A Translation of Ovid's Heroides
With Notes and
Resources for Study
About the Poems
is a collection of twenty-one poems, written in the form of fictional letters.
They are what are known as “literary epistles,” a genre which is not
especially popular today, but which was widely used for the better part of two
thousand years in western Europe and parts of the Mediterranean.
Ovid represents the letters as having been written (with one exception)
by and about figures from Greek legend or myth.
The first fourteen letters are based on well-known myths
and are written by women to the legendary heroes who have abandoned them.
They give a quintessentially Ovidian twist to the myths, letting us see
the often less admirable—and always more human—consequences of the heroic
exploits of figures like Theseus, Jason, or Ulysses.
The fifteenth letter is something of an anomaly, and its authenticity has
been questioned fairly often. It is
written by a non-legendary figure, the Greek poet Sappho; she writes to the
youth who was reputed to be her only male lover, Phaon.
The last six letters are the so-called “double letters.”
As the name implies, these letters are in pairs, with the first letter
being written by the male lover, and the second being written in response by the
About the Translations
The translations presented here are intended primarily for
college undergraduates enrolled in introductory or general-education literature
courses. It is likely that students
enrolled in these courses will not know Latin, and it is possible that they may
have only a limited background in Greek and Roman mythology.
In order to make the poems as accessible as possible for
this audience, I have accompanied the text with fairly extensive hypertext notes
that are intended to clarify Ovid’s frequent mythological references. The
introduction to each poem focuses, not on questions of interpretation or
scholarship, but on filling in the mythological and narrative background which
is necessary for understanding the context of each letter.
Each poem is also accompanied by a section-by-section “synopsis,”
which is intended to make first-reading comprehension a little easier for
students who may find the form or content of the poems unfamiliar.
I have not attempted a verse translation. I have preserved
the line-breaks as closely as possible—in part to allow ease of reference to
the Latin text for any student who might have some Latin, and in part because
Ovid structures his thought and syntax in elegiac couplets—but the text itself
is essentially a prose translation.
This project was made possible by sabbatical leaves granted by Edgewood
College. All of the translations may be copied and redistributed freely for non-commercial purposes, but I would appreciate it if you would let me know about it if you choose to use them: email@example.com.
Contents of the Web Edition
A brief introduction to Ovid:
A short sketch of the poet's life and his place in Roman literature.
myth cycles: Summaries of the events associated with two major
sets of stories which function as background for several of the letters in the Heroides.
The House of Atreus:
The tragic fates of the descendants of Tantalus, whose destinies affect
Orestes, Helen, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and a host of others.
The Trojan War: Perhaps
the most important narrative of Greek heroic legend, and one which is
directly involved in at least a third of the letters.
Some principal deities of Greek and Roman
mythology: A highly selective list of some of the major gods and
goddess mentioned in the Heroides, along with brief descriptions of them.
The Single Letters
- Heroides I: Penelope to Ulysses It has been ten years since the end of the Trojan War; Ulysses (Greek: Odysseus) has been through all the adventures recorded in the Odyssey, and has almost battled his way home to Ithaca. Penelope, ignorant of her husband's imminent return, laments his long delay--and has a few sharp words to say about the possible reasons for it.
- Heroides II: Phyllis to Demophoon Phyllis fell in love with one of the sons of Theseus, who promised to return to her after he had seen to his affairs in Athens. After a long delay, she fell into despair and hanged herself, transforming into an almond tree upon her death. When Demophoon finally returned, he could only embrace the tree, which put forth leaves in recognition of their love. This letter is written shortly before her suicide.
- Heroides III: Briseis to Achilles During the
siege of Troy, Briseis is taken from Achilles by the leader of the Greek armies, Agamemnon. Achilles, incensed at the insult, refuses to fight for the Greeks any further. In an attempt to resolve the dispute, Agamemnon sends emissaries to Achilles, who offer to return Briseis and to give him lavish gifts in addition if he will return to the fighting. Achilles refuses--and Briseis writes to him, asking him why he will not take her back.
- Heroides IV: Phaedra to Hippolytus Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, has been overwhelmed by an illicit, incestuous passion for her stepson, Hippolytus. She writes to him in an attempt to persuade him to share her love. Hippolytus, however, is a devotee of Diana, the goddess of chastity, and he refuses her. Phaedra's crazed revenge on Hippolytus is recorded in Euripides' Hippolytus.
