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Cynthia’s Imperium sine fine: Propertius 2.3 and Roman Cultural Imperialism

Phebe Lowell Bowditch

University of Oregon

Beneath the elegiac topos of the Propertian amator in thrall to his mistress’s beauty and talents, Elegy 2.3 rhetorically enacts Rome’s rivalry with and appropriation of Greek culture within the imperial context of Roman geographic conquest. Analysis of the poem’s use of spatial and cartographic imagery reveals Cynthia as a variable symbol of Roman imperialist expansion, with both her appearance and her artistic skills suggestive of Roman culture imitating, assimilating, and ultimately aspiring to eclipse its Greek forerunners and origins.

Recent scholarship on 2.3 has focused on the inconsistency of the lover-poet’s attitudes as a tactical representation of the chaos of desire (Spelman 1999; Heyworth 2007) or as an index of the amator’s disintegrating subjectivity and loss of self in the context of Augustan imperial expansion (Lindheim 2011).  However, such mercurial instability also derives, in part, from the shifting sands of Roman identity that follow specifically on Rome’s complicated relationship with Greece, its aesthetic achievements, and the imperial appropriation—or Romanizing transformation—of its culture. As Whitmarsh remarks, “all Roman responses to Hellenism are ultimately imperialist” (742), but the particular complexity of Rome as a military conqueror striving to negotiate—and invert—its status as culturally colonized by Greece often creates tension or incoherence in the varied discourses that mark much of Roman literature.

In poem 2.3, we see such tension in the figure of Cynthia, as presented through the details of the amator’s contradictory vision. Denying at first that her beauty has him hooked, he focuses on her talents. Greek cultural forerunners appear when Cynthia competes—initially in the speaker’s mind, but then in her own estimation—at performing dance, at playing the lyre, and at composing verse: the figures of Ariadne, Sappho, the Heliconian Muse, and Corinna all, within this elegiac vignette, signify Greek culture as both model and rival (17-22). It is the speaker who first compares Cynthia to Ariadne leading a dancing troupe of reveling maenads (18), an image that, possibly alluding to Homer’s description of dancing on Achilles’ shield, suggestively pits elegy against Homeric epic and introduces the highest stakes possible in this Greco-Roman cultural rivalry. When the speaker next refers to his mistress trying her hand at Aeolian meters (Aeolio cum temptat carmina plectro, 19), taking on Sappho and Alcaeus and broadly the tradition of Greek lyric, the language becomes more evaluative—in skill she’s a match for Aganippe’s lyre (20). Here we see a nod to Callimachus, for the Boeotian spring Aganippe figures as inspiration in his Aetia. Finally, with a judgment that caps this short drama of Roman cultural one-upsmanship, Cynthia herself deems her poems (or those written in her name) superior to those of Corinna.  As symbolic of Roman love elegy, Cynthia not only rivals, but also imitates, appropriates and transforms Greek cultural material (as signified by allusions to epic, lyric, and Hellenistic elegy) into Roman verse, aspiring to colonize the culture of her Greek predecessors.

This theme of rivalry picks up on the speaker’s initial comparison of Cynthia’s complexion to a contest between “Maeotic snow” and “Spanish vermilion” (11), descriptors that map onto the mistress a geographic expanse stretching from the Sea of Azov in the East to the cinnabar mines of Hispania Baetica in the West. Spatial concepts reappear when the speaker, contradicting his earlier dismissal of her beauty as the ultimate allure, returns to the topic of Cynthia’s forma (32) and cites as precedent and implicit rival Helen, a puella who caused “a great war between Europe and Asia” (36). The cartographic implications of Cynthia’s beauty become more pronounced when we consider analogies drawn in the geographical writings of Strabo and Ptolemy, comparing maps to paintings and to the human form. By imagining elegiac Cynthia both in cartographic terms and as a painting that sets the Orient and the West on fire (41-44), Propertius 2.3 presents her distinctly Roman (29-30) cultural imperium as ultimately eclipsing epic Helen’s Greek domain.

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Augustan Rome

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