Front matter of Boswell's copy of the 1732 edition of the Heroides, edited by Peter Burmann.
Note the title Heroides sive Epistolae,
The Heroides or the Letters.

The Heroides (The Heroines),[1] or Epistulae Heroidum (Letters of Heroines), is a collection of fifteen epistolary poems composed by Ovid in Latin elegiac couplets and presented as though written by a selection of aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology in address to their heroic lovers who have in some way mistreated, neglected, or abandoned them. A further set of six poems, widely known as the Double Heroides and numbered 16 to 21 in modern scholarly editions, follows these individual letters and presents three separate exchanges of paired epistles: one each from a heroic lover to his absent beloved and from the heroine in return.

The Heroides were long held in low esteem by literary scholars[2] but, like other works by Ovid, were re-evaluated more positively in the late 20th century.[3] Arguably some of Ovid's most influential works (see below), one point that has greatly contributed to their mystique—and to the reverberations they have produced within the writings of later generations—is directly attributable to Ovid himself. In the third book of his Ars Amatoria, Ovid argues that in writing these fictional epistolary poems in the personae of famous heroines, rather than from a first-person perspective, he created an entirely new literary genre. Recommending parts of his poetic output as suitable reading material to his assumed audience of Roman women, Ovid wrote of his Heroides: "vel tibi composita cantetur Epistola voce: | ignotum hoc aliis ille novavit opus" (Ars Amatoria 3.345–6: "Or let an Epistle be sung out by you in practiced voice: unknown to others, he [sc. Ovid] originated this sort of composition"). The full extent of Ovid's originality in this matter has been a point of scholarly contention: E. J. Kenney, for instance, notes that "novavit is ambiguous: either 'invented' or 'renewed', cunningly obscuring without explicitly disclaiming O[vid]'s debt to Propertius' Arethusa (4.3) for the original idea."[4] In spite of various interpretations of Propertius 4.3, consensus nevertheless concedes to Ovid much of the credit in the thorough exploration of what was then a highly innovative poetic form.

Dating and authenticity

The exact dating of the Heroides, as with the overall chronology of the Ovidian corpus, remains a matter of debate. As Peter E. Knox notes, "[t]here is no consensus about the relative chronology of this [sc. early] phase of O[vid]'s career," a position which has not advanced significantly since that comment was made.[5] Exact dating is hindered not only by a lack of evidence, but by the fact that much of what is known at all comes from Ovid's own poetry. One passage in the second book of Ovid's Amores (Am.) has been adduced especially often in this context:

Knox notes that "[t]his passage ... provides the only external evidence for the date of composition of the Heroides listed here. The only collection of Heroides attested by O[vid] therefore antedates at least the second edition of the Amores (c. 2 BC), and probably the first (c. 16 BC) ..."[7] On this view, the most probable date of composition for at least the majority of the collection of single Heroides ranges between c. 25 and 16 BC, if indeed their eventual publication predated that of the assumed first edition of the Amores in that latter year.[8] Regardless of absolute dating, the evidence nonetheless suggests that the single Heroides represent some of Ovid's earliest poetic efforts.

Questions of authenticity, however, have often inhibited the literary appreciation of these poems.[9] Joseph Farrell identifies three distinct issues of importance to the collection in this regard: (1) individual interpolations within single poems, (2) the authorship of entire poems by a possible Ovidian impersonator, and (3) the relation of the Double Heroides to the singles, coupled with the authenticity of that secondary collection.[2] Discussion of these issues has been a focus, even if tangentially, of many treatments of the Heroides in recent memory.

As an example following these lines, for some time scholars debated over whether this passage from the Amores—corroborating, as it does, only the existence of Her. 1–2, 4–7, 10–11, and very possibly of 12, 13,[10] and 15—could be cited fairly as evidence for the inauthenticity of at least the letters of Briseis (3), Hermione (8), Deianira (9), and Hypermnestra (14), if not also those of Medea (12), Laodamia (13), and Sappho (15).[11] Stephen Hinds argues, however, that this list constitutes only a poetic catalogue, in which there was no need for Ovid to have enumerated every individual epistle.[12] This assertion has been widely persuasive, and the tendency amongst scholarly readings of the later 1990s and following has been towards careful and insightful literary explication of individual letters, either proceeding under the assumption of, or with an eye towards proving, Ovidian authorship. Other studies, eschewing direct engagement with this issue in favour of highlighting the more ingenious elements—and thereby demonstrating the high value—of individual poems in the collection, have essentially subsumed the authenticity debate, implicating it through a tacit equation of high literary quality with Ovidian authorship. This trend is visible especially in the most recent monographs on the Heroides.[13] On the other hand, some scholars have taken a completely different route, ascribing the whole collection to one[14] or two[15] Ovidian imitators (the catalogue in Am. 2.18, as well as Ars am. 3.345–6 and Epistulae ex Ponto 4.16.13–14, would then be interpolations introduced to establish the imitations as authentic Ovid).

