful praise of Caesar, Caesar doesn’t recall him to Rome.’ But it’s too late. This is his sixth winter. Ovid asks Carus to intercede for him with Germanicus, but it’s half-hearted. His sixth winter is approaching. He’s worn out.

4.14 To Tuticanus (62 lines)

Same addressee as 4.12. It quickly becomes an angrily desperate plea to be moved somewhere, anywhere but wretched Tomis. But this leads into a new and interesting topic: turns out that his incessant bitching about how dreadful Tomis is has vexed the locals. Which leads into a self-pitying lament that whatever he writers, his poetry seems to get him into endless trouble. Maybe he should cut off his fingers so he can’t write any more. Rather unconvincingly he now addresses the ‘men of Tomis’ and assures them that, deep down, he loves them, it’s just their land and its wretched climate he hates. Nice try, Publius.

Then he moves on to positive praise of the way the people of Tomis have welcomed, celebrated and even honoured him. (My God, it would be fascinating to know more about this.) He has been granted a tax exemption. A wreath has been placed around his head ‘by popular acclamation’. Tomis has proved ‘ever loyal and hospitable’. If only it wasn’t so close to the frozen pole!

4.15 To Sextus Pompeius (42 lines)

For once this is a poem of thanks to someone who clearly has given Ovid material aid, and more than once. He writes that he owes all his welfare to him, after the gods he takes first place, his kindnesses have been as many as grapes in a vineyard.

In exchange Ovid describes himself as a chattel and a possession which now belongs to Pompeius, going far beyond the dutifulness described in a usual client-patron relationship. Ovid’s abandonment of himself to Pompeius is abject, complete.

He then apologises for writing the same old thing; whatever subject he sets out to address it always comes back to the same old rut, his plea for forgiveness.

4.16 To anonymous (52 lines)

The final poem in book four and therefore the entire Black Sea Letters is an angry execration of an unnamed person who is bad-mouthing him back in Rome. He adopts from the start the pose he has created before that Ovid is dead – the fashionable man-about-Rome who wrote all those witty poems died the day he was sent into exile and everything since has been written by a corpse. So what on earth is the point of calumniating and criticising a dead man?

The poem opens with an impressive roll call of contemporary poets (listed below), long and exhaustive, leading up to the defiant conclusion that Ovid was, and knew he was, head and shoulders among this packed competition. But what does any of it matter? Ovid is dead now. So, Malice, sheathe your bloody claws. Ovid has lost everything. What’s the point stabbing a dead body?

There is no space in me now for another wound.

Thoughts

1. Ovid more of a hanger-on than we thought

The letters shed light on the real nexus of relationships Ovid navigated back in Rome and it is not a pretty one. More than once you get the impression Ovid was a hanger-on to much more important, powerful, rich men, leading figures in politics or the army, who indulged the wimpy poet because of his quick tongue and his outrageous wit, but never really liked him and, now he’s in trouble, have promptly dumped him and wouldn’t dream of jeopardising their standing with the old or new emperor for such a hanger-on. Not flattering.

2. Why repetition works for love but not for exile

It’s difficult not to get worn down by the sheer repetition of the same half dozen tropes repeated in almost all the 100 poems, illustrated by the same half dozen metaphors and the same half dozen mythological references (endlessly comparing himself to storm-tossed Ulysses, long-suffering Philoctetes, Capaneus, comparing his dutiful wife to Penelope, Andromache, Evadne et al).

But there’s a point to be made here: the Amores mercilessly reshuffled half a dozen tropes about love – about the poet being a slave for love, shackled for love, love’s servant, love’s soldier, love’s long-suffering victim, twanged through the heart by love’s arrows etc – and these are endlessly enjoyable.

My suggestion is that from Ovid’s time right up to the present, we are so indoctrinated by the mass media with the importance of ‘Love’ that we accept reading the same love tropes in poetry, reading the same love stories in novels, watching the same half dozen love plots (competition for the pretty girl, marriage then infidelity, torn between two lovers etc) without complaint.

As a Darwinian materialist I see the never-ending and enormous obsession of all our media and cultural productions with ‘love’ and sex as reflecting the central concern of human beings (when regarded as mammals just like all the other mammals on the planet) which is to mate, to nest and to reproduce.

When Ovid applies the same half dozen tropes about love (in the Heroides, Amores, Art of Love) we lap it up, the repetition doesn’t seem to matter, the expression of the same old love plaint seems fresh and new and heartfelt each time we read it.

But when he applies the same technique of endless repetition of a half dozen tropes regarding a different subject, namely his unhappy exile in windswept, tribe-infested Tomis, we react with growing boredom and exasperation.

It’s because this highly specific situation doesn’t have anything like the same basic, animal, evolutionary interest for us that sex and love do. This is why we mostly remain on the outside of his poems and don’t take them to heart as we do his love poems. And helps to explain why the constant repetition eventually becomes really wearing.

The extent of repetition with variation is comparable in both cases: but one subject is core to almost everyone’s central purpose as human beings (love and sex), the other is marginal and niche.

3. More poets than you’d expect

Neither Green nor anyone else I’ve read makes much of this last point, but a surprising number of the people Ovid writes too wrote poetry. It was clearly a really common activity among the educated classes of Rome which must, therefore, have created a highly qualified audience for Ovid’s recitations, and plenty of feedback and criticism. Only towards the end did I start listing people he writes to who are described either in the poem itself or in Green’s notes as poets and then discovered that the final poem in the entire book, 4.16, includes a handy list of the poets among Ovid’s contemporaries:

  • Cornelius Severus (4.2) author of an epic poem about the Sicilian Wars
  • Albinovanus Pedo (4.10) wrote an epic poem on Theseus and on the exploits of Germanicus
  • Tuticanus (4.12) wrote a Phaeacid a reworking of the Phaeacian books in Homer’s Odyssey
  • Carus (4.13) wrote a poem about Hercules
  • Domitius Marsus (4.16) wrote an epitaph on Tibullus
  • ‘bombastic’ Rabirius (4.16) wrote an epic on the civil wars which the critic Velleius Paterculus thought equal to Virgil
  • Clutorius Priscus (4.16) wrote a lament on the death of Germanicus
  • Julius Montanus (4.16)
  • Sabinus (4.16) wrote verse replies to Ovid’s Heroides and ‘an almanac in verse’
  • an unnamed poet (4.16) ‘who versified Rome’s wars in Libya’
  • Marius (4.16) who could turn his hand to anything
  • Camarinus (4.16) wrote an epic account from the death of Hector to the end of the Trojan war
  • Rufus (4.16) a lyric poet, ‘one man performer upon Pindar’s lyre’
  • a ‘Sicilian friend’ (4.16) wrote a Perseid
  • Lupus (4.16) who described Menelaus and Helen’s adventures on the journey back to Sparta
  • Turranius (4.16) author of unnamed tragedies
  • Gaius Melissus (4.16) developed a new type of social comedy
  • Lucius Varius Rufus (4.16) wrote tragedies, a panegyric to Augustus, an epic On Death, and was commissioned by Augustus, along with Plotius Tucca, after Virgil’s death, to edit and produce a publishable version of the Aeneid
  • Graccus (4.16) composed a poem on Thyestes
  • Proclus (4.16) an imitator of the Greek poet Callimachus and so one of the ‘neoteric’ poets, most famous of whom was Catullus
  • Grattius (4.16) author of a 540-line poem on hunting and the training of hunting dogs
  • Fontanus (4.16) ‘tossed off the amours of nymphs and satyrs’
  • Capella (4.16) ‘crammed phrases in the elegiac mould’
  • Cotta Maximus (4.16) rich, powerful patron and dabbler in poetry

Where are they now? Well, Green dolefully informs us, of the 16 poets I’ve mentioned above, who Ovid references in 4.16 (plus two or three I haven’t mentioned because they are referred to by work not name), none of their works have survived intact, with the one rather sad exception of the hunting poem by Grattius.

The collected works of all the others, including all those epic poems about death, the Trojan war, the civil war, all those plays…all vanished into oblivion.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Ovid’s Black Sea Letters was included in Ovid: The Poems of Exile, published by Penguin Books in 1994. All references are to this 1994 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes (1997)

Given his reputation for avoiding anything which smacked of ‘the Poetic Tradition’, the fact that he dropped English at Cambridge because he found studying the classics too stifling for his imagination, and his lifelong preference for depicting the harsh realities of a brutal, untamed nature – it might come as quite a surprise that, right at the end of his life, in 1997, Ted Hughes published a full-on translation of the Metamorphoses by the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, the kind of thing you might expect from a far more traditional, decorous, academic poet.

An odd choice?

Having just read the full Ovid poem I can see that Hughes’s decision is less surprising than might at first appear. I had fond memories of reading the Metamorphoses 30 years ago and had completely forgotten that they are consistently brutal, intense and often very cruel indeed. As such, they obviously chime with Hughes’s lifelong obsession with the brutality, intensity, and visionary otherness of the natural world.

Also, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Hughes had, earlier in his career, translated another work by a canonical Roman writer, the Oedipus of Seneca. In fact I was surprised, double checking his bibliography, to discover that after his death a whole suite of translations was published – translations of The Oresteia of Aeschylus, Phèdre by Jean Racine, and Alcestis by Euripides, all published in 1999. What do they have in common? Classic stories from classical antiquity. So the Ovid translations are far from unique. Hughes’s imagination clearly took a classical turn in his last decade.

And then, on rereading his poetry as I just have, I realised there are scattered references to classical mythology throughout – not many, admittedly, but they’re there.

Plus the entire sequence in Moortown named ‘Prometheus on his crag’, and the poem in that volume about Actaeon, and one titled ‘Pan’.

So once you start looking, you find a strong undercurrent of classical references and subject matter throughout his oeuvre.

The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses is a long poem in Latin in which the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, generally referred to as Ovid (43 BC t o18 AD) brought together into one continuous narrative some 250 ancient Greek myths and legends.

these ancient stories all have one thing in common – the protagonist, the figure at the centre of the story, be they man, woman, child, sometimes a minor divinity such as a nymph or nereid – at the climax of the story, each of them is transformed into something else. Sometimes into an animal, like a bird or pig or wolf or dog; sometimes into flora, such as a tree or flower; sometimes into inanimate matter, like stone – various characters are turned into statues or just into stone – or into water – several characters are turned into standing pools or streams.

Hughes’s approach

Ovid’s poem is huge. At just short of 12,000 lines of regular dactylic hexameter it is as long and detailed and complicated as the canonical epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Hughes’s version is nowhere near as long. For a start he restricts himself to just 24 of the longer or more complete tales.

So instead of a continuous narrative describing stories big and small, containing full length treatments with throwaway references in a line or two, as Ovid does, Hughes presents us with what is, in effect, a collection of 24 individual poems.

Second, and a more glaring difference, is Hughes translates Ovid into free verse. Hughes employed free verse and flexible stanza shapes right from the start of his career, so by 1997 he’d had 40 years of practice. The result is a style where every line is its own thing, its own measure, justifying its own length and rhythm by its meaning and poetic force, rather than being compelled to fit into a regular metre.

Tales from Ovid does in fact contain regular stanza structures, though I only slowly realised it. Thus the opening story about Phaethon who fools his father, the god of the sun, into letting him drive his chariot for a day and proves totally inadequate to the task – a kind of ancient Greek Liz Truss – and loses control of the immortal horses and lets the sun chariot swoop low over the earth causing widespread destruction – in Hughes’s hands this narratives begins by being told in 47 5-line stanzas, each line being as flexible as he needed it to be.

When Phaethon bragged about is father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him. ‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’

In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.’

