Introduction and Synopses for

Ovid, Heroides XVI and XVII

Text of Heroides XVI; Synopsis of Heroides XVI

Text of Heroides XVII; Synopsis of Heroides XVII

The Basic Situation

The goddess Venus has promised Paris, a prince of Troy, that the beautiful Helen will be his wife.  But there are obstacles in the way.  For one thing, Helen is already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta in Greece.  To make matters worse, Helen, the daughter of Jove and the lovely human woman Leda, is the most beautiful woman in the world.  The most powerful men in Greece courted her, and when she was given in marriage to Menelaus, all the other suitors swore to defend the marriage--by military force if necessary--if anyone tried to interfere.  Now Paris has come to Sparta as a guest of the royal household.  He has fallen in love with Helen and wants her to run away with him.  Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave Sparta for a visit to Crete, leaving Paris free to pursue his courtship of Helen.

The Background

[Note:  This introduction is quite similar to that of Heroides V, since the same story and the same characters are involved.]

The story starts with Helen’s birth—or rather with her conception. 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 Helen. Helen was raised as Tyndareus’ daughter. 

Helen was incredibly beautiful—she was said to be the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world. Even when she was still quite young, she was kidnapped by the legendary Greek hero Theseus, although she is said to have been returned to her parents unharmed. 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. 

Enter the clever Ulysses, king of Ithaca (his Greek name is Odysseus, and he is the hero of Homer’s Odyssey). Ulysses wanted to marry Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. He told Tyndareus that, in return for help in winning Penelope as his wife, he would devise a plan by which no unsuccessful suitor would interfere with Helen’s marriage. Here was Ulysses’ plan: 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, king of Sparta, and remained peacefully wed to him for a number of years. 

Now we have to shift to another part of the world. In Troy, a city in Asia Minor (its ruins are located in modern-day Turkey), Priam was king. His wife, Hecuba, was pregnant with a son. She had a dream (or there was some other sort of prophecy—it depends on what accounts you read) that she gave birth to a burning torch, that dripped blood and from which serpents issued. It was decided that the unborn son was going to be a deadly danger to the city, and so orders were given that he should be killed at birth. The son’s name was Paris. There are several versions of why he survived, but one of the more common ones is that he was “exposed” in the countryside and left to die, and that a shepherd saved him and raised him. Paris was ignorant of his true parentage, and grew up as a shepherd; in some accounts he was a shepherd’s servant. As he neared manhood, he fell in love with the nymph Oenone, the daughter of the river-god Cebrenis. The two lived as husband and life in the countryside. Some time later, during a festival at Troy, he was recognized as the king’s son and restored to his place in the royal household. 

So here we have the two principal figures in this letter: Paris, the handsome young prince of Troy; and Helen, the beautiful woman for whom Paris deserts hjs former love, Oenone. The story of how they came together takes us back to Greece. 

Jove, the king of the gods, and Neptune, the principal god of the sea, had sexual designs on the Nereid Thetis (a sea-nymph). However, they discovered a prophecy that Thetis would bear a son who would be mightier than his father. Since neither god wanted a son who might overthrow him, they decided to avoid the problem by having Thetis marry a human. They chose Peleus, because of his reputation for good character. All of the gods were invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, with the exception of one—Eris, the goddess of discord. To avenge the snub, Eris showed up at the wedding anyway, and threw a golden apple into a group of goddesses; the apple was inscribed with the words “for the fairest.” The goddesses Juno, Venus, and Minerva all claimed the apple, and appealed to Jove to settle the dispute. Jove did not want to get involved (Juno was both his wife and his sister, and Venus and Minerva were his daughters), so he referred the decision to Paris, who was supposed to be wise in the ways of love and a great judge of feminine beauty. The result was the famous “Judgement of Paris.” All three of the goddesses tried to bribe him: Juno (queen of the gods) promised him the rulership of a kingdom; Minerva (goddess of wisdom, learning, and defensive warfare) promised him valor and success in battle; and Venus (goddess of love) promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris awarded the apple to Venus.

A little later, Paris was sent on an embassy to Sparta, where Menelaus was king. There he wooed Menelaus’ wife, Helen. When Menelaus went away on a journey to Crete, Paris either eloped with Helen or abducted her, and took her back to Troy as his wife. At this point, Menelaus invoked the oath that all the other suitors had taken, and demanded that they band together to bring back his wife. The result was a coalition of forces under the leadership of Agamemnon, Menelaus’ elder brother, which sailed to Asia Minor and besieged Troy for ten years, finally taking it by the stratagem of the Trojan horse, and burning the city to the ground. Paris himself was mortally wounded before the siege ended.  Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus, and they lived happily as husband and wife once more.

There is yet another cycle of stories that enters into the background of these letters.  Both Paris and Helen make reference to the ancestry of Helen's husband, Menelaus.  Menelaus is a part of the cursed "House of Atreus," whose often scandalous misfortunes were a favorite subject among Greek writers of tragedy.  Although these references do not occupy a great deal of space in either poem, they may be difficult to unravel without some sort of background.  See the House of Atreus in the ancillary materials for a brief summary of the stories.

The letter is written during Menelaus' absence in Crete.  Paris writes to Helen, urging her to seize this opportunity and flee to Troy with him; Helen writes back with her refusal, but she refuses in terms that leave no doubt about the eventual outcome.


