The History of Rome and the Deified Caesar
The Trojan War
For centuries scholars considered the story of Troy a legend until Heinrich Schliemann first excavated the ancient city in Turkey in 1871. Archeologists find evidence of destruction by war about 1185 BC, possibly a trade war between the ancient Greeks (Mycenaeans) and the Hittite empire to the east.
Book 11 ended with the tale of Aesacus, a son of Priam not mentioned in Homer or the Epic Cycle; Apollodorus (3.12.5) says that Aesacus prophesied to his step-mother Hecuba that the unborn Paris would one day be the ruin of Troy and that the baby should be exposed (allowed to die outside). She refused to do so.
In book 12 Ovid begins his version of the Trojan War which extends through the middle of book 13. After a brief introduction with the stories of Iphigenia and Achilles, Ovid doesn’t try to compete with Homer’s great epic, but uses this famous setting as an excuse to tell more stories. Most of his material comes from Greek tragedies and the Epic Cycle, a series of texts, unfortunately no longer in existence, which related other stories of the Trojan War preceding and following Homer’s account. We know about the Epic Cycle from a summary by Proclus (2nd – 4th century AD).
Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia is not mentioned in Homer (unless she goes by the name Iphianassa). Ovid follows most other versions of the story (the lost Cypria, Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, Stesichorus, Euripides’ two plays on Iphigenia) in depicting her miraculous escape. Only Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Pindar’s 11th Pythian Ode describe her actual sacrifice and her father’s blood guilt, prompted by his eagerness for war. The potential sacrifice of an innocent virgin before the conflict is balanced by the actual sacrifice of another, Polyxena, at the end of the war (book 13).
The vivid description of the house of Rumor is comparable to the house of Envy (book 2). In the open hallways, echoes repeat every word no matter if true or false. Compare Virgil’s description of Rumor (Aeneid 4.173) where she is a swift-footed monster, spreading fact and fiction alike.
Protesilaus is the first casualty of the war. Thetis warned her son Achilles that the first man to disembark at Troy would die. The lost work Cypria attributed Protesilaus’ death to Hector. Ovid imagined a letter written to Protesilaus from his wife in Heroides 13.
Achilles fights with a different Cycnus (Cygnus in some translations) from ones mentioned earlier (book 2 and book 7); all three experience the same metamorphosis into a swan (which is a bit confusing). Achilles’ dismissive call to Cycnus “whoever you may be” is a deliberate insult, as the hero went to the battlefield seeking either him or Hector. Achilles is amazed to discover his spear has no effect on his opponent. The invulnerable Cycnus boasts that he needs no armor, whereas Achilles does (the stories which describe Achilles as invulnerable except for his heel did not develop until later; see note below). Achilles must resort to strangling him, similar to Hercules’ killing the invulnerable Nemean lion (this story was not in the Iliad but in the lost Cypria).
The painting of “Andromache Mourning the Death of Hector” is by Jacques-Louis David (1783). Below see the clay relief of the horse, 7th century BCE from Mykonos, not long after the Iliad was written down.
For more information about the history of the Trojan War
The battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs
This famous battle is mentioned in the Iliad 1.261-71 and the Odyssey 21.295-8 and was depicted on the Parthenon metopes (small sculpted panels around the roofline).
For Greeks this story symbolized the victory of civilization over barbarism, but in Ovid’s version both sides are just as brutal (more like a western barroom brawl). His Roman readers, accustomed to bloody entertainments in the arena, would have certainly enjoyed this scene.
Nestor the storyteller interrupts Achilles’ victory celebration and undercuts the hero’s achievement in killing Cycnus by comparing him to the brutal centaurs who smother the invincible Caenus in similar fashion. In both cases the attackers’ masculinity is questioned, being unable to “penetrate” the other with his “spear.”
The description of centaurs as “cloud-born” refers to the story of their father Ixion mating with a cloud phantom of Juno (see earlier note on book 4). Nessus was spared in this battle only to receive his death wound from Hercules’ arrow in the earlier story in book 9 (Ovid loves to play with chronology).
