Scholars have found it difficult to place the Metamorphoses in a genre. The poem has been considered as an epic or a type of epic (for example, an anti-epic or mock-epic); a Kollektivgedicht that pulls together a series of examples in miniature form, such as the epyllion; a sampling of one genre after another; or a narrative that refuses categorization.
The poem is generally considered to meet the criteria for an epic; it is considerably long, relating over 250 narratives across fifteen books; it is composed in dactylic hexameter, the meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid; and it treats the high literary subject of myth. However, the poem "handles the themes and employs the tone of virtually every species of literature", ranging from epic and elegy to tragedy and pastoral. Commenting on the genre debate, G. Karl Galinsky has opined that "... it would be misguided to pin the label of any genre on the Metamorphoses."
The Metamorphoses is comprehensive in its chronology, recounting the creation of the world to the death of Julius Caesar, which had occurred only a year before Ovid's birth; it has been compared to works of universal history, which became important in the first century BC. In spite of its apparently unbroken chronology, scholar Brooks Otis has identified four divisions in the narrative:
|Section I||Book I–Book II (end, line 875): The Divine Comedy|
|Section II||Book III–Book VI, 400: The Avenging Gods|
|Section III||Book VI, 401–Book XI (end, line 795): The Pathos of Love|
|Section IV||Book XII–Book XV (end, line 879): Rome and the Deified Ruler|
Ovid works his way through his subject matter, often in an apparently arbitrary fashion, by jumping from one transformation tale to another, sometimes retelling what had come to be seen as central events in the world of Greek mythology and sometimes straying in odd directions. It begins with the ritual "invocation of the muse", and makes use of traditional epithets and circumlocutions. But instead of following and extolling the deeds of a human hero, it leaps from story to story with little connection.
The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is love—be it personal love or love personified in the figure of Amor (Cupid). Indeed, the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon, who is the closest thing this putative mock-epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god out of reason. The work as a whole inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of low humor.
The Metamorphoses ends with an epilogue (Book XV.871–9), one of only two surviving Latin epics to do so (the other being Statius' Thebiad). The ending acts as a declaration that everything except his poetry—even Rome—must give way to change:
- "Now stands my task accomplished, such a work
- As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword
- Nor the devouring ages can destroy".
- Book I – The Creation, the Ages of Mankind, the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaëton.
- Book II – Phaëton (cont.), Callisto, the raven and the crow, Ocyrhoe, Mercury and Battus, the envy of Aglauros, Jupiter and Europa.
- Book III – Cadmus, Diana and Actaeon, Semele and the birth of Bacchus, Tiresias, Narcissus and Echo, Pentheus and Bacchus.
- Book IV – The daughters of Minyas, Pyramus and Thisbe, the Sun in love, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, the daughters of Minyas transformed, Athamas and Ino, the transformation of Cadmus, Perseus and Andromeda.
- Book V – Perseus' fight in the palace of Cepheus, Minerva meets the Muses on Helicon, the rape of Proserpina, Arethusa, Triptolemus.
- Book VI – Arachne; Niobe; the Lycian peasants; Marsyas; Pelops; Tereus, Procne, and Philomela; Boreas and Orithyia.
- Book VII – Medea and Jason, Medea and Aeson, Medea and Pelias, Theseus, Minos, Aeacus, the plague at Aegina, the Myrmidons, Cephalus and Procris.
- Book VIII – Scylla and Minos, the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, Perdix, Meleager and the Calydonian Boar, Althaea and Meleager, Achelous and the Nymphs, Philemon and Baucis, Erysichthon and his daughter.
- Book IX – Achelous and Hercules; Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira; the death and apotheosis of Hercules; the birth of Hercules; Dryope; Iolaus and the sons of Callirhoe; Byblis; Iphis and Ianthe.
- Book X – Orpheus and Eurydice, Cyparissus, Ganymede, Hyacinth, Pygmalion, Myrrha, Venus and Adonis, Atalanta.
- Book XI – The death of Orpheus, Midas, the foundation and destruction of Troy, Peleus and Thetis, Daedalion, the cattle of Peleus, Ceyx and Alcyone, Aesacus.
- Book XII – The expedition against Troy, Achilles and Cycnus, Caenis, the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, Nestor and Hercules, the death of Achilles.
- Book XIII – Ajax, Ulysses, and the arms of Achilles; the Fall of Troy; Hecuba, Polyxena, and Polydorus; Memnon; the pilgrimage of Aeneas; Acis and Galatea; Scylla and Glaucus.
- Book XIV – Scylla and Glaucus (cont.), the pilgrimage of Aeneas (cont.), the island of Circe, Picus and Canens, the triumph and apotheosis of Aeneas, Pomona and Vertumnus, legends of early Rome, the apotheosis of Romulus.
- Book XV – Numa and the foundation of Crotone, the doctrines of Pythagoras, the death of Numa, Hippolytus, Cipus, Asclepius, the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, epilogue.