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Male voices in Ovid’s Heroides*

Andreas N. Michalopoulos


Ovid’s Heroides, both the single and double letters, have been intensively explored in terms of the role and character of the female voice throughout the last few decades. The single letters, in particular, supposedly written by well-known legendary heroines abandoned by, or separated from, their “heroic” husbands or lovers, have been extensively treated as regards Ovid’s, i.e. a male poet’s, ability to successfully assume the female voice and write from the perspective of women, a challenging feat in all respects. On this point Ovidian critics have not reached a unanimous verdict. What about the male voice, though? Is it fully lost under the veil of feminine writing? This paper seeks to bring the male voice to the forefront by examining certain passages from the single Heroides, in which the male voice is heard, either in indirect speech or through direct quoting of the words of the male lovers. It also attempts to trace each female letter-writer’s motivation for quoting these words, the criteria governing the choice of these quotations, and their purpose within each letter.

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This paper is dedicated to the loving memory of Stratis Kyriakidis,
Emeritus Professor of Latin at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Stratis was a brilliant and an untiring scholar, a passionate teacher and
a generous and wonderful man, who inspired many generations of Greek
students to study Latin. He will be sorely missed.

Texte intégral

  • * I would like to thank the anonymous referees who helped me improve this paper with their valuable s (...)
  • 1 My introductory discussion here is largely based on Vaiopoulos – Michalopoulos – Michalopoulos (202 (...)

1Ovid’s choice of the verse elegiac letter as the appropriate genre for the treatment of the love stories of abandoned and betrayed mythological women had obvious advantages, which the talented author made the most of. Most importantly, the letter opened for Ovid a window into a world of unconstrained subjectivity, multiple narrative perspectives, and occasional distortion of reality on the part of the letter-writers (whether intentional or not).1 The letter-writers have the opportunity to provide a more personal, or even alternative, narrative, because the epistolary genre blurs the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’. The female letter-writers in the Heroides present their own version of reality, which does not always agree with the accepted ‘objective’ reality, as it has been established in the literary or mythological tradition. Everything is filtered through their personal viewpoint; in their desperate attempt to win back their lovers, the heroines frequently deviate from the ‘objective’ truth. These deviations may be the result either of misinterpretation or of deliberate distortion. Through such processes of depicting the world and the self, and with the help of a range of rhetorical strategies, the heroines communicate their complaints and their desire to reunite with the men they love in their own, unique way.

2The female letter-writers in the Heroides revisit the past – or even reconstruct the past – based on their own desires. The letter-writers construct their version of reality, a “textual” reality so to speak, through intricate and well-designed processes of selection, concealment, censorship, and self-censorship. The triumph of subjectivity in the Heroides eventually causes the relativization of myth, forcing the external reader to view myth as a flexible topic open to literary manipulation.

3As they balance dangerously between life and death, or between love and death, the heroines struggle to articulate their feminine discourse in opposition to – or in parallel with – the dominant discourse of the male poet, Ovid. In fact, given the ancient belief that the letter reflects the soul of the writer, these letters provide us, the external readers, with the unique opportunity to hear the voice of the female letter-writers ‘unmediated’; although history is written by the winners, the letters of the Heroides enable us to listen to the story of the unwarlike, of the innocent victims, of those whom the ‘official’ version of history has relegated to the background. The discourse of women in the Heroides is subversive; it belongs to an alternative world, where the predominance of private emotions subverts the hierarchies of the phallocentric patriarchal society. Even at the cost of death, love and the private sphere eventually succeed in undermining or even in expelling from the female cosmos of the collection everything privileged in the male-dominated world.

  • 2 See among others Barchiesi (1992), Casali (1995), Lindheim (2003), A. Michalopoulos (2006), C. Mich (...)

4 Nevertheless, it is important to recall that the author of the collection is a man, Ovid. In recent years many scholars have studied the female voice of the heroines vis-a-vis the poet’s dominant male voice.2 Ovid’s attempt to assume the female voice and write from the perspective of women is no doubt a challenging endeavor in all respects, and in the Heroides the feminine discourse of the mythological letter-writers co-exists (or occasionally clashes) with the male discourse of Ovid, who is in control of the broader narrative as the external writer. In this paper, I do not focus on the voice of the female letter-writers, but on the voice of their male addressees. I discuss certain passages from the single Heroides, in which the men’s voices can be heard, because the letter-writers either directly quote the words of their husbands (or ex-lovers) or cite their words in reported speech or even cite the words that they are expected to say in the future. I look into the place and function of such quotations in the collection, and I seek out the male voice that is hidden or fading away beneath the veil of feminine writing. I try to explore why the letter-writers quote these words and how these quotations serve the letters as a whole.

5I will attempt to show that the quotations of men’s words in the Heroides serve the strategy of both Ovid (the external author) and the female letter-writers (the internal authors) in various ways. This is a fascinating gendered literary game: these male voices are generated by the female letter-writers, which have been in turn created by a male author, Ovid. On the one hand, Ovid succeeds in incorporating more voices into his letters, breaking up the monotony of the letter-writer’s single voice, and dramatizing key moments in the love affairs depicted therein. The quotations enliven the letters and give the impression of a dialogue between the letter-writers and their addressees. Ovid effectively applies a well-established tenet of epistolographic theory, namely that a letter is the first half of a dialogue (Dem. De eloc. 223):

Ἀρτέμων μὲν οὖν ὁ τὰς Ἀριστοτέλους ἀναγράψας ἐπιστολάς φησιν, ὅτι δεῖ ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ τρόπῳ διάλογόν τε γράφειν καὶ ἐπιστολάς: εἶναι γὰρ τὴν ἐπιστολὴν οἷον τὸ ἕτερον μέρος τοῦ διαλόγου.

  • 3 Cf. also Sen. Epist. 40.1: Quod frequenter mihi scribis, gratias ago. Nam quo uno modo potes, te mi (...)

