Barbara Weiden Boyd is a big fan of Ovid, the Latin poet who died just about two thousand years ago. Apart from being a great humorist, she said, Ovid should be applauded for his brilliant re-working of the great Homeric poems. Boyd’s latest book, Ovid’s Homer: Authority, Repetition, and Reception (Oxford University Press, December 2017), is the first to examine in depth the relationship between the two poets, and to demonstrate how Ovid reinterprets the works of his great model.
Ovid was a prolific poet, composing numerous works on many themes. Perhaps best known are his three-book elegiac work The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), a playful riff on contemporary social and sexual mores; and the Metamorphoses, a narrative poem which, over fifteen books, chronicles the history of the world through a series of about 250 interlocked myths. Boyd looks at episodes in these as well as in Ovid’s other works, and so shows how Ovid was inspired by Homer throughout his career.
The shadow of Virgil
Throughout much of history, Ovid has been overshadowed by his more senior Roman contemporary, Virgil. Best known for his epic poem The Aeneid, Virgil was a fully fledged literary celebrity by the time Ovid launched his career as a poet, said the Winkley Professor of Latin and Greek.
“Virgil has long been regarded as the master of the Latin language and poetry. Going back to antiquity, readers have typically viewed Ovid as inferior to Virgil.”
If Ovid grew up in the shadow of Virgil, they both lived in the shadow of Homer. The Greek poet, who in reality was probably many people, said Boyd, composed The Iliad and The Odyssey, two epic poems inspired by the Trojan Wars, which are also the two oldest known works of Western literature.
Who was Homer?
“When people discuss Homer, I really think the name should be in quotation marks,” said Boyd, “because ‘Homer’ could well have been a hundred different oral poets, handing songs down and developing them.”
The tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey had been around for nearly a thousand years by the time Ovid was born, she explained. “It’s hard to be precise because this was an oral tradition, but the tales originate from around 1,000 BC; the poems then grew like snowballs as different poets embellished them through the ages.”
The Homeric poems were first written down in about the sixth century BC, said Boyd, and over the next few hundred years, the study of Homer became a scholarly industry as the first great “research” libraries, such as the one in Alexandria, started to appear in the third century BC.
“By the time Virgil and Ovid came along, Homer was firmly established as a cultural legend, a Shakespeare of antiquity if you like,” said Boyd, “and both of these Roman poets drew on the literary canon that begins with the Iliad and Odyssey. Not enough attention has been paid, however, to Ovid’s interpretation of Homeric characters and stories, and I wanted to change this.”
Boyd explained why her book is subtitled Authority, Repetition, and Reception. “The ‘authority’ piece looks at how Ovid carves out a place for himself in the tradition. ‘Repetition’ refers to the way he repeats the words and ideas of Homer but makes them his own—he is not simply imitating Homer.
“The ‘reception’ piece,” she continued, “considers how Ovid responds to and reinterprets Homer’s poems. The Homeric poems predated Ovid’s by a greater time difference than scholars today face when writing about Dante, for example. Nevertheless, Ovid established a real dialog across the centuries with the Homeric tradition.”
After achieving literary success, Ovid experienced a deeply traumatic fall from grace, and was sent into exile near the Black Sea by the Emperor Augustus for reasons that remain unclear.
“In his writing, Ovid says little about the cause of his exile, mentioning only that it was due to ‘a poem and a mistake.’ There have been two thousand years of literary speculation over why he was banished from Rome.”
Whatever the reason for Ovid’s exile, he ended his life away from the public eye and out of favor, leaving Virgil as the pre-eminent Latin poet for centuries to come. “The standard work for all young Roman boys to learn,” said Boyd, “was always The Aeneid, rather than the Metamorphoses, or anything else by Ovid.
“In the 1980s, however, there began a scholarly movement … to reappraise Ovid and restore his reputation as a top tier classical poet.” Boyd’s book makes a major contribution to this reassessment.