Latin Language Blog

Ovid’s Heroides: The Original Fan Fiction Posted by on Mar 5, 2014 in Latin Language, Roman culture

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

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Phaedra and Hippolytus

Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel

Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel

Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907)

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907)

Sappho and Phaon (one of the only historic references)

Sappho and Phaon. 1809 Jacques-Louis David

Sappho and Phaon. 1809
Jacques-Louis David

While most of us know the sadness behindthese 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, Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari  commemorating Ovid's exile in Tomis

Ovid, Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari
commemorating Ovid’s exile in Tomis. Courtesy of WIkiCommons & Ettore Ferrari.

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:

Death of Dido, by Guercino, AD 1631.

Death of Dido, by Guercino, AD 1631.

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.



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About the Author: Brittany Britanniae

Hello There! Please feel free to ask me anything about Latin Grammar, Syntax, or the Ancient World.


  1. Lodewijk Gonggrijp:

    This is fascinating. I did not know this existed.
    I only know Ovid from (translated) Metamorphoses, which I read long ago and found hard going. I should reread it.

  2. Hedvig:

    Hi Brittany,

    I am taking intro into Latin at University of Toronto. Although it is not my focus I thoroughly enjoy it even if it can be really though at times. This is how I found the blog. Now I want to get Heroides. It sounds so cool plus in class time I like to translate Ovid the most. Anyways, just wanted to drop in and share. Your other posts are wicked good too!