BMCR 1996.10.01

1996.10.01, Ovid’s Heroides: Select Epistles

, , Heroides-- select epistles. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. vii, 329 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9780521362795 $22.95.

Ovid’s Heroides is a neglected text. Those wishing to read the collection in Latin have had to rely on Dörrie’s unsatisfactory text (1971) 1 or Goold’s revision of Showerman’s Loeb. For those wanting a commentary in English the most recent was that of Shuckburgh (1905). In secondary literature the situation is better thanks to Princeton University Press which published two studies devoted to these poems alone in the 70s and 80s (those of Jacobson [1974] and Verducci [1985]). For those without Latin there is the Loeb translation and Isbell’s Penguin version (1990).

Recent years have seen an enormous increase in the number of studies devoted to Ovid and it is particularly pleasing to see that Cambridge University Press has decided to publish both Knox’s edition of eight of the Heroides (poems 1: Penelope to Ulysses, 2: Phyllis to Demophoon, 5: Oenoe to Paris, 6: Hypsipyle to Jason, 7: Dido to Aeneas, 10: Ariadne to Theseus, 11: Canace to Macareus, and the dubious 15: Sappho to Phaon) and Kenney’s edition of Heroides 16-21 (Cambridge, 1996). It is unfortunate that Knox’s edition does not include all the single epistles (1-15), but I suspect that that would have made the book too big for the series. Other volumes tend to contain a complete play or book and this one already contains 1280 lines of verse. It does, however, seem odd that Knox has chosen to include Sappho’s letter to Phaon when he could have selected a poem of undoubted Ovidian authorship.

Knox’s Introduction follows the expected format. He begins with an account of the poet’s life wisely avoiding chronological questions. Next he supplies a description of the collection dealing primarily with questions of authenticity. He notes that on the basis of Amores 2.18 the following are undoubtedly authentic: 1-2, 4-7, 10-11. In fact most accept the genuineness of 1-14. Next comes a discussion of the Epistula Sapphus which Knox believes to be unOvidian. Section 4, entitled ‘The Epistles’ deals with questions of genre, literary background and language, style and metre.

On the question of genre Knox rightly stresses Ovid’s poetic innovation. Although he traces connections with school rhetorical exercises, with tragic monologues, with Theocritus and the Greek romances and with Propertius (4.3: Arethusa’s letter to Lycotas), he sees Ovid’s employment of specific works of literature, not simply the mythological tradition, as the distinguishing feature of Heroides. That this is a distinguishing feature is certainly right, but I would have liked to see more discussion of Ovid’s actual treatment of the genre as opposed to the affinities Heroides has with earlier texts. The notion that Ovid refers self-consciously to specific sources is developed in the discussion of the literary background. In this section Knox concentrates primarily on Dido and has interesting and important things to say on the poem’s relationship to Aeneid 4. He also discusses poem 3, Briseis to Achilles, a letter not included in this anthology. This raises a question. If Knox believes that each poem relates to a specific text (and he certainly seems to be right on this point), then why has he not included poem 3 which evokes Homer’s Iliad or poem 4 which recalls Euripides’Hippolytus or 5 which is based on Sophocles’Trachiniae or 12 which rewrites Euripides and Apollonius? Instead he gives us poems 2, Phyllis to Demophoon and 11, Canace to Macareus, for which we do not have the principal ancestor texts. Reading poems 3 or 4 or 5 or 12 would cast more light on what Knox believes to be the essential distinguishing feature of the collection.

In his discussion of aspects of language, style and metre Knox comments on such matters as Ovid’s use of archaism, his combining of the poetic with the familiar, his employment of elegiac motifs (as in Heroides 4, a poem not included in the anthology) and unusual words, wit and his management of the elegiac couplet. All of this is solid and workmanlike.

As is appropriate for such an edition, Knox has little to say about the transmission of the text. Here it is most important to note that ‘the text of this edition is based on earlier editions and unpublished apparatus prepared by E. J. Kenney’ (p. 37).

