This epistle is supposed to be addressed by Penelope to her husband Ulysses, upon occasion of his long absence from her after the reduction of Troy. This war had been first kindled by the perfidy of Paris, who, being sent into Greece by his father Priam upon some embassy, carried off Helen, the wife of Menelaus king of Sparta. The Greeks, having in vain applied for redress, determined to right themselves by force of arms. Ulysses, unwilling to embark in this expedition, counterfeited madness; but, being discovered by the artifice of Palamedes, he went with the rest of the Greeks to Troy, where his valor and prudence eminently contributed to the overthrow of that city. The Grecian fleet, in its return, was overtaken by a storm, which widely dispersed the ships. Many of them were driven upon unknown coasts; and the fugitives were involved in severe distress. Among others, Ulysses wandered through different regions and climes for above ten years, exposed to numberless hazards, and unable in all that time to regain his own country. Penelope, whom he had married before his departure for Troy, ignorant of the cause of his absence, but very solicitous for his return, writes this epistle, in which she chides him for his long stay, and, by the most persuasive arguments, urges him to come home to his wife and family, as Troy was now overthrown, and he could frame no reasonable excuse for his absence. The story of his absence and return is told in the Odyssey.

Penelope; daughter of Icarius, who, during the long absence of her husband, preserved an inviolable chastity, and resisted the earnest importunities of a multitude of lovers, who were constantly soliciting her to a compliance. At last her husband returning, delivered her from this tedious persecution.

Ulysse. Ulysses was the son of Laertes and Anticlea, and king of Ithaca and Dulichium. He was famous for his valor and prudence, his extraordinary sagacity and cunning; and is proposed by Homer as a model for all princes and rulers.

[3] Troia; a celebrated city of Asia Minor, so called from Tros, one of its kings. It was formerly called Teucria from Teucer, and Dardania from Dardanus. The Greeks, after a siege of ten years, utterly destroyed it.

Danaïs. The Greeks were called Danai from Danaus king of the Argives in Peloponnesus.

[4] Priamus; the son of Laomedon, and king of Troy at the time of the Grecian expedition.

Tanti totaque Troia fuit. Commentators differ as to the meaning of this passage. The most general opinion will have it thus: Tota iactura, quam Priamus caeterique Troiani acceperunt, non fait tanti, quanti mea, quod te marito ob bellum Trojanum carui. The reader will see, however, that I have given a different turn to it in the translation.

[5] Lacedaemona; Lacedaemon, the most remarkable city of Peloponnesus, called also Sparta, where Menelaus reigned. It derived its name from Lacedaemon, the son of Jupiter and Taygete. Taygete, in turn, was daughter of Atlas and Pleione.

[6] Adulter; Paris, the son of Priam, who carried off Helen the wife of Menelaus; which gave rise to the Trojan war. Her resentment would not suffer her to call him by his proper name, but suggested one, which, while it sufficiently distinguished him, reproached him at the same time with his crime.

[9] fallere noctem: In the Epistle of Hero to Leander there is a similar expression, “decptae pars noctis,Her. 19.55, a portion of the beguiled night

[10] Lassaret viduas peudula tela manus. It is related of Penelope, that, being greatly importuned by her lovers, some of whom threatened to carry her away by force, she begged a respite till she had finished the web she had in hand; and that, to lengthen out the time, she undid in the night what she had woven in the day. Hence arose the proverb, “Penelopes telam texere”, to do and undo. See Odyssey 19.124-163.

The term pendula is used because the warp (stamen, from stare) stood erect in the loom, and did not lie horizontally, like those of the present day. Though weaving was a trade among the Greeks and Romans, every house of distinction, especially in the country, contained a loom, with the requisite apparatus for working wool. This occupation was supposed to be especially pleasing to Minerva, who was regarded in this character as the guardian of female industry and decorum. The work was mostly carried on by the female slaves, under the supervision of the mistress of the house, who, with her daughters, occasionally took a part in the more tasteful portion of their labors. The Greeks and Romans supplied themselves from their own looms with the ordinary articles of clothing; but the finer textile works of scarfs, shawls, carpets, and tapestry were mostly supplied them from the East. In the earlier ages of Greece and Rome, it was the duty of the matron, assisted by her daughters, to weave clothing for her husband and sons. Thus Lucretia is depicted by Ovid, in the Second Book of the Fasti, as weaving a cloak for her husband (2.741-742); see also Livy 1.57-59. In the Ion of Euripides, Creusa proves herself to be the mother of Ion by describing the pattern of a shawl which she had made, and in which she had wrapped her infant son (l. 1417). In the Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides, Iphigenia recognizeds Orestes (812 ff), and in the Choephori of Aeschylus, Electra also recognizes him (l. 231), by the figured clothing which he wears, and which they had respectively long before woven for him. Shawls and fine garments were frequently woven as offerings to the temples of the divinities.