And so on. However, Hughes has no hesitation in switching format as required so that, for example, when Phaethon enters the palace of his father, the verse switches to long verse paragraphs in order to describe its grandeur.

Fittingly magnificent
Columns underpropped a mass
Of gold strata so bright
The eyes flinched from it.
The whole roof a reflector
Of polished ivory.
The silver doors like sheet flame –
And worked into that flame
Vulcan, the god of fire,
Had set, in relief, a portrait of the creation…

Back to 5-line stanzas for a bit and then, when Phaethon loses control of the horse of the sun so that they fly down, far too close to the surface of the earth, it switches again to verse paragraphs, although the freedom of individual lines remains identical to what it was in the stanzas i.e. there’s no particular rhyme or pattern except the power of the phrases themselves.

Earth began to burn, the summits first.
Baked, the cracks gaped. All fields, all thickets,
All crops were instantly fuel –
The land blazed briefly.
In the one flare noble cities
Were rendered
To black stumps of burnt stone.
Whole nations, in all their variety,
Were clouds of hot ashes, blowing in the wind,.
Forest-covered mountains were bonfires…

Later on the 9-page tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in a series of free verse 3-line stanzas so popular with contemporary poets for some reason. (Maybe this is for the simple reason that they’re no couplets which tend to make you expect rhymes, and not quatrains, ditto. Triplets are free of those old traditional expectations.)

Throughout the East men spoke in awe of Thisbe –
A girl who had suddenly bloomed
In Babylon, the mud-brick city.

The house she had grown up in adjoined
The house where Pyramus, so many years a boy,
Brooded bewildered by the moods of manhood.

These two, playmates from the beginning,
Fell in love.
For angry reasons, no part of the story,

The parents of each forbade their child
To marry the other…

In other words, Hughes felt utterly free to pick and choose verse forms, or variations of free verse forms, as they suited his needs.

List of the poems

  1. The Creation of the Universe. The Four Ages (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron). the Flood. The story of Lycaon (20 pages)
  2. Phaethon (21 pages)
  3. Callisto and Arcas (7 pages)
  4. The Rape of Proserpina (15 pages)
  5. Arethusa (4 pages)
  6. Tiresias (2 pages)
  7. Echo and Narcissus (11 pages)
  8. Erisychthon (10 pages)
  9. Semele (6 pages)
  10. Peleus and Thetis (4 pages)
  11. Actaeon (8 pages)
  12. Myrrha (15 pages)
  13. Venus and Adonis (16 pages)
  14. Pygmalion (7 pages)
  15. Hercules and Dejanira (13 pages)
  16. The Birth of Hercules (3 pages)
  17. The Death of Cygnus (6 pages)
  18. Arachne (9 pages)
  19. Bacchus and Pentheus (18 pages)
  20. Midas (11 pages)
  21. Niobe (12 pages)
  22. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (5 pages)
  23. Tereus (17 pages)
  24. Pyramus and Thisbe (9 pages)

The merits of Hughes’s version

Characteristic, trademark phrasing, precise, brisk, no fat on the bone, no extraneous syllables. Hard, precise and clinical.

Hercules, the son of Jupiter,
Was bringing his new bride home
When he came to the river Evenus.

Burst banks, booming torrent,
Where there had been a ford. Hercules
Had no fear for himself, only for his wife.

No namby-pamby, stuff-and-nonsense, decoration or silly sentiment for our Ted. Stick to the facts, son, and tha’ll do alreeght.

The weaknesses of Hughes’s version

1. Verbosity

The weakness of Hughes’s later verse is its verbosity, as I tried to demonstrate in my overview of Hughes’s career. Much of Crow is dazzlingly brilliant, Gaudete is an extraordinarily weird achievement, but by the time of Moortown in 1979, you feel Hughes could churn this stuff out by the yard, by the mile if necessary. Same is true in spades of Tales from Ovid.

There are still flashes of brilliance in his phrasing, and his shaping of lines i.e. deciding how many words and beats to include in each line, and his ability to build up rhythms over successive free verse lines remains very impressive. But his commitment to a diction which is ‘a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical’ often ends up emptying the lines of colour. His verse feels oddly empty.

2. Functionality

Also, in order to tell stories in verse some of the lines need to be unavoidably functional. Now, if you’re Dryden or Pope, you could use a standard format like the rhyming couplet or blank verse, both of which are utterly predictable in layout, pace and metre and so very suitable for settling down to hear a very long narrative in.

Hughes tries to translate his 24 stories into ad hoc verse shapes and line lengths but, whereas these were justified when they contained a blitz of stunning images in his own poems, this approach works less well for narrative poetry.

Somewhere the critic (and mate of Hughes’s) Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems leap from one dazzling image to the next. That’s fine if that’s all the poems are meant to do – dazzle. But telling a story requires something a bit more predictable, a regular repeatable style which can take a backseat to the narrative.

3. Thin

In stripping his versions back to the bone, Hughes loses a lot of what makes Ovid Ovid, which is the myriad digressions and throwaway references, about genealogy and relationships and attributes of this god or the achievements of that hero; all the peripheral detail which goes to build up a rich imaginative world. These are just some of the aspects which make the original Metamorphoses feel very dense and rich, sumptuous, luxurious. Hughes deliberately chucks all that out in order to hone things down to maximum intensity for each line. But what if the sumptuous detail is the point of Ovid?

4. Scene setting and landscapes

Now I’m really thinking about this, I realise that Ovid, in his best most extended stories, often goes in for slow, lush, storytelling descriptions of scenery and setting.

There was a valley there called Gargaphie, dense with pine trees and sharp cypresses, sacred to Diana of the high-girded tunic, where, in the depths, there is a wooded cave, not fashioned by art. But ingenious nature had imitated art. She had made a natural arch out of native pumice and porous tufa. On the right, a spring of bright clear water murmured into a widening pool, enclosed by grassy banks. Here the woodland goddess, weary from the chase, would bathe her virgin limbs in the crystal liquid. (book 3)

Hughes chucks all this out in order to get to the pith of the action.

