Text of the Poem
Laodamia and Protesilaus are married. Protesilaus has sailed off from their home in Thessaly to fight with the Greek forces in the Trojan War, and Laodamia has dark forebodings about his safety. She is fearful of the great Trojan hero, Hector, and she fears the prophecy that foretells the death of the first Greek soldier to land on Trojan soil. Her fears will prove to be well-founded--in spite of the prophecy, Protesilaus will bravely step forth from his ship ahead of the other Greeks, and will be killed by Hector. 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, telling him of her grief at his absence, lamenting the events that took him from her, and urging him to be cautious so that he may return safely to her.
The background begins with the origins of the Trojan War, and for that we must go back to the conception of the woman who would come to be known as Helen of Troy. Jove, the king of the gods, became enamored of a human woman, Leda. Leda was married to Tyndareus, the king of Sparta in Greece, but this did not stop Jove. He took the form of a swan, and then either seduced or raped Leda. As a result, Leda gave birth to four children: twin sons, Castor and Pollux; and two daughters, Helen and Clytemnaestra. Accounts of their paternity vary, but Helen and Pollux are often said to be the children of Jove, while Clytemnaestra and Castor are attributed to Tyndareus.
Helen was the one that was most immediately troublesome. She was the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world. As a young adult, she was sought as a bride by virtually every king in Greece. So Tyndareus was faced with a problem: if he chose one suitor for Helen’s husband, then he would offend practically every other king in the land. Even worse, there was the danger that someone among the unsuccessful suitors would not take “no” for an answer, and would attempt to kidnap Helen from her husband, starting inter-clan fighting or even full-scale civil war. The clever Ulysses, king of Ithaca, suggested a plan by which he could solve his problem: he got all the suitors to swear a solemn oath to defend Helen’s marriage, regardless of who was chosen. If anyone tried to take Helen away from her husband, the rest of the suitors would form a military alliance to get her back. The plan worked. Helen was married to Menelaus, who became king of Sparta, and the two of them remained peacefully wed for a number of years.
But there was trouble brewing elsewhere. When the sea-nymph Thetis had married the human Peleus, all the gods and goddesses were invited to the wedding except for one--Eris, the goddess of discord. In order to be revenged for her exclusion, Eris showed up at the festivities and threw a golden apple into a group of goddesses. The apple was inscribed, "For the fairest." The goddesses Juno, Minerva, and Venus quarreled over who deserved the apple, and appealed to Jove to settle the matter. Jove did not want to get involved in such a touchy issue (Juno was his wife, and Minerva and Venus were his daughters), and so he referred the question to Paris, a son of King Priam of Troy who was supposed to be an expert on feminine charms. What followed was the famous Judgement of Paris. Each of the goddesses tried to bribe Paris to give the apple to her: Juno promised a kingdom, Minerva promised wisdom, and Venus offered the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris awarded the apple to Venus.
Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman in the world was Helen, who was already married to Menelaus. When Paris was sent on an embassy to Sparta, Menelaus received him as a guest in his household, and Paris and Helen got to know one another. While Menelaus himself was away on a trip to Crete, Paris eloped with (or abducted) Helen and took her back to Troy as his wife. Menelaus was outraged, and he called upon the oaths that all the other suitors had sworn to defend his marriage-rights. Over a period of time, a vast invasion force was assembled from all over the Greek world, and a Greek armada sailed against Troy to retrieve Helen.
The subsequent war was long and bloody. The Greek forces laid siege to Troy for ten years, but they were held at bay by Troy and its allies and by the military prowess of the greatest of the Trojan heroes, Hector (another son of King Priam). After Hector was finally killed by the Greek hero Achilles, the Greeks finally got inside Troy's walls by the trick of the Trojan horse, and Troy was burned to the ground. Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus and apparently settled back down into a happily married life once more.
Laodamia's letter is set in the very early stages of this long military campaign. She lives in Phylace, a port town in Thessaly in northern Greece. She is married (probably quite recently married) to Protesilaus, who has become the leader of a contingent of forty Thessalian ships in the Greek fleet. She is very much in love with her husband and is terrified for his safety. She has all sorts of premonitions about his fate, and is particularly worried about a prophecy that says that the first Greek to set foot on Trojan soil will be killed. She fears that Protesilaus will behave with reckless courage and will push to the front in the landing, exposing himself to the fulfillment of the prophecy.
Even after his departure she remains inconsolable. She refuses to take care of her appearance, and tries to establish a bond of empathy with him by giving her own existence a kind of military roughness. To make her husband's absence easier to bear, she creates a life-like image of him out of wax to keep her company. She speaks to the image, bestows caresses on it, and treats it almost as if Protesilaus himself were present.