The Letters:  Heroides XVI

Lines 1-2:  Paris opens his letter by identifying both the sender and receiver.  However, he does not identify either himself or Helen by name, choosing instead to give their parentage.  This sets up the importance that ancestral descent and family/regional connections will have in the poem.  Paris also sets the main theme of the letter:  that Helen assure his "well-being" by giving in to his desires.

Lines 3-12:  Paris starts this section by introducing the metaphor of flame and burning that he will exploit throughout the section and will also pick up elsewhere in the poem.  He asks whether he even needs to speak at all; his love for Helen (the "flame") may already be more obvious "than I would wish."  He claims that he would like to "keep it hidden" until he could declare his love without fear, but he is not good at hiding it since fire "shows itself by its own light."  In the final four lines, he finally speaks openly about what he assumes she already knows (adding "voice to the fact"); keeping to the metaphor of fire, he simply says, "I burn!"  He then shifts tone, abandoning the flame-metaphor, and begs for mercy as though he were a prisoner before a judge ("spare me...since I have confessed"), ending with a plea that she read his letter favorably.

Lines 13-26:  In this section, Paris shifts tone again, and shifts to a new motif--the sea-journey--which he introduces in the third line and develops fully in the last six.  He starts by saying he is thankful; since Helen has accepted his letter, he is hopeful that she will accept him as well.  He then cites the authority for his quest.  It was Venus ("the mother of Love") who set him on the journey, and he chooses to grasp what she has promised.  He warns Helen not to "sin unknowingly" by going against the "divinity" who "favors the undertaking."  He then tells her specifically that Venus ("Cytherea") has promised Helen "to my marriage-bed."  In the last six lines, the sea-journey motif emerges in full force.  Venus has guided him across the "uncertain paths" of the sea, giving him "favorable breezes" to drive the ship to its destination.  She can do this because, according to one myth, the sea gave birth to her, and therefore she can control it.  He ends the section by turning the sea-journey motif into a metaphor for his live, asking that Venus quell "the disturbance in my breast" as she has calmed the sea, and that she bring his quest for Helen into its "harbor."

Lines 27-38:  In this section, Paris assures Helen that she has been the object of his quest all along; he didn't simply come along by accident and then fall in love with her.  He starts by reminding us of the fire-metaphor with which he started ("I brought these flames"), and then goes on to reject all the other reasons that he might have come to Sparta:  he was not driven off course by a "gloomy storm;" he did not come seeking "wealth," or with "goods" to trade; he did not come as a tourist, "to see Greek cities."  Instead, he came solely for Helen herself ("I seek you"), and he reminds her again that "golden Venus" promised her to him.  He closes the section by assuring her that he loved her even before he saw her:  "I saw your face with my soul," and even mere "Rumor" was enough to inflict the "first wound" of love.

Lines 39-50: At the beginning of this section, Paris picks up the metaphor of love's "wound" again, and points out that it is not "astonishing" that he should have been struck with love from so far away, since Cupid's "bow is so powerful."  He then warns her not to go against the fates, as he had warned her not to go against the gods before, and returns to the motif of flame.  This time he recounts the prophecy of the burning torch.  While his mother was pregnant with him, she dreamed that she gave birth to "a great flaming torch," and the prophets said that this meant that Troy "would burn with the fire of Paris."  This would prove to be literally true when the Greeks sacked and burned Troy, but Paris, ironically, interprets it simply as "the torch of my heart," which burns with love for Helen.

Lines 51-72:  In this section, Paris begins the story of his "judgment" of the three goddesses.  He opens with a brief reference to his upbringing ("I seemed to be of the common people"); as a result of the prophecy mentioned at the end of the previous section, he was supposed to have been killed at birth, but was rescued and raised by shepherds on Mount Ida. He insists that, even under such humble circumstances, his "beauty and force of spirit" set him apart.  He then sets an idyllic scene for the coming encounter:  a secluded spot on Mount Ida, forested and without grazing livestock.  He was looking calmly down on the sea and on the "walls/And high roofs" of Troy ("the Dardanian city").  He is aware that his story will seem incredible, and he insists upon its truth ("I will speak true words").  He felt the earth move, and then the god Mercury ("the grandson of great Atlas and Pleione"), the messenger of Jove, appeared before him.  With Mercury came the three goddesses: Venus, Minerva, and Juno.  He was terrified, but Mercury told him not to fear ("set fear aside") and explained the task that had been set for him:  he was to judge which of the three goddesses was the most beautiful.  In order to forestall any objections, Mercury commands him "in the name of Jove," and then departs, leaving Paris along with the three goddesses.

Lines 73-88:  This section continues the story of the "judgment."  Paris recovers his wits after the departure of Mercury, and does "not fear to observe each" of the three goddesses standing naked before him.  Paris' confidence is ironic here; disaster will come of this encounter and all of Troy will be destroyed--Paris just does not know it yet.  But he proceeds with his examination and and finds that "all were worthy of winning;" he "laments" that all of them can not be victors.  Yet right from the first, one of them "pleased me more"--Venus, "by whom love is moved."  He then tells how each of them tried to bribe him.  Juno promises him a kingdom, and Minerva offers valor and success in war.  Venus, however, tells him not to pay attention to the other two, warning him that both political power and military exploits are "full of doubtful fear."  What she promises him instead is the love of the most beautiful woman in the world--Helen ("the daughter of beautiful Leda").  "Her gift and her beaugy" make Paris decide in her favor, and she departs the victor in the contest.

