Mythology - The Four Ages of Man According to Ovid

by Erin on May 23, 2012

The other day, I looked at the Five Ages of Man according to Hesiod. In that post I listed these as the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Iron. There is another account of the ages of man that shares several similarities - and some striking differences - with Hesiod’s version, and it was also written by an ancient poet. This time, however, our poet is Roman. He is Ovid, famous for his tales of transformation in the work known as the Metamorphoses.

It is in the Metamorphoses that Ovid shares his interpretation of the Ages of Man. We simply have to open to Book One and jump ahead to lines 89 and following to find the Roman poet’s discussion of this subject. Incidentally, my source for this information is the book The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated by Allen Mandelbaum.

The Golden Age / The Age of Gold

During the Golden Age, there were no laws, since the people of this period kept faith and behaved well without external compulsion. Indeed, men lived in peace, since there were no threats of violence, and they had no need for either weapons or defenses. The land freely offered its bounty without the assistance of agriculture. Ovid says of this time: “There spring was never ending. The soft breeze of tender zephyrs wafted and caressed the flowers that sprang unplanted, without seed.” In short, Ovid’s Age of Gold was an idyllic era of peace and prosperity.

The Silver Age / The Age of Silver

Things changed in the world during the reign of Jove (or he is also known, Jupiter). His rule ushered in the both the Silver Age and introduced the seasons. In the Age of Gold, spring was everlasting, while in the Age of Silver, less gentle climates emerged. As a result, now men took shelter from the cold and heat, as well as other harsh conditions, and built houses for the first time. In addition, plants were cultivated and harvested. Toil replaced leisure.

The Bronze Age / The Age of Bronze

Ovid has little to say about the Age of Bronze, other than the following: “The third age saw the race of bronze: more prone to cruelty, more quick to use fierce arms, but not yet sacrilegious.”

The Iron Age / The Age of Iron

The fourth and final age according to Ovid was the Age of Iron. It is during this age that things go pear-shaped. Ovid comments about the Iron Age: “And this, the worst of ages, suddenly gave way to every foul impiety; earth saw the flight of faith and modesty and truth - and in their place came snares and fraud, deceit and force and sacrilegious love of gain.” It goes downhill from there. War, betrayal, greed are all common in this dark age, and Ovid gives some specific (and chilling) examples in this passage.

It is worth noting that at the end of his rather gloomy description, Ovid includes this line: “…and the maid Astraea, last of the immortals, leaves the blood-soaked earth.” I suppose this detail deserves some explanation.

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