The World’s Love-Hate Relationship With Ovid’s Heroides

Can the World Fall in Love with Ovid’s Heartbreak Letters Again?

“I can’t believe I spent the whole morning writing a letter to Hippolytus.” Phedre by Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889). (Wikimedia Commons)

Moby Dick is a good example of a book whose acclaim matched the contempt critics showered on it. “Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon,” wrote one 1852 reviewer. “He is gauging, at once, our gullibility and our patience.” Just a few months before a reviewer lauded it, “It is not a mere tale of adventures, but a whole philosophy of life, that it unfolds.”

Ovid’s Heroides is another work that has inspired widely divergent critical reviews. Ovid’s fresh perspective on well-known mythological stories (they are all imagined from the woman’s perspective, as in many contemporary retellings), in well-composed Latin, had tremendous appeal during the Renaissance, both as stand-alone literature and as a springboard to creative pursuits from other writers. Saltonstall Wye’s preface to his 1640 English translation of the Heroides remarked on the expansion of readership:

Ladies and Gentlewomen, since this book of Ovid’s which most Gentlemen could read before in Latin, is for your sakes come forth in English, it doth at first address it self a Suiter, to wooe your acceptance, that it may kiss your hands, and afterward have the lines thereof in reading sweetned by the odour of your breath, while the dead letters form’d into words by your divided lips, may receive new life by your passionate expression, and the words married in that Ruby-coloured Temple, may thus happily united, multiply your contentment. And in a word let this be.

Yes, the English version Heroides was marketed for women who couldn’t read Latin. In that same time period, there was also tradition of poets responding to Ovid’s imagined letters. Raphael Lyne explained, “The practice of replying to Ovid links with wider poetic practices, in the form of complaint but also in the form of epistolatory dialogue.” There were also satirical versions of the Heroides, such as Alexander Radcliffe’s Ovid Travestie, A Burlesque Upon Ovid’s Epistles. This excerpt is based on Ovid’s letter from Penelope to Odysseus:

The little Rogue, your Son, was almost drown’d,
Padling about, he tumbled in the Pond,
But we recover’d him with much adoe,
I hope, hee’ll prove a better Man than you.
In short, If speedily you do not come,
You will be eaten out of house and home.

This popularity continued for centuries. In 1899 the Heroides still enjoyed a wide audience, with one author commenting, “It bears well also the test of world-wide and long-continued popularity.” This assertion is corroborated by the number of grammar school readers that contained excerpts from the Heroides. In 1921, Grant Showermann described its universal appeal in the introduction to the Loeb edition of the text: “All the world loves a lover, and all the world has for a long time loved most of the Heroides.

Although Showermann also proclaimed, “The malicious critic of Heroides will be hard to find,” harsh critics of the work have existed. Some have found fault with the Heroides because of doubts about the authenticity of certain poems. Others have an almost irrational hatred for the work. In 1955, L.P. Wilkinson described his extreme distaste for the poem in Ovid Recalled by comparing it to a plum pudding with a few sporadic “glittering rings and sixpences” mixed in:

The first slice is appetising enough, but each further slice becomes colder and less digestible until the only incentive for going in is the prospect of coming across an occasional ring or sixpence.

Meanwhile, the Heroides were still so widely assigned in grammar schools that Wilkinson complained, “It seems a pity that so many school boys should be introduced to Ovid through this work.” Four decades after he made these comments, Wilkinson’s wish had come true. In 1998 Joseph Farrell wrote there are “no doubt many reasons” why the Heroides have been poorly received and studied “comparatively little as literature.”

More recently, the pendulum has swung back in the other direction, and the Heroides has been viewed more positively. In 2002 one scholar noted that classicists had successfully shown that the “the corpus is, in fact, a poetic tour de force.” Although interest in the Heroides is on the rise in academic circles, it is still rarely taught in high schools, and only isolated poems make appearances on reading list for graduate programs in classics.

The Heroides’ resurgence in popularity should not be relegated to academic circles. It is exceptionally innovative: a series of letters, written from the perspective of different women, and designed to be performed aloud. Ovid himself said of his work:

Vel tibi composita cantetur Epistola voce
ignotum hoc aliis ille novavit opus 
(Or may a letter be sung by you with a trained voice: Ovid invented this work unknown to others). (Ars Amatoria 3.345–46)

While the exact intent of his statement is the subject of much scholarly debate, the overall concept is indeed groundbreaking, one that others would return to over and over again (in a similar vein Arthur Henry Hollam wrote of Alfred Tennyson’s poetry, “We contend that it is a new species of poetry, a graft of the lyric on the dramatic, and Mr. Tennyson deserves the Laurel of an inventor”). While replies to the Heroides and satirical versions of the Heroides probably will not reemerge as literary sub-genres, there is no reason the Metamophoses needs to be students’ main introduction to Ovid. Dido’s letter to Aeneas is a perfect supplement to selections from the A.P. Latin syllabus, while Ariadne’s letter to Theseus could work in nicely for teachers who introduce students to Catullus 64. More than a few letters could provide an interesting point of comparison to Catullus’ relationship-oriented letters. Likewise, many non-classroom consumers of Latin would benefit from branching out and reading the Heroides. The poems are of manageable length and add a layer of richness to familiar myths.

[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.]


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.