'Exceptional' find of Roman statues linked to poet Ovid

By Alan Johnston
BBC News

image captionThe head of Niobe has been described as an "exceptional" find

Archaeologists in Italy say they have discovered what they've called a "very important" series of statues dating back to the Roman era.

The seven figures were found in a villa outside the city owned by the patron of the celebrated poet, Ovid.

They depict one of the myths recounted in his masterpiece, Metamorphoses, that of the proud mother Niobe.

The team unearthed the 2m-high figures at the bottom of what would have been a richly-decorated swimming pool.

It is reckoned that the statues toppled in to the pool during an earthquake and remained there for about 2,000 years.

In Metamorphoses, Ovid recounted many myths of transformations. He wrote of Niobe, the mother of 14 children who boasted about how much more fertile she was than the goddess Leto.

She was punished her for her pride. Leto's two children, Artemis and Apollo, slaughtered her offspring. In her grief, Niobe turned to stone, weeping continuously.

The discovery of the statues raises an intriguing question - which came first, the statues or Ovid's famous poem?

Perhaps the owner of the villa ordered the making of the statues for his home after reading the tale in his favourite poet's work.

Or maybe it was the other way round.

Maybe the statues inspired the poem. Perhaps Ovid admired them as he lounged by his patron's pool, and was moved to write of the disaster that engulfed Niobe.

The archaeologists have only just announced their discovery of the statues, which are in comparatively good condition. The team described them as an "exceptional" find, the discovery of a lifetime.