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Arethusa 35.3 (2002) 349-360

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Chaos in Ovid's Metamorphoses and its Neronian Influence*

Richard Tarrant

For Elaine Fantham

Like so much else in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the concept of chaos that opens the poem is inherited rather than invented. The notion of a primordial chaos of some kind is at least as old as Hesiod, and Ovid probably had a Hellenistic precedent for using chaos as the starting point of a collective poem, 1 but among literary descriptions of this state, Ovid's account both is the most detailed and has been the most broadly influential. Its influence on Latin poets of late antiquity is one theme of Michael Roberts's article elsewhere in this volume. At a much later time and in a different medium, Ovid's description almost certainly lies behind the astonishing "Representation of Chaos" ("Vorstellung des Chaos") that serves as the prelude to Haydn's Creation.

The title of this paper reflects its twofold aims. The first is to argue that chaos in Ovid's Metamorphoses is not limited to the poem's opening episode but has a pervasive presence in the poem, both in the physical world and, more significantly, in the moral lives of human beings. My second [End Page 349] purpose is briefly to trace the influence of this expanded notion of chaos in two of Ovid's particularly strong and attentive Neronian readers, Seneca and Lucan. My focus might therefore seem to be at least as much on Ovid as on his reception, but it is in fact precisely by looking at the Metamorphoses from a Neronian perspective that we can most clearly see this facet of Ovid's work.

Ovid's chaos is marked above all by instability of form and confusion of boundaries; note in particular Metamorphoses 1.7: rudis indigestaque moles ("a rough unordered mass"), 2 8-9: "congestaque eodem / non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum" ("heaped together / the discordant seeds of unassembled things"), 17: nulli sua forma manebat, ("no part maintained its form"). Two other distinguishing features are darkness and conflict: for the first, cf. caeco . . . aceruo ("from their dark heap," 24) and caligine caeca ("in thick darkness," 70); 3 for the second, cf. frigidapugnabantcalidis ("the cold were fighting with the hot," 19) and "hanc deus et melior litem natura diremit" ("God, or more kindly Nature, settled this dispute," 21). Correspondingly, the divine activity of creation consists in separating the elements, putting an end to their strife, and assigning a fixed place to each of them; cf. 22-25: "nam caelo terras et terris abscidit undas / et liquidum spisso secreuit ab aere caelum; / quae postquam euoluit caecoque exemit aceruo, / dissociata locis concordi pace ligauit" ("for from the sky he split the lands and from the lands the waves, / and divided the clear sky from the misty air. / And after unfolding these and drawing them from their dark heap, / he bound them in their separate places with harmonious peace"), 32-33: "dispositam . . . / congeriem secuit, sectamque in membra redegit" ("divided <the mass> and, once it was divided, forced it into parts"), 69: limitibus dissaepserat omnia certis ("he had . . . marked all things off within their sure limits").

Read in isolation, Ovid's creation story leaves the impression that primeval chaos yields, definitively and finally, to cosmos. But as Ovid's poem continues, the clear-cut divisions established at the outset are undone or threatened at several levels. In the poem's early books, the boundaries [End Page 350] between the elements themselves are breached in ways that reverse the original act of creation: Jupiter's flood obliterates the distinction between earth and water (cf. 1.291: "iamque mare et tellus nullum discrimen habebant," "and now the sea and land had no distinction"), and Phaethon's disastrous ride in the Sun-god's chariot comes near to returning the world to chaos, as stated in the lament of Tellus at 2.298-99: "si freta, si terrae pereunt, si regia caeli, / in chaos antiquum confundimur" ("if the seas and the lands and the palace of heaven perish, / we are...


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