previous next


Demophoön, the son of Theseus king of Athens and Phaedra, as he was returning from the Trojan war, being attacked by a tempest, was obliged to put into Trace, at that time governed by Phyllis, the daughter of Lycurgus. He met with a very hospitable reception from her, and after some time was admitted to share her bed. But hearing of the death of Mnestheus, who, after the expulsion of Theseus, had taken possession of the government at Athens, and urged by a desire of rule, he resolved to sail for Athens, promising Phyllis that he would return in a month. But, when he had reached that city, he forgot his promise. Phyllis, therefore, after an absence of four months, wrote to him the above epistle, complaining of his breach of faith, and threatening herself with a violent death if he continued to neglect her. This story is relatively unfamiliar because there are no other extensive treatments in surviving classical literature; see the epitome of Apollodorus 6.16, and note also Virgil, Ecl. 5.10, with Servius's note.

Rhodopeïa Phyllis; Phyllis of Thrace, in which was a mountain named Rhodope. Some relate that Rhodope, a queen of Thrace, for her contempt of the immortal gods, was changed into this mountain, and that thence it had its name. Others say that she was only buried in it.

[3] Cornua cum Lunae. She here puts him in mind of the promised time of his return, when the horns of the moon, both increasing and decreasing, should have completed their round; i. e. after one month.

[6] Actaeas; that is, Atticas, Athenienses, nave, Demophoöntis; from the Greek word ἀκτν̀, the shore; because Attica is a region on the coast, much beaten by the waves.

Sithonis unda; the waves that beat the Thracian coast. We learn from Gellius, that Sithon was an ancient name of Thrace; whence the frequent use of Sithonis and Sithonius among the poets, in speaking of that kingdom. Thus Horace calls the snow of Thrace, “Sithouia nix.(Od. 3.26.10)

[9] Spes quoque lenta fuit. The sentiment, in this passage, is extremely natural. Ovid had a genius turned to affairs of love; and indeed it was in these points chiefly that he excelled. How unwilling are we to believe the contrary to what we wish! how ready to form a thousand excuses in behalf of those whom we are desirous of finding innocent!

[13] Thesea; Theseus the father of Demophoön, whom she suspected as the cause of his long absence.

[15] Hebri; a river which separates the Peantes and Dolonci, people of Thace, from each other. It also touches vpon the territories of the Ciconae.

[18] Thuricremis focis; apud alas ubi thura cremantur; before the altars on which incense was offered to the gods.

[25] Demophoön. Some think that this word expresses the indignation and resentment of Phyllis: but, if we consider it more nearly, we shall find, that it implies rather softness, and a strong inward tenderness. It begins a mournful expostulation with him for disappointing her, and giving so much trouble to one who regarded him with the greatest sincerity, and whose only crime was an unbounded love.

[30] Sed scelus hoc. The sentiments here expressed are to natural and tender, that the reader feels a sensible concern for Phyllis, and cannot forbear pitying her hard fate. This is the true art of writing, to interest the reader in the story; to set his passions at work, and make him in a manner feel what is described or represented. When writings produce this effect, it is a sign that they are the productions of a masterly hand.

[33] Hymenaeus; the son of Bacchus and Venus, and god of marriage. The meaning of the passage is this: 'Where is now your regard for that conjugal tie by which you engaged for an union of our years never to be broken? It was to this that I, too credulous, trusted, innocently believing that you knew not how to deceive.'

[40] Altera tela, &c. The repetition of tela seems superfiuous, and has a bad effect. Some copies have bella, arcus, faces. The arrow and torch were by the ancients looked upon as the darts of Cupid; for he was not only said to strike with the arrow, but also to kindle love with the torch, to inflame the heart. The same weapons are also sometimes ascribed to Venus.

[41] Junoncmque. Juno was the daughter of Saturn, and sister and wife of Jupiter. She presided over the marriage bed; whence she was sometimes called Pronuba. She was also called Lucina, as having the care of women in child-bed, and assisting at the birth; quod infantes in lucem proferat. Thus Terence, in his Andria, has these expressions: “Juno Lucina, fer opem; serva me, obsecro,3.1.15

[42] Et per taediferae mystica sacra Deae; Ceres, whose sacred rites were celebrated in the night with torches, in remembrance of her going in search of her daughter Proserpine ravished by Pluto in the night, with torches that had been lighted in mount Aetna.

[49] Credidimus. It is a great solace to us in trouble, to think that our misfortunes are not brought upon us by any fault of our own. Phyllis endeavours here to justify herself, and throw the whole blame upon Demophoön's perfidy. Her innocence and simplicity plead for her. She gave credit to his oaths and protestations, his fine speeches and well-dissembled tears. She herself was a stranger to deceit, and apprehended no such conduct in him.

[67] Aegidas; your father and brothers descended from Aegeus. Media statuaris in urbe. Urbs is derived from orbis, because formerly cities were built in the form of a circle; or from urbus, a part of the plough wherewith was marked the place for the walls. “Optavitque locum regno, et concludere sulco.

Isid. lib. 15. c. 2. “"Qui urbem novam condit, tauro et vacco aret; ubi araverit murum faciat, ubi portam vult esse aratrum sustollat, et porter, et portam voect. Ideo autem uibs aratro circundatur, dispari sexu juvencorum propter commistionem familiarum, et imaginem serentis, fructumque reddentis. Urbs autem aratro conditur, aratro vertitur." Unde Hor.

Imprimeretque muris hostile aratrum.

[69] Seyron. He lived in Megara; was infamous for his robberies; and greatly dreaded by travellers, whom he first robbed, and then threw headlong from the top of some rock. Theseus, in his way to Athens, attacked and slew him.

