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Isis, Bacchus, and Apollo: Propertius on Religion and Power

Barbara Weinlich

The University of Montana

Religion, and in particular the cult of Apollo, loomed large in Octavian-Augustus' socio-political transformation of Rome. Yet, while this renewed focus on human interactions with the divine and specifically with Apollo, is reflected in various as well as variegated responses by a number of poets of the post-triumviral / proto-imperial era, current scholarship is concerned mainly with one aspect, namely, Octavian-Augustus' self-representation by means of associating himself with the realm of the divine, especially with the archer-god, and his contemporaries' perspective on that (e.g., Gurval 1995; Miller 2009). This rather narrow investigative approach is perhaps best illustrated by the imbalance in the scholarly literature on the elegies of Propertius that deal with deities. While the two poems on Apollo, i.e., Elegies 2.31 and 4.6 have received huge attention, very little ink has been spilled on Elegy 2.33A on Isis and Elegy 3.17 on Bacchus.

In response to this observation this proposed paper introduces a different approach to the topic of Roman religion in Augustan poetry in general and Propertius' elegiac oeuvre in particular. Based on the analysis of how the Propertian speaker represents Isis (2.33A), Bacchus (2.33B; 3.17), and Apollo (2.31; 4.6), I will argue that these five elegies contribute not only to a discourse on religion, but on controlling religion, a privilege coveted by the senate in previous times. By examining the nature of this discourse in Propertius and by showing how this discourse responds to the new significance of religion in the socio-political realm, this proposed paper will point out a dimension of Elegy 4.6, which has remained unnoticed thus far: the Propertian speaker's claim of control over religion. Far from paying lip-service to the celebration of Actian Apollo (Stahl 1985; Gurval 1995; Miller 2009), the Propertian speaker re-claims the god's divine assistance for poetic production.

Among the main arguments in support of this paper's thesis and approach will be the Propertian speaker's claim of superiority over Isis and her cult, which puts the goddess and her worship at his mercy; the aspect of soterism and the political tensions that the references to religious practices banished from Rome, i.e., the cult of Isis and the cult of Bacchus, reintroduced by Caesar, may evoke; and the Propertian speaker's explicit endorsement of Bacchus has his savior.

By exploring the interactions between the elegiac discourse and the Propertian speaker's critical engagement with the infringement of aspects of élite identity this paper hopes to show that Roman religion is appropriated not only by Octavian-Augustus but also by the so-called 'Augustan poets.' The Propertian speaker's representation of Isis, Bacchus, and Apollo aims not only at unmasking the princeps' power aspiration but also at wrangling with him over this former foundation of the nobility's social dominance. The latter culminates in Elegy 4.6. As the realistic details of the battle give way to symbolism, Augustus' one-man rulership has been established, and Apollo can now be claimed -- so to speak -- by someone else and for something else.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Religion and Augustan Poetry (organized by the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions)

Session/Paper Number


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