BMCR 2001.12.19

14: A Commentary

, 14: A Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2001. iv + 357.

Reeson’s (R.’s) commentary on three of the lesser-known Heroides (11 from Canace to Macareus, 13 from Laodamia to Protesilaus, and 14 from Hypermestra to Lynceus) is solid and well-done, containing a new text and extensive commentary on each of the three. While much attention has deservedly been focused on the poems of late, it has focused on those whose “source texts” are extant (e.g. Dido, Penelope, Ariadne). R.’s reason for choosing these three letters is only partially explained by his assertion that the Heroides were probably divided into three books of five (3), and by the fact that there are already commentaries on 12 (Brill and Felice Le Monnier) and 15 (De Gruyter).1 But these poems are well worth commenting on: of the three, only 11 appears in Knox’s green and yellow edition, and it is naturally not treated as fully there.2 Although there has not been much work done on any of the three, 11 has received more attention than 13, which in turn beats out 14. R. contributes most on the latter two poems; his interpretation of 11 is less original.

A primary desideratum in Heroidean commentators is the ability to pick through the vexed manuscript tradition. This R. does very well, rightly concentrating on establishing a reliable text (as he notes, an impossible task (9)), but also incorporating recent work on intertextuality. His readings are sometimes unpersuasive, but nearly always responsible (by no means a given in Heroides manuscript studies), and his own emendations are often quite reasonable and nearly always worthy of serious consideration. R. seemingly has an axe to grind against the manuscript P. It is indeed not as reliable as previous generations found it, but this fact is now generally accepted;3 R.’s insistence on pointing out the places where P offers a ridiculous reading and reminding the reader of its fallibility (11.55, 13.2, 13.73-4, 13.135) suggest that he is fighting a battle already won.

R. is insightful on issues of meter (e.g. at 11.25, 11.65-6, 13.52) and poetic devices (alliteration, anaphora etc). His comments on the sound of the poetry (e.g. 11.13, 11.21-2, 11.67, 13.13, 13.83-4, 13.129) are always useful. This is an advanced-level commentary, so notes on grammatical constructions are unsurprisingly in short supply, although R does offer his own translations for certain passages of vexed interpretation. A slight over-quoting of previous scholarship (e.g. 11.87, 13.25-6 on the name of Laodamia’s mother and passim) occasionally gives the commentary the feel of a dissertation (but it once was one, so this should not shock anyone).

Because this book is a commentary, and a good one, there is too much in it to concentrate on all of the details. The remainder of this review will therefore consist of a variety of points indicative of the strengths and (few) weaknesses of the commentary. R. is excellent on intertextual readings: highlights include 11.18, 67 and 97-8 on Vergil Aen. 1.139-40, 1.56, and 6.406-7, 11.103-106 on Tibullus 1.1.1-6 (a connection with Heroides 14 would also have been welcome), 11.117-120 with a variety of allusions, 13.85-6 on Catullus 68 and Tibullus 1.3, 13.135ff on Laodamia’s connections to the prophetic Cassandra, 13.161-2 on Laodamia as a comes in Aeneid 6, 14.21 on the sense-pause at Vergil Aen. 2.13, 14.39-40 on Amores 1.7. My personal favorite is the discussion of Sinon in Aeneid II ad 14.45, although I would take R.’s interpretation further and suggest that Hypermestra’s text reflects Sinon’s because she too is playing with the truth.

