Friday, October 19, 2018


Bartolo A. Natoli, Silenced Voices: The Poetics of Speech in Ovid. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2017. Pp. 227. ISBN 9780299312107. $69.95.

Reviewed by Teresa Ramsby, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

Version at BMCR home site


The ways in which Ovid writes about transformation from vocality to speechlessness, and what that might mean, have offered and continue to offer much promise for analysis. Here Natoli gives the theme book-length treatment by applying the analytic lens of Latin words used in their relevant contexts, or schema theory, as explained more below. He doesn't cover all of Ovid's works, only the epic and exile poetry, and what he does with the epic and exile poetry is not so thorough as to exclude future treatments; he provides an appendix (221-2) that lists the instances of speech loss in the epic; there are forty, and he discusses only seven of those. There have already been many article-length treatments of this theme in recent scholarship, with some of the most interesting (in my opinion) being examinations of rape and loss of speech in Ovid's epic as equivocal metaphors for oppression and censorship 1, and the guise of speech-loss in the exile poetry to represent Ovid's chief challenge as a writer in exile.2 But an extended study has long been overdue. Although I would not call Natoli's definitive, it provides one path of access to the concept and insights to build upon.

Natoli's use of schema theory, as developed by scholars of education and linguistics, examines the use of a word like mutus, vox, or sonus (and their related forms) so that one can deduce a "schema" (or a schematic conception) of the word's associative context that would have predisposed the writer to select a particular word in relation to a given concept (here, voice, speech, sound or utterance) in a way that grants the word meaning within its epistemic context. Natoli's method harnesses the Aristotelian notion (as presented in the Politics) of articulate speech as the key factor separating human from animal existence. Natoli can thus use the human/animal dichotomy to highlight the liminality and alienation that is immediately imposed on a figure who loses the ability to speak due to metamorphosis. The essence of Natoli's argument is that sonus corresponds to animalistic (and emotional) utterance and vox corresponds to rational and human-related speech. One might initially think this focus on a few keywords is too reductive, and he engages in some simplification that occasionally hampers his interpretation, as I will discuss below, but this is not a crude simplification. Natoli explains (22) that he selected the instances of these keywords that appear in Latin literature in the first century BCE to the poet's death in 18 CE; that there are many grammatically related uses of the words in question that fell outside the parameters of his literary study (24); and that there are some complexities and shades of meaning that muddy the waters within his established schemata (28).

In chapter two he analyzes the ways that speech loss is treated in the stories of Lycaeon, Io, Callisto, Actaeon, Echo, Philomela, and Dryope. His observations are not always groundbreaking (an astute reader can understand the alienation of Io the cow or Callisto the bear without using schema theory), but Natoli's emphasis on word-associations allows him to venture farther into these metaphors of disconnection and explore the permutations of what is lost. Natoli then distinguishes those stories that incorporate the use of the written medium, notably in the case of Io (her hoof in the dust) and Philomela (her woven text), as a means by which the alienated become reintegrated, even if only temporarily, into their desired community – most typically the family. The written medium is, of course, the means by which the exiled Ovid was able to reintegrate within his poetic community, and Natoli spends the third and fourth chapters exploring that aspect. His analyses of the seven epic episodes have the tone of a friendly commentary, relatively free of jargon, guiding the reader through the metaphors of vocality and speechlessness identified by prior scholars with points of originality from Natoli himself, as in the conclusion of Echo's story: "Ovid brings the tension between Echo's ability to speak and her inability to communicate to its natural conclusion, as he depicts Echo's disintegration from the realm of vocare to that of sonare" (52).

Chapters three and four examine speechlessness and its concomitant problem of being forgotten as expressed in Ovid's exile literature. Natoli demonstrates that in the first Book of the Tristia, particularly in Tr. 1.3, Ovid emphasizes his own transformation from one who can speak through his poems to one who is silent (85-99) and socially dead (92), an interesting use of a loaded phrase that receives no citation.3 His observations extend into other letters from exile to show that for Ovid the written medium, as for Io and Philomela, is the key to his metaphysical restoration: "although the exile is never successful in attaining a physical return to his community, he does find a voice through letters and is successful in communicating with his community" (138). This is not a novel idea, and Natoli's frequent citations of recent scholarship make that rather plain. Chapter four is more groundbreaking in that Natoli discusses how Ovid manipulates history with his own accounts of past events among his literary community and in relation to his earlier letters from exile. By doing so, Ovid re-formulates how he should be remembered in a way that restores him to his poetic community and makes himself a more integral part of Rome's literary life: "Ovid seeks to seize control of his memoria from the hands of others and present a story of his exile on his own terms" (178), hence (among other things) his repeated disavowals of crimina and his insistences upon error to keep ahead in the game of spin that will determine his reputation. It seems to have worked; we will probably never know precisely what it is that caused Augustus to send Ovid to the Black Sea coast.

