Thursday, August 3, 2017


Martina Björk, Ovid's 'Heroides' and the Ethopoeia. Studia Graeca et Latina Lundensia 22. Lund: Lund University, 2016. Pp. 353. ISBN 9789188473004.

Reviewed by Teresa Ramsby, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

Version at BMCR home site

In her revised and published dissertation, Martina Björk analyzes the connection between Ovid's Heroides and the rhetorical, educational tradition as it developed at Rome. In the process she presents a valuable study on the types of rhetorical training available to someone like Ovid. At the heart of her study is an interest both in clarifying the nature of ethopoeia as distinct from suasoria or controversia, and in validating the premise, mentioned only briefly in prior studies of the Heroides, that Ovid's work demonstrates influence from the rhetorical exercises of the period.

As early as 1699 Richard Bentley rather offhandedly suggested that Ovid wrote his love letters in the ethopoetic tradition, and Björk lists many scholars of the last dozen decades who have agreed with or objected to this position (35 (n. 96) and 163).1 Therefore, her goal is to clarify the nature of ethopoeia and demonstrate how a better understanding of it can elucidate our readings of the Heroides. To accomplish her aims, she presents explanations of the types of exercises involved in rhetorical training, examples of the earliest evidence of ethopoeiae (which she identifies as occurring in Greek tragedy), and the extant models and textbook exercises we have from the ancient world. She then presents readings of eight of the heroines' epistles with attention to their ethopoetic characteristics.

In chapter two, Björk identifies the broad category of rhetorical exercises used in Greek schools as progymnasmata, preliminary exercises designed to train the student's compositional and rhetorical abilities, based "on the principles of imitating, reusing, transferring, and emulating" with an eye to consistent improvement in production (80). Of the fourteen different types of Greek progymnasmata (listed nicely on pages 83-5), to which the Romans later added the controversia and the suasoria, Björk argues that the ethopoeia, a speech whose aim (narrowly defined) is "to characterize the speaker, to enter into his or her mind and compose a speech suited to the specific moment" (84), suitably matches the fifteen single epistles in Ovid's Heroides. She does not categorize the double-epistles as ethopoeiae, but views them as experiments by Ovid "approaching the epistolary genre to a greater extent" (329).

Regarding the epistolary nature of the single-letters, Björk states that "the epistolary form is a pretext for isolating the ethopoeia, of making it an autonomous text" (329), and she quickly points to the references in Nicolaus of Byzantium and Demetrius of Phaleron that speak of epistles lending themselves well to ethopoeia. There is of course a rather significant, ongoing discussion on epistolarity in Ovid's works regarding what it accomplishes and how it affects reading and characterization. Björk does not venture into these waters, but she leaves herself open to criticism for neglecting the other purposes that epistolarity can serve.

Björk presents the evidence found after Ovid that the poet's writings demonstrated the influence of his rhetorical training (62- 79), as seen in the passages critical about Ovid in Seneca the Elder's Controversiae and Suasaoriae, as well as Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria. She suggests that the often negative comments directed at Ovid by Seneca and Quintilian, namely his tendency toward hyperbole or overstatement and the inconsistencies in his characters' arguments, can be attributed to the ethopoeia, in which character (ethos) overrides logic or consistency, and in which the circumstances of the speakers, engaged as they are in some crucial moment, will determine what they say. Similar justifications, attributing Ovid's alleged blemishes to rhetorical style, have occurred in prior works, yet Björk offers very few citations in this section to the relevant works that she lists in her bibliography.2

She is still left with the problem, however, that Seneca and Quintilian, scholars deeply engaged with rhetoric in their period, do not mention the word ethopoeia in their analyses, although Quintilian refers to something very like it as prosopopoeia, stating that it is the most difficult of the progymnasmata, and requires adherence to persona: declamatoribus considerandum est quid cuique personae conveniat (Inst. 3.8.51). This discrepancy in the terminology led Howard Jacobson, on page 325 of his ground-breaking study of the Heroides to remark, as Björk notes twice, "there is no evidence that the ethopoeia even existed in Ovid's time" (89, n. 249, and 117, n. 313).3 To counteract the photo-negative presence of ethopoeia in Ovid's time and works, Björk looks to Aristotle's Rhetoric 3.7.6-7 and his phrase ποιήσει τὸ ἦθος, used to describe the process of writing in a manner that expresses a person's character: their age, gender, level of education, and place of origin (89), to demonstrate the early formulation of the concept of ethopoeia, though she is quick to point out that Cicero and his contemporaries did not know Aristotle's works, only the precepts of rhetoric derived from Aristotle, and handed down in rhetorical manuals.

She then leaps ahead to teachers of rhetoric in the Roman imperial age: Aelius Theon of the first century AD, Hermogenes of the second century, Aphthonius of the fourth century, and Nicolaus of the fifth century. Their works do specifically refer to the ethopoeia and assign it more specific characteristics that allow for further resonance with Ovid's epistles. Specifically, they view the ethopoeia as 1) similar to the letter in that it takes the tone of the author's persona, it reflects their circumstances, and it is formulated for an audience, and 2) constructed in three periods of time (tria tempora), the typical format being first present, then past, and then future: with the present reflecting the current state of misery, the past allowing for comparatives between what is and what was, and the future providing outlook or prediction. As she later shows in her own analyses, the reflections of the heroines within these three time-frames is an effective method for forming pathos in the Heroides. Still, the author admits that in order for her analysis to work, she must demonstrate a "more or less intact tradition in Greek rhetorical education" through which the ethopoeia could have been transmitted to Ovid's formative studies (117).