Procrustes; another famous robber in the time of Theseus, who lived in that part of Attica which was called Corydalus. It was his usual custom to measure such travellers as fell into his hands by his bed; and, if too long, he cut them shorter; but, if too short, he stretched them till they were of an equal length with it. He was at last slain by Theseus, as Diodorus relates.

[70] Sinis; a cruel robber in the isthmus of Corinth. He bent together the boughs of trees with great force, and, fastening travellers to them, untied them; upon which they, endeavouring to recover their former places with great violence, tore the unhappy wretches to pieces.

Mistaque forma; the Minotaur, a monster whose form was partly that of a man, and partly of a bull. It was kept in the Cretan labyrinth, and slain at last by Theseus. Others explain this of Taurus, the commander of Minos' fleet, who was vanquished in a sea-fight by Theseus.

[71] Thebae; a city of Boeotia, built by Cadmus. Theseus reduced it, and slew Creon the king, because he had denied the rites of sepulture to the Argives.

Bimembres; the Centaurs, sons of Ixion and Juno, or rather of a cloud put by Jupiter in her place. At the marriage of Pirithous, offering violence to Hippodamia the bride, and some other ladies, they were attacked by Theseus and the Lapithae, who partly slew, and partly put them to flight. They were called bimembres, because in the upper part of their body they resembled a man, in the lower a horse. The explication of these and the like fables may be had from the mythologists.

[72] Regia caeca Dei. Theseus broke into the realms of Pluto, that he might carry off Proserpine, whom his friend Pirithous desired for a wife. Pirithous was slain by Cerberus, and Theseus was detained in hell, till he was set at liberty by Hercules.

[77] Quod solum excusat. The meaning is: 'You admire that only in your father which he seeks to excuse: that is, which he acknowledges as wrong and blameable.'

[79] Illa; Ariadne, the daughter of Minos king of Crete. It was by a clue which Theseus received from her, that he was enabled to extricate himself so happily out of the labyrinth. He carried her with him as far as the isle of Naxos, and then perfidiously left her; see her Epistle (the tenth), and see also Catullus 64.50-266. Bacchus afterwards made her his wife: carried her in his chariot drawn by harnessed tigers; and presented her with a diadem with seven stars.

[90] Bistoniâ. Bistonis was the name of a lake in Thracen.

[93] Ausus es amplecti. She puts him in mind of his soft insinuating way at parting, and the hopes he had raised in her of seeing him again. The poet hed a fine imagination, and was singularly happy in depicting all the tender and affecting circumstances of a story. 'You hung upon my neck, and almost stifled me with your embraces: you even blamed the winds for being so favourable, and charged me to expect you back soon.'

[103] Altera coniux; a suspicion very common among women, when they find themselves in any degree slighted. Penelope, in the preceding letter (1.75 ff), suspects the same cause for her husband's absence. Ovid was a great master in the art of love, and writes as if the case of those who are supposed to dictate each letter had been his own.

[111] Lycurgi; the father of Phyllis, and king of Thrace. This is the prince of whom the poets fable so much about his contempt of Bacchus, and the punishment inflicted on him by that god.

[113] Haemum; a description of the extent of her kingdom. It takes in, she savs, mount Rhodope, and reaches as far as Haemus and the river Hebrus, called here sacred, because of Orpheus, who resided upon the borders of it.

[116] Zona. The bride's robe was fastened as well as decorated with a girdle, which the bridegroom untied in bed.

[117] Tisiphone; one of the Furies, which were three in number, Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera, the offspring of Acheron and Nox.

Pronuba; that is, one who supplied the place of Juno at the wedding.

Ululavit; non cecinit, sed feralem vocem Hymenaei loco protulit.

[118] Deria avis; the owl, whose plaintive cry was deemed a bad omen.

Solaque culminibus ferali carmine bubo Saepe queri, et longas in flotum ducere voces.

[120] Sepulerali."Sepulerales dicuntur faces quoe accenduntur in funere, aut manium sacris; unde et alas sepulcrales dicimtis. Suut faces nuptiarum aut Deorum superûm; funeralla vere mortuorum, aut Deorum manium."” Plut.

[131] Est sinus. Phyllis is at last reduced to despair, and delares her resolution of putting an end to her life, if he should continue to slight her. This passage is wrought up with all the beauty and delicacy imaginable. Phyllis revolves in her mind several kinds of death, and at last fixes upon throwing herself into the sea. Her love extended even beyond the close of life; she could collect into her thoughts circumstances that might excite Demophoön's compassion for her, even when dead, and soothe her troubled mind with such reflections: 'Some favourable wind may carry me to the Athenian shore. There, if perhaps my breathless body should meet your eyes, it will, even in spite of yourself, draw compassion from you.' What can be more tender or moving?

[144] In necis electu. When once the resolution is fixed, it is easy to determine the method of dying. According to some she hung herself; others say that she died of grief, and was changed into an almond-tree.

[147] Demophoön hospes. She seems to think the conduct of Demophoön more particularly base in this respect, that he had in so daring a manner violated the laws of hospitality, and by his treachery occasioned the death of his hostess and mistress. She imagines, therefore, that this will adhere to his memory as an eternal reproach, which no future behaviour will be able to efface.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide References (6 total)
  • Commentary references from this page (6):
    • Pseudo-Apollodorus, Epitome, e.6.16
    • Catullus, Poems, 64
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 4.462
    • Vergil, Eclogues, 5
    • Ovid, Epistulae, 1.53
    • Terence, Andria, 3.1
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: