Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.20

Niklas Holzberg, Die römische Liebeselegie: Eine Einführung. Revised 2nd edition.   Darmstadt:  Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2001.  Pp. x + 158.  ISBN 3-534-15041-4.  

Reviewed by J. L. Butrica, The Memorial University of Newfoundland (
Word count: 2233 words

The first thing to be noted about this book is the absolute truth of the claim that this is a "completely revised" version of the first edition, published in 1990. There is a brighter, more appealing cover, with a Roman mosaic of a lady in her boudoir instead of a black-and-white Venus and Mars from Pompeii. Inside, the new and more generously spaced font, accounting for some of the 30 additional pages, is also more welcoming. The bibliography is of course fresher and better, and there is now a "Personen- und Sachregister," though a fuller one would be desirable. The tables of contents look superficially similar, but the original section 1.3 has disappeared (see below), Gallus now gets a chapter of his own, and the subsections in the discussions of both Propertius and Tibullus have been significantly altered -- only those in the section on the Amores survive unchanged, apart from punctuation. But the contents throughout have been revised, and revised so thoroughly in response to the scholarship of the 1990s that this is quite simply a wholly new and different book: hence possession of the first edition should be no barrier to acquiring the second, especially since it is not only preferable but highly preferable to the first in every respect. While some of the format remains the same -- general discussions of authors amplified through more detailed readings of specific illustrative examples; relevant literature reported in summary fashion at the ends of chapters rather than in footnotes -- the old-fashioned structural diagrams are gone, and so is the fundamentally biographical approach; Holzberg now sees love-elegy, quite rightly, as a kind of fictionalized romantic autobiography, with roots in contemporary society.

A brief introductory section on love-elegy as a genre (completely different from its homonymous equivalent in the first edition) leads into two chapters on its literary and social "Entstehungsvoraussetzungen." The first of these, despite a few sentences that resemble those in the first version, is again thoroughly revised and now has considerably more to say about the possible influences of Antimachus, Callimachus, and Hellenistic epigram (however, the inevitably fruitless attempt on pp. 12-15 to claim authorial intention in the arrangement of the Catullan corpus as we have it is a disappointing detour). Especially interesting here is the attention drawn to the four substantial fragments of Hellenistic erotic elegy now available on papyrus (these no doubt help to explain why the first edition's discussion of whether Catullus or Gallus is the "Begründer" of the new genre has disappeared), but even better would have been a discussion of the striking similarities between Propertius 3.19 and P.Oxy. 2885.1-10, which just might have been its chief Hellenistic model.

Already in this section Holzberg writes of an elegiac "Gegenwelt" or counterculture with its own rules (the first edition had spoken only of a value-system), though he wisely does not go so far as to claim opposition to Augustus on the part of Propertius or Tibullus. A fuller discussion of this concept follows in the section on the social background, which now occupies about 13 pages instead of the 5 in the first version. Initially, he rejects as methodologically faulty the use of historical sources like Cicero's Philippics to provide this background, arguing that the rhetorical nature of such works makes them no less fictitious than elegy itself; later, however, he takes the more reasonable position that they can be used, but only with the greatest caution. Of course everyone has known, since the exploding of the autobiographical fallacy, that we cannot hope to read "real" lives of "real" women through the dominae of elegy; this poetry is no more biography than it is autobiography. And Cicero's invective against Antony is of course just as rhetorical and conventional as his invective against the supposed sexual passivity of Clodius: yet behind the latter there was indeed a man in a dress. The best that one can hope to show is that, in conduct and accomplishment, the women of elegy are consistent with at least some of the historically documented figures of Roman history, and one can do that with some ease, provided that one casts the net more widely than Holzberg does. For example, though he mentions Clodia as an example of "womanufacture" on Cicero's part, there is no reference to Sallust's Sempronia or Augustus' daughter Julia, to whom Propertius' Cynthia and the addressees of Ars Amatoria III seem to bear a substantial resemblance in precisely those areas of conduct and accomplishment (not, of course, that one assumes that the compliments of an ardent lover must always be literally true). Holzberg sees the mistress, like the lover, largely as a literary construct ("hetärenhaft," without necessarily being wife or courtesan), but the blurring of the distinction between matrona and meretrix is prominent already in Sempronia. However, a thorough study of the social background should ideally cover all the evidence available for the changing behaviour of upper-class women in this period, from their presence in the law-courts to their incipient gladiatorial training to their growing financial independence -- to the full implications of the necessity (in Augustus' eyes) of passing both the Lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis and the Lex Papia Poppaea to prevent the disappearance of Rome's upper classes. Both Ovid's poetry and his exile remind us that elegy was indeed written against a background of widespread adultery and its attempted suppression, and I am less willing than Holzberg to think that, ca. 20 B.C., uncommitted sex was any more "countercultural" than it is now in North America.

