I have been rereading Ovid’s Metamorphoses the last few days – probably inspired by a mention in Calvino’s Six Memos that I read last week. I’d never before realized how funny – both absurd and grotesque – Ovid is. I first tried formulating this as “Ovid is the only Roman with a healthy sense of humor” – and contrasting him with the flaccid posturing ‘wit’ of Horace on one hand and the bestializing brutality of Persius and Juvenal (or their satiric personae) on the other. In the latter camp I’d partially include Petronius – but only if we give more weight to the Cena Trimalchionis than some of the other fragments like the goose debacle. But then I remembered Apuleius and trailed off…
Anyway, here is the killing of the Calydonian Boar by Meleager (8.420-424):
The others vent their joy by wild bouts of applause and crowd around to press the victor’s hand. They gaze in wonder at the huge beast lying stretched out over so much ground, and still think it hardly safe to touch him. But each dips his spear in the blood.
gaudia testantur socii clamore secundovictricemque petunt dextrae coniungere dextraminmanemque ferum multa tellure iacentemmirantes spectant neque adhuc contingere tutum esse putant, sed tela tamen sua quisque cruentat.
It is the delicacy of the insult in that final sentence – ‘they still think it hardly safe to touch him … but each dips his spear in the blood.’ Terrified of the corpse but still wanting visual justification for claiming a share of the credit. It is a masterstroke of compressed psychological portraiture – and one I’d imagine very likely inspired by Ovid’s watching wealthy Romans of his own time dip their unused spears in the blood of poor animals slain by their slaves.