“Artemon, the editor of Aristotle’s Letters, says that a letter ought to be written in the same manner as a dialogue, a letter being regarded by him as one of the two sides of a dialogue.” (tr. Rhys Roberts, Demetrius on style, Cambridge 1902)3

6Ovid also provides his external readers with glimpses into the dramatic past of the love stories by quoting the conversations between letter-writers and addressees. What’s more, as we shall see below, in some instances he also provides us with a foretaste of the dramatic future of these stories by quoting the words that the male addressees are expected to say long after the composition of these letters.

  • 4 Cf. Trapp (2003) 4: “no letter is a simple, direct transcript of ‘reality’, a wholly transparent wi (...)
  • 5 Trapp (2003) 4. Each time someone writes a letter, they are constructing a self. Rosenmeyer (2001) (...)

7For their part, by quoting their lovers’ or husbands’ words the women letter-writers underline the men’s cunningness and deceitfulness, while simultaneously highlighting their own moral superiority and innocence. These quotations constitute a highly potent tool for the rhetorical and argumentative strategy of the letter-writers in the game of power against their male addressees. The heroines can present those parts of reality and those aspects of their personality that best support their objectives and tactics, an ability that stems from the nature of the epistolographic genre.4 The letter-writers control the narrative by deciding what to say, when and how to say it; what is equally important, they also choose what not to say.5

  • 6 It is only logical that Hippolytus’ words are absent from Phaedra’s letter, since in this love stor (...)
  • 7 To be precise, Deianira does not quote Hercules, but the words of Hercules’ rival, the Centaur Ness (...)

8 In the single Heroides the direct quotation of the words of a husband or a lover is common. There are also passages in which the letter-writer quotes the words which she anticipates or hopes that her lover will say in the future, rather than words said in the past. Except for the letters of Penelope, Phaedra,6 Hermione, and Hypermestra, all the other letters contain direct quotations of the words (supposedly) said by the letters’ addressees.7 These quotations range in length from one word to sixteen lines. The shortest quotation is Paris’ farewell to Oenone, a single ‘vale’ (Her. 5.52), and the most extensive quotation is found in Medea’s letter, where she quotes Jason’s words at their first meeting (Her. 12.73-88).

9 Due to space constraints, I will not go into every single quotation of men’s words in the Heroides. The related material is very rich, and this is part of an ongoing project that I hope to finish soon in a series of papers. In this essay, I will focus on some direct citations of men’s statements from the first three letters of the collection, as well as cases where a man’s words are quoted in reported speech. I chose to focus on the first three letters because Penelope’s letter has an undeniable programmatic character, Phyllis’ letter is a typical example of a letter written by a woman who has been unjustly treated by a perfidus hospes (cf. Hypsipyle, Dido, Ariadne, Medea), and Briseis’ letter is a typical example of a letter written by a captive woman (cf. Hermione, Canace, Hypermestra). These first three letters provide a clear picture of what Ovid is attempting to do when he has his letter-writers introduce the words of their absent male lovers into their letters, depending of course on the specific features of each story.

i. Penelope to Odysseus (Her. 1)

  • 8 See Vaiopoulos – Michalopoulos – Michalopoulos (2021) Her. 1.1-2 with bibliography.
  • 9 Odysseus’ return coincides with Telemachus’ return from his voyage to Pylos and Sparta (Her. 1.37-3 (...)

10 Although it does not contain a direct quotation of Odysseus’ words, I begin with Penelope’s letter because of its programmatic character both in terms of themes and registers running throughout the collection, and in terms of the treatment of the male voice in the Heroides.8 The primary source-text for this letter is of course the Homeric Odyssey, although no such letter can be found there: it is an Ovidian fabrication. Ovid chooses to have his Penelope write this letter after the Trojan War has been over for about ten years and most of the Achaeans have long since returned home, except for her husband. What is particularly intriguing and the learned reader discovers as Penelope’s letter unfolds, is that by the time she writes her letter, Odysseus has already returned to the palace disguised as a beggar, without Penelope knowing of course.9

11The opening distich of Penelope’s letter is important for comprehending the role of the male voice in the single Heroides as a whole (Her. 1.1-2):

Haec tua Penelope lento tibi mittit, Ulixe
     nil mihi rescribas tu tamen: ipse veni!

“From Penelope to Ulysses, her dilatory husband. / Writing back is no good. Come in person!”

  • 10 Lindheim (2003) 39 notes on the clear polarity between written (Penelope) and oral (Odysseus) commu (...)

12Penelope urges Ulysses to return to her immediately, without wasting any time sending her a reply. It is really striking that Ovid’s Penelope effectively silences Odysseus, arguably the most skilled speaker of the Greeks in the Homeric epics. She prompts him to act, rather than write or speak.10 She does not need his words – or perhaps she does not trust his words and promises. All this is extremely ironic as well as very instructive regarding the role of the male voice in the Heroides: the most eloquent of the Greeks, their most capable and intelligent speaker, not only in the Homeric epics but also in later literature, is silenced by his own wife. Odysseus’ voice, Odysseus’ words are nowhere to be found in the letter of Penelope, who has complete authorial control over the narrative. Right at the beginning of her letter Penelope – in fact, Ovid – emphatically demonstrates that the world of the Heroides is decidedly female and dominated by the words of women; in the world of the Heroides the words of men are either absent or marginalized.

13To be precise, the only time that Penelope inserts Odysseus’ words in her letter is in reported speech, which is indicative of the minor importance she places on them: Penelope speculates on what Odysseus might say about her to one of his mistresses (Her. 1.75-78):

haec ego dum stulte metuo, quae vestra libido est,
     esse peregrino captus amore potes.
forsitan et narres, quam sit tibi rustica coniunx,
     quae tantum lanas non sinat esse rudes.

“Those are my foolish fears. You men are so promiscuous, / you could be captivated by some foreign mistress. / Perhaps you tell her how unsophisticated your wife is, the sort / whose wool isn’t coarse while her manners are.”

  • 11 See Barchiesi (1992) 25-26, Knox (1995) on Her. 1.77-78. Most recently Leventi (2022) deals with th (...)

