The first thing that came into my mind as I was reading this book is a concept that was developed by the Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus: matter is never created or destroyed, it only ever changes form. Then there is the idea Ovid explores: the universe in which we live is in a constant state of flux. Granted, this is the second time that I have read this book (and in fact this particular translation, and I do plan on reading it again) and I must say that while it is an absolutely beautiful piece of literature – one that rightly deserves the term classic – it is a very hard slog. However, the influence that Ovid has had on poetry throughout the ages, stemming from what one could consider his Magnus Opus is outstanding. In fact, another literary epic poem that comes to mind is The Divine Comedy (as well as Paradise Lost), though I must admit that it is nowhere near as saucy as Ovid (not that Metamorphoses is his worst, in fact compared to the The Art of Love – not that I have read it – yet – Metamorphoses is tame).
Metamorphoses could be seen as an epic journey through Greek and Roman mythology ending with the assassination of Julius Ceaser and the ascension of Augustus Ceaser to become Princeps of Rome, and with Rome transitioning from a Republic to an Imperium (though I suspect that if you were a foreigner or a slave, little had changed). I suspect that is the is whole reason behind the poem: the Roman state itself have just undergone a huge transition, a metamorphosis if you like, in that the nature of the government had changed, a change that was incredibly violent. However, as I have suggested, this change no doubt only affected the upper classes (of which Ovid was a member) in that the political and oratorical careers of the Republic had suddenly up and vanished. No longer could people aim to become Censors or Consuls because the Princeps had taken that role, and no longer could they form policy and shape the direction of the empire, because the Princeps was doing that as well, and the Princeps was not going anywhere, at all.
What Ovid does in this poem is that he tells the story of the universe from its founding (if it indeed had one because many of the philosophers at the time believed that it had always been in existence and that it would have no end - rather it would simply keep on changing form, as it does in the Metamorphoses) and through many of the myths that had come out from the Greeks. Upon reaching the Trojan War, Ovid begins to follow Aeneas (leaving the stories of the Greek conquerors of Troy behind) through Carthage and to the founding of the colony at Alba Longa. It is clear that all of these myths (with the exception of Aeneas, and it is debatable – incredibly debatable – whether Aeneas was ever actually the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, but rather a creation of the Roman ruling class to set them apart from the Greeks, just as the story of Aeneas and Dido was a creation to set them against the Cartheginians and to give them a reason as to why they went to war – not that they were two superpowers fighting over the same lake being reason enough, but then again as most governments know, to send the population to war you have to have a really good reason) have been taken from their Greek origins and effectively Romanised (though Ovid was most likely working on what had developed before him, rather that doing something new).
The first change, or transformation, that we see in this story is the story of the flood. Now many Christians would like to use this as an excuse to justify a world wide flood, but while it is true that the Grecian flood story is quite old, no doubt it could have been picked up from other sources and Helenised (as many of these tales have been). However, my purpose here is to identify it as one of the first changes, in that what we have is an older world transforming into a new world through the flood (as is the case with the biblical account). The next change come about with the four ages (gold, silver, bronze, and lead), which have been lifted out of Hesiod (and note that Hesiod makes no mention of a flood). Once again we have a constant change as the nature of the ages change, as well as the occupants: as one age comes to an end and another age begins. In a sense, what Ovid is demonstrating is that nothing lasts forever and that change is inevitable.
While one could look through the characters that change, such as Io shifting from a woman to a bull and back again, and Daphne with her transformation into a laurel tree, I would rather jump through to the Trojan War, which once again shows another transformation, and that is a transformation of societies and empires. Here we have one dominant empire coming to an end through war, but it is not completely destroyed because from the destruction wrought by the enemy, an seed is sent forth – Aeneas - to create a new empire that eventually rises up and overthrows the conquers of the fatherland. However, as things change, Ovid wants to show his readers (and remember his readers were most likely middle to upper class Roman citizens) that the flux is ongoing and that the current state of affairs will no doubt not last forever.