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Arethusa 35.3 (2002) 403-415
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Creation in Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Latin Poets of Late Antiquity
In the Latin poetry of late antiquity, the influence of Virgil is all pervasive. Ovid, typically, comes second, though a distant second. But Ovidian references and allusions recur with sufficient frequency throughout the period from the fourth to the sixth centuries to leave no doubt that both poets and readers were familiar with and continued to derive inspiration from his poetry: to take three examples, in the fifth century (probably), an anonymous poet, writing of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, compares those cities' fall to the crash of Phaethon—the metamorphosis of the Heliads provides a counterpart to the transformation of Lot's wife; in the last decade of the same century, the African poet Dracontius, it has been persuasively argued, employs language from the Ovidian Pygmalion story to describe the creation of Eve; finally, in the second half of the sixth century, Venantius Fortunatus, the "last poet of antiquity," shows an affinity for the Ovidian persona of the Heroides, a woman mourning for her separated beloved, though, in Fortunatus's case, the mourner may be a mother for a daughter traveling to a far country to be married (and soon to die), a Christian virgin for her divine bridegroom, or the queen and saint Radegund for her childhood companion and cousin, Amalfrid, in distant Constantinople. 1 In the present paper, though, I shall concentrate on an Ovidian passage that has special resonance for Christian readers, the account of creation at the beginning of the Metamorphoses. [End Page 403]
With the maturing of Christian Latin poetry at the end of the fourth century and the abundant exegesis of the early chapters of Genesis, the stage was set for Christian poets to turn their attention to the story of creation. 2 Although the brief account of the first Old Testament poet, the anonymous author of the Heptateuchos, shows no Ovidian influence, Claudius Marius Victorius (Victor), a rhetor from Marseilles writing probably soon after, in the third decade of the fifth century, begins his Alethia with a direct challenge to his classical predecessor (Alethia 1.1-4):
Ante polos caelique diem mundique tenebras,
ante operum formas vel res vel semina rerum,
aeternum sine fine retro, sine fine futuri
esse subest cui semper, erat deus unus.
Before the heavens, the daylight in the sky, and the darkness of the earth, before the shapes of creation, before the world and its seeds, eternal, with no limit in the past and future, was the one God whose existence is forever. 3
Compare Ovid Metamorphoses 1.5-7:
Ante mare et terras et, quod tegit omnia, caelum
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
quem dixere chaos.
Before sea, earth, and the all-enveloping sky, there was one face of nature in the whole world, called chaos.
A century or so earlier, Lactantius had taken issue with the poets, by whom he means Ovid, who say "in the beginning was chaos" ("nec audiendi sunt [End Page 404] poetae, qui aiunt chaos in principio fuisse," Inst. 2.8.8). 4 Claudius Marius Victorius makes the same point by recasting Ovid's language, substituting deus for chaos. The use of the Lucretian semina rerum also looks back to Ovid's chaos, of which they were a constituent part (Met. 1.9). This sensitivity to doctrinal issues is typical of Victorius; he is the most exegetically aware of the writers of Old Testament biblical epic. Such a polemical correction of a classical predecessor is more typical of an earlier, apologetic phase in the development of Christian Latin poetry. 5
A second, pseudonymous poem from the middle of the fifth century, the Metrum in Genesin (attributed falsely to Hilary of Poitiers), demonstrates greater fidelity to Ovid's account of creation and of the early history of humankind. Admittedly, the language of the poem is heavily Virgilian; the Eclogues and Georgics are particularly influential in the poet's account of the newly created natural world. 6 The poet...