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Echoes of Ovid: Metamorphic Moments in Philostratus’ Imagines

Carolyn MacDonald

University of New Brunswick

The recent renaissance of scholarship on the Second Sophistic has established Philostratus as a luminary of 3rd-century intellectual culture and “an ambassador for a distinctive brand of Hellenism” (Whitmarsh 2007: 39. Cf. Follet 1991, Swain 1996, Bowie and Elsner 2009). In the Imagines, Philostratus conjures up for his readers a luxurious picture-gallery in a private home in Naples, where he plays the docent to his host’s young son and a troupe of local youths, delivering 65 prose descriptions of paintings. Numerous scholars have elucidated the literary and intellectual quality of these ekphrases (e.g. Bryson 1995, Elsner 2001, McCombie 2002, Thein 2002, Kostopoulou 2009, Squire 2013). By contrast, the cultural-ideological dimensions of the Imagines have gone largely unexplored (Swain 2009 is a rare exception). The goal of this paper is therefore to pursue the question of how this text relates to Philostratus’ well-acknowledged Hellenist programme. My argument, in short, is that the seemingly unproblematic Hellenism of the Imagines is complicated by previously unexplored echoes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.    

    It can be controversial to suggest that a Greek author might engage with a work of Latin literature. I therefore begin by briefly clarifying my methodology, which is focused on reader-response more than authorial intent. This paper is not an exercise in source-criticism, and I do not attempt to argue that Philostratus must be alluding to the Metamorphoses rather than to lost Greek texts. Instead, I posit a segment of Philostratus’ readership — those educated in both Greek and Latin literature — for whom specific ekphrases would have evoked memories of Ovid. I shore up this suggestion with reference to Steven Smith’s recent work on the Natura Animalium of Claudius Aelianus, which demonstrates that Aelian could rely upon his readers to bring their knowledge of Vergil and Ovid to bear upon his sophisticated Greek text (Smith 2014: 67-97).

    I then proceed to consider the significance of the Neapolitan setting of the Imagines, which Philostratus details at the end of the text’s introductory section (1.proem.4). Although Philostratus insists that the people of Naples are Greek by genealogy and philhellenic by inclination, the city’s negotiation of cultural identity vis-a-vis Rome was far more complex (Lomas 2015, Miranda de Martino 2017). There is a hint of this in Philostratus’ remarks, when he mentions that his visit to Naples fell during the city’s public games. Though patterned on the original Panhellenic festivals, these games were celebrated in honour of Augustus — a fact which Philostratus neglects to mention. Philostratus thus evokes the cultural complexity of Naples only to suppress it.

    The remainder of the paper is devoted to showing how this gesture is repeated throughout the Imagines in passages that implicitly recall Ovid. After surveying all of the ekphrases that echo the Metamorphoses, I present two detailed case studies: eikon 1.11, on a painting of Phaethon’s disastrous chariot ride and the metamorphosis of the Heliades; and eikon 1.23, on a painting of Narcissus enthralled by his own reflection. Examining the convergences and divergences between the two texts, I contend that Philostratus’ ekphrases evoke and suppress reader’s memories of these myths in the Metamorphoses. The effect is to call into question the Hellenism of both the Imagines and its readers, implicating them in the negotiation of Greek and Roman culture signalled by the text’s Neapolitan setting.

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Second Sophistic

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