Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.18

Francis Cairns, Papers on Roman Elegy: 1969-2003. Eikasmos. Studi; 16.   Bologna:  Pàtron, 2007.  Pp. viii, 483.  ISBN 9788855529662.  €35.00.  

Reviewed by Donncha O'Rourke, Trinity College Dublin (
Word count: 2875 words

This Eikasmos volume assembles over thirty separate studies on Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid written by Francis Cairns over a thirty-five year period and published in seven different countries in the form of book chapters, conference papers, contributions to Festschrifts, and articles in academic journals. Many of these are derived from mainstream publications, but the volume also provides a valuable service in making accessible several papers of more obscure provenance. A table of its contents will give a preliminary impression of the interests of the collection and specify the elegies principally discussed:

1: Some Observations on Propertius 1.1
2: AP 9,588 (Alcaeus of Messene) and nam modo in Propertius 1,1,11
3: The Milanion/Atalanta exemplum in Propertius 1,1: uidere feras (12) and Greek Models
4: Two Unidentified Komoi of Propertius. I 3 and II 29
5: Propertius 1,4 and 1,5 and the 'Gallus' of the Monobiblos
6: Some Problems in Propertius 1.6
7: Rhetoric and Genre: Propertius 1.6.31-6, Menander Rhetor 398.29-32 -399.1, and a Topos of the Propemptikon
8: Notes on Propertius 1.8
9: Love at the Seaside: Propertius (1,11), Cynthia, and Baiae
10: Lesbia Mentoreo (Propertius 1,14,2)
11: Propertius i.18 and Callimachus, Acontius and Cydippe
12: Propertius on Augustus' Marriage Law (II 7)
13: Further Adventures of a Locked-out Lover: Propertius 2.17
14: Propertius 2.19.32
15: Propertius 2.23 and its Final Couplet (23-4)
16: Propertius 2.29A
17: Propertius, 2.30 A and B
18: Propertius the Historian (3.3.1-12)?
19: Propertius 3.4 and the Aeneid incipit
20: Propertius 3,10 and Roman Birthdays
21: Propertius and the Battle of Actium (4.6)
22: Propertius 4.9: "Hercules Exclusus" and the Dimensions of Genre
23: Allusions to hunc...meum esse aio in Propertius?
24: The Etymology of Militia in Roman Elegy
25: Ancient 'Etymology' and Tibullus: on the Classification of 'Etymologies' and on 'Etymological Markers'
26: Tibullus, Messalla, and the Spica: 1.1.16; 1.5.28; 1.10.22, 67; 2.1.4; 2.5.84
27: Tibullus1,8,35f. and a Conventional Ancient Gesture
28: Tibullus 2.1.57-8: Problems of Text and Interpretation
29: Tibullus 2.2
30: Tibullus 2.6.27-42: Nemesis' Dead Sister
31: Imitation and Originality in Ovid Amores 1.3
32: Ovid Amores 1.15 and the problematic fruges of line 25
33: Self-Imitation within a Generic Framework. Ovid, Amores 2.9 and 3.11 and the renuntiatio amoris
34: The 'Etymology' in Ovid Heroides 20.21-32

Naturally, a collection such as this does not set out to be a cover-to-cover read, but comprises instead an array of generally independent (rather than interdependent) studies. Short notes (paper 19 is the shortest at 2 pages) rub shoulders with hefty investigations (paper 21 spans 41 pages); the average length of paper is 13 pages. The volume is weighted two-thirds in favour of Propertius, with the remaining third shared more or less evenly by Tibullus and Ovid. Despite these disparities, the volume achieves formal cohesion through its harmonization of the diverse stylistic conventions of the original publications, and by its provision of an overarching bibliography and indices. Thematic cohesion is suggested not only by the volume's focus on the Augustan elegists, but also by the sequential arrangement of its papers according to poet and poem (beginning with Propertius 1.1 and ending, 450 pages later, with Ovid, Heroides 20), and in particular by the unwavering tenacity with which Cairns pursues his lines of inquiry over the three-and-a-half decades encompassed by the volume (e.g. paper 2, published in 1987, defends and supplements paper 1, published in 1974); indeed, the arrangement of articles according to the chronology of ancient poets rather than of modern publications has the effect of implying the consistency, rather than the evolution, of Cairns's ideas.