Ovid takes time out from the nauseating details of battle to give touching background to one centaur couple. Finally he returns to Caenus (invulnerable man, once woman) who started the story. Nestor omits Hercules’ role in the battle with the centaurs because he had slaughtered Nestor’s family.
Once this interlude is complete, Ovid skips over nine years (and all the contents of the Iliad) to arrive at the war’s conclusion.
The death of Achilles: The Iliad concludes with the funeral of Hector, before the death of Achilles, but the shadow of his coming death falls over the entire epic. His mother prophesies that he will fall shortly after killing Hector (18.95), and Hector tells him that he will die at the hands of Paris and Apollo (22.359). Achilles accepted the inevitability of his death in battle but felt compensated by the everlasting fame he would merit by his heroic efforts. Ovid reveals that the gods themselves conspired to bring about Achilles’ defeat. Ironically his death comes not as he might wish, in close combat with another hero such as Hector, but from an arrow shot at a distance by the cowardly Paris. Achilles would rather have fallen at the hands of a woman; in the lost epic Aethiopis he fought with the Amazon Penthesileia, falling in love with her after delivering a mortal blow.
Ovid doesn’t mention the detail of Paris’ arrow hitting Achilles’ heel, a story not in Homer but from the Aethiopis in the lost epic cycle. The famous explanation for Achilles’ heel being his only vulnerable spot was apparently a late invention. In the Iliad Achilles is as vulnerable to wounds as any man; he wears indestructible armor made by Hephaestus to protect himself. Apollodorus 3.13 says Achilles’ mother Thetis used fire and ambrosia to make him invulnerable, except for his ankle. The better known version of his mother dipping him in the river Styx first appears late in the 1st century AD in the Achilleid by the Roman poet Statius.
Although his ashes would barely fill up a hole, Achilles’ fame lives on after his death; compare to Ovid’s epilogue about himself at the end of book 15.
Below see a portrait of Achilles found in the emperor Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea) in Rome.
The debate between Ajax and Ulysses (book 13)
The debate over the arms of Achilles came from the Aithiopus and the Little Iliad of the lost Epic Cycle. Aeschylus wrote a tragedy on this subject called the Judgement of Arms, of which only six lines survive. There were also several Roman dramas (now lost) based on this contest.
Ajax and Ulysses (Odysseus) provide stirring examples of persuasive rhetoric, a highly regarded art in the classical world. Students of rhetoric such as Quintilian often examined these speeches for their eloquence and strategies.
Ajax’s major arguments:
- Deeds versus words: trying to preempt Ulysses’ eloquence, Ajax says it characterizes his life, all talk and no action. Notice that Ajax’ speech is only half as long as Ulysses’ will be.
- Heritage: Ajax has Jove as his great grandfather and Achilles for a cousin, whereas Ulysses’ father was the disreputable Sisyphus, now punished in Hades (see earlier note in book 4).
- Ulysses tried to avoid the war by feigning madness, yoking a horse and an ox together and sowing salt in his fields. Suspecting a trick, Palamedes threw Ulysses’ son Telemachus in front of the plow and Ulysses stopped, demonstrating his sanity. Later Ulysses planted false evidence and got Palamedes convicted of treason. Homer never mentions Palamedes or this incident; this tale comes from the lost Cypria, which seems to have taken a less admirable view of Odysseus. Other stories from the lost Epic Cycle: Odysseus tries to stab Diomedes in the back so he can take all the credit for stealing the Palladium (see below); he also kills Astyanax, the infant son of Hector, by throwing him off the walls of Troy.
- Ulysses mistreated Philoctetes, abandoning him on the island of Lemnos because his wound stank so much (see Sophocles’ tragedy on his story). “And this is the way he treats fellow Greeks!” Ajax argues.
- Ulysses acts mostly under the cover of night and has shown cowardice in battle, abandoning Nestor (Iliad 8.90) but crying for Ajax’s aid himself (Iliad 11.465): “I saved his cowardly life.”
