Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. From a state of blissful harmony in the Golden Age to a state of absolute corruption in the Iron Age, Ovid tells of “the fall of man.” He begins with the Golden Age when the Earth in its perpetual spring brims with life. Men need not labor long hours for the Earth gives freely of its fruits. The people content with their lives keep to their own lands, and so war is nonexistent; laws too have not come into being though men remain just and true regardless. Interestingly enough the lack of such laws is the first characteristic Ovid cites for the superiority of the Golden Age. 

“Golden, that first age, which, though ignorant
of laws, yet of its own will, uncoerced,
fostered responsibility and virtue;”
[Metamorphoses I: 126-128]

This particular section of the Metamorphoses evokes Hesiod’s “Works and Days” *** where Hesiod too speaks of the degeneration of men through the ages. Yet, this introduction presents a sharp contrast with Hesiod’s introduction which concentrates on the carefree lifestyle of the age.

They actually lived when Kronos was king of the sky,
And they lived like gods, not a care in their hearts,
Nothing to do with hard work or grief,
And miserable old age didn’t exist for them.
[Works and Days: 131-134]

Ovid unlike Hesiod writes from a Roman perspective where the establishment of law is considered the mark of civilization. It is likely that Ovid uses his introduction to take a jab at the politics of the Roman Empire. After all, what need do the inherently virtuous have of laws? This will not be the first of Ovid’s criticisms towards his government (which had exiled him.) It is one reason why the Metamorphoses is referred to as a “mock epic”; for Ovid will often include satire if he feels there’s a point to be made.

“Last was the age of iron: suddenly,
all forms of evil burst upon this time
of lesser mettle; modesty, fidelity,
and truth departed; in their absence, came
fraud, guile, deceit, the use of violence,
and shameful lusting after acquisitions.”
[Metamorphoses I: 172-177]

The poem progresses and the race of men descends into utter chaos and depravity. In Ovid’s work, this change is not sudden; men devolve over time to reach this state. Hesiod on the other hand tells of multiple creations; as each age dies out, the gods create the race of men anew. But the most startling contrast between the two is Ovid’s omission of a fifth age, the Age of Heroes. Aside from the disruption to the metallic allusion, why does Ovid decide on such a course?  The answer may depend on a difference in perspective.

“I wish
I had nothing to do with this fifth generation,
Wish I had died before or been born after,
Because this is the Iron Age.
[Works and Days: 201-204]

Hesiod bemoans his fate to have been born into the Age of Iron, when men are forgetting all virtue and honor. For him, the Age of Heroes amounts to the “good old days.” He expects, when all good has finally disappeared from the world, Zeus will eradicate humanity and once again recreate them. It’s a pessimistic view but legitimate. Works and Days and Theogony were probably composed towards the end of the Greek Dark Ages when the fallout from the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations was still apparent. It would have been a miserable time to live. Ovid on the other hand lives during the Pax Romana and belongs to a household of relative wealth. The Age of Iron for Ovid is a feature of the mythological past, certainly not a daily reality.

The rhetoric of the passage seems simple at first: gold is good, iron is bad. Then, Ovid upends the world he has just established.

For iron, which is harmful, and the more
Pernicious gold (now first produced) create
Grim warfare, which has need of both;
[Metamorphoses I: 190-192]

Ovid links gold and iron together. No longer is gold the good metal, it is a metal even more evil albeit in a subtler manner than iron. The desire for wealth and material possessions is the root of evil. To assign value to something is to contribute to the evil in the world. What does this say about assigning value to the ages of men?

*** Translation by Stanley Lombardo