You are here

Ovid’s Phaethon and Failed Cosmic Vision

Ashley Simone

Columbia University

In this paper, I consider the philosophical and political implications of Phaethon’s visual responses to two artifacts made by Vulcan in Book 2 of the Metamorphoses: namely, the doors of the solar palace and his father’s divine chariot.

Book 2 of the Metamorphoses opens with a cosmic art object: the doors of the palace of the sun (Met. 2.5–18), which are engraved (caelarat Met. 2.6), a word which plays on the sky caelum as art object) with a picture of the universe that mirrors the cosmos portrayed at the beginning of Metamorphoses 1.1–88. But, as we learn in Book 1, humans differ from other creatures and ap- proach the divine by looking at the stars (os homini sublime dedit caelumque videre/ iussit, Met. 1.85–6), and it is this sort of cosmic viewing that Phaethon fails to do. As he enters the solar palace, he passes by the doors’ cosmos-in-miniature, instead focusing on an art object of a different sort: namely, the chariot, which he beholds with wonder (miratur, Met. 2.111).

Vision has ethical and philosophical import, and indeed, as Schiesaro (2014) has demonstrated, Ovid’s Phaethon episode is philosophically charged: Phaethon’s cosmic journey polemically en- gages De rerum natura, in which the good Epicurean—like Epicurus himself—roams the heavens with his mind to come to understand the world as solely material, without divine design. The cos- mic worldview Lucretius rebuts is Aratean, as Gee (2013) has shown, in which, crucially, the cosmos is a divinely designed work of art.

Yet Phaethon neither looks upon the artificial cosmos (the doors) nor the cosmos itself. Upon reaching the cosmic climes, he closes his eyes (Met. 2.181). His failure to view the cosmos recalls the Timaeus, in which the philosopher tunes his mind to the cosmos by beholding the stars with his eyes, for which reason vision is the most important sense (Pl. Ti. 47a–b) (Nightingale 2018). Yet, from the very beginning of his quest, Phaethon gazes upon the lesser art object (the chariot) instead of a greater one (the cosmos), substituting an inferior glory for a heavenly one. And, as we learn in the Timaeus, a generated paradigm is no replacement for an eternal one.

This substitution is a philosophical failure. Phaethon focuses on the chariot itself, a lesser good, which should be subordinated to the stars, a far superior beauty. In Plato’s Timaeus, Zeus takes each soul on a cosmic tour to see its star of origin in a divine chariot (Pl. Ti. 41e), which in Cicero’s Latin translation is a currus (Cic. Tim. 43), the same word that Ovid uses to refer to the Sun’s chariot (Met. 2.47, 74, 104, passim). But rather than a currus universitatis (Cic. Tim. 43) that leads to philosophic clarity, Phaethon uses the chariot for earthly ambition, I suggest: namely, the sort of divine honors a Roman statesman could achieve in a Triumph. And indeed, Phaethon is given such divine honors, including his solar crown (inposuitque comae radios, Met. 2.124), a sacred face paste (sacro medicamine, Met. 2.122), and most significantly, a chariot (quadripes ducunt, Met. 2.121), before beginning his cosmic voyage, which as Barchiesi (2009) has shown, is super- imposed on the topography of Rome itself. The divine status the statesman achieves in a triumph is subverted in Phaethon’s journey, in which he obtains death rather than deification. This cosmic disaster, however, I argue, is predicated upon Phaethon’s failure to view the cosmos as the good philosopher does in the Timaeus (in which the political and philosophical are connected). He car- ries his mind (fert animus, Met. 1.775, cf. 1.1) to heavenly things in order to obtain glory and renown, both of which are no substitute for philosophical stargazing.


Session/Panel Title

Ovid and the Constructed Visual Environment

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy