Metamorphoses Summary and Analysis of Book XV


The Romans decide to elect the wise Numa as Romulus' royal successor. We hear of his history of curiosity. Numa once visited the city of Crotona, sacred to Hercules, and asked why there was a Greek city on Italian soil. He learned that Hercules had visited the house of Croton in Lacinium and ordered Myscelus to found the city. Though to leave one's homeland was a crime, Myscelus obeyed, suffering trials in the meantime. In Crotona lived Pythagoras, an extremely profound thinker who was in exile from Samos. He addressed topics such as the gods, the origin of the earth, the motions of the stars.

We hear Pythagoras' discourse and he argues in favor of vegetarianism, suggesting that there is plenty of food without eating meat, and he points out that only the vicious animals are flesh-eaters. He suggests that in past ages, when people did not kill animals, they were happier, and bemoans the slaughter of cattle, who work alongside humans. Pythagoras chastises those who believe that the gods enjoy the slaughter of such peaceful and loyal animals. He turns to the theory of Metempsychosis -- his belief that when someone dies the soul is freed to inhabit another body. He insists that thus no one need fear death.

Pythagoras also declares that nothing in life stays the same: everything is like time, constantly moving from day to night, never ceasing to progress. He points out that human beings pass through stages just like the seasons. Childhood is like springtime, summer like youth, autumn is maturity and winter is old age. The physical body changes too, growing from a seed in the womb to a mature adult, then decaying as the body ages. Continuing on this idea, Pythagoras takes as an example the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. He points out that each can become the others. Air can become water, water can become wind or air. The earth can become fire, and fire can become water. All things on earth and in heaven change and transform, but nothing is ever truly "born" or truly "dies." Pythagoras points to the changing nature of the natural environment as further proof that change is everywhere.

Pythagoras then presents the idea that buried corpses give rise to other creatures. He gives examples, suggesting that the bodies of sacrificial cattle give birth to honey-bees and that mud gives rise to frogs. Pythagoras cites as a better example the marvelous phoenix, a bird that lives for five hundred years, then combusts. From its ashes another phoenix is born. The philosopher then translates his belief in omnipresent change into human terms, pointing out that history changes and shifts as well. Some powers decline and some rise. Troy may have fallen, but in the ashes of Troy, Rome was born. He predicts that Rome will rise to become a power greater than any the earth has seen. Pythagoras returns to his plea for vegetarianism, saying that since nature constantly changes and the soul shifts between objects, and because nothing separates the animal world from the human world, when we kill an animal we might as well be slaughtering a human. Thus, to eat an animal is no better than cannibalism.

Having learned from Pythagoras and others, Numa returns to Latium and becomes king with his wife Egeria by his side. Under his rule, the Romans become versed in the arts of peace. After his death, his wife retires to the woods and mourns her husband. Hippolytus, Theseus' son, tries to help her bear her sorrows by telling her this story: his stepmother, Phaedra, tried to seduce him, but he refused to dishonor his father's bed. Phaedra accused him of her crime, and his father banished him. While traveling, he and his companions were attacked by a monstrous bull, which seemed to arise from the water itself. His horse fled and the chariot began to split apart. Hyppolytus was torn into pieces. He entered the underworld, but was eventually restored by the power of Aesculapius, Apollo's son. Even then, Venus had to disguise his appearance so that others would not envy his good fortune in being restored. He thus lives in the woods, protected by his mistress, the goddess Diana. Egeria is not comforted by this story. Her tears continue, and finally Diana transforms her into a fountain.

One of the praetors of Rome, Cipus, grows horns on his forehead. He sacrifices to the gods and tries to interpret the meaning of this portent. A seer tells him that he could be king of Rome if he were to walk through the gates and declare himself. Cipus refuses and he makes a plan to ensure that he will never rule. He covers his horns with a laurel crown and enters the city. He makes a speech to the senators, telling them that a man is in the city who, if he fulfills his destiny and becomes their ruler, will enslave them. He tells them they will recognize this man by the horns on his head, then he reveals himself. The people are awed and refuse to either punish him or instill him as leader. They give him land outside the walls of the city and they engrave horns on their bronze gates to remind them of this miraculous sacrifice.

One day a plague comes to the city of Rome, and the leaders of the city set out for Delphi to ask the help of Apollo. The oracle tells them that they must seek Apollo's son, Aesculapius, and so the senate travels to Aesculapius' home, Epidaurus, where they ask the Greeks for the god's help. While the Greek council debates, Aesculapius comes to the priest in his dreams and tells him that he will join them in the form of a serpent. The next day, the senators go to his temple and ask for his divine guidance. He appears in snake form and thus they carry him to Rome, where he resumes his form and cures them of the plague. Aesculapius then settles in Rome.