- Heroides V: Oenone to Paris The nymph Oenone has been abandoned by her lover, Paris, a younger son of King Priam of Troy. Following the famous "judgement," in which Paris selected Venus as the most beautiful of the goddesses on Olympus, Paris seized the opportunity to wed the beautiful Helen, daughter of Zeus and wife of Menelaus. Oenone complains of her lover's infidelity and sharply criticizes the virtue of his much-married bride, alluding as well to the havoc of the Trojan War which follows the abduction of Helen.
- Heroides VI:
Hypsipyle to Jason Hypsipyle, the ruler of Lemnos, gave shelter to Jason
and the Argonauts when they were on their quest for the Golden Fleece.
Hypsipyle and Jason were married, and Jason promised to return when the quest
was accomplished. Hypsipyle, now the mother of twins by Jason, has
received news that he is safely home, and that he has brought with him a new
wife--the sorceress, Medea. Hypsipyle writes to Jason, reproaching him
for deserting her and questioning the character of Medea. (Full
- Heroides VII: Dido to Aeneas Aeneas, a
refugee from the fall of Troy and the future founder of Rome, was cast ahore
on the coast of Africa and sought refuge in the city of Carthage. He
stayed for quite some time and became romantically involved with the city's
queen, Dido. Now he is about to sail from Carthage to pursue his own destiny in Italy.
Dido upbraids him for leaving her, in this intriguing reprise of Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid.
- Heroides VIII: Hermione
to Orestes Hermione is the daughter of Helen of Troy and King
Menelaus of Sparta. Orestes is the son of Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon,
and Helen's sister, Clytemnaestra. Hermione is in love with Orestes, and
her grandfather had arranged for them to marry. Menelaus had other
ideas, however, and married her off to Neoptolemus, Achilles' son.
Hermione now languishes in Neoptolemus' palace; she writes to Orestes,
reminding him of his place as her rightful husband, lamenting her own fate,
and urging him to rescue her. (Full introduction)
- Heroides IX: Deianira
to Hercules Deianira is the wife of Hercules, who is returning from
his recent conquest of the kingdom of Oechalia. Hercules has a long
history of involvement with other women, and now Deianira believes that he has
taken the woman Iole, whom he captured in battle, as his mistress. Desperate
to retain Hercules' love, Deianira has sent him a tunic soaked with what she
believes is an infallible love charm; it is actually a deadly poison.
She reminds Hercules of his great achievements and reproaches him for his
infidelity. As the letter nears its end, she learns of the effects of
the poison, and she finishes on a note of bitter remorse. (Full
- Heroides X: Ariadne to
Theseus Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos of Crete.
Theseus is the son of King Aegeus of Athens. Theseus came to Crete
vowing to end the human tribute that Minos demanded of Athens each
year--fourteen youths to be sent into the Labyrinth as food for the monstrous
Minotaur. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and helped him complete his
quest. The two of them fled together, but on the way back to Athens
Ariadne was abandoned on the island of Naxos. Ariadne writes from Naxos,
reproaching Theseus for deserting her. (Full
- Heroides XI:
Canace to Macareus Canace and Macareus are brother and sister; they
are the children of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds. They have had an
incestuous love affair, and Canace has borne a child. Aeolus becomes
enraged when he discovers the affair and its offspring. He orders the
child destroyed, and sends a sword to Canace, with a clear indication that she
is to commit suicide with it. Canace writes a last letter to Macareus,
after her child has been taken from her and just before she commits
suicide. (Full introduction)
- HeroidesXII: Medea to Jason Jason was the
leader of the Argonauts, who brought the Golden Fleece back from Colchis.
Medea, the daughter of the king of Colchis, helped him capture the Fleece in
exchange for his promise to marry her and take her back to Greece with
him. Now Jason is abandoning Medea to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth; Medea is being exiled. Medea writes to Jason, reminding him of all that she has done for him, and foreshadowing the grisly revenge that she takes on him in Euripides' Medea.
- Heroides XIII:
Laodamia to Protesilaus Laodamia and Protesilaus are married.
