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Ego Sum Pastor: Pastoral Transformations in the Tale of Mercury and Battus (Ov. Met. 2.676-707)

Sarah McCallum

Harvard University

Stephen Hinds, in the aptly titled “Ovid’s Aeneid (and Virgil’s Metamorphoses),” suggests that Ovid’s recognition of a “Metamorphoses latent in the Aeneid” fuels his self-conscious attempt to gather, perfect, and systematize the myths presented by Vergil (Hinds 1998). This paper argues that, whereas the Aeneid inspires the Metamorphoses with its “fragmented, scattered, and unresolved” myths (Hinds 1998), the Eclogues provide Ovid with a crucial model for sustained poetic reformation; throughout his pastoral collection, Vergil morphs Theocritean sounds, landscapes, and personalities into a new, Roman incarnation of the Idylls. An analysis of the tale of Mercury and Battus in Metamorphoses 2 (Met. 2.676–707) illustrates the importance of Vergil’s Eclogues as a crucial model for Ovid’s exploration of metamorphosis.

The unifying theme of Ovid’s epic is transformation, as indicated by the phrase mutatas dicere formas in the first line (Met. 1.1). More implicitly, Ovid’s entire epic project is an act of poetic transfiguration, the systematic reshaping of sources that exemplify the concept of “changed forms.” Ovid’s reception of the Eclogues in the Metamorphoses, I suggest, reflects his interest in the poetics of change. Existing scholarship has recognized Ovid’s debt to Vergil’s pastoral collection in episodes that feature wild landscapes, herdsmen, and archetypal rustic personalities like Pan and Polyphemus (Parry 1964; Farrell 1992; Keith 1992; McCallum 2016), and a more recent study by Sarah McCallum has demonstrated “the revolutionary programmatic importance of pastoral to Ovid’s entire epic project” (McCallum 2016). My analysis of the tale of Mercury and Battus not only provides additional evidence for Ovid’s programmatic commitment to pastoral but also reads his engagement with the Eclogues as a nuanced response to the collection’s inherently transformative nature.

In Metamorphoses 2, Ovid reshapes the poem’s first pastoral episode, the encounter between Mercury and Argus (Met. 1.673–721), to create a second encounter between Mercury and Battus. The new episode is a complex transmutation of elements from Ovid’s earlier pastoral experimentation and the Eclogues, particularly the dialogue of Corydon and Battus (Ecl. 3), Vergil’s Roman revision of Theocritus’ fourth Idyll. Mercury, acting as βουκόλος over his herd of stolen cattle, accosts the herdsmen Battus, who guards noble horses rather than the usual cattle or sheep: nobiliumque greges custos seruabat equarum (Met. 2.690). The term custos connects Battus not only to Argus, another unconventional herdsman (custos Iunonius, Met. 1.678), but also to Vergil’s Daphnis (pecoris custos, Ecl. 5.44), the Roman incarnation of the hero of Hellenistic bucolic verse (ἐπίουρος βοῶν, [Theoc.] Id. 8.6). Ovid’s description of the pastoral landscape also bears the traces of the Vergilian world from which it was formed (saltus herbosaque pascua, Met. 2.689; nemorum … saltus, Ecl. 6.56; nemora aut … saltus, Ecl. 10.9). The tale of Mercury and Battus exemplifies Ovid’s response to the “latent Metamorphoses in the Eclogues,” which are themselves the product of Vergil’s transmogrification of Theocritean verse.

For the final section of the paper, I suggest that Ovid’s pastoral transformation of Apollo in Metamorphoses 2 may be read as a response to the inherent theme of change that characterizes Vergil’s depiction of Gallus in the tenth Eclogue. In Metamorphoses 1, Apollo’s “first love” for Daphne emblematizes the genre of elegy (primus amor, Met. 1.452) in contrast to Pan’s pastoral infatuation with Syrinx (McCallum 2016); the elegiac god vehemently identifies himself as “not pastoral” (non ego sum pastor, Met. 1.513). Thus, the sudden metamorphosis of Apollo into an archetypal herdsman preceding the encounter of Mercury and Battus is an unexpected twist. But Apollo’s elegiac tendencies contradict his pastoral appearance and make him an unsuccessful custos. I argue that the figure of Apollo, an elegiac god temporarily transformed into a pastoral figure, rehearses the elegiac poet Gallus’ envisioned transformation into a pastoral singer in Eclogue 10. Apollo and Gallus, two uneasy elegiac interlopers in the pastoral context, emblematize Ovid’s own poetic trajectory from elegist to pastoral epicist.

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Latin Epic (organized by the American Classical League)

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