TRIGGER WARNING: unhealthy relationship, suicidal ideation
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In his Heroides, the poet Ovid provides a fictitious letter in the woman's perspective in a series of famous disastrous relationships [e.g., Penelope to Odysseus, Ariadne to Theseus, etc.] In this letter, he imagines Sappho writing one last letter to her mythological lover Phaon.
This text includes inappropriate, manipulative, and abusive language, as well as many "red flags" for an abusive relationship. If you find yourself in a similar situation, please do not hesitate to reach out and seek help.
Ecquid, ut adspecta est studiosae littera dextrae,
Protinus est oculis cognita nostra tuis?
an, nisi legisses auctoris nomina Sapphus,
hoc breve nescires unde veniret opus?
Forsitan et quare mea sint alterna requiras 
carmina, cum lyricis sim magis apta modis:
flendus amor meus est; elegiae flebile carmen;
non facit ad lacrimas barbitos ulla meas.
Uror ut indomitis ignem exercentibus Euris
fertilis accensis messibus ardet ager. 
arva Phaon celebrat diversa Typhoidos Aetnae;
me calor Aetnaeo non minor igne tenet.
nec mihi, dispositis quae iungam carmina nervis,
proveniunt; vacuae carmina mentis opus.
nec me Pyrrhiades Methymniadesve puellae, 
nec me Lesbiadum cetera turba iuvant.
vilis Anactorie, vilis mihi candida Cydro,
non oculis grata est Atthis ut ante meis
atque aliae centum, quas non sine crimine amavi.
improbe, multarum quod fuit, unus habes! 
Est in te facies, sunt apti lusibus anni,
o facies oculis insidiosa meis!
sume fidem et pharetram—fies manifestus Apollo;
accedant capiti cornua—Bacchus eris.
et Phoebus Daphnen, et Cnosida Bacchus amavit 
nec norat lyricos illa vel illa modos.
at mihi Pegasides blandissima carmina dictant;
iam canitur toto nomen in orbe meum;
nec plus Alcaeus, consors patriaeque lyraeque
laudis habet, quamvis grandius ille sonet. 
si mihi difficilis formam natura negavit,
ingenio formae damna repende meae.
sum brevis. at nomen, quod terras impleat omnes,
est mihi: mensuram nominis ipsa fero.
candida si non sum, placuit Cepheia Perseo 
Andromede patriae fusca colore suae.
et variis albae iunguntur saepe columbae
et niger a viridi turtur amatur ave.
si nisi quae facie poterit te digna videri,
nulla futura tua est, nulla futura tua est! 
At mea cum legerem, sat iam formosa videbar:
unam iurabas usque decere loqui.
cantabam, memini (meminerunt omnia amantes)
oscula cantanti tu mihi rapta dabas.
hoc quoque laudabas, omni tibi parte placebam 
sed tunc praecipue, cum fit Amoris opus.
tunc te plus solito lascivia nostra iuvabat
crebraque mobilitas aptaque verba ioco
et quod, ubi amborum fuerat confusa voluptas,
plurimus in lasso corpore languor erat. 
Nunc tibi Sicelides veniunt nova praeda puellae.
quid mihi cum Lesbo? Sicelis esse volo.
o vos erronem tellure remittite vestra,
Nisiades matres Nisiadesque nurus!
nec vos decipiant blandae mendacia linguae: 
quod vobis dicit, dixerat ante mihi.
tu quoque quae montes celebras, Erycina, Sicanos
(nam tua sum) vati consule, diva, tuae!
an gravis inceptum peragit fortuna tenorem
et manet in cursu semper acerba suo? 
sex mihi natales ierant, cum lecta parentis
ante diem lacrimas ossa bibere meas.
arsit inops frater meretricis captus amore
mixtaque cum turpi damna pudore tulit.
factus inops agili peragit freta caerula remo, 
quasque male amisit, nunc male quaerit opes.
me quoque, quod monui bene multa fideliter, odit;
hoc mihi libertas, hoc pia lingua dedit.
et tamquam desit, quae me sine fine fatiget,
accumulat curas filia parva meas.
