Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 1 to 3

I am Aeneas, known for my devotion. (Aeneid book 1, line 378)

I own three translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin Classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1971 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin Classics prose translation by David West

I read most of the Aeneid in the West prose translation. It seemed easy and modern. I dipped into the Mandelbaum but was put off by his tone, too hectically American, maybe because I read it at the height of the heatwave when everything felt a bit hysterical. But I did use Mandelbaum’s comprehensive Glossary of Names and Places. The West edition doesn’t have a glossary or any notes at all. The idea is for you to rely entirely on the information Virgil gives in the poem itself which, it turns out, is all you need, most of the time.

Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to as Virgil (70 to 19 BC) was the great Roman poet who straddled the epochal transition from the Roman Republic to the early Roman Empire. There were other very important figures, such as Catullus from the generation before (b.84), Virgil’s younger contemporary, Horace (b.63 BC), and, a generation younger, the great poet of mythology, Ovid (b.43). But Virgil towers above them all.

Virgil was born near the northern city of Mantua to parents who owned farmland. He was sent to Rome to complete his education where he probably met the young Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD) and his friends, namely his future patron and Augustus’s ‘minister of culture’, Maecenas (68 to 8 BC).

Always a sickly, sensitive young man, Virgil left Rome and settled near Naples where he spent the rest of his life quietly studying and writing poetry.

Virgil left no juvenilia or collections of random poems. He wrote just three works, each of them masterpieces:

  • the ten very short and highly stylised poems of idealised country life featuring lovelorn shepherds, the Eclogues
  • the four longer, tougher-minded, sometimes lyrical, sometimes practical, sometimes sweepingly destructive Georgics, are, on paper, poems of advice to farmers and livestock owners, but in reality a lot more varied and complex than that
  • the long epic poem the Aeneid, which has a claim to being the most important and most influential poem ever written in Europe

Epic poem

An epic poem is a long poem with a historical or legendary setting, which usually tells the adventures of one or more heroes on an epic journey or pitched into a mighty struggle, all with the input of gods and goddesses. Many societies and cultures have produced epic poems.

Sometimes an epic poem has as part of its purpose to explain the origin of cities or races or gods and religions. (The Greeks had a word for such an origin story, an aition.) Always epics are characterised by long narratives with multiple incidents or episodes strung along the central plot.

In the 1940s C.S. Lewis proposed an elemental distinction between primary and secondary epic. Primary epic is produced in illiterate cultures, often by travelling poets or troubadors, often using familiar narratives, well-known characters and using time-honoured, stock descriptions. The process by which they’re written down is obscure but by the time they are recorded they already display very sophisticated techniques of oral storytelling. In our European tradition, the two Greek epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey show these characteristics. They are attributed to a figure called ‘Homer’ but it’s not certain that anyone named Homer ever existed.

By complete contrast, secondary epic is the production of a literate culture. It is the product of known authors, was written at a known time and place. It self-consciously invokes many of the tropes and techniques of primary epic, such as well-known legends and legendary characters, famous episodes or adventures, extended similes, stock descriptive phrases, episodic structure and so on. Virgil’s Aeneid has a good claim to be the greatest secondary epic.

A poem of multiple levels

The Aeneid is a carefully wrought collation of numerous themes on multiple levels.

Adventure story

In terms of storyline or plot it tells the story of Aeneas, a prince of Troy – a story familiar to all educated Romans of Virgil’s day – who escapes the destruction of the city at the climax of the ten-year-long siege by the Greeks, and describes the wanderings of him and 20 shiploads of comrades as they sail west across the Mediterranean looking for a new home.

Foundation story

Why bother with this story? Because the Romans believed that their city ultimately owed its founding to prince Aeneas. The traditional view (which is recapped in book 1) goes that Aeneas underwent numerous florid adventures as he sailed west from Troy before finally making landfall in western Italy. After fighting off the local tribes he establishes a settlement at a place he calls Lavinium.

His son, Ascanius, also known as Iulus, will move their settlement to a place named Alba Longa, where his descendants will live for 300 years. Then Ilia, the royal priestess of Vesta, will be seduced and impregnated by the god Mars and give birth to twins, Romulus and Remus. Romulus will grow up to build a new settlement, named Rome after him, which will go on to rule the world.

Patriotic story

So on one level the poem is an ultra-patriotic dramatisation of the man who founds the settlement which was to form the basis of Rome. Aeneas is shown as an epitome of the Roman virtues, a man who puts duty to family and country before self.

