Ovid’s Heroines.

Ovid’s Heroides
— ancient fan fiction

1. Ovid (1st c. BCE and CE), Tristia 2.361-376. Translated by A. L. WheelerRevised by G. P. Goold.

Moreover, not I alone have written tales of tender love, but for writing of love I alone have been punished. What but the union of love and lavish wine was the teaching of the lyric muse of the aged Tean bard [=Anacreon, 6th c. BCE]? What did Lesbian Sappho teach the girls if not love? Yet Sappho was secure, the Tean also was secure. It did not injure thee, scion of Battus [=Callimachus, 3rd c. BCE] that thou didst often in verse confess to the reader thy wanton pleasures. No play of charming Menander [4th/3rd c. BCE] is free from love, yet he is wont to be read by boys and girls. The very Iliad—what is it but an adulteress about whom her lover and her husband fought? What occurs in it before the flaming passion for Briseis and the feud between the chiefs due to the seizure of the girl? What the Odyssey except the story of one woman sought in her husband’s absence for love’s sake by many suitors?

2a. Peter Knox, Ovid: Heroides. Select Epistles (1995: 86, 87):

“Our evidence for the role of Penelope in post-Homeric accounts of the story is scanty…but it seems clear that it was Ovid who took the imaginative step of representing the events of the Odyssey from her point of view. In so doing, he has taken her character far beyond the traditional role of a paradigm of fidelity.”

“Ovid’s epistle of Penelope is not simply a rhetorical reworking of a Homeric theme, but a masterly exploration of character, making new the material of the oldest literary tradition available to him.”

2b. Fresco from the north interior wall of the Macellum in Pompeii c. 65 CE. Thought to depict Penelope and Odysseus as beggar (cf. Odyssey 19.51-360).

2c. Ovid, Heroides 1.1-12. Translated by Grant ShowermanRevised by G. P. Goold.

These words your Penelope sends to you, O Ulysses, slow of return that you are; writing back is pointless: come yourself! Troy, to be sure, is fallen, hated of the daughters of Greece; but scarcely were Priam and all Troy worth the price to me. O would that then, when his ship was on the way to Lacedaemon, the adulterous lover had been overwhelmed by raging waters! Then had I not lain cold in my deserted bed, nor would now be left alone complaining of slowly passing days; nor would the hanging web be wearying now my widowed hands as I seek to beguile the hours of spacious night. When have I not feared dangers graver than the real? Love is a thing ever filled with anxious fear.

2d. Ovid, Heroides 1.59-63, 66-80:

Whoso turns to these shores of ours his stranger ship is plied with many a question ere he go away, and into his hand is given the sheet writ by these fingers of mine, to render up should he but see you anywhere…[1.66] In what lands are you abiding, or where do you idly tarry? Better for me, were the walls of Phoebus still standing in their place—ah me inconstant, I am wroth with the vows myself have made! Had they not fallen, I should know where you were fighting, and have only war to fear, and my plaint would be joined with that of many another. But now, what I am to fear I know not—yet none the less I fear all things, distraught, and wide is the field lies open for my cares. Whatever dangers the deep contains, whatever the land, suspicion tells me are cause of your long delay. While I live on in foolish fear of things like these, you may be captive to a stranger love (peregrino captus amore potes, 1.76)—such are the hearts of you men! It may be you even tell how rustic a wife you have—one fit only to dress fine the wool. May I be mistaken, and this charge of mine be found slight as the breeze that blows, and may it not be that, free to return, you want to be away!

2e. Ovid, Heroides 1.83-94:

Let him chide on — yours I am, yours must I be called; Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, ever shall I be. Yet is he bent by my faithfulness and my chaste prayers, and of himself abates his urgency. The men of Dulichium and Samos, and they whom high Zacynthus bore—a wanton throng—come pressing about me, suing for my hand. In your own hall they are masters, with none to say them nay; your goods, my very life, are being pillaged. Why tell you of Pisander, and of Polybus, and of Medon the cruel, and of the grasping hands of Eurymachus and Antinous, and of others, all of whom through shameful absence you yourself are feeding fat with store that was won at cost of your blood?

2f. Ovid, Heroides 1.115-116:

As for myself, who when you left my side was but a girl, though you should come straightway, I surely shall seem grown an aged dame.

3. Ovid, Heroides 10.1-16. Go back and reread Catullus 64.

Gentler than you I have found every race of wild beasts; to none of them could I so ill have trusted as to you. The words you now are reading, Theseus, I send you from that shore from which the sails bore off your ship without me, the shore on which my slumber, and you, so wretchedly betrayed me—you, who wickedly plotted against me as I slept. ’Twas the time when the earth is first besprinkled with crystal rime, and songsters hid in the branch begin their plaint. Half waking only and languid from sleep, I turned upon my side and put forth hands to clasp my Theseus—he was not there! I drew back my hands, a second time I made essay, and o’er the whole couch moved my arms—he was not there! Fear struck away my sleep; in terror I arose, and threw myself headlong from my abandoned bed. Straight then my palms resounded upon my breasts, and I tore my hair, all disarrayed as it was from sleep.

