Tuesday, August 5, 2014


John Godwin, Ovid: Metamorphoses III, An Extract: 511-733. Bloomsbury Latin texts. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Pp. vii, 104. ISBN 9781472508508. $20.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Elena Giusti, King's College Cambridge (egiusti382@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site


High school students preparing for their AS level examinations in Latin in the UK from 2015 to 2017 inclusive will surely enjoy reading the set text for Latin verse, Ovid's episode of Pentheus at Metamorphoses 3.511-733, with the valuable help of John Godwin's prescribed commentary.1 It includes an introduction on the poet and the poem (with special focus on Book 3), the Latin text of Met. 3.511-733, a detailed commentary on the passage and a full vocabulary list.

A primary interest in the aesthetic qualities of the passage seems to guide the commentary throughout, and Godwin indeed leads the student with conciseness and elegance through the style of this 'master of Latin verse' who 'manages to be subtle without being over-complex' (2). Those interested in the rhythmical and rhetorical figures of the passage will certainly find plenty of insightful observations here, continuous reminders of the inventiveness and vividness of this poet, whose phrasing at times even manages to make the commentator get carried away by his own enthusiasm (see for example 72: 'the phrase corpore vixque meo is wonderful'). This is the main original contribution of Godwin's little volume, his own message to the student conveyed at the very beginning of the book's Introduction, under the heading 'Why read this text?'. 'For pleasure' is the answer provided by Godwin: 'Reading this story will not change your life… it will however give pleasure' (3). Such pleasure is guaranteed by the dramatic irony and the gory ending of the story, as well as by the satisfaction of witnessing Pentheus' deserved punishment, but also, perhaps surprisingly, by the 'nagging doubt about the justification of this kind of "moral"' (3). Yet Godwin's observation that Ovid's failure to provide or justify a moral to this tale may be part of his own mixed message of prodesse et delectare is left unexplained and replaced by a more compelling need to focus on the pleasurable side of the famous dichotomy: since we cannot recover Ovid's 'message' and 'intentions,' we are left with one certainty only, that his 'fundamental purpose' was 'to write,' (3) and that the 'delight in his own poetic and narrative skill… makes the poetry a constant source of pleasure and value in itself' (4; cf. 9 'Ovid uses his art to display his art').

Godwin's (re)presentation of Ovid as the poet of Illusion and of Art for Art's sake is clearly meant to attract students, perhaps at the expense of Virgil, especially when reinforced by the comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and the television series Heroes (10), but the Pentheus episode might also be an occasion to introduce the students to another Ovid as well. Indeed, the one aspect in which both Introduction and Commentary can be found to be lacking is the continuous 'Romanisation' of the Bacchae in Ovid's tale in comparison to the Greek models. Godwin does an admirable job in terms of simplicity and clarity when introducing us to the genres and models of the Metamorphoses, but it is surprising that he chooses not to devote a paragraph to Ovid's models for his version of this specific story. In the Introduction, in striking comparison to the continuous references to Catullus 64, which is curiously not mentioned for Bacchus but for the poem's moral (3), for a Roman example of the 'Callimachean aspiration of l'art pour l'art (7), or for its A-B-A structure, comparable to that of Met. 3.511-733 (9), Euripides' Bacchae is first mentioned, almost casually, under the heading 'Pentheus' (22), accompanied, under the heading 'Acoetes,' by mention of the seventh Homeric Hymn, which Godwin does not seem to regard as a direct source for Ovid (see 25: 'it is possible that there was a common source for both tales'). Furthermore, the paragraph on 'Bacchus' has little mention of the Dionysian and Apollonian (21) which might interest students, and perhaps both Nietzsche (mentioned, at 22, only as a 'thinker' among many for the identification of Dionysus as the 'fertile chaos' and 'irrational "dark" side of humanity') and Dodds (whose The Greeks and the Irrational however sneaks into the commentary, at 80) would have deserved a place in the list of suggestions for 'Further Reading' (27). A general paragraph on Ovid's Greek models for this tale, followed by a short discussion of the 'Bacchanalia affair,' whose importance could have been more emphasised in both Introduction and Commentary (it is briefly discussed at 21 under the heading 'Bacchus'; Tyrrhena gente at line 576 also possibly deserves a reference to Liv. 39.9.1 huius mali labes ex Etruria Romam ueluti contagione morbi penetrauit), could have worked as an introduction to Ovid's Roman version of this story, where Rome's civil war seems to be hinted at behind the Greek tale of these barbarian people who actually have civil war in their own blood.2 In the Commentary, Godwin does note that proles Mauortia (531) provides a direct link between Thebans and Romans (43) and that the terms penates (539) and plebs (583) are 'very Roman' and 'anachronistic' (44 and 54), but he does not add the Roman connotations of bellicus ensis (534), nor the echoes of civil war language in the opening phrase of Pentheus' speech quis furor (531, compare Hor. Epod. 7.13, Lucan 1.8, Verg. Aen. 5.6703). This could have been supplemented, in commenting on Pentheus' beheading (727), with the Romans' memories of both Pompey and Crassus, whose severed head had apparently been used by the Parthians to stage precisely the beheading of Pentheus (Plut. Crass. 33.3-4). These suggestions, although arguably too challenging for sixth-formers, could nonetheless encourage discussion if presented simply, and could provide the students with interesting questions to address should they want to try and recover that message which, according to Godwin, is unrecoverable.

