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Women’s Travels in Latin Elegy

Alison Keith

The Latin elegiac poets, from Gallus to Ovid, represent themselves as cosmopolitan citizens of Rome and her empire, with wide-ranging experience of travel around the Mediterranean (e.g., Gallus apud Verg. Buc. 6 and 10, Tib. 1.3, Ov. Am. 3.2), though based by preference in Rome (e.g., Gallus fr. 145.2-5 Hollis, Prop. 1.8, Ov. Ars 1.55-56). There, at the imperial center, they transact love affairs with their mistresses (e.g., Prop. 1.7-9, Tib. 1.2, Ov. Am. 1.4) and produce amatory collections for circulation to friends both at home (e.g., Gallus fr. 145.6-9 Hollis; Prop. 1.4, 7, 9) and abroad, in Rome’s far-flung dominions (e.g., Prop. 3.22, Tib. 1.3). In this context, the potential mobility of their mistresses constitutes a threat to both the elegiac love affair (Lindheim, Parker) and the elegiac writing project (Wyke). Thus Propertius laments his mistress’ threatened departure for Illyria (1.8.1-26), possibly in the company of a Roman official (cf. 2.16), and celebrates her decision to remain in Rome with him (1.8.27-46), perhaps on the model of Gallus, whom Vergil represents in despair after his faithless mistress Lycoris abandons him for a rival lover whom she has followed to ends of the empire (Verg. Buc. 10). This paper explores the elegists’ depiction of women’s journeys within Roman territories and analyzes their travels in the context of erotic and imperial economies that give evidence of both female agency and military contingency.

Propertius, and perhaps Gallus, depict the elegiac mistress as an amatory agent whose choice between rival lovers entails a choice between a sedentary life at Rome and an active life of travel around Rome’s Mediterranean empire (Parker). Located in Rome when we first meet her, Cynthia travels to Baiae in 1.11, where she receives the attentions of rival suitors (Lindheim), and to the countryside in 2.19, where the poet hopes she will lack rivals altogether. Similarly, in 2.16 and 4.8, Propertius represents Cynthia as having the potential to leave Rome in the company of other men, whether to go to Illyria on the margins of empire or to Lanuvium at the heart of the Latin world. Cynthia’s potential travel around Italy and the Mediterranean figures her sexual availability as the textual circulation of the elegiac collection (Oliensis, Fear, Wray, Miller, Keith); but it also speaks to her elevated class position inasmuch as she commands the means, and the choice, to travel. Ovid’s Corinna too seems to enjoy the financial and legal freedom to travel, as she prepares to embark on a sea voyage in Am. 2.11. Although Tibullus does not depict his mistresses travelling outside of Rome, their sexual fidelity is similarly called into question by their mobility within the city itself, as they move from assignation to assignation.

Like the elegists’ mistresses, the mistresses’ female slaves seem to move freely around the city of Rome, often engaged in the logistics of amatory assignation (Ov. Am. 1.11-12). Occasionally, however, constraints on elegiac ancillae appear in the collections, as for example when Ovid threatens Corinna’s hairdresser Cypassis (Am. 2.8) or when Tibullus threatens Delia’s lena (Tib. 1.6). In a slave economy such threats, along with violent reprisals, must be expected. But elegy also hints at the darker picture of sexual trafficking when Ovid reassures his readers in Ars 1 that Rome provides an abundance of foreign women from whom to choose a mistress (Ars 1.171-6). There is evidence that female slaves were imported into Rome from the eastern empire (McGinn), and Roman inscriptional evidence attests to the sexual availability of slave-women and libertae in Italy with the Greek names ascribed by the Roman elegists to their mistresses (Solin). While the elegiac puella herself, therefore, may be read as symbolic of imperial Rome’s dominion over her empire (Bowditch 2003, 2006), she must also be interpreted as symbolic of Rome’s conquered territories, of sexual spoils of Roman imperialism imported into the city from the provinces like the luxuries she demands.

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Travel and Geography in Latin Elegy

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