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

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

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 7 to 9

‘War is the business of men.’
(Turnus, book 7, line 445)

Book 7 War in Latium

Following the dictates of the gods Aeneas and his fellow Trojans are still en route to Italy where their destiny awaits.

They pause just long enough in Caetia to make a funeral pyre for Aeneas’s nurse, who dies here and whose name they give to this harbour, then they sail on. They avoid the island of Circe, who bewitches men and turns them into animals (so in Virgil her island is just off the coast of Italy? In Homer the implication is that it is in the far East, as far away as the Black Sea; but Apollonius of Rhodes, in his narrative of Jason and the Argonauts, places it just south of Elba, within sight of the coast of Tuscany. OK.)

Anyway, Circe is included in the narrative in order to transcend her and the whole world she comes from. Educated Romans had for centuries been aware of their cultural inferiority to the Greeks and had copied or stolen huge chunks of their culture. (I am particularly aware of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s self-imposed project of translating everything that he thought useful from Greek philosophy into Latin, inventing or redefining Latin words as he went in order to capture Greek technical terms. Then there’s the drama, copied straight from the Greek; the architecture ditto. And then this very poem, the Aeneid, copying form, tone and conventions from the Greek).

So the Romans had to find a way to justify their superiority to the Greeks and, by extension, to all the other peoples they had subjugated in the century and a half leading up to Augustus’s rule. They did so by talking about Rome’s unique ability to rule wisely and justly, in a way no other culture or empire could.

This partly explains why Virgil opens book 7 with a very conscious change of tone. Up till now, the first 6 books, have been dealing with adventures by sea and among the mythical legendary world of the Greeks, of all the Greek legends of great heroes and myths of gods and monsters. It is the half-magical world of Homer’s Odyssey.

With book 7 Aeneas finally ceases his sailing and the rest of the poem is about The Land. And in particular fighting for the land. It is about military conquest and this is the uniquely Roman sphere of achievement which without any doubt sets her apart from all other cultures of the Mediterranean. If the first half rehashes themes and images from the Odyssey, part two invokes the much more brutal, unforgiving world of the Iliad and the stern work of conquest which is the Romans’ destiny and métier.

All this explains the stern invocation to Erato, the muse of lyric poetry and mimic imitation:

Come now, Erato, and I shall tell of the kings of ancient Latium, of its history, of the state of this land when first the army of strangers beached their ships on the shores of Ausonia. I shall recall, too, the cause of the first battle – come, goddess, come and instruct your prophet. I shall speak of fearsome fighting, I shall speak of wars and of kings driven into the ways of death by their pride of spirit, of a band of fighting men from Etruria and the whole land of Hesperia under
arms. For me this is the birth of a higher order of things. This is a greater work I now set in motion.

Aeneas’s fleet sight the mouth of the river Thyber they have heard so much about and they sail into the river and the narrative introduces us to the people who live here. Old King Latinus is descended from Saturn but his son and heir died young. He has one marriageable daughter, Lavinia, and the kings of all the neighbouring tribes have vied for her hand, not least King Turnus.

Omens tell the Latins strangers have arrived; first a swarm of bees, then Lavinia is shrouded in flame, then Latinus late at nights hears words prophesying that the new arrivals will merge with his people to forge a race which will rule the entire world.

Aeneas and his men have anchored their ships and are eating, and are so hungry they eat the plate-shaped compacts of wheat which they used as containers or holders of their meal, when Ascanius bursts out that ‘they are eating their tables’. In a flash Aeneas realises this is the fulfilment of the prophecy his father made back in book 3: so they really have finished their journeying; this is their destined settlement place.

They send out messengers who quickly come to the city of the Latins, seeing their brave young men exercising. At the same time king Latinus hears confirmation of the arrival of the prophesied strangers. The embassy led by Ilioneus explains why they have come, their peaceful intention to settle. Latinus realises these are the stranger predicted by the prophecies, and their leader is the man fated to marry his daughter: ‘This Aeneas is the man the Fates demanded.’

BUT – Juno sees all this from heaven and is overcome with rage. Maybe it is fated that Aeneas will marry Lavinia but she, Juno, can drag it out for as long as possible and inflict as much damage, pain and grief as possible on all concerned first. She commissions Allecto, bringer of grief, to stir things up.

1. Allecto goes to Latinus’s palace and throws one of the snakes that grow on her head into the breast of Queen Amata. This poisons the queen and whips her up to a mad frenzy. She rails against the king and his passive acceptance of marriage of their daughter to a Trojan. Remember Paris who abducted Helen. At the first breath of trouble Aeneas will abduct their daughter. Also, she is promised in marriage to Turnus, who is king Latinus’s own flesh and blood etc. When the king demurs Amata goes hog crazy, running raving through the palace, out into the countryside, abducting her daughter and devoting her to the god Bacchus, sending word to all the women of Latinum to untie their hair and run wild with her in the woods.

