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Public Poetics: Propertius, Augustus, and Contested Narratives in 2.1

Morgan King

Williams College

In this paper, I argue that Propertius’ programmatic opening to his second book does not merely position him as a newly public figure (Colaizzi, Greene), but draws a comparison with Augustus and examines the powers and limitations of both men in shaping the public narratives of their lives. The poem’s depiction of Augustus’ career—which includes the juxtaposition of such provocative images as “the overturned hearths of the ancient Etruscan race” (eversosque focos antiquae gentis Etruscae) and Mutina and Philippi as “burial grounds of our citizens” (civilia busta) with much more conventional triumphal imagery (30-34)—has long been controversial. Do the tragic civil war images constitute an overt critique of Augustus (Heslin, Gurval)? Or are they awkward but apolitical, necessitated by unavoidable historical facts (Camps, Roman)? I show that the poem as a whole, and this passage in particular, dramatizes the dynamic interplay between Augustus, Propertius, and the reading and viewing public of Rome. Even as the poem shows Augustus and Propertius shaping their public biographies, it also highlights the power of audiences to resist or alter the meaning of those narratives.

First, I analyze how Propertius’ depiction of Augustus’ career in his recusatio demonstrates the powers and limitations of Augustus and Propertius as shapers of public discourses. In describing Augustus’ triple triumph, Propertius adopts both the visual strategies of triumphs and Augustus’ own narrative: the series of discrete images—captured shores, the Nile in chains, the beaks of Actian ships--poetically mimic the display of triumphal placards and spoils, in addition to describing actual elements of Augustus’ triumph (Gurval). In describing Augustus’ triumph, Propertius is both author and audience; he creates a representation of a representation. By contextualizing this restaging of Augustus’ triumph within a longer career of civil wars, and thereby challenging Augustus’ representation of his victories as foreign and external, Propertius draws attention to both Augustus’ careful editorial skills and to his own power as audience-member to bring different meanings to Augustus’ narrative.

But this revelation of Augustus as careful crafter of unstable public narratives simultaneously implicates Propertius as an author. In the second half of this paper, I examine how Augustus’ (in)ability to control audience responses to his triumphal performance in the recusatio reflects a broader concern in the poem about Propertius’ inability to control his audience’s responses, especially as he takes on a more public role in his second book. From the poem’s opening interpolation—“you ask me…how my book arrives so softly in your mouth”—Propertius repeatedly scripts words for his audience and draws attention to the instability of this process. Even as he narrates readers’ reactions, the lines contain glaring ambiguities, forcing readers to take ownership of Propertius’ words and make value judgements on his poetry. Like Augustus, Propertius puts his own interpretation of his career into the mouths of the Roman public, setting the terms of the discourse. But the rest is up to the reader.

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Augustan Poetry

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