Meanwhile, Protesilaus and the rest of the Greek fleet have not been able to reach Troy. The are held up by contrary winds in the port of Aulis. A prophecy tells Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces, that he must sacrifice one of his own children to the goddess Diana in order to obtain favorable winds. Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia, is duly sacrificed, and the fleet sails on. When they reach the coast of Troy, the other soldiers hang back, fearful of the prophecy, but Protesilaus boldly leaps onto the shore. Soon afterwards, he is killed in combat by the Trojan hero Hector, and Laodamia's fears are realized.
There are two main versions of what happens after Protesilaus' death. In the first version, Laodamia's grief over her husband's death is so great that the gods allow Protesilaus to come back to her for a period of three hours. When he is drawn back into the underworld at the end of the three hours, Laodamia commits suicide. In the second version, she becomes so enamored of the wax image of Protesilaus that her father orders the image to be burned. Laodamia then commits suicide by leaping into the fire that is consuming the likeness of her beloved.
Laodamia's letter is written while the Greek fleet is delayed at Aulis, awaiting favorable winds for the voyage to Troy.
Lines 1-2: The opening of the letter is direct (something that is rather unusual in the Heroides), identifying Laodamia as the writer and her husband as the recipient. Both are identified as Thessalian ("Haemonian"), emphasizing the common background that they share (again, something that is unusual in the Heroides). Laodamia sends "wishes for the welfare" of her husband, using a word ("salutem") which can mean either "greeting" or "health."
Lines 3-14: In this section, Laodamia laments the haste with which she was forced to part from Protesilaus, blaming the wind and sea. She opens with a reference to Protesilaus' current situation: "you are delayed at Aulis, held back by the wind." She then uses the unfavorable winds at Aulis to launch into her complaint, asking where these winds were when Protesilaus sailed from Phylace. This would have been a more "fitting time for fierce seas," so that she could have "given my husband more kisses, and more commissions." She laments that "you were rushed off quickly" by a "wind which the sailors wished for, not I." She was not able to say all that she wished to say, and "was hardly able to say that sad 'farewell'!"
Lines 15-28: In this section, she describes his actual departure. She watched Protesilaus for as long as she could still see him, and then watched his sails ("for a long time your the sails held my gaze"). When she finally lost sight of the fleet altogether, she fainted ("the light also went away with you"), and her father-in-law and her own father and mother had difficulty reviving her "with icy water." She closes the section by regretting that they were successful: "I resent that I, wretched, was not allowed to die!"
Lines 29-42: In this section, Laodamia moves on to describe her state of mind after Protesilaus' departure. After she recovered from her fainting spell ("when my spirit returned"), she found herself in renewed distress ("pain returned as well"). She no longer took care of her appearance, neglecting her hair and her clothing. She describes herself as running madly to and fro like someone stung to madness by the god Bacchus ("the two-horned one"). The women of Phylace urge her to put on garments appropriate for royalty ("put on your royal garments!"), but she responds that she will not indulge in comforts and adornments while "my husband bears harsh arms." She closes the section by saying to Protesilaus that she will "imitate your labors in my roughness," and endure grief herself during his time of war.
Lines 43-62: In this section, she shifts abruptly from her own state of mind to the remote causes of her suffering. She traces it back to Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. Paris had been received as a guest in the household of Menelaus, King of Sparta, and then had eloped with Menelaus' wife, Helen; the Trojan War, into which Protesilaus has been drawn, was Menelaus' attempt to get his wife back. Laodamia begins by hoping that Paris will be as weak as an enemy as he was bad as a guest. She goes on to wish either that Paris had not been attracted by Helen ("the Taenarian wife"), or that she had not found him attractive (since then there would have been no elopement and hence no Trojan War). Next she blames Menelaus himself, saying that "you...strive too much for the abducted one," and bring too much suffering on others. She prays that her husband will return and be able to offer his weapons and armor in thanksgiving to the god Jove. In spite of this prayer, she says that she is afraid "as often as I think of the wretched war," and she gives a list of famous Trojan place-names ("Ilium and Tenedos and Simois and Xanthus and Ida") that strike fear in her heart. Next she shifts back to Paris ("the guest"), and points out that he would not have dared to take Helen away "if he were not able to defend himself." She gives an account of the riches with which he was arrayed ("the wealth of Phrygia"), and the military forces with which he was accompanied ("ships and men, with which fierce wars are waged"), and wonders how much more wealth and strength must remain at home in Troy. She closes the section by musing that the glamour of his power and treasure conquered Helen ("daughter of Leda"), and worries that the same things "can harm the Danaeans [Greeks]."
Lines 63-78: [Four lines (63-64 and 74-75) are omitted from this section because they were probably added by a later writer, rather than being part of the original poem; this is why the line numbering seems odd.] In this section, Laodamia turns to Protesilaus' own situation as a participant in the Trojan War. She warns him particularly to guard himself against Hector, the greatest of the Trojan heroes, as well as to avoid other enemies ("think that there are many Hectors there"), reminding him to fight cautiously in order to "spare" his wife ("'Laodamia commanded me to spare herself'"). If Troy is to fall, she says, it can fall without any harm coming to Protesilaus. She closes the section by contrasting Menelaus' case with that of Protesilaus: Menelaus should seek out the enemy, since it is his wife that he is trying to regain; Protesilaus, on the other hand, should fight only in order to return alive to his own wife.
