May 25, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Subversion and Resistance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
A Counterpoint to Virgil’s Aeneid

In the realm of classical literature, few works stand as boldly in their subversion of traditional norms as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Written during the reign of Augustus, a period marked by moral reform and the consolidation of patriarchal authority, Ovid’s epic poem can be seen as a counterpoint to the Aeneid, written by his contemporary Virgil. The Aeneid presents a grand narrative of Roman history and destiny, with Aeneas embodying the virtues of piety, duty, and heroism. Metamorphoses offers a different perspective, one that champions the underdog and challenges the authoritarian imposition of moral reform. While the Aeneid is often seen as a celebration of Roman ideals and a piece of Augustan propaganda, Metamorphoses can be viewed as an anti-epic that challenges and subverts these ideals.

Aeneas’ Flight from Troy, by Federico Barocci

Virgil’s Aeneid is a grand epic that traces the journey of Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the Romans, from the ruins of Troy to the shores of Italy. The poem presents a vision of Rome’s destiny as a great empire, with Aeneas embodying the virtues of piety, duty, and heroism that were championed by Augustus. The Aeneid serves to legitimize Augustus’ rule and the imperial project, portraying Rome’s rise to power as a divine mandate and a fulfillment of prophecy. BY the end of the Aeneid, Aeneas has been transformed from a complex hero to a figurehead, robbed of his individuality to become the paragon of Roman virtue.

In contrast, Ovid’s Metamorphoses offers a different perspective on Roman society and values. Rather than focusing on a single hero or a grand narrative of national destiny, Ovid presents a multitude of stories that highlight transformation, change, and the complexities of the human condition. His characters, both mortal and divine, are often flawed and vulnerable, subject to the whims of the gods and the vicissitudes of fate.

Ovid’s portrayal of the gods is particularly subversive. While Virgil presents the gods as august and powerful beings who guide and protect the Romans, Ovid often portrays them as capricious, petty, and cruel, using their power to manipulate and punish mortals. This portrayal serves to demystify the gods and to critique the arbitrary and often abusive exercise of power.

Ovid’s focus on the experiences of ordinary mortals, particularly women, offers a counter-narrative to the patriarchal values and heroic ideals embodied in the Aeneid. His stories often highlight the injustices and sufferings endured by mortals in a world ruled by capricious gods, and his sympathetic portrayal of women and their resistance to patriarchal authority challenges the norms of his society.

In the story of Apollo and Daphne, for example, Daphne resists Apollo’s pursuit and chooses to transform into a laurel tree rather than submit to his desires. Her transformation can be seen as a symbol of resistance, a refusal to be objectified or possessed by a male god. This story contrasts sharply with the Aeneid, where women are often passive or tragic figures, subject to the whims of the gods and the demands of the patriarchal society.

Juno verrast Jupiter en Io Centraal Museum 2560.jpg

In the tale of Io and Jove, Ovid presents a poignant narrative of transformation and resilience. Jove, to shield Io from his jealous wife Juno, morphs her into a heifer. Ovid’s narrative technique invites readers to empathize with Io, as he vividly details her transformation and the subsequent tribulations she endures. He paints Io as an innocent victim caught in the crossfire of Jove's lust and Juno’s jealousy, thereby emphasizing her vulnerability.

Ovid underscores Io’s suffering but also her resilience. Post-transformation (and rape), Io loses her ability to speak or express her emotions, perhaps acting as a metaphor of the trauma victim losing her ability to communicate. However, she ingeniously manages to convey her predicament to her father by etching letters in the sand with her hoof. This scene not only highlights Io’s suffering but also her resourcefulness and determination, further amplifying the reader's sympathy for her.

Ovid subtly critiques the power dynamics between gods and mortals through his portrayal of Jove. Instead of depicting Jove as a noble and just ruler, Ovid presents him as a capricious god who misuses his power for personal gratification. This critique underscores the injustice of Io’s situation.

Despite the transformation and the hardships she faces, Io’s resilience shines through. She eventually ascends to divinity, becoming the goddess Isis. Her narrative underscores the vulnerability of women in a world dominated by unpredictable gods, but it also celebrates their capacity for endurance and transformation.

In the story of Iphis and Ianthe, Ovid presents a more radical challenge to patriarchal norms. Iphis, born a girl, is raised as a boy by her mother to avoid her father’s wrath. When she falls in love with Ianthe, the goddess Isis transforms Iphis into a male, allowing the two to marry. This story can be seen as a critique of the rigid gender roles and expectations of Ovid’s society, and a celebration of love in its various forms.

These stories, among others, reflect Ovid’s distinctive approach to mythology and his willingness to question and subvert traditional norms. His portrayal of women as active agents, capable of resistance and transformation, offers a counter-narrative to the patriarchal values embodied in the Aeneid. Ovid’s Metamorphoses can be seen as an anti-epic that rejects the Roman propaganda embodied in Virgil's epic. Through his subversive portrayal of the gods and his focus on the experiences of ordinary mortals, Ovid offers a critique of Roman society and values, and a celebration of diversity, change, and the human condition. His anti-epic serves as a reminder of the power of literature to question, challenge, and reimagine the world, and its enduring relevance attests to its universal appeal.