Pleasing Augustus

Throughout the narrative Virgil goes out of his way to suck up to the current ruler of Rome, the princeps Gaius Octavianus who was awarded the title Augustus while he was composing the work. Gaius Octavianus had been adopted by Julius Caesar in his will and so took his name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar.

Virgil is at pains to demonstrate the extreme antiquity of the family of ‘Julii’ of which Octavianus had become a member, and so goes out of his way to tell us, repeatedly, that Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, had this second name Iulus (this name had been Ilus while Troy, which was also called Ilium, had stood). Ilus – Iulus – Iulius. The aim was to create a direct link from Aeneas via Ilus-Iulius to the house of Julius Caesar, and so to the current emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar aka Augustus.

Those are the public and political aims of the poem. Two additional factors make it a masterpiece.

Adapting Homer

One is the tremendous skill with which Virgil closely models himself on the two outstanding epics of his tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, adopting the tone of voice, the capacious bird’s-eye-view of the narrator, the confident intertwining of the human level with the character of the immortal gods who play a crucial role in the plot, either supporting or scheming against Aeneas. It is a very sophisticated invocation and twining together of the epic tradition up to his time.

Virgil’s sensibility

But more important is Virgil’s sensitivity. Homer’s heroes are killing machines. They may be sad and burst into tears, but only when there is good justification (weeping over the dead) and most of the time they are just angry and keying themselves up for yet another fight.

By contrast, the Aeneid is soulful. The narrator and his hero are sensitive to ‘the tears of things’, to the tragic inevitability of the universe. Aeneas does his duty, but with a heavy heart at the suffering he has seen and the new suffering he causes. It is an epic poem with lyrical feeling.

Book 1 Storm and banquet

In the best tradition, the poem starts in media res meaning ‘in the middle of things’. We find our hero aboard ship, having set sail from Sicily towards the cost of Italy but caught up in a violent storm. His fleet is dispersed and at least one ship sinks.

In fact the read of the poem is informed that this storm has been whipped up by Juno queen of the gods. She hates Aeneas and is his steady foe. She cannot forgive the Trojans for the snub when Paris awarded the apple of beauty to Venus. This long-standing grudge is why we see her visit the home of Aeolus, gods of the winds, and ask him to whip up a storm to shipwreck Aeneas, which he promptly does.

But we also see Venus, Aeneas’s mother, who was impregnated by Aeneas’s father Anchises, rushing to confront Jupiter, king of the gods, and tearfully ask how he can let his wife massacre her son and his colleagues. Jupiter calmly tells her to dry her eyes, he has no intention of letting Aeneas drown, and it is now that he reveals what the fates have in store for the Trojan prince (as I outlined above).

And as he speaks he gets his brother Neptune, king of the seas, to abate the storm, and gently blow the remainder of Aeneas’s fleet towards the coast of north Africa, referred to here as Libya. Here the Trojans gratefully anchor, come ashore, dry off, go hunting, shoot some deer, build fires, eat and drink wine and recover their strength.

And here Aeneas is visited by his mother in the guise of a local woman who assures him all will be well and tells him about the nearby town of Carthage, just now being built by exiles from Tyre. Venus-in-disguise tells the rather complicated backstory of this people. Tyre is a rich city on the coast of Phoenicia (what is now Israel) ruled by king Pygmalion. He has a sister, princess Dido. Dido marries a rich man Sychaeus. But Pygmalion is jealous of Sychaeus’s wealth and murders him while he worships at an altar. For a while no-one knows who committed the crime and Pygmalion hypocritically comforts his sister.

But then the ghost of Sychaeus appears to Dido, reveals the truth, warns her to flee her brother, and shows her the burial place of a huge secret treasure. She gathers her friends and supporters and the many people opposed to the ‘tyrant’ Pygmalion, they dig up the treasure, load it onto some ships and sail away forever.

Now she and her people have arrived at the other end of the Mediterranean, made land, settled and Aeneas and his crew have arrived just as the Tyrians are laying out and building a new ‘city’, a city the narrative refers to as Carthage.

You don’t need to be a literary critic to spot that both Aeneas and Dido are in similar plight, both refugees from distant lands in the eastern Mediterranean, forced by tragic events to flee their home cities, and now trying to build new lives, and new cities, in the west.

All this is explained to him by Aeneas’s mother, Venus who, having intervened to save Aeneas from the storm, now appears to him in the guise of a local maiden. She has wrapped Aeneas in a magic cloud so he and his companion can walk up to the new city walls and watch the Tyrians building Carthage.

Then she disappears the cloud and Aeneas is welcomed by the Tyrians. Their queen, Dido, welcomes Aeneas and his men to a lavish feast. Venus waylays Aeneas’s son as he comes from the beach where they’ve all landed towards the city, makes him fall asleep in a copse of trees. And gets her other son, the god Eros, to take on Ascanius’s form, and be introduced to Queen Dido, and sit on her lap during the feast (!) and deliberately make her fall in love with Aeneas. Because we all know how this love affair will end Virgil describes her as poor Dido and ‘doomed’ Dido.

Homer is always full of a kind of metallic energy. Even when his heroes weep, they do so in a virile, manly way. But in his treatment of Dido Virgil displays a completely different sensibility, sympathetic and sad.

Back at the feast, Dido asks Aeneas to tell them about his adventures. He has already told them he has been wandering for seven years since the fall of Troy. Reluctantly, Aeneas agrees.

Book 2 The fall of Troy

Aeneas’s story. He cuts straight to the final days of the 10-year-long siege as the Greeks cut down mighty trees to make the enormous wooden horse. Then strike camp and sail away leaving it alone on the plain in front of Troy. The Trojans come out to admire it. The priest Laocoön warns them all that it is a Greek scam but at that point a Trojan patrol returns with a Greek captive. He tells them he’s called Sinon and, after incurring the enmity of the mighty Odysseus (here called Ulixes) he was chosen to be the human sacrifice the Greek fleet needed to set sail (just as it had required the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigeneia in order to set sail from Greece, 10 long years ago).

Sinon tells them he managed to escape the night before he was due to be killed and has hidden. Now they can kill him or spare him as they please. But he is a plant left by the Greeks to give a false explanation of the horse. He says it is a peace offering to the gods to let the fleet sail. More precisely, it is atonement for the incident when Ulixes and Diomede stole the Palladium from the temple of Pallas Athene in the citadel of Troy. Since then she has persecuted them and their chief priest, Calchas, ordered them a) to return to Greece to worship the gods, atone for their sins, rearm and return to renew the siege, and b) to build this enormous horse as a peace offering to Athena. Sinon warns that if the Trojans damage it at all it will bring down the wrath of Athena on them. If, on the other hand, they take it into the city and venerate it, then Athena will bless them and, when the Greeks return, allies from all across Asia will rally to their cause and they will defeat the Greeks in a final battle.

The Trojans are still hesitating when an amazing thing happens. The priest of Neptune, Laocoön, is sacrificing to an altar by the shore when two might sea snakes emerge from the waves and envelop his two young sons. Laocoön goes to their rescue and tries to fight them off but the snakes strangle all three to death and then slither into the city and up to the citadel of the goddess Venus.

Well, that decides it for the Trojans who set about dismantling part of their walls (the horse is too big to go through the city gates) in a kind of mad frenzy. Aeneas tells the story with much regret and sorrow at their foolhardiness, but they were whipped on by the scheming gods. The priestess Cassandra warns against letting the horse in but, of course, she was doomed never to be believed.

That night the Trojans hold a mighty feast to celebrate the end of the war then pass out on their beds. In the middle of the night Aeneas is woken by the ghost of Hector, looking grim and broken and bloody as he was after Achilles dragged his corpse round the walls of Troy, tied by the ankles to his chariot.

Hector’s ghost warns Aeneas to flee and sure enough, now he is awake, he hears screams and smells smoke. While they were asleep, Sinon snuck out to the horse, undid the pine bolts which secured its secret trap door, the Greeks inside the horse lowered themselves by a rope to the ground and set about massacring the guards set on the horse, while a contingent went and opened the main gates to the Greeks who had a) silently sailed back from where the fleet had hidden behind the offshore island of Tenedos and b) swarmed across the plain, till they were massed outside the gates.

Now the Greek army is pouring into the city determined to kill every man, woman and child. Hector’s ghost tells Aeneas all his lost, to gather his family and companions and flee, and predicts that, after long wanderings, he will found a new city.

But if you think about it, Virgil can’t depict the legendary founder of Rome as a coward who turns and bolts. Instead Aeneas leaps from his bed, grabs his armour, runs into the street, and rallies other warriors he finds emerging from their homes. They form a troop and roam through the streets taking on Greeks. They massacre one group of Greeks and put on their armour. This allows them to mingle with other Greeks before turning on them and many, the narrative assures us, they sent down to Orcus (hell), many fled back across the plain, and some even scuttled back up inside the horse.

