Friday, November 30, 2018


Antonio La Penna, Ovidio: relativismo dei valori e innovazione delle forme. Bibliotheca, 16. Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2018. Pp. xi, 432. ISBN 9788876426261. €40,00 (pb).

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

Version at BMCR home site

Antonio La Penna, a highly distinguished Latinist, has committed himself to writing a history of Augustan literature. The first volume, dealing with the period 42-15 BCE, appeared in 2013. This, the first of two volumes on the second half of the Augustan period (15 BCE-18 CE; the lives of emperors and poets do not always coincide), is devoted to Ovid. Aimed at a general rather than a scholarly audience, it lacks notes but has a bibliography prepared by Franco Bellandi.

The book is divided into two sections, with the first examining the erotic and narrative works and the second discussing the explicitly exilic poems. (I say 'explicitly' because, as La Penna is aware [p. 274], there are good reasons for treating Fasti as we now have it as exilic.)

Section 1 begins with an account of Ovid's life based primarily on the poet's autobiography (Tristia 4.10) and self-defence (Tristia 2). Then follows an 'approximate' chronology of Ovid's works. Given the poet's tendency to revise earlier works (recently discussed in detail by Francesca Martelli in her important book Ovid's Revisions [2013]), untangling the order of composition is a tricky business and La Penna's discussion exhibits due caution.

La Penna begins his discussion of Amores with an account of the work's structure. He concludes that, while Ovid sometimes arranges his poems in pairs and larger groups, no overall architecture is to be found in any of the three books. If we reflect that Ovid's greatest work, Metamorphoses, lacks the concern for tightness of structure that characterises Virgil's Aeneid, this seems highly likely. Ovid is interested in fluidity, not symmetry. For La Penna the Amores' characterising feature is the displacement of eros from the central position that it holds in Catullus and Propertius. Thus he labels Corinna a 'cliché' (p.17) and includes words like 'decline' (tramonto, p. 15) 'trivialisation' (banalizzazione, p. 17) and 'emptying' (svuotamento, p. 21) in the titles of the subsections that examine Ovid's treatment of pathos. In reply a more positive reader might argue that Ovid simply takes a fresh approach to love elegy. On the vexed question of the collection's politics, La Penna argues for an entirely reasonable position: Ovid takes an anti-conformist stance and refuses to place elegiac poetry in the service of power (p. 32).

Primarily because of the centrality of genuine pathos (pp. 36, 41), La Penna rates Heroides far more highly than Amores. While giving full and due emphasis to the fact that these poems are letters, La Penna also reads them as monologues, but monologues that can never become dialogues (p. 39). Most of his discussion here is taken up not with form but with Ovid's treatment of passion in its various shades and gradations. It is, however, Ovid's use of inherited rhetorical forms like the suasoria and controuersia as a means of understanding complex and sometimes perverse characters (Phaedra, for example) that, in La Penna's view, justifies us in speaking of Ovid's 'relativism' (p. 53; cf. the book's title).

If the Amores are lacking in pathos, there is even less to be found in Ars Amatoria, a didactic work concerned with sexual success, not genuine emotion (pp. 81-2). For La Penna pathos is to be found only in Book 3's story of Cephalus and Procris (p. 83). But the concern with pathos and its absence leads La Penna, in my view, to underplay some of the poem's more outrageous aspects. He speaks, for example, of Achilles' 'seduction' of Deidamia (p.73; cf. the reference to heroines 'seduced' by gods in Metamorphoses [p. 116]), although the teacher himself makes it clear that the issue is not persuasion but force (673: uim licet appelles: grata est uis ista puellis). Note too that the teacher follows the story of Achilles and Deidamia with the examples of Phoebe and Hilaira (679-80: uim passa est Phoebe, uis est allata sorori / et gratus raptae raptor uterque fuit). In this case the repetition of forms of uis and the juxtaposition of raptae with raptor in successive lines make the issue unambiguous. And, in my view at least, the fact that the story of the rape of the Sabine women is played for laughs (una fantastica commedia, p.79) renders the episode more outrageous, not less. While the teacher may claim that women like sexual violence, it is worth remembering that rape was covered by several criminal statutes at Rome.1 As for the poem's politics, La Penna claims that neither in Ars Amatoria nor in any other work of Ovid is there opposition to the regime (p. 93). This assertion seems to contradict the earlier assessment of Amores (quoted above), but perhaps the key issue here is what is meant by 'opposition'. But, however we define that word, one thing is certain: Caesar Augustus found Ars Amatoria problematic.