14This is of course one of the most striking cases of ironic intertextuality in the entire collection; the external readers are well aware that in the source-text, the Odyssey, Odysseus actually has an affair with another woman, Calypso, and even speaks to her about Penelope (Hom. Od. 5.215-225).11 Hence, on a metaliterary level, quoting Odysseus’ words in reported speech could be Ovid’s way of showing to his informed readers that he is drawing on another text.

15The only instance that Penelope quotes verbatim the words of a man – not of Odysseus, though – is when she refers to the stories narrated by victorious Greek soldiers and leaders who returned from the war (Her. 1.31-36):

atque aliquis posita monstrat fera proelia mensa,
     pingit et exiguo Pergama tota mero:
‘hac ibat Simois; haec est Sigeia tellus;
     hic steterat Priami regia celsa senis.
illic Aeacides, illic tendebat Ulixes;
     hic lacer admissos terruit Hector equos.’

“One man outlined brutal battles on the table-top, / tracing out the whole of Troy in a little wine: / ‘This is the river Simois, this is Sigeum, / here stood old Priam’s lofty palace. / There were Achilles’ and Ulysses’ tents; here the horses dragged / off Hector’s mangled corpse, frightened into a gallop.’”

  • 12 Also, at Her. 1.81-82 Penelope mentions – but does not quote – her father’s, Icarius’ exhortations (...)

16It is noteworthy that while Penelope does not devote any room in her letter to quote verbatim the words of her husband, the best orator of the Achaeans and one of the Trojan War’s top leaders, she devotes four entire lines to quoting the words of an anonymous Greek warrior, a mere aliquis. This choice is made even more ironic by the fact that this anonymous and insignificant warrior includes in his brief narrative a casual quick mention of Odysseus and his tent.12

ii. Phyllis to Demophoon (Her. 2)

17Phyllis, the princess of Thrace, writes to Demophoon, because he has failed to fulfil his promise to return to her within a month. Believing that he has abandoned her, she complains about Demophoon’s betrayal, accuses him of breaking his vows and promises, and declares that he is the instigator of her imminent suicide.

18Ovid changes and evolves his strategy regarding the male voice in this letter. Phyllis quotes Demophoon both word for word and in reported speech, in contrast to Penelope’s letter, which contained no direct quotation of Odysseus’ words. Phyllis begins her letter by quoting Demophoon’s promise to return to Thrace from Athens within one month (Her. 2.1-6):

Hospita, Demophoon, tua te Rhodopeia Phyllis
     ultra promissum tempus abesse queror.
cornua cum lunae pleno semel orbe coissent,
     litoribus nostris ancora pacta tua est—
luna quater latuit, toto quater orbe recrevit;
     nec vehit Actaeas Sithonis unda rates.

“Demophoon, this is your Phyllis (who gave you shelter in Thrace), / complaining that you didn’t return when you promised to. / It was agreed you would sail back and anchor here / a month later, when the moon was full again. / The moon has waned and waxed four times since then, / but your ship hasn’t appeared in our waters.”

19Phyllis chooses to open her letter with Demophoon’s vow to return within one month exactly because this commitment is crucial in this love story. It is worth noting, however, that Phyllis does not quote Demophoon’s words verbatim; this choice has significant ramifications: inevitably, we, the external readers, do not hear Demophoon’s promise from his lips, but only through Phyllis who has overarching control of how events are presented. Besides, even if Phyllis quoted Demophoon’s words precisely, we could not be certain of their accuracy, because Phyllis, as the mediator of Demophoon’s words, would be free to alter them at will.

20 Later in her letter Phyllis mentions Demophoon’s oaths and promises in a long passage – once again in reported speech (Her. 2.31-42):

iura, fidesque ubi nunc, commissaque dextera dextrae,
     quique erat in falso plurimus ore deus?
promissus socios ubi nunc Hymenaeus in annos,
     qui mihi coniugii sponsor et obses erat?
per mare, quod totum ventis agitatur et undis,
     per quod saepe ieras, per quod iturus eras,
perque tuum mihi iurasti—nisi fictus et ille est—
     concita qui ventis aequora mulcet, avum,
per Venerem nimiumque mihi facientia tela—
     altera tela arcus, altera tela faces—
Iunonemque, toris quae praesidet alma maritis,
     et per taediferae mystica sacra deae.

“What happened to your obligations, the pledge of your hand-clasp / and Cupid, who was always on your lying lips? / What happened to the marriage-god, the guarantor vouching / for our promised years together as man and wife? / You swore to me by the sea (all churning with winds and waves), / on which you had surely sailed and would sail again, / and by Neptune, your grandfather (unless that’s a lie too), / who calms the ocean when it’s whipped up by winds, / and by Venus too, Demophoon, and her son’s bow and / torches, those weapons that work on me all too well, / and by kindly Juno, who presides over the marriage-bed, / and by torch-bearing Ceres’ secret rites.”

  • 13 Farrell (1998) 328 notes: “Because men are deceitful their natural medium is speech, which they use (...)
  • 14 Michalopoulos (2008).

21The scale of these promises and oaths is no doubt impressive, but one can easily understand Phyllis’ intentions: the greater the number of Demophoon’s oaths and promises, the greater his betrayal and deception. Besides, the fact that Phyllis refers to Demophoon’s mouth as falsum (32) may also imply that perhaps she finds it beneath her to quote the words of such an unworthy and dishonest man.13 Mutatis mutandis, the extensive citation of Demophoon’s oaths and promises, which he eventually broke – or at least this is what Phyllis believes – amounts to testimonies read in court during a trial; after all, Phyllis’ letter, with its highly elaborate rhetorical structure,14 can be seen as both a defense speech for Phyllis herself and as an accusation against Demophoon.

  • 15 Dido and Ariadne are in a similar situation, as they are both facing a perfidus hospes: Aeneas is p (...)

