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Mythic Recursions: Doubling and Variation in the Mythological Works of Ovid and Valerius Flaccus


This dissertation explores the ways Latin poetry reworks the mythological tradition of which it itself is a part. I approach this broad topic primarily from the angle of mythological variation—that is, the competing and sometimes contradictory versions of individual myths which are an inherent component of the Greek and Roman mythological system. In Greece, myths and their variants played an important role in interfacing religion with politics. Through three “case studies” on the works of Ovid and Valerius Flaccus, I demonstrate different ways in which Roman poets, too, could utilize the pluralities of the tradition for their own poetic and political ends. Combining close reading with both focused and synoptic views of mythology, my methods present an approach to mythological poetry that comes squarely to terms with mythic variation as a significant textual strategy. The result is a version of intertextuality where the “text” at issue is, in effect, the complete body of myth. I show in particular how Ovid and Valerius Flaccus use the pluralities of the mythic tradition to offer the reader intertextual associations and resonances.

Chapter 1 examines the Athenian hero Theseus in the poetry of Ovid. I argue that by sometimes referring to the hero as son of Aegeus and sometimes as son of Neptune, Ovid illuminates particular aspects of Theseus’s character depending on which father is brought to the fore, and that Theseus is associated more strongly with Neptune in the Heroides and with Aegeus in the Metamorphoses. I also look at how missing pieces of Theseus’s story are narrated through the seemingly unrelated tales that abut and interrupt the so-called “Theseid” in the central books of the Metamorphoses. Finally, I consider how Ovid’s belated connection of Theseus and Augustus in Met. 15 requires us to reexamine Augustus in the light of Theseus’s portrayal. As the princeps, like Theseus, claimed two fathers—his adoptive father, the deified Julius Caesar, and his mortal father, Gaius Octavius—we may possibly understand Ovid’s focus on Theseus’s paternity as a commentary on imperial propaganda regarding issues of inheritance, succession, and the right to rule.

Chapter 2 investigates the extended catalogue of curses in Ovid’s Ibis in relation to both the mythographic tradition and Ovid’s own poetic corpus. By elucidating parallels between the organizational structure of the catalogue and mythographic catalogues such as Hyginus’s Fabulae, I demonstrate how the Ibis plays with presenting itself in the manner of these mythographic texts while exploiting the polyvalency of the mythic tradition’s inherent mutability and syncretism. I also discuss how major themes of the poem, such as a prevalent emphasis on names and their suppression, and an identification of the poetic corpus with the poet’s own body, echo the thematic concerns of Ovid’s other exile poetry. Finally, I argue for identifying Ovid’s pseudonymous enemy “Ibis” with the Muses, whose “love/hate” relationship with Ovid is clearly expressed in the exile poetry.

Chapter 3 turns to Valerius Flaccus’s Argonautica, which picks up on many of the same themes of name, identity, and mythic variation that I explore in the first two chapters. Conscious of his epic’s belated position in an extensive Argonautic tradition, Valerius is highly skilled at incorporating myriad versions of a single narrative incident through devices such as misleading foreshadowing and intertextual allusion. He also plays with mythic homonyms, blending together figures who share names so that they no longer fit into discrete existences. These reworkings of the tradition reflect an overarching concern with duality, manifest in paired characters, repeated episodes, and the poem’s emphatic bipartite structure: the first half presents positive models of fraternal interaction, while the second half is fraught with fratricide and civil war. I argue that the clear thematic parallels which Valerius draws between the Argonauts and the Flavian gens suggest reading the epic politically. In particular, I propose that the epic may reflect two possible futures for Rome, harmony or civil strife. The imperial heirs, Titus and Domitian, find an echo in the twin Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, who were the traditional mythical exemplum of fraternal piety for joint imperial heirs. Valerius’s split emphasis on positive and negative pairings confronts this problematic future and ultimately reads as a cautionary tale; the entire epic is crafted to promote its double vision.

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