Lines 89-106: This section opens as Paris picks up the narrative of events after the "judgment."  He is recognized as the son of Priam and Hecuba, to the accompaniment of much rejoicing in Troy; he establishes his royal birthright, and by implication his worthiness to be Helen's suitor.  There is a touch of irony in his statement that he thinks this elevation in status was "because my fates had turned fortunate"--the chain of events that will lead him to Helen will also lead to the destruction of Troy and to his own death.  He also claims that he has been the object of desire for many women, so that Helen has the opportunity to "hold the object of many prayers."  He then goes on to tout the high rank of his own suitors; they were not just the "daughters of kings and princes," but even demigoddesses--he cites the nymph Oenone, the naiad whom he jilted in order to pursue Helen.  But, he says, he is now "disgusted with them all," because he has hope of marrying Helen.  He returns to the theme of his adoration from afar, saying that she was the one he saw before his eyes by day, and that he dreamed of at night, and that she must be even more wonderful in person.  He ends the section by briefly picking up the metaphor of fire again, saying that he burned even though "the flame was here, far away," and this was the reason that he undertook the arduous sea journey to Sparta.

Lines 107-126:  In this section, he turns to his preparations for departure.  Trees are felled in all portions of the Trojan realm in order to build his ships.  He gives considerable detail about the ship-building--the bending of the oak for the keel, the "weaving" of the sides, the placement of the yard-arms and sails. He also refers to the custom of painting images of the gods on the stern of the ship in order to ensure good fortune; on his ship, he says, there is an image of Venus ("guarantor of your marriage") and her son, Cupid.  Once the work on the ships was completed, he says, he was eager to depart for the "Aegean waters" of Greece.  However his parents hold him back "with affectionate words," and his sister, the seer Cassandra, warns him about the consequences of his voyage.  The flame metaphor ends this section as well as she gives her prophecy about the coming destruction of Troy, saying that he will bring "conflagration" back with him, and that he does understand "how great are the flames" that will be the end of his quest.  Paris says that she was a "true prophet," but he once again ironically misinterprets her meaning, saying that he has "found the fires of which she spoke," because "fierce love flames in my tender breast."

Lines 127-144:  Paris continues narrating events in chronological order in this section.  He describes his arrival at Sparta after an uneventful sea voyage, and his reception by Menelaus ("your husband"), who treats him as an honored guest and shows him all around the kingdom of Lacedaemon.  But what he really wanted to see, Paris says, was Helen herself ("your celebrated beauty").  He was "astounded" and "thunderstruck" at the sight of her, and he insists that he felt a "new love" when they met.  He then compares her beauty to Venus', and suggests that, if Helen had been present at his "judgment" of the three goddesses, Venus might not have won the contest after all.  He ends by reminding her of the fame of her beauty.  "Rumor" has praised her, and people in every land know of her loveliness; no other woman has "fame like you," he says.

Lines 145-162:  At the beginning of this section, Paris picks up on the idea of Helen's "fame" once again, but now he calls it into question.  It does not do her justice, he says ("Your glory is less than the truth"); her reputation is almost an insult in the face of the beauty that he sees before him now.  He goes on to remind her of the Greek hero Theseus, who kidnapped her when she was a child, planning to marry her when she came of age.  She had seemed "worthy plunder for such a hero" when he saw her exercising naked amongst the men, according to Spartan custom.  He approves of Theseus' abduction of her, but he can not believe that he ever let her get away from him--"such a fine prize should have been held firmly."  Paris swears that he himself would have been killed before he would have allowed her to be "dragged from my marriage-bed."  Even if he had been forced to give her back, he says, he would have taken her virginity first, or at least would have had something--" would have taken what could be taken, leaving your virginity safe."

Lines 163-188:  In this section, Paris' attempts to persuade Helen intensify.  He alludes briefly to the flame-metaphor in the opening lines, assuring her that he would be faithful, and that "only the flame of the funeral pyre" would extinguish the "flames" of his love for her.  He then reminds her of what he has already given up for her sake.  He chose her over the kingdoms offered by Juno ("Jove's wife and sister"), and refused the military success offered by Minerva just so he could "circle your neck with my arms."  He assures her that he will never think that this was a foolish decision; he only asks that she allow his hopes to be fulfilled.  He then turns to another sort of persuasion, telling her that he is worthy to be her husband.  He tells her of his noble birth, saying that one of his ancestors was one of the Pleiades (the daughters of the Titan Atlas and the nymph Pleione), and that his father rules the vast and wealthy countries of Asia, with their innumerable cities, their lavish temples, and their "golden dwellings."  He describes Troy ("Ilium"), and reminds her that Apollo himself ("Phoebus") helped build its walls.  He mentions Troy's huge population, and assures her that crowds of Trojan women will celebrate her arrival.  He ends the section by asserting that, once she has seen Troy, she will think that Greece ("Achaia") is poor indeed.