22 At this point, I think it would be useful to take a brief look at Medea’s letter to Jason (Her. 12), precisely because it presents important analogies with Phyllis’ letter and can help us draw valuable conclusions about the role of the male voice in the collection. The affairs of Phyllis-Demophoon and Medea-Jason are perfectly comparable: in both cases a treacherous foreign visitor, a perfidus hospes, takes advantage of the trust of a beautiful princess who offers him hospitality. Broken vows and promises play a decisive role in both love stories. I will focus my attention on the part of the letter in which Medea recalls their first meeting at Colchis; the Colchian princess, now abandoned by Jason at Corinth, reminds him of his vows of eternal love and devotion, making sure to quote them in direct speech (Her. 12.73-88):15

‘ius tibi et arbitrium nostrae fortuna salutis
     tradidit inque tua est vitaque morsque manu.
perdere posse sat est, siquem iuvet ipsa potestas;
     sed tibi servatus gloria maior ero.
per mala nostra precor, quorum potes esse levamen,
     per genus et numen cuncta videntis avi,
per triplices vultus arcanaque sacra Dianae
     et si forte aliquos gens habet ista deos:
o virgo, miserere mei, miserere meorum,
     effice me meritis tempus in omne tuum!
quodsi forte virum non dedignare Pelasgum—
     sed mihi tam faciles unde meosque deos?—
spiritus ante meus tenues vanescet in auras
     quam thalamo, nisi tu, nupta sit ulla meo.
conscia sit Iuno sacris praefecta maritis
     et dea marmorea cuius in aede sumus!’

“‘Fortune has given you complete control over my wellbeing; / and my life and death are in your hands. / To be able to kill is enough, if you take pleasure in power itself; / but you will win greater glory by saving me. / I beg you, by my troubles (which you can end), by your noble / lineage and your divine grandfather (the all-seeing Sun), / by the triple face and secret rites of Diana, / and by any other gods you Colchians may have, / young lady, have pity on me, have pity on my men; / help me, and make me yours forever. / If by some chance you don’t spurn a Greek for a husband / (but how could the gods be so very kind to me?), / I’ll die, and my spirit will vanish into thin air, / before I take to my bed any bride but you. / Let Juno the goddess of marriage be my witness / and Diana whose marble shrine this is.’”

23This is the longest quotation of male speech in the entire collection, spanning sixteen lines. The great length is justified by the scope of Jason’s deception and betrayal. Medea’s obvious intention is to expose his duplicity, untrustworthiness, and treachery; the best way to do so is to remind him (and the external readers) of the oaths and promises he has so blatantly broken, word for word, openly and straightforwardly.

  • 16 Cf. the inscription Phyllis believes should be placed under Demophoon’s statue at Athens (Her. 2.73 (...)

24Returning to Phyllis’ letter, she portrays Demophoon as a sweet-talking liar with a big store of deceptive words at his disposal (Her. 2.49): credidimus blandis, quorum tibi copia, verbis “I trusted your seductive words (there were lots of them)”.16 Phyllis, however, does not quote these words; rather, she implies them. This sharp praeteritio is intended to tarnish Demophoon’s image, as external readers are free to conjure up all sorts of lies and deceit he may have used. At the same time, Phyllis’ reluctance to quote these deceitful words may be attributed to the discomfort and revulsion that they cause her. A few lines later, she makes another reference to Demophoon’s false words without stating them, giving the impression to us readers that they are overly numerous and treacherous (Her. 2.65): sum decepta tuis et amans et femina verbis. “I was in love and a woman, so I was deceived by your words”.

25Furthermore, Phyllis adds that, in addition to his deceiving words, Demophoon used extra-linguistic trickery, specifically his tears (Her. 2.51-52):

credidimus lacrimis—an et hae simulare docentur?
     hae quoque habent artes, quaque iubentur, eunt?

  • 17 For tears playing the role of words cf. Her. 3.4: sed tamen et lacrimae pondera vocis habent. “but (...)

“I trusted your tears – or are they also taught to pretend, / are they crafty too, flowing as ordered?”17

26Phyllis attributes her deception by Demophoon to a combination of words and tears, as well as her assumed feminine gullibility, which is sharply contrasted with a man’s guile. For Phyllis, the words of a man – combined with tears, which are typically not appropriate for an epic hero – are sure to break down the defenses of an innocent and naïve woman in love, as she consistently tries to portray herself in her letter.

  • 18 As proof of her predicament Phyllis also quotes the words of a Thracian mocking her (Her. 2.81-86): (...)

27The only time Phyllis quotes the words that Demophoon supposedly said is when she narrates the scene of their tearful farewell (Her. 2.91-98):18

illa meis oculis species abeuntis inhaeret,
     cum premeret portus classis itura meos.
ausus es amplecti colloque infusus amantis
     oscula per longas iungere pressa moras
cumque tuis lacrimis lacrimas confundere nostras,
     quodque foret velis aura secunda, queri
et mihi discedens suprema dicere voce:
      ‘Phylli, fac expectes Demophoonta tuum!’

“I can still picture you as you were leaving, when your fleet / filled my harbour on the point of departing. / You had the nerve to embrace me, draped over your lover’s / neck, pressing on me long, lingering kisses, / and to mingle your tears with my tears and to / complain that you had the right breeze for sailing / and to say as your final, parting words to me: / ‘Phyllis, expect your Demophoon back!’”

  • 19 This verb is frequent in forensic speeches (Cic. Verr. 2.1.47, 2.1.87, Catil. 1.19, In Pis. 12, Phi (...)

28This farewell scene contains four fundamental features: hugs, tears, kisses, and promises. Phyllis insists a lot on Demophoon’s promises, citing his words both in reported and direct speech to expose his deceit. By using the verb ausus es (93) she makes sure to undermine the sincerity of Demophoon’s words and underscore his impudence right from the start.19 Demophoon’s broken promises must be heard, because they are important to this affair. Line 98 (‘Phylli, fac expectes Demophoonta tuum!’) contains Demophoon’s most crucial words; he must remember them and we, the external readers, must be aware of them to understand the essence of this love story and to comprehend Phyllis’ decision to end her life. In fact, Phyllis declares, using rhetorical questions, that she should not be waiting for the return of such an unreliable and treacherous man (99-100):

  • 20 However, much to everyone’s surprise Phyllis is still waiting for the return of Demophoon (Her. 2.1 (...)

expectem, qui me numquam visurus abisti?
     expectem pelago vela negata meo?20

“Expect you back, when you went intent on never seeing me again? / Expect back sails forbidden to my seas?”

29These broken promises will lead to Phyllis’ tragic suicide, which is made all the more tragic by the fact that Demophoon did eventually return to Thrace, albeit too late.

30Up to this point we have identified the points at which Phyllis, having as a letter-writer absolute control over the presentation of past events, selects which words of Demophon to cite and how to cite them, i.e. word for word or in indirect speech. Phyllis, however, does not limit herself to the quotation of words that Demophoon is supposed to have said in the past; she goes one step further and places future words in his mouth – a first in the collection, as Penelope had not done so. Phyllis, in effect, dictates what Demophoon will say when he finds her lifeless body washed up on his shore (2.137-138):

duritia ferrum ut superes adamantaque teque,
      ‘non tibi sic,’ dices, ‘Phylli, sequendus eram!’

“Even if you were harder than iron and adamant and yourself, / you’ll say: ‘You shouldn’t have followed me like this.’”

  • 21 This is exactly what Phyllis intends to succeed with the funerary inscription that she composes at (...)

31The dictation of Demophoon’s future words is the ultimate demonstration of Phyllis-the letter-writer’s authority over Demophoon-the addressee. This dominance is so strong that it reaches into the future. Phyllis seeks to control Demophoon’s future words in order to manage her own reputation after her death; it is as if she is desperately trying to write the future with her own hands, while she is still alive.21

iii. Briseis to Achilles (Her. 3)

32Ovid’s Briseis is supposed to be writing her letter to Achilles while still in Agamemnon’s tent. Briseis’ letter is, of course, another Ovidian invention and has no counterpart in the source-text, Homer’s Iliad, just as Penelope’s letter does not appear in the Odyssey. When Ovid’s Briseis writes her letter, Achilles has rejected Agamemnon’s proposals for reconciliation, conveyed to him by Phoenix, Ajax, and Odysseus. Briseis complains about Achilles’ indifference and unwillingness to claim her back, professes her love for him, and urges him to accept Agamemnon’s gifts and return to battle so that she, too, may return to him.

33In this third letter of the collection Ovid’s innovations in his handling of the male voice continue. So far, we have witnessed Penelope and Phyllis quote the words of Odysseus and Demophoon respectively in direct or indirect speech; these words were either spoken in the past (Penelope and Phyllis) or will be spoken in the future (Phyllis). Ovid’s Briseis surpasses both Penelope and Phyllis, going so far as to interpret even the silence – n.b.: the silence, not the words – of the two heralds who came to take her from Achilles’ tent and lead her to Agamemnon (Her. 3.9-12):

nam simul Eurybates me Talthybiusque vocarunt,
     Eurybati data sum Talthybioque comes.
alter in alterius iactantes lumina vultum
     quaerebant taciti, noster ubi esset amor.

“For the moment that his two heralds asked for me, / I was immediately handed over to go with them, / which made them look at each other, silently / wondering what had become of our love.”

34Although Talthybius and Eurybates do not utter a single word, Briseis feels free to interpret their glances and their silence and put it into words (quaerebant taciti, noster ubi esset amor). This is a striking new possibility in a woman letter-writer’s treatment of male discourse (or its absence), not found in the first two letters.

35Briseis does not quote any of Achilles’ words from the past. At the moment of their separation, which she recalls in her letter, Achilles did not utter a single word that Briseis could quote. Despite that, Ovid’s Briseis makes sure that such an important scene does not go silent. Instead of Achilles’ words, Briseis quotes the words that Patroclus supposedly whispered in her ear, words that are, of course, missing from the source-text, the Iliad (Her. 3.23-24):

ipse Menoetiades tum, cum tradebar, in aurem
  ‘quid fles? hic parvo tempore,’ dixit, ‘eris.’

“When I was handed over, Patroclus himself whispered to me: / ‘Why are you crying? You’ll be back here soon.’”

36Nonetheless, Ovid’s informed readers will certainly recall another scene from the Iliad, which takes place much later than Briseis’ transfer from Achilles’ tent: mourning over Patroclus’ dead body, Briseis mentions his kindness towards her and cites in reported speech his promise that one day she would become Achilles’ wife, a promise Patroclus had given her when her hometown, Lyrnessus, was captured by Achilles and the Myrmidons (Il. 19.295-299):

οὐδὲ μὲν οὐδέ μ’ ἔασκες, ὅτ’ ἄνδρ’ ἐμὸν ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεὺς
ἔκτεινεν, πέρσεν δὲ πόλιν θείοιο Μύνητος,
κλαίειν, ἀλλά μ’ ἔφασκες Ἀχιλλῆος θείοιο
κουριδίην ἄλοχον θήσειν, ἄξειν τ’ ἐνὶ νηυσὶν
ἐς Φθίην, δαίσειν δὲ γάμον μετὰ Μυρμιδόνεσσι.

“But you, when swift Achilles slew my husband, and laid waste the city of godlike Mynes, would not even suffer me to weep, but said that you would make me the wedded wife of Achilles, and that he would bear me in his ships to Phthia, and make me a marriage-feast among the Myrmidons.” (tr. A.T. Murray, Homer. The Iliad (vol. II), London 1954, with slight adaptations).

37Ovid’s Briseis, an excellent manipulator of both literary tradition and the words of male characters, makes Patroclus’ promise known to both the recipient of her letter, Achilles, and to us, the external readers, by reproducing it word for word. However, she relocates this promise: it is no longer made in the distant past, during the fall of Lyrnessus, but rather very recently, when Agamemnon’s heralds took her away from Achilles’ tent. As a result, this promise – which, again, Briseis deliberately quotes verbatim – gains greater weight and is intended to urge Achilles to act.

  • 22 In the Iliad there is no such promise by Achilles; it is Patroclus – as we have just seen above – t (...)

