You are here

Patterns of Prayer: Pleas for Help in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' and the Suppressed Rape of Lavinia

Megan Bowen

University of Virginia

While Anius’ account of his daughters’ fate in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (13.640-74) superficially lacks erotic elements, it evokes an erotic context through allusion to prayers made in previous scenes of attempted rape. Anius relates how during the Trojan War Agamemnon stole his four daughters to feed the Greek army, as Bacchus had given them the ability to turn anything into grain, oil, and wine. The daughters subsequently escaped and fled (effugiunt 13.660), two to Euboea and the other two to their brother in Andros. Under duress, their brother handed them over to the Greeks, but at the moment just before capture, they pray to Bacchus for help, and he responds by transforming them into doves.

The allusion to erotic contexts hinges on the prayer for help the daughters make upon threat of their apprehension. Prayer plays a prominent role in stories of attempted rape, especially many of the most iconic episodes. The stories of Daphne (1.452-567), Syrinx (1.689-712), Cornix (2.569-95), and Arethusa (5.572-641) constitute the core of a narrative pattern in which a woman is desired, flees, is pursued, prays for help, and then undergoes a transformation to avoid capture and rape. Prayer functions not only as a climactic narrative constituent to prompt transformation, but also serves as a locale for verbal intratexts. Fleeing women repeatedly make the request “fer opem,” a plea rare in extant literature outside Ovid’s Metamorphoses (cf. Kanofal).

Once this pattern of fer opem prayers has been established for scenes involving flight and attempted rape, the phrase can be reemployed to remind the reader of its earlier contexts. Anius reports that in their flight his daughters made the appeal, ‘Bacche pater, fer opem’, and subsequently describes their transformation as figuram perdiderint. This resembles especially Daphne’s prayer when she is on the verge of seizure by Apollo (1.545-46), fer, pater,’ inquit ‘opem! si flumina numen habetis,/ qua nimium placui, mutando perde figuram!’ This reminder of previous stories of attempted rape activates an alternative version of the story of Anius’ daughters, known through Servius, in which Aeneas rapes a daughter of Anius named Lavinia (Serv. Dan. Aen. 3. 80 alii dicunt huius Anii filiam occulte ab Aenea stupratam edidisse filium nomine †an.).

Casali discusses all extant versions of the story, and convincingly argues that Ovid’s unique decision to make Anius have four daughters is meant to conjure competing traditions of the story in which Anius has variously one or three daughters (as 3 + 1 = 4). Recognition of and allusion to the pattern of fer opem prayers in scenes of attempted rape provides further evidence that the tale of Lavinia’s rape by Aeneas is especially significant here. This strengthens Casali’s argument that Ovid both acts as a corrector of Vergil and draws attention to an alternative, more sinister Aeneas (208).

The prayer by Anius’ daughters reveals a conspicuous suppression of Lavinia’s rape. This, in turn, fits well into James’ argument that while rape and attempted rape are abundant in the first, Greek half of Ovid’s epic, he noticeably omits a number of famous, foundational Roman rapes. Since it is logically incompatible with the given narrative, the evocation of Lavinia’s rape brings into question the narrator’s veracity and at the same time, as James notes about the exclusion of Verginia’s tale, hints at Rome’s problematic “foundation in raped female bodies (169).” 

Session/Panel Title

After the Ars: Later Ovid

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy