Hesiod and Ovid's Ages of Man
Overviews and analysis of unconventional linear histories.
The retelling of history today often occurs in a linear fashion, a steady march of progress from primitive barbarity to a glorious and enlightened present. Although this Whig interpretation was discredited almost a century ago by the English historian Herbert Butterfield, Whig descendants bred with various strains of left-tending political thought yet hold sway in popular discourse. Lately, trendy revisionism has sometimes presented history as an incomplete linear timeline, for which substantial redress must occur for past events in order to progress to a more enlightened state of affairs. Elsewhere, it assumes a certain linear narrative that attempts to satisfy contemporary worldviews or desires with a newly fashioned perennialism. These are both aspects of Whig history, more technically its embedded teleological thinking. As with the Whigs, who also believed themselves uniquely enlightened in world history, the past is studied with reference to the present and to deliver validation to a fashionable set of opinions.
However, the linear grand narrative (or metanarrative as it has been sanitised) of progress is not the only model through which history has been retold as a straightforward story. In Antiquity, history was charted as a decline, with the Iron Age its brutish nadir. The Greek poet Hesiod and Roman poet Ovid recounted versions of this narrative which survive. Both offer fresh perspectives on world history which remain worth studying for the historically curious, if only for their own sakes.
Hesiod’s Five Ages of Man
Hesiod’s view of history forms part of the poem Works and Days (c. 700 BC) as he teaches his brother Perses how to live a good and moral life.
He begins with the Golden Age, where Cronos (father of Zeus) “made a golden race of mortal men” who lived like the gods wherefrom they derived. They eventually died, living on spiritually as “guardians of mortal men,” but this led the gods to make a second generation “which was of silver and less noble by far.” The Silver Age was marked by its infantilism; children stayed by their mothers’ sides for a century. Hesiod notes a child of this age was “an utter simpleton” and only lived briefly “in sorrow” once reaching adulthood “because of their foolishness.” Having lived for a century as carefree children, they sinned as adults and would not honour the gods, hence Zeus (who had succeeded Cronos by this point) destroyed them all. According to Hesiod, in the afterlife they became “blessed spirits of the underworld.”
A third generation was then created by Zeus who constituted “a brazen race… [which] was terrible and strong.” They were hardened and violent: their armour, their weapons and even their houses were made of bronze. This was the Bronze Age and incidentally the first age for which history has an answer. Hesiod recalls that Bronze Age men annihilated themselves and were left to Hades in the afterlife.
The ages described thus far chart a path of declining morality amongst successive generations of men, but Hesiod disrupts this linearity with the fourth age. He writes that Zeus made a generation “which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods.” The base masculinity and violence of the Bronze Age were blessed by the virtue and nobility of higher ages to create the Heroic Age. Some of these died in legendary battles at Thebes and Troy, but Zeus let the remainder “live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed.”
Apparently unsatisfied with this group, Zeus created one more generation of men. Hesiod was witness to this Iron Age, where men laboured under a miserable existence and faced the wrath of the gods. He predicts that Zeus will destroy this generation of men when people are born with grey hair, such would be the depressive state of mere existence in the world. His forecast also includes allusions to social breakdown, dishonour, impiety, unheroic violence, greed, envy and general evil. The story ends with the following: “there will be no help against evil.” How cheerful.
Ovid’s Four Ages of Man
Ovid’s interpretation of history comes from the epic poem Metamorphoses (8 AD). His description of the ages of man occurs early in the first book of fifteen which ultimately recount the history of the world, from its creation by one of the gods to the death of Julius Caesar.
One starts again with the Golden Age, where “rectitude spontaneous in the heart prevailed.” Laws and punishments were unneeded, and wars did not occur. Agriculture and navigation had not developed since “of her own accord the earth produced” bounteous crops wherever these people originated. The mythology of Cronos had been merged into Saturn by the Romans, thus once he was deposed by Jupiter as king of the gods the Silver Age began. Jupiter created the seasons as we know them, so man learnt construction, agriculture and animal husbandry in response.
