Ovid’s Surprising Homage to Virgil

by Janice Siegel
illinois state university

In this short presentation, I hope to persuade my audience that in fact Ovid used Aeneid IV (Virgil’s tale of Dido and Aeneas) as his model for Met. 6.424-674 (the Procne). As surprising as it appears, the tales share the same basic plot line: in each, there is an attraction between a man and a woman, a “marriage,” the man’s betrayal and the woman’s response, which in both tales signals an all-important shift in power among the participants. Not surprisingly, though, Ovid uses a cracked mirror to reflect the original – in his tale, there are two “marriages,” two betrayals, two reactions. The distinction between the tales is all due to the difference in the role divinity plays in each: in the Aeneid, Dido suffers a divinely-wrought passion for Aeneas, their “marriage” is divinely concocted, and Aeneas’ betrayal is done according to divine fiat. In the face of such powerful adversity, disempowered Dido can only lie down and die. In Ovid’s tale, there is no divinity: neither Tereus’ lust nor Procne’s vengeance must endure the kind of limitations suffered by Dido and Aeneas. But without divine guidance, Procne loses her moral way (sed fasque nefasque/confusura, 6.585-586) in her rush to justice (ruit poenaeque in imagine tota est, 6.586) and commits that terrible atrocity bequeathed her by mythographic tradition, the murder and cooking of her own son.

As an example of my method and conclusions, for this short presentation, I have chosen to compare the poetic presentations of Dido’s and Tereus’ manifestation of lust for their respective objects of obsession. As I believe is true of every scene in Ovid’s Procne, the initial connection with Aeneid IV is always a verbal echo. But the similarities run much deeper – the Virgilian influence extends beyond the formal characteristics of poetics – such as vocabulary choice, syntax, metrics and rhetorical devices - into key thematic and symbolic resonances and reflections. Starting with this one example, I will demonstrate that Ovid artfully tweaks Vergil’s presentation in order to offer a strictly anti-Virgilian godless world whose inhabitants are doomed to suffer the reckless abuse of unbridled power and perverted piety with no hope of salvation.