Riding with Phaethon

Philip Hardie

At more than 400 lines, the story of Phaethon is the longest single episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1.750–2.400).[1] It is a story of human ambitions and emotions, played out in a setting of cosmic order and disorder. The ending is death and grief for the main actors, and, for the world, a narrow rescue from destruction by incineration. It is a story that resonates on many levels, and which has been put to many uses in the reception history of the last two thousand years. It continues to offer disturbing images to the modern world.

Phaethon (whose name means “shining”) is the boastful son of the Sun-god. When his paternity is challenged by Epaphus, the son of Io and Jupiter, Phaethon asks his mother, Clymene, for proof that the Sun is his father. She tells him to go and ask the Sun himself. Phaethon goes to the Palace from which the Sun starts his journey every day in the east. As proof, the Sun offers, on oath, to grant Phaethon anything he likes. He instantly regrets what he has sworn to when Phaethon asks to ride in the chariot of the Sun.

Phaethon or Helios driving the chariot of the sun, detail from an Attic red figure crater, c. 430 BC (British Museum, London).

Phaethon is not dissuaded by an account of the terrors of the monsters in the sky (the wild beasts of the signs of the zodiac). The Sun reluctantly allows him to mount his chariot, giving him careful instructions not to drive the horses too hard, and not to travel on too high or too low a course: “you will go most safely on a middle course” (medio tutissimus ibis, 2.137). Phaethon mounts the chariot, but the horses, not recognizing the weightiness of their usual charioteer, gallop out of control. Phaethon panics completely when he comes up against the menacing and poisonous claws of Scorpio, and his wild ride now brings him too close to the earth, on which mountains burn and rivers dry up, from the heat of the sun.

Mother Earth appeals to Jupiter to save the world from returning to the primeval chaos from which it had emerged just one book previously; Jupiter responds by hurling his thunderbolt at Phaethon, who falls from the sky down into the river Po. The river-nymphs give him a burial and a tomb. Phaethon is mourned by his mother and sisters, the Heliades (“daughters of Helios, the Sun”), who, as they grieve, are metamorphosed into poplar trees on the banks of the Po, forever weeping tears of resin which harden into amber. The grieving Sun is with difficulty persuaded by Jupiter and the other gods not to plunge the world into perpetual eclipse.

The fall of Phaethon, Michelangelo, 1533 (Royal Collection, Winsdor, England).

Already in Ovid, this fairy-tale has other dimensions. It is a tragic story, about a young man whose tragic flaw is his boastfulness and over-confidence. One of Ovid’s main sources was a now fragmentary Greek tragedy, Euripides’ Phaethon. There is also a more general moral message about the need for moderation (“the middle path is the safest”); Phaethon fails to follow the ‘golden mean’, advocated by Horace in Odes 2.10, in which the poet uses an image of pursuing a middle course in a ship, rather than in a chariot:

rectius vives, Licini, neque altum
semper urgendo neque, dum procellas
cautus horrescis, nimium premendo
     litus iniquum.

You will take a better course, Licinius, if you do not always thrust over the deep sea, or hug the dangerous coast too close, shivering at the prospect of squalls. (2.10.1-4, transl. David West).

The Stages of Life, Caspar David Friedrich, 1835 (Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany).

Ovid’s narrative also contains messages of a political and a poetical-aesthetic kind, which were to have a long afterlife. The theme of a son’s quest, successful or unsuccessful, to grow into the role of, and in time succeed, his father, is central to ancient epic and tragedy. In the Augustan principate, succession had become an urgent political issue, through the need to designate a successor to the one man who ruled Rome and ruled the world.

A specifically Roman reflection shines from the description of the magnificent Palace of the Sun, which forms the frontispiece to Book 2 of the Metamorphoses, and which alludes to one of the major monuments of Augustan Rome, the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, next to the house of Augustus. As god of the sun, Apollo is a close equivalent to the Sun god himself; a statuary group of the four-horse chariot of the Sun stood above the pediment of the Palatine Temple. In the final scene of the description of the Shield of Aeneas in Book 8 of Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustus is seated on the threshold of the Temple of Apollo, reviewing the peoples of the world processing in his triumph of 29 BC: Virgil hints at an identification of Augustus with the sun-god Apollo. Solar imagery had been applied to rulers earlier in antiquity, and was to have a long life, reaching down to the most famous of ‘sun kings’, Louis XIV (1638–1715). It has even been suggested that the Palace of Versailles was designed as a realization of Ovid’s poetic Palace of the Sun.

The Palace of the Sun is adorned with images of cosmic order – sea, earth, heavens, and personifications of the orderly divisions of time, including the four seasons. It is this cosmic order, presided over by its king, the Sun, that is threatened with a return to chaos when Phaethon loses control of the chariot. The need to maintain cosmic cohesion against the threat of chaos is a major theme of the universalist imperial ideology developed by Virgil in the Aeneid, to which Ovid responds with his narrative of disaster in the natural world that results from a failure of control in the human world.

Medal commemorating the coronation of William and Mary, along with the fall of Phaethon, Jan Roettiers, 1689.

The political application of Phaethon is common, whether as a warning to overweening rulers, or in the form of the confidence that a sun-king can succeed in driving the chariot of the Sun. Thus we might seem to find it in the proem to Lucan’s Bellum Civile, his epic on the Roman Civil War. Here, looking forward to the apotheosis of the Emperor Nero in the fullness of time, Lucan contemplates the possibility that, on his death, Nero will ascend the fiery chariot of Phoebus, travelling over a world that will not have anything to fear from the change of sun (BC 1.48–51).

On the other hand, some readers detect irony here. Iconoclastic defiance marks the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s overreaching king, Tamburlaine, when he uses Phaethon’s wild ride through the sky as a figure for his own career of destruction:

As was the fame of Clymene’s brain-sick son
That almost brent [burned] the axle-tree of heaven,
So shall our swords, our lances, and our shot
Fill all the air with fiery meteors. (Tamburlaine I 4.2.49–52)

A century later a medal struck for the coronation of the British Protestant monarchs William and Mary in 1689, following the expulsion in 1688 of the Roman Catholic, James II, shows Phaethon blasted by Jupiter, with the legends NE TOTVS ABSVMATVR, “that the whole [world] should not be consumed.”

Great Hall at Castle Howard, Yorkshire, John Vanbrugh, early 18th century.

Political meanings apart, Ovid’s Phaethon episode is also an exercise in the sublime. There is the architectural sublime of the Palace of the Sun, with its dazzling gold, ivory, and silver, and there is the vertiginous sublimity of Phaethon’s terrifying ride through the heavens, and eventual crash to earth, blasted by the supreme god’s thunderbolt. There are striking parallels with the major surviving ancient treatise on sublimity, Pseudo-Longinus’ On the Sublime. In a chapter (15) on the power of phantasia – a “vivid description” to produce an impressive and impassioned effect – Longinus cites a number of passages from Euripides’ Phaethon. Longinus makes the striking observation, “Would you not say that the writer’s soul is aboard the chariot, and takes wing to share the horses’ peril? Never could it have visualized such things, had it not run beside those heavenly bodies.”

The identification of the writer – and the reader – with the experiences of characters is one of the hallmarks of the sublime. Many sense that Ovid also identifies, as a poet, with the boldness of Phaethon, at the same time as he experiences an anxiety that his sublime poetic venture may come crashing down to earth. The nymphs who bury the fallen Phaethon inscribe on his tomb the words (Met. 2.327–8): “Here lies buried Phaethon, charioteer of his father’s chariot; if he did not manage to control it, at least it was in a great endeavour that he fell.”[2] The sentiment corresponds closely to an anonymous source quoted by Longinus (3.3): “For all who aim at grandeur, in trying to avoid the charge of being feeble and arid, fall somehow into this fault [of turgidity], pinning their faith to the maxim that ‘to miss a high aim is to fail without shame’.”

The Great Dome at Castle Howard, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, 1709–12 (modern restoration of original destroyed by fire in 1940).

Later writers and artists have judged Ovid’s attempt at sublime flight to be worthy of emulation. Architectural sublimity and the sublimity of terror are combined in Sir John Vanbrugh’s Great Hall at Castle Howard, which, it has been suggested, “is an attempt to reconstruct the Palace of the Sun, with its lofty pillars, elaborate workmanship, marble-decked, surrounded by continents and elements.”[3] On the dome is painted the fall of Phaethon.

The fall of Phaethon is also the subject, for example, of works by two of the most sublime artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque. Michelangelo’s highly finished drawing of the fall of Phaethon (1533) was a present for the young man to whom Michelangelo was passionately devoted, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, and it perhaps bore fatherly advice for Tommaso as he started on his journey through life.

Jupiter hurling his thunderbolt occupies the same position in the composition as does Christ in Judgement within Michelangelo’s sublime fresco of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, on which he was about to start work. Peter Paul Rubens’ early painting, The Fall of Phaethon, is a stunning virtuoso exercise in the sublime. The path of Jupiter’s thunderbolt is seen in the brilliant shaft of light slanting across the picture. Phaethon is precipitated, helpless, out of the chariot, and the horses hurtle in disorder in different directions. The butterfly-winged Horae (“Hours”) are panic-stricken, and the earth below bursts out in flame.

The fall of Phaethon, Peter Paul Rubens, 1604/5 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA).