38By the same token, Ovid’s Briseis makes sure to mention Achilles’ comforting words to her when she had been taken captive after the fall of Lyrnessus, but she does so only in reported speech (3.53-54):22

tu mihi, iuratus per numina matris aquosae,
     utile dicebas ipse fuisse capi.

“You personally assured me, swearing by your sea-nymph mother, / that being taken captive was a good thing for me”.

39Strikingly, the Ovidian Briseis, whose Homeric counterpart remained largely silent throughout the Iliad, now silences the greatest hero of the Trojan War and suppresses his words, in the manner of Penelope, who had silenced Odysseus in the collection’s first, programmatic letter. On the other hand, Ovid’s Briseis, following Phyllis’ example (Penelope had not done so), dictates the words that Achilles is supposed to say in the future; at Her. 3.79-80 Briseis writes about her hope that Achilles will take care of her when they return to Greece and will prevent his wife from abusing her:

neve meos coram scindi patiare capillos
     et leviter dicas: ‘haec quoque nostra fuit.’

“Don’t let her tear my hair in front of you, while you / disown me as just another girl who used to be yours.”

40Briseis, in fact, projects her own hopes and fears, and arbitrarily places the right words in Achilles’ mouth, with the power vested in her by her status as a letter-writer. She is free to write whatever she wants and even to make others say whatever she wants.

41And she does not stop there. Later in her letter, Briseis sets up a virtual future dialogue with Achilles and addresses the controversial issue of whether he abstained from sex during the time they were apart (Her. 3.111-112):

si tibi nunc dicam: ‘fortissime, tu quoque iura
     nulla tibi sine me gaudia capta!’ neges.

“If I asked you now: ‘most valiant one, swear that / you too have not had sex!’, you’d refuse.”

42Note that on the one hand Briseis directly quotes her own future words, her powerful exhortation to Achilles to swear that he abstained from sex while she was away, while, on the other hand, she suppresses Achilles’ response and renders it with a single ‘neges’. In other words, Briseis does not even allow Achilles to respond. The power struggle between the two has been decided: Briseis is the undisputed moral victor, while Achilles, the greatest hero of the Trojan War, is the voiceless loser.

43To conclude: the purpose of this paper has been to investigate the role of the (previously unstudied) male voice in the first three letters of the Heroides by discussing specific passages in which the letter-writers quote verbatim or cite the words of their male addressees. This line of research merits further investigation and has the potential to yield valuable results.

44The male voice in the Heroides is fragmentary and takes up little space. The female letter-writers present their stories from their own perspectives and decide which of the men’s words to record and how to record them. Most notably, as shown above, Penelope silences Odysseus, the Greeks’ most eloquent speaker, and Briseis silences Achilles, the Greeks’ best warrior.

45For one thing, the quotations of men’s words lend additional voices to the Heroides, break up the monotony of a single letter-writer, enliven the stories, and dramatize key parts of the letters. They give the impression of a conversation between the letter-writers and their addressees.

46Unlike in epic poetry, where the poet, who is generally an objective narrator of events, quotes the heroes’ words and gives them a platform to speak at length about their glorious deeds and heroic qualities, female letter-writers take over authorial control in the Heroides. Quoting the words that their husbands or ex-lovers actually (or supposedly) said is an important part of their strategy. Having control over their addressees’ words enables them to portray them in any way they want and expose their duplicitous character and behaviour. Most frequently, the heroines record their lovers’ false pledges and oaths. Demophoon’s broken oaths and promises, for example, are used by Phyllis to demonstrate his unreliability and treachery. We, the external readers, are supposed to assume that these words were really said or that they were stated exactly in this way; however, we are unable to assess the heroines’ accuracy and sincerity. Furthermore, the heroines occasionally dictate the words that their addressees will say (or should say) in the future. In this way, they wield power over their ex-lovers and seek to influence even their future behaviour; they become, in a sense, the authors of a script which they wish, hope, or expect their addressees to perform.

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Bessone, F. (1997), P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroidum Epistula XII. Medea Iasoni, Florence.

Bolton, C.M. (2009), “Gendered Spaces in Ovid’s Heroides”, CW 102: 273-290.

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Casali, S. (2009), “Ovidian Intertextuality”, in P.E. Knox (ed.), A Companion to Ovid, Oxford, pp. 341-354.

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Fulkerson, L. (2005), The Ovidian heroine as author: reading, writing, and community in the Heroides, Cambridge.

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Kennedy, D.F. (1984), “The Epistolary Mode and the First of Ovid’s Heroides”, CQ 34: 413-422.

Knox, P.E. (1995), Ovid Heroides. Select epistles, Cambridge.

Leventi, M. (2022), “The Hero’s Narrative in Ovid’s Heroides 9 and 13,” ICS 47: 74-101.

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Michalopoulos, A.N. (2006), Ovid Heroides 16 and 17: Introduction, Text and Commentary, Cambridge.

Michalopoulos, A.N. (2008), “Ars latet arte sua: rhetoric and poetry in Phyllis’ letter to Demophoon (Ovid Heroides 2)”, PLLS 13: 187-210.

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Michalopoulos, C.N. (2015), “Writing and dying in Ovid’s Heroides: a Cixousean reading”, in G. Xenis (ed.), Literature, Scholarship, Philosophy, and History: Classical Studies in Memory of Ioannis Taifacos, Stuttgart, pp. 97-106.

Rosati, G. (1992), “L’elegia al femminile: le Heroides di Ovidio (e altre Heroides)”, MD 29: 71-94.

Rosenmeyer, P.A. (2001), Ancient Epistolary Fictions, Cambridge.

Spentzou, Ε. (2003), Readers and writers in Ovid’s Heroides. Transgressions of Genre and Gender, Oxford.

Spentzou, Ε. (2005), “Silenced subjects: Ovid and the heroines in exile”, in R. Ancona – E. Greene (ed.) Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry, Baltimore, pp. 318–340.

Thorsen, T.S. (2014), Ovid’s Early Poetry: From his Single ‘Heroides’ to his ‘Remedia amoris’, Cambridge.