Otherwise, Godwin's commentary is an extremely useful tool for the translation and comprehension of the episode, and it does not lack many stimulating references to other texts (especially Lucretius and Catullus, but also Homer and Euripides' Bacchae). There is at times the impression that Introduction and Commentary do not properly match: if Euripides' Bacchae was slightly disregarded in the Introduction, it receives a great deal of attention in the Commentary; conversely, the suggestion that Acoetes may indeed be Bacchus is put forward in the Introduction (24) but curiously not picked up in the commentary, not even at lines 656 (iamdudum flebam) or 658-9 (nec enim praesentior illo / est deus), which is indeed the passage used in the Introduction for putting forward the suggestion in the first place. Similarly, the note on spectabilis undique campus (709) does not comment on the (amphi-)theatricality of the passage which had been discussed in the Introduction precisely with reference to that line (2). There is also a general disregard, understandable perhaps, for noticing what Ovid does not say: the curious absence of Oedipus in Book 3, which could have been mentioned with reference to the exchange between Pentheus and Tiresias, or to a comment such as 'blindness is a theme which is developed throughout Book 3' (61); similarly, Godwin does not note that Ovid never mentions dolphins in the metamorphosis of the pirates, nor that he turns Pentheus' madness, or 'blindness,' into mere rage, or that he passes over in silence that the Theban women have been made crazy by Bacchus.

The Latin text printed by Godwin is conservative throughout: he does not accept or even acknowledge Tarrant's conjectures persequitur? retinens (642), Dian (690), thiasis (691), Autonoes (720), nor Shackleton Bailey's toto at 671, even though he thinks Tarrant may be correct in reading fremituque at 716 (78). I noted very few typos (battle off Actium > battle of Actium (4), Tyron should be in italics (44), sine Marte should be inserted before 'means "without a fight"' (44), Euripides Bacchae should be Euripides' Bacchae at 53, 76 and 77, a dot must be deleted after 'provide' (53), a bracket closed after 'lessons' and not after 'teach' (53)). However, there are many imprecisions in the vocabulary list: some items are missing (an, armentum, -i, dimidius, -a, - um, iuvencus, -i , labor, labi, lapsus, lanigerus, -a, -um, -ne, ullus, -a, - um, -ve); miror (94) and redeo (99) should be 'be amazed at' and 'go back', not 'I am amazed at' and 'I go back'; circa (86) and per (97) should have (+ acc.); capella (85) should also be Capella or at least carry the meaning 'a star in the constellation Auriga,' as at line 594, corripio (86) should also carry the meaning 'rebuke' 'censure,' since that is the meaning at line 565, mitto (94) should also carry the meaning 'abandon' 'let go' 'give up,' as at line 614 and numen (95) may add the meaning 'god,' as at line 524.

There is also at times little consistency between the text, the commentary, and the vocabulary, especially in the cases of double spellings (dext(e)ra, ex(s)ileo, illudo (inludo) , immitto (inmitto), immurmuro (inmurmuro), irrito (inrito), pre(he)ndo, see also the accusative Delon (87) although the text printed at line 597 (31) is Delum); anguigenus, -a, -um (84) should be anguigena, -ae (m.) 'offpring of a serpent' (see OLD). Among other imprecisions in the Introduction or Commentary, the Latin passage at page 16, albeit quoted for phonetic reasons, lacks a translation; sánctasque (26) should be sanctásque,4 which makes the line not a very suitable example to illustrate the difference between prosaic and metrical readings; 'the seer referred to as vati… auguris (37) should have an 'and' between vati and auguris; the mention of the Bacchanalia (41) should refer to the Introduction at p. 21 (where the 'Bacchic rites' should be called Bacchanalia), and there could have been a short note on the metrical anomaly in vulgusque proceresque (41) noticing the exception of the heavy syllable que notwithstanding the group plosive + liquid in proceres (some manuscripts seem to have solved the difficulty by writing vulgusque et proceresque, but there is of course no need to get into such details in the commentary; it may have been mentioned, however, that metrical anomalies have been thought to be suitable to Dionysiac contexts).

Mention of such minor details should hopefully be helpful in view of a second edition of the commentary, which will surely be an extremely useful and stimulating tool for future high school students and indeed for anyone in need of a guide when approaching this thrilling section of the Metamorphoses in the original. In short, Godwin has successfully accomplished the very difficult task of introducing students and new readers to a text which, in all its self-reflexivity, is always much more complex than it appears at first glance.


1.   AS Level stands for Advanced Subsidiary Level, usually taken the year before the final year of school or sixth form college (students aged around 17). Godwin's commentary is prescribed by the OCR examination board (Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts examination) for the General Certificate of Education, GCE AS Unit L2 (Entry Code F362): OCR
2.   On Ovid's Thebes as an Anti-Rome and an Anti-Aeneid see P. Hardie (1990) 'Ovid's Theban History: the first Anti-Aeneid?', CQ 40, 224-35.
3.   See A. Barchiesi and G. Rosati (2007) Ovidio Metamorfosi Volume II Libri III-IV, Milano, pp. 215-6.
4.   It is a matter of debate whether we should follow the generalised rule that when an enclitic is added to a word the stress always shifts to the final syllable of the word (see W. Sidney Allen (1970) Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin, Cambridge, pp. 87-8), but in any case the final syllable of sanctas is long and therefore heavy.

1 comment:

  1. This is certainly a book which will delight students and teachers concerned with AS Level study in the coming school year. One other typo (probably) occurs on p23, where a line of Theocritus is given in translation as "Bringing from the mountain not Pentheus but penthea (pain)". The student who has read some tragedy might take it that Theocritus used the accusative plural of "penthos", which would be a very neat word-play, differing only in accentuation from the accusative of Pentheus, but (s)he would be misled, as the word used by Theocritus is "penthema". His dialect requires the second "e" of Penthea to be long, as in "penthema", so the resemblance is still close.

    Tom Brown
    Latin Assistant
    Mill Hill County High School
    London UK