[14] Hectoreo Hector, the son of Priam, was the most valiant of all the Trojans. It was by his bravery chiefly that Troy held out so long against the Greeks.

[15] Antilochum. He was the son of Nester, and not slain by Hector, as is here said, but by Memnon. We may easily conceive that a woman, ignorant of the minute circumstances of war, and taking things by report, might mistake one person for another.

[17] Menoetiadem; Patrochis, the son of Menoetius, greatly beloved by Achilles. This hero, offended at Agamemnon, who had unjustly taken his captive Briseis from him, retired from the Grecian camp. Patroclus, appealing in his friend's armour to terrify the Trojans, was slain by Hector. Hence he is said to have fallen sub falsis armis.

[19] Tlepolemus, the son of Hercules and Astyoche, slain by Sarpedon king of Lycia, a country between Caria and Pamphylia.

[25] Argolici; the Grecian chiefs, so called from Argolis, a region of Peloponnesus.

[26] Barbara praeda; that is, the spoils taken from the Trojans; for the Greeks looked upon all other nations as barbarous.

[28] Traïa fata. As every thing that happensis by the order and decree of Fate, the poets have sometimes taken the liberty of using the word fata for the things done by Fate, as in the passage now before us. By Fate the ancients understood a succession of events which must unavoidably take place, and which gave rise alway the one to the other. Thus the whole train of events that preceded and occasioned the destruction of Troy were said to be the Trojan Fates.

There were several circumstances upon which the fate of Troy was said to depend. First, the life of Troilus, the son of Priam, who was slain by Achilles. Secondly, the preservation of the Palladium, or image of Pallas Athena, which was kept in the city; thi swas carried off by Ulysses and Diomedes, who entered the city by night, and slew the guards of the place where it was deposited. Thirdly, the horses of Rhesus; if they shoud not be captured before they "had tasted of the pastures of Troy, and the waters of Xanthus," as Virgil says (Aen. 1.469-473); they were also carried off by Ulysses and Diomedes. And lastly, the sepulchre of Laomedon, in the Scaean gate, which was to remain untouched; this was partly destroyed, when that gate was taken down by the Trojans, for the purpose of admitting the wooden horse.

[32] Pergama, properly the towers and citadel of Troy; here taken for the whole city.

exiguo mero: Compare the love-notes written on the table in wine, in Helen's letter to Paris, 17.88, and in the Amores, 1.4.19-20

[33] Simöis, a river of Troas that ran into the Seamander, and filled all the neighbouring ground with marshes.

Sigeia telius. The Trojan fields are so called from Signum, a promontory of Troas, where Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus, &c. had their sepulchres.

[35] aeacides; Achilles, the son of Peleus, and grandson of aeacus.

[36] Liter Hector. This refers to Achilles' behaviour to Hector after he had slain him. He fastened the body to his chariot, and dragged it thrice bound the walls of Troy. See Iliad 24.14-21

[38] Nestor; king of Pylos, and son of Neleus.

He was particularly remarkable for his great age, being almost three hundred years old at the siege of Troy. By his long acquaintance with life and mankind, he arrived at the most consummate wisdom and experience.

[39] Rhesus; the son of Eioneus, and king of the Thracians. Coming to the assistance of Priam in the night, he was obliged to pitch his camp withour the city. Ulysses, hearing of it, went with Diomedes, and, surprising the guards (who, after the fatigue of their march, had fallen asleep), slew Rhesus, and carried off the horses white as snow, and compared to the wind for fleetness, before they tasted the Trojan pastures, or drank of the Xanthus. See Iliad 10 and the play Rhesus attributed to Euripides.

Dolonaque. Dolon was a Trojan by birth, the son Eumedes. He was sent by Hector as a spy into the Grecian camp; and the horses of Achilles were promised to him, as a reward for eventual success. When he was discovered by Diomedes and Ulysses, they offered to spare his life, if he would reveal the counsels and schemes of the Trojans. He consented; and the heroes treacherously slew him. Some commentators note that it seems implausible that Penelope would remind her husband of an incident like this.

[46] Ismariis equis; Thracian horses, from Ismarus, a mountain of Thrace.

[53] seges: Lucan, in the ninth book of his Pharsalia, introduces Cato as visiting the site of Troy: "and he seels the famous vestiges of the Phoebean walls — the memorable name of burned Troy — now become barren woods, and the rotten trunks of trees. — The whole of Troy is covered with shrubs; even its ruins are gone."

[54] Phrygio sanguine; Phrygian or Trojan blood; for Troy was a city of Phrygia Minor, or Troas.

[63] Pylon. Telemachus, without his mother's knowlege, went to Pylos, to make inquiries respecting his father. There were three cities of this name in Peloponnesus. It is uncertain which of them belonged to Nestor; most are of opinion that his capital was situated between the others, to the south of the river Alpheus. The form Pylon is a Greek accusative.

Neleïa arva; the same as Pylos; because there Neleus the father of Nestor reigned.

[65] Sparten; Sparta or Lacedaemon, where Menelaus reigned.

[67] Moema Phoebi; Troy. It is related that Apollo and Neptune assisted in building the walls of Troy, on the promise of a reward from Laomedon; but that, after the work was finished, he refused to adhere to his word.

[75] vestra libido: She says vestra instead of tua because she is thinking of husbands in general. Judging from what they do, she thinks Ulysses may be doing the same.

[76] Peregrino amore. Penelope here only intimates the suspicions that were sometimes apt to rise in her mind As she was ignorant of what had happened to Ulysses since his departure from Troy, we can in no wise suppose that she alludes here to Calypso and Circe, as some have injudiciously imagined. A later tradition says that Ulysses and Circe had a son, Telegonus, and that Ulysses and Calypso had a son, Auso, from whom Italy received the name Ausonia.

[81] Icarius. Penelope was the daughter of Icarius and Polycaste. Her father, concluding from Ulysses' long absence that the would never return, importuned her incessantly to give over all thoughts of him, and marry Eurymachus, whom he favored beyond every other suitor.

[87] Dulichii; Dulichium, an island to the west of Peloponnesus. It belonged to Ulysses and made a part of his kingdom.

Samii. Samas was a name common to diverislands; but it is here meant of one adjacent to Ithaca, called more frequently Cephalenia. In it there was a city named Same.

Zacynthos; an islaud south of Cephalenia.

[91] Quid tibi Pisandrum. Here she names a few of her lovers, to excite his indignation, and hasten his return to deliver her from their persecution. Pisander was the son of Polyctor; Medon was a herald. It is hard to say why he is called dirum, since Ulysses spared him for his comparative inoffensiveness; he had treated Ulysses well when Ulysses was a child (Od. 22.357).

[92] Eurymachi, Antinoi: The most important of the suitors.

[95] Irus; an indigent wretch of Ithaca, of a prodigious size but no strength, whom Ulysses slew in fight. (Od. 18.1-107

Melanthius. This man had the care of Ulysses' sheep, and was killed with the other suitors.

[98] Laërtes; the commonly reputed father of Ulysses, though some pretend that he was the son of Sisyphus. For, which his mother Anticlea was on the way to Laërtes, she was ravished by Sisyphus; of which rape Ulysses was born. Ajax reproaches him with this in the 13th book of the Metamorphoses, 26-31. See also Sophocles' Ajax 190 and Philoctetes 417. This version is not in Homer.

[99] per insidias: The suitors tried to intercept Telemachus on his way to the court of Nestor, but by the interposition of Minerva he was saved.

[100] Invitis omnibus. Telemachus, at the instigation of Pallas, who assumed the character of Mentor, went privately to Sparta and Pylos in quest of his father, informing none but his nurse of his intention.

[103] Custosque boum; Philetius, the neat-herd.

Longaevaque nutrix; Euryclea, the daughter of Pisenor.

Cura fidelis; the faithful Eumaeus.

[105] Sed neque Laërtes. She still continues to use the most persuasive arguments for his return. She lays before him the many inconveniences arising from his absence, all of which he could casily redress. Laërtes was old, and unfit for arms; Telemachus young, and standing in need of the attention and instructions of a father. Her lovers were numerous, and threatened to use force: it was only from him therefore that relief could be expected.

[115] Certe ego. Here she endeavours to move his compassion from a regard to herself. He had married her when young, and soon after marriage, left her. She had languished out the flower of her life in his absence; now age was growing upon her, her bloom and beauty began to fade; so that she must appear, at the time of his return, very different from what she was. 'Hasten then, my dear Ulysses, before all the remains of what formerly recommended me to you are lost.'

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hide References (16 total)
  • Commentary references from this page (16):
    • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers, 231
    • Euripides, Ion, 1417
    • Euripides, Iphigeneia in Taurus, 812
    • Homer, Iliad, 10.274
    • Homer, Iliad, 24.14
    • Homer, Odyssey, 18.1
    • Homer, Odyssey, 19.124
    • Homer, Odyssey, 22.357
    • Sophocles, Ajax, 190
    • Sophocles, Philoctetes, 417
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses, 13.26
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 1.469
    • Ovid, Epistulae, 17.51
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 57
    • Ovid, Amores, 1.4
    • Ovid, Fasti, 2
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