the horniness of heroides iv

I always forget how astonishingly horny Heroides IV is, but one of the things I really love is the particular brand of horny it is:

I’d found you attractive earlier, but it was then in particular
that a violent love took root deep inside me.
You were dressed in white and wore a garland of flowers;
a modest blush had tinged your bronzed cheeks;
the face that other women call hard and harsh
to my eye was not hard but strong.
I want nothing to do with girlishly glamorous youths:
a handsome man shouldn’t do much to enhance his looks.
That hardness of yours, your artless hairstyle and the
light coating of dust on your splendid face suit you.

Her. 4.69–78 (trans. Murgatroyd, Reeves and Parker)

One of the things about the whole Phaedra/Hippolytus thing is the play with gender dynamics. Hippolytus offends Venus by favoring Diana in a way that’s more appropriate for a young girl, so she basically creates a nightmare for him in the form of an (older) woman who lusts after him in the entitled sort of way that might be expected of a man. (I get huge Tereus vibes off her, with her acer amor, which is part of why this letter makes me so uncomfy.)

So you’ve got Phaedra lusting after him in his flower crown with his modest blush. But! Ovid is not content to just flip the gender roles of the characters because Phaedra also says that she doesn’t want a young man who looks like a girl (sint procul a nobis iuvenes ut femina compti!, Her. 4.75). She doesn’t differ from the other women, who find Hippolytus’ face hard and harsh (vultum rigidumque trucemque, her. 4.73), by thinking it soft, but rather strong (fortis, her. 4.76).

It’s not that Phaedra is playing the older man to Hippolytus’ girl. Phaedra is a woman who wants Hippolytus, a young man, like an older man might want a girl. It’s such a fine distinction but it’s so interesting and it’s so Ovid: horny in just such a way that you’re a little sick about it but also you can’t stop reading.