Monday, September 16, 2019


Ian Fielding, Transformations of Ovid in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 257. ISBN 9781107178434. $99.99.

Reviewed by Scott McGill, Rice University (

Version at BMCR home site


The reuse of classical authors is a defining trait of late-antique Latin poetry. This does not make late antiquity a mere coda to classical verse, especially that of the first centuries BCE and CE. On the contrary, authors consistently transform their classical inheritance, adapting it to new content, styles, genres, historical events, religious concerns, and personal experiences. This is one of the things that makes late antiquity a distinctive and dynamic period in literary history. Late authors' dependence on classical models is no more a sign of cultural exhaustion, as the old prejudices would have it, than is the classical authors' dependence on their predecessors. Both sets of poets looked backward to move forward, and in their echoes of earlier writers, we hear distinctly their own voices.

In his excellent book on Ovid's reception in late antiquity, Ian Fielding illustrates how productive the reuse of classical models could be in the period. As he asserts (p. 17), his book is not a comprehensive account of Ovid's reception in late Latin verse. Instead, Fielding focuses on seven poets (Ausonius, Paulinus of Nola, Rutilius Namatianus, Dracontius, Boethius, Maximianus, and Venantius Fortunatus) spread chronologically and geographically across late antiquity. Through this representative group of sources, Fielding succeeds in showing that the engagement with Ovid in late Latin poetry was not only broad but also deep: the seven authors adapt his language, themes, ideas, and biography (as represented in his texts) with considerable detail and complexity to deal with a range of personal, political, philosophical, and religious matters. One of the great virtues of Fielding's book is that it provides meticulous and insightful readings of the late poems he covers when showing how richly their authors reuse Ovid. At the same time, Fielding is very strong on Ovid's poetry itself. A challenge of reception studies is that it demands familiarity, and even mastery, of the received author/texts and the receiving authors/texts. In this illuminating book, Fielding is entirely up to that challenge.

In his introduction (p. 2), Fielding connects Ovid, the poet of transformations, to late antiquity, a period of transformation. But this is not a book just, or even primarily, on the reception of the Metamorphoses. Ovid's epic figures prominently in chapter two, on Rutilius' De reditu, which narrates the poet's journey homeward to Gaul a few years after the sack of Rome in 410. Fielding demonstrates that Rutilius alludes to the Metamorphoses to make a case for a cyclical view of history, in which decline is not a telos, but part of an historical cycle of recurring growth and decline in a world of perpetual change. Yet Fielding's careful analysis also reveals that Rutilius engages more broadly with Ovid, particularly with the Fasti, Tristia, and Ex Ponto. The latter two are especially conspicuous models in the opening section of the De reditu, where Rutilius likens his return from Rome to Gaul to Ovid's relegation from Rome to distant, alien Tomis (see esp. p. 52-7, 80-2). By reversing Ovid, Rutilius implies that Rome is his true home, while also adding via intertextuality strong notes of pathos: for Rutilius as for Ovid, to leave Rome is to lose Rome and to feel the absence that comes with exile.

The reception of Ovid's exile poetry is of significant importance elsewhere in Fielding's study. Thus in chapter one, he examines the set of late fourth-century verse epistles written by Ausonius and Paulinus of Nola in which they try to come to terms with what Paulinus' turn to a rigorous form of Christianity means to their relationship. Fielding shows that the two engage in an extended intertextual pas de deux using the Tristia and Ex Ponto (while also sprinkling in some Metamorphoses). As in Ovid's poetry, geographical distance and dislocation are central issues in the epistolary exchange; what is more, Ausonius and Paulinus follow Ovid in their focus on friendship and loyalty and in their concern with what it means to change, or to lose, one's identity. Fielding plumbs the allusive layers in the epistles to reveal how much their dialogue was a dialogue with Ovid as well. In the process, he adds new contours and depth to the established portrait of two men whose relationship was deeply rooted in classical literature.

The ghost of Tomis also hovers behind the North African Dracontius' Satisfactio, the subject of Fielding's third chapter. Dracontius wrote the poem when in jail; it is an appeal, probably to the Vandal king Gunthamund (ruled 484-96), for pardon and release. Like Ovid, Dracontius endured his punishment due to some ill-defined carmen et error. As Fielding convincingly shows, he also relied upon Ovid to argue for his innocence. This includes the contention—of interest for the history of literary interpretation as a moment of proto-reader-response criticism—that the relevant text only offends because it has been distorted at the point of reception through misreading (esp. p. 107-8). Yet in Fielding's judgment, Dracontius seeks not simply to persuade Gunthamund to set him free, as Ovid does Augustus, but "to coerce him" (p. 97) into releasing him. Dracontius must tread carefully, and Fielding demonstrates how he uses emphasis, or insinuation and dissimulation, when claiming his innocence and, hence, that Gunthamund made a mistake in jailing him. Still, Dracontius is an assertive advocate for himself, and he invests his poetry with the power to open royal minds and prison doors—and he was indeed ultimately released from jail, which of course distinguishes him from Ovid, ad usque finem relegatus.

