Last Updated on February 23, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485
The Heroides (Epistulae Heroidum) are fifteen lyrical epistles on mythological themes written by Ovid shortly before the beginning of the Common Era. They form a collection of letters composed on behalf of heroines of myths and characters of famous plays by celebrated authors such as Homer, Euripides, and Virgil. These women are separated from their husbands and lovers. The deepest motifs of Ovid’s work are the bitterness of separation, loneliness, jealousy, and anxiety.
The Heroides are composed in elegiac distich (couplet), a strophe consisting of one hexameter with the rising intonation, and one pentameter with the falling intonation, which repeats the first part of the hexameter before the caesura.
By using images that are familiar to the Roman reader, Ovid is trying to illuminate the inner world of his characters in a new way, as if removing them from their “heroic” context and bringing them closer to his female contemporaries.
Penelope, Ulysses’s faithful wife, is devoid of Homeric grandeur in Ovid’s Heroides. The Roman poet presents her as an aging and weak woman. As she longs for Ulysses to return home, she writes,
As for myself, who when you left my side was but a girl, though you should come straightway, I surely shall seem grown an aged dame. (1, p. 19)
There is no austere stateliness of an epic heroine in the image of Dido. In contrast to Virgil’s Dido, she trembles in fear for Aeneas’s life as she curses him:
Undone myself, I fear lest I be the undoing of him who is my undoing, lest I bring harm to him who brings harm to me, lest my enemy wrecked at sea and drink the waters of the deep. O live; I pray it! Thus shall I see you worse undone than by death. You shall rather he reputed the cause of my own doom. (1, p. 87)
Among Ovid’s heroines are Briseis, Achilles's concubine, who is taken from him by Agamemnon; the furious Medea (Euripides’s character), abandoned by her husband Jason and obsessed with a bitter desire for revenge; Phaedra (also Euripides’s heroine), who compares the indifferent Hippolytus to gallants of Rome; and the nymph Oenone, Paris’s lover, who is abandoned by him for the sake of Helen, Menelaus’s wife.
Ovid also writes about the famous female poet Sappho, who, according to legend, is in love with the beautiful Phaon. Failing to secure reciprocity, she throws herself down from the rock and dies. In Ovid, she is lonely and remembers former days of happiness.
Subsequently, the fifteen epistles were complemented by a collection of three additional pairs of letters (the so-called Double Heroides) whose authorship is debated to this day. Each pair contains a letter by the heroine and a response by the hero (Paris to Helen and Helen to Paris, Hero to Leander and Leander to Hero, and Acontius to Cydippe and Cydippe to Acontius).