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Metamorphoses by Ovid: Summary & Explanation

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the creation and significance of the narrative poem Metamorphoses, written by the ancient poet Ovid, and test your understanding about ancient Roman culture and literary development.

Metamorphoses: a Brief Summary

Roses are red, violets are blue, I know about Ovid, and now you will too!

Ovid, author of Metamorphoses
Ovid

Ok, I may not have a future as a poet. I'm no Ovid. Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC-AD 17) was a Roman poet, sometimes called the first great poet of the Roman Empire, who wrote the literary masterpiece, Metamorphoses. Written in Latin, Metamorphoses is a 15-book narrative poem that gives an account of history from the creation of the world until the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Metamorphoses incorporates over 250 classical Greek and Roman myths, seamlessly mixing them with historical events to describe a past of monsters, heroes, and magic that reveals how the ancient Romans understood their world.

Overview of the Poem

Many of the stories in Metamorphoses are inspired or based on historical events. One example is a section called the 'Ages of Mankind', a historical portrayal of different eras of history, embellished with gods and monsters. Ovid divides history into four periods: The Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In the first two, gods directly rule over the world and teach humanity agriculture and architecture. Jupiter later creates seasons. The Bronze Age sees the beginning of warfare, and the Iron Age the creation of boundaries and more war. Historians and archeologists still use the terms, 'Bronze Age' and 'Iron Age' for periods of human cultural development.

The Golden Age
Golden Age

The poem is written as a continuous narrative organized around the theme of love, especially personal love personified by the figure Amor, a minor god in the Roman religion who nevertheless outwits and perplexes the other gods throughout the poem. Ovid flips mythology around by elevating humans and human emotions as heroes while embarrassing and mocking the gods and their efforts.

The title of the poem means 'transformation', and this is a major theme throughout the work. Change is often violent and permanent; for example, one of the poem's characters, a nymph named Daphne, is turned into a tree by her father to escape the amorous pursuit of the god, Apollo. This is one of the most famous stories in Greek mythology and shows Apollo, who was shot with one of Amor's arrows, as unable to fulfill romantic interests. Ovid ends the Metamorphoses with a brief epilogue that presents the message that everything changes.

Daphne turning into a tree
Daphne turning into a tree

Style and Structure: More Than Epic Poetry

Metamorphoses is often compared to a style of literature called 'epic poetry', a lengthy historical poem that tells a story of a heroic journey in a meter of lines broken into six parts, each one composed of a pattern of long and short syllables. While Metamorphoses is written in the meter of epic poetry and is extremely long, it is not strictly classified as an epic poem, because Ovid also incorporated stylistic elements from ancient Greek tragedies, Roman universal histories, Alexandrian poetry, and other ancient forms of storytelling. Additionally, Metamorphoses does not follow a single hero or plot, but jumps between events that do not appear completely connected. It really is a one-of-a-kind, unique work of literature.

Minerva meets the muses, a scene from Metamorphoses
Minerva

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