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 Roman 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 lost poem of the same title by the Greek Alexandrian poet Callimachus.[2]

Identity of Ibis[edit]

The object of the poet's curses is left unnamed except for the pseudonym "Ibis", and no scholarly consensus has been reached concerning the figure to whom this pseudonym might refer. Hyginus, Cassius Severus, Titus Labienus, Thrasyllus of Mendes,[3] Caninius Rebilus, Ovid's erstwhile friend Sabinus, and the emperor Augustus[4] have all been proposed, as well as the possibility that "Ibis" might refer to more than one person,[5]: 185  to nobody at all,[6][7] or even to Ovid's own poetry.[8]

Structure and themes[edit]

The 644-line poem, like all Ovid's extant work except the Metamorphoses,[9] 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]: 184  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;[10][11] the poem has also been seen as a type of devotio.[4]

Drawing on the encyclopedic store of knowledge he demonstrated in the Metamorphoses and his other work — presumably from memory, as he purportedly had few books with him in exile[12] — Ovid threatens his enemy in the second section of the poem (lines 251–638) with a veritable catalogue of "gruesome and mutually incompatible fates" that befell various figures from myth and history,[13] ranging from laming and blinding to cannibalism to death by pine cone. Ovid also declares in the poem's opening salvo that even if he dies in exile, his ghost will rise and rend Ibis's flesh.[14]: 129 

The basic structure of the poem is as follows:[15]

I. Introduction
1–66: Proem which lays out Ibis' crime and declares war
67–126: Prayers to the gods to inflict on Ibis poverty, hunger, and exile
127–208: The eternity of Ibis' torment, which will outlast both Ovid's death and Ibis' own
209–250: A biography of Ibis' infancy and a divine mandate given to Ovid to curse him
II. Catalogue
251–638: Catalogue of mythological and historical torments which Ibis should suffer
III. Coda
639–644: Promise of an iambic followup should Ibis not cease and desist


The Ibis attracted a large number of scholia and was widely disseminated and referenced in Renaissance literature.[16] In his annotated translation (1577), Thomas Underdowne found in Ibis a reference guide to "all manner of vices punished, all offenses corrected, and all misdeeds revenged."[14]: 131  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."[17]

Online 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 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. ^ The Athenaeum, No. 2840, April 1, 1882 [1]
  4. ^ a b A. Schiesaro, "Ibis Redibis," Materiali e Discussioni 67 (2011): 79–150.
  5. ^ a b Martin Helzle, "Ibis," in A Companion to Ovid, edited by Peter E. Knox (Blackwell, 2009) online.
  6. ^ A. E. Housman, "The Ibis of Ovid," Journal of Philology 35 (1920): 287–318
  7. ^ G. D. Williams, The Curse of Exile: A Study of Ovid's Ibis (1996).
  8. ^ Krasne, Darcy (2012-12-01). "The Pedant's Curse: Obscurity and Identity in Ovid's Ibis". Dictynna. Revue de poétique latine (in French) (9). doi:10.4000/dictynna.912. ISSN 1765-3142.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Andreas Dorschel, "Entwurf einer Theorie des Fluchens", Variations 23 (2015), § 24, pp. 167-175, p. 173.
  12. ^ Ov. Tr. 3.14.37–38
  13. ^ Kenney, E. J.; Clausen, Wendell Vernon; Clausen, W. V. (1982-03-18). The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Volume 2, Latin Literature. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-21043-0.
  14. ^ a b Kerrigan, John (1996-04-18). Revenge Tragedy : Aeschylus to Armageddon: Aeschylus to Armageddon. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-159172-3.
  15. ^ Krasne, Darcy A. (2016). "Crippling Nostalgia: Nostos, Poetics, and the Structure of the Ibis". TAPA. 146 (1): 149–189. ISSN 2575-7199.
  16. ^ R. Ellis, "On the Ibis of Ovid," Journal of Philology 7 (1877) 244–255, full text online.
  17. ^ 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.