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What did Ovid's Metamorphoses sound like?




What did Ovid's Metamorphoses Sound Like? - Reconstruction and Recitation

The Ovid Hall in the New Chambers in Potsdam-Sanssouci in Image, Texts and Sound



In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora … – “My mind leads me to tell of forms changed into new bodies ... ”. In these opening verses of his Metamorphoses, the poet Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE) simultaneously evokes images, texts and their sound(s). All three aspects are presented in this project as an aesthetic synthesis: photographs, reproduced here for the first time, show the gilded stucco reliefs with scenes from the Metamorphoses which decorate the Ovid Gallery in the New Chambers in the park of Sanssouci. All pictures are accompanied by a short introduction to the respective myths and their iconography. The texts of the corresponding passages of the Metamorphoses are not only given as a German and Latin reading version, but are also recited in both languages. In reciting the Latin original we try to observe the restituted pronunciation of classical Latin, the principles of which are explained in a systematic description of the prosodic and metrical rules. A glossary, bibliography and list with commentated links contain additional information.


This project has been conducted under the direction of Dan Drescher (general direction) and Marita Müller (art history) as a joint work of young – prospective or established – Berlin and Potsdam researchers who, for the most part, were or are affiliated with the Classics Departments of the Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of Potsdam, respectively. First results were presented to a broader public during the 2. Berlin Long Night of the Sciences at the Humboldt University in June 2003. Since at this moment, in October 2004, the participants of the project are each beginning to explore new and different avenues of research and professional engagement, we regard the project as completed in its present state.


Latin language courses at high-school and university naturally focus on the ancient texts. More and more frequently, however, also images, whether preserved from antiquity itself – like, for example, frescoes and sculptures – or documents of later phases of reception are taken into consideration in order to illustrate ancient culture and its texts. But how did the verses of Ovid sound? – Our project aims to answer this question; hence, it is designed for all those who seek an answer to that question, in particular students and teachers at high-schools and universities.


Coming up with an answer to the question as to what Ovid’s hexameters did sound like is not a philological end in itself. Even though the Latin language is – apart from such exceptions as, for instance, the Vatican and the circles of a few enthusiasts – a language without an active speaking community, the Latin words that are to be learnt and taught must be pronounced somehow. Since in the classroom normally the vocabulary and syntax of classical Latin is taught, that is of the standard Latin as spoken (and written) in Rome in the second half of the first century BCE, it seems natural to consider both the pronunciation and recitation practice of this time as the norm.


An important characteristic of prosody, the pronunciation of classical Latin involves the distinction of long and short syllables, which are also the basis of word accent and metre. Pronouncing Latin words correctly is a process of differentiation and recognition which not only facilitates memorizing  grammatical forms and vocabulary, especially of homonyms (i.e. of words with identical spelling, but different meanings), correct pronunciation also makes the analysis of metrical structures easier. In addition, one can argue that a standardized and differentiating pronunciation creates a certain melodiousness in the language – although, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum (“There is no settling a dispute about taste”).




The basis of our reflections and recitation is thus the so-called reconstituted historical pronunciation (pronuntiatus restitutus, also pronuntiatio restituta) of the Golden Latin era, in short the Classical Era. There are a number of clues to reconstruct this pronunciation; in particular, conclusions can be drawn from five areas: 1. written evidence, 2. history of language, 3. language contacts, 4. rhetoric, 5. ancient testimonies. For the pronunciation of /c/ as [k] before /e/ and /i/, for instance, the following evidence can be referred to:

  1. spellings like KERI as in an inscription (CIL I2 445, for Cereri: ‘to the goddess Ceres’),

  2. Romanic evidence like Loguduresic (dialect in the north-west of Sardinia) kentu < lat. centum (‘one hundred’),

  3. Greek spellings like Κικρων (Kikéron) = Cicero and loan-words like German Keller < lat. cellarium ('cellar') or Celtic cengal (/c/ pronounced as [k]) < lat. cingulum (‘belt’),

  4. the alliteration in the formula censuit consentit conscivit (Liv. 1,32,13: 'he voted, approved, decreed'),

  5. the testimony of Quintilian, professor of rhetoric in the first century CE (35-100 CE), who in his rhetorical handbook Institutio oratoria mentions in passing (1,7,10) that there is no need for the letter /k/ before an /a/ since the letter /c/ keeps its validity before all vowels.

In addition to attempting to pronounce the Latin sounds and syllables in accordance with the current state of knowledge, we aim in particular at realizing the metrical and prosodic characteristics of the text. On the one hand, we attempt to render the quantities of the syllables as precisely as possible. On the other hand, we retain the word accent of Latin prose also while reciting poetry, thus avoiding the so-called ictus which so often – against better knowledge, but defensible for didactic reasons – is still customary in the classroom, although it never existed in ancient verse poetry. In sum: We recite in keeping with the original pronunciation and under strict observance of the long and short syllables.


We are fully aware that both the reconstruction of the pronunciation and even more our efforts to realize it can only be an approximation to the historical pronunciation. “The scholar can succeed in conserving the phonological inventary of an ancient language, but at the moment of recitation he also has to realize the phonetic nuances that are no longer accessible. The archaeology of sounds therefore always has to be an approximative reconstruction provoking opposition.” (Teuber 1984, 538)




There are two possible approaches to the pronuntiatus restitutus for visitors to our pages: a deductive one, which functions by hearing the recitations of individual sections of the Metamorphoses which illustrate the rules of pronunciation; or an inductive one, in the reverse direction. The starting point for the latter are the prosodic and metrical rules of classical Latin, which are linked to selected testimonies both in the original and in translation (in the more printer-friendly pdf-format all testimonies are integrated into the sketch of the prosodic and metrical rules). In addition, there is an alphabetical glossary which both serves as a general introduction and explains specialist technical terms. The recitations can be accessed via a survey page called “Ovid – Texts”. From this page the visitor is lead to the Latin text versions, which are given with a facing German translation as well as a Latin version in which, as a didactic aid, long vowels and the word accent in words with more than two syllables are marked with the conventional signs. Both Latin versions can be printed out as pdf-files and thus be easily used for self-correction, individual practice and comparison of the translation. Finally, it is possible to access the recitations of the individual myths – in reasonable file sizes, that is in text sections – from all pages.



We have deliberately chosen Ovid (and not, for example, Cicero or Vergil) as a representative of the language norm of classical Latin. The New Chambers, one of the palaces in the park of Potsdam-Sanssouci, are particularly distinguished by their Ovid Gallery. This magnificent hall is decorated by fourteen gilded stucco reliefs which show scenes of selected myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The depiction of these myths is the second starting point of our project.


In the introduction, we describe the Ovid Gallery as part of the New Chambers and its iconographic programme. A survey page then leads to the photographs of the individual reliefs, which in this form are reproduced here for the first time. Next to the photos there is a short introduction into the respective myths and an art-historical commentary.





A (selective) bibliography and a list with commentated links show what our theoretical reflections are based on, and what inspired and irritated us, respectively.


We are indebted for many of our insights in particular to the books of W. Sidney Allen: Vox Latina. A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin (Cambridge 1965); Edgar Howard Sturtevant: The Pronunciation of Greek and Latin (Groningen 21968); Manu Leumann: Lateinische Laut- und Formenlehre (München 1977), the articles of Wilfried Stroh (1981, 1990) and the publications of the Societas Latina in Saarbrücken.


The text is based on the edition of the Bibliotheca Teubneriana: P. Ovidii Nasonis Metamorphoses, edited by William Anderson (Leipzig 31985). (The new edition of Richard J. Tarrant in the Oxford Classical Texts Series, Oxford 2004, unfortunately was published too late for us to take into consideration.)


Very helpful was the prose translation by Michael von Albrecht: Ovid. Metamorphosen. Latin/German (Stuttgart 1994, numerous reprints). However, since we wanted to face the Latin text with a metrical translation for the particular aesthetic quality of poetic language and the easier possibility of memorizing that goes along with it, we decided – after comparing various translations – on that of R. Suchier, revised by L. Huchthausen (Berlin/Weimar 31982).


The shortcomings of all translations available to us inspired Miriam and Simon Bernart to translate on their own the passage they are recite in German hexameter.



The participants of the project were: Miriam and Simon Bernart, Dan Drescher (responsible for general direction, prosody and metre, webdesign), Dankfried Gabriel, Anne Glock, Mark Marten (photography), Nina Mindt, Marita Müller (responsible for art history), Beate Nick, Hinnerk Otten, Dorothea Prell, Katharina Riewe (responsible for webdesign), Valërie Sinn, Ingo Zempel.


All participants have contributed to the realization of this project according to their powers and individual abilities. As far as the recitations are concerned it may be kept in mind: Bona facilius discuntur quam dediscuntur mala. (“What is good is easier to learn than what is bad to get rid off.”)


We look forward to receiving suggestions as well as criticism (→ Impressum).



Copyright © 2004, Mutatas dicere formas: Ovid-Projekt Berlin/Potsdam

Zuletzt aktualisiert: 09.11.2004