Ovid turns to another god, Caesar, whose greatest accomplishment was fathering Augustus, whom fate designed to be the son of a god. We learn of the way that Caesar is deified. When Venus catches sight of the conspiracy to end Caesar's life, Venus tries to stop it but Jove prevents her, assuring Venus that Caesar can become a god after he is killed. He goes on to tell her that Caesar's adopted son, Augustus, will bring even greater glory to her people than Caesar. Augustus will bring peace to the region, and his son, Tiberius, will take up where he leaves off. Best of all, Augustus will live out his life in full, it will not be cut off short like his fathers. Jove directs Venus to transform Caesar's spirit into a star.

Looking down from the heavens, Caesar calls his son greater than himself; but his son refuses to acknowledge it, and he insists that no one call the son better than the father. Despite his filial piety, Augustus' fame cannot help but overpower it. Ovid once more addresses the gods, asking that Augustus death be slow to arrive.

Ovid closes his work, declaring that as long as Rome has power, his words will live on in people's memories.


In this final section of the poem, Ovid breaks from the repeated pattern of earlier books and introduces a long didactic section spoken by Pythagoras. At first this device might seem strange, but after only brief consideration, it is clear that Pythagoras's lessons shed light on many of Ovid's most important themes. Pythagoras puts forth many theories of transformation, suggesting that transformation is everywhere once we begin to look for it. He gives a scientific (at the time of the Romans) explanation for the transformation of people into trees, flowers, or animals. Metempsychosis is the theory that when someone dies his or her soul is released only to be transferred into something else. One of his justifications for vegetarianism is that some animals contain human souls, so when we kill animals for food, we may well be killing a human.

Pythagoras provides a description of change and transformation which encompasses all of the metamorphoses described in the poem. Pythagoras goes on to extend this claim to history, pointing out that if everything constantly changes, then some powers must decline while others rise. Interestingly, it seems that Ovid invents, or at least distorts, much of Pythagoras's philosophy. Modern philosophers write that we know little about most of Pythagoras's teachings and beliefs, specifically mentioning that metympsychosis may have originated with him, but also may not have. Most amusingly, one of the few anecdotes that has been verified is that when Pythagoras discovered the Pythagorean theorem, he sacrificed five hundred cattle to the gods. Thus, Ovid seems to ascribed the theory of vegetarianism to Pythagoras simply because it suited his purpose. It is certainly true that using Pythagoras's voice, Ovid smoothly transitions into the section of the poem which is primarily pro-Augustus propaganda.

Before he specifically addresses Augustus or his lineage, Ovid begins to introduces some of his virtues. The story of the praetors Cipus implis that there is great virtue in having the power to become a tyrant and giving up that power. Augustus assumed the throne after the assassination of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. Caesar was assassinated, because he became a tyrant. In praising Cipus's virtue, Ovid also praises Augustus for withstanding the temptation that Caesar gave into. At the same time, Ovid is careful to praise Caesar for having brought Augustus to power.

One might wonder why Ovid chose to include such an extensive section of praise for Augustus and his ancestors in the poem, but the answer lies in the fact that Ovid's success was primarily a result of Augustus's support for literature and the arts. Augustus did away with private patronage by providing unstinted support for the most talented poets in Rome, at least the most talented ones whose works also advanced his agenda. While Ovid certainly may have felt grateful to Augustus (though his eventual exile probably diminished that gratitude), Ovid goes so far in his praise of Augustus that one might begin to doubt his sincerity. But, considering the fact that Augustus was worshipped as a god for hundreds of years after his death by the Roman people, this doubt is probably a consequence of the modern sensibility, rather than any true hint of mockery.

It is interesting, and possibly daring, that Ovid chooses to end the poem the way that he does. One might expect him to end with his prayer for Augustus, or perhaps a closing invocation to the gods. Instead, Ovid speaks of his own fame, almost his own divinity. Moreover, he talks about his works surviving as long as the city of Rome, rather than the rule of the gods or the name of Augustus. This ending could even be described as an act of hubris. In this ending, we can certainly see the roots of the poetic works and the politically dangerous actions which lead to Ovid's exile while he is still in the midst of completing this poem. It is even possible (though impossible to prove one way or another) that Ovid chooses to end the poem in this manner, because he does not believe he can be punished any more than he already has been.