2. Part two of the plan sees Allecto flying to the palace of Turnus, king of the Rutulians. She assumes the shape of an old priestess and warns Turnus the Aeneas is taking his place. Turnus poo-poohs this so Allecto reveals herself in her true size and shape, terrifying Turnus, then throws a flaming brand into his heart and inspires him with ‘the criminal madness of war’ (7.463), and he wakes to rant and rage and call for his armour and declare war on the newcomers.

3. Part three is Allecto flies off to find Ascanius out hunting. She inspires his hounds to track down the finest stag in the neighbourhood which has been patiently reared by hand by Silvia, the daughter of the local lord, Tyrrhus. Ascanius shoots it with an arrow and it runs home crying. The wife is distraught, the husband blows his horns to rally his neighbouring shepherds, the Trojans rally from their ships and the fighting escalates. Tyrrhus’s son is killed, then the wisest oldest landowner in the neighbourhood.

Latinus doesn’t want war, but most of his court including his wife, are furious for it, so he washes his hands of it and withdraws to his chamber. The Latins have a temple whose gates are opened when war is declared, unleashing the furies of war. Latinus refuses to open it so Juno comes down from heaven herself to do so. The fighting escalates. It is war!

Vast armies of allies rush to join the Latinums and Virgil enumerates their leaders and heritances and distinctive weapons and numbers. Like sands on the shore. Scores of thousands of fighting men, Turnus standing a head taller than all of them in a helmet graced by a chimaera, and last of all was Camilla the warrior maiden of the Volsci.

Book 8 Aeneas in Pallantium / Rome

‘Fortune that no man can resist, and Fate that no man can escape’
King Evander explaining how he ended up inhabiting his lands, 8.335)

Aeneas witnesses this vast mobilisation for a massive war and, characteristically, ‘great tides of grief flowed in his heart’. He is ‘heart sick at the sadness of war.’ He thought all his troubles were over. Seems like they’re only just beginning.

That night he has a vision of Old Father Tiber speaking to him. Tiber reassures him that this is the place he is destined to settle and that all will be well. Tells him to ally with the Arcadians. Tells him he will see a sow suckling 30 piglets, and these symbolise the thirty years until his son Ascanius founds the city of Alba Longa.

So Aeneas takes 2 ships of warriors and sails up the Tyber for a couple of days to the city of the Arcadians, which they have named Pallanteum (meaning belonging to Pallas Athena). He makes an alliance with their venerable king, Evander, based on their shared ancestry going back to the legendary Atlas, and the fact that Evander had, when a young man, met and admired Aeneas’s father, Anchises. Evander invites Aeneas to join the annual feast in honour of their founder Hercules.

Evander tells their founding legend, how they were terrorised by the foul monster Cacus until the latter made the mistake of stealing some of Hercules’s cattle as he was driving them by on his journey back from Gades/Cadiz in Spain. And so Hercules killed him in an epic fight. Evander’s people sing a page-long hymn to Hercules.

Evander then explains that the original people roundabouts were hunter-gatherers who had no agriculture until the god Saturn appeared, who inaugurated a Golden Age. But this was slowly degraded by the appearance of baser metals and the madness of war and the lust for possessions.

[This is interesting because it chimes with the Stonehenge exhibition and catalogue which depict the change from a hunter-gatherer society similar to that of the Native Peoples of North America, to the arrival of agriculture, which transformed human society; and then the ability to smelt and shape iron, which led to stronger weapons which led to an outburst of war and looting – ‘the madness of war and the lust for possessions’ 8.328. Much like the sequence of events related by King Evander to Aeneas.]

Only now, as Evander points out some of the features of the primitive settlement of Pallanteum do we realise that they are walking through the future site of Rome, for he indicates the cave of Lupercal, the Tarpeian Rock, the hill of the Capitol, the Janiculum, none of which had their later names yet. The idea is that the name Pallantium will evolve over time into Palatine, name of the prime hill of Rome. But for now, the future forum is filled with cattle lazily grazing. Evander invites Aeneas into his humble little house and they both sleep as night falls.

But his mother, the goddess Venus, is very worried about the armies gathering. She goes to her husband, the lame god of the forge, Vulcan, ‘took him gently in her white arms and caressed him, and caressed him again. Suddenly he caught fire as he always did’ and she persuades him to make a magnificent shield for her son. First they have sex and he falls asleep, sated. But in the middle of the night he wakes and flies down to the island of Vulcania, where his workshop is based in caverns like those beneath Mount Etna.