4. Dani Bostick (@danibostick), “The Voice of the Heartbroken.” In Medias Res. Nov. 20 2018.

‘How well did Ovid write in the female voice? From the perspective of one 19th-century male, he nailed it. Among Heroides’ merits are “its insights into the female heart,” per Arthur Palmer in 1898. Modern scholarly reception of Heroides tends praise the work’s intertextuality while remaining critical of Ovid’s narrative voice. Ovid has been described as a caricaturist who diminishes female power. Others have accused him of ascribing “verbose powerlessness” to the heroines and creating female characters who use the epistolary genre “in the service of self-marginalization.”

As I read the Heroides, I was struck by how accurately Ovid portrayed the emotions associated with abandonment and unrequited love. Nonetheless, I was not left with the impression that Ovid has special “insights into the female heart.” Ovid did not need special insights because certain experiences transcend both gender and time. Ovid, like Tredget, could relate to the heroine’s experiences and imagine himself in their position.’

5a. Peter Knox, Ovid: Heroides. Select Epistles (1995: 278-279):

“Phaon was a ferryman who worked the route between Lesbos and the mainland. The goddess Aphrodite came to him disguised as an old woman seeking transport, which he provided free of charge. As a reward the goddess endowed Phaon with attractiveness irresistible to any woman. It was almost inevitable that this figure of local lore on the island of Lesbos would eventually be associated with the celebrated female poet who wrote so much about love…It is reasonable to assume that the story of her love for Phaon originated as a speculative reconstruction derived from a reference in her poetry to the local tradition of the ferryman. No fragment of her poetry refers to this, but one ancient mythographical treatise (Palaeph. De incred. 48) explicitly records that Sappho wrote about this Phaon….The author of the Heroides 15, unlike Ovid, struck out on an original path, taking the biographical traditions about a literary figure as the basis for an epistolary fiction.”

5b. Glenn Most, “Reflecting Sappho” (1996: 17): 

“The earliest surviving example of this strategy is Heroides 15, attributed, perhaps correctly, to Ovid*. This poem, in the form of a letter written by Sappho to Phaon, is by far the most influential document in the history of the reception of Sappho: when it was discovered in the early 15th c., it was thought to be a genuine letter by Sappho, translated into Latin; and for centuries after, when its author had been identified as Ovid, its elegance, massive availability, and easy comprehensibility ensured that it would dominate over the few, scattered, difficult genuine fragments in establishing the image of the poetess. Indeed, the text Sappho is clutching in Raphael’s fresco Parnassus [1509-1511] in the Stanza della Segnatura at the Vatican is most likely to be this very epistle.”

*in a note here, Most writes: “I deliberately avoid taking a firm position here on the controversial question of the authenticity of this poem,…; but I will remark that none of the arguments that have been brought against its Ovidian authorship seems to me decisive.”

5c. Raphael’s fresco Parnassus in the Stanza della Segnatura at the Vatican. Image: Wikimedia. The god Apollo, seated at the centre, plays the lyre surrounded by the nine Muses, and by ancient and modern poets, among whom Homer (blind), Virgil and Dante are easily recognisable behind him, as well as the poetess Sappho seated at the bottom left, with her name written on the scroll she holds in her left hand.


Sappho Rafael Parnassus close-up, w Most 1996:17.jpg

6a. Ovid (?), Heroides 15.1-12. Translated by Grant ShowermanRevised by G. P. Goold.

Tell me, when you looked upon the characters from my eager right hand, did your eye know forthwith whose they were—or, unless you had read their author’s name, Sappho, would you fail to know whence these brief words come? Perhaps, too, you may ask why my verses alternate, when I am better suited to the lyric mode. I must weep, for my love —and elegy is the weeping strain; no lyre is suited to my tears. I burn—as burns the fruitful acre when its harvests are ablaze, with untamed east-winds driving on the flame. The fields you frequent, O Phaon, lie far away, by Typhoean Aetna; and I—heat not less than the fires of Aetna preys on me.

6b. Ovid (?), Heroides 15.15-20:

Neither the maids of Pyrrha charm me now, nor they of Methymna, nor all the rest of the throng of Lesbian daughters. Naught is Anactorie to me, naught Cydro, the dazzling fair; my eyes joy not in Atthis as once they did, nor in the hundred other maids I loved here to my reproach; unworthy one, the love that belonged to many maids you alone possess.