La Penna devotes roughly a quarter of the book to Metamorphoses (pp. 103-205). In just over a hundred pages he guides the reader expertly through many of the poem's complexities: the nature of transformation itself, the brief but densely allusive proem and the many and varied myths that constitute the poem's substance. There is also an analysis of its structure, treated not as unified architecture, but as a series of interconnected building blocks or symphony (p. 126). For La Penna Metamorphoses is an epic in so far as it conforms to the expected conventions: narrative, hexameter verse, use of patronymic or geographic epithets, archaic language (though Ovid tends to modernise), alliteration, compound words, catalogues, similes and so on. On the other hand, Ovid employs these conventions in unconventional ways, giving us catalogues of dogs and hunters, employing language derived from love elegy, monologues of the kind we expect from tragedy, and, above all, using irony and humour in his presentation of the sorts of episodes typical of epic poetry. As in his treatment of the earlier works, pathos, both erotic and tragic, is a particular focus. La Penna notes rightly that in episodes of erotic passion humour is for the most part absent. In discussing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, however, he perhaps underplays the comic elements (pp. 164-5), ignoring the bathetic effect of the lead-pipe simile (4.121-4). Under tragic pathos he discusses the stories of Niobe as well as Tereus, Procne and Philomela (derived from Sophoclean tragedy via Accius, but also related to tragedies involving Atreus and Thyestes, perhaps also via Accius). This section is something of a tour de force, making sense as it does of an immensely complicated work, articulating its points with clarity but without sacrificing attention to detail.

For La Penna, Fasti is another example of Ovid's 'experimentalism' (p. 209; cf. the second half of the book's subtitle). The major differences in technique, language and tone between these two narrative poems underline a remarkable fact: Metamorphoses and the first edition of Fasti were written around the same time. Fasti also differs in its overt engagement with politics, a subject that a poem on the calendar, reshaped by both Julius Caesar and Augustus, could hardly avoid. While La Penna's treatment of the poem's politics is consistent with the stance outlined in his account of Ars Amatoria (there are no ambiguous expressions, no hostile allusions, no condemnations of the princeps, p. 276), he is also willing to set aside the poem's panegyric elements and emphasise Ovid's independence from the regime's ideology (p. 276). He notes, for example, the absence of the Ludi Saeculares from Ovid's list of festivals. On the other hand, he fails to underline the poem's emphasis on the connection between rape and key moments in Rome's history: the foundation of the city and its transformation into a republic. While he treats Lucretia's rape with appropriate subtlety and sensitivity and underlines the Heroides-like emphasis on pathos (pp. 259-60), he also speaks of the 'happy love' of Mars for Rhea Silvia (l'amore felice, p. 253), rightly stressing the lack of violence (pp. 238-9), but ignoring the lust and deception involved (Mars uidet hanc uisamque cupit potiturque cupita, / et sua diuina furta fefellit ope , 3.21-2).

Section 2, is primarily concerned with Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. La Penna presents the relegation to Tomis in 8 CE as the great point of rupture in Ovid's life. From now on the poet will deal not in the fictions of love elegy and narrative poetry but in his own lived experience (p. 296). The main thrust of La Penna's argument here is that despite the poet's protestations to the contrary, there is no rupture in the quality of his work. Now the poet concentrates on his own cultural isolation, on his longing for Rome, for the people he loves and for an audience for his work. Although there are formal differences between the two collections, most notably the consistent naming of addressees in Epistulae ex Ponto, La Penna emphasises continuity rather than difference. Epistulae ex Ponto differs from Tristia primarily in presenting a bleaker, more rigid and more sterile world.

I should say something about Bellandi's bibliography, because it seems to have been composed independently of the text. It is difficult to use because it is organised chronologically rather than alphabetically and it does not contain all the items to which La Penna refers. Thus Bernd Latta's book on double Heroides (1963), Douglas Little's article on Pythagoras in Metamorphoses (1970) and Sandra Citroni Marchetti's book on the exiled Cicero and Ovid (2000), all mentioned by La Penna, are not listed at the end of the volume.

Lacking as it does some of the apparatus of scholarship, this is very much a personal book. La Penna uses expressions like 'I believe' (io credo) and 'I am convinced' (sono convinto) freely. Although I do not accept some of La Penna's arguments, I admire his achievement in presenting a challenging argument that encompasses all of Ovid's work.


1.   For the republican period see Elaine Fantham, 'Stuprum: Public Attitudes and Penalties for Sexual Offences in Republican Rome' EMC 10 [19913]; for the charge of per uim stuprum under Julius Caesar's lex Iulia de ui publica see Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society [1986] 118-21.

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