That said, there are lapses in this study. In the introduction, before revealing the kernel of his theoretical perspective based in schema theory, Natoli offers a rather long-winded exposition (7-12) on the use of vultus and imago in the exile poetry, using the words poetic persona frequently, to establish a divide between Ovid the man and Ovid the poet. To be sure, this is practically a requirement in poetic studies, but the length of this section is puzzling so early in the volume. In chapter four Natoli briefly applies this idea with some success to the exile literature itself (177-8), but a lengthy preview of that application was not required in the earliest pages of his study when he could have been presenting an overview of his approach and its value. His discussion of Philomela leaves out Pavlock's critical analysis of the familial and social boundaries that Tereus violates, though Natoli notes the emphasis Ovid places on family connections in this and many other stories.4 Also within the Philomela story he missed an opportunity to do more with her severed tongue that tremens inmurmurat (Met. 6.560) in juxtaposition to her tongue in Tereus's grip luctantemque loqui, just two lines above – a clear illustration of what he has been saying throughout, that Ovid wishes to highlight the transformation from speechifying to speechlessness. It is perhaps the case that schema theory can cause myopic concentration on identified keywords to the exclusion of others that achieve the same interpretative ends. This study would also have greatly benefited from one more, thorough edit. 5

To conclude, I view Natoli's book as an opening salvo on a topic that has drawn a lot of attention from scholars and will continue to do so. This study provides an intriguing approach that paves the way for future approaches and interpretations.


1.   Three significant works are: Leo Curran, (1978), "Rape and Rape Victim in the Metamorphoses, in J. Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan (eds.), Women in the Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers (SUNY Press); Patricia K. Joplin, (1984), "The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours," Stanford Literary Review 1: 25-53; and Amy Richlin, (1992), "Reading Ovid's Rapes," in Richlin (ed.),Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome (Oxford).
2.   Three significant works are: Jo-Marie Claassen, (1999), Displaced Persons: The Literature of Exile from Cicero to Boethius (U. of Wisconsin); Betty R. Nagle, (1980) The Poetics of Exile: Program and Polemic in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto of Ovid, (Latomus); and Benjamin Stevens, (2009) "Per gestum res est significanda mihi: Ovid and Language in Exile, Classical Philology 104: 162-183.
3.   "Social death" is a phrase coined by Orlando Patterson in relation to chattel slaves (Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, Harvard University Press, 1985), and has been thereafter applied to many areas of sociological and psychological study. Earlier in his study Natoli mentions the problematic use of semivocale vs. vocale vs. mutum to refer to cattle, slaves, and tools in Varro's famous re-statement (Rust. 1.17) of Aristotle's distinction (Politics 1.1253b) between animate and inanimate tools (27-28). The slave as a readily available illustration to the Roman elite of both the mutability of the human condition and the muting of human beings (who can talk but without agency) is both reality and metaphor that have been explored (as in William Fitzgerald, (2011), "The Slave as Minimal Addition in Latin Literature," in R. Alston, E. Hall, and L. Proffitt (eds.) Reading Ancient Slavery (Bloomsbury)), but that have potential for greater development in Ovid (especially in his amatory elegy) and other writers in relation to speech and power.
4.   Barbara Pavlock, (1991), "The Tyrant and Boundary Violation in Ovid's Tereus Episode," Helios 18: 34-48.
5.   Other issues: although Natoli tends to translate every passage from the well-known epic stories, he frequently leaves lengthy passages from Ovid's exile letters and contextual or comparanda texts (Seneca, Martial, Cicero) untranslated. There are also cases where Natoli quotes an ancient source a second time but doesn't give the citation a second time (e.g.: Aristotle's quote on page 27), or places something in quotation marks but places the relevant footnote to explain the sourcing on a different sentence (e.g.: "pose of decline" on page 81).

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