A worldwide reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Guest Post by Francesca Dell’Oro

Friday, March 23rd, 2018, 5:00 pm.
At the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, House A was crowded with people. They comprised one of the numerous groups of readers and listeners taking part in a collective reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses all over the world that same day. The passionate readers you can now see in the video are some CHS spring fellows and staff members, teachers and students from George Washington University, Georgetown University as well as from Colby College (Maine). They followed one other reading for one hour – the entire book 14 of the Metamorphoses. How did this exciting event come about? The Ovidian reading in Washington DC was organized jointly by the Center for Hellenic Studies, George Washington University, and Georgetown University to answer the call from the Greek and Latin Festival of Lyon, France. As part of the outreach activities promoted by the Festival every year, there is a collective and public reading of one masterpiece from Greek or Latin literature. After the Odyssey in 2017, this year the festival selected Ovid’s Metamorphoses. To have an idea of the success of the Ovidian collective reading, take a look at this map where you can see the groups participating in the event all over the world.
The choice of Ovid for this collective reading fits in perfectly with the celebration of the bimillenium of Ovid’s death. The poet (43 BCE – 17 or 18 CE) died in exile at Tomis (today Constanța, Romania), a town on the shores of the Black Sea, 2000 years ago. As the exact year of his death – 17 or 18 CE – is uncertain, the celebration of the Ovidian bimillennium, which started in 2017, is still continuing in 2018. Conferences, talks, exhibitions and publications have been commemorating the enduring fame of the Roman poet and celebrating his reception in literature, the visual and performative arts, pop culture and beyond: from W. Shakespeare to P. Picasso, from C. Monteverdi to B. Britten, from the indie rock group Arcade Fire to games, such as the ‘Jeu d’Ovide ou de Métamorphoses’ which won the ‘Grand Prix’ at the Lépine invention competition in Paris in 1923. To accept the call of the Greek and Latin Festival and to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses at the Center for Hellenistic Studies last March was therefore a way to take part in the celebration of the Ovidian bimillennium.
Ovid lives through the centuries in many ways. The Metamorphoses, his epic poem about ‘transformation’ (Greek metamorphōsis), never stopped to take on new forms, making Ovid’s popularity imperishable, as foretold by the poet himself at the very end of his poem. Translations into national languages are part of this process of transformation and are of capital importance in the history of Ovid’s reception. At the Center for Hellenic Studies the participants in the collective reading read in many languages in addition to Latin: Catalan, Croatian, English, French, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish. The reading in Greek was the Byzantine translation of the Metamorphoses by Maximos Planudes. So the ever-changing poem changed its form once again to assume that of a multilingual international collective reading.
The multilingual reading commemorated the multiform character of the Ovidian poem, but it also was a witness to the actuality of Ovid and his work. Indeed, the Metamorphoses have been of great significance for the transmission of Greek culture to Western civilization. Moreover, book 14, which was chosen for the reading at CHS, relates the encounter between two cultures and the emergence of a new one through the arrival of the Trojan Aeneas in the Latium until the apotheosis of one of his descendants, the first king of Rome, Romulus. Independently from the language, ancient literature continues to speak to us.