I move on to textual matters, the most important aspect of a Heroides commentary. R. is at his best here; his most significant contribution in this book is a sober reexamination of the text of these three poems. His text is in most ways the best yet; it is certainly more reliable than Dörrie’s and in most places better than Palmer’s. Details include: R.’s persuasive defense of 11.1-2, his eminently sensible use of mss. at 11.63, 11.69, and 11.127. At 11.129-30, R’s own conjecture is not bad (perhaps it should be adopted), and his discussion of the mss. is excellent. At 13.13 he is correct: Heinsius’ mandatrix does indeed deserve a chance (see too fugis at 14.93, which does not make it into the text, but is rightly considered). Similarly, si is an excellent choice at 13.55. R.’s conjecture at 13.108 ( cur venit a labris muta querela tuis, a combination of Jackson, Palmer, and Baehrens) is a solid one. R.’s discussion at 13.133 is sensible and his answer plausible. At 13.135, R. sensibly adopts quae si (although Hollis’ unpublished quod is also appealing). His defense of 13.159-60 is persuasive, and at 14.42, a notorious crux, R. offers a stimulating discussion, rightly rejecting the nonsensical vina and adopting Damsté’s causa (the best of the lot). The opening distich of 14 is rightly defended; R.’s suggestion about Hypermestra’s reticence is interesting. R.’s defense of the mss at 14.85-6 is succinct and reasonable. At 14.61-3 and 113-14 (14.62 and 113 were suspected first by Lachmann and then by Housman) R. gives a very persuasive textual argument for reading 61, 114, 63 and deleting 62 and 113 altogether, notwithstanding my discomfort with Housman’s literary argument (that otherwise Hypermestra’s monologue becomes one-sided: in a persuasive letter to her not-murdered husband, shouldn’t it be?). This reading will no doubt become received wisdom.

Places where I am less comfortable with R.’s text (fewer by far in number) include 11.66 (though I am very nearly convinced by R.) and 13.39-40 (R. is the first to suspect these lines). Likewise 13.98-9 (ditto) where the subjunctive properes can be retained if it is read as a true subjunctive: it [Troy] is not your native land, to which you should hurry. On the other hand, the conjunction of 97 and 100 is attractive, so R. may well be right. At 13.71-2, R. opts for cadet instead of cadat, which will work, but quoque gives good sense with cadat too. At 14.91 I prefer et conata, but there is little to choose between it and conatoque. At 14.47, R. comes up with the right reading from the ms. variants (his ιιἰ, but his discussion seems unnecessarily long, given that only the somewhat erratic Dörrie opted for any other text.

In the areas of word choice, style and tone, too, R. gives general satisfaction. Among the places I found most compelling were: 11.78 on the ash tree, where he is surely right to connect fraxinus with Verg. Ecl. 7.65-6; 11.100 on the double meanings of pectoribus condam (“I will bury in my chest,” but perhaps also “I will take to heart”); 13.28 on Laodamia’s desire for death; 13.92 on the bilingual allusion in primus Danaum; 13.121ff. on “windy Troy”. At 14.103, R. offers a fine defense and discussion of the nuances of io. The notion that 14.129-30, Hypermestra’s epitaph, offer a “false ending” — because Hypermestra does not plan to die if her letter does its job — is an excellent one. On the other hand, I remain unconvinced by R.’s note at 11.91 on the tone of inimicus — see iste at 11.97-8. At 14.80-1, R. perversely translates in uno as “in one unit”; it would make more sense as “in one case” vel sim. But, as above, these are but a drop in the bucket compared to the substantial contributions this commentary offers.

Even in the areas of mythological and literary interpretation, which are my only real hesitation about this book, R.’s comments are thought-provoking. In general, R. buys the standard interpretations of the poems, seeing Canace as naïve (see esp. ad 11.62), Laodamia as overly superstitious (see Jacobson and now Fulkerson),4 and (here R. does contribute substantially to the understanding of the poem) Hypermestra as rhetorically manipulative (he rightly suspects Jacobson on Hypermestra’s non-amatory feelings for her husband at 1-2 and passim). There are quibbles, to be sure: at 11.29-34 he sees Canace as utilizing rhetoric, which she surely is, but does not explain how this fits in with her naivete (see too his comments ad 11.108, where the nuances of Ovidian dramatic irony are neglected — of course Canace doesn’t know the future, but we do). R.’s introductory discussion of Heroides 13 discusses Laodamia’s “ceremonial negligence” (114), but the issue is far more complicated than he acknowledges; he seems to rely entirely upon a suggestion in Catullus 68. His arguments that Laodamia writes to an already-dead Protesilaus do not change my strongly held conviction that her letter (and death) have a much more intimate connection to his fate. Laodamia may well write too late, but this is by no means certain; fama is, as R. notes, not always reliable, but here it seems merely to inform the reader of the context of Laodamia’s letter (rather than undermining her claim that the ships are indeed still at Aulis).

