Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.60

Chiara Battistella (ed.), P. Ovidii Nasonis “Heroidum Epistula” 10: Ariadne Theseo. Introduzione, testo e commento. Texte und Kommentare Bd 35.   Berlin/New York:  De Gruyter, 2010.  Pp. viii, 135.  ISBN 9783110240856.  $98.00.  

Reviewed by Gail Trimble, Trinity College, Cambridge (

Table of Contents

No one could now call the Heroides a neglected part of Ovid’s oeuvre. The collection of (apparently) fifteen elegiac letters written by mythical women to the men they desire or have lost, and its sequel of six letters of courtship between heroes and heroines, are now read as an elaborate reflection on the relationships between poetry and myth-making, and between writing and gender. The last two decades have seen important articles on the poems’ intertextuality1 and monographs offering different feminist readings of their epistolary form and interrelationships.2 Battistella’s joins a number of commentaries on single poems or on twos and threes,3 while the Cambridge green-and-yellows of Knox and Kenney will be familiar to many.4 A good modern text, however, is still lacking,5 and for many of the letters questions of authenticity remain.

Battistella’s book, described as the ‘rielaborazione’ of a doctoral thesis defended at the Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, consists of an introduction, text, translation and commentary taking a long, thoughtful look at Heroides 10, the letter of the abandoned Ariadne to Theseus. The text is Battistella’s own but has no apparatus criticus; the philological side of the commentary is competent and will be helpful for someone undertaking a careful reading of the poem. The introduction, however, and the more literary notes develop some interesting new interpretations: these parts of the book will be of benefit to anyone working on the Heroides or Ovidian intertextuality. I wish that the author had displayed a similar level of assertiveness throughout.

As Battistella notes in the acknowledgements (p. vii), the introduction (pp. 1-29) is selective. It does not contain truly introductory material designed for a reader approaching the poem in detail for the first time. Instead, the first section, on literary and personal memory, briefly situates Battistella’s work within the contemporary critical tradition on the Heroides, and is followed by eight short literary studies (counting the appendix).

Like most of the other Heroides, Ariadne’s letter is parasitical upon one earlier text in particular: in this case, Catullus 64. One of Battistella’s introductory essays (pp. 2-7) discusses the Ovidian Ariadne’s failure to free herself from this model of “Ariadne on the shore”: Battistella finds metapoetic significance in the words litus and harena, and reads line 20, alta puellares tardat harena pedes, as a depiction of Ariadne’s elegiac “feet” being retarded by the epic pull of Catullan sand. Another section (pp. 7-9) intriguingly finds a Homeric “palimpsest” behind the Catullan one. Using careful textual comparisons with Odyssey 9, Battistella argues that at some points in her letter, Ariadne plays Polyphemus. The phrase nullus erat, repeated in typically elegiac fashion at the beginning and end of a couplet (11-12), evokes Odysseus’ deceptive self-naming as Οὖτις, thus casting Theseus as the successful trickster and Ariadne, dozily feeling for her lover in bed, as the blinded Cyclops checking his sheep for escaping heroes.

Both of these sections are convincingly argued, but the fact that each relies so much on close reading of a particular couplet creates a problem of balance between the introduction and the lemmata concerned (11-12, 19-20); it is not always clear why particular points have been made in one place rather than the other, or even whether Battistella’s work here might not have been better presented in article form. Other sections, however, are more suited to their place in the introduction to a literary commentary, setting out approaches to the poem which can be supported by further discussion across various lemmata. These include the section characterising the relationship between Ovid’s Ariadne and a second Catullan voice, not the Ariadne of Catullus 64 but the “Catullus” of the (proto-elegiac) personal poetry (pp. 15-16); and the two closing sections on how this Ariadne uses hints of the elegiac in Catullus 64 to fashion herself as a super-elegiac version of the abandoned woman (pp. 17-22), yet simultaneously “disfigures” the elegiac genre by contaminating it with epic themes of maenadic madness and adventurous voyage (pp. 22-8).

In a note on the text (p. 31), Battistella explains that she has not consulted the manuscripts but has worked from the standard editions of Palmer and Dörrie and therefore omits even a minimal apparatus criticus.6 A table indicates the 14 places where her text differs from Palmer’s, Dörrie’s, or both; oddly, given that in the commentary she frequently discusses the textual choices of Knox, she describes his work only as “[i]l commento più recente all’eroide” (emphasis mine), and the table does not include his readings. There is a list of sigla for occasional use in the commentary: four manuscripts (P, G, F, Ea) and the standard ω “codices recentiores omnes vel plures” and Ϛ “codices recentiores aliquot vel pauci vel unus.” The note concludes simply, and slightly mysteriously, “[Cf. Tarrant (1983); Knox (1995), pp. 34-37]’.7 Battistella is far from alone in wishing to treat textual matters as economically as possible in a literary commentary: but neither here nor anywhere else does she tell her readers that the transmitted text of the Heroides is more corrupt than that of any other part of Ovid’s corpus, or that it is impossible to draw a satisfactory stemma, but that “[a]ll inherently plausible readings, whatever their source, must be taken seriously, and sense and usage are the only sure criteria for deciding among them.”8 Just this much characterisation of the tradition would have been helpful for readers of her textual notes.

The text itself is elegantly presented. I cannot comment on the stylistic quality of the Italian translation (facing-page prose), but it is accurate and fairly literal.

In the commentary, Battistella’s discussions of textual controversies often reveal a conservative attitude: if the text of the main manuscript tradition can be defended, she will usually defend it. Examples such as 149n. (choosing uento against the more pointed uelo) seem merely cautious, but elsewhere it is good to see literary and textual criticism meeting, and the recent appreciation of the Heroides as self-consciously metapoetic works being used in the discussion of editorial choices. Battistella thus defends 79-80 nunc ego non tantum quae sum passura recordor | sed quaecumque potest ulla relicta pati in terms of Ariadne’s awareness of what “any abandoned woman” usually suffers, and her “memory” – from earlier texts – of what she is about to suffer herself. Battistella accepts several small-scale conjectures, supporting them sensibly, but in doing so reveals a practical flaw: she regularly names the originator of a conjecture without identifying or dating the publication in which he made it. The reader must go to Dörrie or Knox even to confirm that the conjectures of Heinsius and Burman were made in their own editions; it would have been simple to add these to the bibliography. The same problem sometimes occurs where Battistella chooses one manuscript reading over another; neither at 15-16n. nor at 31n. is it clear that Battistella’s preferred text is a reading of Ϛ, while in an edition without apparatus expressions such as “stampo con Knox” only confirm the impression that this editor sees her task as a choice among previous editions as much as among manuscripts.

The philological notes explaining usage, style, linguistic features and so on are often very informative, with appropriate parallels selected to fit the middling scale of the commentary: see e.g. 35-6n. on fugere of abandoning lovers. For further explanation than that given by parallels and references to OLD and TLL, however, Battistella consistently refers not to grammars or to other standard reference works9 but to other commentaries, in the great majority of cases to other commentaries on the Heroides (see n. 3); Michalopoulos is apparently a particular favourite. This policy gives an unnecessary impression of diffidence; it implies that the best notes on some typical stylistic features of Latin poetry are to be found in recent commentaries on the Heroides, which is surely not always the case; and it takes up space that could better be used to show how a construction or vocabulary item has the particular effect it does at this point in this text. “Knox ad loc.” also appears very frequently; often Battistella is adding to or questioning Knox’s note, but often too she is simply agreeing with his judgement or citing the same parallels as he does.