Lines 189-212:  Paris continues to elaborate on Troy's wealth and his family's illustrious heritage in this section.  He starts by admitting that he should not despise Sparta, since it is made wealthy simply by Helen's presence.  But he insists that she deserves greater luxury, and should have "great adornments without limit" and "new delights."  He says that if even the men of Troy (whom she has seen in him and his companions) have great refinement, then she must imagine the women to have even more.  He urges her to be "compliant," and not "disdain a Phrygian husband," and then he slyly reminds her of her own rustic background when he calls her "Girl born in the Therapnaean countryside."  He then shifts gears a bit and compares his own family background and ancestry to that of Menelaus.  Although in the previous section he said he was going to skip over the generations between his father and his earliest ancestor, here he goes into detail about his genealogy.  He mentions Ganymede, who was loved by Jove and became cupbearer to the gods, and Tithonus, who married the goddess of the dawn, Aurora.  He also points out Anchises, who was the lover of Venus herself; their sone, Aeneas, would become the great Trojan hero who survived the fall of Troy and went on to found Rome.  He then turns to Menelaus' family, which certainly did have more than its share of scandal and tragedy.  He claims that he would not give Helen a "father-in-law" like Atreus (Menelaus' father), who served up a cannibalistic feast to his own brother--a spectacle so horrible that even the sun turned away from the sight.  He alludes next to Pelops, Atreus' father, who arranged the "murder of his father-in-law," and ends with the example of Tantalus, who was famously punished with eternal hunger and thirst for another cannibalistic feast he had arranged.  (For a fuller account of all these scandals in Menelaus' family, see the background page on the House of Atreus.)

Lines 213-234: In this section, Paris turns to his own reactions to Helen's marriage to Menelaus.  He leads into these by using the rhetorician's strategy of raising objections to his own argument in order to answer them.  In the closing lines of the last section, he had exposed the scandalous nature of Menelaus' family history.  In the opening lines of this section, he asks whether this past history really makes any difference.  After all, Jupiter, who is Helen's father, "is brought in as father-in-law" to Menelaus' house. Paris rejects this counterargument out of hand--"Oh, what villainy!"--implying that it is despicable that Jupiter should be associated with such people.  He then shifts directly into an account of his own revulsion at seeing Helen associated with Menelaus.  Menelaus gets to hold Helen "throughout whole nights," while Paris himself hardly sees her even at dinner ("when the tables are finally set").  Even in the public setting of dinner, he sees many tings "that wound me," and he wishes such unpleasant entertainments on his enemies.  He gives a list of objectionable  actions:  when Menelaus puts his arms around her, or warms her "limbs with his garment," he reacts with revulsion; when she kisses her husband, Paris says he lifts his cup before his eyes so that he will not have to see it, and when Menelaus embraces her, he drops his eyes and chokes on his food.  Paris blames Helen's own reactions as well; when he sighs, she often laughs at him.  He has tried getting drunk ("to curb the flame with wine"), but that only made his passion worse.  As a last resort, he has lain back with his head turned away, but Helen herself deliberately recalls his attention.

Lines 235-248:  In this section, Paris goes on to describe the pain his feelings give him, and to express his concern that his feelings have been noticed by others.  He says that it is painful to see Helen with Menelaus, but even more painful to be away from her.  He struggles to "conceal my madness," but he knows that the "concealed love" must still be apparent.  He also asserts that Helen is aware of his feelings--that "you feel my wounds"--and that others must be aware as well.  He then shifts from his feelings back to his behaviors, specifically to his attempts to conceal his passion.  He describes how he has turned away so that Menelaus will not see his tears and ask why he is crying.  He describes telling stories of other lovers, but applying all the details to himself in order to convey his feelings secretly to Helen.  He says that he has "pretended to be drunk," in order to be able to speak more freely and use less restraint in his language.

Lines 249-262:  Here Paris continues reflecting on the experiences of his visit to Sparta, but now the details take a more overtly sexual turn.  He describes seeing her naked breasts when they were exposed by "your loose garment."  He compares them to snow or milk, or to the white feathers of the swan whose form Jove took in order to have sex with Leda, Helen's mother.  He describes himself as being so stunned at the sight that the cup he was holding slipped from his fingers.  When Helen kissed her daughter, Paris immediately took those kisses from her daughter's lips.  He describes trying to give "hidden signs" of his love to Helen.  He even tried approaching Helen's most trusted attendants, "Clymene and Aethra," but they were terrified and fled from him before he could finish his "pleas."

Lines 263-282: In this section, Paris shifts abruptly away from him lament about his own experience in pursuing Helen, and wishes that she could simply have been a prize to be won in a contest.  He gives examples of brides who were gained in this fashion:  Hippomenes beating Atalanta in a footrace, Pelps defeating Hippodamia's father in a chariot race, and Hercules (Alcides) fighting the river-god Achelous for the hand of Deianira.  He boasts that he "would have gone bravely" through such a contest, and that he would have won her.  Then he turns back to a direct appeal to Helen, saying that he must "beg" her, and even "embrace your feet" to get her to yield to him.  He praises her extravagantly, as the "ornament of beauty" and "worthy of Jove," before going on to swear that he will take her back to Troy with him, or die and be buried in Sparta.  Then, instead of returning the the flame-metaphor, he picks up the metaphor of a "wound," which he had used earlier in the poem, and claims that he has been wounded "to the bone" by Cupid's arrow; he once more refers to his "truthful sister," Cassandra, who had prophesied that he would be "pierced by a heavenly dart" (Paris would in fact die from one of the poisoned arrows of Hercules, so there may be some irony here as well).  He closes the section by warning Helen to yield to his love and not go against fate.

