Classics Essays Literature

Why You Should Read Ovid

In the annals of Roman poets, Ovid occupies a unique place. He is generally regarded as inferior to Virgil, Rome’s grandest and grandiose poet whose Aeneid still stands as Rome’s mythopoetic masterpiece and whose Eclogues set the stage for the development of the pastoral idyll in Western literature. Yet Ovid’s language and picturesque scenes strike one as occasionally more remarkable and energetic than Virgil; Edward Gibbon, for instance, said he derived more pleasure reading Ovid than the other Latin poets. Ovid, however, strikes moderns as dangerous and out of date. His poems on sexual violence, often tinging with toxic masculinity, do not necessarily fit the sensibilities of our post-#MeToo age. But such readings of Ovid fail to see the grander portrait, even the dark wisdom, found in the Metamorphoses.

The Metamorphoses is an epic of transformation, of change. Like Pseudo-Apollodorus’s Bibliotheca, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a collection of the grandstanding myths of Antique culture, especially as inherited in the Latin-Roman tradition. It opens with the birth of the cosmos, its wrestling into order from chaos which provided the basis for life and all the subsequent stories that the poem sings of. It concludes with a summary of the great stories that moved pagan consciousness, finishing with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, the expansion of the walls of Rome and Roman civilization with it (echoing Virgil), and Ovid’s own declaration that his fame will live on for all eternity because of the “truth” “stablished by poetic prophecy” that he himself is the avatar of. We will return to this point later.

Yet Ovid does not celebrate, upon closer inspection, the mighty walls of Rome as do his contemporaries. Ovid pays his due respect to Rome, but Rome must submit to the winds and cosmos of change; time changes all things, and Rome is no exception. This is why Ovid leads up to his conclusion by including the speeches of Pythagoras, the great Greek philosopher who argued that in the cosmos of time that changes all things only one thing remains the same in the midst of this torrential sea of change: the soul. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then, is an inspection into the soul that never changes; and, in that inspection, Ovid finds the tension between love and lust, beauty and ugliness, death and redemption, sorrow and happiness. The soul may experience changes wrought by its burdening enslavement to the oceans of time, but what the soul seeks is the same: constancy through love, the eternity which never changes because love never changes. 

I shall examine, here, but a few of the many stories included in Ovid’s great epic of the human soul. Each embodies its own unique particularities. Each also reflects the great spirit of prophetic song that Ovid wanted us to know as the only constancy in our lives full of flux. 

Cadmus, as we know, was one of the great early Greek heroes before the time of Hercules and the mythical founder of Thebes, the first of the grandest city-states of Greece where it can be said Greek culture was born. The son of King Agenor of Tyre, when Jupiter (Zeus) stole Europa out of lust, Cadmus was sent west to retrieve his sister under the threat of permanent exile. Cadmus complies out of love for his father and love for his sister but fails…

Read the full essay: Is Ovid Still Worth Reading? (11 November 2021) published by Merion West.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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