In chapter three she offers letters produced by the previously mentioned imperial-period rhetors, sophistic letters by Aelian and Alciphron, Book 9 of the Palatine Anthology, and a passage from Lucian's novel (Vera Historia 2.35): but she admits these are short pieces that do not approach the length and depth of Ovid's elegiac epistles, nor does she attempt to link chronologically Ovid's education to the poems from the anthology, though she notes that the anthology poems are often supplied with the superscription, "what words would X say" (124), and may be "poems we should regard as drafts for ethopoeiae" (161), thereby drawing us closer to the impulse that might drive a collection like the Heroides.

She then discusses ethopoetic elements in Greek tragic monologues from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, but her analysis of each passage is rather brief, and remarkably under-referenced, considering the vast quantity of analysis that has been applied to the passages she presents. Even so, Björk makes the point that the speakers (e.g. Sophocles' Antigone and Euripides' Andromache) do use the the perspectives of time-frame (past, present and future) to reflect upon their anxieties and fears and to arouse emotion in the listener. So has she established that Ovid received training in an "intact tradition in Greek rhetorical tradition?" To some degree she has, but there remain many questions of chronology and influence that she does not (and perhaps cannot) fully address.

In chapter four, she provides passages from the Metamorphoses that prior scholars have identified as having ethopoetic qualities (163-4 and 163, n.155), and of these fourteen passages she identifies six as meeting her criteria as ethopoeiae, one of those being, notably, Philomela's speech to Tereus after he has raped her (175-176). Again, however, the analyses of each passage could have been more fully developed and certainly more fully referenced given the volume of recent scholarship on these stories.

Björk gets to the Heroides in chapters five and six. In chapter five she looks for the formal aspects of ethopoeia in the epistles (the speech occurring at a critical moment, the address to an absent person, and the tria tempora), with examples selected from a variety of letters. Then, in chapter six, she offers her readings of three groups of letters—groups in which the heroines share some similar circumstance. Group one consists of heroines of a lower status than their men: Briseis, Oenone, and Medea (248-279); group two consists of banished daughters: Canace and Hypermestra (279-296), and group three consists of women slighted by visiting sailors: Phyllis, Dido, and Hypsipyle (296-323). This is the section to which Björk applies the weight of her analysis, offering several pages of discussion for each heroine's narrative. The groupings she has selected highlight the possibility of Ovid's decision to frame similar circumstances using different ethe to govern their development: a valuable perspective, but similar groupings of the heroines appear effectively in Laurel Fulkerson's 2005 work without the term ethopoeia being applied.4 The most valuable insight Björk offers in this section is that the flaws or virtues that people have attributed to the various letters (Canace's epistle 11 was praised by Jacobson, among others, for its less plaintive tone (296)) should be re-examined within the context of the rhetorical aspects of ethopoeia: does the character in these specific circumstances require hyperbole, lamentation, manic panic, or cool indifference? And to what degree does the heroine's use of time structure her response, her fears, and her laments? These, she suggests, are new criteria by which we may judge Ovid's heroine-narratives.

In sum, Björk injects into the discussion of Ovid's Heroides the consideration of the ethopoeia as an influential rhetorical structure. A question that kept nagging at me as I read her study, however, was, 'could Ovid's Heroides have had some influence on the way later rhetorical teachers formulated the ethopoeia?' She never seems to consider this. There is also the problem of reduction—that somehow Ovid's brilliant and unique poems giving voice to the feminine perspective might somehow be reduced to rhetorical set-pieces by too rigorous an application of ethopoetic criteria. This is clearly not her intention, however, and to counter this possibility, as she readily admits in her introduction, we have volumes of analysis and interpretation of these poems from scholars of recent decades (30-34). Björk's perspective, then, adds another dimension to the study of these poems that places them within a rhetorical milieu. Despite some difficulties proving her point, and some aspects of organization and citation within her book that could be improved, she delivers a much needed study of this rhetorical exercise and its possible influence on one of Rome's most intriguing poetic works.5


1.   Bentley, Richard [1699] (1817), A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris. With an Answer to the Objection of the Hon. Charles Boyle. London.
2.   E.g. Higham, R. F. (1958), "Ovid and Rhetoric," in Ovidiana, edited by Niculae I. Herescu. Paris: 32-48; and Fantham, Elaine (2009) "Rhetoric and Ovid's Poetry," in A Companion to Ovid, edited by Peter Knox. Oxford. 26-44.
3.   Jacobson, Howard (1974), Ovid's Heroides. Princeton.
4.   Fulkerson, Laurel (2005), The Ovidian Heroine as Author: Reading, Writing, and Community in the Heroides. Cambridge.
5.   There are few errors, but note p. 297, penultimate sentence; p. 331, second full paragraph, second sentence; and Seneca the Elder does not appear in the bibliography of ancient authors, though he does appear in the index locorum.

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