Lines 79-84: In this section, she offers a prayer to the Trojans ("sons of Dardanus") to spare Protesilaus, since his wounds would cause "my blood issue forth from that body." She claims that Protesilaus is more suited for love than for war ("he is able to love with far greater strength than he fights").
Lines 85-92: In this section, she speaks of her fear of omens that attended Protesilaus' departure. She "confesses" that she wanted to call him back, but feared the omen of such an act. When he stumbled on the threshold of his own house, she "groaned" and prayed that this would "be a sign of my husband's return" rather than a sign of impending disaster. She closes the section by urging him not to be "too full of courage in arms," so that her fears will not come true.
Lines 93-102: In this section, she moves on to the specific prophecy that worries her the most: that the first Greek soldier to set foot on Trojan soil ("first of the Danaeans to touch the earth of Troy") will be killed. She prays that he will not be "determined to be too active," and push himself into the forefront. She urges him to be the last of the "thousand ships" to land, and also to "leave the ship last." She closes the section by reminding him that there is no need to hurry on his way to war in a foreign land; he should save his haste for his journey home.
Lines 103-108: In this section, she imagines his homecoming and speaks of her own loneliness. She urges him to come to her either by night or by day ("whether Phoebus is concealed or shows himself high above the earth"), but she prefers the night, since it "is pleasing to girls" who are embraced by their lovers. In the meantime she seeks "lying dreams" in her loneliness, taking pleasure in "false joys" in the absence of "true ones."
Lines 109-122: In this section, she begins by mentioning her fears once more, and then continues with her fantasies of Protesilaus' return. The previous section ended with her dreams, and now she asks why they bring her "your likeness, turned pale." She says that she wakes from the nightmare, and offers sacrifices to the gods ("no Thessalian altar lacks my smoke"); even her tears sprinkle the altar and the incense "blazes up." Then she asks when he will return and be "embraced in my eager arms" again, and begins imagining what his homecoming will be like. She imagines him telling her of his exploits in the war, while she interrupts him with kisses--since "the tongue is more ready when restored by sweet delay."
Lines 123-136: In this section, her focus swings back from dreams of the future to fears for the present, and she urges him not to rush off to Troy. Her hope "falls" whenever "Troy comes into my thoughts." She fears because, with the fleet held up at Aulis, Protesilaus prepares to sail "against the will of the winds." She points out that no one would even try to get home "with the winds forbidding," and that it is foolishness to sail away to foreign parts with the sea-god Neptune himself opposing them. She then broadens her appeal from Protesilaus to the whole Greek force ("where do you rush off to, Danaeans?"), urging them to "return to your homes," and saying that the gods themselves have caused this "delay." Even the war itself is all for nothing but a "foul adulteress" (i.e., Helen). She urges the fleet once more to turn around ("turn your sails, Inachian ships"). But then she closes the section with a return to her former fear of evil omens ("be away from me, omen of recall") and asks for fair weather and smooth seas to give them a safe journey.
Lines 137-148: In this section, Laodamia shifts focus abruptly to a comparison of her own situation with that of the women of Troy. She begins by saying that she envies them. Even though they must witness the funerals of their loved ones and are threatened by an enemy close at hand, nevertheless they are at least close to their husbands. A "new bride" can prepare her husband for battle "with her own hands," and "take kisses" from him at the same time. She can "give him commands to return," so that he "will fight with care." And, after the battle, "she will welcome his weary body to her lap."
Lines 149-158: In this next-to-last section, Laodamia's preoccupation with her loneliness reaches a climax. Contrasting herself once more with the women of Troy, she points out that "we are uncertain" of our husbands' fates, and are prey to "anxious fears." In spite of Protesilaus' absence, however, she has once solace--a life-like "waxen image which brings your features back to me." She lavishes on it all the attentions she would like to give to Protesilaus himself--"fond phrases" and even "my embrace." She insists that "the image is more than it seems to be"; if it could only speak, it would actually be Protesilaus. She closes the section plaintively, saying that she even addresses her complaints to it, "as if it could give words back."
Lines 159-166: [Two lines (161-162) are omitted from this section because they were probably added by a later writer, rather than being part of the original poem; this is why the line numbering seems odd.] She closes the letter with an oath and a command. She swears her oath by several things, including her husband's "body" (which she puts in place of a god, the usual basis of an oath). What she swears is that she will be his companion, either in life (which she hopes for) or in death (which she fears will be his fate). She then ends the letter with a final "small command": that Protesilaus take care of himself if he cares for her.
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