Wednesday, December 29, 2010


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Andrew Feldherr, Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 377. ISBN 9780691138145. $49.50.

Reviewed by P. J. Davis, University of Adelaide (

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Since the 1960s there have been numerous books in English devoted to Ovid's Metamorphoses. For a new book to be worthwhile it must, presumably, add to our understanding of the poem by offering fresh and stimulating interpretations of key episodes. Feldherr's book certainly does that.

But the inclusion of the word 'politics' in the title marks the fact that Feldherr is dealing with contentious material and that his views are bound to provoke vigorous debate. His theoretical position is outlined in the Introduction. Feldherr endorses the position outlined in Duncan Kennedy's famous 1992 paper '"Augustan" and "Anti-Augustan": Reflections on Terms of Reference' (p. 6) and states his goal as follows: 'My project in this book is informed throughout by these new readings of Ovid. The "politics" of Metamorphoses it addresses does not mean the same thing as Ovid's politics, and readers will find no explicit discussion of the attitudes of the poet to the emperor. Rather my goal is to expand our understanding of the modes by which the work facilitates the audience's reflection on and redefinition of the hierarchies operative within Roman society' (p. 7).

Chapter 1 ('Metamorphosis and Fiction') is concerned with 'the distinctive nature of Ovidian fictionality' (p. 16) and focuses primarily on the nature of metamorphosis. Feldherr takes issue with the views of Galinsky (1975) and Solodow (1988), who both concentrated on Ovid's refusal to spell out the moral consequences of transformation, and with 'anti-Augustan readers' who 'have focused on the process of metamorphosis more than the product' (p. 33). Indeed Feldherr rejects both pro-Augustan (Galinsky, Habinek) and anti-Augustan (authors unnamed) readings, resisting the assumption that 'the poem articulates a specific view of what metamorphosis is' (p. 34). Feldherr then considers a number of examples (Lycaon, Daphne, Arachne), emphasising the differences between the kinds of metamorphosis involved in these stories. In my view, Feldherr is right: metamorphosis is so varied a phenomenon in the poem that it is impossible to define in any useful way.

Chapter 2 ('Wavering Identity') focuses on Ovid's representation of a number of artists: Arachne, Marsyas, Daedalus and Augustus. Feldherr states the chapter's aim as follows: 'I hope to replace an old model of Ovid's self-representation as enacting a clear-cut, indeed timeless, battle between the resistant artist and all-powerful tyrant with a more specific and complex picture of the pressures and constraints acting on the writer in a society where the emperor was already an artist and the artist uses his text as a way of pursuing an immortality very like that sought by the princeps himself' (p. 61). One difficulty with this thesis is the claim that Augustus is an artist. He was certainly a promoter of images, but that is hardly the same thing. (Note that Feldherr denies that Augustus is an artist on p. 314: 'the first similarity to stress between the emperor and the hero [Perseus] is that neither one is himself an artist'). Second, as Feeney and Hardie point out (both cited to this effect on p. 81), the immortality to which Ovid aspires in Book 15 is different from the apotheosis that Augustus seeks. Third, while the discussions of Arachne, Marsyas and the temple of Palatine Apollo are excellent, the account of Daedalus is flawed. Central to Feldherr's interpretation is the 'ambiguous social status of Daedalus' (p. 112). That status is ambiguous because while Daedalus' art brings him close to the gods, his occupation is servile: 'Yet that same ability also marks him out as a faber (ingenio fabrae celeberrimus artis, 8.159), an un-epic word for craftsman that was also, the designation for a common slave occupation – as indeed the name Daedalus is also attested for slaves' (p. 112). Feldherr refers to 'Daedalus's servile relationship to Minos' (p. 113), calls him 'a rebellious slave' (p. 115) and a 'servile craftsman' (p. 125). The phrase fabrae … artis, however, does not establish that Daedalus is a slave, because it is also used at Fasti 3.383 (Mamurius, morum fabraene exactior artis), in a context in which a craftsman is in a position to demand a particular kind of payment for his services and therefore is clearly not a slave.

Chapter 3 ('Homo Spectator: Sacrifice and the Making of Man') explores Ovid's treatment of sacrificial themes in the Lycaon episode in Book 1 and Pythagoras' discourse in Book 15. Feldherr's discussion rightly emphasises the interpretive complexities involved in understanding the place of Pythagoras in the poem. Here Feldherr's central contention is that readers who want to use his speech in support of an anti-Augustan reading of the poem must also acknowledge the risks involved in treating Pythagoras as a mouthpiece for Ovid's philosophy of change.

