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Vergil and Propertius: Literary Influence and Genre

Amy Leonard

The Augustan poets Vergil and Propertius shared much in their upbringing (trained for a life of law and politics), patronage (the literary circle of Maecenas), and historical-political influences on their works (civil wars, land confiscations, etc.). While Vergil, Mantua’s poet, began his career devoting himself to themes of idyllic landscapes and idealized farmsteads, Propertius, the self-styled Umbrian Callimachus (IV.1.64), found his muse in the allusive docta puella Cynthia and the urbane pursuits of a wayfaring miles amoris. Writing in the same literary milieu, the two poets sought inspiration from a rich panoply of Greek and Roman poetic predecessors. Vergil summoned the Golden Age of Hesiod in both the Eclogues and Georgics (Thomas, Nappa), yet turned his talents to epic, begging comparison with the incomparable Homer. Yet, Vergil’s subjective, emotional Aeneid draws upon numerous other Greek models, not the least of which is the Hellenistic lyric of Callimachus (Clausen, Briggs). Propertius wrote in the wake of the neoteric revolution in Roman poetry, styling his elegies after Catullus and Gallus, in pursuit of an impossible love-affair with a literary woman. Yet, the Augustan elegist misses few opportunities to remind the reader of his favorite Greek model, mentioning Callimachus (as well as Philetas) throughout his four books (2.1, 2.34, 3.1, 3.9, 4.1). This paper will consider the contrasting, yet overlapping Greek influences on the writings of Vergil and Propertius, who, expressing the themes of Augustan Rome, managed to stay true to (some might even say “excel at”) their chosen genres.

The first correspondence that I will explore belongs to Georgics II.161-4 and Propertius elegy I.11.1-11 in which each poet refers to the construction of the Portus Iulius by Agrippa in 37 B.C.  The reference to Agrippa’s harbor construction lies in the section of the Georgics known as the laudes Italiae wherein the poet extols the superlative abundance and relative peace of Italy. Omission of the harbor’s warlike purpose allows the passage to read more generically as praise for the Italians (i.e. Agrippa and, by extension, Octavian) who constructed it. Vergil portrays Italy as the land of Saturn as he sings his “Ascraean song” (G. 2.176) calling to mind Hesiod and the Golden Age myth. (Nappa) Propertius focuses his description of the harbor by calling to mind the Greek origins of the landscape around Baiae and Misenum, incorporating the labors of Hercules, an erudite reference to Epirote king Thesprotus, and the death of the Trojan Misenus. He further describes Cynthia, rowing herself around the Lacus Lucrinus, using key stylistic terms of Roman Callimacheanism: paruus and tenuis, adjectives closely associated with the supposedly lesser genre of elegy. (Wray) Agrippa’s epic military achievement is thoroughly adapted to the genre of love poetry, and Campania’s volcanic pools have been transformed from their mythological associations with the Greek underworld to the landscape upon with the public wars and private love-affairs of 1st century B.C.E. Rome took place.

As these exempla convey, the politics of the day are by no means absent from their earlier works, yet, each poet finished his career with poetry in unabashed (if qualified) praise of Rome, its legendary foundation, and the divine stature of its leader, Augustus Caesar. It is in the Aeneid and in Propertius’ fourth book of elegies that the two poets overlap most directly in their chosen subject matter: the fall of Troy and ultimate destiny of Aeneas (Aen. II passim, Prop. IV.1), the city of Rome (Aen. VIII, Prop. IV.1), the battle of Actium (Aen. III, VIII, Prop. IV.6), Hercules and the Ara Maxima (Aen. VIII, Prop. IV.9). I will deliver a series of comparanda between the two poets and analyze the literary influences on each passage, remarking on the distinctive approach used by each writer especially when it comes to the use of Callimachus’ Aetia as model, and strive to reveal how each approach suits the form for which it is written.

Session/Panel Title

Vergil, Elegy, and Epigram

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