Ultima tu nostris accedis causa querelis;
non agitur vento nostra carina suo.
ecce iacent collo sparsi sine lege capilli
nec premit articulos lucida gemma meos.
veste tegor vili, nullum est in crinibus aurum, 
non Arabum noster dona capillus habet.
cui colar infelix aut cui placuisse laborem?
ille mei cultus unicus auctor abes.
molle meum levibusque cor est violabile telis
et semper causa est, cur ego semper amem, 
sive ita nascenti legem dixere Sorores
nec data sunt vitae fila severa meae,
sive abeunt studia in mores artisque magistra
ingenium nobis molle Thalia facit.
quid mirum, si me primae lanuginis aetas 
abstulit atque anni quos vir amare potest?
hunc ne pro Cephalo raperes, Aurora, timebam!
(et faceres sed te prima rapina tenet!)
hunc si conspiciat, quae conspicit omnia, Phoebe,
iussus erit somnos continuare Phaon. 
hunc Venus in caelum curru vexisset eburneo,
sed videt et Marti posse placere suo.
o nec adhuc iuvenis, nec iam puer, utilis aetas,
o decus atque aevi gloria magna tui,
huc ades inque sinus, formose, relabere nostros: 
non ut ames oro, me sed amare sinas!
Scribimus et lacrimis oculi rorantur obortis;
adspice quam sit in hoc multa litura loco.
si tam certus eras hinc ire, modestius isses,
et modo dixisses "Lesbi puella, vale!" 
non tecum lacrimas, non oscula nostra tulisti;
denique non timui, quod dolitura fui.
nil de te mecum est, nisi tantum iniuria. nec tu,
admoneat quod te, pignus amantis habes.
non mandata dedi. neque enim mandata dedissem 
ulla, nisi ut nolles immemor esse mei.
per tibi qui numquam longe discedit Amorem
perque novem iuro, numina nostra, deas,
cum mihi nescio quis "fugiunt tua gaudia" dixit
nec me flere diu, nec potuisse loqui; 
et lacrimae deerant oculis et verba palato,
adstrictum gelido frigore pectus erat.
postquam se dolor invenit nec pectora plangi
nec puduit scissis exululare comis,
non aliter quam si nati pia mater adempti 
portet ad exstructos corpus inane rogos.
gaudet et e nostro crescit maerore Charaxus
frater et ante oculos itque reditque meos.
utque pudenda mei videatur causa doloris,
"quid dolet haec? certe filia vivit!" ait. 
non veniunt in idem pudor atque amor; omne videbat
vulgus; eram lacero pectus aperta sinu.
Tu mihi cura, Phaon; te somnia nostra reducunt—
somnia formoso candidiora die.
illic te invenio, quamvis regionibus absis; 
sed non longa satis gaudia somnus habet.
saepe tuos nostra cervice onerare lacertos,
saepe tuae videor supposuisse meos.
oscula cognosco, quae tu committere lingua
aptaque consueras accipere, apta dare. 
blandior interdum verisque simillima verba
eloquor et vigilant sensibus ora meis;—
ulteriora pudet narrare, sed omnia fiunt—
et iuvat—et siccae non licet esse mihi.
At cum se Titan ostendit et omnia secum,
tam cito me somnos destituisse queror;
antra nemusque peto, tamquam nemus antraque prosint:
conscia deliciis illa fuere meis.
illuc mentis inops, ut quam furialis Enyo
attigit, in collo crine iacente feror. 
antra vident oculi scabro pendentia tofo,
quae mihi Mygdonii marmoris instar erant:
invenio silvam, quae saepe cubilia nobis
praebuit et multa texit opaca coma.
at non invenio dominum silvaeque meumque. 
vile solum locus est—dos erat ille loci.
cognovi pressas noti mihi caespitis herbas;
de nostro curvum pondere gramen erat.
incubui tetigique locum qua parte fuisti;
grata prius lacrimas combibit herba meas.
quin etiam rami positis lugere videntur
frondibus et nullae dulce queruntur aves.
sola virum non ulta pie maestissima mater
concinit Ismarium Daulias ales Ityn.
ales Ityn, Sappho desertos cantat amores; 
hactenus, ut media cetera nocte, silent.
Est nitidus vitroque magis perlucidus omni
fons sacer; hunc multi numen habere putant.
quem supra ramos expandit aquatica lotos,
una nemus, tenero caespite terra viret. 
hic ego cum lassos posuissem flebilis artus,
constitit ante oculos Naias una meos;
constitit et dixit: "quoniam non ignibus aequis
ureris, Ambracia est terra petenda tibi.
