Prosopopoeia and the Recognition of Paris:  Ovid, Heroides 16

Elizabeth F. Mazurek, University of Notre Dame

Few would disagree that Helen steals the show from Paris in Heroides 16 and 17.  At every turn her reply deflates his passionate rhetoric with a mixture of playful outrage and incredulity.  Echoing Helen’s skepticism of Paris’ letter, some modern readers have doubted the authenticity of 16.39-144, which comprise Paris’ biography, so to speak.  [See especially Fischer (Augsburg 1969) and Reeve CQ 23 (1973) 324-38, whose arguments are meticulously refuted by Kenney CQ 29 (1979) 394-431.]  Informed by Kenney, who defends 16.39-144 as integral to the narrative of both Paris’ and Helen’s epistles, I will argue that this passage is a necessary piece in a poem that thematizes the challenges of self-representation.   

As character impersonations the Heroides constitute exercises by the poet in prosopopoeia.  Within each poem, however, the first-person narrator is also engaging in a type of self-portraiture as he or she attempts through letter writing to conjure an image of the self before the distant lover.  The anxiety for the letter writer lies in the credibility of the created image.  As Rosenmeyer has observed, “all letters are fictions…..Based on a process of selection and self-censorship, the letter is a construction, not a reflection, of reality”  [Ramus 26 (1997) 51].  At times the construction of reality may look more like a distortion or an erasure, as suggested by de Man in his famous essay “Autobiography as De-facement” [MLN 94 (1979) 919-930].  The term “de-facement” has interesting applications for Paris who impersonates his own myth in order to seduce the most beautiful face in the world. 

In the myth of Paris Ovid has the perfect subject matter to illustrate the difficulties of self-representation.  Exposed at birth and raised by shepherds, Paris’ early life story is one of uncertain identity.  More to the point, Paris’ own version of his eventual recognition is vague.  He tells us first that his forma was clearly noble (16.51-52), but only per rata signa was he officially recognized (89-90).  [Kenney (Cambridge 1996) 96 sees a reference here to Paris’ baby rattle.]  The other defining episode in Paris’ story, the judgment, he chooses to tell between these two passages concerning his recognition. In the beauty contest between Juno, Pallas, and Venus, Paris is stymied by the prima facie evidence before him (74-76), in the end favoring Helen’s reported beauty (85-86).  Ovid orders the sequence of Paris’ vita so as to introduce Paris’ forma only for it to be obscured by his desire for Helen.  Such is his passion that he virtually disappears into metaphor throughout the remainder of his letter (e.g. 16.1-10 in which Paris refers to himself three times as a burning flame.)  Having been de-faced by Helen (as are the three goddesses), Paris returns to his recognition story with only the rata signa to identify him.  This is not to deny Kenney’s observation that Paris has fudged his chronology in order to deceive Helen about his liaison with Oenone [Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar 8 (1995) 191-195.]  On the contrary, the lack of moral integrity in Paris’ deception is underscored by his shadowy countenance.

Helen’s face, by contrast, seems to defy metaphor (16.146:  famaque de forma paene maligna tua est.)  Nor is she taken in by any of Paris’ tropes, but claims to be tempted most by his own person (e.g. 17.67-68).  This seems a fitting statement by the “heroine of elegy” [Belfiore CJ 76 (1980-81) 147] who restores the face of her lover by refusing to believe in his mythic prosopos.   

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