This is the beginning of the extraordinary and brilliant description of the forging of the mighty shield for Aeneas, totally modelled on Hephaestus’s forging of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, but brilliantly vivid and stirring in its own right. Vulcan gets his three Cyclopes to drop what they’re doing and create the greatest shield in the world.

While they crack on the scene shifts back to the humble house of Evander, next morning, when he and Aeneas wake and discuss politics. Evander tells him the warlike Lydians settled in the Etruscan mountains but suffered under a cruel ruler Mezentius till they rose up and drove him out. He ran off to the land of his guest-friend Turnus. The Etruscans are up in arms and want him, Mezentius, back, to punish. But a prophecy has said the Etrurians will never put themselves under an Italian leader. But an exile just arrived from Troy…Evander says he will put Aeneas at the head of this army, and all its other allies. ‘You, Aeneas, are the man the gods are asking for.’

Evander tells him he will give him 200 cavalry, and his son Pallas to be trained in the ways of war, who will bring 200 more. Aeneas is saddened that it has come to this but then his mother Venus sends a sudden flash of lightning and crash of thunder and the sky is filled with an Etruscan trumpet and they see a suit of armour glowing red in the sky. Aeneas realises it is a sign, Venus will send him heavenly armour as she promised.

So he accepts Evander’s commission and is dressed for war. He selects his strongest companions and sends the 2 ships he came in back down the river to alert Ascanius and the other Trojans of the arrangement.

Word gets round Pallanteum that was has come and mothers fret over their sons. ‘Mothers stood on the city walls full of dread.’ Virgil writes a moving speech for King Evander to deliver to his beloved son, born to him late in life, how he would prefer to die now than hear bad news about him. But he must go. It is destiny.

Aeneas and his forces ride out from Pallanteum, with Pallas looking magnificent in their centre. Not long after the come to the Etruscan forces in their camp, led by Tarcho, hail and greet them.

But somehow, in the vague way of Virgil’s, at the same time he is separate from all the others, in a copse and to him appears his mother, Venus, and lays the new-forged armour at the foot of an oak tree. The remaining 120 lines of the book (about 4 pages of the Penguin paperback) are devoted to a thrilling, visceral description of the many scenes from Roman history which Vulcan has moulded onto the mighty shield, ending with a vast diorama of the Battle of Actium in which Augustus Caesar and Antony are specifically named (and Cleopatra is castigated, ‘pale with the pallor of approaching death’) before we see the unprecedented three triumphant processions held by the victorious Augustus through Rome.

As in Book 6, the brown-nosing, the honours paid to Augustus (‘from his radiant forehead there streamed a double flame and his father’s star shone above his head’) are off the scale.

Obviously only a fraction of these scenes could fit on any actual shield but that’s not the point. Aeneas, as you might expect, marvels at the scenes depicted, without a clue what any of it means

Book 9 Nisus and Euryalus

Spiteful Juno sends Iris down to tell Turnus that Aeneas is away from his base camp at the mouth of the Tiber so this is a perfect time to attack. Turnus rouses his men and their allies and in a mighty host they approach the Trojan camp. However, Aeneas left explicit instructions for the Trojans not to engage, so they stay secure behind their walls.

Frustrated Turnus lights on the idea of burning their fleet which is riding at anchor on the Tiber. But, as it happens, back when Aeneas and the Trojans cut down the wood to build these ships, Cybele, god of the earth, went to Jupiter and begged that ships built from her holy grove would never suffer ruin. So Jupiter promised that once they had sailed across the seas they would be transformed into immortal goddesses. And so it is that as Turnus’s men set about torching the ships a great light is seen from the East and the voice of the goddess is heard and each ship turns into a sea nymph and dives into the sea like a dolphin!

Undaunted, Turnus rallies his men saying this only means the Trojans have lost all means of retreat. They crap on about Venus and destiny but now they are here in the land of Latium he, Turnus, will ensure they meet a different destiny – to be hacked down by his sword! He calls them cowards and assures them his siege won’t last ten years! and he sets armed guards over all the gates and settles his men in their own camp.

Cut to a pair of Trojans on guard duty, beautiful young Nisus and the even younger Euryalus, who hasn’t started shaving yet. Nisus has spotted a gap in the encircling army. He suggests to Euryalus that they sneak through the gap and go to find Aeneas and tell him of their encirclement. They find guards to take their spot and go suggest the plan to Ascanius and the generals. They are awed by the young men’s bravery, burst into tears, clasp them by their right hands and Ascanius promises them an extravagant amount of booty (Turnus’s horse and armour) as well as ‘twelve chosen matrons’. Who would not risk their life for ‘twelve chosen matrons’? They all exchange vows and accompany them to the gate out of which they will sneak but Virgil dashes our spirits by saying it was all ‘futile’, the wind scattered them like clouds.