It is refreshing to see love-elegy discussed within the context of ancient sexuality in general and the social construction of sexuality in particular (and even as perhaps sexually stimulating). But I disagree with what seems the rather extreme contention that the poetic "I" of elegy (with the possible exception of Ovid in the Amores) presents himself as a uir mollis out of ancient comedy, especially when this is based upon the contention that his acceptance of seruitium amoris represents a self-feminization that overturns the normal expectations of a male-female relationship. I do not see how either slavery or its acceptance is inherently feminine, nor how a woman having power over a man represents any reversal of normal gender relations when it was quite commonplace for women to have power over men, or at least over those that they really did own as slaves. One could argue more plausibly that the lover's slavery is a necessary precondition to the obsequium that he was expected to provide to his lady, or that it represents an involuntary loss of social status entailed in the general humiliation that inevitably results from his choice of an inappropriate love-object -- or even that it should be seen as a proud emblem of the very same condition.

In the new chapter devoted to Gallus, I am sympathetic to the emphasis laid on the possibility that the papyrus is a fake (it's almost too good to be true); unfortunately, Holzberg seems to have been unable to take into account the assertion of P. Radiciotti that the arguments against authenticity have been tried and found wanting (Scrittura e Civiltà 24 [2000] 361, n. 4). These suspicions perhaps explain what might seem the eccentric decision to print 10 lines from Eclogue 10 but not the Qasr Ibrim fragment itself; but it may well be in any case that Virgil tells us more about Gallus' love-elegies than the feeble verses on the papyrus.

The chapter on Propertius has more true things to say about this author than any of the more than half-dozen books in English since Hubbard's, most notably about the joint publication of the so-called Books 2-4 and the evident chaos of "Book 2"; I do not agree with every suggestion here, of course, but I sympathize strongly with Holzberg's approach to the latter problem, where he does the only honest thing and confesses frankly that he is only giving opinions -- which is all that any human being can do here.

The chapter on Tibullus also contains much that is commendable. Though the notion of a Tibullan "dreamworld" strikes a drearily familiar note, the discussion of the Delia1 puts unaccustomed -- yet entirely appropriate -- emphasis on the comic elements of 1.6; I would have preferred, however, a clearer exposition of why Tibullus is a figure of fun here -- he is a cuck holder who has been cuck holded, in the self-mocking way of Roman male sexual poetry -- and to see these elements appreciated in the context of 1.6 as a "sequel" to 1.2, which unfortunately goes undiscussed. The strongly urban and urbane elements of these two elegies contrast sharply with the standard view of Tibullus as an Arcadian fantasist, and more stress on them as prototypes for the comedy of Ovid's Amores and Ars Amatoria would be welcome (when Ovid came to defend himself in Tristia II, Tibullus 1.6 was the only legitimate parallel he could cite for his frank portrayal of adultery -- though not for teaching it). Similarly, in the section on Tibullus' Nemesis, I welcome the discussion of whether we have lost the end of this collection, though I disagree with the defense of its integrity: while Propertian scholars have long harped on the "impossibly" long Book 2, no one seems to be bothered that Tibullus 2 as we have it is at least implausibly short. The divine associations of the name given to Tibullus' new love-interest are well brought out, but it needs to be acknowledged as well that it is attested in the Anthology as the name of a hetaera -- though one wonders how good it could have been for business.