The best qualities of the commentary are found in the most literary notes. Battistella is particularly strong in some of the interpretative areas identified in the introduction, especially the poem’s detailed relationship with Catullus, and with other literary predecessors including Homer (Ariadne as a Siren, 39n.), Lucretius (81n.), Virgil, and non-Ovidian elegy (the blending towards the end of the poem of Dido’s suicide with a Propertian or Tibullan death wish). There is much excellent material on Ariadne’s negotiations between elegy and epic (e.g. 130n. on tituli), and on her ironic foreshadowing of her Bacchic future (e.g. 15-16, 58, 89-90, 96nn.). Miscellaneous examples could be multiplied. Again, however, Battistella has a frustrating tendency to direct the reader away from her own achievements. Sometimes she does so without providing enough information, giving a reference to another work without telling the reader what to expect there. But frequently she provides too much, quoting from other criticism at some length, often in English. Of course Battistella is building on the work of other scholars, but both of these habits appear to stem from an unwillingness to paraphrase it and integrate it with her own.

The bibliography (pp. 109-21) reflects Battistella’s immersion in recent work on these poems, mostly in Italian or English. It is clearly set out but has no separate sections (one might have expected one for editions of and commentaries on the Heroides), except for a list of six abbreviated titles. Verducci (1985), referred to several times in both introduction and commentary, seems to be missing. There are useful indices of “Parole e cose notevoli” and passages cited. The book is attractively produced. I noticed some minor typographical errors, in punctuation or orthography.

This is a helpful commentary on an interesting poem, longer and fuller than Knox. It is a shame that it is marred by such frequent deference to external authority, either forcing readers to find details in other books (but overwhelmingly in other commentaries on Ovid), or providing them with quotations from other books rather than more of Battistella’s own judgements. These tendencies, which strangely replicate the characteristic “secondarietà” of the Heroides themselves, may result from the book’s origin as a doctoral thesis: they are particularly unfortunate because Battistella’s strongly argued ideas about this poem are so obviously worthy of attention.


1.   Including A. Barchiesi, “Future reflexive: two modes of allusion and Ovid’s Heroides,” HSCPh 95 (1993) 333-65; D. F. Kennedy, “Epistolarity: the Heroides”, in P. R. Hardie ed. The Cambridge companion to Ovid (Cambridge 2002) 217-32.
2.   S. H. Lindheim, Mail and female: epistolary narrative and desire in Ovid’s Heroides (Madison 2003); E. Spentzou, Readers and writers in Ovid’s Heroides: transgressions of genre and gender (Oxford 2003); L. Fulkerson, The Ovidian heroine as author: reading, writing, and community in the Heroides (Cambridge 2005).
3.   A. Barchiesi, P. Ovidii Nasonis Epistulae Heroidum 1-3 (Florence 1992); S. Casali, P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroidum Epistula IX (Florence 1995); G. Rosati, P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroidum Epistulae XVIII-XIX (Florence 1996); F. Bessone, P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroidum Epistulae XII (Florence 1997); T. Heinze, P. Ovidius Naso. Der XII. Heroidenbrief (Leiden 1997); J. Reeson, Ovid, Heroides 11, 13 and 14 (Leiden 2001); A. N. Michalopoulos, Ovid, Heroides 16 and 17 (Cambridge 2006); L. Piazzi, P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroidum Epistula VII (Florence 2007).
4.   P. E. Knox, Ovid, Heroides: select epistles (Cambridge 1995); E. J. Kenney, Ovid, Heroides XVI-XXI (Cambridge 1996).
5.   But awaited from J. B. Hall, for Teubner.
6.   A. Palmer, Ovid, Heroides (Oxford 1898); H. Dörrie, P. Ovidii Nasonis Epistulae Heroidum (Berlin 1971).
7.   R. J. Tarrant, Heroides, in L. D. Reynolds, ed., Texts and transmission. A survey of the Latin classics (Oxford 1983) 268-72; Knox, n. 4 above.
8.   Tarrant (n. 8 above) 270.
9.   For instance, R. Pichon, De sermone amatorio apud Latinos elegiarum scriptores (Paris 1902) might have been helpful for the language of elegy.

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