R. is sometimes excellent on the quintessentially “Ovidian” touches of his poems, particularly when it comes to sexual innuendo (see 11.6, 11.23, 13.43-4, 13.79-82, 13.150ff., though I think wax is not so much “more sympathetic” as, following R., more reminiscent of, the funereal imagines that haunt this passage); his discussion of the vexed “virginity question” of Heroides 14 is reasonable (at 14.33, 42, 50, 55, 69-70, and 123-4), as is his conclusion that Hypermestra is being “coy”. On the other hand, despite R.’s doubts, Jacobson (who sees a double entendre in 14.17: temeratae sanguine noctis) is likely correct. Similarly, R. is correct at 14.19 about Hypermestra’s hand, but Jacobson is more right than R. allows. R. also has peculiar lapses, as at 13.63-66, where he refuses to admit that Laodamia may be right in worrying about Hector while Ovid simultaneously draws attention to the debate over Protesilaus’ killer. At 14.6-7, R. oversimplifies the issue by claiming that Hypermestra awaits trial: despite rea and ream (which may well allude to the forensic aspects of the Danaid story, which Aphrodite’s speech suggests were a feature of Aeschylus’ treatment 5), we do not need to insist upon a literal meaning for the word (cf. OLD sv 4 for general notions of guilt); I myself find it implausible that Hypermestra was put on trial for not killing her husband when there were 49 guilty siblings available to be tried for murder. Ovid is, as often, playing with variant versions.

R.’s bibliography is very full, with one or two peculiar omissions (e.g. Rosati on Protesilaus as an elegiac figure, Casali on Heroides 14 (particularly on Horatian intertexts) and Keuls on the Danaid myth).6 Di Lorenzo et al.’s commentary on Heroides 13 is cited in the bibliography but does not seem to have been utilized by R, and it might have helped him with some of the literary background to that poem.7 The book contains a useful set of indices: (1) Latin words discussed in the notes, (2) an extensive general index, (3) a list of passages cited from Ovid, and a (4) a list of passages from other authors. There are a number of typographical errors, but few will cause much confusion: I note only ἐνήρ for ἀνήρ on 148, zquid for aliquid on 167, the Greek with which Burman’s quote begins at 207, the extraneous…c at 124, and the Roman characters which should be Greek ( λευκήν on 286 and μισθόνι on 313).

Everyone who intends to read these Heroides will want this book. If there are still not as many readers as there should be, that is hardly R’s fault. In the years to come, particularly if the current Heroides boom continues, R.’s book will, I wager, prove to be a wise investment.


1. Heroides 12: Federica Bessone, P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroidum Epistula XII Medea Iasoni. Florence: Felice Le Monnier, 1997; and Theodor Heinze, P. Ovidius Naso: Der XII Heroidenbrief: Medea an Jason mit einer Beilage: Die Fragmente der Tragödie Medea. Einleitung, Text & Kommentar. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Heroides 15: Heinrich Dörrie, P. Ovidii Nasonis Epistulae Heroidum. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1971.

2. Peter E. Knox, Ovid Heroides: Select Epistles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

3. See Tarrant on the manuscript tradition of the Heroides: “all inherently plausible readings, whatever their source, must be taken seriously” (p. 270; “Heroides” in L.D. Reynolds, Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).

4. Howard Jacobson, Ovid’s Heroides. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974; Laurel Fulkerson, “(Un)sympathetic Magic: a Study of Heroides 13″ forthcoming, AJP, 2002.

5. Fragment 44 Nauck; Aphrodite gives a speech in praise of love which many find appropriate to a trial either of Hypermestra or of her sisters.

6. Gianpiero Rosati, “Protesilao, Paride, e l’Amante Elegiaco: un Modello Omerico in Ovidio,” Maia 43 (1991): 103-14; Sergio Casali, “Ovidio e la preconoscenza della critica qualche generalizzazione a partire da Heroides 14,” Philologus 142 (1998): 94-113. Eva Keuls, Water Carriers in Hades: A study of catharsis through toil in classical antiquity. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1974.

7. E. Di Lorenzo, A. Carrano, and D. Viscido, Heroides Epistola XIII (Laodamia a Protesilao). Salerno: Edisud, 1992.