Still avid for Ovid

28 Nov 2017 - 12:45

An anthology inspired by the great Roman poet proves the idea of metamorphosis is as current now as it was in his time

The glass-fronted cabinet in my parents’ lounge contained two volumes that enthralled throughout my childhood. They were red, hardbound dictionaries of classical mythology, and within their covers were lurid stories of gods and goddesses, fauns and nymphs, warriors and heroes, many of whom died terrifically violent deaths, or who were transformed into stone, or flora or fauna, by some vengeful deity. Goodness knows why they fascinated me, and they probably wouldn’t be considered suitable reading for a 7-year-old these days, but I’m grateful to my parents for allowing me to lose myself in these thrilling tales of metamorphosis.

Fast forward to 2017 when once again change seemed to be the watchword on everyone’s lips. Commentators speak of transformed political landscapes; there are regular accounts of blurred boundaries, whether between fact and fakery, or various gender identities. Public discourse is increasingly polarised and we don’t have to look too far for our marauding gods and satyrs, our gorgons with the ability to turn people into stone with a single stare.

So when I read an online article that 2017 was also the 2,000th anniversary of the Roman Poet, Ovid, I paid particular notice. In AD 17 (or possibly 18), Publius Ovidius Naso, to give him his full name, died in exile in the Black Sea port of Tomis (now Constanta in Romania). His sin had been to offend the emperor, Augustus Caesar, for verses that may have alluded to the scandal-riven Imperial Court, and from which he was dismissed in AD 8. The grief-stricken poet burnt his manuscripts, including the work that he would become most famous for. Luckily for us, his friends had earlier received copies of Metamorphoses, and they ensured its survival.