- Ajax doesn’t merely deserve these arms. These arms deserve a great warrior.
- Ulysses doesn’t need armor since he never uses it, relying on trickery instead of hand-to-hand combat. When he inevitably runs away, the armor will only slow him down. Ulysses’ shield has suffered no damage, whereas Ajax bears many marks of combat and he needs a new one.
- He begins by playing off listeners’ emotions for Achilles, associating himself with the great hero: “I brought him to you, thus his victories are in part mine.” When Achilles was a youth, Calchas prophesied that Troy could not be conquered without him, so to protect him, his mother disguised him as a girl and hid him among the daughters of Lycomedes. Ulysses tricked Achilles into revealing his true nature by displaying women’s trinkets along with weapons, and Achilles showed interest in the latter (not mentioned in Homer but see Apollodorus 3.13.8).
- A person’s heritage counts for nothing, only his deeds matter. Nevertheless, Ulysses denies the scandalous rumor that Sisyphus slept with his mother, claiming Laertes as his father.
- “I convinced Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, or else the fleet would never have sailed.” He also lied to Clytemnestra, telling her that Iphigenia was to marry Achilles if she came to Aulis.
- “I kept our discouraged armies from leaving, even Ajax, so I deserve credit for his deeds as well.”
- He boasts of killing Rhesus; a tragedy on this theme survives, at one time thought to be the work of Euripides, but now considered anonymous. In this story Ulysses and Diomedes capture a Trojan spy, Dolon, who tells them where Rhesus, an ally of Troy, is encamped; they kill both Dolon and Rhesus.
- He shows his wounds in a plea for sympathy, whereas Ajax has none (as a better fighter which Ulysses omits).
- “The brutal Ajax is unable to appreciate the divine artistry of these arms.”
- “I’m no worse than great Achilles, who also tried to avoid going to war,” again associating himself with the hero.
- Next he projects guilt onto his audience: “Don’t blame me for Palamedes and Philoctetes — you agreed to it!”
- Then he plays his bargaining chip: “You still need me to convince Philoctetes to return with Heracles’ bow to kill Paris.” In the lost epic called Little Iliad, Helenus (see below) prophesies that the Greeks will not take Troy without the help of Philoctetes.
- Ulysses captured Helenus, twin of Cassandra who shared her prophetic gift. When Helenus asked for Helen in marriage after Paris’ death and was refused, he turned against Troy and revealed to the Greeks how they could defeat the city, by bringing the bones of Pelops (grandfather of Agamemnon), recruiting Achilles’ son Neoptolemus to fight, and stealing the Palladium (from the lost Little Iliad; Apollodorus Epitome 5.10).
- Ulysses claims to have stolen from the temple the statue of Athena / Minerva which had fallen from heaven. There are conflicting versions of the fate of the Palladium. Greek tradition says the statue was stolen and carried off to the Greek camp by Ulysses and Diomedes, and that its capture by the Greeks ensured the fall of Troy . Roman tradition was that the image remained in Troy until the city was taken by the Greeks, when Aeneas succeeded in rescuing it and conveying it away with him to Italy, where it was finally deposited in the temple of Vesta at Rome.
- Ulysses closes his argument with a final analogy of a ship’s captain who is better than a common rower, brains over brawn.The Greek vase on the left depicts Aias (Ajax) carrying the body of slain Achilles from the battlefield.
When Ulysses wins the contest, Ajax commits suicide by falling on Achilles’ sword. In Sophocles’ tragedy of Ajax (Aias in Greek) the disappointed hero first wants revenge and plans to kill Odysseus’ supporters, but Athena drives him mad, and he slaughters a herd of cattle instead. His humiliation for this mistake prompts him to commit suicide (one of the rare times that a death occurs on stage in Greek tragedy).
From his blood a purple flower grows, which on its petals bears a pattern resembling the letters A and I, standing for his name in Greek, Aias, and a cry of distress “ai!”