Ovid then briefly mentions the Bronze Age, “when cruel people were inclined to arms but not to impious crimes.” Unlike Hesiod, Ovid does not elaborate further. Without a Heroic Age, the last age to be detailed is again the Iron Age. The social condition will seem familiar, Ovid recording “modesty and faith and truth took flight,” to be replaced by deceit, violence and greed. Technologically, men learnt sailing and mining, explored and created nations with strictly set boundaries.
I should preface this section by acknowledging Neema Parvini’s The Prophets of Doom, which I read upon its publishing during a hiatus in writing the overviews above. Its first chapter considers Hesiod in the context of ancient formulations of cyclical history, thus will be of use in explaining the two narratives just presented.
The most obvious difference between the narratives of Hesiod and Ovid must be discussed first, namely Hesiod’s Heroic Age. This breaks Hesiod’s linear decline, a disruption quickly reinforced by starting his description of the Iron Age with the wish “that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards.” It has since become starkly anomalous within the corpus of ancient literature since no other Greek or Roman, be they a philosopher, historian or poet, includes a Heroic Age in the manner of Hesiod; Ovid was much more typical.1 Consequently, attempts to categorise Hesiod into a particular framework of historical narrative have been consistently awkward. In some cases, Parvini included, the Heroic Age is overlooked to create a linear degenerative timeline, akin to Ovid and other ancient conceptions of history originating from further afield.2 Another interpretation claims Hesiod’s inclusions of the Heroic Age and the statement preceding the Iron Age indicate a cyclical nature in his view of history.3
The classical scholar Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, who Parvini cites in Prophets, has a convincing answer to both interpretations in that Hesiod was neither reliant on a fixed scheme if he knew of one, nor was seeking to create one himself.4 Indeed, if Hesiod thought the Iron Age was the lowest ebb of a cycle, or the final age of history entirely, then he would not have stated “even these [Iron Age people] shall have some good mingled with their evils.” Although most of his account of the Iron Age is presented in the future tense as prophecy, it does not attempt to predict the course of any ages beyond his own. Hesiod left the future after Zeus destroys the Iron Age generation open-ended, whilst Rosenmeyer argues his wish to be born afterwards is simply an expression of dissatisfaction with the present age he observed.5 Put briefly, the future for Hesiod was not predetermined. Recalling the purpose of Works and Days, this narrative of world history is one of a number of tales meant to impart good morality to his brother Perses. Being relentlessly pessimistic about humanity’s fate does not help with justifying why one should live morally.
More crucially for expanding the avenues for analysis, Rosenmeyer states “the reporting of the tradition was his job” and that Hesiod’s narrative “makes room for the tradition.”6 As a mythographer in this instance, he collected and made sense of several kinds of evidence, ranging from the empirical to the received mythical, which we naturally struggle to find the prior origins of around 2,700 years later.7 This introduces a perspective of the unknown, for both the reader and writer, from Hesiod’s periodisation. When he wrote Works and Days, Greek civilisation had just emerged out of its Dark Age, a period spanning from the Bronze Age Collapse to the time of Homer (more or less a contemporary of Hesiod). Complex societies and writing both disappeared for most of this period, so drawing knowledge beyond such an almighty filter relied on precarious oral traditions and interpreting ruins like Mycenae. Even so, Hesiod still possessed some idea of the Bronze Age and its demise, albeit reconstructed in a romanticised and mythologised form by the twists of tradition in the centuries that had elapsed. Bronze Age people did not live in bronze houses, but he gets the military technology and epoch-ending wars quite right. We need not fault him for these efforts.
