This is a chronicle of the myriad versions of the Hero and Leander story from classical antiquity to the earlier Renaissance. The tale of love’s heroic swimmer and his beloved was probably centuries old when it made its first major literary appearance in Ovid’s love poems, especially the Heroides, preceded by a minor allusion in Virgil’s Georgics 3.257-63. Virgil’s nameless reference to the lovers must mean, says Silvia Montiglio, that the story was already known to his readers. The very names of Hero and Leander, in fact, already existed during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, as this resourceful author finds in Frazer and Matthews’s Lexicon of Greek Personal Names. Beside unearthing a myriad of literary texts on this story, Montiglio finds many pictorial, numismatic, and scenic instances in support of the meanings drawn from these narratives. Noteworthy is the section of chapter 1 on the Pompeian paintings of the lovers–although, unfortunately, a “slow and unhelpful bureaucracy” (237, n. 96) prevented her from including photographs of these.
This chapter, “Seduction, Love and Athleticism: Leander (and Hero) in Roman Literature and Culture,” has at its heart a valuable study of Heroides 18 and 19, the exchange of letters between the two lovers. It is their reckless passion, mentioned in Amores 2.16, not parental opposition, that determines their psychology. A symbolic darkness and violent sea surround the swimming lover and meet the anxious gaze of Hero in her tower, features that set the pair apart from others in the Heroides. Hero expresses the diverse and conflicting passions characteristic of women’s love: powerful yearning, fear for Leander swimming, suspicion that a failure to come means an enfeebling of his love. Ultimately, although she began her letter pleading with Leander, “at the end she counts on the consolatory power of her own writing” (29). Leander’s epistle, by contrast, reflects his confidence born out of vanity, even narcissism; his feats in swimming to his beloved seven nights constitute “a spectacle” performed with Hero as audience (33). Taking into account the author’s wide reading in the scholarship of the Heroides (Braden, Kenney, Rimell, and others), these eighteen pages would make an excellent starting point in any study of the two epistles. The remainder of this chapter ranges widely through later Roman appropriations of the story, from presenting Leander as an emblem of lust in Seneca’s On Anger and Fronto’s correspondence to the representation of the ideal lover in Statius’s Silvae 1.2 and 1.3. Ausonius and Sidonius Apollinaris also provide late Roman examples.
The second most influential treatment of the tale, after Ovid’s, is the subject of chapter 2: Musaeus’s Hero and Leander, a Greek epyllion of 343 lines, a source for Marlowe and Chapman’s poems, or, as C.S. Lewis claimed, poem. Musaeus, perhaps a literary scholar, perhaps a Christian, wrote in the fifth or, perhaps, early sixth century, and was sometimes confused with his namesake, the mythic poet Musaeus, friend and companion of Orpheus. Montiglio explicates the brief epic with special attention to the influence of the Odyssey, but also finding traces of the Greek novels, especially in the episode of the couple’s meeting. Leander’s “facility with seductive speech,” what Marlowe’s Hero all-too-knowingly calls “rhetoric to deceive a maid,” (Hero and Leander 1.338) derives from Odysseus’s speech to Nausicaa, an echo recognized, it is noted, as far back as J.C. Scaliger. Similarly, “While Leander’s toilsome swimming is strewn with references to the much-suffering Odysseus facing the last attack of Poseidon’s anger, his weariness invokes that suffered by the Homeric hero as he crawls onto the island of the Phaeacians” (77) in Odyssey 5. Not until the fifteenth century did manuscripts of Musaeus appear in the West; the first printed edition, by Aldus Manutius, was published in 1495.