In the Odyssey 11.543-62 Aias in Hades refuses to speak to Odysseus on account of his shameful defeat.
Ovid takes the last of his Trojan stories, the deaths of Polyxena and Polydorus, from Euripides’ Trojan Women andHecabe. Euripides seems to have invented the story of Polydorus’ murder; in the Iliad, this youngest son of Priam dies in battle against Achilles. Ovid describes Hecuba as a lioness out for blood, grieving her lost cubs, the same image which Homer uses for Achilles after Patroclus’ death (Iliad 18.318). “The wrath of Achilles, reborn in the demand for Polyxena’s slaughter, has been transferred to Hecuba” (Fratantuono 380).
Achilles’ ghost demanding the sacrifice of Polyxena resembles a similar event in the Iliad when, prompted by Patroclus’ spirit to remember him, Achilles kills twelve Trojan captives on the funeral pyre of his friend, an action even the narrator condemns (“he schemed evil deeds in his mind”). In Hecabe, Achilles demands the sacrifice in order to provide favorable weather for the Greek fleet to return, a parallel to the situation at Aulis at the beginning of the war when Iphigenia was the intended victim (book 12).
Ovid mentions Hecuba’s transformation into a dog but omits the detail that she will jump to her death into the sea from Agamemnon’s ship. The effect her childrens’ deaths has on Hecuba resembles earlier stories in Section III of women driven mad by passion, in this case for revenge.
Similar to Hecuba, another mother mourns the loss of her son: Aurora, goddess of the dawn, whose tears produce the morning dew. Memnon was an Ethiopian king, considered almost Achilles’ equal as a warrior. He brought an army to Troy’s defense, but lost his life to Achilles. His story was recorded in the lost epic Aethiopis. In the original tale Zeus turns Memnon’s companions into birds who return to his grave every year and fight in his memory. The painting of Aurora is by Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1881).
Ovid’s little Aeneid
In Virgil’s Aeneid, completed in 19 BC, we read the founding myth of Rome, tracing its origins back to ancient Troy. This work records the travels of Aeneas after he escapes the ruins of Troy, and his adventures before coming to Italy. Virgil wanted to create a major epic in Latin that would rival those of Homer in Greek, bringing honor to the empire of Augustus.
Ovid knew better than to compete with Virgil’s classic version. Similar to his treatment of the Iliad, he provides only an outline of the adventures of Aeneas while taking the opportunity to tell more stories of metamorphosis. From 13.623 – 14.608, Ovid features Aeneas for only 190 lines, and the hero speaks only once. Ovid’s interest obviously lies in other matters.
Aeneas visits the island of Delos, birthplace of Apollo and Diana, in a scene based on a short passage from Aeneid book 3. Ovid expands the story with several metamorphoses, the first concerning Anius’ daughters whose plight (Agamemnon wants to capture them to use their miraculous powers to feed his armies) extends the Trojan War tale. Next, in a myth apparently invented by Ovid, he describes a drinking bowl engraved with the story of Orion’s daughters who killed themselves to end a plague in Thebes, reminding us of previous cases of female sacrifices for the public benefit such as Iphigenia and Polyxena.
One of the most famous episodes from the Aeneid book 4 is the fatal romance between Dido and Aeneas. Virgil depicts a triangle with Aeneas in the center, Dido’s love pulling him in one direction and the call to duty in another. When her beloved abandons her for his quest, Dido calls for the building of a sacrificial fire, then throws herself into it: “herself deceived, she deceived others.”
Reducing this tragic tale to four lines (14.78-81), Ovid chooses to emphasize three other love triangles unrelated to the adventures of Aeneas:
- The voyagers navigate the strait between Sicily and Italy, passing by the dreaded monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis (described first in Odyssey 12). In the past Scylla (not the same as in book 8) was a beautiful woman who traded tales with Galatea. This sea nymph was pursued in vain by the cyclops Polyphemus (from the Odyssey). Polyphemus kills her true lover Acis with a boulder (13.750-897).
