Ibis (Ovid)

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Ovid's Ibis is a highly artificial and history-bound product and does not make pleasant reading. But it is interesting, among other things, because it illustrates the writer's propensity for moving on more than one plane of reality. The poem contains elements from three distinct modes of reacting to the same outrage; of these, the first may be called realistic, the second romantic, and the third grotesque.

Hermann Fränkel, Ovid: A Poet
between Two Worlds

Ibis is a curse poem by the Latin poet Ovid, written during his years in exile across the Black Sea for an offense against Augustus. It is "a stream of violent but extremely learned abuse," modeled on a poem of the same title by the Alexandrian poet Callimachus.[2]

The object of this verbal assault is left unnamed except for the pseudonym Ibis, and no scholarly consensus exists as to whom the poet was directing his spleen. Titus Labienus, Caninius Rebilus, and Ovid's erstwhile friend Sabinus have been proposed, but such a wildly exaggerated figure as "Ibis" may have been a composite.[3]

The 644-line poem, like all Ovid's extant work except the Metamorphoses,[4] is written in elegiac couplets. It is thus an unusual, though not unique, example of invective poetry in antiquity written in elegiac form rather than the more common iambics or hendecasyllabics.[5] The incantatory nature of the curses in the Ibis has sometimes led to comparisons with curse tablets (defixiones), though Ovid's are elaborately literary in expression.[6]

Drawing on the encyclopedic store of knowledge he demonstrated in the Metamorphoses and his other work — from memory, as he had few books with him in exile — Ovid threatens his enemy with a veritable catalogue of "gruesome and mutually incompatible fates" that befell various figures from myth and history,[7] including a Thyestean banquet of human flesh. He declares that even if he dies in exile, his ghost will rise and rend Ibis's flesh.[8]

The Ibis attracted a large number of scholia, and was widely disseminated and referenced in Renaissance literature.[9] In his annotated translation (1577), Thomas Underdowne found in Ibis a reference guide to "all manner of vices punished, all offences corrected, and all misdeedes reuenged."[10] An English translator noted that "a full reference to each of the allusions to be found in this poem would suffice to fill a small volume."[11]

Texts and translations[edit]

The editio princeps of Ovid's complete works, including the Ibis, was published in Italy in 1471. Full-text versions of the following 19th-century Latin editions and English translations of the Ibis are available online.


  • R. Ellis, P. Ovidii Nasonis Ibis, Oxford Classical Text, 1881.
  • A. Riese, P. Ovidii Nasonis Carmina, vol. 3, 1899.

English translations[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Libel as a genre of invective poetry


  1. ^ Hermann Fränkel, Ovid: A Poet between Two Worlds (University of California Press, 1956), p. 152.
  2. ^ Oliver Taplin, Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A New Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 437 online.
  3. ^ Martin Helzle, "Ibis," in A Companion to Ovid, edited by Peter E. Knox (Blackwell, 2009), p. 185 online.
  4. ^ The Metamorphoses is written in dactylic hexameter; the first line of a Latin elegiac couplet is dactylic hexameter, however, so the Metamorphoses itself is not a metrical exception in Ovid's extant work. His lost tragedy Medea presumably used other measures.
  5. ^ Helzle, "Ibis," p. 184.
  6. ^ Gareth D. Williams, "On Ovid's Ibis: A Poem in Context," in Oxford Readings in Ovid (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 447, note 12 online.
  7. ^ E.J. Kenney, Latin Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1982, reprinted 1996), p. 454 online.
  8. ^ John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy: Aeschyus to Armageddon (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 129 online.
  9. ^ R. Ellis, "On the Ibis of Ovid," Journal of Philology 7 (1877) 244–255, full text online.
  10. ^ Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy, p. 131.
  11. ^ Henry T. Riley, "The Invective Against the Ibis," in The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid, Literally Translated into English Prose (London 1885), pp. 475ff.