Ovid's Metamorphoses: A Brief Review
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Ovid's Metamorphoses: A Brief Review

‘Metamorphoses’ has a profound influence on Western thought. It is a narrative poem in 15 books. ‘Metamorphoses’ narrates the history of the world from creation to the deification of Julius Caesar.

The Roman poet Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ was the most popular and widely read classical work during the Middle Ages. Even today, ‘Metamorphoses’ has a profound influence on Western thought. It is a narrative poem in 15 books. ‘Metamorphoses’ narrates the history of the world from creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. The poem is cast in a loose mythico-historical framework. ‘Metamorphoses’ is a masterpiece of the Golden Age of Latin literature. This long narrative poem was competed in AD 8. Ovid’s narrative poem is based on Greek myth with stylistic adaptations and the poem is a popular reference work for Greek mythology.


Ovid ‘Metamorphoses’ belongs to the literary genre mock-epic. The poem lacks organic structure as Ovid deals his subject matter in an apparently arbitrary fashion. He would jump from one metamorphosis story to another and would often stray in odd directions. Greek mythological events are retold with stylistic adaptations. The metrical scheme Ovid follows in his ‘Metamorphoses’ is dactylic hexameter.

Cover of George Sandys's 1632 edition of Ovid's 'Metamorphosis'

The poetic form that Ovid uses for ‘Metamorphoses’ is the form used in great heroic and nationalistic epic poems. Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ and Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ also follow this form. ‘Metamorphoses’ begins with the invocation of the muse. Epithets and circumlocutions are used in the poem in the traditional style. The narrative which leaps from one story to another does not tell the heroic deeds of a superman. The stories are told in a loose framework without any structural coherence and connection with each other.


The recurring theme of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is love. The theme of love is a regular feature in all works of Ovid. The Roman god of love, Cupid (Amor) is presented rather the hero of the mock-epic, ‘Metamorphoses’. Amor is a relatively monor god in the pantheon of Roman gods. The higher gods of the pantheon are repeatedly humiliated, ridiculed and perplexed by Amor. Apollo is subjected to particular ridicule by showing how irrational love can confound the god out of reason. It is amusing to note that Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ inverts the accepted order. In the poem, Ovid elevates humans and human passions above the actions and achievements of gods. In ‘Metamorphoses,’ Ovid subjects gods and their desires and conquests to low humor.

'DANAE' by Titian (one of the several paintings inspired by the 'Metamorphoses')


Book I narrates Cosmology, Ages of Man, Gigantes, Daphne and Io. Book II is about Phaeton, Callisto, Jupiter and Europa. Book III narrates Cadmus, Actaeon, Echo and Pentheus. Book IV is about Pyramus and Thisbe, Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, Perseus and Andromeda. Book V is about Phineas, the Rape of Proserpina. Book VI is about Arachne, Niobe, Philomela and Procne. Book VII is about Medea, Cephalus and Procris. Book VIII is about Nisos and Scylla, Daedallus and Icarus, Baucis and Philemon. Book IX is about Heracles and Byblis. Book X narrates Eurydice, Hyacinth, Pygmalion, Adonis, Atalanta, Cyparissus. Book XI is about Orpheus, Midas, Alcyone and Ceyx. Book XII tells about Iphigeneia, Centaurs, Achilles ad Aesacus. Book XIII is about the Sack of Troy, Aeneas. Book XIV is about Scylla, Aeneas and Romulus. Book XV is about Pythagoras, Hippolytus, Aesculapius and Caesar.

'APOLLO AND DAPHANE' by Antonio Pollaiuolo (One tale of transformation in the Metamorphoses.  He lusts after her and she escapes him by turning into a bay laurel) 


Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ has inspired many later writers in their creations. Some have adapted some of the tales in ‘Metamorphoses’ for their creations. Geoffrey Chaucer has adapted the tale Coronis and Phoebus Apollo in his ‘Canterbury Tales’ in which the adapted version forms the Manciple's tale. ‘Metamorphoses’ has had an abiding influence on the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in ‘Metamorphoses’ Book IV has been used by Shakespeare in his ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in which a band of performers enact a play about Pyramus and Thisbe. In ‘Titus Andronicus’, Shakespeare uses the Tereus’ rape of Philomela for his portrayal of Lavinia’s rape. Also in the same play Shakespeare uses the text of ‘Metamorphoses’ for Titus to interpret his daughter’s story. In Act V of ‘The Tempest’ also Shakespeare uses an adapted version of a passage from Book 7 of ‘Metamorphoses’. A host of writers across the world has used Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ in one way or other for their creative purposes.



1. Richard Treat Bruere (1939). "The Manuscript Tradition of Ovid's Metamorphoses". Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 50: 95–122. doi:10.2307/310594. http://jstor.org/stable/310594  .

2. Cameron, Alan (2004). Greek Mythography in the Roman World. Oxford University Press.

3. Reynolds, L. D., ed., Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics, 277.

4. http://www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk/studio.asp?s=708  

5. Brooks Otis (1936). "The Argumenta of the So-Called Lactantius". Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 47: 131–163. doi:10.2307/310573. http://www.jstor.org/stable/310573?&Search=yes&term=Argumenta&term=Lactantius&term=so-called&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DThe%2BArgumenta%2Bof%2Bthe%2Bso-called%2BLactantius%26x%3D0%26y%3D0%26wc%3Don&item=1&ttl=33&returnArticleService=showArticle  .

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Comments (1)

good to find the paintings correlated with the poets' work.