A deep cleft at the bottom of the mountain
Dark with matted pine and spiky cypress

Was known as Gargaphie, sacred to Diana,
Goddess of the hunt.
In the depths of this goyle was the mouth of a cavern

That might have been carved out with deliberate art
From the soft volcanic rock.
It half-hid a broad pool, perpetually shaken

By a waterfall inside the mountain,
Noisy but hidden. Often to that grotto,
Aching and burning from her hunting,

Diana came
To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.

I suppose Hughes’s version is more crisp, factual, minimalist and modern – but, in a poem of Ovid’s type, half the pleasure is in the details, the lushness and the time taken to elaborate and decorate the subject. It’s nice to know that Diana is the goddess ‘of the high-girded tunic’ and a thousand and one other details and spin-off phrases which adorn and enrich the Ovid. All burned away in Hughes. Hughes’s version is like a concrete multi-story car park – admirable in its stark, uncompromising efficiency. But difficult to warm to, let alone love.

5. Blank style

And that brings me round to the lack of sensuality in Hughes’s verse. His is a powerful sensuality of imagery but not of language, as such.

Right from the start Hughes was capable of using simple words in unexpected combinations to convey his otherworldly insights into nature with stunning power, but there was rarely anything special about the words themselves. they are often very ordinary indeed. It was always the novel combinations of words into brilliant, often mind-bending phrases which had so much impact on readers. In fact, paradoxically, Hughes often works with a very limited, plain diction.

Somehow, for me, his translation of the Tales really brings this out. The deliberate blankness of a lot of the style, and the occasional dazzling phraseology, can’t conceal the fact that a lot of the lines are, lexically speaking, rather, well, pedestrian.

The introduction

There’s a case for saying the best part of the book is the introduction. For a start, it’s admirably brief at just four and a half pages. After some fluff about Ovid’s biography, it quickly turns to Hughesian interests. After mentioning the Metamorphoses‘ importance to Chaucer as a source book for all manner of myths and legends, Hughes goes on to cite Shakespeare.

Characteristically, Hughes dismisses Shakespeare finding sweet and beautiful images amidst Ovid’s dense foliage. Instead:

A more crucial connection, maybe, can be found in their common taste for a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque.

Now, admittedly these elements are present in Shakespeare’s earliest, goriest plays and remain in moments of the high tragedies, especially King Lear. But roughly speaking who do ‘a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion’ remind you of? Hughes. and his hyperbolic brain-damaged worldview (see my overview of Hughes’s oeuvre for quotes to back this up).

But it’s worth bearing with this over-passionate man for the insights he offers into Ovid:

Above all, Ovid was interested in passion. or rather, in what a passion feels like to the one possessed by it. Not just ordinary passion either, but human passion in extremis – passion where it combusts, or levitates, or mutates into an experience of the supernatural.

Then Hughes says something really interesting and profoundly insightful. I quote it in full to give the rhythm and rise of his argument:

The act of metamorphosis, which at some point, touches each of the tales, operates as the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved the unendurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane. Sometimes this happens because mortals tangle with the gods, sometimes because mortal passion makes the breakthrough by sheer excess, without divine intervention – as in the tale of Tereus and Philomela. But in every case, to a greater or lesser degree, Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of that event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles out into the mythic arena and is transformed.

I think the thought behind this, and the phrasing, are wonderfully vivid and evocative. I’m not at all sure what he says is true of the entire Metamorphoses, which feature just as many nymphs and Naiads and whatnot as mortals – and also includes some happy endings, such as Pygmalion, and Baucis and Philemon (the happiest story in the Metamorphoses and so, symptomatically, not included in Hughes’s selection of tales.)

But as a description of what does happen to the poor, stricken mortals among Ovid’s hapless protagonists, this is a wonderfully, energetically perceived and phrased insight.

Conclusion

As Hughes’s last volume of poetry, Tales from Ovid has interest, though it’s not the best place to start if you’ve never read him before.

If you want to find out what Ovid’s Metamorphoses is actually like, then emphatically do not read this translation, try the more traditional versions from Penguin or OUP which give you the full text along with all the wonderful details and grace notes which welcome you into an entirely new world. Every bit as savage and cruel as Hughes’s, but redeemed and enlivened by far more colour and variety.


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Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically

Contents

Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

JOHN FAUSTUS: All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyèd in their several provinces;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;

Title and provenance

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

Date Written: c. 1589-1592.

Source: In 1587 a version of the story of Doctor John Faustus was published in Frankfurt-on-Main, in German. Soon after – a 1592 edition is the earliest one extant – an anonymous English translation, containing modifications and additions, was published in England, under the title The Historie of the damnable life of Doctor John Faustus. It is clear from the numerous similarities in plot, episodes and even language that the History was Marlowe’s primary source for his play.

Doctor Faustus exists in two versions: the 1604 (‘A’ text) quarto is shorter; a second, longer version was published in 1616 (the ‘B’ text). Which one is more ‘authentic’ has been exercising Marlowe scholars for four hundred years. The editor of the New Mermaid edition – Roma Gill – thinks the shorter A version likely to be purer Marlowe, and the later B version includes additions by other writers. This is a review of the 1616 ‘B’, long version, as found on the ElizabethanDrama.org website.

Executive Summary

The famous theologian Doctor John Faustus is spiritually unfulfilled with his chosen vocation, teaching and debating at the university in Wittenberg. He reviews all existing forms of human learning, dismissing them one by one as trash, fit only for small minds. He decides occult knowledge and magic is the only thing for him and the climax of part one is when he conjures a devil, an agent of Satan, Mephistopheles, and signs a contract with him, which gives Faustus the gift of sorcery and the secrets of the universe for 24 years, in exchange for his eternal soul.

