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Transforming Violence in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Rachael Cullick

Oklahoma State University

Consideration of violence in Ovid’s Metamorphoses has most often been within the context of his rape narratives, and my own inquiry began with a question much like that of Amy Richlin, who, in the introduction of an important article, “Reading Ovid's Rapes,” says: “we must ask how we are to read texts, like those of Ovid, that take pleasure in violence” (1992, 158). Both my point of departure and conclusions are rather different, however, and I see this pleasure as part of a larger pattern of poetic attention to violence, lack of control, and the victim’s awareness of the loss. A unifying factor in this pattern is Ovid’s focus on the transformation itself, which is often marked by the victim’s own awareness – an effect that can be disturbing, but opens up important avenues of interpretation.

Focusing in this paper on episodes that feature this awareness, I argue that consideration of Ovid's representations of violence on their own terms sheds light on how he explores the effects of power and the human experience of violated autonomy. These are themes at work more broadly in Latin literature under Augustus and the early empire, and they reflect a concern with finding ways to envision autonomy under an emperor. The idea of the self as inviolate runs through Roman culture, and our own, but it was, of course, an idea that only applied to free men in antiquity. In a context that always allows for the possibility of violation, which would include the poetic context of the Metamorphoses and the actual context of women and slaves, one can explore how to maintain (or regain) autonomy and create new narratives that allow for value and beauty under the constraints of overwhelming power.

In addition to the important work of examining Ovid's rape narratives (Curran and Richlin are foundational), several recent articles (Feldherr, Segal) have looked at, among other things, how violence in the Metamorphoses relates to the Augustan cultural context. In this paper, I suggest another facet to Ovid's response to the question of how to deal with imperial power, which can in turn shed new light on Ovid's rape narratives. Segal 1994 rightly points out how the violence against and by women reflects Ovid's cultural realities, but I consider how Ovid uses the gendered views of autonomy and rape to explore the shifting roles of men in Augustan Rome.

This paper begins with the question posed by Marsyas: “Why do you remove me from myself?” ('quid me mihi detrahis?' 6.385). This can rightly be read as representing poetic detachment (and see Feldherr 2004 on comic and parodic elements in the episode), but Ovid's representations of metamorphosis go beyond that. In fact, Marsyas' question is central to understanding Ovid's representations of violence and metamorphosis: here, gruesomely, it is the satyr's skin that is being removed from the rest of his self, but Ovid consistently focuses not just on the potential loss of self inherent in his transformations, but precisely on the victims' awareness and observation. Furthermore, I would argue, Ovid suggests that this awareness itself, so strikingly demonstrated by Marsyas, can transform the transformation.

In addition to the stories of Daphne, Io, and Philomela, which are central to any study of Ovid's representations of rape, this paper considers a cluster of short tales in Book 2 that clearly demonstrate Ovid's attention, in different contexts, to the process of the change itself and the victims' awareness. I then turn to the strange but happy metamorphosis of Cadmus and Harmonia and, finally, Myrrha.   Both Harmonia and Myrrha demonstrate not only awareness but a bit of autonomy, which is, I argue, an important part of Ovid's work. He forces our attention, but also our detachment, and, by demonstrating both in his own poetry, provides a model for creating value and beauty from loss and change.

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After the Ars: Later Ovid

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