By Ovid, Harold Isbell

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In the twenty-one poems of the Heroides, Ovid gave voice to the heroines and heroes of epic and myth. These deeply moving literary epistles reveal the happiness and torment of love, as the writers tell of their pain at separation, forgiveness of infidelity or anger at betrayal. The faithful Penelope wonders at the suspiciously long absence of Ulysses, while Dido bitterly r In the twenty-one poems of the Heroides, Ovid gave voice to the heroines and heroes of epic and myth. These deeply moving

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Book details

Paperback, 288 pages
April 26th 1990 by Penguin Classics

(first published -16)

Edition Language

Community Reviews

Evan Leach

For mythology buffs, these poems are pure joy. The Heroides are a collection of 21 poems written from the perspective of heroines and heroes of epic and myth (the original "fan fiction?"). Written in the first person, each poem is addressed to the writer’s lover. The literary device most commonly deployed by Ovid is tragic irony. While the characters writing the poems do not know the outcome of the story, the reader (presumably) does. Ovid is able to give each writer their own unique voice, and displays a sharp understanding of human nature throughout the poems.

To really get the most out of the poems, a working knowledge of Greek mythology is a must. Most of the poems were published around 15 b.c., so Ovid could safely assume that the stories surrounding these characters were common knowledge to his audience. He therefore wastes little time in setting up backstory between the characters within each poem. The translation contains a glossary & index which provides a brief summary of the relevant mythology, but it's safe to say that you'll probably enjoy a letter from Penelope to Ulysses more if you're familiar with the Odyssey, for example.

There's really not a subpar poem in the bunch. V (Oenone to Paris), X (Ariadne to Theseus), XII (Medea to Jason), XIII (Laodamia to Protesilaus), XVI (Paris to Helen) and XVII (Helen to Paris) were some of my personal favorites. The conceit of giving a realistic, human voice to these famous heroes and heroines is a great one, and the execution is top notch. This is a worthy companion to the more famous Metamorphoses, and should not be missed by fans of mythology and Roman literature alike. 4.5 stars.


I'd never thought about reading more by Ovid, and then I came across The Heroides while showing someone else the wonders of my city's central library. (Before I knew it, I had a stack of nine books in my arms, despite the fact I'm about to go visit my parents via train, meaning I can't carry that many books.) Anyway, I was delighted to find this, and it's a nice edition too, with explanations of all the myths and extensive notes (which for the most part I don't need, but which were a handy refresher when I couldn't quite remember) and introductions to each poem. The translation seems good to me, in that it's readable and flows well, and doesn't get in the way of experiencing the poems.

In a way it seems almost a modern, feminist thing to do, giving these female heroines the space to make their complaints (though some of the poems are 'written' by men, they are the ones paired with a female response). Penelope voices her worries about Odysseus' long absence -- something I remember all the girls in my class being offended about on her behalf, since he spends most of the time in Circe and Calypso's beds. Medea pours out her outrage, Dido her heartbreak; Phaedra tries to manipulate Hippolytus into her arms. Not all of them are exactly wonderful women -- Medea is downright wicked -- but they're all given a chance to speak of their pain and the wrongs done to them.

Daniel Chaikin

31. Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell
original date: circa 16 bce
translated 1990
format: Paperback
acquired: Half-Price Books in October 2016
read: July 8-22
rating: 4

There are, apparently, many different Ovids, or he was a writer who worked in multiple distinctly independent styles. I would have said that differently if I hadn't started Metamorphoses before reviewing, and I would have had a vastly different impression of this if I hadn't read Amores and The Art of Love beforehand. Ovid's love poems introduced me to a hyper-witty and hyper-clever really knowledgeable but insincere poet. This was not that voice.

Heroides is a collection of letters written mainly by spurned heroines in Greek mythology to lovers. Fifteen of the letters come from the likes Penelope, Ariadne or Medea, or more obscure women like Laodamia to Protestilaus or Canace to Marcareus. The sixteenth letter comes from Sappho. And six more are back and forth with lovers. Paris writes Helen to woo her, and Helen writes back with what amounts to something that is not no. And so on.

I'm sure the modern ear can find much to make fun of, and any reader in any age will easily pick up the many levels of satire. But, oddly, these aspects don't color these letters. On the surface they are sincere. The heavy satire is mostly in the situations, the set-up if you like. The letters themselves are straightforward... often romantic, even when or because they are bitter. And they are occasionally moving. Laodamia's letter to Protestilaus stands out. In mythology Protestilaus leaves for Troy shortly after their marriage, and becomes the first casualty in the Trojan war. He is brought back to life for three hours to see Laodamia, who afterward commits suicide. She writes this letter as an unknowing widow. I found it a memorable and touching letter of love, bitter in its irony and yet tangible. Phyllus writes to Demophoon who, when she fell for him only to be abandoned, was not only hurt, but ruined. And she writes longingly.

A note about the translator, Harold Isbell. There are many oddities about him that give me pause. He was a bank director, not a professor. He provides a summary of each major character, a wonderful resource, but they are iffy and partial summaries. Each is simplified leaving a clean and often appealing impression, but one that may contradict or disregard major versions of these stories. His citations of ancient literature are incomplete and a bit haphazard. And, despite all his notes, he never once brings up anything about the translation or original Latin. But, I really enjoyed reading this. So... ??