Then there’s the middle bit where Faustus takes advantage of his magical powers, flying into space in a chariot drawn by dragons, an extended farce scene poking fun at the pope, before the most famous scene where he conjures up the most beautiful woman in all human history, Helen of Troy, with the words: ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships…’ Different printed editions of the play give different scenes demonstrating how Faustus uses his powers.

In the final part of this moralising fairy tale Mephistopheles returns and demands Faustus’s soul and, after a lot of pleading, Faustus is dragged down to hell. So let that be a lesson to you, children: Do NOT sign away your soul to the devil, no matter how tempting the short-term offer. ‘What must you not do, Johnny?’ ‘I must no sign my soul away to the devil, miss.’ ‘Good boy, Johnny.’

The play

Prologue

Consciously rejects the grand locations and warlike deeds of his earlier plays (Dido, Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta) for something more intimate. The prologue introduces Dr John Faustus with a potted biography of his birth, upbringing and education at Wittenberg, where he soon excels in theology.

Till swoln with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.

This is very slick and professional, to take us from nothing to having a good grasp of Faustus’s character and biography in just 27 lines before the prologue indicates the scene with his hand, and the play opens. Very impressive.

Act 1

Dr Johann Faustus is sitting in his study reviewing books of learning, the law, medicine, politics, and dismisses them all as superficial trash:

Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
‘Tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me

Here, right at the start of the play a Good Angel and a Bad Angel appear to Faustus, respectively encouraging him, and telling him not to, study magic. Faustus summons two fellow students of the dark arts who have, apparently, helped him, Valdes and Cornelius. To all these characters, Marlowe allots his trademark booming verse, packed with soaring ambition, studded with stunning images of luxury and power, imagining what it will be like when they have total magical control:

VALDES: As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords,
So shall the spirits of every element
Be always serviceable to us three;
Like lions shall they guard us when we please;
Like Almain rutters with their horsemen’s staves,
Or Lapland giants, trotting by our sides;
Sometimes like women, or unwedded maids,
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than has the white breasts of the queen of love:
From Venice shall they drag huge argosies,
And from America the golden fleece
That yearly stuffs old Philip’s treasury;

Faustus gets excited at the images of power and luxury his friends conjure up, and he invites them for dinner and to plan how to practice magic.

Scene 2 Street outside Faustus’s house Two scholars enter and ask Faustus’s servant, Wagner, where his master is. The scene is padded out with comic material, namely that Wagner has picked up scraps of rhetoric and logic and so teases the two scholars by proving their arguments illogical or wrongly formed etc. Eventually he spits out that his master is at dinner with Valdes and Cornelius and the two scholars go away, sad, and tutting and shaking their heads, because that pair have a bad reputation for the dark arts.

Scene 3 A grove This is the scene where Faustus, alone in a grove in the countryside, has drawn a circle and written into it various magical symbols and now recites a Latin spell, there is a crack of thunder, and a devil appears, Mephistopheles. Although he should be terrifying, he proceeds to explain the processes and procedures of devils in relatively bureaucratic terms: when they hear anyone abjure Christ, God and the Scriptures a devil will come speeding, hoping to win a soul.

Faustus’s superficiality, the lack of understanding behind all his fine reading, is amply demonstrated. He says he agrees with the ancient philosophers in thinking hell a children’s fable, of confounding heaven and hell. When Mephistopheles tries to explain that hell isn’t a world of punishments, it is deprivation of the boundless soul-filling job of being in heaven, Faustus mocks him and tells him to ‘learn of Faustus manly fortitude’. In other words, it is plain for everyone in the audience to see that Faustus is not only a blasphemer and infidel, he us stupid when it comes to the only thing in life which matters.

It is Faustus who boastfully makes the offer, telling Mephistopheles to go and tell his master, mighty Lucifer:

FAUSTUS: Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and to aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.

You can see how this kind of megalomaniac over-reaching is first cousin to Tamburlaine’s heaven-vaulting ambition, and Faustus’s ambitions are cast in very similar terms:

By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge thorough the moving air,
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributary to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.
Now that I have obtained what I desired.

Scene 4 A comic scene with Wagner the servant (who speaks in servant prose) who encounter a ‘clown’ or beggar in the street and raises two devils to terrify the clown into serving him (Wagner).

Wagner can raise devils? This scene, in fact all the scenes with Wagner and some of the banter between Faustus and Mephistopheles has a raggedy comedy about it. T.S. Eliot described The Jew of Malta as ‘a savage farce’ and Faustus also has farcical elements, as if Marlowe can’t take his own story seriously.

Scene 5 Faustus’s study He listens to the arguments of the good and bad angel, but is resolved for bad, He realises:

The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite,

And yet he is determined to do it. He argues back against the good angel, and then – it being midnight – conjures Mephistopheles. The devil tells him to stab his arm to draw the blood to sign his pact with great Lucifer.

But something genuinely spooky happens. As Faustus tries to write, his blood keeps congealing, preventing him from continuing to sign away his soul. Mephistopheles hurries offstage and returns with a chafer of flame which they use to prevent Faustus’s blood congealing, and he finishes writing out the contract. But then appears on his arm the words Homo fuge, Latin for ‘man, flee!’ Faustus is momentarily panic-stricken, but Mephistopheles magics up a dancing troupe of devils to distract him. Thus reassured (or dazzled) Faustus reads out the contract he has drawn up: Mephistopheles will be his to command for 24 years to carry out his every wish, and then:

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents, do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis; and furthermore grant unto them, that, four-and-twenty years being expired, and these articles above written being inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus, body and soul, flesh and blood, into their habitation wheresoever.

Mephistopheles again double checks that Faustus is entering into the contract of his own free will. This is important for the very legal pernicketiness which characterises Christian theology. Faustus affirms it. Now commences his 24 years of fun.

