The influence of Ovid's Phaethon

Luciana Cuppo Csaki, Fordham University


This is a study of the myth of Phaethon in Greek and Latin literature before, during and after Ovid's time, and of the influence of Ovid's Phaethon on later writers.^ The first part of the dissertation examines Greek versions still current in the time of Ovid: Phaethon as temple-keeper (Hesiod), lover of Aphrodite (attested by Clement of Alexandria), founder of dynasties (attested by Pausanias and Plutarch), charioteer of the sun-horses (known to us mainly through the fragments of Euripides). The renderings of the story present significant variants in plot (Euripides) or focus (prominence given to the Heliades, or to the liaison of Phaethon and Cycnus).^ A study of the Latin poets follows. This part of the dissertation examines the relationship of Latin writers to their Greek predecessors, discussing those who followed the Alexandrian pattern in their treatment of Phaethon (Catullus, Vergil) and those who did not (Lucretius, Horace). The chapter on Ovid studies the myth of Phaethon in the Metamorphosis and compares it with versions in other poets. The evidence shows that Ovid knew many different variants, but created an intensely personal Phaethon, radically different from that of the Greeks, Vergil, or Catullus, and akin to the interpretation of Lucretius, polemically adverse to the Greek myth, or Horace. While eschewing any specific philosophical allegiance, Ovid expresses his scepticism toward traditional religion: his Phaethon is the embodiment, in narrative and mythical, rather than philosophical, terms, of the Lucretian idea that the balance of the universe is precarious at best, and easily destroyed.^ Ovid's influence was twofold. He shaped the image of Phaethon which was to become standard in late antiquity, obliterating other versions still popular in his time, and also polarized reactions to the myth by pagan and Christian writers. Christians identified with Ovid's scepticism toward the Olympians, and considered Phaethon an exemplum of pride (Venantius Fortunatus). Traditionally-minded writers disapproved of Ovid's interpretation: thus Manilius omitted details unflattering to the gods, Seneca considered Phaethon truly magnanimus, Nemesianus (in pointed opposition to Ovid) showed absolute reverence toward the Sun-god, Claudian used the myth of Phaethon to celebrate the glory of Rome. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Classical

Recommended Citation

Luciana Cuppo Csaki, "The influence of Ovid's Phaethon" (January 1, 1995). ETD Collection for Fordham University. Paper AAI9530025.