Ovid's epic masterpiece, the "Metamorphoses", with its fiercely irreverent tone and its resolute defiance of the boundaries of genre, stands boldly apart both from the other poetry of its age and from the epic tradition that preceded it. A generation earlier, a high culture of poets and patrons had flourished, giving rise to the great works of Vergil, Horace, Propertius, and Tibullus. But, in this compelling new reading of the "Metamorphoses" in its social and political context, Patricia Johnson demonstrates that Ovid was writing in an artistic atmosphere succumbing to a stranglehold of implicit censorship that culminated in his exile from Rome in 8 A.D.Johnson shows that, in the poem, danger permeates acts of artistic creation. In Ovid's portrayals of mythic figures - from Arachne and Minerva to Orpheus in the Underworld - artists who please their audience triumph; the defiant and subversive are destroyed. She reveals that in the poem, as in late Augustan Rome, the overriding criterion for artistic success was not aesthetic beauty but satisfying the expectations and desires of powerful audiences.
She convincingly demonstrates just how unprecedented the Metamorphoses was in the epic tradition.
Patricia Johnson is associate professor of classical studies at Boston University.