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Elegy, Aetia, and the Conquest of the Feminine in Propertius Book 4

Serena Witzke

Propertius Book 4 is a paradoxical juxtaposition of female triumph and female ruin: the poet ventriloquizes women in half the poems (4.3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11), allowing them a rare chance to speak; Cynthia conquers the amator in 4.8; and the lena manipulates him (4.5).  But female triumph is undercut by images of brutalized or dead female bodies: Tarpeia is violently killed (4.4), now-deceased Acanthis is imagined in torment (4.5), Cleopatra is vanquished (4.6), dead Cynthia disintegrates while condemning her up-jumped rival for murdering her and torturing her slaves (4.7), two prostitutes are tossed out naked on the street (4.8), Hercules besieges and usurps an all-female shrine (4.9), and the elite Cornelia laments a life cut short with little to show for being a good matrona (4.11).  There are no fewer than five dead women in these eleven poems. Propertius intersperses (or camouflages) these meditations on female destruction with Callimachean aetia in celebration of imperialist Rome.  Fraught with contradictions, Book 4 presents a complex rumination on imperialism and elegy by blurring the distinctions between them where women are concerned.

The book appears to present itself as half elegy, half aetia (Richardson).  But only 2 and 10 are dedicated foundation poems.  Propertius’ musing on the origin of the Tarpeian rock (4) quickly dissolves into a depiction of elegiac doomed love; poem 6 describes the fall of Cleopatra and reverts to poetic revelry.  Furthermore, the poet glossed Cleopatra and Antony as elegiac lovers in 2.15/16 (Gibson, Griffin); and when Hercules assaults the shrine of the Bona Dea, he does so as an exclusus amator (Anderson).

Propertius’ apparently imperialist poetry is less about Roman power over enemies than about male power over women.  Elegy itself, the poet demonstrates in book 4, is not a celebration of women, love, and male passivity, but the conquest of the feminine through militia amoris (Gale, Murgatroyd [1975]), which takes over from the earlier trope of servitium amoris (Lyne); indeed, in 4.3, the forlorn Arethusa (a puella, not a wife; James 2012) complains of neglect because of Lycotas’ military service.  Propertius’ earlier elegies had isolated the amator and his beloved from reality: the amator laments alone (1.17, 1.18, 2.19 3.21), and few other characters appear to shatter the elegiac conceit.  Book 4, by contrast, is urban and picaresque: a lena, slaves, street whores, maids, and murderous female rivals dominate.  These ‘earthy’ characters highlight the amator’s relationship to the puella: for all her manipulation, she is dependent on him.  The lena triumphs over the amator by squeezing him for money, but in doing so she reminds the reader that the puella needs his money to survive.  Poem 4.7 highlights the puella’s dependence—after her death she complains that the amator has not adequately commemorated her; Cornelia, too, is dissatisfied with Paullus’ commemorations. Cynthia conquers the amator in 4.8, but at the expense of the street whores (also engaged in an mercantile relationship with the amator), and not without the specter of her death looming from 4.7. 

Propertius offers a glimpse into the dark side of elegy (which Ovid will fully exploit in his Amores).  Does he subscribe to the system of abuse and subjugation that he presents? He need not (and up to this point has not) put suffering female bodies on display.  Book 4 could have been written without tortured, mutilated, and dead women.  The poet chooses to highlight elegy’s Janus face.  Nevertheless, even while sympathizing with the female plight, the poet cannot divorce himself from his position of power through citizenship and masculinity (Keith); his work perpetuates the dominance of male over female. The program and recusatio of 4.1 take on new meaning upon re-reading.  Instead of dividing his time between imperialist poetry and elegy, he systematically demonstrates how elegy, far from rejecting state poetry, perpetuates one of its principles: the subjugation of the feminine and the conquest of the subaltern by the citizen male.

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The Feminine in Propertius Book 4: New Assessments

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