The collection

The paired letters of the Double Heroides are not outlined here: see the relevant section of that article for the double epistles (16–21). The single Heroides are written from the viewpoints of the following heroines (and heroes). The quotations highlighted are the opening couplets of each poem, by which each would have been identified in medieval manuscripts of the collection:

Epistula I: Haec tua Penelope lento tibi mittit, Ulixe;
  nil mihi rescribas attinet: ipse veni!
This your Penelope sends to you, too-slow Ulysses;
  A letter in return does me no good; come yourself!
Epistula II: Hospita, Demophoon, tua te Rhodopeia Phyllis
  ultra promissum tempus abesse queror!
I, your hostess, Demophoon—I, your Phyllis of Rhodope—
  Complain: you're gone far longer than you promised!
Epistula III: Quam legis, a rapta Briseide littera venit,
  vix bene barbarica Graeca notata manu.
What you're reading—this letter came from your ravished Briseis,
  The Greek painstakingly copied out by her uncivilised hand.
Epistula IV: Quam nisi tu dederis, caritura est ipsa, salutem
  mittit Amazonio Cressa puella viro.
What well-being she herself will lack unless you give it her
  The Cretan maiden sends to the man born of an Amazon.
Epistula V: Nympha suo Paridi, quamvis suus esse recuset
  mittit ab Idaeis verba legenda iugis.
The Nymph sends words you ordered her to write,
  From Mount Ida, to her Paris, though you refuse her as yours.
Epistula VI: Lemnias Hypsipyle Bacchi genus Aesone nato
  dicit: et in verbis pars quota mentis erat?
Hypsipyle of Lemnos, born of the people of Bacchus,
  Speaks to Jason: how much of your heart was truly in your words?
Epistula VII: Accipe, Dardanide, moriturae carmen Elissae;
  quae legis a nobis ultima verba legi.
Dardanian, receive this song of dying Elissa:
  What you read are the last words written by me.
Epistula VIII: Alloquor Hermione nuper fratremque virumque
  nunc fratrem. nomen coniugis alter habet.
Hermione speaks to one lately her cousin and husband,
  Now her cousin. The wife has changed her name.[17]
Epistula IX: Mittor ad Alciden a coniuge conscia mentis
  littera si coniunx Deianira tua est.
A letter, that shares her feelings, sent to Alcides
  By your wife, if Deianira is your wife.
Epistula X: Illa relicta feris etiam nunc, improbe Theseu
  vivit. Et haec aequa mente tulisse velis?
Even now, left to the wild beasts, she might live, cruel Theseus.
  Do you expect her to have endured this too, patiently?
Epistula XI: Aeolis Aeolidae quam non habet ipsa salutem
  mittit et armata verba notata manu.
An Aeolid, who has no health herself, sends it to an Aeolid,
  And, armed, these words are written by her hand.
Epistula XII: Exul inops comtempta novo Medea marito
  dicit, an a regnis tempora nulla vacant?
Scorned Medea, the helpless exile, speaks to her recent husband,
  surely you can spare some time from your kingship?
Epistula XIII: Mittit et optat amans, quo mittitur, ire salutem
  Haemonis Haemonio Laodamia viro.
She, who sends this, wishes loving greetings to go to whom it's sent:
  From Thessaly to Thessaly's lord, Laodamia to her husband.
Epistula XIV: Mittit Hypermestra de tot modo fratribus uni;
  cetera nuptarum crimine turba iacet.
Hypermestra sends this letter to her one cousin of many,
  The rest lie dead because of their brides' crime.
Epistula XV: Ecquid, ut adspecta est studiosae littera dextrae,
  Protinus est oculis cognita nostra tuis?
When these letters, from my eager hand, are examined
  Are any of them known to your eyes, straight away, as mine?

Translations and influence

The Heroides were popularized by the Loire valley poet Baudri of Bourgueil in the late eleventh century, and Héloïse used them as models in her famous letters to Peter Abelard.[18] A translation, Les Vingt et Une Epistres d'Ovide, was made of this work at the end of the 15th century by the French poet Octavien de Saint-Gelais, who later became Bishop of Angoulême. While Saint-Gelais' translation does not do full justice to the original, it introduced many non-Latin readers to Ovid's fictional letters and inspired many of them to compose their own Heroidean-style epistles. Perhaps the most successful of these were the Quatre Epistres d'Ovide (c. 1500) by André de La Vigne [fr], a friend and colleague of Saint-Gelais. Later translations and creative responses to the Heroides include Jean Lemaire de Belges's Premiere Epître de l'Amant vert (1505), Fausto Andrelini's verse epistles (1509–1511; written in the name of Anne de Bretagne), Michel d'Amboise's [fr] Contrepistres d'Ovide (1546), and Juan Rodríguez de la Cámara's Bursario, a partial translation of the Heroides.[19]

Classics scholar W. M. Spackman argues the Heroides influenced the development of the European novel: of Helen's reply to Paris, Spackman writes, "its mere 268 lines contain in embryo everything that has, since, developed into the novel of dissected motivations that is one of our glories, from La Princesse de Clèves, Manon Lescaut and Les Liaisons Dangereuses to Stendhal and Proust".[20]

The Loeb Classical Library presents the Heroides with Amores in Ovid I. Penguin Books first published Harold Isbell's translation in 1990. Isbell's translation uses unrhymed couplets that generally alternate between eleven and nine syllables. A translation in rhymed couplets by Daryl Hine appeared in 1991.

It was the inspiration for 15 monologues starring 15 separate actors, by 15 playwrights at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2020.[21][22]


All notes refer to works listed in the Bibliography, below.

  1. ^ Usually abbreviated Her. or H. in citations of Ovid's works.
  2. ^ a b Farrell 1998.
  3. ^ Knox, Peter E (1995). "Review of: Ovid's Heroides: Select Epistles". Bryn Mawr Classical Review. ISSN 1055-7660.
  4. ^ Kenney (1996) 1, n. 3.
  5. ^ Knox (1995) 3.
  6. ^ The reader is to understand that the letters read by Paris, Macareus, Jason, Hippolytus's father, and Hippolytus himself were written by (respectively) Oenone, Canace, Hypsipyle (and possibly also Medea), Ariadne, and Phaedra. The "woman beloved of the Aonian lyre" refers to Sappho.
  7. ^ Knox (1995) 6. He also provides (p. 6, n. 9) a cautionary note, with references, on the use of modern terminology such as publication to refer to "the circumstances of ancient book production and circulation."
  8. ^ Like many other aspects of Ovidian studies, what is known about the publication of multiple editions of the Amores is derived almost solely from Ovid himself, who opens those early poems with the epigrammatic preface:

    Qui modo Nasonis fueramus quinque libelli,
      tres sumus; hoc illi praetulit auctor opus.
    ut iam nulla tibi nos sit legisse uoluptas,
      at levior demptis poena duobus erit

    We who were (not so long ago) the five little books of Naso
      Are now three; their author preferred his work this way over that.
    Though even now you may take little pleasure in reading us,
      With two books swept away your pain will be lighter

    With Ovid's word as the only viable evidence on the matter, the existence of a second edition of the Amores is widely regarded as potentially questionable (cf. the arguments of, e.g. Holzberg [1997]).

  9. ^ For a fuller overview of the authenticity debate than can be offered here, see, among others, Lachmann (1876), Palmer (1898), Courtney (1965) and (1998), Anderson (1973), Reeve (1973), Jacobson (1974), Tarrant (1981), Knox (1986), (1995, esp. the introduction), and (2002), Kennedy (2002), and Lingenberg (2003).
  10. ^ Am. 2.18.38 reads et comes extincto Laodamia viro ("and Laodamia, companion to her deceased husband"), which could refer solely to a subject of the poetry of Macer, who is addressed in Am. 2.18, or could as easily be relating Macer's works to Ovid's own compositions, serving as evidence, therefore, for the authenticity of Her. 13.
  11. ^ Some critics have argued that the passage in cruces in line 26—together with its partner at line 34 (det votam Phoebo Lesbis amata lyram – "the woman of Lesbos, loved in return, might offer Phoebus the promised lyre")—is in fact an interpolation.
  12. ^ Hinds (1993) 30 f., a suggestion cited by scholars since almost as a matter of reflex. Cf. also, on Her. 12, Knox (1986) and Heinze (1991–93). For a more recent discussion of the broad implications of this passage from the Amores, see Knox (2002) 118–21.
  13. ^ Cf. in particular the recent dissertations-turned-published-monographs of Lindheim (2003), Spentzou (2003), and Fulkerson (2005).
  14. ^ Zwierlein (1999).
  15. ^ Lingenberg (2003) regards the single letters as a coherently structured work by one author, published some years after Ovid's death at latest and believed to be authentic Ovid already by Seneca; the double letters are by a different author, but probably roughly contemporary.
  16. ^ See esp. Kennedy (1984) and Hinds (1999).
  17. ^ Ovid: The Heroides – VIII to XV, English, A. S. Kline
  18. ^ Peter Dronke, "Heloise," in Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1984).
  19. ^ Yvonne LeBlanc, "Queen Anne in the Lonely, Tear-Soaked Bed of Penelope: Rewriting the Heroides in Sixteenth-Century France," in The Late Medieval Epistle, ed. Carol Poster and Richard Utz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp. 71–87.
  20. ^ On the Decay of Humanism (Rutgers University Press, 1967), p. 96.
  21. ^ "15 Heroines | Jermyn Street Theatre".
  22. ^ "15 Heroines: The Labyrinth review – defiant women rise up from the myths | Theatre | The Guardian". 9 November 2020.

Selected bibliography

For references specifically relating to that subject, please see the relevant bibliography of the Double Heroides.



Literary overviews and textual criticism

Analyses of individual epistles

Scholarship of tangential significance