Fielding proceeds in his next chapter to consider Boethius and the sixth-century Maximianus, author of 343 elegiac couplets usually divided into six poems. In this well-constructed examination, Fielding contrasts how Boethius and Maximianus respond to Ovid, including his exile poetry but also his love elegies and elegiac persona, and argues that Maximianus answers Boethius in how he adapts the Ovidian material. In Fielding's persuasive reading, Boethius is a tearful elegist and Ovid-like exile (in his case, from truth) at the opening of his De consolatione Philosophiae. But he comes to recognize the need to reject the elegiac mode and the elegiac Muses in favor of the Muses of Philosophy; this will free him from the shadow realm of lethargy and forgetfulness and enable him to arrive at wisdom and understanding. Maximianus, meanwhile, "takes up the Ovidian persona that Boethius had discarded" (p. 143) and presents himself in elegiac terms. This persona feels the melancholy and disorientation of exile (in his case, from his younger self), as well as the elegiac lover's pain of desire. But rather than attempt to chart a different path, Maximianus stays within the elegiac limits of his world, however distressing that world might be, and defines himself by his embodied experiences in it. Fielding's treatment of Maximianus is dense, and one feels his struggle to contain his argument amid the proliferating echoes of Ovid that he cites. Still, he succeeds in demonstrating how pervasively Ovidian, and how insistently contra- Boethian, Maximianus' elegies are.

The fifth and final chapter deals with Venantius Fortunatus and focuses on his Appendix 1. Fortunatus appears to have written the poem in the voice of Radegund, the founder of a convent in Poitiers. (The alternative is that Radegund is herself the author.) The piece is addressed to her cousin Amalfred; like Radegund, Amalfred had escaped the fall of Thuringia, and he had long been away serving as a commander in the Roman army. The Appendix 1 is a call for him to return to Radegund; but it is also part of an effort to appeal to the emperor Justin II and empress Sophia—in whose court Amalfred apparently held a significant position—for a relic of the Holy Cross (see p. 183 and 204). (As it turns out, Amalfred had died sometime earlier.) Fielding's main interests lie in how Fortunatus recasts material from Ovid's Heroides in Appendix 1, and in how the speaker Radegund compares with the female Ovidian letter-writers. Particularly compelling is his argument that Fortunatus transforms the suffering woman in the Heroides into "a figure of real authority" by reimagining Ovid's "poetics of female isolation" as a "poetics of female monasticism, which allowed women such as Radegund the opportunity to acquire independent social status" (p. 207). Yet Fielding's discussion of gender does not quite fully satisfy. He acknowledges that Radegund achieves authority only by "relinquishing her voice to Fortunatus" (p. 207)—assuming, as he does and I do, that Fortunatus is the author of Appendix 1. This is a significant complication for the gender dynamics of the poem (just as Ovidian authorship is for the gender dynamics of the Heroides), and Fielding would have been well served to pursue it more robustly.

Fielding ends his book with a brief conclusion in which he mainly recapitulates his main arguments. Yet he also offers some new ideas that point in new directions; this gives the conclusion a nice blend of closure and openness. One is that Ovid was not only a source for late-antique poets but was also "a model of reception, guiding late Latin poets in the arts of literary appropriation" (p. 212). This is a thought-provoking observation, and lengthier treatment of it would have been welcome. In general, moreover, Fielding could have devoted more attention to the theoretical side of "the arts of literary appropriation" in Roman antiquity; there is too little on ancient imitation theory and on how imitatio and allusion operate—a topic that necessitates discussion of authorial intention and the role of the reader in generating meaning—in a book so committed to identifying literary echoes and their thematic functions. A second new idea is that late-antique Latin poets deserve to be reassessed, as Ovid has been over roughly the past seventy-five years, since Hermann Fränkel's 1945 book Ovid: A Poet between Two Worlds. This is simultaneously a call for scholars to end the poets' exile from the classical canon, especially in the Anglophone world, and to recognize their literary sophistication and value (p. 214). Fielding should certainly help to make these things happen. His intelligent, lucid, and well-produced monograph brings late Latin poetry alive, and it shows how subtly and compellingly late poets in nova corpora mutatas formas dicunt, rewrite and transform a notable author of the classical past.

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