Phoebus ab excelso, quantum patet, adspicit aequor: 
Actiacum populi Leucadiumque vocant.
hinc se Deucalion Pyrrhae succensus amore
misit, et illaeso corpore pressit aquas.
nec mora, versus amor fugit lentissima mersi
pectora; Deucalion igne levatus erat. 
hanc legem locus ille tenet. pete protinus altam
Leucada nec saxo desiluisse time!"
Ut monuit, cum voce abiit. ego frigida surgo
nec lacrimas oculi continuere mei.
ibimus, o nymphe, monstrataque saxa petemus; 
sit procul insano victus amore timor.
quidquid erit, melius quam nunc erit. aura, subito—
et mea non magnum corpora pondus habent.
tu quoque, mollis Amor, pinnas suppone cadenti,
ne sim Leucadiae mortua crimen aquae. 
inde chelyn Phoebo, communia munera, ponam,
et sub ea versus unus et alter erunt:
"grata lyram posui tibi, Phoebe, poetria Sappho:
convenit illa mihi, convenit illa tibi."
Cur tamen Actiacas miseram me mittis ad oras,
cum profugum possis ipse referre pedem?
tu mihi Leucadia potes esse salubrior unda;
et forma et meritis tu mihi Phoebus eris.
an potes, o scopulis undaque ferocior omni,
si moriar, titulum mortis habere meae? 
a quanto melius tecum mea pectora iungi,
quam saxis poterant praecipitanda dari!
haec sunt illa, Phaon, quae tu laudare solebas
visaque sunt totiens ingeniosa tibi.
nunc vellem facunda forem! dolor artibus obstat 
ingeniumque meis substitit omne malis.
non mihi respondent veteres in carmina vires;
plectra dolore tacent muta, dolore lyra est.
Lesbides aequoreae, nupturaque nuptaque proles,
Lesbides, Aeolia nomina dicta lyra, 
Lesbides, infamem quae me fecistis amatae,
desinite ad citharas turba venire meas!
abstulit omne Phaon, quod vobis ante placebat,
me miseram! dixi quam modo paene: "meus."
efficite ut redeat. vates quoque vestra redibit. 
ingenio vires ille dat, ille rapit.
Ecquid ago precibus pectusve agreste movetur,
an riget et Zephyri verba caduca ferunt?
qui mea verba ferunt, vellem tua vela referrent;
hoc te, si saperes, lente, decebat opus. 
sive redis, puppique tuae votiva parantur
munera, quid laceras pectora nostra mora?
solve ratem! Venus orta mari mare praestat amanti.
aura dabit cursum—tu modo solve ratem!
ipse gubernator residens in puppe Cupido; 
ipse dabit tenera vela legetque manu.
sive iuvat longe fugisse Pelasgida Sappho
(nec tamen invenies, cur ego digna fugi)
hoc saltem miserae crudelis epistula dicat,
ut mihi Leucadiae fata petantur aquae. 
--Ovid, Heroides XV
--Ovid, Heroides XV
As soon as you see this letter written by a passionate hand
will your eyes recognize my handwriting?
Or would you not even know who sent this to you
Unless you read the name Sappho?
Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m using a different meter
Since I’m used to using lyric meters;
But my heart needs to weep, and elegiac meter works best for sad stuff,
A lyre can’t sing away my tears.
I burn the way a fertile field blazes, its crops burning up
when the flames are fanned by the relentless east wind.
My Phaon spends his time in the fields of Aetna,
But heat holds me no less than Aetna’s flames.
My songs have abandoned me—no longer can I put notes and songs together;
My mind is empty of song.
The ladies of Pyrrha, the ladies of Methymnia,
The ladies of Lesbia no longer delight me.
I think Anactoria is gross;
pleasant Cydro is, too;
Atthis no longer pleases my eye the way she used to,
And the hundreds of others, which I loved not without criticism.
Wicked man, you now alone the love that I had shared with many women!
You still have your good looks,
You still have years left to live—
O face I can no longer stand to look at!
Take up your lyre, take up your quiver—you can be a new Apollo;
Add some horns to your head—you will be Bacchus.
Yet Apollo loved Daphne, and Bacchus loved the Cretan one,
And neither of their sweethearts knew how to sing.
But the Muses guide my sweet songs,
And my name is sung across the globe;
Even Alcaeus, who shares my homeland and my gift,
Has greater fame than I do, despite the fact that he sings loftier themes.
If nature has made me not-so-pretty,
My talent will compensate for my lack of beauty.
I’m short. But my name fills up the whole world,
And I am responsible for my own fame.
