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CJ-ONLINE  September 2009

CJ-ONLINE September 2009

Subject:

CJ Online 2009.09.05 KEITH, Propertius, Poet of Love and Leisure

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Propertius: Poet of Love and Leisure. By ALISON KEITH. London: Duckworth, 
2008. Pp. 214. Paper, $33.00. ISBN 978–0–7156–3453–0.

Order this text for $33.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


CJ Online 2009.09.05

Propertius: Poet of Love and Leisure is Alison Keith’s (K.) contribution 
to Duckworth’s series “Classical Literature and Society,” which 
proposes to discuss authors primarily in relation to genre, theme and 
social context. For Propertius, that entails chapters on his biography, his 
relation to literary tradition and Roman rhetoric, and the interaction of 
his poetry with issues of empire. The book’s intended audience is a 
little harder to peg. The series preface speaks of Greekless and Latinless 
readers, even readers with little knowledge of ancient civilization—but 
this book is pitched above the heads of those readers, who would need more 
context to understand Propertius’ place in early imperial Rome and would 
not benefit much from, for example, the extended comparison of 
Propertius’ Latin to Meleager’s Greek (p. 46), even if everything is 
glossed. [[1]] It is better pitched at Classics undergraduates or even 
graduate students first embarking on study of Propertius. For such 
students, K. offers a thorough, up-to-date and thoughtful introduction to 
Propertian elegy. There is no recent work to recommend in this vein. Of the 
trio from the 1970s, Steele Commager’s Prolegomenon to Propertius is 
narrowly focused and out-of-print; Margaret Hubbard’s Propertius and J.P. 
Sullivan’s Propertius remain valuable, but recent scholarship has 
rendered them a bit out-of-date. The 2006 Brill’s Companion is in no 
one’s price-range. K.’s book fills the gap.

The opening chapter offers a solid biography of Propertius. K. is a 
cautious biographer, and thereby teaches her reader to be so too. A 
sentence at the end of the chapter is worth noting: “the relations 
outlined here press the available evidence as far as it can reasonably be 
pursued” (p. 18). Each term—press, available, evidence, reasonably, 
pursue—is important when it comes to Propertian biography. Little 
information is available, and controversy lurks under every piece of 
evidence. On top of that, the danger of the biographical fallacy has 
largely frightened scholars off from biography in Propertius; because elegy 
places the first-person front-and-center, though, the willingness to pursue 
it matters. K. begins with the ostensibly biographical portions of 1.22 and 
4.1, connecting the poet to the civil war, Assisi and an elite aristocratic 
family. Next she maps Propertius’ interconnections with the Aelii Galli 
and with Maecenas’ poetic circle, and discusses his place in the 
“canon” of elegists and ancient criticism. Finally, K. tentatively 
links Propertius to physical remains in Assisi, namely the domus Musae. 
Throughout, K. shows the reader the evidence from which she builds her 
narrative, whether textual, inscriptional or archaeological, and is careful 
to hedge her claims, when they are tenuous, with “maybe” or 
”perhaps.” This is exactly what those beginning to think about the 
lives of ancient authors need to see.

Chapter 2 discusses Roman rhetorical education and its lasting influence on 
Propertius. Devoting an entire chapter to rhetoric, usually considered 
Ovid’s playground, is unexpected. But the role rhetoric plays throughout 
Latin poetry is generally understated, and the emphasis here is 
appreciated. (K.’s own interest in rhetoric’s connection with poetry no 
doubt played a part in the inclusion of this topic.) [[2]] The discussion 
is not without problems, though. Since Propertius says relatively little 
about his rhetorical education, K. has to swap in Ovid, whose rhetorical 
training is better attested. This unfortunately contributes to the 
scholarly assimilation of Propertius to Ovid, which occurs too frequently. 
Once K. has argued for the fundamental nature of rhetoric in ancient 
education, she proceeds with a catalogue of rhetorical tropes, all 
illustrated from the Propertian corpus: maxims, mythological and historical 
narration, refutation and confirmation, praise and blame, comparison, 
ethopoeia/prosopopoeia, thesis and, finally, suasoria and controuersia. A 
brief section on Propertius’ use of legal language and his use of 
rhetorical topoi follows. The illustrations are helpful and sometimes very 
clever; for example, reading 2.7 as a rhetorical exercise denouncing a law, 
or reading Horus’ interruption in 4.1 as a suasoria. But sometimes the 
evidence is pressed too far: a mere apostrophe, for example, is not 
necessarily a rhetorical flourish, and the chart which reveals that 
Propertius uses arbiter, arbitrium and reus (among other terms) once apiece 
is not a great argument for his employment of legal language. In the end, 
K. seems to be arguing that Propertius was immersed in the rhetorical 
culture—but no one, I think, would argue against her.

