Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The naughty boy of the Graeco-Roman epic tradition

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Where and how does Ovid’s extraordinary 15-book hexameter poem on
stories of metamorphosis fit into the history of classical epic? At the turn of the eras,
Latin epic had just found its definitive form in the shape of Vergil’s Aeneid, leaving
an extraordinary challenge for anyone who might seek to pile Pelion on Ossa
thereafter (to use, along with the Roman poets, the metaphor of Gigantomachy for
the writing of epic). Ovid’s response to the Vergilian perfection is so outrageous that
it risks stretching the generic boundaries beyond breaking point, and yet for every
accusation of epic impropriety that could be made against the Metamorphoses,
it would be possible also to find precedent in the epic tradition, including in the
Aeneid itself. The argument of this chapter is that Ovid’s poem makes use of the
traditional building blocks of epic in a way that is both conventional and daringly
innovative. It is conventional in that all the parts are, in some way, present in the
poem, but innovative in that those parts are tested near to or sometimes beyond
the point of destruction. The overall effect is that all the elements of a proper epic
poem can be identified within the Metamorphoses, but that the balance of parts,
together with the Siren-like attraction of individual stories, constantly threatens
to undermine the reader’s perception of the epic whole. After briefly considering
the extensive cross-generic fertilisation of the poem (itself an epic feature with
pedigree back to Homer, the source of all the genres) together with the problems
of teleology and wholeness, my discussion concentrates on three major genredefining
building blocks of epic: battles, journeys, and hospitality. In each case,
I argue that the poem consciously situates itself within epic convention, while
constantly straining on the leash as if to undermine its epic status in the very act
of claiming it – and equally to claim it in the act of undermining.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStructures of Epic Poetry
Subtitle of host publicationVolume I: Foundations
EditorsChristiane Reitz, Simone Finkmann
Place of PublicationBerlin
Publisherde Gruyter, Walter GmbH & Co
Number of pages41
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-11-049167-8, 978-3-11-049259-0
ISBN (Print)978-3-11-049200-2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


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