Penelope’s Wait: A Translation of Ovid’s Heroides Book I Lines 1–50

Penelope by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Penelope’s Wait: A Translation of Ovid’s Heroides Book I Lines 1–50

By Erin Schott


Author’s Statement

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have endured for thousands of years because they tell stories still true to the human experience. The Iliad recounts the horrors of war and the egotism of those in power, while the Odyssey narrates an arduous homecoming to a place that is not the same as before. In the first letter of the Heroides, Ovid expands upon the timelessness of Homer’s Odyssey by writing from the perspective of Penelope, a fearful wife awaiting Ulysses’s return from battle. Penelope wonders throughout the letter whether any harm has befallen her husband. Why has he not returned with the rest of the Greeks? How long must she wait? What if he died alongside those brave soldiers she heard stories about? Amidst these worries about her husband’s fate, a thread of anger also runs through Penelope’s letter. She is frustrated that Ulysses has not communicated with her and that he recklessly invaded the Trojan camp without thinking of his family. Like Homer, Ovid portrays a complex range of human emotions in his poem, and it is possibly this confusing combination of fear and anger within Penelope that makes the letter feel so realistic. Penelope’s writing expresses the anxiety of a wife facing the harsh reality that her husband might not return from battle, and thousands of years later, loved ones convey similar worries and frustrations about family members who enter military service. 


Latin Text:

Heroides I. Penelope Vlixi

Haec tua Penelope lento tibi mittit, Ulixe
    nil mihi rescribas attinet: ipse veni!
Troia iacet certe, Danais invisa puellis;
    vix Priamus tanti totaque Troia fuit.
o utinam tum, cum Lacedaemona classe petebat,            5
    obrutus insanis esset adulter aquis!
non ego deserto iacuissem frigida lecto,
    nec quererer tardos ire relicta dies;
nec mihi quaerenti spatiosam fallere noctem
    lassaret viduas pendula tela manus.               10
Quando ego non timui graviora pericula veris?
    res est solliciti plena timoris amor.
in te fingebam violentos Troas ituros;
    nomine in Hectoreo pallida semper eram.
sive quis Antilochum narrabat ab hoste revictum,               15
    Antilochus nostri causa timoris erat;
sive Menoetiaden falsis cecidisse sub armis,
    flebam successu posse carere dolos.
sanguine Tlepolemus Lyciam tepefecerat hastam;
    Tlepolemi leto cura novata mea est.               20
denique, quisquis erat castris iugulatus Achivis,
    frigidius glacie pectus amantis erat.
Sed bene consuluit casto deus aequus amori.
    versa est in cineres sospite Troia viro.
Argolici rediere duces, altaria fumant;               25
    ponitur ad patrios barbara praeda deos.
grata ferunt nymphae pro salvis dona maritis;
    illi victa suis Troica fata canunt.
mirantur iustique senes trepidaeque puellae;
    narrantis coniunx pendet ab ore viri.               30
atque aliquis posita monstrat fera proelia mensa,
    pingit et exiguo Pergama tota mero:
‘hac ibat Simois; haec est Sigeia tellus;
    hic steterat Priami regia celsa senis.
illic Aeacides, illic tendebat Ulixes;               35
    hic lacer admissos terruit Hector equos.’
Omnia namque tuo senior te quaerere misso
    rettulerat nato Nestor, at ille mihi.
rettulit et ferro Rhesumque Dolonaque caesos,
    utque sit hic somno proditus, ille dolo.               40
ausus es—o nimium nimiumque oblite tuorum!—
    Thracia nocturno tangere castra dolo
totque simul mactare viros, adiutus ab uno!
    at bene cautus eras et memor ante mei!
usque metu micuere sinus, dum victor amicum               45
    dictus es Ismariis isse per agmen equis.
Sed mihi quid prodest vestris disiecta lacertis
    Ilios et, murus quod fuit, esse solum,
si maneo, qualis Troia durante manebam,
    virque mihi dempto fine carendus abest?               50



Your Penelope sends this to you, slow Ulysses
It’s pointless to write back to me, come yourself!
Surely Troy lies in ruins, hated by Greek girls;
Priam and all of Troy were scarcely worth the price.
If only the adulterer Paris had drowned in the 
stormy water when he sought Sparta with his fleet!
For then I would not lie frozen on this deserted bed.
I would not, left behind, complain that the days
drag on slowly, nor would a hanging loom weary my 
widowed hands while I seek to deceive all night long.
When haven’t I feared dangers graver than the truth?
Love is a thing full of restless fear!
I imagined violent Trojans harming you;
Upon hearing Hector’s name, I always turned pale.
If someone said Antilochus was subdued by the
enemy, he became the source of my fear;
Or if they said Patroclus had fallen under false arms, 
I wept that his guiles were unsuccessful.
If Tlepolemus warmed a Lycian spear with his blood, 
his death renewed my anxiety.
Whenever anyone was slain at the Greek camp,
My loving heart grew colder than ice
But an impartial god took good care of my pure love and
Troy was turned to ashes by my unharmed husband
The Argolic leaders have returned, and their altars smoke;
Barbaric spoils are served up to paternal gods
Brides bring gifts of gratitude for their uninjured husbands
who sing to them the fate of conquered Troy
Righteous old men and restless girls alike marvel, a wife hangs
onto every word from her husband’s mouth as he recounts.
He orders the table set, showing and depicting the
wild fights, and with a little wine, he traces out the whole of Troy.
“The Simois flowed this way; this is Sigeian country.
The lofty palace of old Priam stood over here.
Achilles pitched his tent there, and Ulysses pitched his yonder.
Here, torn Hector scared the horses to a gallop.”
For older Nestor explained everything to your son,
whom I sent to find you, and he relayed it to me. 
Nestor said Rhesus and Dolon were slain by a sword. 
This one betrayed by his sleep, that one by deceit.
Much too forgetful of your own people—you dared to reach
the Thracian camps at nighttime by trickery
You killed so many men at once, helped by only one!
But surely you were so cautious, thinking of me!
My heart always beat with fear. You were said 
to have gone with Thracian steeds through the allied army, a victor.
But how is it helpful to me that Troy was overthrown
by your hands and where once was wall is now ground,
if I wait, just as I waited while Troy endured, and I
must be apart from my husband indefinitely?


Erin Schott is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and English. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Discentes.