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CIL 4.1520: Tracing Love Elegy's Various Readerships in a Pompeian Graffito

Barbara Weinlich

For more than two decades, reading approaches to Roman Love Elegy have now presupposed an exclusive, well-educated audience that engages with the genre's indirect political discourse (e.g., Kennedy 1993, Fredrick 1997, Miller 2004). Yet a look at a Pompeian graffito such as CIL 4.1520 (candida me docuit nigras odisse puellas / odero, si potero, sed non inuitus amabo) raises our awareness of the limited and limiting nature of current scholarship's perspective on this genre. Styled as an epigram, CIL 4.1520 modifies and joins Propertius 1.1.5 with Amores 3.11.35 and thus demonstrates that the love elegies of both Propertius and Ovid found an audience not only among members of the well educated elites but also among those of the less well-educated classes, specifically at Pompeii, who passed by the wall on which these lines had been written. In addition, CIL 1520 provides a document for both public and private literacies. But does that mean that both Propertius and Ovid wrote polyvalent texts?

In answering this question, I will offer a detailed analysis of CIL 4.1520 in regard to how it engages with Propertius' elegy 1.1 and Ovid's Amores 3.11 (and implicitly also with Catullus C. 85) and how it re-contextualizes each author's poem and its meaning(s) as well as references not only in Roman literature but also Pompeian space and culture. In combining this contextual approach with Benefiel's concept of dialogue in space (Benefiel 2010) and Ecco's theory of unlimited semiosis (Ecco 1979), I hope to show how CIL 4.1520 creates an inter-text in the true sense. That is to say, a text that can be shared among and appropriated by various audiences in various ways.

Based on my analysis I will argue that despite each author's pretension to write for various audiences (e.g., educated puellae and unhappy amatores), one cannot say for sure that either Propertius or Ovid or both had the intention of writing polyvalent texts. However, it is safe to say that CIL 4.1520 and similar Pompeian graffiti indicate that ancient readers indeed perceived both authors' love elegies as polyvalent texts. These texts were enjoyed by a plurality of audiences, who attributed to them a plurality of meanings.

The epigram's witty reconfiguration, combination, and re-contextualization of Propertius' elegy 1.1.5 and Ovid's Amores 3.11.35 on the wall of an elite private residence at Pompeii offers modern scholarship a glimpse of the multi-faced spectrum of the roles that literary works appear to have played in the ancient society of this community and may have played in other literary literate Roman communities in the early Principate. This insight, in turn, raises awareness of scholarship's tendency to pursue and support exclusive readings and thus calls for a plurality of modern approaches to ancient texts -- not the least to Roman Love Elegy. 

Session/Panel Title

Polyvalence by Design: Anticipated Audience in Hellenistic and Augustan Poetry

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