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Ovid’s Cadmus, Herculean Cattle-Thief?

Andrew C. Ficklin

UNC Chapel Hill

After concluding the tale of Europa at the beginning of Metamorphoses 3, Ovid transitions to her brother Cadmus’ founding of Thebes (3.6-137). He first likens Cadmus to Vergil’s Aeneas (Bömer 1969; Hardie 1990), but this favorable comparison soon gives way to one with another sort of hero. Cadmus dons a lion skin (3.52-53) and recalls, most noticeably, the monster-slaying Hercules of Aeneid 8 (Bömer 1969; Hardie 1990). I will here argue, however, that Ovid weaves into this narrative two additional intertexts that problematize Cadmus’ actions. By the time he slays the serpent of Mars, Cadmus recalls not only Vergil’s Hercules, but also his more transgressive counterparts from Propertius 4.9 and Argonautica 1. Beneath this contest of strength and arms lie narratives of excessive male violence that undermine the founding of both Thebes and, by extension, Rome.

Ovid draws upon numerous intertexts in this episode, but most pressing for the foundation narrative are those involving Hercules’ association with—and questionable acquisition of—cattle. Cattle are central to Ovid’s version: the narrative follows Jupiter’s rape of Europa in the form of a bull (imagine tauri, Met. 3.1), Cadmus tracks a heifer to the site of Thebes (bos… iuuencam… bos, Met. 3.10-23), and he is to call its walls “Boeotian” (Boeotiaque illa uocato, Met. 3.13) (Anderson 1997; Barchiesi-Rosati 2005). Likewise, cattle play key roles in Aeneid 8 and Propertius 4.9, for both works juxtapose Hercules’ and Cacus’ careers in cattle raiding (Anderson 1964; Gransden 1976; Warden 1982; Effe 2002). Vergil contrasts the two figures, branding Cacus a thief (Aen. 8.205-11) but praising Hercules as “proud in the death and spoils of three-bodied Geryon” (Aen. 8.202-3). Ovid’s Cadmus embodies this haughty victor when he hurls a Vergilian “millstone” (Met. 3.59; Aen. 8.250) (Bömer 1969; Hardie 1990). Propertius, however, stresses Hercules’ theft (Prop. 4.9.1-2) and playfully marks his divergence: whereas Vergil inserted Geryon into his Cacus narrative, Propertius incorporates Geryon into the figure of Cacus himself, who “makes sounds issued through three mouths” (Prop. 4.9.10) (Richardson 1977; Warden 1982). Ovid carries this allusion forward in portraying the serpent of Mars with “three tongues” and “three rows of teeth” (Met. 3.34), and through Cadmus’ opponent ties him to Propertius’ less valiant hero (cf. Janan 1998).

Apollonius, too, foregrounds Herakles’ questionable association with cattle. He explains, for example, that Herakles took Hylas after killing the boy’s father, when the grieving man refused to surrender his ox (Arg. 1.1211-20) (see Mooney 1912 on the scene’s pathos). Then, after Hylas is taken by the nymphs, Apollonius likens Herakles himself to a bull (ταῦρος, Arg. 1.1265) that, “standing still and lifting upward its broad neck, casts forth its lows” (ἱστάμενος, καὶ ἀνὰ πλατὺν αὐχέν᾽ ἀείρων / ἵησιν μύκημα, Arg. 1.1268-9). It is this crazed Herakles that Cadmus’ heifer recalls when it arrives in Boeotia: bos stetit et tollens speciosam cornibus altis / ad caelum frontem mugitibus inpulit auras (“the cow stood still and, lifting its beautiful brow with lofty horns to the sky, struck the air with its lows,” Met. 3.20-1).

In all, the versions of Hercules that underlie Ovid’s Cadmus are hyper-masculine brutes, excessively violent and transgressive (traits well at home within the Metamorphoses). In bringing together these episodes here, Ovid encourages readers to think more critically about the otherwise noble founding of Thebes. Then, primarily through the allusions to Aeneas, Ovid extends this criticism to Rome (Hardie 1990). Yet Hercules’ chequered past remains key even in this new context: as with Cadmus and Boeotia, it was Hercules’ search for a calf (either named “Italus” or called uitulus by the locals) that gave Italy its name (Varr. DRR 2.5.3; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 1.35.2). In drawing attention not only to Hercules’ cattle, but also to his history as a cattle-thief, Ovid ultimately reminds his readers how problematic a hero underlies Roman mythic foundations.

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