Faustus asks Mephisopheles about hell and the latter gives a famous and profound description:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Hell is the absence of God and of God’s grace which is what saves and redeems humans. It is not so much a place, as a condition we carry round with us. Hence Mephistopheles’ earlier declaration:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

Once again Faustus shows his idiocy by saying he doesn’t believe hell exists, it’s an old wives’ tale. Nonetheless, Mephistopheles says he’ll bring him the most beautiful women in the world, each morning, fresh to his bed. And Mephistopheles gives him a book full of magic spells.

Scene 6 Some time later, in Faustus’s house, he accuses Mephistopheles of misleading him, of looking up at the stars and the beautiful heaven he will never see. Mephistopheles tries to talk him round, the two angels appear and the bad won triumphs, hardening Faustus’s heart. Incidentally, there’s an indication of what the pair have been up to:

Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,
Made music with my Mephistophilis?

He quizzes him about the nature of the solar system, the planets and the stars, which knowledge Mephistopheles rattles off but when Faustus asks him who made it all the devil literally cannot bring himself to utter the word God.

When the good angel prompts Faustus to try to repent he is visited by Lucifer and Beelzebub. They tell him not to think on heaven or call on God. To distract him they summon up an allegorical masque of the seven deadly sins. Faustus loves the show and Lucifer gives him a parting gift of a book of magic before exiting.

Scene 7 A comic scene between Robin and Dick, two ostlers or staff at an inn who have got their hands on one of Faustus’s books and appear to be thinking of using it to gain magical powers.

Chorus 1 The chorus describes how Faustus rode a chariot pulled by dragons out into the solar system to behold the planets in their motion. Returned to earth after 8 days, he is now riding a dragon across its surface and will soon arrive at Rome.

Scene 8 Faustus and Mephistopheles review the tour they’ve made through France, Germany and down into Italy. Faustus is loving it:

Whilst I am here on earth, let me be cloyed
With all things that delight the heart of man:
My four-and-twenty years of liberty
I’ll spend in pleasure and in dalliance…

Now they hide in order to watch the annual Festival of St Peter inside the palace of the Pope. A procession enters, the striking part of which is that a ruler named Bruno is in chains, and the Pope orders him to go on all fours so as to act as a footstool for him (the Pope) to ascend his throne.

This Bruno is a fictitious ‘anti-pope’, a role which arose in the 14th century when two different popes were elected for a period of fifty years, who opposed and anathematised each other. But there was never an anti-pope named Bruno, just as the pope in these scenes is referred to as Adrian and depicted as an enemy of the Holy Roman Emperor, whereas the one and only pope named Adrian (the only Englishman to have been pope) ruled from 1154 to 1159 and was an ally of the Holy Roman Emperor. Similarly, the scene features a King Sigismund of Hungary and there has never been a King Sigismund of Hungary. In other words, these names are just handy labels for a scene of broad farce. Similarly, the scene

Faustus and Mephistopheles watch all this then disguise themselves as cardinals of France and Padua in order to give the pope their theological opinion that the antipope Bruno should immediately be burned at the stake and the Emperor excommunicated. The pope hands Bruno over to our disguised pair to carry out the sentence.

Scene 9 The pope’s privy chamber The pope is holding a feast for king Sigismund and his cardinals. Faustus reveals that he and Mephistopheles have magically transported Bruno safely back to Germany. The two real cardinals of France and Padua enter and are perplexed when the pope asks how their imprisoning and punishment of Bruno is going; both deny any knowledge although, of course, the pope’s entire court swears they saw it happen. So the cardinals are dragged off to prison and punishment.

Faustus gets Mephistopheles to say a spell (interesting to compare these spells with the same sort of thing Shakespeare used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to make him invisible and proceeds to wreak havoc, whispering insults in the pope’s ear, as if from his neighbour, whisking away the pope’s plates and goblet of wine, etc, eventually slapping the pope. Concluding some evil spirit is loose among them, the pope calls in some friars who solemnly chant magic spells, er, prayers, until Faustus and Mephistopheles set about them, too, beating them and throwing fireworks at them as they run away.

Pantomime.

Scene 10 Street near an inn Back to the serving men Robin and Dick. The vintner accuses them of stealing a cup from the inn. Rather over-reacting, Robin uses Faustus’s book to read and spell and conjure up Mephistopheles. As punishment for dragging him away from more important work, Mephistopheles transforms them into a dog and an ape, who promptly bark and bounce around the stage. Panto.

Scene 11 Court of the Holy Roman Emperor at Innsbruck Two servants, Frederick and Martino, explain that Faustus has arrived at the Emperor’s court, having magically transported Bruno to Germany, and has promised to show the emperor all his historical antecedents.

Scene 12 The emperors ‘presence chamber’ The emperor formally greets Faustus and thanks him for rescuing Bruno, the German anti-pope. Faustus then presents a dumb show in which we all see the figure of Alexander the Great confront and defeat the Persian emperor Darius before setting the latter’s crown on the head of his paramour. The emperor is mightily impressed, though he has to be restrained by Faustus from embracing the dumbshow Alexander.

One of the emperor’s courtiers is a drunken nitwit named Benvolio, and as a result of saying he doesn’t believe in Faustus’s powers, the latter gives him the horns of a stag. Everyone laughs then Faustus menaces him with setting a pack of devils to tear him to pieces as Diana’s hounds tore Actaeon to pieces. The emperor intercedes and so Faustus relents and removes Benvolio’s horns. This is comedy, farce – but what strikes me is the use of classical myth to articulate it. The Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Scene 13 A grove near Innsbruck In revenge for his humiliation, Benvolio organises an ambush with Frederick and Martino and, when Faustus comes along, they stab him, knock him to the ground and then chop off his head! They exult over his corpse but are terrified when the headless body gets to its feet. He cannot be killed. Now he conjures up Mephistopheles and two other devils to drag the three conspirators off to dump them in mud and drag them through thornbushes and throw them off steep rocks to break their bones, and they all exit, screaming.

That’s not all. Some soldiers had been included in the assassination attempt and when they now come forward to attack Faustus, the latter conjures up Mephistopheles and other devils in the guise of an army with drums and fife who march against the soldiers and chase them offstage with fireworks.

Scene 14 Show what became of the three conspirators Benvolio, Frederick and Marino, now covered in mud, scratched and bruised and,.. with stags horns on their heads! They conclude there is nothing they can do against such magic and will retreat to Benvolio’s castle, there to live in retirement till their shame has passed.

Scene 15 A convoluted comic scene in which a horse-courser or dealer begs Faustus to sell him his magic horse, which he finally does for 40 dollars but tells the man not to ride it into water. Barely 30 seconds have passed and Faustus has just gone to bed, before the dealer returns to say he did ride the horse into water and it disappeared leaving just a straw behind. Now the dealer goes to pull Faustus out of bed but his leg comes off in his hand, Faustus wakes up shouting Murder, murder’, and the dealer runs off. Faustus’s leg is magically restored (just as his head was in scene 13) and  his servant tells him the Duke of Vanholt wishes to see him.

Scene 16 Robin, Dick, the horse-courser, and a carter are down the pub sharing their reasons for hating Faustus.

Scene 17 The Court of the Duke of Vanholt The Duke thanks Faustus for building him a castle in the air. His wife, the duchess, is pregnant and expresses a fancy for grapes. Although it is midwinter, Faustus dispatches Mephistopheles who returns a few seconds later with a spray of wonderful fresh grapes.

The Duke and Duchess are still marvelling at this when there is a load of rowdy banging at the gate. It is Robin, Dick, the carter, and the horse-courser. They’re drunk, insult Faustus and demand more beer! Faustus asks the duke to indulge him and calls for more beer. This scene takes up an inordinate space, in which the horse dealer drunkenly asks whether Faustus can remember having his leg pulled off, Faustus says yes, the dealer asks where it is, Faustus replies, back here with me, and so on. Presumably the Elizabethan audience found all this very funny.

All four begin to accuse Faustus with their grievances but one by one he strikes them dumb, last of all the hostess who’s come to ask for her bill to be paid, and they exit like zombies. The duke and duchess are very amused.

Scene 18 Back at Faustus’s, Wagner enters to tell us his master is preparing to die, has given Wagner:

his wealth,
His house, his goods, and store of golden plate,
Besides two thousand ducats ready-coined.

Then we see Faustus at dinner with two scholars. They have been discussing who was the most beautiful woman in the world (as wise and learned scholars will, after a few beers) and decided it must be Helen of Troy. Faustus promptly gets Mephistopheles to lead her in, in a dumbshow of the same style as the one where Faustus conjured up Alexander the Great. They are immensely impressed and gratified, thank Faustus and leave.

The tone completely changes as an old man enters and warns Faustus, at length, to save his soul. Faustus is stricken with remorse and tries to repent but Mephistopheles turns savage, accuses him of breaking the bargain, and warns him he will tear his flesh in piecemeal.

Faustus is so terrified he instantly promises to renew his vow, and Mephistopheles hands him a dagger so he can cut his arm and renew the contract in his own blood and then, vengefully, orders Mephistopheles to torment the good old man who just visited him. Faustus asks for just one thing – that he may possess Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world they saw a few minutes ago, to distract him from his vow.

Re-enter Helen, passing over the stage between two Cupids which prompts the famous lines:

FAUSTUS: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? −
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
[He kisses her]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! −
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

What strikes me now about this speech is, again, the way it is drenched in references to Greek myth, and references Troy, Paris, Achilles, Jupiter, Semele and Arethusa.

Scene 19 in which Faustus pays his debt and is dragged down to hell With a crack of thunder Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistophilis enter Faustus’s study. Separately, Faustus finalises his will with Wagner, gifting him all his belongings. Then the scholars visit and Faustus laments and regrets his life of sin, his promise and the threat of eternal damnation.

A scholar tells him to turn to God but the devils hold his tongue, dry his tears, pull down his hands so he cannot pray. Then he for the first time tells them the full story, of how he sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of partying, Horrified, the three scholars retire into the next room.

Now Mephistopheles closes in on him, admitting it was he who drew his taste to books of magic, closed up the books of divinity and steered Faustus’s soul to damnation. The good angel and bad angel appear, the good one showing him the throne in heaven Faustus would have been awarded, the bad one explaining now he will be dragged down to hell and hell appears to be a pretty bad place. Mephistopheles shows it to him:

EVIL ANGEL: Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare
Into that vast perpetual torture-house.
There are the furies tossing damnèd souls
On burning forks; their bodies boil in lead;
There are live quarters broiling on the coals,
That ne’er can die; this ever-burning chair
Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in;
These that are fed with sops of flaming fire,
Were gluttons, and loved only delicates,
And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates:
But yet all these are nothing; thou shalt see
Ten thousand tortures that more horrid be.

It is noticeable how traditional this image is, and how different from the much more subtle, psychological definition of hell (as the absence of God which all damned people carry around within themselves wherever they go) which Mephistopheles expressed at the start of the play. Too subtle for the climax of a tragedy, which requires blood and guts and screaming, or as much garish suffering as possible. And hence the reversion to a traditional fire and pitchforks interpretation here at the play’s climax.

The clock chimes eleven. He has an hour left and delivers a blisteringly intense speech of terrified desperation:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! − Who pulls me down? −
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! −

The clock ticks relentlessly forward and then strikes midnight. There isn’t, as you might have expected, a big set-piece scene featuring Lucifer, Beelzebub et all gloatingly seizing him. Instead Faustus’s final moments are brief and brutal as a pack of devils enter and drag Faustus offstage as he screams his final lines:

O mercy, Heaven! look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books! − O Mephistophilis!

Even reading this I found genuinely harrowing. Well acted onstage it can be terrifying.

Scene 20 There is a short, half-page-long scene as the three scholars cowering next door, go into Faustus’s study and discover his body all torn to pieces, and recount the terrible screams they heard. Well, they’ll gather up his body and give him a fine funeral at which all the students of the university will wear black.