Then a huge fight develops around the figure of the priestess Cassandra who is being dragged bound and gagged by Greeks from her temple. Aeneas and his band rally to save her but a hornet’s nest of Greeks counter attack, and they are even struck down by some Trojan brothers because they are wearing Greek armour.

He doesn’t mention Cassandra again but shifts the focus to the battle round the palace of Priam. Trojans are reduced to tearing down their walls and roofs to throw down on the Greeks climbing siege ladders. Aeneas enters the palace by a secret back passage and makes his way to the top of the tallest tower where he joins Trojans loosening the masonry to send huge blocks of stone falling on the Greek attackers.

Aeneas knows his audience will want to know how King Priam died. He gives a vivid, heart-breaking account of the old man buckling on his armour and heading for the fight, how his wife Hecuba tries to persuade him to desist, how Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, chases and kills Polites, one of Priam’s sons, right in front of him. How Priam defies him, harmlessly throws his spear, reproaches Pyrrhus for being a shame to his noble father. But Pyrrhus doesn’t care, grabs Priam by his long hair, drags him over to the altar and thrusts his sword up to the hilt in Priam’s side. Then his head is hacked from his body which is left to rot on the shore, unknown and unmourned.

Aeneas looks around and realises all his companions are dead i.e. he has done all that honour demanded. Now his thoughts turn to his aged father Anchises, his wife, Creusa, and son, Ascanius.

He spots Helen hiding in a temple, cause of all this death and destruction. Shall she survive and be taken back to Sparta to live in luxury, waited on by Trojan slaves? In a burst of fury Aeneas rushes forward to kill her but suddenly his mother, the goddess Venus appears. She tells him the war is not really Helen or even Paris’s fault. It is the gods. And she strips away the fog which clouds his mortal vision and shows him Neptune shaking the city’s foundations, Juno opening the gates and egging on the Greeks, Pallas Athena taking command of the citadel, and Jupiter himself leading the gods and supporting the Greeks. No mortal can stop this. As the Sibyl says, much later, in book 6:

You must cease to hope that the fates of the gods can be altered by prayer. (6.376)

Venus now orders Aeneas to collect his family and flee. But Anchises refuses to leave the city he has lived in all his life, determined to die in his house. Aeneas remonstrates, the old man refuses, so Aeneas says he’ll buckle back on his armour and die defending him rather than leave him. But Creusa throws herself in front of him and tells him his first duty is to his family.

At this tense moment there are signs from heaven. A heatless flame settles on Ascanius’s head and there was a peal of thunder and a star fell from the sky, a meteorite crashing down into Mount Ida.

This persuades Anchises to leave, so Aeneas puts a lion skin on his shoulders, tells the household slaves to meet them at a hill outside the city, puts his father on his shoulder, takes little Ascanius by the hand and Creusa follows behind as they set off through the dark side streets of the burning city.

It was then that his father heard marching soldiers’ feet and told Aeneas to run and Aeneas was overcome by irrational fear and bolted and somehow his wife Creusa got left behind, He never saw her again.

I stormed and raged and blamed every man and god that ever was. (2.745)

He puts his armour back on and runs back to the city, through the same gate they exited, trying to retrace his steps, going first to his house then to the palace of Priam, finding death, devastation and flames everywhere.

But then Creusa appears in a vision to him, calmly telling him that this is the wish of the gods and destiny. He is to sail far away and come to rest in Hesperia by the river Thybris in a land of warriors and take another bride. It is for the best. Their gods will protect her. She promises she will never be led away a slave for some Greek wife, although what her exact fate is is left unstated. He goes to put his arms around her but she fades like a phantom.

Anyway, this, like the account of Aeneas’s brave fighting, are obviously both designed to show him to best advantage, full of patriotic, familial and husbandly loyalty, but at every step overpowered by fate and destiny and the will of the gods. Now, sadly. Aeneas returns to the mound where his father and son are waiting and is amazed at the sheer number of other survivors who have gathered there. From now on he is to be their leader.

[Maybe worth pointing out the number of ghostly and visionary appearances: Dido’s husband’s ghost appears to her; Hector’s ghost appears to Aeneas; Creusa’s spirit appears to him. Although ostensibly about fighting there is a good deal of this otherworldly, visionary, shimmering quality about much of the story.]

Book 3 The wanderings

Aeneas is still talking, recounting his adventures to Dido and her court. He describes how the survivors built a settlement not far from ruined Troy, in the lee of the Ida mountains and built ships. Then set sail. This is described very briefly, in successive sentences. The lack of detail is very characteristic of Virgil. Unlike the hard-edged detailing of Homer, Virgil’s habit of skipping over details (for example, not telling us the outcome of the battle over Cassandra) creates a kind of shimmering, dreamy quality to the poem.

They sail to Thrace and begin to lay out foundations for a city but when Aeneas pulls up trees to decorate the altar he’s going to sacrifice on, he is horrified when they and spurt blood. Then terrified when a voice speaks and declares himself to be the spirit of Polydorus, sent by Priam to Thrace with a treasure, to be raised there, far from war-torn Troy. Now he tells Aeneas he was murdered by the king of Thrace who simply stole the gold.

Aeneas tells Anchises who responds that this is no place to stay. So they rebury the body of Polydorus with full rites, and set sail, letting the gods decide their final destination. They sail onto the island of Delos, dock in the harbour of Ortygia, and are greeted by King Anius.

Aeneas prays at the temple of Apollo, asking what he should do. A booming voice replies he must seek out the land of his ‘ancient mother’. Father Anchises interprets this to mean Crete, where the founder of Troy, Teucer, first came from.

So they sail and row from Delos via Naxos, Donusa, Olearos, Paros, through the Cyclades to Crete, where they land and begin to build a settlement Aeneas calls Pergamea. Things are just beginning to thrive when the settlement is struck down by a great plague and the crops wither in the fields.

One night the household gods are bathed in sunlight and speak to him, telling him again the prophecy that he will sail the seas, come to a peaceful land, and found a race who rule the world. The Greeks call the land Hesperia but it has been settled by the Oenetrians who have called it Italy after their god, Italus.

When he tells Father Anchises the latter remembers that Troy had two founders. One was Teucer from Crete but the other was Dardanus from Hesperia. They misinterpreted the message from Apollo and mistakenly came to Crete. So now they pack ship and set sail for Hesperia/Italy.

For three days and nights a black storm descends, blotting out the sky. Then it lifts and they sail into the harbour of the Strophades. They see fat cattle and goats and storm ashore, kill some and are feasting when they are attacked by the foul harpies, birds with the faces of girls, bellies oozing filth, talons like birds, which tear the food from their hands.

The harpies’ leader, Celaeno, perches on a pinnacle of rock and announces a prophecy which Jupiter gave Apollo, and Apollo gave her, and she is now giving the Trojans. They will settle a new land but not until they have passed through a famine which makes them gnaw their tables. (The prophesy is fulfilled at 7.116 to 130.)

So the Trojans abandon the feast and the land, take ship and scud over the waves to the island of Leucas. Here they performed rites of purification and then held games. They stayed here till mid-winter, when Aeneas pinned a shield taken from a Greek on the temple doors and they set sail again.

They dock at Chaonia and walk up to the city of Buthrotum. Here they are astounded to come across Andromache, wife of the great hero Hector, making ritual sacrifices for her dead husband. She tells them that she survived the sack of Troy and was taken as wife by Pyrrhus to whom she bore a child. But Pyrrhus dumped her on fellow slave Helenus (one of the sons of Priam) in order to marry Hermione. But Orestes loved Hermione and so murdered Pyrrhus. At his death some of Pyrrhus’s land descended to Helenus. He built a settlement there, a new Pergamum, and here Andromache lives.

At which point Helenus arrives and, amid much weeping by everyone, escorts them to his city which is a miniature copy of Troy in all aspects. They stay for some time. Eventually Aeneas asks the priest Helenus to answer his questions: should he set sail, will he come to the promised land?

So Helenus sacrifices some bullocks and then gives Aeneas the latest in the line of prophecies, first of all warning it won’t be a short voyage, but a long one fraught with adventures. He will recognise the place to build his city because he will find a sow suckling 30 piglets. He must make it a priority to worship Juno and try to win her over. He must make time to visit the prophetess at Cumae. He must avoid sailing through the straits of Messina, which are terrorised by Scylla and Charybdis.

Helenus gives them gifts of gold and ivory and silver, and blesses them as they set sail. They sight Italy and sail into harbour. They sail on past Tarentum in the instep of Italy. They sail past the gulf of Scylla and Charybdis and make shore in the land of the Cyclopes, a peaceful harbour but in the shadow of the fearsome Mount Etna who belching black smoke darkens the sky.

