Orpheus et Eurydice: Commentary on Two Versions of the Myth Published by the Poets Ovid and Vergil in Augustan Rome
Ovid and Vergil tell the same story, but with a different esthetic. In both cases the wife dies, the husband has a chance to regain her, and then he loses her second time by his own failure to follow the condition. However, in the poets' versions of the story the differences are what matter. To summarize what has been said previously, Ovid uses the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to strike an opposition to Augustus and his morality legislation. He grew up during Augustus' reign and his bold poetic style was how he expressed political opinion. The story he executes is one of sensationalism, and he is trying to shock his readers and, ultimately, criticize the leader of Rome. The notion that the way poets portray a story indicates their own sentiment behind it is true here. Ovid was passionate in his opposition to Augustus' morality legislation and to many tenets of Augustus' regime in general. Creating a version of Orpheus and Eurydice that is all violence, blood and gore fits in with Ovid's inherent boldness. Ovid was a popular poet and he had to deliver the kind of poetry that the populace not only expected from him, but would also give him more notoriety. If you had to create a foil for an Ovid character you would end up with Vergil On the opposite end of the spectrum, Vergil uses the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to convey a sense of pathos. If Ovid is writing a violent thriller, then Vergil is writing a tragedy. Vergil's own life was touched by tragedy when his friend Gallus took his own life. Vergil admired Gallus as a poet too and praised him in his tenth Eclogue and, as I have argued, the first edition of the fourth Georgie. Vergil and Ovid share the common thread of Augustus and this story. Vergil's opposition to Augustus was on a personal level as Augustus may have ordered Vergil to remove any praise of Gallus from the Georgies. Instead of neglecting his dead friend altogether, Vergil inserted this story of Orpheus and the loss of Eurydice to not only honor his dead friend, but to subvert Augustus and to state his opinion that censorship was unacceptable. No one would argue that this is not a worthy cause and you could envision an impassioned poet striving for free speech, but Vergil was not like Ovid in this respect. Vergil was not bold or as outspoken as Ovid and his version of Orpheus and Eurydice reflects some of this nature. Vergil's version as a tragedy better reflects what he as a poet was trying to convey. He wanted his readers to know that a change was made to the Georgies and what implications this change had. Both poets may have used Orpheus to voice their own opinions and feelings, but it was Vergil who adeptly used all the characters in the story to represent contemporary personalities. All of these interpretations and themes are what make the poets unique and their intentions evident. We can surmise that Ovid had read Vergil's version of the story and that he most likely had a goal to tell the story in a different and better way. Not surprisingly, Ovid put forth a more action-packed story in sharp contrast to Vergil's tale of woe. Ovid purposely set himself apart from Vergil because he wanted to be bolder in his opposition to Augustus. Additionally, he may have wanted to show some respect to Vergil by using the same story; however, he also wanted to come out looking like a better poet than Vergil. The dynamics between ancient poets must be very similar to the dynamics today in academia when doctorates write on the same subjects or research. It is a competition, but you cannot write in a bubble; you have to do your own research and have regard for those who have written on the same topic or story. In this case, Ovid had to pay attention to Vergil' s version before he could write his own. Furthermore, readers of the poetry would want to know that the Orpheus story was written on by different poets so that they could better interpret what the writer was trying to accomplish. Even in ancient Rome, a story is never simply a story; there is always a deeper meaning.