You are here


Recent scholarship in Roman elegy has pointed to a crisis in elite male subjectivity brought about by the displacements of civil war and the emergence of the Augustan Principate (Miller, Janan, Greene). Yet Propertius’ elegy also explores female subjectivity in Cynthia’s speeches (1.3, 2.29b, 4.7). Cynthia’s longest speech (4.7) occurs in the experimental fourth book of elegies, where Propertius offers the aetia of Roman monuments and grants direct speech to a variety of historical Roman women (4.3, 4.4, 4.11), to the lena Acanthis (4.5), and to Cynthia returned from the dead (4.7). This paper proposes reading Cynthia’s speech in 4.7 as an embodied poetics critical of Roman and elegiac values.

Scholars have either found or discredited a female voice within Cynthia’s words and have suggested that Propertius grants autonomy to his speakers (Flaschenriem, Janan) or that Cynthia merely reproduces the poet-speaker’s dominant perspective (Gamel, James 2011). I argue that Elizabeth Grosz’s model of identity sheds light on how Cynthia’s distinct subjectivity is constructed. Grosz proposes that the body is constitutive of the speaking subject, and that the materiality of sexual difference plays a part in the construction of identity. Her sexed, embodied subjectivity thus offers a new means to interpret Cynthia’s speech and enriches studies of female voice in Latin poetry.

This critical model provides insights into several issues of interpretation. First, it explains why Cynthia’s speech resembles Propertian poetic structure and uses Propertian reproaches (perfide, 4.7.13, cf. 2.5.3, 2.9.28, 2.18b.19, Hutchinson). Her speech can be understood as a querela (Keith) and incorporates rhetorical devices such as the impersonation of the dead (4.7.3-4), rhetorical topoi (4.7.41-8), and legal language (4.7.95) (Warden, Dufallo). Cynthia rewrites the love affair and persuades Propertius’ audience to reread the elegies with a focus on sex, embodiment, and a critical attitude to what was omitted in books 1-3. Second, the blunt corporeality of Cynthia’s ghost has confused critics (4.7.13-20, 93-94). While Allison and Hutchinson defend the positive tone of Cynthia’s final words in Propertius (mox sola tenebo | mecum eris et mixtis ossibus ossa teram, 93-94), Warden and Papanghelis characterize the language as macabre, erotic, and obscene. I will suggest that Cynthia’slanguage is corporeal and direct: it exposes the sexual relationship that underlies elegiac persuasion poetry (James 2003). Cynthia’s other speeches (1.3.35-38, 2.29b.31-38) similarly feature sexual and bodily language prominently.

Third, Cynthia’s imagined tomb (4.7.81-86) illustrates how her subjectivity departs from Propertius’ Callimachean aesthetics. Propertius’ tomb recalls the famous prologue to Callimachus’ Aetia (frag 1.23-28 Pfeiffer) through its metapoetic aesthetic of the obscure tomb far from the path of common travelers (3.16.25-30). Cynthia, by contrast, desires a conspicuous monument along the popular via Tibertina, and she seeks to replace the Propertian speaker’s narrative with her own short poem inscribed on her tomb (carmen dignum et breve) (4.7.77-86). Cynthia envisions their love affair not as a means to bring poetic immortality to the Propertian speaker (as it had been in books 1-3) so much as an impermanent and fleshly affair.

Throughout, Cynthia’s language posits a body-centered subjectivity that critiques the dominant masculine and self-focused poetry of the elegiac speaker (Conte 1996, Wyke). This paper thus bridges two disparate strands of recent elegiac criticism: the complex construction of Roman identity formulated in Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, and the contested identification of the elegiac mistress as scripta puella, a textual rather than biological reality (Wyke).


  • Allison, J. W.1980b. “Propertius 4.7.94.” AJP 101.2: 332-338.
  • Conte, G. B. 1994. “Love without Elegy: the Remedia Amoris and the Logic of a Genre.” In Genres and Readers: Lucretius, Love Elegy, Pliny’s Encyclopedia. Trans. G.W. Most. Baltimore.
  • Dufallo, B. 2005. “The Roman Elegist’s Dead Lover or the Drama of the Desiring Subject.” Phoenix 59.1/2: 112-120.
  • Flaschenreim, B. 1998. “Speaking of Women: ‘Female Voice’ in Propertius.” Helios 25.1: 49-64.
  • Gamel, M.-K. 1998. “Reading as a man: performance and gender in Roman elegy.”Helios 25.1: 79-95
  • Greene, E. 1998. The Erotics of Domination: Male Desire and the Mistress in Latin Love Poetry. Baltimore.
  • Grosz, E. 1994. Volatile Bodies. Towards a Corporeal Discourse. Bloomington, IN.
  • Hutchinson, G. 2006. Propertius Elegies. Book IV. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge.
  • James, S. L. 2003. Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Latin Love Elegy. Berkeley.
  • James, S. L. 2011. “Ipsa Dixerat: Women’s Words in Roman Love Elegy.” Phoenix 65.
  • Janan, M. 2001. The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV. Berkeley.
  • Keith, A. 2008. Propertius, poet of Love and Leisure. London.
  • Miller, P. A. 2004. Subjecting Verses: Latin Erotic Elegy and the Emergence of the Real. Princeton.
  • Papanghelis, T. D. 2009. Propertius: A Hellenistic Poet on Love and Death. Cambridge.
  • Warden, J. 1980. Fallax Opus: Poet and Reader in the Elegies of Propertius. Toronto.
  • Wyke, M. 2002. The Roman Mistress. Oxford.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy