Within antiquity there are several mythological love stories that touch our hearts, souls, and mind. When attempting to provide an example of “true love,” people generally name couples like Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Helen and Paris, and so on. These couples which are often tragic and short lived romances.
As enthusiasts for Latin, we most often share an appreciation for the world of the Romans and their mythology. Within Roman (and indirectly Greek) mythology, there are couples that perhaps we wished would have had more time or that things would have turned out differently if fate had permitted. Here are a few of my favorites:
Dido and Aeneas
Phaedra and Hippolytus
Jason and Medea
Sappho and Phaon (one of the only historic references)
While most of know the sadness behind most of these couple, we often wish we could rewrite the mythology and find a more suitable ending. Perhaps Dido does not kill herself after Aeneas leaves? Perhaps Medea could have played hard to get so Jason would appreciate her more? Or Phaon could never leave Sappho? Better yet, Helen and Paris should have run away and lived in exile? Or how about Penelope moving on immediately since Odysseus obvious had several affairs (Circe and Calypso)?
Ovid, in my opinion, is first author to truly take the time to write his version of a “fan fiction.” A fan fiction is when a “fan” of a show, book, or series takes the time to write an alternative ending or even a sequel to the already established lore. (For other authors who wrote fan fiction; check out this article.) Ovid composes the works known as the Heroides in order to breathe new life into these Heroines and give the much needed character work to these mythical women who have been frozen in time. [ This character work is lacking for the modern woman, but for its cotemporary audience it would have been for these heroines to have the last word with their lovers.]
The Heroides are essentially letters addressed from the heroine to her lover, who has often mistreated, neglected, or even abandoned her. Ovid chooses the genre of the epistles for these women to express themselves. While this choice has been questioned by various scholars (one such argument is presented: here), it is difficult to see how else Ovid could have approached this work in order to give his heroines a voice, but not over-step bounds and write an entire fictitious mythology. The following is a summation of the Heroides by Penguin Classics:
In the twenty-one poems of the Heroides, Ovid gave voice to the heroines and heroes of epic and myth. These deeply moving literary epistles reveal the happiness and torment of love, as the writers tell of their pain at separation, forgiveness of infidelity or anger at betrayal. The faithful Penelope wonders at the suspiciously long absence of Ulysses, while Dido bitterly reproaches Aeneas for too eagerly leaving her bed to follow his destiny, and Sappho – the only historical figure portrayed here – describes her passion for the cruelly rejecting Phaon. In the poetic letters between Paris and Helen the lovers seem oblivious to the tragedy prophesied for them, while in another exchange the youthful Leander asserts his foolhardy eagerness to risk his life to be with his beloved Hero.
While, Ovid is a male author assuming the female voice of mythological characters and attempting to transgress the boundaries of gender language, diction, and characteristics (all through meter). He is still capable of invoking such emotion that anyone who has experience heartbreak knows:
alter habendus amor tibi restat et altera Dido Another love awaits for you and Another Dido
quamque iterum fallas, altera danda fides. and who once more you shall deceive, having given another promise
(Excerpt from Dido’s Letter to Aeneas. Letter VII)
In my mind, well put Dido! Bitterness envelopes her entire speech; once a liar-always liar. Right? Well, what’s the saying?
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
While, not all of Ovid’s heroines come off so…bitter; each one accurately reflects her place, position, and circumstance. He does over dramatize her feelings or reactions, but they appear natural and eloquently put in order to touch the reader. For information on the work, its meter and where to read it- refer below!
The Heroides consist of 15 poems that have mythological females address their heroic lovers. These epistolary poems are written in Latin elegiac couplets (demonstrated here and in depth here), which is a type of meter used in poetry. You may see a small sample of the Heroides here, which provides part of the letter, the heroine writing, and to whom she is addressing the letter too. Or you may see the entirety of his work here. Ovid also composed the Double Heroides which include another 6 poems; which start here. These, unlike the Heroides, include three separate exchanges between the heroic and mythical lovers.