Lines 283-298:  Paris opens this section by finally making his request directly--that she "welcome me into your bed."  He once more uses the rhetorical strategy of raising a possible objection in order to refute it.  He asks whether she is afraid to "dishonor a married love" by committing adultery.  He rejects her scruples about this, saying that she is too "simple" and "rustic."  She is too beautiful, he says, to "be without fault," because "great beauty quarrels with modesty," and someone as beautiful as Helen is can not remain chaste.  Even gods such as Jupiter and Venus approve of such infidelity, and delight "in these secret loves."  He points out that Helen herself was born from Jove's adultery with Leda, and goes on to claim that this lack of chastity must therefore be in her blood.  He closes the section by urging her to go ahead and be chaste, but only after she is his wife in Troy--he will be her only crime, and it is a crime that the rites of marriage "will correct."

Lines 299-316:  Paris continues his attempt to persuade Helen in this section, claiming that even her husband encourages her to give in to him.  Menelaus has chosen this time to go away from Sparta, and he even directed Helen to "take care" of Paris in his absence.  This is a directive, Paris claims, that she has not fulfilled:  "You are not taking any care of your guest," since she has not given in to his requests.  He continues to turn Menelaus' actions against him, calling him "this man without a heart," and claiming that if he truly valued her, he would not entrust her "to a foreigner."  He says that he must "reap the benefits" of this opportunity that Menelaus has offered; he would be even more "foolish" than her husband if he let it pass by.  He ends the section by pointing out that Menelaus has practically brought a lover to her "with his own hands," and urges her to take advantage of "your husband's orders."

Lines 317-340:  Paris keeps pressing his case for her to yield to him in this section.  He begins by pointing out that they both lie alone "in an empty bed" all night, and says that their "shared joys" would make the nights brighter than day.  He offers to swear oaths to her by her own gods and in her own sacred rites, and says that he will see to it that she travels to his home in Troy.  He once again anticipates a possible objection, and says that if she is ashamed to seem to have gone with him willingly, then he "will be the culprit without you," and abduct her.  He cites the precedents of Theseus ("Aegeus' son"), who abducted Helen herself, and of Helen's brothers, who abducted and married the daughters of Leucippas.  He points out that they are ready to depart at any time ("The Trojan fleet is here").  He tells her that she will be greeted as a "great queen" in his homeland, and that the common folk will even think she is a "new goddess."  There will be incense and sacrifices wherever she goes, and his family and "all of Troy" will give her gifts that are so rich that he can not describe them ("I am hardly telling you any part of what will be").

Lines 341-352:  In this section, Paris finally begins to address the greatest danger that would threaten any romance he might have with Helen:  the danger that war would erupt if he interfered with Menelaus' marriage.  Although Helen's departure with him would in fact spark the Trojan War, which resulted in Troy's destruction, Paris spends most of the rest of the letter explaining why this threat is not real.  He begins by simply telling her not to worry about it--women have been abducted before, and wars have never been fought over them.  He gives several examples.  The Thracians abducted Oreithyia ("Erechtheus' daughter"), for the god Boreas ("Aquilo") and Thrace was not attacked.  Jason carried off Medea ("the Phasian girl"), and Medea's home kingdom of Colchis did not attack Jason's Thessaly.  Theseus not only abducted Helen in her childhood, but also eloped with Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and no war resulted.  It would be "shameful," Paris says, to fear these things too "greatly."

Lines 353-370:  He continues his argument in this section.  Just imagine, he says, that war does break out.  He also has troops at his disposal, and Asia is rich in men and horses for warfare.  Also, he claims, Menelaus does not have "more spirit" in warfare than he does.  He boasts of his youthful exploit in recovering stolen livestock, and says that he gained his other name from this--Alexandros, or "protector of men."  Also in his youth, he won contests even against those who would become respected warriors, like Ilioneus and Deiphobus.  He is also a skilled archer, whose arrows go where he aims them.  Can Menelaus boast "such deeds of early youth?" he asks.  And if all this were not enough, he points out, Hector is his brother, the greatest warrior in all of Troy.  He ends the section by accusing her of not knowing his worth and skill:  "You do not know the man to whom you will be bride."

Lines 371-378:  Paris wraps up his argument in this final section.  Either there will be no war, he says, or his own forces will win it.  In any case, he thinks Helen is worth fighting for, since "great prizes stir up competition."  And even if there is war, the result for Helen herself will be everlasting fame.  All she has to do, he tells her, is "not be fearful;" she should go with him to Troy, and "exact...the promised gift."


The Letters:  Heroides XVII

Lines 1-12:  [Note:  Lines 1 and 2 are not included in some editions of the text.] Helen begins her reply to Paris' letter with a very stern tone.  She says that she "might have retained a measure of honor" if only she had not read it, and she tells him that it "outraged her eyes."  Nevertheless, it does not seem worthwhile to her to refuse to reply with a letter of her own.  She then proceeds to accuse him of violating "the sacred rites of hospitality" by trying to entice her into adultery.  He was received as a guest in Sparta ("the Taenarian shores"), and even though he was a foreigner, he was welcomed into the palace.  She asks whether this is how he repays "such great service," and asks him whether he was a guest or an enemy when he entered their home.

Lines 13-42: In this second section, Helen begins her actual reply to Paris' arguments.  She starts with a charge he repeated several times:  that her refusal of him is because she is "rustic"--that is, she is countrified and unsophisticated and needs to embrace more refined and civilized behaviors.  She acknowledges that he will think that her "complaint" against him is "rustic," but says that she is willing to be rustic so long as she does not forget "honor," and lives her life "without stain."  She admits that she does not try to appear severe and prudish, with "a frowning face" and "harsh brows," but her "reputation is clear," and her playfulness has been "without sin."  She has not condoned adulterers, and she rebukes him for his "confidence" in having "hope of my bed."  She goes on to suggest one reason that might have given him this hope and proceeds to refute it.  Theseus ("the Neptunian hero") once abducted her when she was very young, and so it might seem appropriate to take her away a second time.  But Theseus took her "by force;" if she had been "seduced" she might have been at fault, but since she was "stolen," all she could do was go with him unwillingly.  She also points out that he did not get "the fruit that he sought," and she came back to Sparta "having suffered nothing besides fear."  He was able to take nothing beyond a few kisses, and she struggled against those.  She then contrasts Paris with Theseus ("He was not like you"), saying that Paris' "wickedness" would not have stopped at a few kisses.  Theseus returned her "untouched" and this, along with his repentance for what he had done, "diminished his crime."  But now Paris would "follow" Theseus, fueling the gossip about Helen.  Thus far, Helen has been entirely intent on condemning Paris for his behavior and his suggestions, but at the end of this section she hints at a change of tone that will develop more fully in the rest of the letter.  Instead of continuing to reprimand him, she admits that she is "not angry," for how can anyone be angry with a "lover?"  Her main concern, it seems, is that his love may be "false."  She is "confident" in herself and is well aware of her own beauty, but she is unsure of him; trusting others too easily "usually brings harm to girls," and Paris' "words" have the reputation of being "untrustworthy."

Lines 43-52:  After this brief softening of tone, Helen continues with her point-by-point answer to Paris' arguments.  Others have committed adultery, he has said, and "a chaste married woman is rare."  But even so, Helen asks, why shouldn't I be one of the rare ones?  She then turns to the example of her mother, Leda, which Paris had offered as a precedent.  Helen says that it is not the same thing; Leda was deceived by Jove's appearance--he was disguised as a swan at the time--and so she did not know what was happening.  But Helen herself could not claim that she was similarly "ignorant" of the nature of her action if she accepted Paris' enticement to adultery.   And besides, her mother's action "was redeemed by its author" (Jove); there would be no Jove in her "sin" if she yielded to Paris.

Lines 53-66:  In this section, Helen moves on to Paris' boasts about his family and its ancestry ("You boast of your birth, and your ancestors, and your royal name").  She replies that her own house is "illustrious enough."  She refers to Jupiter, and then goes on to mention names that Paris had held up to scorn in his letter:  Atreus ("my father-law"), who was descended from Jove, and Pelops, the son of Tantalus.  She also adds Tydareus, her own father, to the list.  But the crowning piece of her rebuttal is Jove himself, her father--and she is careful to mention once again that her mother was deceived by "the false bird which she caressed in her lap."  She then aims some mild ridicule at Paris, telling him to "tell me all about" his ancestry.  She respects those ancestors, she says, but Jove was only fifth back in that family line, while he is first in hers (since Jove is her father).  As for his family's power, she says that "I do not believe" that her own family is less powerful.  She ends with a typically Greek criticism of foreign cultures:  Paris' homeland may be richer than hers, but it is "barbarous."

Lines 67-76:  In this section, the change in tone which emerged briefly at the end of the second section (lines 36-42) reappears somewhat more strongly.  She points out that Paris promises "gifts so rich" that they could even tempt "the goddesses themselves."  But, she points out, it is not the promise of gifts that would tempt her to adultery; instead, she reveals that she is attracted to him by saying that Paris himself "would have been a better cause."  Then, instead of rejecting him outright as she has before, she makes it an either/or proposition:  either she will remain faithful to Menelaus in Sparta, or she will follow Paris--and not Paris' gifts--to Troy.  She is quick to point out that she does not actually reject his gifts, but says that it is the "giver" who "makes them precious."  She then ends this short section by saying that the important thing is that he loves her, and that he has labored so hard and come so far for her sake.

Lines 77-104: At the beginning of this long section, Helen returns to her former condemnatory tone, calling him "wicked one," but she does not abandon the hints that she is inclined to yield to him.  She acknowledges that she has seen the signs that he gives at dinner, "even though I try to pretend otherwise."  She says that she has seen the way he looks at her with his "shameless eyes," and she calls him "wanton one," but she admits that she "can hardly bear" his gaze.  She even mentions a detail that he had not mentioned in his letter--that he drinks from her cup, placing his lips where hers had been ("from that part where I had drunk").  She speaks of the "hidden signs" given by his hands and his facial expressions, and says that she was afraid that her husband would notice.  She says that she has blushed when the "signs" were too obvious and has murmured under her breath that "he is ashamed of nothing."  She has even seen the words "I love" written in wine beneath her name at the table.  To all of this, she says she has given her own hidden signs of refusal with her eyes, but then she laments that she has learned the lover's trick of communicating in this way.  She then goes on to comment on what all these covert activities of courtship have meant to her, saying that she "would have been turned" by them if she "had been inclined" to adultery, and admitting that "my heart could have been seized."  She also speaks directly of his own attractiveness for the first time, commenting on his "rare beauty,"  and acknowledging that I young woman could wish to enjoy his "embraces."  Having gone this far, however, she pulls back and reiterates her refusal, not called him wicked or shameless this time, but invoking her "honor" as the obstacle to love and saying that she would rather that some other unmarried woman should have him "without sin."  She then urges him to learn to resist the temptations of "beauty," saying that "it is virtue to abstain from pleasures."  She closes the section by reminding him of how many men have desired her without trying to seduce her away from her husband.  She says that he has not seen anything that they did not; he is only more "rash"--he does not have better judgment, only "too much self-assurance."

