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Ovidius Mythistoricus

Legendary Time in the Metamorphoses


Thomas Cole

The Metamorphoses is rarely read as history, but its immediate models were both historiographical: the Chronica of Castor of Rhodes and the De Gente Populi Romani of Marcus Terentius Varro. They determined the poem’s chronological ordering of episodes and anticipated the way it views dynastic history in the «mythical» era of Greece and Italy as both a prelude to, and a source of precedents for, Roman imperium and Roman ruler cult. Ovid’s myth-historical poem is true to the «facts» of fabularis historia transmitted in Varro and Castor in the same way realistic historical novels are true to those of vera historia, but it combines fact with fictional supplements to create its own interpretation of the period dealt with. The result is a collective Bildungsroman taking mankind from its beginnings under divine patria potestas (books 1-5) past the erotic and military adventurism of 6-13 into a period of maturity (14-15) during which a series of leaders culminating in Augustus join or supplant the gods as guarantors of the universal rule of reason and law.
Contents: The poem’s chronology and its relation to Castor’s («The Measuring of Time») – Ovid’s own interpretation of the course of myth-history and analogues to it in Varronian periodizations of history («The Shaping of Time») – The degree to which the poem’s Augustan message is complicated by its author’s habitual lack of ease in situations calling for rhetoric in the grand manner («Time Past and Time Present»).