From Gerald R. Lucas

Overview of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Metamorphoses is a vibrant tapestry of myth and transformation, a work that both embraces and challenges the conventions of epic poetry. This page provides an overview of the poem, its author, its historical context, its structure, themes, characters, and its enduring influence on Western culture.

Historical Context

Mercury and Argos, by Peter Paul Rubens

Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid, lived from 43 bce to 17/18 ce during a transformative period in Roman history. This era, known as the Augustan Age, was marked by the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire under the rule of Augustus Caesar. It was a time of relative peace and prosperity, known for its significant cultural and artistic achievements.

Ovid was born into a wealthy equestrian family in Sulmo, a town about 90 miles east of Rome. His family had the means to provide him with a quality education, and he was initially groomed for a career in law and public service, as was typical for young men of his social class. However, Ovid’s passion for poetry led him to abandon this path and devote himself to writing. His wealth and social status likely freed him from the necessity of earning a living through his writing. Instead, poetry in this era was often a way to gain favor and patronage from powerful individuals. Poets would dedicate their works to influential patrons, who in turn would provide them with financial support, social connections, and protection.

Ovid’s early works, including Amores, Heroides, and Ars Amatoria were well-received in Rome’s literary circles and likely helped him establish a reputation as a talented poet. However, his life took a dramatic turn when he was exiled to Tomis (modern-day Romania) in 8 ce. The reasons for his exile are not entirely clear, but Ovid himself attributed it to “a poem and a mistake.” Despite this setback, Ovid continued to write during his exile, producing some of his most poignant works, including parts of Metamorphoses.

In the society of Ovid’s time, poetry was not just a form of entertainment but also a medium for expressing political, philosophical, and moral ideas. Ovid’s works, with their exploration of love, power, transformation, and the human condition, reflect the complexities and contradictions of his era. Despite the passage of time, they continue to resonate with readers, offering insights into both the ancient world and our own.


Ovid’s style is characterized by its wit, elegance, sophistication, and satirical tone. He is known for his masterful use of the dactylic hexameter, the meter traditionally used in Latin epic poetry. However, Ovid’s approach to this form is often playful and subversive, reflecting his unique blend of seriousness and humor, tragedy and comedy. While the work is not a satire in the strictest sense of the term, Ovid’s playful, irreverent, and often critical approach to myth and epic tradition has a distinctly satirical flavor.

Ovid frequently uses humor and irony to highlight the follies and vices of his characters, particularly the gods. He often portrays the gods as capricious, petty, and cruel, using their power to manipulate and punish mortals. This satirical portrayal serves to demystify the gods and to critique the arbitrary and often abusive exercise of power.

One of the defining features of Ovid’s style is his narrative voice, which is often ironic, self-aware, and engagingly conversational. He frequently addresses his readers directly, drawing them into the narrative and inviting them to reflect on the stories he tells. His language is vivid and imaginative, filled with striking metaphors and similes that bring his mythological world to life. Through satire, Ovid invites his readers to reflect on the complexities and contradictions of the world, and to question the norms and values of their society.

Plot and Structure

Metamorphoses is composed of 15 books, each containing several myths linked by the theme of transformation. The narrative spans from the creation of the world to the deification of Julius Caesar, presenting a kind of mythological history of the world. The stories are not arranged chronologically but are ingeniously interwoven, with one story often leading seamlessly into the next.


Ovid’s Metamorphoses is often described as an “anti-epic” because it both adopts and subverts the conventions of the epic genre. Traditional epics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, focus on heroic characters and grand narratives that embody the values and aspirations of a society. They often present a unified, coherent vision of the world and its history.

Venus and Adonis, by Cornelis van Haarlem

Metamorphoses, however, presents a very different kind of narrative. Instead of focusing on a single hero or a unified narrative, it offers a multitude of stories that are linked by the theme of transformation. These stories often highlight the capriciousness and cruelty of the gods, the suffering of mortals, and the unpredictability of life. Instead of glorifying heroism and martial valor, Metamorphoses often emphasizes the vulnerability and resilience of its characters, both mortal and divine.

Ovid’s decision to write an “anti-epic” may have been a reaction to the Aeneid, which was written by Virgil, one of his contemporaries. The Aeneid, commissioned by Augustus, presents a grand narrative of Roman history and destiny, with Aeneas embodying the virtues of piety, duty, and heroism that were valued by the Augustan regime.

In contrast, Metamorphoses can be seen as a critique or parody of this kind of epic narrative. By focusing on transformation rather than heroism, and by highlighting the follies and cruelties of the gods, Ovid may have been challenging the idealized vision of the world presented in the Aeneid. His playful, irreverent approach to the epic form reflects his distinctive literary voice and his willingness to question and subvert traditional norms and expectations.

However, it’s also worth noting that Metamorphoses is not just a critique of the epic genre but also a creative reimagining of it. By weaving together a multitude of myths into a continuous narrative, Ovid created a new kind of epic, one that reflects the complexity, diversity, and constant change of the world. In this sense, Metamorphoses can be seen as both a subversion and a celebration of the epic tradition.

Major Themes

The central theme of Metamorphoses is transformation, which takes many forms, from physical changes to shifts in fortune or perspective. Other recurring themes include love, power and its abuse, the relationship between humans and gods, and the inevitability of change.

Ovid’s portrayal of love is one of the most distinctive aspects of his work. In Metamorphoses, as well as in his earlier love poetry, love is often portrayed as a powerful, even destructive force that can lead to transformation, for better or worse. It is the cause of many of the changes that occur in the stories, whether it’s a god falling in love with a mortal, a mortal falling in love with a god, or unrequited love leading to tragic consequences.

However, Ovid’s representation of love is not always negative. He also explores the theme of love as a source of inspiration, creativity, and personal growth. His stories often highlight the complexities of love, its joys and sorrows, its triumphs and tragedies.

Major Characters

The characters in Metamorphoses are drawn from Greek and Roman mythology and include gods (like Jupiter, Juno, Apollo), goddesses (like Venus, Diana, Minerva), heroes (like Hercules, Perseus, Jason), and numerous mortals who become the playthings or victims of the gods.

Legacy and Influence

Metamorphoses has had a profound influence on Western literature and art. It has inspired countless works, from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s plays to modern novels and films. Its stories continue to resonate, reminding us of the power of transformation and the enduring relevance of myth.

Additional Reading