Ovid - Metamorphoses - Preface To Podcast
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
Publius Ovidius Naso, born on the twentieth of March, 43 BC, was perhaps the greatest poet of an age utterly rife with literary talent. Since that time, so many long centuries ago, his name has suffered something of an English abridgement. Today, the delightfully long, aristocratic, and celebrated Roman name has seen itself reduced down to two immortal syllables—Ovid.
Still, the name carries with it a breadth of meaning, a weight of history, and a melodious ring by which modern ears are tickled, and ancient myths, renewed. That said, I’m glad to say there’s been no concomitant diminution in his stature. Yes—we may have shortened his exalted name, if only for the convenience of our rustic tongue, but I detect no lessening of the great prestige of which Publius Ovidius Naso is, and shall always be, deserving.
His birth bisected two earth-shattering triumvirates: the first lead by Julius Caesar, and the second absorbed by Octavian. He was born almost one year to the day after the assassination in Pompey’s Theatre of Julius Caesar—the amorous dictator before whom, in a heap, the wobbling Republic crumbled. He lived and worked under the mostly benevolent reign of the latter, Caesar Augustus, the deific king by whom the irreverent scribbler would eventually be exiled.
Ovid contributed his genius to a different, less bellicose triumvirate—of which Horace and Virgil were fellow members. He, however, was excluded from the grand Augustan clique of which they jointly partook. Unlike them, he was independently endowed with both talent and means, and required no patron for the cultivation (or curtailment) of his skill. Thus, did he become persona non-grata in that esteemed literary circle of which the emperor’s urbane confidant, Maecenas, was the superintendent. No triumvirate, it seems, can long exist.
The work for which Ovid is most famous, his Metamorphoses, is a narrative epic told in fifteen books. Seek the timeless works of Aeschylus, Homer, Hesiod, or Sophocles—and you’ll not find a better, more fertile source of Grecian myth. Ovid contains the very heart of the Western heritage, and thus sits at the core of our canon. The work recounts, in Hesiodic fashion, the birth of the world out of chaos and the earliest stages of man. Thence does it move through every conceivable myth, from Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, to Narcissus’ rebuff of Echo, to Perseus’ rescue of Andromeda, to Persephone’s rape by Pluto and Icarus’ fall by his own presumptuous conceit.
It ends, piously, with the apotheosis of Caesar—a supernatural event in which the fallen republic now earnestly believed. I urge you to read it all, as every page will reward you. I offer here only a passage, that I do hope you’ll enjoy.
From the text:
“To the music of his strings he sang, and all the bloodless spirits wept to hear; and Tantalus forgot the fleeing water, Ixion’s wheel was tranced; Sisyphus sat rapt upon his stone and the Furies’ cheeks, it’s said, were wet with tears; And Hades’ queen and He whose scepter rules the Underworld could not deny the prayer, and called Eurydice.” Such is the power of Orpheus’ melodious persuasion. With lyre in hand, and a song in his heart, the troubled troubadour is able to convince his every listener—inanimate or divine—with an eloquence by which not only god and Titan, but vegetable and stone were suddenly arrested, or magically moved. Here, at the outset of the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we follow the musical genius down into the depths of the chthonic beyond. To our great pleasure, a multitude of myths will greet us along the way.