The longest chapter is entitled “Callimachus Romanus.” The potential of 
forty-plus pages of Propertius’ worn out and tired Callimacheanism is not 
an enticing prospect, but K. avoids the trap and broadens out to cover the 
several literary influences on Propertius. Catullus, Gallus, Horace, 
Tibullus, Callimachus, Philitas and an assortment of Hellenistic Greek 
poets and neoterics all figure here. Importantly, K. gives Philitas as much 
emphasis as Callimachus—rare to find, but altogether appropriate 
considering the equal weight Propertius gives the pair. K. gives credit 
where credit is due, which means that some of what others lazily call 
Callimacheanism is properly attributed to Catullus. K. shows how Propertius 
reclaims Horace’s public lyric for his own elegiac ends, and how, in 
response to the impact of Tibullus 1, he begins to flirt with 
pastoral-themed elegies. Overall, K.’s Propertius becomes more and more 
playful generically, engaging first with his elegiac predecessors Catullus 
and Gallus, then with his contemporaries Tibullus and Horace, and most 
extensively with Callimachus and Philitas.

Next comes a pair of chapters dealing with Cynthia. Chapter 4 begins with 
the question of identification. K. advocates a combination of philological, 
historical and literary-critical methods. First she offers a pellucid 
exhibition of the process by which Cynthia has come to be seen as a 
pseudonym for Hostia (p. 88), then Cynthia/Hostia’s connections with 
Tivoli and possible literary pedigree. Sliding into the territory of the 
literary critic, K. highlights the way Propertius begins to blur the line 
between Cynthia the woman and Cynthia the poetic product. As an exploration 
of this blurring, K. spends the remainder of the chapter mapping out 
Propertius’ problem with Cynthia’s infidelity, reading this as a 
progressive working-out of the “tension between his mistress’ erotic 
and literary circulation” (p. 108). The more popular the poetry, after 
all, the more popular the girl, and Cynthia has found her way into many 
men’s hands. The next chapter picks up this thread, discussing 
Propertius’ place (and Cynthia’s) in the “homosocial” world of 
Rome. Catullus 50 serves as the paradigm. Cynthia—both woman and 
book—is the token by which Propertius negotiates his status among the 
social elite and in terms of male-centered authority. In particular, K. 
outlines a contest in Book 1 between Propertius and his poetic predecessor 
Gallus that works out literary rivalry through the metaphor of erotic 
rivalry. Poems addressed to Tullus, Lynceus (here identified with the 
fellow-poet Varius) and Maecenas document Propertius’ rise in this social 
network and his increasing engagement with the public/political world, 
leading up to Book 4. It is unfortunate that K. closes this provocative 
diptych of chapters with the sentence “The elegist has finally come of 
age” (p. 137). This treats Propertius’ move from the pursuit of love 
and elegy to the socially-elevated homosocial public network as a 
teleological fulfillment of purpose. Although this sort of teleological or 
developmental reading of Propertius’ elegies is alluring (and common), I 
am not convinced that an engagement with public or political topics is in 
itself the mark of a “mature” poet—especially when that poet writes 
love elegy.

The specter of Augustus and Propertian politics proper is postponed until 
the final chapter; but even here K. forestalls tangled pro- or 
anti-Augustan arguments by offering her own tertium quid. The elegist’s 
otium, she argues, is a benefit bestowed by the workings of empire. She 
tracks the luxury products used by Propertius, whether physical products 
such as wine, paintings and gemstones, or literary products such as 
mythological learning and Greek literary tradition. Propertius, indulging 
in the leisure and wealth of empire, broadcasts this virtue, as it were, 
through his poetry to the furthest reaches of the empire. Poems perform 
imperial duties: 3.11 subjugates Egypt linguistically by appropriating the 
exotic into Roman poetic language; 3.22 recalls Tullus to renewed favor at 
Rome; 2.31 aestheticizes Roman conquest. Rather than seeing Propertius and 
his elegy as counter-cultural, K. emphasizes that “Propertian elegy is 
itself both the product of Roman imperialism and productive of it” (p. 
141).

The greatest virtue of this book, perhaps, is that no reader will escape 
without a great deal of exposure to Propertius himself. Nearly every page 
features some bit of quotation. Almost every poem of Propertius receives 
discussion. The endnotes and bibliography reveal the breadth and 
interconnectedness of modern Propertian scholarship. K. covers the biggest 
issues in Propertian studies, and opens up just enough new paths to 
encourage readers to branch out. In the end, K.’s book has the potential 
to seduce new readers to undertake serious study of a poet with a 
reputation for being erratic and difficult.

RANDALL CHILDREE
Union College

[[1]] The book clearly attempts some hand-holding; e.g. p. 74, where K. 
spends a paragraph summarizing Callimachus’ Aetia prologue. But cf. p. 
53, where she mentions without explanation “imperfect” verbs, 
“anaphora,” “vocalic glide -i-,” “fourth conjugation,” 
“syncopated perfects” and “epanalepsis.”

[[2]] Cf. K.’s “Slender Verse: Roman Elegy and Ancient Rhetorical 
Theory,” Mnemosyne 52 (1999) 41–62.



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