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Metamorphoses Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ovid's Metamorphoses. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ovid

Ovid was born in a rural valley near Rome, Italy during the reign of Augustus. Ovid’s father educated Ovid and his brother in rhetoric in hopes that they would practice law as adults. Although Ovid excelled at rhetoric, he was drawn towards using his oratory skills to explore emotional rather than political themes. When his older brother died at age 20, Ovid gave up the study of law altogether and took to traveling through Athens and Sicily. Ovid resolved to be a poet when he was around 20 years old, a decision which displeased his father. During his literary career, Ovid wrote mostly erotic poetry in elegiac meter. He wrote many poems, a manual on the subject of seduction, and the Metamorphoses—the most significant work of mythology to date—by 8 C.E. Over the course of his literary career, Ovid befriended the poets Horace, Propertius, and Macer. He also met Virgil, whose work he admired. In 8 C.E., Ovid was beginning another long poem when he was suddenly banished to Tomis, a city on the Black Sea. Although the exact reason for his exile is unknown, it is known that the emperor Augustus banished Ovid directly, with no preliminary consultation with the Roman Senate. This exile shaped much of Ovid’s subsequent poetry. The poems he wrote while in exile were particularly moving as they addressed the theme of desolation and expressed his longing for Rome and for his third wife whom he’d been forced to leave behind. Ovid died in Tomis between the years 17 and 18, and his long poem Fasti—which he had started before his banishment—was published posthumously.
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Historical Context of Metamorphoses

Although a work of mythology, the Metamorphoses was heavily influenced by major events in the Roman Empire, particularly the reigns of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. From a mythological and divine perspective, the Metamorphoses outlines Julius Caesar’s rise to power in Rome in 49 B.C.E. The Metamorphoses also addresses Julius Caesar’s betrayal and assassination by members of the Roman Senate in 44 B.C.E. Julius Caesar’s son, Caesar Augustus, succeeds his father as the emperor of Rome—an event which the Metamorphoses also includes.

Other Books Related to Metamorphoses

Ovid’s Metamorphoses can be compared with other epic poems that address similar historical events such as the Trojan War and the development of the Roman empire. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey—written originally in ancient Greek—each address the Trojan War and its fallout. The Iliad details the events of the Trojan War which the Metamorphoses touches on, such as the heroism and death of Achilles. The Odyssey details Odysseus’s journey home to Athens after the Trojan War, a journey which the Metamorphoses describes in brief through the character Ulysses. The Aeneid—a Roman epic poem—details the journey of Aeneas after the Trojan War and his foundation of Rome which the Metamorphoses touches on. Similarly, the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides expands upon the story of Medea and Jason found in the Metamorphoses. It’s also difficult to overstate the Metamorphoses’ influence on later epic works, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (which adapts some of Ovid’s stories into its medieval tales); Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (similarly packed with short tales, it incorporates Pyramus and Thisbe at one point); and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Shakespeare drew on Ovid in writing several of his plays, notably Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both adapting the story of Pyramus and Thisbe), Titus Andronicus (Tereus and Philomela), and The Tempest (Medea).
Key Facts about Metamorphoses
  • Full Title: Metamorphoses
  • When Written: 8 C.E.
  • Where Written: Italy
  • When Published: 8 C.E.
  • Literary Period: Ancient Roman
  • Genre: Epic Poem
  • Setting: The universe, ancient Greece, ancient Rome
  • Climax: The fall of Troy
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for Metamorphoses

Treasonous Monogamy. During Ovid’s literary career, he contributed public writings that addressed adultery’s status as a crime. This support of monogamy—which went against the norm at the time of Augustus’s reign in the Roman empire—is one possible cause of Ovid’s exile to Tomis.

Lost Writing. Some of Ovid’s work is not preserved in its entirety. For example, a play named Medea—Ovid’s one tragedy—did not survive his lifetime. Of the entire play, only a few lines and fragments are preserved.