Greek mythology played a central role in the literary cultures of both ancient Greece and Rome. While it was accepted as fictitious, many mythical stories were believed to have historical and cultural relevance. The scholar Fritz Graf (2002) explains the importance of mythology: “mythical narration explains and, when necessary, legitimates cultural, societal and natural facts in a given society…the mythical history of a group defines its identity and place in the contemporary world”. Mythical tales of gods, goddesses, heroes, and monsters served as rich sources of inspiration for Greek and Roman writers and poets. The Roman poet Ovid was particularly enchanted by mythology.
Ovid’s magnum opus, the Metamorphoses, is an epic poem consisting of over 250 such tales, but mythology can also be found throughout his works. As one of the most innovative Classical poets, Ovid used, presented, and adapted mythological stories in myriad and fascinating ways.
Who Was Ovid?
Publius Ovidius Naso, known to us today as Ovid, was born in Sulmona, central Italy, in 43 BCE. As the son of a wealthy landowner, he and his family belonged to the equestrian class. He was educated in Rome and later in Greece in preparation for a senatorial career. At the age of 18, he published his first collection of poems, which would later become the Amores. After his father’s death, he inherited the family fortune and renounced politics in favor of life as a poet.
His love poetry pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in conservative Augustan Rome. His work was very popular in fashionable social circles, and, for a while at least, he managed to continue to publish his work. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, his magnum opus, was written between 1 and 8 CE.
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However, in late 8 CE Ovid was sent into exile on the orders of Emperor Augustus. We have no evidence as to the cause of his disgrace other than an oblique reference by Ovid to “error et carmen” (a mistake and a poem). There were rumors at the time suggesting a romantic involvement between Ovid and Augustus’ daughter Julia, but this was largely speculation. He lived out the rest of his life in exile in a remote location on the Black Sea, a rural outpost of the empire. Despite many letters asking for forgiveness, he was never allowed to return to Rome and died of illness around 17-18 CE.
Ovid is considered to be one of Rome’s greatest poets. His large body of work demonstrates impressive creativity and technical skill. He went on to inspire artists and writers across the centuries, from Rembrandt to Shakespeare.
Metamorphoses – Pentheus and Acoetes
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an epic poem heavily inspired by the stories of Greek mythology. Greek and Roman writers often incorporated myth into their work as its legendary status was associated with sophistication and a learned mind. Ovid’s poem contains over 250 tales, all of which are linked by the concept of metamorphosis—the changing of shape or form.
The majority of Greek myths have both a story to tell and a universal truth to reveal. Often this truth comes in the form of an explanation for a natural phenomenon or a moral lesson to be learned. These moralizing tales can be found throughout Ovid’s Metamorphoses, no less so than in the story of Pentheus, King of Thebes. When we meet Pentheus, he is outraged by the popularity of the cult of Bacchus, which is sweeping through Thebes. He is intent on banishing all traces of Bacchus, whom he does not believe to be a true god.
The story of Pentheus and Bacchus was made famous in Classical Greece by the playwright Euripides, who wrote The Bacchae in the late 5th century BCE. Ovid was clearly inspired by Euripides’ work but, ever the innovator, he added a whole new element to the story. As a foil to the arrogant and impious King Pentheus, Ovid presents the humble sea captain Acoetes, a loyal follower of the divine Bacchus.
Acoetes warns Pentheus with a cautionary tale. He has met those who did not treat Bacchus with due reverence and has seen them painfully turned into dolphins in front of his own eyes. Pentheus ignores Acoetes’ wise words and seeks out Bacchus for himself. Up in the mountains, he is mistaken by Bacchus’ ecstatic followers for a wild animal and is ripped limb from limb. His own mother, Agave, is the unsuspecting instigator of the tragic scene.
Ovid’s version of the story has many similarities with The Bacchae. However, the adaptation of the myth and introduction of Acoetes adds a crucial new element. Acoetes provides an opportunity for Pentheus to acknowledge the error of his ways and pay respect to the god. But this offer of redemption is passed by, thus heightening the story’s pathos and emphasizing the lesson to be learned about the dangers of impiety.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses – Baucis and Philemon
Some of the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses are believed to be unique creations, involving characters who do not appear in earlier works. Ovid cleverly uses familiar themes and tropes from Greek mythology to create his own unique versions of mythological stories. One charming example is the story of Baucis and Philemon in Book 8, in which Ovid explores the theme of hospitality to strangers. This theme is particularly common in mythological narratives and it was a concept that was very important in ancient Greek culture.
The gods Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as peasants, seek food and shelter in a number of villages but everyone refuses to help them. Eventually, they reach the home of Baucis and Philemon. This elderly couple welcomes the peasants into their home and prepares a small feast even though they have very little themselves. It is not long before they realize that they are in the presence of gods.
Baucis and Philemon kneel in prayer and begin to sacrifice their only goose to honor the gods. But Jupiter stops them and tells them to run to the safety of the mountains. Meanwhile, the valley below is flooded. All the houses of those who rejected the gods are destroyed, except the house of Baucis and Philemon, which is turned into a temple.
In thanks, Jupiter offers to grant the couple a wish. They ask to be guardians of the temple and later to die peacefully side by side. When the time comes, the couple passes away and is transformed into two trees, one oak and one lime.
Ovid’s tender tale has many of the hallmarks of a Greek myth; gods in disguise, divine vengeance against mortals, and enduring love. His story has also captured the imaginations of artists and writers across the centuries, including Rubens and Shakespeare.
Ovid’s Heroides – The Female Perspective
Ovid’s Heroides is an innovative collection of letters written from the viewpoint of various heroines from Greek mythology. Most traditional Greek myths focus on the male protagonists; female characters are often peripheral to the narrative or simply serve to move the plot forward. The Heroides are different. These letters present an entirely female perspective that is never fully explored in the earlier, original version of the story.
One fascinating example is Heroides 1 written by Penelope, wife of Odysseus, the Greek hero of the Trojan War. Penelope is a famous mythical character from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Ovid plays on the fact that his readers will be very familiar with Homer’s Penelope, the loyal, abandoned wife who rejects the advances of numerous suitors while Odysseus is away.
Ovid presents Penelope awaiting the return of her husband from Troy. She is writing a letter that she hopes will reach her husband and persuade him to return home. Readers of The Odyssey will know that Odysseus was delayed on his return from Troy due to the wrath of the gods. His journey home took him 10 long years, during which he encountered many near-death experiences and a host of beautiful women.
Meanwhile, Penelope knows none of this and so her letter evokes a sense of dramatic irony as well as pathos. Ovid also explores Penelope’s more personal concerns when she confesses that she is worried that her husband will find her old and unattractive. Despite her anxieties, the reader knows that Odysseus will eventually return, full of love for his dutiful wife. Penelope’s story is unusual among Ovid’s letter-writing heroines since it is one that will have a happy ending.
Lessons in Love From Greek Mythology
Ovid wrote many poems about love and relationships, most notably in his collections the Amores and Ars Amatoria. In his love poetry, Ovid uses Greek myth in a playful way and subverts the usual associations between myth and elevated style. This playfulness often takes the form of comparisons between real-life situations and mythological narratives.
When Ovid refers to his mistress Corinna, throughout the love poems, he often pays her the ultimate compliment of likening her to Venus, the Roman goddess of love. But he also uses comparisons with myth when describing the physical qualities of other women. In Amores 3.2, he is dreamily admiring the legs of a woman he is sitting next to at the chariot races. Here he compares her to heroines of myth whose legs form a crucial part of their story. These women include Atalanta, the swift runner, and Diana, the hunter goddess.
In Ars Amatoria 1, Ovid sets out his mission to teach the young men and women of Rome how to find the perfect partner. In his self-appointed role as teacher, he likens himself to Chiron the Centaur teaching Achilles how to be a good musician. Here Ovid is relying on his educated readers’ knowledge of Greek myth for his comparison to be effective. If Ovid is Chiron, then his protégés are Achilles. The reader is therefore left wondering if chasing love in Rome will require the skill of an epic warrior, who ultimately meets with defeat and death!
Ovid also uses myth to portray emotions that lie hidden or unexpressed in romantic relationships. In Amores 1.7, he describes an argument between himself and his girlfriend. He declares his admiration for her beauty after their physical fight and compares her specifically to Ariadne and Cassandra. Knowledge of the myths surrounding these women is crucial to understanding the depth of Ovid’s point. Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus after she helped him kill the Minotaur, while the Trojan princess Cassandra is raped and later murdered. By comparing his girlfriend to these two tragic figures of mythology, Ovid is indirectly telling his reader that his girlfriend is deeply unhappy and that he feels profound guilt (Graf, 2002).
Poems in Exile – Ovid and Odysseus
Once in exile, Ovid continued to write poetry as well as numerous letters addressed to friends in Rome. The work he produced during this period is probably his most personal and self-reflective. Unsurprisingly, Greek mythology makes an appearance again. This time the comparisons are made between Ovid himself and mythological characters, most notably Homer’s Odysseus.
In Tristia 1.5, Ovid assesses his own troubles against those of Odysseus on his fateful return from Troy to Ithaca. At each point of comparison, Ovid is the victor. He claims that he is further from home than Odysseus ever was; he is alone while Odysseus had a faithful crew. He also claims that Odysseus was seeking home in joy and victory, while he fled his home with little hope of return. Here Greek myth is used as a reflection of a deeply personal experience (Graf, 2002) but, as Ovid poignantly states, “the majority of [Odysseus’] labors are fiction; in my woes no myth resides” (Tristia 1.5.79-80).
Ovid and Greek Mythology
As we have seen, Ovid’s use of Greek mythology in his poetry was both innovative and varied. He was constantly striving to push the boundaries of his respective genres and in doing so he gave us some wonderful versions of familiar tales. Interestingly, the master manuscript of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was burnt and destroyed by the poet himself when he went into exile. Luckily, some copies survived in libraries and personal collections in Rome.
In his own era, Ovid was seen as giving new energy to traditional mythological narratives. While his work was popular in the Roman period, he also continued to be lauded in the Middle Ages. This was the period during which many of the Roman texts we have today were copied and distributed by monks and scribes. So it is safe to say that Ovid’s enduring popularity throughout the ages, has kept many of the stories of Greek mythology alive for readers today.