From Robert Squillace’s Introduction to The Metamorphoses
From today’s perspective, Ovid stands almost precisely at the midpoint of literary history; the preservation of language in Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian cuneiform began about as many centuries before his lifetime as he himself lived before the era of e-texts and digital printing. While the dating of past history was certainly less precise in Roman times than it is now, from his own vantage point Ovid could see that centuries of written tradition preceded him; indeed, an allusive engagement with previous poetry already marked his Hellenistic forebears. More than any of his other works, the Metamorphoses expresses Ovid’s acute sense of the massive accumulation of history and legend, attempting as it does to “bring down [its] song in unbroken strains from the world’s very beginning even unto the present time.” Moreover, the poem is shaped to induce in its readers an experience of peering down vertiginous historical depths. Just as modern works on the history of Earth often note that the arrival of humanity on the planet would correspond, on a twenty-four-hour clock, to just a minute or two before midnight, so Ovid’s poem sets foot on the mainland of Italy only in the fourteenth of its fifteen books; further, this epic of universal history reaches the events of Ovid’s own lifetime just sixty lines before the end of its final book. Indeed, the poet’s consciousness of time would be impossible had centuries of written records not been available to him. When, again in book XV, Ovid has the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras base his perception of the eternal flux of existence on a myriad of such facts as the changing courses of rivers, the erosion of peninsulas into islands, and the gradual decline of once-mighty cities into barren plains, the poet assumes a world in which the permanence of writing makes it possible to know intimately the enormous distance between past and present by the comparison of what is to what texts say had once been.
In singing the tale of ceaseless change, of course, Ovid implicitly raises the question of his own relevance to readers of a later time. Over the nearly 2,000 years since the appearance of the Metamorphoses, the plan of the poem itself inspires one to ask whether the ceaseless flow of cultural change has left Ovid’s magnum opus a bare and sterile field, fit only to furnish material for a kind of archaeological study of what poetry no longer is, to serve as a morgue of dead men’s tales? Can a readership so distant from Augustan Rome embrace a work so dependent on its reader’s intimacy with Greco-Roman myth—with the life of Hercules, the travels of the Argonauts, the course of the Trojan War, the adulteries of Jupiter, and many other stories far less familiar than these to a modern audience—that it often alludes only by the slightest gesture, the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow, to the main features of these tales, concentrating instead on the microscopic details of what even for Romans were generally their lesser-known episodes?
While the Metamorphoses may demand more work from a modern reader and more annotation from an editor than a self-contained narrative like the Odyssey, in other ways—compared to, say, Homer or Hesiod—Ovid stands almost in our midst. The authors of the Greek epics, like the anonymous creators of the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the ancient Near Eastern epic Gilgamesh, lived in a world where the transmission of stories occurred primarily by word of mouth, and such written texts as did exist primarily served the needs of public performance. Even for the playwrights and philosophers of the Athenian “golden age” of the fifth century B.C.E., the idea of reading a text to oneself was at best peculiar and at worst intellectually suspect—Plato in particular thought writing a poor alternative to speech, which sharpened the memory and allowed for a logical exchange of ideas, rather than the mere repetition of the writer’s words in the reader’s mouth. But Ovid was a writer in something much closer to the modern sense, composing and revising his works with an eye to their reception by a literate audience of private readers—indeed, Ovid is one of the earliest writers explicitly to imagine his work being read by women as well as men. Removing the distribution of stories from the public realm, in fact, made them far more available to women, who were often consigned to purely private lives (similarly, many centuries later the rise of the novel, the genre most devoted to the domestic realm, owes itself both to women readers and women writers). Indeed, Roman practices of book distribution are similar enough to ours that classicists commonly refer to the “publication” of works during this period. The subjects of the Roman empire did not purchase books from stores, but volumens (scrolls) or codices (unbound sheets) from professional copyists; or, more likely, they read them in libraries. Regardless, they consumed them privately, as we do now.