And even if I’m not super pale,
Andromeda’s dark skin made Perseus’ heart skip a beat.
All sorts of birds will often mate with one of another color;
A white dove will mate with a dove of another color,
A black turtledove will mate with a green one.
If you’ll only date someone with a face as pretty as your own,
You’ll live alone! You’ll live alone!
Yet when you read my songs, I seem pretty enough;
You used to swear that I alone was meant to sing.
I remember [for we lovers remember everything]
when I used to sing, you used to kiss me passionately
as I performed.
You praised this, too; I pleased every part of you,
But especially when we made love.
You were turned on by my flirting,
Each movement, each word, each joke,
And after we were joined in love,
We collapsed into each other’s arms.
But now Sicilian ladies take up all your attention.
Why am I from Lesbos? I wish I were Sicilian.
Send him back, send him out of your lands, Nisian nymphs!
Don’t let his lying tongue deceive you!
What he’s telling you—he told me before.
Erycina, you who spend your time wandering the Sicilian hills,
Listen to me, your bard—I am Sicilian, too!
Should this disaster in progress hold its course
And follow its natural conclusion?
I was only six years old when I drenched my parent’s ashes with my tears.
Next, a gold-digger took advantage of my forlorn brother;
He ruined his reputation with his affair.
He lost everything, and traveled the sky-blue seas on a ship
Seeking the fortune which he had bitterly lost.
I tried to warn him, but he shunned my advice,
This is how he treated my love for him.
On top of all this stress that hounds me relentlessly
Add now a little daughter to my list.
You are the straw that broke the camel’s back,
The ship of my life is not borne by its own winds.
Look—now my thinning hair is a mess,
I have no rings upon my fingers.
My clothes are disgraceful,
I have no golden hairpins in my hair,
My hair has no Arabian perfume.
Wretched woman, who cares if you look a mess?
The one person who would care has gone away.
The fickle flames of love always torch my heart,
There’s always a reason why I should still be in love.
Whether the Fates decreed so for me at birth,
Whether they gave me a harsh fate
Or whether my mind gave me these talents,
the Muses gave me the talent to perform.
Why is it odd, if my youth has fled,
the years when men are attracted to a woman?
I was worried that Aurora would have taken Phaon instead of Cephalus!
(She would have, if she weren’t still in love with her Tithonus!)
If the Moon, which sees all things, should catch sight of Phaon,
He would have been put to sleep like Endymion.
Venus would have snatched Phaon up into heaven with her ivory chariot,
But she noticed that her Mars would also find him attractive.
That perfect time, when you’re no longer a boy, but not yet an old man,
The perfect time to be alive,
Pretty Phaon, come here and rest your head in my lap!
You don’t have to love me, but just let me love you still.
As I write this, my eyes fill with tears;
Notice how tear-stained this letter is.
If your mind were set to leave,
You would have done better
If you had just told me goodbye.
You didn’t get any of my tears, or a farewell kiss,
I didn’t even anticipate
That I would be made to feel this pain.
You left me with nothing but hurt,
Nor do you respect our relationship.
I didn’t give you any demands, nor would I have given you any,
Except that you not forget me.
And now, I swear to the God of Love—one who is never far from you—
And I swear by the nine Muses—my patron goddesses—
When I was told that my joys had left me,
I couldn’t cry
I couldn’t speak.
I couldn’t find my tears
I couldn’t find any words
My heart was frozen in ice.
But later when grief found itself,
I’m not ashamed to say that I beat my breast in pain
I tore my hair
I shouted in pain
The way a pious mother does
As she carries her dead child
To her funeral pyre.
My brother Charaxus revels in my pain
And stands before me and taunts me
That my grief is shameful, and says,
“Why are you so sad? Your daughter still lives!”
But love and reputation do not come hand-in-hand
The public sees everything; here I stand with a broken heart.
I care about you, Phaon;
My nights are filled with dreams of you,
Dreams better than the best of days.
I seek you in my dreams, even though you are far away,
But my dreams do not satisfy my heart.
Often it feels like you hold me in your arms,
Or I hold you in mine.
I can feel your kisses, which you used to give me,
Which I used to give you.
I would flirt with you
And my mouth would anticipate your kisses.
I’m embarrassed to continue, but I enjoyed everything that we did together.
But when the sun rises
I wake up and curse that I’m alone.
I spend my time in caves and groves,
As if I can find peace there,
Reminiscing in the time we spent there.