- Scylla then tells how she spurned the water god Glaucus, who sought a love potion from the sorceress Circe (also from the Odyssey, book 10). Circe desired Glaucus for herself, however, and when he refused her, she took her revenge on innocent Scylla, transforming her lower body into a pack of dogs (13.898 – 14.74). Ovid gives Scylla her motivation for attacking Odysseus’s ship, since he was loved by Circe (mentioned later in book 14). (In Paradise Lost 2.650f, Milton adapts Ovid’s description of Scylla, depicting her as the personification of Sin, keeper of the keys to Hell’s gate. She sprang from Satan’s forehead and with him gives birth to Death.)
- Somewhat later, Ovid borrows a character from Virgil, Achaemenides, supposedly one of Ulysses’ men (although Homer never mentions him) who was abandoned after Ulysses’ escaped from the cyclops, until Aeneas rescued him. Ovid invents his own fellow voyager Macareus, and the two swap sea stories, one of which concerns Circe, this time in love with Picus who is already wed to Canens, the half-sister of Turnus (14.318 – 434). Circe turns Picus into a woodpecker (his name in Latin).
Ovid inserts his characteristic wit into the story of Scylla: “She had the face of a virgin, and if poets’ tales are not all lies, she was once a virgin indeed” (13.733).
These three love triangles anticipate the Aeneas-Lavinia-Turnus conflict, resulting in the great battle at the climax of the Aeneid, where Ovid likewise downplays the romance in a few lines.
Commentators note another significant change in Ovid’s version of the Aeneid. He de-emphasizes or removes entirely certain prophecies that indicate Aeneas’ final destiny in Italy. For instance, Aeneas’ journey to the underworld, where his father shows him illustrious Romans waiting to be born and the glorious future of Rome, takes up most of book 6 in the Aeneid but only four lines in Ovid (14.116-119). Thus Ovid “eliminates the most obvious manifestations of divine purpose” in Aeneas’ wanderings. Virgil’s account gives the hero a noble vision of the future and a destiny to pursue, whereas Ovid’s Aeneas appears to drift aimlessly and to stumble upon the shores of Italy by chance. This change “reflects Ovid’s great theme of universal flux, here set in contrast to Virgilian providence” (Tissol 184).
Aeneas asks the prophetic Sibyl for aid in reaching the underworld. When he returns, she tells how Apollo, whom she refused sexually, tricked her by giving her immortality but without eternal youth. Ovid provides the only extant version of this tale, which resembles the Trojan Cassandra who refused Apollo and received from him the gift of prophecy combined with the curse that she would never be believed.
After Aeneas’ war with Turnus, Venus arranges for her son to become a god, looking back to the deification of Hercules in book 9 and ahead to Romulus’ deification in book 14 and Julius Caesar in book 15.
Livy’s History of Rome (probably written shortly before Metamorphoses) gives a more detailed account of the famous story of Romulus and Remus, two brothers raised by a she-wolf. Romulus killed his brother and founded the city of Rome on the Palatine Hill on the traditional date of 753 BC. In some ancient versions of the myth, Romulus was a descendant of Aeneas.
The Teachings of Pythagoras (book 15)
After telling of the frustrated love of Vertumnus, Etruscan god of the seasons (mentioned only here), and a rather dry summary of early Roman kings, Ovid surprises us with a philosophical treatise, the second longest unit of material in the Metamorphoses. Maria Colavito argues that the philosophy of Pythagoras runs throughout Ovid’s work.
First century BC neo-Pythagoreanism was a revival of the 6th century school of thought, which was almost a mystery religion. Their primary concern was the purification of the immortal soul; if not pure, the soul cannot return to the stars (each soul has one) but must be reincarnated (metempsychosis). This separation of body and soul was later adopted by Plato.
According to Pythagoras, numbers hold the key to the mysteries of life.
