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In this paper, I explore Vergil’s generic experimentation with elegy in the aetiological myth of Cycnus (A. 10.185-193).  A detailed philological analysis of the episode supports my argument that Vergil employs the motifs of both erotic and sepulchral elegy to enunciate the themes of amor and mors in the tale of Cycnus’ love and lament.

Existing scholarship has recognized the generic influence of erotic elegy on Vergil’s depiction of Cycnus.  Vergil presents the Ligurian hero as the lover of Phaethon, a decision that reflects the influence of Phanocles’ Ἔρωτες á¼¢ Καλοί, an elegiac collection devoted to amatory tales of beautiful youths (Wiseman, 1979; Harrison, 1991; Hollis, 1992; Keith, 1992).  In her discussion of swan imagery, Keith (1992) suggests that Vergil affiliates the Cycnus-swan with the elegiac lover-poet, overdetermines the elegiac quality of Cycnus’ song by combining the motifs of love and mourning, and evokes the elegiac Amor in the parenthetical address (crimen, amor, uestrum, A. 10.188).  I build upon the pre-existing scholarship by providing additional evidence for the influence of erotic elegy and further proposing that the sepulchral mode of elegy also informs the Vergilian Cycnus.  Through a comprehensive study, I aim to broaden our understanding of Vergil’s experimentation with elegy as a funerary, as well as amatory, mode.

Roman elegists frequently articulate the strong thematic connection between amor and mors, a binary pairing that reflects the ancient etymological derivation of the word “elegy” from e e legein, a Greek refrain of mourning and lamentation (Luck, 1969; Papanghelis, 1987; Hinds, 1998; James, 2003; Maltby, 2006; Ramsby, 2007; Dinter, 2011; Keith, 2011b; Maltby, 2011).  Furthermore, elegists like Propertius and Tibullus weave epitaphic language and funerary epigram into their overarchingly personal and erotic verse (Thomas, 1998; Dinter, 2005; Ramsby, 2007).  If the fusion of amor and mors is integral to the thematic and poetic programme of elegiac verse, the question arises as to whether or not Vergil acknowledges this double aspect of elegy in his generic experimentation.  As this paper will show, the Ligurian digression provides evidence for Vergil’s reaction to, and experimention with, the erotic and sepulchral aspects of contemporary elegiac verse in his depiction of a war fueled by amor and characterized by mors.

Vergil frames the introductory apostrophe to Cinyrus and Cupavo with self-conscious allusions to sepulchral and erotic poetics.  While the phrase non ego te transierim (A. 10.185-186) reinterprets the “passer-by” motif, a convention of Latin funerary inscriptions, the parenthetical reproach of Amor (A. 10.188) evokes the diction and thematic content of erotic elegy. In the central panel itself, Cycnus plays the role of maestus amator, in which the two voices of elegy – lover and mourner – coalesce. Verbal signposts for erotic elegy (amati, A. 10.189; amorem, A. 10.191; molli, A. 10.192) characterize Cycnus as an amator and affiliate him with ‘soft’ elegiac verse.  Cycnus is an allusive composite of Phanocles’ elegiac Orpheus (Phanocl. fr. 1.3-4 Powell) and the figure of Gallus from the Bucolics, and thus evokes Vergil’s elegiac predecessors and his own prior experimentation with elegy. The lexical pairing of words denoting grief and love (luctu … amati, A. 10.189; maestum … amorem, A. 10.191) connects the Cycnus myth to the genre of elegy as a funerary, as well as amatory, mode (Keith, 1992).  Imagery of shade (umbram, A. 10.190) and old age (A. 10.192) allusively associates Cycnus’ metamorphosis with mors.  The catasteristic departure of the Cycnus-swan (A. 10.193) evokes the consolatory motifs of astral translation or deification frequently found in epitaphic inscriptions, and is thus an appropriately closural image for the central panel.

Vergil’s depiction of Cycnus provides compelling evidence of his virtuosic experimentation with sepulchral and erotic elegy in the ‘Italian Iliad,’ and demonstrates the value of investigating the elegiac character of significant episodes within his martial maius opus.