What about the text and commentary? Perhaps the first question to ask is whether the commentary is pitched appropriately to its audience/s, whether its implied readership corresponds to its declared readership. Earlier volumes in the series were specifically said to be aimed at ‘classical scholars, undergraduates, and students in the upper forms of schools’. The commentary then should provide help of the most basic kind together with more advanced literary and textual discussion. Unlike some volumes in this series, this one works well at various levels.

How well does Knox help novice readers? He is very good at providing elementary assistance, for he knows what the newcomer is likely to find strange. In poem 1, for example, he explains that Danais in line 3 means ‘Greek’, that tanti in line 4 is genitive of value, that Lacedaemona in line 5 is a Greek accusative and that sospite uiro in line 24 is ablative absolute. For experienced readers of Latin poetry this sort of help might seem overly basic, but for beginners this is exactly the sort of assistance that is needed. Indeed, the fact that Knox pitches grammatical notes at this level means that reading Heroides ought to be within the grasp of students who have only recently completed courses like Jones and Sidwell’s Reading Latin and, given contemporary interest in such matters as gender representation and intertextuality, introducing Heroides to students early in their reading careers makes a lot of sense.

Knox’s prefatory remarks to individual poems seem aimed at literary scholars. His commentary on Penelope’s letter to Ulysses, for example, begins appropriately enough with a discussion of post-Homeric romanticisation of the tale of Penelope and Ulysses. He then discusses the poem’s engagement with Homer’s Odyssey, rightly drawing attention to Duncan Kennedy’s crucial observation that the intended bearer is none other than the disguised Ulysses himself. The remarks on Hypsipyle’s letter to Jason discuss possible ancestor texts, settling on Apollonius Book 1 as the main source. Knox also notes that Ovid differs from Apollonius in insisting that Jason and Hypsipyle were married. His introduction to Dido’s letter to Aeneas considers the representation of Dido before Virgil and Virgil’s apparent invention of the Dido-Aeneas relationship. He then discusses in brief Ovid’s treatment of Aeneid elsewhere (most notably in Ars Amatoria, Tristia 2 and Metamorphoses). Knox observes that: ‘In O.’s view Dido was betrayed by the man she took in: the so-called ‘pessimistic’ reading of the Aeneid, current in so much criticism of Virgil, began with O.’ (p. 202). As a ‘pessimist’ myself I find this view attractive, but perhaps we have to distinguish (theoretically at least) between Ovid’s reading of the Aeneid and his rewriting of it. Epistle 7 is not necessarily informative as to how Ovid read the Aeneid. Rather, it may tell us how Ovid thought Virgil’s material ought to be handled. For students this sort of background information is essential, while for more advanced scholars Knox’s comments provide much that is of interest.

As experienced readers of Heroides will be aware, the text is frequently problematical and so Knox has to devote space to explaining his textual choices. Although I am far from being an expert in such matters, I must say that I felt confident with Knox’s text. His selections of possible readings are sensible and of course backed up by brief discussion. Consider, for example, the problems which arise in the first two lines of the first poem. Where the manuscripts (followed by Shuckburgh, Showerman and Dörrie) have hanc as the poem’s first word, Knox reads haec (as do Palmer and Goold). In line 2 the manuscripts have attamen or sed tamen, while Palmer has ut tamen, Shuckburgh at tamen, Showerman and Dörrie tu tamen, while Goold has attinet. Knox also reads attinet. For readers like myself who are not textual critics these emendations need explanations and Knox provides them clearly, succinctly and persuasively. Knox seems a judicious editor. He is prepared to make alterations to the inherited text but is not bent on stamping his own mark on Ovid’s work.

This then is a most useful volume. It is particularly valuable to have in print an edition of Heroides which is suitable for students and which combines a sound text with a helpful commentary. It can only help in the current positive revaluation of Ovid’s works. Highly recommended.

  • [1] The text is not regarded as reliable. R. J. Tarrant describes it as ‘deficient in almost every respect’ (L. D. Reynolds [ed.] Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics [Oxford, 1983] 268).