1 = Unity
2 = Diversity, inherent in warring duality in nature: love/strife, male/female, heat/cold — seen in the Creation story, original unity consisting of conflicting dualities
3 = first manifestation of these two primal forces (one & many), represents active principle, separating and distinguishing elements (the demiurge, unnamed Creator in book 1)
4 = materiality, actuality, first expression of form in the universe as the four elements: fire, air, earth, water
10 = totality, sum of the tetractys (seen below). Aristotle (Metaphysics 986a) said the Pythagoreans saw only 9 heavenly bodies (sun, moon, earth, five planets, star sphere) so they invented the idea of a counter-earth as the tenth.
• • •
• • • •
Human origin is thought to be a mixture of mortal and divine, earthly elements and immortal seed (blood of giants). The soul wants to return to the divine sphere (as seen in the apotheoses of Heracles, Aeneas, Romulus, Caesar). The impure soul must continue this cycle after death, returning to its fleshly prison: “Ovid’s work is a series of myths recounting the acts that constitute the further entrapment of the soul into the mire of materiality.”
Pythagoras prohibited meat eating (might be grandma reincarnated), emphasizing the kinship of all living things: note in Ovid that the first sin of Lycaon is cannibalism, a theme also seen in the story of Tereus and Procne, and the horrifying tales of the man-eating Cyclops.
Anamnesis is Pythagoras’ term for remembering past lives. He said that he remembered fighting at Troy. Knowing who we were in a past life is the only way to learn from previous mistakes: note that Io and Callisto retained their self-consciousness after metamorphosis and eventually were deified; Actaeon remembers but only to suffer for his “sin.” In other stories, characters forget who they were, nothing is learned, their soul sinks deeper into the material realm, punishment for soul’s attachment to desire of the old body. Thus Ovid shows transformation often as an embodiment of their particular sin or indiscretion (Lycaon becomes a flesh-eating beast, Actaeon the hunter becomes the hunted, Clytie who loves Apollo becomes a sunflower).
Despite the influence on his work, Ovid can’t help but poke fun at the philosopher as well. Pythagoras claims to have been Euphorbus in a prior life and heard Helenus tell Aeneas a prophecy of Rome, which would have occurred in Virgil’s Aeneid book 2, but Euphorbus died previously in the battle over the body of Patroclus (Iliad 17) and so could not have heard this prophecy. Ovid also may satirize Pythagoras’ views on not eating meat, as throughout the Metamorphoses, he has shown that a person might come back as a plant as well as an animal, hence to be perfectly safe, you shouldn’t eat anything.
Events of contemporary Rome:
The death of Caesar is seen from the gods’ perspective, elevating its significance to heavenly status. Note Augustus’ act of deifying Caesar only brings more honor to himself (Ovid’s ridicule in the guise of praise). Is Ovid being facetious, comparing Julius and Augustus to mythical heroes whom he clearly does not believe in?
Difference in Greek and Roman mythology: whereas Greek myth concludes with the aftermath of the Trojan War, Roman myth becomes “history” (Aeneas, Romulus), bringing the story into the present age. Everything that has occurred before was destined to produce this new Golden Age of Augustus (an idea which Ovid mocks).
If change is inevitable, then Ovid implies that the mighty empire of Rome will one day fall, as did Troy — but Ovid’s fame will be eternal.
In his Amores, Ovid presents a similar case for his lasting fame. To persuade a lover, he will immortalize her in his poetry; her name will be linked with his throughout history, just as Leda, Io, and Europa are remembered (1.3). Granite monuments will crumble but poetry is immortal (1.15). Unfortunately for Ovid, his praises of his lady have spread and now new suitors seek her affection: “Am I mistaken or have my books made her famous? So it shall be – she’ll be advertised by my art. And it serves me right! For didn’t I trumpet her beauty? It’s my fault if the girl’s been rendered marketable.” If only his readers would recognize his amorous descriptions of her as mythical, not to be believed (3.12). [Tony Kline trans.]
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Originally published online February 2000. Latest revision September 2018.