One could additionally speculate that Hesiod’s historical narrative formed part of an implicit search for certain information to backfill forgotten history and give emergent ancient Greeks, such as Perses and Hesiod himself, a coherent place in the world which had developed out of the Bronze Age. After all, a burgeoning civilisation cannot sustain itself on centuries-old ruins and indeterminably located Pelasgians alone. This accords greater significance to the Heroic Age in Hesiod’s narrative, as well as the history itself in Works and Days. His stated reason for telling this story to Perses was teaching “how the gods and mortal men sprang from one source,” but this seems superfluous and only imparting morals in a narrowly inferred sense of piety’s necessity from man’s inextricable relationship with the gods. Yet the lesson of the previous story, Pandora’s Jar (standing in for the box, of course), was the impossibility of escaping Zeus’s will, so the history becomes a little redundant without a broader factor. Rosenmeyer also alludes to this in his discussion of Hesiod’s “syncretistic combination” of differing spirits with each completed generation, another aspect of his narrative which has been apparently diminished in favour of focussing on the four-age pattern.8 As in the case of the Heroic Age, one would be wise to assume mentions of spiritual fates were intentional, but these are clearly details beyond those necessary for the moral aspect.
Meanwhile, Ovid’s time did not suffer from such drastic epochal circumstances, but the struggles with the unknown are still visible in his radically truncated Bronze Age and lack of Heroic Age. The latter can be excused since Metamorphoses chronicles over 250 myths and eventually covers the Trojan War. Yet despite all the Greco-Roman cultural knowledge he possesses, the Bronze Age has eroded over the intervening seven centuries and incorporation of the Greek tradition into the Roman one. Then one encounters a greater problem regarding his wider narrative: Hesiod recounted world history with brevity, but did Ovid actually know what place the ages had in his history of the world amongst his multiplicity of stories? He precedes his four ages with the creation of humans by either the gods or Prometheus, which is consistent enough. After, Ovid recounts the extinction of the giants by Jupiter, whose corpses are transformed into “offspring in the shape of man.” Two stories later, one reads the wrath of the gods results in the world being flooded, with Deucalion and Pyrrha being driven as the sole survivors to repopulate the world by turning stones into men and women. Do these stories take place after the four ages or between them? Ovid offers no indication, nor does he give an impression that his four ages are cyclical.
Another notable aspect of Ovid’s narrative in comparison to Hesiod is the materialistic emphasis. Whereas Hesiod almost exclusively recounts the ages’ social and moral conditions, Ovid constantly mentions the artefacts and technologies of his civilisation. He may still be critical of the Iron Age’s mined “wealth, bad cause of all our ills,” but these observations nonetheless bear the influence of his environment of Rome at its peak. In fact, this renders his four ages even more disjointed from the essentially mythical stories which follow. Still, it could be reasonably argued these additional details were another act of syncretism with the basic framework of the ages of man, pertaining to the background of the work in which it was used.
There is little use in studying either Hesiod or Ovid’s histories on the basis of objective fact since the answer is quite obvious, but they are nevertheless noteworthy and insightful. This is only heightened by their antithetical stance towards the concept of progress. I am not arguing for our understanding of world history to return to a story of inevitable decline, but rediscovering the discontents to the Whig interpretation (both ancient and more recent) is useful in formulating an approach which is both as objectively true to the past as one can realistically achieve and capable of replacing the current paradigm. This has already started, as the existence of this piece and the release of Parvini’s Prophets, amongst other happenings, can attest. A renewed focus on primary sources, elsewise peeling back the layers of obfuscating postmodern mediation between oneself and history, is also worthwhile to this end. If this piece has encouraged readers to seek out the sources for themselves, or piqued curiosities about unfamiliar aspects of historical thought, then it shall have served its purpose.
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Since writing about Hesiod’s five ages last year, I have learnt more about poetry and thus can offer the translations I consulted with some confidence. For Works and Days, I used the Loeb Classical Library 1914 translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. For Metamorphoses, I used the 1922 translation by Brookes More.
The details of the paintings can be found in their captions, but I should point out all of these are connected to Ovid’s Metamorphoses rather than Hesiod. It seems the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a clear favourite of the two.
Parvini, Neema. The Prophets of Doom. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2023.
Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. “Hesiod and Historiography.” Hermes 85, no. 3 (1957): 257-85.
Neema Parvini, The Prophets of Doom (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2023), 6-9.
Ibid., 9, 20.
Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, “Hesiod and Historiography,” Hermes 85, no. 3 (1957): 275.
Ibid., 272, 274-76.