Comments on Ovid’s Absurd Tragedy

In Book II of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, after Phaethon has lost control of the chariot of the Sun, scorched much of the planet, and himself died in a horrible blaze, Ovid recounts the grief showered upon him, beginning (here) with his funerary inscription. In what is supposed to be a mournful scene, Ovid slyly inserts raillery, scepticism, and criticism of social convention in such an artful way that it is difficult to determine whether the scene is sad or hilarious. Ovid is the consummate artist, and everything he writes is so thoroughly steeped in self-conscious literary awareness that even his scenes of true pathos seem to conceal some joke upon the reader’s willingness to react appropriately to purple passages. Here is the text (with italics added to the notable parts), below which is a brief set of comments.



His father, wretched with painful grief, drew away and hid his face, and if we only believe it, they say that one day passed without the sun. The fires provided the light, and there was at least something useful in that disaster. But after Clymene said whatever things you’re supposed to say in such bad circumstances, sad and mindless she tore her gown and surveyed the world looking first for his limbs and then for just his bones. She finally found them lying on a foreign riverbank. She stopped at the spot, and she poured her tears over the name which she read on the gravestone, and held it in her unveiled chest. No less, the daughters of the Sun give out sobs and tears (those empty rewards for death), and tearing their breasts with their palms they call out to Phaethon, who will not hear their wretched complaints, and lay themselves out on his grave.”

The second half of Phaethon’s funerary inscription is typical of Ovid’s deflationary style. The first half of the epigram is suitably stately, and seems to be building up to a grand conclusion. Yet the use of si and tamen (‘if’ and ‘yet’ or ‘nevertheless’) is preposterously out of place in a lapidary epigram. Phaethon receives an ‘A for effort’.

In line 330, the phrase si modo credimus is added as a parenthetical aside. Ovid is fond of direct comment, and often winks directly at the reader in the middle of the narrative. Here, the adverb modo (‘only’ or ‘just’) carries a large burden on scepticism. “If only we believe it.” I cite examples such as this when my students ask just how much ancient authors believed in the myths which they related. Gibbon astutely observes that no author would have publicly mocked the tales of his religious system were he not convinced that the rest of the educated elite felt a similar scepticism.

Ovid’s comment aliquisque malo fuit usus in illo, “and there was at least something useful in that disaster” grants that much of the inhabitable world may have been scorched and deprived of sunlight for a day, but sees some redeeming value in the ambient light given off by the world’s smoldering ruins. One suspects that Ovid would be the worst of internet trolls, were he alive today.

The cold detachment of Clymene postquam dixit quaecumque fuerunt in tantis dicenda malis “after Clymene said whatever things you’re supposed to say in such bad circumstances” is likely a clue that Ovid intends to mock the more or less standardized cliches used in scenes of mourning.

“Empty rewards for death” (inania morti munera) combines Ovid’s religious skepticism with his tendency toward deflation. The cult of the ‘noble death’ runs all the way back to the Iliad, but skepticism about it also begins with Homer, as in the Odyssey, when Achilles tells Odysseus “do not sing the praises of death to me, shining Odysseus” (‘μὴ δή μοι θάνατόν γε παραύδα, φαίδιμ’ ᾿Οδυσσεῦ.)

Ovid was a master at exploiting generic conventions with ingenious wordplay. After he drained the dregs of the amatory elegy’s literary potential, no serious Roman poet attempted to draw from the cup again. Here he presents us with a global calamity, brought on by and eventually destroying an inexperienced youth whose tragic flaw was overweening ambition. Though we might expect Ovid to present pathos in the line of Greek tragedy here, we get the forms and gestures (tearing the breast, wailing, etc.) devoid of their typical significance – we get words. Yet, the Ovidian inversion of these tragic tropes is perfectly aligned with his poetic project of metamorphosis. Ovid’s tragedy Medea is now lost, but Quintilian wrote that “Ovid’s Medea seems to me to show how much excellence that man could have achieved if he had preferred to govern, rather than indulge, his talent.” (Ovidi Medea videtur mihi ostendere quantum ille vir praestare potuerit si ingenio suo imperare quam indulgere maluisset.) I am inclined to believe that the entire play would have been an elaborate farce.


hic : sitvs : est : phaethon : cvrrvs : avriga : paterni

qvem : si : non : tenvit : magnis : tamen : excidit : avsis

    Nam pater obductos luctu miserabilis aegro

condiderat vultus, et, si modo credimus, unum               330

isse diem sine sole ferunt: incendia lumen

praebebant aliquisque malo fuit usus in illo.

at Clymene postquam dixit quaecumque fuerunt

in tantis dicenda malis, lugubris et amens

et laniata sinus totum percensuit orbem               335

exanimesque artus primo, mox ossa requirens

repperit ossa tamen peregrina condita ripa

incubuitque loco nomenque in marmore lectum

perfudit lacrimis et aperto pectore fovit.

nec minus Heliades fletus et inania morti                340

munera dant lacrimas, et caesae pectora palmis

non auditurum miseras Phaethonta querellas

nocte dieque vocant adsternunturque sepulcro.

Image result for ovid phaethon

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