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Culture, Corruption, and the View from Rome: Propertius 3.21 and 3.22

Phebe Lowell Bowditch

Propertian elegy provides a window into, and ironic commentary on, Rome’s complex relation to Hellenic culture and the phenomenon of “philhellenism” as a consequence of Romanization. Propertius 3.21 and 3.22, poems that make up part of a closing sequence in the lover-poet’s affair with Cynthia, present two of the many faces of Rome’s relationship to Greece and the Hellenized Mediterranean at large—cultural dependency and absorption, commingled with military dominance and expansion. At first blush each poem unfolds in the context of the personal narrative of an elite Roman male, but writ large across their parallel if competing stories is the bigger drama of Rome’s imperial and cultural identity and the attempt to distinguish it through an Orientalizing discourse of self vs. other, metropolitan center vs. periphery, the realm of history and the real as against the marvelous and the fantastic, etc. This paper argues that Propertius’s two poems engage a late republican and Augustan discourse that contrasted two different versions of Hellenism. Several authors writing during the first century BCE—Cicero, Livy, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, for example—contribute to an Orientalizing distinction between a vision of pure Attic culture of classical Greece, and Athens, in particular, and an Asiatic culture of degenerate Graeculi, those who, themselves colonized by Greeks, experienced Hellenization as imported through conquest and colonization (Spawforth 2012). The Propertian speaker’s proposed journey to Athens in 3.21 and his elegiac missive to Tullus residing in Cyzicus, on the Black Sea, in 3.22, evoke this distinction between Attic and Asiatic Hellenisms. Although scholars have read elegy 3.21 as marking a (temporary) farewell to elegy (Clarke 2004) and elegy 3.22 as a poor or ironic imitation of Vergil (Williams 1968; Heyworth 2007, 2010), as a meditation on public and private ethics (Putnam 1977), as a comment on the homosocial relations of empire (Keith 2008), or as imperial court poetry (Stahl 1985; Cairns 2006), there has been no analysis of the two poems as a diptych expressing Rome’s ambivalent relation to Hellenic culture as an aspect of Roman imperial identity.

Although in the first poem the speaker’s desire to rid himself of obsession with Cynthia—herself a metaphor for Hellenistic elegy—ironically has recourse to foundational figures of Greek paideia, the second poem, 3.22, inverts that relation of dependency and emphasizes the dangerous, perverse, and unethical as fundamental to the idea of Greece.  Such a view—the practices of corrupt Greeks—evokes not only late republican discourses concerning the dangers of philhellenism, but also Greece’s own Orientalizing discourse about Asia and suggests a geography of Greek maritime expansion preceding that of Rome’s. By viewing Tullus’s sojourn in Asia and his hypothetical Mediterranean tour through the allusive lens of Apollonius’s Argonautica, Propertius superimposes Roman imperial expansion onto Greece’s own proto-colonial narrative legends of the past. In its legendary content, the Argonautica invokes the period of archaic Greek colonization (Thalmann 2011) and, as Propertius implies, Greece’s subsequent encounters with foreign populations and Athens’ own maritime empire. It was during the 5th century BCE, following the Persian Wars that the Athenian discourse of the “barbarian” was developed (Hall 1989), particularly in the genre of tragedy, reinforcing the ethnic concept of “Greekness.” When Propertius alludes to the plot of the Bacchae or to Euripides’ lost Andromeda he inevitably refers to Athens’ own Orientalizing discourse of otherness as a rhetorical means of identity formation. 

But for all that 3.22 engages a surface rhetoric of binary distinctions, the corruption it indicts and the miracula it seems to locate in a legendary past--and at a geographic distance--in fact occupy Rome’s center, drawing the Other within. Beneath the rhetoric of alterity and imperial self-definition, then, the two poems explore the synergistic phenomena of spatial conquest and acculturation. Experienced in sequence, 3.21 and 3.22 evoke this synergy as a form of “arterial circulation,” as Wallace-Hadrill (2008) describes the dual processes of Romanization and Hellenization.


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Vision and Perspective in Latin Literature

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