Ariadne to Theseus

You would have died in the twisting halls without
the string that I gave to be your guide.
You said to me, 'I swear by these perils that
as long as we live, you will be mine.'
We are alive, Theseus, but I am not yours;


Laodamia to Protestilaus

I'm told the winds detain you at Aulis;
where were these winds when you sailed from me?
Then the tides should have risen against your oars;
then was the time for a raging surf.
I could have kissed my lord and given him more
requests, I wanted to say so much.
But you were hurried away by a wind your
crew loved; it was not a lover's wind.


Leander to Hero (across the water)

she is so near, but 'almost' starts tears.


Someone on GR called Ovid's Heroides a “horrible fan fic” and I partly agree. I wouldn't call it horrible, but I'm also not crazy about it. Sure Ovid gives these women a voice, but at the end of the day it's still an Ancient Roman Dude's version of these female voices. It's not fundamentally wrong, but it also isn't that nuanced. Let me put it this way: there's too much sobbing and moaning for my liking. So yes, Heroides did feel somewhat like a fan fic written by an Ancient Roman poet. I didn't like it as much as I hoped, but I did like it enough to seek out more Ovid in the future.


Pro's : Very accessible, very personalized portraits, genuine emotion and insightful that is missing in most mythology. Even better is the Woman's vantage point in all the letters

Con's : Repetitive after a certain point. A lot of time is spent explaining the myths that the letters touch, which is both bad and good.

This book... if you are a person that has a semi-interest in mythology but find much of it too dry, this is the book that rips open the stuffiness, the tight Victorian corset placed on the stories over time but that also had its own dryness in the 2000 year old writing style.

When you read this; however, that's all gone. You read in the words of the characters themseves through these epistles, these unbearably earnest and insightful letters between characters.

One of them goes like this, for example: How can people call you a hero when you have left me and the life of your own wife to wasted? What glory is that? How can I congratulate you on your courage fighting the three headed dog when I only spend my time imagining how close I came to losing you?

Highly recommended, it is especially good because the letters come in small chunks and can be served alone. Previous mythology experience isn't necessary.

Roman Clodia

In the 21 poems of the Heroides, Ovid inserts himself into classical myth and epic by interjecting letters written by the heroines of larger stories. So, for example, he has Penelope write to Odysseus while he is lost on his way back to Ithaka from Troy; Dido to Aeneas after he has left Carthage for Rome; Briseis to Achilles after she has been passed to Agamemnon etc.

Usually lauded as giving a `female' voice to masculine epic, the Heroides, I think, is doing something more complex than that - and we should never forget that these `female' voices are as ventriloquised by a male author as their originals.

These poems were hugely popular in the Renaissance and gave rise to a large number of translations as well as looser imitations such as Marlowe's superb Hero and Leander, based on Heroides 18 & 19.

I think a fairly close acquaintance with the source text(s) is essential to really `get' these poems but for an alternative reading of classical epic in Augustan Rome they are illuminating.


The pain that love brings upon separation from a loved one is certainly a theme that resonates with every human being (besides the Stoics who proclaim that true friends and lovers are never separate if they have minds to meet within). Ovid is, here as always, the most penetrating observer of human psychology this side of Shakespeare, and no amount of Freud or Jung will yield to the questing mind the insights the former pair have to offer. These poems are so intimate that I by chance read aloud Dido's letter to Aeneas to an ex-girlfriend of mine, and she became so incensed at how she thought it bore upon her own life that she became hysterical. Such is, and has always been, the reaction of the religious to the humanist looking life in the face.


Once I found out Ovid wrote an epistolary book from the perspective of such important figures as : Helen, Paris, Leander, Madea, I just had to read it. So we finally know how to woe, to faint modesty, voice despair, threaten as only the ancients could (with a heavy dose of passion and misogyny). This was a good book if you're a fan of Greek mythology, but are not fluent in each protagonist's story since the letters themselves often make notice of the royal lineage and history of the lover so as to give more importance to his/her suit. Depending on the sender, the letter either explores unrequited love, incest, betrayal, the validity of a vow and so much more. This translation makes for a quick read and I look forward to other books by the author.

Cassandra Kay Silva

Ovid you are truly a master. Your poetry always reaches all the places in my heart and touches me deeply. I can absolutely sympathize with the women and men in these works. Love is complicated, love lost leaves much to scorn and curse in this world. Circumstance is the root of so much mischief and so much heartache, this and the fickleness of men. Absolutely beautiful. .


For me the only woman whose character was more or less of a “heroine” was Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. She waited for her husband for years and still had faith that he would return and they would live happily after.
The other heroines mentioned in the book were so full of malice and the letters written by them were so hateful that I wonder if the term “heroines” would best describe them. Okay, I understand that heroines such as Dido or Medea were betrayed by Aeneas and Jason and their attitudes towards them were mostly based on the irresponsible conduct of these men, but still, cursing and wishing them all the bad luck adds nothing but bad to their personalities. The letters were more full of lust and desire than love and compassion.
But still, I love Ovid and for me he’s a great poet and aesthetician.