The third and longest chapter, “Lustful Fornicators or Courtly Lovers? The Legend in Medieval European Literature,” reports an assortment of pathways the story takes: the (pro or con) Christian interpretations, the inevitable allegorizations (the previous chapter discusses Platonizing allegories of Musaeus), the view of Hero’s suicide as a courtly act, misogyny as evidenced in treatments by Ovide Moralisé and Guillaume Machaut, and the countervailing work of Christine de Pizan with her “project of rehabilitating Hero” (138). Latin and vernacular versions are less frequent in Germany than in France, but are conspicuous in Italy, beginning with Boccaccio’s mention in Teseide, then in Amorosa Visione, Folocolo, and Fiammetta, all dependent on Heroides 18, Leander’s epistle, but all neglecting Hero’s. Montiglio makes a plausible argument that this is owing to the poet’s desire to christianize Hero’s image. There is no such neglect, however, in the Venetian poet Giovanni Girolamo Nadal’s long poem Leandreide (1380). Montiglio spells the title “Leandreride,” a variant I have not seen; others have preferred “Leandride.” Not since Musaeus has so much care been taken to map the setting, with Sestos and Abydos being correctly placed not as islands but as towns on either side of the Hellespont. One wonders whether Venice’s then-prominent role in the eastern Mediterranean influenced the interest in the region’s geography. Nadal avoids moralizing about the lovers and does not judge Hero for her suicide. At death the two are consigned to the underworld, but rise to become stars in the palace of Venus. It all sounds rather pagan. This chapter closes noting the curious anomaly that medieval British literature scarcely mentions the legend, though Montiglio overlooks Chaucer’s references in The Legend of Good Women and the Introduction to “The Man of Law’s Tale”.
A bright and interesting voice among the medieval moralists is that of Baudri, Abbot of Bourgueil (1045-1130), who thought of himself as the reincarnation of Ovid. For him, love is inherently God-given: “God gave me being and with it he grants me to love” (109). Baudri (a.k.a. Baldric of Dol) left an incomplete Latin treatment of the two lovers in a long poem retelling classical myths and their allegorical meanings. Leander, swimming, quails when he realizes that Hero’s light has gone out: “You fear that the wet South Wind thrust the lamp to the ground, or that it disappeared in a swollen whirlwind, or that her clever mother found out, chided her and dragged her to her bed, or that, alone as she was, a lover or a violent man had the better of her or with prayers persuaded her to sin” (110). Unlike the pair in the Heroides, in this version Leander delays his last swim because of his own laziness, while Hero, fearing betrayal, stops waiting and puts out her guiding lamp. The lovers’ embrace in death evokes the image of Tristan and Isolde in their final union, and supports the view that the poet’s treatment is not moralistic but courtly.
Chapter 4, on the spread of the story in medieval Greek literature, observes that, owing to the popularity of Musaeus in the Greek East, it lacked the novelty that invites retelling in the medieval West. Various Byzantine texts, including four novels of the twelfth century, incorporated material from Musaeus. As is expected, in referring to the story the locality of Sestos and Abydos receives more attention than it does in accounts written in the West. Closing out this chapter is a discussion of a Greek poem by a thirteenth-century southern Italian, Giovanni Grasso, Verses of Leander, which “follows the Byzantine tradition in concentrating on the lovers’ demise” (202). Classical in tone rather than Christian, it celebrates the lovers’ joyful union in an endless afterlife. Ending this final chapter, as a discrete scholarly undertaking, Montiglio offers a valuable discussion of Aldus Manutius’s several editions and Latin translation of Musaeus. The printer advertised his work as written “by Musaeus, the most ancient poet,” a falsehood, of course, but one that the historical Musaeus may have encouraged as well. Aldus’s 1517 edition included two woodcuts reproduced in this section: one with Hero in her tower looking across the Hellespont, the other with Hero defenestrating herself upon the drowned Leander on the shore below. Black and white illustrations are scattered through the book, but it’s too bad that the color reproduction of Evelyn De Morgan’s painting of Hero, from a private collection, did not make it beyond the jacket.
Montiglio amasses a stunning number of versions and readings of the legend during two millennia, but I, as someone who has often taught Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, obviously a singular achievement in the history of European poetry (whether “finished” or not), had hoped for something more than the glimpses of that poem offered in the epilogue. The literary critical value of the book lies in the perceptive comments on major works like Ovid’s Heroides, Christine de Pizan’s poetry, and Musaeus’s poem. The elements of the story–Hero’s tower, her lamp, the sea, the storm and darkness, the prohibition of love, swimming, the suicide, the Hellespont dividing Europe and Asia–resonate with psychological power, perhaps explaining why the tale is more prone to imitation than many of the other amorous couple tales in the Heroides and elsewhere (who writes about Lynceus and Hypermnestra?), and why it has become more “myth” than legend. Still, in any future attempt to unlock the mystery of its persistence in literature and art, this book will stand foremost in beginning the undertaking.