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Elegize it: Ovid’s Heroides, Augustan legislation and the ‘Law of the Mothers’

Simona Martorana

Durham University

“Whatever I tried to write, that was poetry” (Ov. Tr. 4.10.26). Besides stressing the choice of a literary life over a political and forensic career, Tristia 4.10 suggests that Ovid must have received some sort of legal training. Building on Ovid’s “autobiographical poem” (Fairweather 1987), recent scholarship has explored the presence of legal patterns within Ovid’s Metamorphoses and elegiac works (cf. Balsley 2010, 2011; Ziogas 2016, 2016a). Drawing on this ‘legal turn’ in Ovidian studies, this paper navigates how Phaedra and Medea (Heroides 4; 12) employ legal expressions to reshape Augustus’ family laws and sexual regulations, thereby challenging conventional gender roles and identities.

Staged as letters written by female characters of mythology to their partners, the Heroides must have been contemporary (Jacobson 1974) with Augustan legislation on marriages, adultery and childbirth (Leges Iuliae and Lex Papia Poppaea; cf. Treggiari 1991, 2005; McGinn 2008). By ‘legalizing’ their poetic language (or by ‘elegizing’ the legal discourse), the Ovidian Phaedra and Medea enhance the rhetorical content and the subversive potential of their epistles. While Phaedra does not denounce openly the incestuous nature of her love, she eagerly defends her reputation against the potential charge of committing adultery with her step-son (Her. 4.27-36). The heroine’s emphasis on adultery seemingly endorses Augustan legislation punishing extramarital unions and supporting legitimate parenthood. However, Phaedra’s letter eventually contravenes that legislation, as the prescription of adultery is not enough to make the heroine refrain from pursuing her passion. Phaedra’s later mention of Jupiter and Juno (133-134) as guarantors for her relationship with Hippolytus further enhances the overlap between incest and adultery, law and literature, gravity and irony: quintessentially unfaithful, Jupiter is both Juno’s brother and partner, and he supposedly embodies Augustus’ normative power within Ovid’s poetry.

Through legal language, Medea too challenges, reinterprets and subverts Roman laws. At Her. 12.134-136, she suggests that, after Jason’s repudium, which is marked by the legal expression Aesonia ... cede domo (Alekou 2018), her children will follow her, according to her status as a “foreigner” (in Roman legal terms, peregrina). However, within Jason’s speech, reported earlier in the epistle (73-74), Medea performed a gender role reversal, thereby constructing herself as ‘the man’ of the couple, i.e. a sort of Roman pater familias. On the one side, Medea claims the possession over her children as a barbarian, i.e. a peregrina; on the other side, she advocates the right of deciding over them by casting herself as a Roman pater familias, thereby almost justifying her subsequent infanticide through the use of Roman legal concepts.

By alluding to legal context, the two heroines overturn existing norms and reinterpret Roman laws from an elegiac, extra-legal and ironic female perspective. Through the adoption of marginalized voices that speak from the ‘distaff side’, Ovid masks his mockery of current Augustan policies regulating sexual behaviors, and questions the consistency, and validity, of the Roman legal system as a whole. The analysis of legal expressions within Ovid’s elegiac poetry ultimately contributes to reassessing the interaction between gender and law in Antiquity.

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Legalize It: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Law

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