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Arethusa 35.3 (2002) 341-347

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Introduction: Toward a Literary History of Ovid's Reception in Antiquity

Stephen Wheeler

The great interest in Ovid evidenced by scholarly and literary publications during the past several decades shows no signs of abating. Dozens of books and hundreds of articles have appeared, making objective bibliographical pronouncements increasingly difficult. But certain publishing events stand out as landmarks. A decade ago, Arethusa devoted a special issue (25.1) to the topic "Reconsidering Ovid's Fasti," whose papers helped form the basis for a new literary understanding of the Fasti, a poem that had previously suffered from neglect or low critical estimation. Ten years later, there is scarcely a work of Ovid that has not undergone a similar process of reconsideration. Given the current state of affairs, the question inevitably arises: what remains to be done in Ovidian studies?

One promising area for further research is Ovid's reception in antiquity, especially in Latin literature. It has long been a truism of classical scholarship that the influence of Ovid is second only to that of Vergil in Latin literary culture. 1 Traditionally, however, classical scholars have been more preoccupied with the primary interpretation of Ovid's poetry and have devoted less attention to the role that Ovid plays in later Latin literature. Not only does the subject tend to be a backwater in the many collections of papers devoted to Ovid, but it often consists of little more than the setting [End Page 341] out of parallels traced in subsequent authors. 2 What one frequently misses is an interpretive or historical understanding of the value and meaning of Ovid for later writers in antiquity. This is mildly surprising because the study of Ovidian reception in the history of European arts and letters, from the Middle Ages to the present, has been a well-established and fast-growing subfield for decades. 3 It would stand to reason, then, that the story of Ovid's legacy from the Augustan age to late antiquity would be of interest not only in itself but also for understanding the later history of Ovidianism. In recent years, the question of how ancient authors read Ovid has indeed begun to attract more attention and interpretation. 4 Now that critics possess a highly developed and supple understanding of Ovidian poetry, as well as a theoretically informed understanding of the dynamics of literary reception, they are in a better position to explore and evaluate what becomes of Ovid in the course of Roman literature from Manilius to Venantius Fortunatus or Maximianus.

We use the term "reception" in a broad sense to cover the various creative, hermeneutic, and historical processes by which later writers (as well as artists and composers) reuse, interpret, misread, correct, allegorize, update, or otherwise plot Ovid's poetry in their own works. 5 In conventional literary histories, the evidence for reception falls under headings such as "influence," "presence," and "Nach-"or "Fortleben." The study of influence tends to lay emphasis on the continuing effect of an author's personalintention, vision, or style on later literature, streaming, as it were, from a single source. The study of reception, by contrast, focuses less on the origins of an author's work than on the open-ended process by which contemporary or subsequent audiences react to and understand that work (which does not [End Page 342] exclude, of course, attempts at reconstructing the author's original intentions). As such, reception can be viewed as a form of dialogue in which the meaning of a work of literature is historically contingent and continually being modified or transformed through the political, religious, or intellectual needs of each new generation of readers.

The reception of Ovid from antiquity onwards has taken many forms. One may begin with judgments about the poet passed by famous critics or thinkers. 6 A second field of inquiry is the rich tradition of commentary that has grown up around Ovid's texts. 7 Another important mode of reception, which will be the focus of this volume of essays, consists of the literary...


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