Trapp, M. (2003), Greek and Latin letters. An anthology, with translation, Cambridge.

Vaiopoulos, V. (2009), “Léandre dans Ov., Her. 18: conformation avec les stéréotypes et dépassement de l’identité élégiaque”, Ágora 11: 77-128.

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* I would like to thank the anonymous referees who helped me improve this paper with their valuable suggestions and comments.

1 My introductory discussion here is largely based on Vaiopoulos – Michalopoulos – Michalopoulos (2021) 68-83. For nuanced gendered readings of the Heroides, see among others Lindheim (2003), Spentzou (2003), Fulkerson (2005), Bolton (2009), Fabre-Serris (2009), Thorsen (2014).

2 See among others Barchiesi (1992), Casali (1995), Lindheim (2003), A. Michalopoulos (2006), C. Michalopoulos (2006) and (2015), Rosati (1992), Spentzou (2003) and (2005), Vaiopoulos (2009), (2010), and (2014). For a survey of modern approaches see Fulkerson (2005) 7-16.

3 Cf. also Sen. Epist. 40.1: Quod frequenter mihi scribis, gratias ago. Nam quo uno modo potes, te mihi ostendis. Numquam epistulam tuam accipio, ut non protinus una simus. Si imagines nobis amicorum absentium iucundae sunt, quae memoriam renouant et desiderium falso atque inani solacio leuant, quanto iucundiores sunt litterae, quae uera amici absentis uestigia, ueras notas adferunt? Nam quod in conspectu dulcissimum est, id amici manus epistulae inpressa praestat, agnoscere. “I am grateful to you for writing so often, for you are showing me yourself, in the only way that you can. It never fails: I receive your letter, and right away we are together. If portraits of absent friends are a delight, refreshing our memory and easing the pain of separation with a kind of comfort, though false and empty, how much more delightful are letters, which bring us real traces, real news of an absent friend! For what is sweetest about seeing someone face-to-face is also to be found in a letter that bears the imprint of a friend’s hand— a moment of recognition.” (tr. M. Graver – A.A. Long, Fifty letters of a Roman Stoic, Chicago and London 2021).

4 Cf. Trapp (2003) 4: “no letter is a simple, direct transcript of ‘reality’, a wholly transparent window, any more than any other piece of writing can be. […] Letter-writers construct and project a persona which may bear all kinds of relationship (including a very slender one) to their character as perceived by others than their correspondent of the moment.”

5 Trapp (2003) 4. Each time someone writes a letter, they are constructing a self. Rosenmeyer (2001) 11 rightly points out that “letter writing is inherently ‘fictional’ in that the writer can create himself or herself anew every time he or she writes”. On the other hand, Demetrius (De eloc. 227) argued for the letter’s ability to reflect the writer’s soul: πλεῖστον δὲ ἐχέτω τὸ ἠθικὸν ἡ ἐπιστολή, ὥσπερ καὶ ὁ διάλογος: σχεδὸν γὰρ εἰκόνα ἕκαστος τῆς ἑαυτοῦ ψυχῆς γράϕει τὴν ἐπιστολήν. καὶ ἔστι μὲν καὶ ἐξ ἄλλου λόγου παντὸς ἰδεῖν τὸ ἦθος τοῦ γράϕοντος, ἐξ οὐδενὸς δὲ οὕτως, ὡς ἐπιστολῆς. “The letter, like the dialogue, should abound in glimpses of character. It may be said that everybody reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer’s character, but in none so clearly as in the epistolary.” (tr. W. Rhys Roberts, Demetrius on style, Cambridge 1902).

6 It is only logical that Hippolytus’ words are absent from Phaedra’s letter, since in this love story it is Phaedra that takes the initiative and tries to seduce him. The only words that Phaedra quotes were obviously never spoken: these are the words of the god Amor urging her to write a letter to Hippolytus and promising her that Hippolytus will give in to her love advances – a promise that would prove utterly false (Her. 4.13-14): ille mihi primo dubitanti scribere dixit: / ‘scribe! dabit victas ferreus ille manus.’ “At first I hesitated, but He told me to write: / ‘Write! His hard heart will soften and yield.’”. All Heroides translations are by Murgatroyd – Reeves – Parker (2017).

7 To be precise, Deianira does not quote Hercules, but the words of Hercules’ rival, the Centaur Nessus, with which he deceived her and gave her his blood-drenched poisonous tunic (Her. 9.161-162): Nessus, ut est avidum percussus harundine pectus, / ‘hic,’ dixit, ‘vires sanguis amoris habet.’ “When Nessus’ lustful heart was struck by your arrow, / he said: ‘This blood has the power to inspire love.’” The reason why Deianira quotes Nessus’ words is obvious: she wants to shake off any suspicion that she murdered Hercules, to stress her innocence and to blame Nessus.

8 See Vaiopoulos – Michalopoulos – Michalopoulos (2021) Her. 1.1-2 with bibliography.

9 Odysseus’ return coincides with Telemachus’ return from his voyage to Pylos and Sparta (Her. 1.37-38, 63-65, 99-100). See Kennedy (1984) 417-418, Casali (2009) 346-347.

10 Lindheim (2003) 39 notes on the clear polarity between written (Penelope) and oral (Odysseus) communication, between speech and writing: “With the injunction nil mihi rescribas tu tamen; ipse veni! (‘you, however, write nothing back to me; you yourself come,’ 2), she [sc. Penelope] sets up a clear polarity between herself, a letter writer, and her husband who, appearing in person, should make use of the opposite medium, oral communication.”

11 See Barchiesi (1992) 25-26, Knox (1995) on Her. 1.77-78. Most recently Leventi (2022) deals with the stories which Deianira and Laodamia imagine Hercules and Protesilaus narrating (in Her. 9 and 13 respectively) and traces the similarities in the narrative strategies of hero and heroine.

