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Ovid and the classical plague narrative tradition Entwisle, Jonathan M.

Abstract

This paper examines the tradition in classical literature of writing about plagues, with particular emphasis on this tradition as it is handled by the Roman poet Ovid. Narratives in Greek and Latin which describe the attack of plague on a community, along with its physical, psychological and social effects, are traced from their origin in Homer's Iliad through Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, Lucretius' On the Nature of the Universe and Vergil's Georgics to the plague at Aegina in Book Seven of Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is demonstrated that by the time Ovid writes the Metamorphoses, the early first century AD, a recognisable convention has developed, incorporating certain elements common to all the preceding plague narratives, along with some that are common to several The conventional elements are shown to be of two types. On the one hand, there are conventional details, including plague as punishment and the collapse of social and religious custom arising from the plague's devastation. On the other hand, there are conventional uses of the plague narrative as a literary device. These include the use of a plague narrative to mark a major change of era, to establish certain key themes in the work as a whole, to establish important character relations, and to create a certain tone or mood. Once the plague narratives of his predecessors are examined, both individually and as part of this literary tradition, Ovid's Aeginetan plague is evaluated in terms of its detail and its place in the Metamorphoses. It is established that unlike the plague narratives of his predecessors, Ovid's has no significance to the work as a whole; it is inserted therein for its own sake as a convention. The details of Ovid's plague are then examined, and it is shown that Ovid's plague is thoroughly informed in content, vocabulary, syntax and style by each of the preceding plague narratives, and especially by those of his Latin predecessors in the tradition, Lucretius and Vergil. Rather than simply reproducing these elements of earlier plague narratives, however, Ovid generally exaggerates their essential features and embellishes them to the point of absurdity and grotesqueness. This is shown by several examples. It is argued that the resulting plague narrative therefore lacks the pathos and gravity of its ancestors. Its effect, rather, is amusing, witty, technically ostentatious, and parodic. It is concluded that in Ovid the plague narrative passes from convention to cliche.

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