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The Audience for Elegy: Inferences from Pompeii

Peter Knox

This paper considers the readership of Roman elegy in light of the evidence from Pompeian graffiti. The intertextual resonances of elegy with more popular forms of entertainment have been explored in a number of instances, most notably in Propertius’ fourth book (e.g. Knox 2004), which suggests a path of transmission from popular culture to the more elevated literary form. It may also be possible to retrace that path in order to draw some inferences about the response of readers outside the literary elite to the neoteric poets and the elegists of the Augustan period. This may run counter to some more pessimistic assessments of the culture of the Roman plebs (e.g. Horsfall 2003). In this paper I will begin with a consideration of quotations of Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus in the graffiti of Pompeii to suggest that readers there were intensely interested in the genre (Gigante 1979; Varone 1994). With the exception of Virgil, quotations from the elegists are the most numerous among literary citations in the graffiti (Cooley and Cooley 2004: 220-21), but while scribblings from Virgil’s Aeneid might be attributed to the activities of schoolchildren, the quotations of the elegists demonstrate reading outside the canon. A consideration of the surviving metrical inscriptions that exhibit an affiliation with surviving literary texts follows. These metrical inscriptions are not quotations of extant authors, but demonstrate a knowledge of them. One example is an inscription from a house in Region VI, known as the “House of the Scientists” (VI 14, 43). On the wall of the atrium someone wrote on the plaster two lines of verse (CIL 4.1520 = CLE 354 = Courtney 96): candida me docuit nigras odisse puellas / odero si potero, sed non inuitus amabo. This a creative adaptation, not a product of rote memorization. It draws on Propertius and Ovid, combining a line from each to say something new and different. This kind of inscription demonstrates sufficient familiarity with the literary texts to make extemporaneous appropriation by the graffito-writer possible. Finally, I will examine three instances in which bits of verse inscribed on the walls of Pompeii might actually preserve fragments of lost literary texts, a possibility also suggested by the existence of a quatrain assigned to an otherwise unknown author, Tiburtinus (Ross 1969). The first example is a couplet (CIL 4.4091 = CLE 945 = Courtney 88) that is found with some variation in four other locations in Pompeii (CIL 4.3199, 4.5272, 4.6782, 4.9130). The context in which one of these inscriptions occurs strongly suggests that these are the opening lines of an otherwise unknown book of elegies. The second example consists of three painted couplets (CIL 4.6635 = CLE 2048 = Courtney 56) that accompany a fresco of Micon and Pero in the House of Lucretius Fronto (V 4a, 11). The text is badly damaged, and most commentators have assumed it to be an epigram composed to accompany the painting. But a case can be made that it is actually a quotation from an Augustan aetiological elegy. The last example is a paraclausithyron (CIL 4.5296 = CLE 950 = Courtney 92) that was actually written on the doorpost of the House of the Doctor (IX 9 f). The speaker is a woman, and it is likely that the author was too (Goold 1998), in which case this might be a third example of a quotation from a lost work of literature, adapted to its context by a reader at Pompeii. These examples will show that not only was elegy was a genre that was influenced by popular culture, it in turn influenced popular culture and was broadly familiar among readers at Pompeii.

Session/Panel Title

Polyvalence by Design: Anticipated Audience in Hellenistic and Augustan Poetry

Session/Paper Number

7.2

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