Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction

Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction

Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction

Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction


This book offers a novel interpretation of politics and identity in Ovid's epic poem of transformations, the Metamorphoses. Reexamining the emphatically fictional character of the poem, Playing Gods argues that Ovid uses the problem of fiction in the text to redefine the power of poetry in Augustan Rome. The book also provides the fullest account yet of how the poem relates to the range of cultural phenomena that defined and projected Augustan authority, including spectacle, theater, and the visual arts.

Andrew Feldherr argues that a key to the political as well as literary power of the Metamorphoses is the way it manipulates its readers' awareness that its stories cannot possibly be true. By continually juxtaposing the imaginary and the real, Ovid shows how a poem made up of fictions can and cannot acquire the authority and presence of other discursive forms. One important way that the poem does this is through narratives that create a "double vision" by casting characters as both mythical figures and enduring presences in the physical landscapes of its readers. This narrative device creates the kind of tensions between identification and distance that Augustan Romans would have felt when experiencing imperial spectacle and other contemporary cultural forms.

Full of original interpretations, Playing Gods constructs a model for political readings of fiction that will be useful not only to classicists but to literary theorists and cultural historians in other fields.


Ovid begins the Metamorphoses by promising his readers, quite literally, the world. The gods who inspire the poet’s song are asked to lead his narrative “from the first creation of the cosmos to my own times” (1.3–4). Alongside the grandeur of the project they set in motion, however, the lines already signal a number of questions that Ovid’s audience will have to confront throughout the fifteen books that follow. To start with, the technical terms used to describe the composition of the work present it as a kind of hybrid, paradoxically claiming the qualities of two antithetical poetic forms: on the one hand, the song will be “unbroken” (perpetuum, 1.4) like the extended, homogeneous narratives of epic—and, indeed, the Metamorphoses marks Ovid’s first use of the distinctive meter of epic poetry, the dactylic hexameter. On the other, the word that means “lead down” (deducite, 1.4) also means “spin fine” and was used in this meaning by Latin poets to describe the writing of short, exquisitely crafted pieces. How can Ovid’s poem be at once short and long, grand and refined? The contradictory formal expectations raised by this description relate to a distinction in strategies of reading that are at the core of this book and that are complemented by the second paradox the brief proem sets in play. The word perpetuum applies both to the narrative form of the work, which will not be disassembled into a sequence of individual poetic units, and to the material that it describes, the history of time that connects past with present in an unbroken chain. Conversely, the suggestion of “fine spinning” in deducite directs attention above all to the nature of the poetic product itself, its artistry and style. Without crudely reducing the poem to an epic subject treated in a refined style, this opposition broadly raises the question of how much the reader should focus on the content of the work, the story it tells, and how much on Ovid’s poem itself as a literary artifact.

The issue of the relationship between the subject matter and its artistic representation emerges more dramatically in the poem’s first two lines:

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
Corpora: di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illa)
Adspirate meis…


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