12 Also, at Her. 1.81-82 Penelope mentions – but does not quote – her father’s, Icarius’ exhortations to her to remarry: me pater Icarius viduo discedere lecto / cogit et immensas increpat usque moras. “As I’m on my own, my father Icarius tries to force me / to remarry and criticizes my endless delays.”

13 Farrell (1998) 328 notes: “Because men are deceitful their natural medium is speech, which they use only to seduce by means of false promises. The women who write these letters dwell constantly on the deceptive speech of their perfidious lovers.”

14 Michalopoulos (2008).

15 Dido and Ariadne are in a similar situation, as they are both facing a perfidus hospes: Aeneas is preparing to abandon Dido, while Theseus has already abandoned Ariadne on Naxos. Ariadne quotes Theseus’ oaths in full, highlighting the extent of his inconsistency, perfidy, and treachery (10.71-4): cum tibi, ne victor tecto morerere recurvo, / quae regerent passus, pro duce fila dedi, / tum mihi dicebas: ‘per ego ipsa pericula iuro, / te fore, dum nostrum vivet uterque, meam.’ “When I gave you the thread as a guide to lead you back, / so you wouldn’t die in the maze after beating the Minotaur, / you said to me: ‘I swear by the very dangers facing me / that you’ll be mine as long as we’re both alive.’” The use of the personal pronoun ego (73), as well as the framing of line 74 with te and meam, and the emphatic placement of the verb iuro at the end of line 73, emphasize Theseus’ commitment.
In her letter Dido fantasizes about Aeneas drowning in the middle of the sea, believing that he will acknowledge his fault and apologize for his actions. Like Phyllis (2.97-98, 137-138), Dido quotes the words she expects Aeneas to say, admitting his guilt for betraying and abandoning her (7.71-72): quid tanti est ut tum ‘merui! concedite!’ dicas, / quaeque cadent, in te fulmina missa putes? “What makes it worth having to say then, ‘I deserve it, forgive me!’ / (thinking the falling thunderbolts are hurled at you)?” Dido later quotes verbatim the main reason Aeneas gave as an excuse for his departure (7.139): ‘Sed iubet ire deus.’ “‘But the god commands me to go.’” Apart from the obvious intention of establishing an intertextual link with the Aeneid, Ovid/Dido seeks to emphasize Aeneas’ justification in order to deconstruct it, as indeed s/he does in lines 139-142.

16 Cf. the inscription Phyllis believes should be placed under Demophoon’s statue at Athens (Her. 2.73-74): hoc tua post illos titulo signetur imago: / hic est, cuius amans hospita capta dolo est. “Let this be inscribed on your statue’s base behind his: / he deceived the girl who sheltered and loved him.”

17 For tears playing the role of words cf. Her. 3.4: sed tamen et lacrimae pondera vocis habent. “but tears are also as weighty as words.” Tears are a common symptom of erotic pain and feature frequently in the Heroides. As a rule, but not exclusively, these are women’s tears (Her. 3.3, 4.175-176, 5.72, 7.185-186, 8.109, 10.148, 15.97-98, 20.75-76). See Baca (1971), Kauffman (1986) 36-37, Farrell (1998) 335-336, Rimell (2006) 149-152.

18 As proof of her predicament Phyllis also quotes the words of a Thracian mocking her (Her. 2.81-86): at mea despecti fugiunt conubia Thraces, / quod ferar externum praeposuisse meis. / atque aliquis ‘iam nunc doctas eat,’ inquit, ‘Athenas; / armiferam Thracen qui regat, alter erit. / exitus acta probat.’ careat successibus, opto, / quisquis ab eventu facta notanda putat! “But the Thracians I turned down won’t marry me, because of / the rumour I preferred a stranger to my own people. / One of them says: ‘Let her go off to learned Athens right now; / we’ll find somebody else to rule warlike Thrace. / Judge what she did by its outcome.’ God damn the man who / thinks actions should be condemned because of how they turn out!”

19 This verb is frequent in forensic speeches (Cic. Verr. 2.1.47, 2.1.87, Catil. 1.19, In Pis. 12, Phil. 2.11, 2.23 etc.) but also in the Heroides, where it demonstrates the impudence of a cunning man; it usually introduces a reference to the deceitful behaviour of the addressee. See Bessone (1997) Ov. Her. 12.133-134.

20 However, much to everyone’s surprise Phyllis is still waiting for the return of Demophoon (Her. 2.101-102: et tamen expecto—redeas modo serus amanti, / ut tua sit solo tempore lapsa fides!). “Yet I do expect you back – just return to your lover, even though / late, untrue to your word only in terms of time.”

21 This is exactly what Phyllis intends to succeed with the funerary inscription that she composes at the end of her letter (Her. 2.147-148): Phyllida Demophoon leto dedit hospes amantem; / ille necis causam praebuit, ipsa manum. “Demophoon slew Phyllis, who sheltered and loved him; / her hand killed, he caused her to kill.” Demophoon is identified as the one responsible for her death. This inscription displays remarkable similarities with Dido’s epitaph, with which the queen of Carthage closes her Ovidian letter to Aeneas (Her. 7.195-196): praebuit Aeneas et causam mortis et ensem; / ipsa sua dido concidit usa manu. “Aeneas provided her reason for dying and the sword; / Dido’s own hand struck the fatal blow”. See Jacobson (1974) 65 and Barchiesi (1992) Οv. Her. 2.147-148. See also Lindheim (2003) 97 for the desire of Phyllis and Dido to connect their stories with those of their lovers through the epitaphs they compose for themselves. Cf. Her. 2.145-148: inscribere meo causa invidiosa sepulcro. / aut hoc aut simili carmine notus eris: / phyllida demophoon leto dedit hospes amantem; / ille necis causam praebuit, ipsa manum. “This epitaph (or one like it) inscribed on my tomb will make / you notorious and hated as the cause of my death: / Demophoon slew Phyllis, who sheltered and loved him; / her hand killed, he caused her to kill.”

22 In the Iliad there is no such promise by Achilles; it is Patroclus – as we have just seen above – that promises a bright future to Briseis. See Barchiesi (1992) on Her. 3.54.

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