Ovid on the Therapist’s Couch
Other Writers Go to a Shrink. Ovid Wrote the Heroides
Ovid wrote a lot about love. He recounted his own (maybe) love story with Corinna in the Amores and he dispensed advice to other lovers, providing instruction on attracting women in the Ars Amatoria and getting over heartache in the Remedia Amoris. The Heroides appears to be a completely different genre: Ovid assumes the voice of women appealing to their absent heroes. It’s not an outlier, however. It is clever complement to his other work, if we take at face value Ovid’s words about his words, and recognize that the Heroides — and to some extent writing in general — has therapeutic value.
Ovid describes abandonment, rejection, and heartbreak, but his treatment of these experiences are rather cursory outside of the Heroides. In other works, he gives the reader an idea of his emotional state, but he refrains from exploring his pain. It is through the voices of women that Ovid can explore his own abject powerlessness and despair in the aftermath of abandonment. Since Ovid writes about his own poetry, we have some insight into his perception of his work. In the Amores, Ovid not only rejects other genres of poetry in favor of love elegy, he describes writing the Heroides and mentions many of the heroes and women to whom he gave voice:
aut, quod Penelopes verbis reddatur Ulixi,
scribimus et lacrimas, Phylli relicta, tuas,
quod Paris et Macareus et quod male gratus Iason
Hippolytique parens Hippolytusque legant,
quodque tenens strictum Dido miserabilis ensem
dicat et Aoniae Lesbis amata lyrae.
Or I write the word Penelope sends to Ulysses
and your tears, abandoned Phyllis;
What Paris and Macareus and ungrateful Jason
and Hippolytus’ father and Hypoolytus read,
and what pitiful Dido, holding the sword tight,
says and the beloved Sappho with her Ionian lyre. (2.18.21–26)
In the lines leading up this passage, Ovid describes shame (saepe ‘pudet!’), destruction (me perdunt) defeat (vincor), ridicule (risit Amor), and powerlessness (me dominae numen deduxit iniquae). When Ovid is overcome with certain emotions, he employs the voices of abandoned women like Penelope, Phyllis, and Dido. This could be one reason the Heroides have been perceived as monotonous and flat. Ovid is describing the same experience — his own — through a variety of women.
When he uses his own voice in other works related to love, Ovid also describes his pain, but in a more superficial way. Although Ovid uses the first person when he writes about his ability to tolerate pain (duravi, sustinui, vicimus), he often chooses to depersonalize the struggle. In Amores, Ovid writes about his hardship, but he does not use the first person, instead making hac amor hac odium (on this side love, on the other hate, 3.11b.2) the subject of luctantur (struggle). Ovid stops short of exploring his suffering both in the poems written in his own voice and, it seems, in his actual life. In Amores 3, he reveals that he kept his suffering to himself: “I often endured this suffering in silence” (his et quae taceo duravi saepe ferendis, 3.11a.27).
It seems the main purpose of his portrayal of negative emotional states and unwanted feelings of rejection is to position himself as an expert on overcoming them and position himself as a victor. In the Remedia Amoris Ovid doles out relationship advice, even using the heroines’ circumstances to vaunt his expertise (vixisset Phyllis, si me foret usa magistro, “Phyllis would have survived if she had used me as her instructor” (2.55)). Ovid could have saved women who were unable to save themselves.
Through the advice he dispenses and his description of relationship problems, it is clear that in Ovid’s world, heartache is temporary state he can defeat. This is a martial, masculine experience of love. In many places, Ovid uses military imagery to highlight strength in the face of uncomfortable feelings and situations. For example, in the Ars Amatoria he defines love in military terms (militiae species amor est, 2.233). Elsewhere, Ovid describes himself as liberated, a slave no longer (scilicet adservi iam me fugique catenas/ et quae non puduit ferre, tulisse pudet, “I definitely rescued myself and fled those chains, ashamed of having suffered what I felt no shame suffering at the time” (3.11a, 3–4)). Then, he portrays himself as an empowered victor, writing, “I conquered defeated love and kicked it with my feet” (vicimus et domitum calcamus amorem, 3.11a.5). A few lines later, Ovid reveals his self-discipline and commitment to dignity by giving himself a Catullus-esque pep talk : perfer et obdura! dolor hic tibi proderit olim (Hang in there and be strong! One day this pain will help you) and focusing on self-improvement (non ego nunc stultus, ut ante fui, now I am not the fool as I was before, 3.11a.32).
Ovid presents a much deeper level of emotion in the Heroides. According to Darren Ellis and Ian Tucker in Social Psychology of Emotion, disclosures of emotion are “often changed in various ways so that they are more understandable to the self and indeed to others.” The feminine voice frees Ovid of social stigma and cultural expectations, allowing him to express emotional states that are inconsistent with his self-representation as victor and expert. Ovid is not the first poet to use a female voice in this way. Catullus wrote extensively about love, but his most in-depth treatment of abandonment is delivered through the voice of Ariadne in Catullus 64.
The women of the Heroides are almost completely bereft of agency throughout the work, outside of the recall of past actions. There is no narrative of victory and competence in the Heroides. After all, the letters’ authors are women, not soldiers in love’s army who are equipped to endure, tolerate, overcome, or ‘kick’ love as Ovid does in his own voice. Ovid captures this powerlessness using both first person passive verbs and placing the heroines as objects of transitive verbs throughout the letters. Phaedra, for example, does not even perceive to have a choice in writing to Hippolytus (4.11–12):
dicere quae puduit, scribere iussit amor.
quidquid Amor iussit, non est contemnere tutum.
Love ordered me to write what I was ashamed to say
Whatever love orders, it is not safe to ignore.
Briseis, a slave, describes her act of writing in function of the reader, Achilles: quam legis, a rapta Brisede littera venit (“The letter which you are read comes from kidnapped Briseis” (2.1)). Dido, a queen, describes her act of writing in the same way at the beginning of her letter to Aeneas: quae legis, a nobis ultima verba legis (“What you are reading, you are reading the last words from me” (7.2)). Her single moment of empowerment comes at the end of her letter when she indicates she will kill herself (Praebuit Aeneas et causam mortis et ensem / ipsa sua Dido concidit usa manu, “Aeneas provided the cause of my death and the sword/ Dido herself perished with her own hand” (7.195–6)).
Ovid doesn’t just describe experiences in the Heroides, however: he probably derives therapeutic value from the act of writing. Modern mental health professionals know the value of letter-writing for helping clients process strong emotions through their own voice, or the voice of another. A group of therapists described the purpose: “We use therapeutic letters to help the patient to identify difficult feelings… with the chance for the patients to be finally free from these feelings.” Ovid himself confirms that he uses letters in this way in the Epistulae Ex Ponto when he mentions his one voice seeking help through many voices (unaque per plures vox mea temptat opem (3.9.42)) and when he ascribes a concrete purpose to his work (da veniam scriptis, quorum non gloria nobis/ causa, sed utilitas officiumque fuit; “forgive my writings; glory was not their purpose, but duty and usefulness” (3.9.55–6)). And, just as modern therapists are tasked with bearing witness to pain, so the Muse was a witness of Ovid’s troubles (Epistulae Ex Ponto 3.9):
Musa mea est index nimium quoque vera malorum
atque incorrupti pondera testis habet.
My Muse is a true index of my sufferings
and has the weight of a reliable witness.
If the Amores, Ars Amatoria, and Remedia Amoris portray victory over heartbreak, the Heroides reveals the powerlessness, helplessness, and turmoil that are incompatible with the identity Ovid projects to the world. It is impossible to know to what extent Ovid’s personal experiences informed his poetry, but his representations of emotional states are relatable and timeless. At the very least, he does a convincing job of representing someone who has been through the ups and downs of a relationship and traumatic breakup. With this in mind, Heroides can be viewed a piece through which Ovid expresses emotional states he is not comfortable articulating in his own voice. Though Ovid writes about aspects of heartache in many of his works, Heroides is his outlet for both describing the depths of abandonment pain and exploring poetry as a vehicle for healing.
[This is part of a series of essays about Ovid at his bimillennial. For more information about the series, and for other essays, click on the links below.]
Reading Ovid at his Bimillennial
In Medias Res explores the work of the Most Roman of Rome’s Ancient Poets.
The Voice of the Heartbroken
“Ovid’s Feminine Voice” in the Heroides is Really the Universal Voice of Heartbreak
Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in Virginia where she lives with her husband, children, and muppet-like dogs. She has published many collections of Latin mottoes online,has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on twitter, and is available to write, speak, or rabble-rouse.