Statues from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” Found

Titian’s Danaë, one of innumerable scenes of the Metamorphoses. WikiPedia

An archaeological team from Rome has recently announced the discovery of seven statues believed to depict one of the myths from the poet, Ovid’s masterpiece Metamorphoses.

The statues were found in the pool of a villa believed to have belonged to General Valerio Messala, Ovid’s wealthy patron.


Elena Calendra, superintendent for archaeology of the Lazio region, said that archaeologists “had known for a while that there were traces in the area of Valerio Messala.” Prior to the full-scale excavations that unearthed the statues, each standing at around 2m in height, exploratory investigations were undertaken. The statues have been described as “exceptional” and the discovery of a lifetime.

The head of a statue recovered during excavations at an ancient villa near the Italian capital.
Excavations at an ancient villa near the Italian capital.

It is believed they fell into the pool around 2000 years ago when and earthquake struck the region. Despite this rough internment, the statues are “in an excellent state of preservation.” The question on everyone’s mind at the moment is whether these statues inspired, or indeed were inspired by Ovid’s poem.

The statues recount the tale of Niobe, a woman who bore fourteen children. Niobe boasted that she was more fertile than the goddess, Leto, who only had two children: Apollo and Artemis/Diana. Leto was so enraged by this that she instructed her children to kill Niobe’s, and in her grief the woman turned to stone.

On the one hand, General Messala may have wished to immortalise the work of the man he sponsored, and with it increase the prestige of his house. On the other hand, the look of anguish on Niobe’s face may have inspired the poet to including her tale in the Metamorphoses. This however may be romanticising the evidence.


The myth of Niobe was not new by Ovid’s time. It had been depicted in painting and sculpture dating back to Ancient Greece, and references were included in both the work of Homer and Sophocles. The next task for the team is to date the statues to ascertain whether they came first, or the poem, dated to 8 AD, “a lengthy job” according to Calendra.

Written by Jonathan Hutchings

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