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Latona and the Frogs: Ovid’s Hydraulic Politics

Cynthia Jordan Bannon

Indiana University

Latona arrived in Lycia tired and thirsty, carrying her newborn twins. When the Lycians refused her water, she turned them into frogs (Meta. 6.313-381). While engaged with Ovid’s etiological poetics (Myers, 85-89; Clauss), the myth dramatizes hydraulic politics, a timely issue when Augustus was reforming the law and infrastructure of Rome’s aqueducts (Front. Aq. 9-12, 98-99). 

The setting announces hydraulic themes: events unfold near a shrine to Latona in the lake where she sought to drink (6.320-1, 324-6). The landscape advances the story: the blazing sun mirrors and intensifies Latona’s thirst, while a lingering description of the lake’s locus amoenus figures her desire (6.339, 343-45 cf. Hinds; Segal). The setting also introduces human control of water, because the lake is lacus and stagnum, which designate both natural and man-made basins (6.320, 343, 374).

Ovid adapts the myth to highlight water administration. In other versions Latona seeks a bath (Myers; Bömer 3.93-94), as Ovid acknowledges, but his goddess seeks a drink (non. . . abluere . . . sed relevare sitim 6.353-4), echoing imperial policy (Suet. Aug. 42). Latona calls the lake publica munera, an administrative term for fountains fed by Rome’s aqueducts (publica munera 6.351; Frontin. Aq. 3.2; Rodgers, 136-7). She also advances legal arguments to support her claim: water is common to all, not the Lycians’ private property (communis . . . nec . . . proprium, 6.349-50; Bömer 3.101; cf. Solazzi, 393-4; Bannon, 20-5).  

The episode enacts a conflict between local and imperial control of water. Latona first speaks for all Romans who enjoy the aqueducts, winning sympathy as Juno’s victim and a new mother (6.337-38 ). Then, unlike other mothers in Latin epic, who represent conquered resources (Keith 2000), she dominates the hydraulic landscape like an emperor (Purcell). Such beneficence might seem like expropriation to Romans accustomed managing their own water, as Augustus knew: his water commissioner, Agrippa, famously declined to seize the Crabra for Rome’s aqueducts, allowing the Tusculans their own stream (Front. Aq. 9.4-8). The Lycians’ transformation to frogs paradoxically tropes imperial policy: they have plenty of water, confined in the lake they cannot control (Meta. 6.369-74).

These hydraulic politics thematically integrate the Lycian episode into Metamorphoses Book Six. The Lycians’ fate expressly reinforces the lesson of Niobe’s encounter with Latona: fearful reverence for the fearsome goddess (6.313-16; Clauss). Latona dominates the Lycians as she controls the narrative; her words fill half the lines justifying her legal control of the water (6.349-49, 369-81). The Lycians speak only through Latona’s words, when she mocks their legal claims and voices with the onomatopoetic refrain, sub aqua sub aqua (Meta. 6.375-6; Bömer 3.106-7). Their ineffective speech, however, argues for other forms of expression, when read against Arachne (6.1-145) and Philomela (6.424-720). All three are wordless, yet Arachne and Philomela ‘speak’ through art, crafting autonomy in the only possible way, Ovid suggests, when the powerful coopt both the language and the rule of law.

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