Themes of sonhood and succession are narrated in a large-scale allusion to the Phaethon story in one of the most sublime episodes in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). In keeping with a late-medieval allegorization of the fall of Phaethon as the fall of Satan, Milton builds allusion to Ovid’s Phaethon into his account of Satan’s rebellion against God, as David Quint has brilliantly demonstrated.[4] Where Phaethon is anxious to prove that he is the son of the Sun-god, Satan denies that his existence depends upon God, and claims that the fallen angels are “self-begot”, “the birth mature | Of this our native heaven, ethereal sons” (Paradise Lost 5.859–63).[5]

Satan allusively usurps the position of the Sun as father when we see him “exalted” in the opening lines of Book 2. This occurs in a scene that, among many other intertexts, mirrors the lofty and shining Palace of the Sun, located in the east, in the opening lines of Book 2 of the Metamorphoses:

High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth or Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous east with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat. (PL 2.1–5)

We next see Satan “exalted” in Raphael’s narrative of the war in heaven in Book 6, where Satan goes into battle in a version of the chariot of the Sun:

High in the midst, exalted as a God,
The Apostate in his sun-bright chariot sat,
Idol of majesty divine, enclosed
With flaming Cherubim, and golden shields. (PL 6.99–102)

Satan, Sin and Death, William Hogarth (after Milton), c. 1735 (Tate Britain, London).

But this pretender sun-king is sent into free fall by God the Son, who shows himself the true child of his Father, and who, on the last day of the war in heaven, goes into battle against Satan in “The chariot of Paternal Deity, | Flashing thick flames.” Driving his paternal chariot with unerring skill, he sends before him “ten thousand thunders”, like Ovid’s Jupiter. But, in a swerve from the Ovidian plot, he “checked | His thunder in mid-volley, for he meant | Not to destroy, but root them out of heaven” (6.853–5).

Satan and his crew are not killed, but sent headlong down to Hell in a fall that outdoes the vertiginous terror of Phaethon’s headlong fall (Met. 2.320 uoluitur in praeceps):

The overthrown he raised, and as a herd
Of goats or timorous flock together thronged
Drove them before him thunderstruck, pursued
With terrors, and with furies, to the bounds
And crystal wall of Heaven; which, opening wide,
Rolled inward, and a spacious gap disclosed
Into the wasteful deep: the monstrous sight
Struck them with horror backward, but far worse
Urged them behind: Headlong themselves they threw
Down from the verge of Heaven; eternal wrath
Burnt after them to the bottomless pit. (PL 6.856–66)

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, 1536–41 (fresco in the Sistine Chapel, The Vatican).

Episodes of sublimity invite parody, and indeed, as Pseudo-Longinus already knew, the sublime can all too easily fall into the ridiculous. Ovid’s Phaethon was subjected to various burlesque and mock-heroic treatments. One example is Friedrich Wilhelm Zachariä’s Der Phaeton (1754), in German hexameters (and later translated into Latin by Heinrich Gottfried Reichard, 1780). The heroine, the 14-year-old Diana, cures her father’s gout, and, in gratitude, he offers her whatever she wishes. He is horrified when she asks to drive her father’s equivalent of a sports-car, a “phaeton”.[6] She goes out for a ride with her boyfriend, and, leaving the centre of the road, falls into a fishpond. There is a happy ending.

The high flyer Phaeton carriage, 1816 (drawing published by Robert Ackermann, London).

In the eighteenth century, the phaeton was the very latest in high-speed carriage technology. In Ovid, the Sun’s chariot is a glittering example of the craftsmanship of the ancient god of technology, Vulcan. Ovid’s twenty-first-century reader may be put in mind of the disastrous effects of modern technology by Mother Earth’s plea to Jupiter to be spared from the effects of global heating, as she views the apocalyptic scenes of forests ablaze on mountains across the world, and rivers drying up.

Philip Hardie is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the author of numerous works on Latin literature and its reception. His forthcoming book Celestial Aspirations: Classical Impulses in British Poetry and Art looks at both successful and unsuccessful ways of taking flight.

Further Reading

A. Barchiesi, “Phaethon and the monsters,” in P. Hardie (ed.), Paradox and the Marvellous in Augustan Literature and Culture (Oxford UP, 2009) 163–88.

A. Barchiesi (ed.), A Commentary on Ovid, Metamorphoses vol. 1 (Cambridge UP, 2022).

M. Hannay, Magnanimus Phaethon. The Sublime in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (MA Thesis, Leiden, 2016), available here.

P. Hardie, Celestial Aspirations: Classical Impulses in British Poetry and Art (Princeton UP, 2022).

D. Quint, Inside Paradise Lost: Reading the Designs of Milton’s Epic (Princeton UP, 2014), ch. 3 “Fear of falling: Icarus, Phaethon and Lucretius”.

A. Schiesaro, “Materiam superabat opus: Lucretius metamorphosed,” Journal of Roman Studies 104 (2014) 73–104.

S.M. Schreiner, “Phaethon puella: Friedrich Wilhelm Zachariä’s Der Phaeton and Heinrich Gottfried Reichard’s neo-Latin translation Phaethontis libri V,” Humanistica Lovaniensia 53 (2004) 351–69.


1 The text of Ovid’s Metamorphoses can be read online most conveniently in Latin here and in English here.
2 Hic situs est Phaethon, currus auriga paterni, / quem si non tenuit, magnis tamen excidit ausis.
3 C. Saumarez Smith, The Building of Castle Howard (Faber & Faber, London, 1990) 108.
4 See his book listed under Further Reading above.
5 The text of Milton’s Paradise Lost can be conveniently read online here.
6 See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. phaeton 3.