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The Core Curriculum

Historical context for Ovid's "Heroides"

Relates to: 

Aeneas Recounts Troy’s Misfortunes to Dido by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815 (Wikimedia Commons) Dido is among the heroines whose letters comprise the Heroides.Aeneas Recounts Troy’s Misfortunes to Dido by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815 (Wikimedia Commons) Dido is among the heroines whose letters comprise the Heroides. “The Heroides are two sets of mythological letters written in elegiac couplets, the first of a group of fifteen written by women to men they have been or would like to be romantically involved with (the 'single' letters), and the second comprising three pairs of courtship letters between a couple engaged or about to be engaged in a relationship (…) Most think that the single Heroides were written between the first and the second editions of the Amores, that is, between rougly 20 and 13 BCE (…) The double letters, however, are often dated to about the time of Ovid's exile (8 CE) because stylistically and metrically they are more similar to his later poetry rather than his earlier”.

“This kind of writing, in which the author writes in the persona of a character (sometimes historical and sometimes fictional), was a part of the rhetorical training of upper-class Romans of Ovid's time, and Seneca's Susoriae and Controversiae provide not only examples but also mentions of Ovid's own rhetorical exercises (…) The primary differences in Ovid's treatment of these originally rhetorical themes are, first, that he writes poetry rather than prose and, second, that the poems focus on such a small portion of human experience, rather than encompassing the broader themes of the school exercises (...)”

“The Heroides, then, are not quite like anything that has come before them. There are probably examples of fictional letter collections before Ovid, but they are mostly the forged correspondence of historical figures who are likely to have written to one another (...)”

“Ovid himself claims to have invented this genre, whatever we understand it to be (Ars 3.346) (…) And yet the Heroides, while they are in some sense anomalous, are very much a part of Ovid's work as a whole. Like the Metamorphoses and parts of the Ars amatoria, they are interested in mythology, both in its canonical versions and its contemporary, 'Romanized' permutations. Like the Ibis and the Fasti, they presume a detailed and technical knowledge of variant versions of that mythology. Like the exile poetry, they minutely examine similar themes, relentlessly pacing over the same place. Their world is essentially the world of Roman love elegy, as seen in the Amores (…) Like the Ars amatoria and certain books of the Metamorphoses, they are interested in the unhappier parts of erotic experience, particularly women's. And like all of Ovid's poetry, they are immensely playful and immensely satisfying; the more you read them, the more they draw you into their world.”


Excerpted From: 

Fulkerson, Laurel. “The Heroides: Female Elegy?” A Companion to Ovid (ed P. E. Knox), Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK, pp. 78 – 89