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“I Sing of Warfare and a Man
of War”
“My soul would sing of
Metamorphoses. . .
Unit 3, Lecture 2: The Epic
Contrasts of Virgil and Ovid
Historical Background I: (Long
• From Athenian Decline to Hellenistic Empire
– Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC) means end of
Athenian dominance in Greece
– Expansive ambitions of Phillip of Macedonia (380336) and his son Alexander the great (356-323)
replace independent Greek city states with a
“Hellenistic empire” in 4th century BC
– This empire was dedicated to spreading Greek
culture and language as well as political conquest
– After Alexander, empire fell into states fragmented
politically but united culturally
– Ultimately absorbed by expanding Roman empire
Historical Background (2) Origins
and Nature of Roman Republic
• Roman origins
– Legendary beginnings of “city on the seveh hills”
– Etruscan dominance (654-508)
– Overthrow of Tarquinius the Pround and establishment of the
• Roman government
– Republican form of government distributed ower among. . .
• Consuls
• Senate (selected from “patrician” or aristocratic families
• Tribunes (representatives of the {“plebians’ before Consuls
and Senate
• Roman character (“to play a Roman’s [not] a lover’s part”)
• Devotion to state
• Devotion to family and household gods.
• Defined by “citizenship”
Background (3): From Republic to
• External expansion
– 3 Punic wars to conquer Carthage (246-146 BC)
– Wars to South and East conquering Greece, Eygpt,
and Middle East
– Wars to North and west conquered most of Europe
and British Isles
• Internal changes
– Julius Caesar and nephew Octavian lead change
from republican to “imperial” government
– Octavian (Caesar Augustus”) creates autocracy and
stabilizes empire
Virgil (70-19 B.C.)
• His career
– Educated “farm boy” from Mantua
– Lived during transition from republic to empire
– His “Eclogues” and :”Georgics” (poetic discussion of
farming techniques!) established fame
– Augustus commissioned an epic to glorify Rome
• His contradictory character
The man who most eloquently sung the majesty and
destiny of Rome would never show the hard
masculinity of the Roman stock, but would touch . . .
Strings of mysticism, tenderness and grace rare in
the Roman breed. (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ,
Virgil’s Serious Epic
• Two types of epic
– “Primary” Epic “The primary epic simply wants a heroic story and cares
nothing about great national subject” (Lewis: A reface to Paradise Lost
– “Secondary” Epic (a “great subject” as well as a great hero)
• Virgil’s great subject: founding of Rome as decreed by gods
– A Roman founding myth to rival that of Greeks
– Material: shadowy stories of a Trojan hero rescued to found a “new”
– Modeled upon the Homeric Epics
• First six books are Aeneas’s Odyssey; last six are his Iliad.
• Differences:
– Historical destiny is foremost unliike Homer
– Events in the story have either a predictive or symbolic correspondence
to historical developments (i.e., Dido’s curse foreshadowing wars
between Rome and Carthage)
Ovid (43 B.C.-17 A.D.), the “antiVirgil”
• His career
– Born in pleasant valley of Apennines
– Abandoned law carer for intensely eortic and popular
poetry such as Amores (14 B.C.) and Ars Amatoria (2
– His greatest work is the fast-moving, gracefully written
Metamorphoses (“Transformations”) (A.D.7)
– Banished and works banned, A.D. 8)
• His character
– “Light of heart and head” (Durant 253)
– Dedicated to Venus, not Mars
Ovid’s “Naughty” Epic
• Characteristics of Metamorphosis
– “”Epic” only in sense it recites a series of mythological
“transformations” from world’s beginning down through history
– Polished story-telling
– Witty and psychologically penetrating
– Constant change of narrative perspective and technique
• Contrasts with Virgil
– “Unofficial” narration of entertaining misdeeds instead of “official”
upholding of public virtue
– Great fluidity vs. fixed historical purpose
– Undermining rather than exaltation of authority.
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