On the other hand, the section on "pseudo-Tibullus" strikes me as a total misfire. For one thing, only poems 3.1-6 and 3.8-12 really belong in a book with the title of this one; though Holzberg is not alone in this remarkably persistent error, 3.13-18 -- the undoubted compositions of Sulpicia -- are epigrams, not elegies, and comparison should be made with Catullus' epigrams, not with Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid. For another, despite the balance evident elsewhere, Holzberg here propounds a thoroughly unlikely scenario in which a pseudo-Tibullus tries to be taken for Tibullus -- by writing poetry that bears no resemblance to any of that author's authentic works. Of course Holzberg is influenced here to some extent by old arguments involving similarities with lines of Ovid, especially in the exile poetry, but the "proof" that Ovid is the imitated and not the imitator is frail indeed. With the identification of "Lygdamus" as Ser. Sulpicius Postumius, Sulpicia's brother, Corpus Tibullianum 3 can indeed be seen as, in essence, Messalla's "Hauspoetenbuch": while the Panegyric is undoubtedly the work of someone under Messalla's patronage presumably writing for hire, 3.1-6 are the work of his nephew, 3.8-12 are either a Matronalia present from nephew to niece or (more attractively) a collaboration of the two, with Sulpicia writing the pieces in her voice, and 3.13-18 are of course her epigrams. By the way, any account of the origins of the Corpus Tibullianum needs to take into account a number of additional phenomena, such as the presence of 3.18 after 3.6 as well as after 3.17, the evidence of mediaeval library catalogues, and the combination of ancient and mediaeval elements in the biographical notice.

In his discussion of Ovid's Amores, Holzberg's emphasis on the element of humour is entirely appropriate, though I would like to see a keener appreciation of just how extreme and even outrageous that humour is -- just as the ancient biographical tradition made Euripides the first "angry young man" of the theatre, writing to protest injustice, so Ovid is the first (semi-)serious artist to "push the envelope" of bad taste and sexual content in ways unknown to Tibullus or Propertius, not to mention the overt references to adultery. On the other hand, Holzberg is sometimes attracted here to clever but improbable interpretations, such as the notion that the lines noting the reduction in length from 5 books to 3 -- perfectly intelligible within the context of the ancient booktrade as the equivalent of a modern label advertising "second, revised edition" for the benefit of potential purchasers -- are some sort of ponderous joke in which Ovid claims to be outdoing Gallus and Propertius as a Callimachean poet by writing only 3 books instead of 4. One might wonder then why, instead of simply writing 3 books in the first place, he draws attention to his earlier failure to be "Callimachean," and indeed why he did not simply write a monobiblos, as Propertius certainly did in "Book 1" and as Tibullus pretty certainly did as well with his "Book 1" and "Book 2" -- and in any case, is Callimachus' big bad βιβλίον a book or a book-roll? Another example is the interpretation of Amores 1.6 advocated on p. 116: while Propertius (cf. 2.1.13f.) likes to write Iliads when he rips off Cynthia's clothes, Ovid only ends up sleeping. But the "long Iliads" that "we compose" (condimus) are bouts of lovemaking, not literal poems.

All in all, however, this revised version of Die römische Liebeselegie is thoroughly recommendable as an intelligent introduction to many aspects of ancient Latin love-elegy and contemporary scholarship on it. Its weakest part is also the least important, and I know of no comparably up-to-date treatment in any language.


1.   The headings "Book 1," "Book 2," etc. are unlikely to have any ancient authority, especially in view of the evident disunity of contents in "Book 3"; I prefer therefore to use the titles Delia and Nemesis on the grounds that, whether or not they are authentic (and the existence of Propertius' Cynthia surely makes them more likely than not), they at least do not create the false impression that Tibullus wrote a single work composed of two books of elegies.

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