I hurry there wildly, my hair a mess, Fury-like.
I see caves with hanging stalagtites—which resemble Phrygian marble.
I seek the forest where we used to snuggle under the shade.
But I never find the man I used to share them with.
This place now is gross: Phaon was the reason it was good.
I find our imprint in the grass where we once lay together
I lay down there, and touched the place where you were,
I drenched the grass with my tears.
Without you, the trees hang their branches low in grief,
The birds no longer sing.
Only the most wretched mother, who piously took vengeance upon her husband [Tereus], laments Itys.
This bird mourns Itys;
Sappho mourns her faithless lover.
Everything else in the night remains silent.
There is a sacred spring here, with glittering water, clear as glass;
Many think a god/dess lives here.
A persimmon tree stretches its branches to shade this place;
It creates a grove where the earth blossoms with delicate blooms.
This is where I, worn out from weeping, lay down my limbs;
A naiad stood beside me, and spoke to me:
“Since you burn with an unrequited flame,
You should head to Ambracia.
Phoebus looks over those rocks to the ocean below;
People call the area Leucadia or Actium.
This is where Deucalion, despairing for love of Pyrrha, threw himself over the cliff
Yet swam back to shore unharmed.
Immediately thereafter, his love was transformed—
He was cured of his love for Pyrrha; he lost his “flame” for her.
This is the magic of the place. Go there, quickly!
Don’t be afraid to leap from the Leucadian cliff!”
As soon as she finished speaking, she left me.
In shock, I got up and stopped weeping.
O Nymph, I will go there, I will head to the aforementioned cliff;
I am no longer afraid; my fear has been overpowered by my unhealthy love.
Whatever happens will be better than how I feel now.
Help me, soft wind, break my fall as I leap.
And you, sweet Love, use your wings to slow my descent,
Lest Leucadia be responsible for my death.
And in return I will dedicate my lyre to Phoebus;
With the following dedicatory inscription underneath it:
“The Grateful Poet Sappho dedicates this lyre to you, Phoebus;
It benefitted me, and it benefits you.”
But why, Phaon, do you send me on this wild goose-chase to the Leucadian cliff,
When you can stop me by returning?
*You* can keep me from jumping from the Leucadian cliff;
*you* can be my Savior, my Phoebus.
Or, if I die, *you* can be more deadly than the cliff and the sea,
*you* can be the cause of my death.
Or would you prefer that my body be torn apart by the rocks below
Than lying beside you in your arms?
This is the body that you used to praise.
This is the body & mind that so often seemed “meant for you”.
But now my inspiration has died. My anguish is hindering my talents
All of my bad thoughts have besieged my mind.
My old strengths no longer benefit me in my poetry;
My lyre strings have grown silent, blocked by grief.
Sea-borne Lesbian ladies,
Those about to marry
Those already married,
Ladies of Lesbia,
Often praised by my lyre,
Ladies of Lesbia, you who made me infamous by my love for you,
Stop approaching me for music!
Phaon has taken away everything that you used to enjoy—
Alas! I almost said “my Phaon.”
Ladies, bring him back to me!
And I, your bard, will return to you.
He is both my inspiration & my writer’s block.
Can my prayers move his low-born heart,
Or have the winds dropped my words to him?
Oh, winds that bring my words to him,
Fill his sails, too, to bring him home;
If you’re smart, you’ll do this, do this, please.
If you are in the process of returning him, and
If sacrifices are being prepared as we speak
In gratitude of a safe return,
Then why are you breaking my heart with your delay?
Set sail already! Venus, Ocean-born goddess, protects seafaring lovers.
The breeze will send you on your way—just set those sails!
Captain Cupid himself guides the rudder,
He will steer the course with his own hand.
But if you’d rather flee from Sappho
[not that you’d find a reason to abandon me]
At least tell me so in a letter
So I can seek my fate in Leucadian waters.
Name: Publius Ovidius Naso
Date: 43 BCE – 18 CE
Works: Ars Amatoria
Ovid was one of the most famous love poets of Rome’s Golden Age. His most famous work, the Metamorphoses, provides a history of the world through a series of interwoven myths. Most of his poetry is erotic in nature; for this reason, he fell into trouble during the conservative social reforms under the reign of the emperor Augustus. In 8 CE he was banished to Bithynia, where he spent the remainder of his life pining for his native homeland.
GOLDEN AGE ROME