Next morning they are surprised to see a wretched filthy man in rags come running towards them. He announces he is Achaemenides, one of Ulixe’s crew. He describes how they were captured by the Cyclops which ate some of their comrades, drank and fell asleep and how, in the night, they conspired to blind him. But they sailed and left him behind. He has just about survived for three months, since then. But he warns them to flee.

At that moment they see blinded Polyphemus appear with his flocks on the side of the mountain and run down to their ships and set sail, rowing for all they’re worth. Polyphemus hears them and lets out a road which shakes the earth and brings all the other cyclops to the shore to rage at them, but they are clear of harm.

They sail down the east coast of Sicily past Syracuse. Then along the south coast, ticking off all the settlements and sights till they come to Lilybaeum. They put in at Drepanum but here Aeneas ‘lost’ his father Anchises. There is, as so often with Virgil, no detail, no explanation, just a focus on Aeneas’s loss and sadness.

When they set sail from there to head north and east to the Italian coast the great storm described at the start of book 1 was stirred up and so they were blown to the African shore which the Tyrians are settling. And with that, Aeneas’s recital of his story comes to an end.

Epicurean rest

It is noticeable that Virgil/West phrase the very end of Aeneas’s recital with ‘Here he made an end and was at peace.’ When I read Virgil’s Georgics I was struck by how much he told us he was struggling to complete the poem. He had to ask his patron, Maecenas, for help and support, he kept telling himself ‘onwards and upwards!’, he wrote with relief about reaching the end of each of the four books. Then the very opening of book 4 describes how Dido fell in love and ‘love gave her body no rest or peace‘.

It was only when I read the Georgics that I became aware for the first time of Virgil’s adherence to the teachings of Epicurus. In the blurb to the Penguin edition, I learn that Virgil lived most of his adult life in an Epicurean colony near Naples.

Epicurus’s teachings are above all designed to cultivate freedom from stress and anxiety in his followers. Peace of mind and spirit. So these references in the Aeneid to peace of spirit, or lack of it, acquired, for me, two deeper resonances. On one level, Virgil uses the word ‘peace’ to mean an end to the gruelling torment of writing this long, demanding poem, which comes over as being a huge ordeal for him. But the word also means far more than it does to you or me – for the Epicurean Virgil, ‘peace’ represents the nirvana, the blessed state sought for by his philosophy. When he says his characters achieve ‘peace’ or, conversely, are deprived of ‘peace’, it isn’t in the casual way that you or I might use the word, but has this much deeper resonance, referring to a philosophically idealised state of complete detachment from all sources of strife or worry.

Looked at this way, the entire poem represents a kind of vast detour from man’s ideal condition of rest or stasis, into a world of strife and anxiety. It helps to explain Virgil’s sad and doleful tone, lamenting the endless destiny of man to be troubled – by duties, responsibilities, the need to work, to eat, to love, to be a social animal – all of it endlessly distracting from his best, optimum state of complete Buddhist detachment. Hence Virgil’s insistent tone of lamentation over humanity in general, continually remarking on the sadness of their poor mortal existence.

It was the time when sleep, the most grateful gift of the gods, was first beginning to creep over suffering mortals… (2.270)

I guess there’s a third interpretation which is literally to do with rest after physical labour. This harks back to the many images in the Georgics of the sheer amount of physical labour involved in human existence. How many times in that long book did weary shepherds, farmers, goatherds, horticulturalists and livestock herders and outdoor workers greet the end of the day, the westering of the sun, as a welcome sign of the end of their day’s labours. Well, that tone is repeated again and again in the Aeneid. Night and, with it, sleep, represent welcome oblivion for animals and humans exhausted by their labours.

It was night and weary living things were peacefully taking their rest upon the earth. (4.522)

It was night and over the whole earth the weary animals, all manner of birds and all manner of flocks, were already deep in sleep.. (8.28)

Over the whole world the creatures of the earth were relaxed in sleep, all resting from their cares, and their hearts had forgotten their labours… (9.226)

Contrasting with the mellifluous descriptions of restful sleep are the hard descriptions of the scenes of fighting and the days of war (especially in the harsh, second half of the Aeneid, which I’ll be discussing in a later blog post).

Bitter grief was everywhere. Everywhere there was fear and death in many forms. (2.369)

Aurora meanwhile had lifted up her life-giving light for miserable mortals, bringing back their toil and sufferings. (11.184)

As an English poet wrote, 1,600 years later:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.


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