Empire and Identity in Ovid's Heroides 12

Lindsay Alane Morse

University of Washington

In Heroides 12, Ovid wrote a work of imperial literature that reflects the empire itself.  This is not surprising, since Ovid composed this work during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. In this text, Ovid dons the persona of Medea in order to write a love letter to Jason, the man who has spurned her.  I posit that Heroides 12 follows the movement of the new Empire through the representation of displacement, the blurring of boundaries, capture and the very Roman triumph.  Thomas Habinek studied the references to empire that are found in a number of Ovid's works, including the Amores, Metamorphoses, and the Fasti (2002).  However, his study did not include the Heroides.  Micaela Janan described the effects of empire on identity and desire in her study of Propertius IV (2001).  I extend her arguments to Ovid's women, specifically to Medea.  Although allusions to empire are present in all of the Heroides, they are especially relevant in the twelfth epistle, since Medea is a displaced barbarian sorceress—the quintessential Other.

I begin my discussion by considering the displacement felt by the character of Medea and relating it to the displacement felt by the subjects of the early Empire.  Her displacement is caused by the loss of her family and native land, as well as the imminent loss of her husband who has decided to reject her for a young Greek princess.  Medea mentions her barbarian status at multiple points (12.70, 12.105) and exaggerates the strangeness of her experiences throughout the letter.  I suggest that this theme of displacement addresses the attitude of displacement that was felt by many of the subjects of the new empire.

I then turn to the Medea's contradictory descriptions of herself.  She is a mature woman but she refers to herself as a simple girl (12.89-90).  At times we see a powerful sorceress, at others a helpless victim of passion.  Medea describes this strange contradiction that she sees within herself (12.163-72).  Following the work of Janan, I posit that this blurring of character (powerful/helpless, girl/woman, innocent/criminal) is in direct relation to the chaos found throughout the developing empire.

Next, I relate Medea's various references to herself as a conquered victim of her love for Jason (12.92, 12.166, 12.211), as the spoil of a bandit (12.111) and to Jason as a victor (12.127) to the military concerns of the Empire.  In addition, when Medea describes the wedding procession of Jason and his new bride she imagines a Roman triumph and adopts the appropriate language (12.137-58) as she did in her description of Jason's victorious return bringing the Golden Fleece and Medea, as his bride, into civilization (12.127).  The triumph is an important part of the empire as it depicts the movement of goods from the outer boundaries of the empire into the city of Rome.  This movement is seen in Heroides 12.

Finally, I turn to the place that Heroides 12 holds in the context of the larger collection.  There are instances of empire to be found in each of the letters. The letter from Medea is an appropriate model since she occupies an extremely non-Roman place in society—woman, sorceress, barbarian.  However, it is important to consider how this work relates to the letters from the other women.


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