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Ovid’s Visceral Reactions: Lexical Change as Intervention in Public Discourses of Power

Caitlin Hines

Wake Forest University

In this paper, I present a new approach to analyzing Ovidian intervention in public discourses of power: a study undertaken at the level of the individual word, where an unprecedented semantic shift originating in Ovid’s corpus provides evidence of the poet’s active engagement with contemporary political and cultural anxieties about women’s bodies and fertility.

There has long been an instinct in Ovidian scholarship to seek evidence of the poet’s allegiance, resistance, or indifference to Augustan power (e.g. Otis, Holleman, Green, Millar). Whether and to what degree this attitude is recoverable remains a point of contention. Even after Kennedy’s warning that audience subjectivity renders the impulse to uncover pro- or anti-Augustan sentiments in literary texts ultimately unproductive, interest in the poet’s relationship to imperial power has not waned (Feeney, Newlands, Barchiesi, Habinek). Scholars continue to examine Ovid’s elegies for provocative disobedience or complicity with Augustan morality (Sharrock, O’Gorman, Davis, Casali, Gibson, Ingleheart, Ziogas), to discover in his exile poetry indications of sincere remorse or defiant mockery (e.g. Nugent, McGowan) and to scrutinize Ovid’s political allegiances through his descriptions of gods, heroes, and kings (e.g. Müller, Feeney, Miller, Casali). Across the spectrum of scholarly opinion on Ovid’s ultimate political leanings, the poet’s relationship to power has traditionally been examined through studies built upon broad thematic frameworks.

I propose a complementary approach that begins at the level of the individual word (cf. Rosenmeyer on medulla), tracing lexical innovation as a refined mode of Ovidian engagement with dominant narratives of power. This paper uses a case study of the word viscera to demonstrate the strengths of such a research model. According to the extant record, Ovid is the first Roman author to use viscera to designate wombs and children; these new reproductive metaphors appear throughout the Ovidian corpus, from the Heroides to the Fasti. My philological study of this semantic shift establishes that Ovid employs these new visceral figures exclusively in the contexts of domestic violence and civil war: matricide, patricide, fratricide, filicide, feticide, incest, and cannibalism are not just reliable but necessary triggers for visceral wombs and visceral children. While Augustan legal and ideological discourses promote procreation as a secure pathway to peace, Ovidian viscera consistently link reproductive bodies to gross violations of civic and domestic bonds. These new visceral metaphors, I argue, exemplify Ovid’s participation in the sharpening of Roman poetics around fertility and women’s bodies in the Augustan period.

I develop this argument with focused analysis of three instances of visceral metaphor in the Ovidian corpus. Beginning with the moralizing elegiac diptych on abortion (Amores 2.13-14), where women who terminate pregnancies are characterized as attacking their own viscera (vestra quid effoditis subiectis viscera telis, 2.14.27), I demonstrate that Ovid’s visceral womb is, from its earliest appearances, intimately associated with the politics of fertility. I move next to consideration of Andromeda in Book 5 of the Metamorphoses, who becomes a visceral child in the eyes of her father, Cepheus, when his brother threatens a fratricidal civil war over ownership of her body (quae visceribus veniebat belua ponti / exsaturanda meis 18-19). I conclude with the conception of Romulus and Remus in the Fasti, where Rhea Silvia awakens to find the founder of Rome within an ominously visceral womb (intra / viscera Romanae conditur urbis erat, 3.23-24). Throughout, I emphasize that the link between reproduction and destruction generated by Ovid’s visceral bodies is clear, far-reaching, and methodical. Ovid’s visceral reactions systematically transform wombs and children, the vital mechanisms of fertility and generational continuity, into dangerous vessels and vulnerable bodies.

This project demonstrates the continued efficacy of precise philological study: if marked lexical shifts can be shown to reproduce the dominant tensions of their contemporary moments, then studies undertaken at the level of the individual word remain essential and productive complements to scholarship founded upon more expansive thematic or theoretical frameworks.

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