Lines 105-116:  In this section, Helen continues to make it clear that she could love Paris, but she also continues to hold to her marriage as an insuperable obstacle.  She wishes that he had come when she was still unwed, "when a thousand men sought my virginity;" she would have chosen him over all the others.  But he came too late, so that "what you seek, another has."  She also tells him that, even if she wanted "to be your bride at Troy," Menelaus is not holding her captive--she remains in Sparta of her own free will.  She closes the section, not by scolding him again, but by begging him not to keep courting her and tearing "at my soft heart with your words."  She asks him to let her live out the "fate" has been allotted to her, and to leave her honor intact.

Lines 117-132:  In this section, Helen shifts to Paris' story of his "judgment" of the three goddesses.  She summarizes what he has told her--how the goddesses stood naked before him and how each promised him gifts--and her skepticism is obvious.  She tells him that she "can hardly believe that heavenly bodies/Were submitted to your judgment," and even if this part were true, she still can not believe that she was the prize offered to him by Venus.  She then proceeds to vacillate in her judgment of the truth of the tale.  First she says that she can not believe that she was the greatest gift Venus could offer.  She says that she is "content to be approved by" men; she worries about being praised by Venus herself because this would cause others to envy her too much.  But then she backs down on this; she says that nevertheless "I refute nothing," and adds that "I also favor this praise," since she "desires [it] to be true."  She then caps off this confusion by apologizing to Paris and asking him not to become angry because she is "reluctant to believe" him; "faith," she says, "is usually slow in great things."

Lines 133-148:  After the confusion at the end of the last section, Helen seems to reverse her previous position almost completely.  Now she appears to believe the story of Paris' judgment of the three goddesses, and she says that what pleases her the most is that she was pleasing to Venus, and what pleases her second-most is that Paris thought that she was the greatest of the prizes offered to him.  She elaborates on this by saying that she must be courage to him, and a kingdom, if this was how he chose.  Then, for the first time in the letter, she admits that she feels love for him, saying she must "be made of iron, if I did not love such a heart."  Her objections to his courtship have been melting away, but she still has one final objection--that her love is impossible--and she develops it in the last half of the section.  She compares such a love to another obviously impossible undertaking:  trying to plough the seashore, where the waves will immediately wash away the furrows.  She adds that she is "unskilled at the theft of love," and that she has never been unfaithful to her husband.  A note of guilt enters in when she points out that even the act of writing such a letter to Paris is new to her, and she closes the section by once more stressing her inexperience, saying she envies those who have experience in such matters, while she, in her naïveté, imagines "the road of sin to be difficult."

Lines 149-164: Helen opens this section speaking of her fear that their love will be discovered; already she feels that everyone is watching her.  She thinks that there is some truth in this fear, for she has heard the rumors about her, and her companion, Aethra, has told her what "certain voices" are saying.  She points out that Paris is able to "pretend" and cover up his actions, and she urges him to be careful about how he "plays" and courts her.  She acknowledges the "liberty" that has been given to them by Menelaus absence.  She spends the rest of the section talking about her husband's trip to Crete, and for the first time reveals that she may have had some role in his departure.  "Great and just cause" demanded the journey, but when he seemed to hesitate nevertheless about going, she urged him on, saying "Go, and return as soon as possible."  He was pleased with what she said, and he told her to take care of his affairs and "of our Trojan guest."  She closes the section by saying that she could hardly keep from laughing at this directive, and simply said "It shall be."

Lines 165-176:  In this section, Helen continues talking about what Menelaus' absence means for them.  She warns Paris that they do not have complete liberty just because her husband is gone, for his power remains in place in Sparta and she will be watched.  She warns that her beauty is a danger as well, for the more she is praised, "the more justly he fears" the possibility of infidelity.  She even wishes that she had "cheated fame," for the "glory" of her beauty is "an injury to me" now.  She ends the section by insisting that Menelaus is not afraid of what could happen because of her character, but simply because of her great beauty.  She has given him every reason to trust in her faithfulness:  "My virtue makes him fearless; my beauty makes him fear."

Lines 177-190:  In this section, Helen once again recapitulates arguments from Paris' letter but now, instead of refuting them, she seems almost to be using them to persuade herself.  Paris has said that they should take advantage of her husband's absence; she syas she is uncertain about this ("My heart wavers in doubt"), but she also says "it pleases me."  She points out as he did that both of them sleep alone, and she admits that she is as attracted by his "beauty" as he is by hers.  She says that "already we join in conversation" during the long nights, and she calls him "enticing."  She adds that "all things...entice me to sin," and says that she delays only fhrough fear.  She closes the section by wishing he could have forced her to yield to him; it would have been an injury, but a profitable one, since "I would have been compelled to be happy."