So they sneak into the enemy camp, finding them all asleep after drinking wine late into the night. Nisus proceeds to massacre loads of them as they sleep, cutting their heads off, letting the black blood soak the earth.

They finally bring the slaughter to an end and sneak on beyond the camp but the shiny helmet Nisus is wearing gives them away to a mounted patrol which confronts them. They run off the road into a copse but the enemy know it well. Nisus gets clear but discovers Euryalus has been caught and goes back to rescue him. He sees Euryalus being bound prisoner and throws a spear at the Rutulians killing one, then another spear killing another. Their leader Volcens is infuriated and heads straight for Euryalus. Nisus breaks cover and yells that it was him who threw the spear, his friend is innocent but is too late and he watches Volcens plunge his sword into Euryalus, killing him on the spot. Demented with anger Nisus rushes upon the entire platoon, fighting on despite repeated wounds till he makes it through to Volcens and plunges his sword into his mouth before dropping dead.

Virgil writes a memorial saying as long as his poetry lives, so will their names live in glory.

Morning comes and the Rutulians are appalled to discover so many of their main leaders murdered in the night. They cut off Nisus and Euryalus’s heads, pin them on spears and parade them up and down in front of the Trojan ramparts.

Euryalus’s mother hears of his death and drops her loom and runs to the ramparts and delivers an impassioned lament. She is demoralising her side so is helped back to her tent.

Then the Rutulians attack and the Trojans defend their walls as they have had long bitter years of practice doing. Virgil calls on Calliope and the other muses to help him recount all the deeds performed that day, and proceeds to give a dense account of the men killed in a variety of ways on both sides, exactly in the manner of Homer, especially the first kill performed by young Ascanius, which requires a boastful address by his Rutulian victim (Numanus), and Ascanius’s prayer to the gods to make his arrow shoot true. Having killed his man Ascanius is praised by no less a figure than the god Apollo who, however, tells him to quit while he’s ahead, and it is always best to obey the god Apollo.

In the most notable incident the two huge brothers Pandarus and Bitias are so confident of their powers that they open their gate to let the raging Rutulians in and proceed to slaughter every one that comes through the gates. But when Turnus hears of this he quits fighting on another part of the field and runs to the gate where he kills several Trojans then fells Bitias with ‘an artillery spear’. Pandarus realises the tide has turned and so leans against the gate to shut it but in his haste locks Turnus on the inside. Then two square up to each other and make set-piece speeches of defiance. Pandarus throws his huge spear but the goddess Juno deflects it into the wall whereupon Turnus lifts his huge sword and brings it crashing down on Pandarus’s head, cleaving his skull in two with much splattering brains.

If Turnus had opened the gate and let his comrades swarm inside, the war would have ended then and there, but he is battle-mad and fights on, massacring scores of Trojans. However reinforcements come and he is overcome by sheer weight of numbers, exiting through the gate and fleeing. His helmet rang again and again with blows, the plume was torn from his helmet, and the boss of his shield destroyed.

But – in one of those events in Virgil which have a kind of dreamlike simplicity and impracticality, and also great abruptness – Turnus is described as jumping into the river Tiber in full body armour into the river Tiber which bears him up, washes the blood and gore away and carries him safely to his companions. Nothing about that is remotely plausible and it sheds back on the quite brutal realism of what came before the strange half-light of a dream.

The rule of three

In her death throes three times Dido lifts herself on her elbow, three times she falls back onto her pyre (4. 692). Three times Aeneas tries to embrace his father in the underworld (6.700). Three times Juturna beats her lovely breasts (12.155).

Into wind

Only towards the end did I begin to register how often things disappear into the wind, turn to air, or smoke, blown and vanishing on the wind. This is true of many of the people who appear in dreams or spirits of the dead who appear in the daylight.

Three times Aeneas tries to embrace his father in the underworld, but:

three times the phantom melted in his hands, as weightless as the wind… (6.702)

Or when, earlier, Aeneas has fled burning Troy but then realises he’s gotten separated from Creusa and goes back into the burning city, mad with grief, searching everywhere until her spirit appears before him and tells him to desist; it is fated by the gods; he must go and found a great city etc, and then:

She spoke and faded into the insubstantial air, leaving me there in tears and longing to reply. (2.790)

Sometimes it is their words, for example Arruns’ prayer to Apollo in book 11. He prays to Apollo to kill the scourge that is Camilla, and Apollo grants this bit; but also prays to return to the city of his fathers, and this part Apollo ‘scatters to the swift breezes of air’ (11.797), these words are seized by a sudden squall and blown far away to the winds of the south (11.798).

The restless, invisible wind is a powerful symbol off the evaporation, disappearance, vanishing into non-being, of human visions, words and wishes. They cremate their dead. All humans, eventually, go up in smoke.


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