Chapter 4 ('Poets in the Arena') begins with Tristia 4.2 and then examines the death of Orpheus in Book 11 and the story of Pentheus in Book 3, with the aim of relating Ovidian fictions to imperial spectacles taking place in the theatre and the arena. That Ovid invokes the amphitheatre in depicting Orpheus' death at Met. 11.25-27 is undeniable: structoque utrimque theatro (11.25). Feldherr cites Rosati's view that such references highlight the visual quality of his own work and Hinds's that Ovid deliberately blurs literary landscapes and contemporary settings (p. 170). Next he brings to bear Coleman's discussion of 'fatal charades' (p. 172), re-enactments in the arena of mythical events with real and not fictional deaths, and argues that 'the juxtaposition of the two representations of Orpheus in the arena, rather than manifesting the superiority of poetic making over imperial display, creates a far more complex effect because there is no way of assigning priority to present reality or to the myth its illustrates' (p. 175). Feldherr argues the case brilliantly, but, as he knows, there is no evidence for 'fatal charades' in the Augustan period. That 'the possibility cannot be ruled out' (p. 172) is, in my view, not good enough. The case for reference to the theatre in the Pentheus episode is not strong, for as Feldherr knows, the narrative owes more to the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus than to Euripides' Bacchae (p. 183). And the only link that Feldherr can find to imperial spectacle is the fact that nauale (here used as a noun: 'dry dock', 3.661) could also be used as an adjective and applied to the artificial lake used by emperors for staging mock sea battles (stagnum nauale).

The title of Chapter 5 'Philomela Again?' suggests that, like Ovid and his epic successors, Feldherr is aware of his own belatedness. This is indeed a much discussed episode. Although Feldherr expresses concern that he 'may have jolted his audience's fides' (p. 236), the chapter is both brilliant and persuasive. Feldherr's aim here is to correlate 'a tragic view of the narrated events with other discursive frameworks: in particular, the rape of Philomela is read against the foundational historical episode of Lucretia' (p. 199). It is well known (especially since Carole Newlands's Playing with Time. Ovid and the Fasti [1995]) that Fasti 2's allusions to Metamorphoses 6 are important constituents of its meaning. The reverse, however, does not hold, for Metamorphoses 6 does not allude to Fasti 2. Feldherr makes his case by exploring the differences between the stories of Lucretia and Philomela, arguing that the key difference is the 'absence [from Philomela's story] of male relatives to transform the quality of the revenge enacted for the rape' (p. 234).

The centrepiece of Chapter 6 ('Faith in Images') is a discussion of Pygmalion. Taking his cue from current discussions concerning the nature of the Roman experience of viewing art and, more specifically, Elsner's discussion of Pygmalion, Feldherr concentrates on Pygmalion as viewer rather than artist. This is a fruitful way of examining the episode. I have to disagree, however, when Feldherr argues that dressing the statue, offering it gifts and laying it on a couch do not 'unequivocally imply personification' (p. 262) on the grounds that these are religious practices. It should be pointed out that Pygmalion does more than this, for he admires the ivory statue's nudity (10.266) and calls it tori sociam (10.268, 'partner of my bed'), a phrase commonly used in marital contexts (OLD socia §b). The issue here is sex, not religion. But my point actually strengthens Feldherr's argument that 'Pygmalion and the reader-spectator are at once more distinguishable at the beginning of the episode than Elsner implies and closer together at its conclusion' (p. 263).

The final chapter (Chapter 7: '"Songs the Greater Image"') analyses how 'Ovid places his text in dialogue with the public display of images by the emperor' (p. 294), concentrating on Niobe and Perseus.

At the outset a qualification is needed. Feldherr claims that 'mourning allegorical figures, taking the form of a female captive … featured on… triumphal monuments like the Forum of Augustus' (pp. 293-4). Such figures do occur on early imperial monuments, but not in the Forum of Augustus. If Feldherr is referring to the caryatids, then it should be noted that Vitruvius (1.1.5) associates such figures with triumph, not mourning.

That Ovid's Niobe might be connected with imperial imagery is a possibility, given that a mourning Niobe was represented on a door of the temple of Palatine Apollo (Prop. 2.31.14). Feldherr accepts Schmitzer's argument that Niobe is a figure for Cleopatra (pp. 298-9). He also argues that Niobe is a figure for Augustus on the grounds that the princeps loses 'countless' heirs (p. 301). That Ovid should be concerned with Cleopatra nearly forty years after her death seems implausible. Equally unlikely is the idea that Niobe should be viewed as figuring both Cleopatra and Augustus. Note too that, unlike Niobe, Augustus was remarkably un-prolific. And while it is arguable that 'Niobe herself becomes a work of art' (p. 306), it is hardly true that she is 'an artist in her own right' (p. 302). The case for Perseus is weaker, since Perseus has virtually no role to play in Augustan iconography.

The new readings that Feldherr's book offers are certainly stimulating and provocative. They are sometimes brilliant, but not always convincing.

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