Chorus 2 Brief and to the point:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learnèd man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

Thoughts

A divided text Clearly there are two completely different types or tones of content sitting cheek-by-jowl in this strange uneven text: the genuinely tragical and sometimes very moving, and the farcical, panto content. Most scholars and indeed readers and audiences can easily see that the comic scenes were almost certainly not written by Marlowe. Marlowe’s humour, as demonstrated in The Jew of Malta, is stylish, cynical and savage. Much of the humour in Faustus’s comic scenes (pulling Faustus’s leg off, cutting his head off, four churls getting drunk down the pub) is just stupid.

Endless theology There’s enough theological issues or problems in the play – the precise status of the good and bad angel, the extent of Faustus’s free will, whether God’s grace could save him up to the last minute – to keep serious-minded scholars in academic papers for the rest of time. After all, Marlowe was himself a scholarship-winning student of divinity at Cambridge and Roma Gill’s introduction informs us that Mephistopheles’ subtle vision of hell as exclusion from the bliss of salvation is in fact closely translated from a text by the 4th century Church Father, Saint John Chrysostom.

Dazzling escapades For us ordinary folk, though, it’s useful to make a list of Faustus’s various escapades: that he rides through the solar system in a chariot pulled by dragons (!), rides across Europe on the back of a dragon, gets to slap the pope and chase friars with fireworks, and that Mephistopheles changes two servants into an ape and a dog. He creates a masque featuring Alexander the Great and builds a castle in the air and, by implication, has Homer sing to him, and has sex with Helen of Troy. On the farcical end of the scale, he sells a horse dealer a horse which is in fact a straw, gives a drunken knight real stags’ horns, survives having his head cut off and his leg pulled off, and strikes four noisy chavs dumb.

Clever critics have pointed out that Faustus’s escapades mark stages on his degeneration: he starts out hymning the infinite power of the mind, associating with Homer and travelling the solar system, before degenerating into a court entertainer for the Duke of Vanholt, calling up historical masques and magicking up fresh grapes, before he becomes involved in the downright stupid escapades involving lost heads and legs and, in the final scenes, wishes to cease having a body altogether, to be buried in the earth or to become as incorporeal as the dew, so as to escape the torments of hell.

It’s a neat idea, but ignores the actual order of some of the adventures, not least that the best one – kissing Helen of Troy – happens at the end. But it does tie together all the adventures and bring out the often tawdry and banal nature of what people actually get when their dreams are fulfilled.

Marlowe’s Greek imagination Shakespeare litters his plays with references to English folklore, dialect words and imagery (the names and symbolism of English flowers, for example). There’s nothing like that in Marlowe. In Marlowe almost every analogy or metaphor references Greek myths or legends. From the masque of Alexander the Great early on through the apparition of Helen of Troy at its climax, through to the best line in the short epilogue mentioning Apollo, and via hundreds of other references, the Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Campus tragedy Dr Faustus is a tragedy about an academic. It is a tragedy about the overweening pride which comes from being very learnèd and superior, ‘glutted with learning’s golden gifts… swollen with cunning of a self-conceit’, as the prologue puts it – but lacking wisdom or morality.

In a way, it is a tragedy about the perils of over-education. There’s a modern genre called the campus novel or campus comedy, dating from Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim and characterising many of David Lodge’s novels. The presence of the three scholars right at the climax of the play highlights the fact that, all the way through, Dr Faustus is a campus tragedy.

Dr Faustus as Marlowe’s psychodrama

Marlowe studied Divinity at university, but also read widely in Latin classical literature. The quote from St John Chrysostom indicates how deeply he knew his theology, and a glance at any of the poems or plays shows how drenched his imagination was in the Greek myths and legends.

It isn’t the most obvious thing about the play, but Dr Faustus can be read as a dramatised debate between these two halves of Marlowe’s education, between the two major cultural traditions of Europe, Christian belief and the enormous cultural heritage of the classical world.

On the whole Faustus’s vision of power and the infinite reach of the human imagination are expressed through metaphors and references to Greek myth – the downsides, the price to pay for overweening ambition, the limits of the purely human, are expressed in theological terms. Man can aspire to the marvellous – but at the end of the day, he is a creature, created by a Creator, to whom he owes an infinite debt.

Obviously this tension is openly expressed throughout the play, most narrowly in the debates between the good and evil angel, or in the warnings of the old man, who wanders in off the street to tell Faustus to repent. It is encoded in the imagery of the play, in the two contrasting sets of symbols and images, one pagan, one Christian.

But you can argue that the debate, the conflict of value systems, comes to a symbolic climax in the figure of Helen of Troy, and her appearance just before Faustus is dragged offstage by the devils.

Helen is maybe the most famous figure from all Greek myth, an image of worldly beauty, of sensual bliss who also epitomises the appeal and attraction of classical culture, and by extension, the world of the Imagination, with its promise of intellectual reward, emotional comfort and psychological reassurance. How many thousands of artists and millions of art-lovers find consolation in turning from the banal, dirty, frail and disappointing realities of the world, to open a book and enter a wonderful world of imaginative consolation.

And yet… Helen has been conjured by a devil. The entire thing is a deception. She is not real, the pleasure she brings is not real. When Faustus says:

Her lips sucks forth my soul: see, where it flies! −

There is a clear and very obvious ambiguity in the line. It is simultaneously a lover’s expression of sensual bliss, the kind of erotic hyperbole common to Renaissance poets and their heirs – but at the same time has a diabolical and theological meaning. The devil who made or is impersonating Helen really is sucking out his soul. The Helen Faustus and the audience sees is a gorgeous mask over a death’s-head skull.

And so, along with being a storming theatrical entertainment, and a satire on the entire notion of the over-ambitious Renaissance Man – Dr Faustus can also be read as dramatising the tensions in Marlowe’s divided mind between the two central traditions of European thought, which he was expert in, which saturated his thinking, and which he never managed to reconcile in his short life.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

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