6c. Ovid (?), Heroides 15.31-41:

If nature, malign to me, has denied the charm of beauty, weigh in the stead of beauty the genius that is mine. If I am slight of stature, yet I have a name fills every land; the measure of my name is my real height. If I am not dazzling fair, Cepheus’ Andromeda was fair in Perseus’ eyes, though dusky with the hue of her native land. Besides, white pigeons oft are mated with those of different hue, and the black turtledove, too, is loved by the bird of green. If none shall be yours unless deemed worthy of you for her beauty’s sake, then none shall be yours at all. Yet, when I read you my songs, I seemed already beautiful enough.

7. P. Oxy. 1800 fr. 1, Oxyrhynchus papyrus (late 2nd or early 3rd c. CE).

Sappho was a Lesbian by birth, of the city of Mytilene. Her father was Scamander or, according to some, Scamandronymus, and she had three brothers, Erigyius, Larichus and Charaxus, the eldest, who sailed to Egypt and associated with one Doricha, spending large sums on her; Sappho was more fond of the young Larichus. She had a daughter Cleis, named after her own mother. She has been accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover. In appearance she seems to have been contemptible and quite ugly, being dark in complexion and of very small stature. The same is true of (Alcaeus?) who was smallish . . .

blog post

Weaving love.

Catullus 64
— Ariadne
— Parcae

1. Pliny the Elder (1st c. CE) Natural History 8.194:

Varro [1st c. BCE] informs us, on his own authority, that the wool on the distaff and spindle of Tanaquil [wife of Tarquinius Priscus, 5th king of Rome] (who was also called Gaia Caecilia) was still preserved in the temple of Sancus; and also in the shrine of Fortune a pleated royal robe made by her, which had been worn by Servius Tullius [6th king of Rome]. Hence arose the practice that maidens at their marriage were accompanied by a decorated distaff and a spindle with thread.

2. Karen Hersch, The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity (2010: 177-178): 

“When the bride arrived at her new home, Pliny said, she smeared the doorposts with the fat of a pig or a wolf, the latter ‘to keep out all evil potions’ [mali medicamenti, Plin. NH 28.142]. Later authors claimed that the bride both anointed the doorposts and decorated them with wool, and the word uxor [“wife”] was said to have derived from unguere, “to anoint,” for a bride anoints the doorposts of the groom’s house. Servius [4th c. CE] noted that as soon as brides reached the threshold, they affixed vittae [“headbands”], which are signs of chastity. The wolf’s fat is more complex: those who write about weddings, claimed Servius, say that a new bride coats the doorposts with wolf’s fat ‘because both the fat and the limbs of this beast are used as a remedy for many things.’ Others claim that the ritual was established at the time of Romulus’ lupine adoption. Servius added that wolves are notable for their fidelity, and finally that a new bride ‘does these things, so that she might know she is entering a sanctified house, and at the same time carrying wool she was promising (skill in) woolworking’ [Serv. Aen. 4.458].”

3. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 61.114-128. Translated by Peter Green.

Hey boys, raise high your torches — I
see the flame-coloured veil approach!
All together in chorus now:
“Io Hymne Hymeneal, io,
io Hymen Hymeneal!”

Time, high time, for the ribald and
cocksure bantering; time for the
boy toy, finding himself cut off
from his master’s affections, to
hand out nuts to the children!

Scatter nuts to the kids, you limp
boy toy! Long enough now you’ve been
playing with nuts: but today you must
yield your rule to the marriage god:
boy toy, scatter your nuts now!


3a. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.1-7. Translated by Peter Green.

Once on a time pine trees from Pelion’s summit
are said to have swum through Neptune’s crystal ripples
to the breakers of Phasis and Aeëtes’ territory,
when chosen young men, the strong core of Argive manhood,
eager to filch that gilded hide from the Colchians,
dared in their swift vessel to traverse the briny shoals,
sweeping blue, deep-sea vistas with their blades of fir-wood.


3b. (Close up of) Athenian red-figure volute krater (late 5th/early 4th c. BCE). Name vase of the Talos Painter. Discovered at Ruvo, Italy. Image: Furtwängler and Reichhold. The Argonauts on the Argo (left). Medea (right). Talos is a metal giant that Medea defeats for the Argonauts (see: Apollonius Rhodius‘ Argonautica 4.1638–93).

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4. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.12-21. Translated by Peter Green.

And the moment its prow sheared through their wind-whipped surface,
and waves glistened spume white from the twist of the oar blades,
wild shy faces emerged from the foaming eddies,
deepwater Nereïds, in wonder at this portent.
That was the day, never matched, when mere mortals witnessed
marine nymphs rising up from the dappled sea surge,
mother-naked to breasts and below. It was then that Peleus —
so goes the story — burned up with love for Thetis,
then that Thetis did not reject a human marriage,
then that the Father himself felt that Peleus and Thetis should wed.


5. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.31-35; 46-51. Translated by Peter Green.

When in due course this most eagerly awaited
wedding day dawns, guests from every distant quarter
of Thessaly throng the house, the palace is crowded
with a rejoicing multitude. All bear gifts, their faces
beam pleasure.

and there at its heart is set the goddess’s own bridal
couch, all smoothly inlaid with Indian ivory,
its purple drapery dipped in the mollusc’s blushing dye.
This coverlet, decorated with antique human figures,
portrays in marvelous art the brave deeds of heroes.


6a. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.52-65. Translated by Peter Green.

There, gazing out from Dia’s surf-loud shoreline,
eyes fixed on Theseus as he and his swift vessels
dwindle away to nothing, with uncontrollable passion
filling her heart, not yet able to credit the witness
of her own eyes, roused that moment from treacherous slumber,
Ariadne finds herself left on the lonely strand, poor creature,
while her heedless young lover vanishes, oar strokes flailing
the shallows, scattering broken promises galewards.
Him from afar, there on the wrack-strewn beach, eyes
agonized, Minos’ daughter, a stony bacchant, watches,
ah, watches, in breaking waves of grief unbounded,
lost the fine-woven net from her golden tresses,
lost the light garment veiling her torso, lost the
rounded breast-band that gathered her milk white bosom —


6b. Roman wall painting. Ariadne weeps as Theseus sails away. House of Meleager, Pompeii (Napes Inv. 9051). Image: wikimedia.


Fredrick 1995: 272: “There are 43 paintings of Ariadne abandoned or discovered in Pompeii — roughly somewhere between 5 and 10% of the total number of panels. This makes Ariadne the single most popular individual subject in Pompeii.”

6c. The Roman statue known as “Sleeping Ariadne” from the Vatican Museum. Because the statue has a bracelet in the form of a serpent, it was long believed to be of Cleopatra. Ennio Quirino Visconti identified it as Ariadne in late 1700s. Image: Vatican Museum.



7a. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.110-115. Translated by Peter Green.

so Theseus brought down the monster, mastered its body
as it butted its horns in vain against airy emptiness,
then walked back out unhurt, in a cloud of glory, guiding
his fallible footsteps with that one slender thread, lest
during his emergence from the Labyrinth’s windings
its deceptively mazed confusion should frustrate his purpose.

7b. Elaine Reichek (2009) Ariadne’s Lament. Image: MFA Boston.

Ariadne's Lament American 2009 Elaine Reichek (American).jpg

7c. Elaine Reichek (2011) “The Graces With Their Own Hands.” Hand embroidery with beads on linen. Remix of Giovanni Battista Crosato’s (18th c.) “Bacchus crowning Ariadne with a diadem of stars” and Apollonius of Rhodes (Argonautica 4.423-435). Image: elainereichek.com.


8a. Catullus (1st c. BCE) 64.303-327. Translated by Peter Green.

When the guests had settled themselves on the white-backed seating
the tables were piled high with an array of dishes;
and meanwhile, old bodies prey to infirmity’s tremors,
the trio of Fates [Parcae] began their prophetic chanting.
Each wore a long white robe that enfolded her tremulous
frame and fell to her ankles, purple-bordered; the three
had bandeaux of roses on their snow-white heads,
while their hands were properly busy with their unending labor,
the left gripping the distaff, all shrouded in soft wool,
while the right, first, teased out the threads with upturned
fingers and formed them, then twisting with down-turned thumb
spun the spindle, balanced on its rounded whorl,
while constantly with their teeth they nibbled and smoothed the work,
and to their thin lips nipped-off wool tufts adhered
which before were excrescences on the even thread line,
while before their feet the soft fleeces of bright white wool
were stored in little baskets of woven osier.
They now, still carding their fleeces, in clear articulate tones
poured forth in god-inspired song these prophecies —
a song no future age would accuse of falsehood.
“O you who augment high achievement with great virtues,
Emathia’s safeguard, most dear to the son of Ops,
accept what the Sisters reveal for you on this auspicious
day, a true oracle. But you which the fates follow,
run, drawing the weft out, run, you spindles!

8b. Aulus Gellius (2nd c. CE) Attic Nights 3.16.9-11:

But Varro [1st c. BCE] says that the early Romans did not regard such births as unnatural rarities, but they did believe that a woman was gave birth according to nature in the ninth or tenth month, and in no others, and that for this reason they gave to the three Fates names derived from bringing birth, and from the ninth and tenth months. “For Parca,” says he, “is derived from partus with the change of one letter, and likewise Nona and Decima from the period of timely delivery.” But Caesellius Vindex [2nd c. CE] in his Ancient Readings says: “The names of the Fates are three: Nona, Decuma, Morta.”