Protesilaus has sailed off from their home in Thessaly to fight with the Greek
forces in the Trojan War. Laodamia has dark forebodings about his
safety, and her fears will ultimately prove to be well-founded. In the
meantime, to assuage her immense grief over her husband's absence, Laodamia
has made a lifelike wax image of him, which she dotes on as if it were really
Protesilaus. Hearing that the Greek fleet has been delayed at Aulis, she
writes a letter to her husband. (Full
- Heroides XIV:
Hypermnestra to Lynceus The fifty daughters of Danaus were to be
married to the fifty sons of his brother, Aegyptus. However Danaus,
fearing a prophecy which foretold that he would be killed by his son-in-law,
gave daggers to all of his daughters and ordered them to kill their husbands
on their wedding-night. Although the other daughters carried out his
order, Hypermnestra spared the life of her husband, Lynceus, and helped him
flee the palace. When Danaus discovered Hypermnestra's betrayal, he
threw her in prison. As she sits in prison, loaded down with chains,
Hypermnestra writes to Lynceus, asking him to come to her aid. (Full
- Heroides XV:
Sappho to Phaon Sappho, one of the great lyric poets of the ancient
world, has been abandoned by her lover, Phaon. Although she has had a
number of romantic involvements with women in the past, Phaon was her only
male lover. Now she remains behind, broken-hearted, on the island of
Lesbos, while he has departed for Sicily. She upbraids him for his
desertion of her and begs him to return; she imagines him wooing the young
girls of Sicily while she remains behind. She also informs him of her
plan to throw herself from the cliffs of Leucos if she can not be with
him. (Full introduction)
The Double Letters
XVI: Paris to Helen Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, is
a guest at the palace of King Menelaus of Sparta. He has fallen deeply
in love with Helen, Menelaus' wife, and the goddess Venus has promised that
he can marry her in spite of her wedded state. While Menelaus is
absent in Crete, Paris writes to Helen, urging her to accept his love and
run away with him. He describes how he has suffered from unrequted
love and he presents many reasons for her to accept his proposal, ignoring
the prophecies of disaster that accompany his suit and waving aside the
possibility of war if he takes the king's wife. Ultimately Helen's
departure with Paris will result in the Trojan War and the complete
destruction of Troy itself. (Full introduction)
XVII: Helen to Paris Helen replies to Paris' letter,
reprimanding him for his improper conduct in courting a married woman, and
at first refusing his proposal outright. As the letter progresses,
however, she reveals that she is attracted to him and is moved by his love
for her. She reviews all the reasons that they can not consummate
their love, including the damage to her honor and the very real possibility
of war, but by the end of the letter it has become clear that she wants to
be persuaded to yield to Paris' entreaties. (Full
XVIII: Leander to Hero Hero and Leander are star-crossed
lovers. She is a priestess of Venus in Sestos, and he is a young man
of noble birth from Abydos. All that separates them physically is the
narrow strait of the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles), but Hero is
forbidden to marry a foreigner, so they can never let their love be
known. In order to carry on their love affair in secret, Leander swims
across the Hellespont each night, using a light in her tower as a guide, and
then swims back to his home before dawn. But now the calm weather of
summer is ending, and the strait has turned stormy. Leander remains
unwillingly on his side of the Hellespont, waiting for calm seas so that he
can swim once again. In the meantime, he writes to Hero, telling her
how unhappy he is at being apart and describing his abortive attempts to
reach her in spite of the storms. On his next attempt to swim across,
presumably undertaken right after the letter is written, he will be drowned
in the Hellespont. (Full introduction)
XIX: Hero to Leander Hero replies to Leander, expressing the
wish that he should come to her soon. She describes her lonely vigils,
as she waits in vain for his arrival each night. She scolds him for
becoming timid about the sea, since he was bold in his swimming before, and
she wonders whether his love for her has become less strong, or even whether
he might be held back by another lover. She also describes a dream
which presages Leander's own death by drowning; she urges caution, but still
begs him to come. (Full introduction)
XX: Acontius to Cycippe Acontius loves Cydippe, but she will
not pay any attention to him. So inscribes the words of an oath on an
apple, and rolls it into the temple of Diana where she is worshipping.
Cydippe automatically reads the words aloud, thus swearing in the goddess'
presence to marry Acontius. She does not pay any attention to this
trick at the time, but the goddess Diana does; whenever Cydippe becomes
engaged to be married after that, the goddess makes her deathly ill, only
allowing her to recover when the marriage is called off. Acontius has
continues to court Cydippe by writing letters to her, and she has become
aware that his trickery is responsible for her illness. Acontius
writes one last letter to her, defending his actions and urging her to marry
XXI: Cydippe to Acontius Cydippe replies to Acontius,
upbraiding him for his deceitful conduct and blaming him for her
sickness. She asks him why he did not court her in the usual way, by
relying on his own personal merits, rather than resorting to trickery.
She admits that rumors have reached her from the Delphic oracle that her
illness is the result of trying to break her oath to Diana. She also
admits that he would be, after all, a worthy husband for her, and she ends
the letter by accepting his proposal of marriage.
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