Lines 191-206:  Having gone this far toward giving in to Paris, she goes back now to her doubts and to urging him to relent in his pursuit of her.  Since their love is new, she says they should "fight against" it; she compares it to a newly lit fire, which can be put out "with  a little water."  She then raises a more serious doubt about Paris himself.  He is a guest, a foreigner; love with such a passing stranger is "not certain."  She cites examples to demonstrate the unreliability of this sort of love.  She starts with Hypsipyle, who was abandoned by Jason, and Ariadne ("the Minoan virgin") who was abandoned by Theseus.  [For Ovid's treatment of these two love affairs, see Heroides VI and Heroides X respectively.]  She then goes on to an example that hits much closer to home:  Oenone's recent abandonment by Paris himself.  [See Heroides V.]  She says that he does not even deny this himself, and that he had loved her "for many years."  She also reveals something of her own depth of interest in Paris when she says that she has been diligent in inquiring "into all things about you."  She closes the section with her strongest argument:  that, even if he wanted to "remain constant" in his love for her, circumstances prevent him from doing so.  Already the Trojan fleet ("your Phrygians") is getting ready to sail.  Even while he is trying to convince her to join him in the "hoped-for night," the winds are ready for his departure.  Once he is gone, she says, this new love "will go away with the winds."

Lines 207-222:  There was one flaw in the argument with which Helen closed the last section, of course:  Paris would not necessarily forget her after he left, since he was asking for her to leave with him.  She acknowledges this in the opening lines of this next section, and then spends the section exploring what the consequences of such an elopement would be.  The damage to her reputation, she insists, would be irreparable.  She starts with the most general sort of reputation, saying that "winged fame" would "fill the earth with my disgrace."  Then she gets more local, asking what the peoples of Sparta and Greece (Achaia) would think, and what the populace of Asia and of Troy would say.  She gets even more specific when she asks how "Priam would feel about me," and all the rest of Paris' family.  Finally she moves on to Paris himself.  Since she had already left one husband in order to be with him, how could he "hope for me to be faithful"?  Every stranger, she says, will cause him "anxious fears."  When he gets angry, he will even call her "adulteress," forgetting his own part in her "crime."  She ends the section by wishing that she should be buried before that happened.

Lines 223-238:  In this section, she moves on to consider the lavish gifts that Paris has promised her, and the "wealth" and "culture" of Troy.  She will have precious fabrics and gold, she says, but she insists that these "gifts are not so great."  Her reason for not valuing this material wealth is that her desertion of Sparta and her husband would leave her without family support.  If she were injured or in trouble, there would be no brothers or parents to help her.  Once again she turns to historical/mythological examples to support her case.  This time, she focuses on the example of Medea, who betrayed and abandoned her father's kingdom to be with Jason.  Jason, she says, "promised everything to Medea," but she was nevertheless driven out of Jason's own home ("the house of Aeson").  There was nowhere for Medea to go, no father (Aeetes) or mother or sister for her to return to.  She says that she is not afraid that this is what will happen to her--but then she points out that Medea did not expect it either.  She brings the section to a close with one more comparison that emphasizes the danger and uncertainty of what Paris is proposing:  every ship that is wracked by stormy weather on a voyage, she says, had clear weather as it left the harbor.

Lines 239-252: As Helen's reply nears its climax, she finally comes to the most tangible danger that a love affair with Paris would bring with it.  She mentions the dream that Paris' mother had before his birth--the dream that she gave birth to a torch that streamed blood.  Paris had interpreted the torch as the flames of his love for Helen, but Helen says that "the torch...terrifes me."  She goes on to give a more accurate interpretation of the vision, one that the "prophets" had warned of--that the torch meant that Troy ("Ilium") would be consumed by the fires of Greek armies ("Pelasgian fire").  She also gives a shrewd analysis of why this might happen.  She points out that Venus ("Cytherea") favors Paris because she won the contest he judged; but the other two goddesses lost, and will therefore be hostile towards him.  She says that "war would be prepared" if she went with him, and their love "would travel through swords."  She once again call on a historical/mythological example to support her point.  She cites Hippodamia, whom the Centaurs tried to abduct at her wedding; Theseus, Pirithous, and the Lapiths ("the men of Haemonia") slauthered the Centaurs as a result.  She closes the section by asking whether her husband and brothers and father would "be  slow in righteous anger."

Lines 253-262:  In this section, still concerned with the dangers of war, Helen starts by discounting Paris' claims of military prowess.  He is, she says, more of a lover than a fighter--"more suited for Venus than for Mars."  She urges him to leave war to "the brave," while he should "always love."  She suggests that Hector, Paris' brother, should do the fighting, while Paris devotes himself to  "other warfare."  She then comes closer to giving in to him than she has in any previous part of the letter.  She says that, if she were "wise and a little bolder," she would make use of his "labors;" after all, they would "be used by whatever girl is wise."  She then hints that she may yet take the final step, "putting aside modesty" and giving "my hesitating hand."

Lines 263-266:  The letter ends with two short, four-line sections.  In this one, she tells him that she knows what he wants--to speak to her and to try to persuade her in person.  But she urges delay.  She tells him that "your harvest is still green," and tells him that delay may actually bring him what he wants.

Lines 267-270:  In this final section, she ends the letter simply.  She says that she has written enough, and that further communication should be through "Clymene and Aethra," her most trusted attendants.




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Last updated 06/23/2013