As well as making a statement, or statements, about Latin elegy, therefore, the collection also offers a diachronic overview of Cairns's substantial scholarship on Latin elegy to date. The size of the volume records a formidable achievement in terms of sheer output alone, especially given that its contents were produced together with more than three times as many articles again on diverse Greek and Latin literary and historical subjects, and alongside four books which have been of considerable importance to professional classicists. Many of the papers reproduced here seem propaedeutic to, or 'spin-offs' from these larger works, in particular Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry (Edinburgh, 1972), but also Tibullus: A Hellenistic Poet at Rome (Cambridge, 1979) and Sextus Propertius: The Roman Elegist (Cambridge, 2006), the latter published just three years after the most recent article on Propertius in this volume (paper 19, published in CQ in 2003). Several of the articles seem to take up and expand on minutiae which did not make their way into these larger and more mainstream publications, reserved instead for journals that (used to) presuppose a readership soundly-trained in Greek and Latin, and already initiated in the rigours of classical philology. Hence, the reader will often find obscure texts quoted at length (but not in the main translated) to illuminate those of greater renown, also the technique on which Generic Composition depends in its elucidation of Greek and Latin poetry from the perspective of Menander Rhetor, a household name among Classicists only after 1972.

Composed mainly of specialist studies, the volume generally demands more than cultivates a reader compliant with the rigorous analytical strategies more patiently set out in Cairns's full-scale works. A reader uninitiated in literary analysis according to 'generic composition' would (if reading sequentially) encounter three articles dependent on the technique (see pp. 16-20, 35-58, 61-8) before inferring from paper 7 (a defence, entrusted to Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica, of Generic Composition from its detractors some twenty years after its publication) that by 'genre' Cairns means not (as most Classicists do) genres of form (such as epic or elegy), but genres of content (i.e. rhetorical type-situations such as the propemptikon, the 'send-off', or praecepta amoris, 'instructions in love') composed and by strong poets varied, for inclusion within any of the formal genres, according to strict prescriptions evolved (so Cairns postulates) in the rhetorical schools of Greece and Rome, now preserved in the third-century (A.D.) treatise of Menander Rhetor (see also p. 423, n. 2). Some have objected that this approach coldly divorces Latin poetry from Roman life by forcing 'delightful poem[s] onto a Procrustean bed', or that it puts the rhetorical cart before the poetic horse by awarding primacy to compositional prescriptions rather than to the poetry composed, or, more fundamentally, that it assumes the rules governing ancient rhetoric and poetry were the same (though the possibility of a distinction here is invoked on p. 229 to allow Cairns some flexibility).1

Nevertheless, generic composition has been as influential as it has been controversial, and most classicists work with the spirit if not always the letter of its approach.2 The chief significance of generic analysis is that it militates against the kind of face-value biographical readings of elegy that were rife when Generic Composition was first published; and yet, paradoxically, Cairns remains to this day a scholar more likely than most to draw biographical conclusions from his readings of Latin poetry: for example, whereas the current trend is to see the reader rather than the poet as the constructor of political or any other meaning, Cairns's paper 21 defends Propertius 4.6 as a straightforward eulogy of Augustus and his role at Actium by projecting the poem onto Menander's prescription for a 'mythic hymn' in honour of Apollo with an embedded 'ecphrasis of a sea-battle'; conversely, when paper 30 concludes that Tibullus' lines on Nemesis' dead sister are epigrammatic, i.e. literary rather than biographical, but that her description as sanguinolenta ('bloodied', Tib. 2.6.40) is derived from Tibullus' real-life experience of military medicine in the legions, Cairns eschews the preference of his followers to see our access to all aspects of the ancient world (including Tibullus' military career) as always already mediated by their construction in literary discourse (e.g. in the Suetonian Vita as much as in Tibullus 1.10).

While focussing on the canon of Latin elegists, the attention frequently given to fragmentary or extra-canonical texts exhibits learning of far wider embrace, of a kind indispensible to the questions Cairns seeks to answer, and characteristic of the ways in which he answers them. These are not always the kind of questions which readers of Latin elegy (these days) tend to ask in the first instance, but they are questions to which experts and devotees (even these days) must ultimately return. For instance, and in line with the predilection of the Eikasmos series for textual criticism, many of Cairns's articles are concerned, sometimes primarily (as in papers 2, 8, 17, and 28) but more often as an attendant argument or conclusion, with the notorious cruces in the transmitted texts of the elegists, amongst which the Propertian corpus has been particularly unfortunate. In the vast majority of cases, Cairns's purpose is to conserve the textus receptus and thereby (even if, as he admits, in vain) defend it from a modern generation of "imprudent tamperers" (197). Where other textual critics have sought to smooth over rough diction through emendation, Cairns seeks to diminish the appearance of the roughness itself: suspect poem-structures are justified on the basis of genres of content (e.g. articles 4 and 13 read Propertius 2.29 and 2.17 respectively as komoi, and defend their unity and transmitted sequence on that basis; article 33 defends Amores 2.9 as a unified renuntiatio amoris), while individually dubious words are defended on the basis of parallels in technical, often legal, jargon (papers 14, 15, 16, and 23) or etymological play (paper 32), or via what might now (but not in 1979) be termed intratextuality (paper 33, where the retention of Tibullus' repeated hircus at 2.1.58 also necessitates what for Cairns is a rare emendation, of oves to opes, in the same line), or via allusion to/intertextuality with other poetic models (e.g. papers 2 and 28), sometimes reconstructed in absentia (as in articles 1, 3, and 31).

Importantly in this last regard, the appearance of Cornelius Gallus throughout the volume (especially in papers 3, 5, 24, and 31) reminds us that, after D. O. Ross' Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry (Cambridge, 1975), Cairns has done more than possibly any other scholar to take into account, and to reconstruct, a conspicuously missing link in our understanding of Latin elegy. Similarly, paper 11, the earliest in the collection, opens a debate which Cairns has subsequently revisited, namely the influence on subjective Latin elegy of Hellenistic narrative elegy (in this instance, through a comparison of Propertius 1.18 and Aristaenetus' paraphrase of Callimachus' Acontius and Cydippe).3 No reader of these papers can fail to appreciate that Hellenistic models, especially Callimachus, loom large in Latin elegy, even (contrary to some opinions) from its earliest surviving collection in Propertius' Monobiblos.4 The fragmentary nature of these models combined with their often esoteric interests makes for challenging papers (see, for example, paper 10, tracing at Propertius 1.14.12 the palimpsest of a Hellenistic paradoxographical zetema), and readers may find Cairns's close readings more often taxing than not, as page after page parades with relentless inclusivity Cairns's keen eye for detail (e.g. pp. 434-5 ask the reader to take on ten intertextual co-ordinates in the space of fifteen lines of discussion; see also the microscopic links posited between Propertius 1.4 and 1.5 in paper 5); it is in general their comprehensiveness as much as, if not more than, their detail that gives these papers their cogency, as Cairns perhaps recognises in paper 23: "[t]he passages discussed below present gradations in closeness to the claim -- from the quasi-formulaic to the somewhat nebulous. Hence, although the outcome of the discussion is on the whole fairly positive, it involves different degrees of conviction; and indeed the less robust examples require support from the more robust" (289).

Nevertheless, as if following the structure of a subjective elegy, Cairns always states his case clearly at beginning and end, and evolves its complexity in the centre. A representative example of what Cairns does best is provided by paper 25, a magisterial treatise on etymological wordplay hailing from PCPS 42 (1996) and building on Robert Maltby's A Lexicon of Ancient Latin Etymologies (ARCA 25, Leeds 1991) as well as on Cairns's own earlier interests in this area (see paper 24 in this volume and chapter 4 of his Tibullus): aiming to sensitise Latinists, especially commentators, to the high-density etymologising of Augustan poetry, Cairns here evolves a (provisional) classification of ten types of etymology with an attendant categorisation of etymological markers (which in studies of allusion might find an analogue in 'self-reflexive annotation'),5 the utility of which Cairns then demonstrates by classifying according to his scheme the welter of etymological material in the first two books of the Tibullan corpus. Here, as elsewhere, the clarity of Cairns's argumentation and the closeness of his reading of Latin poetry bring the very wood of the trees of the forest under the microscope in a way that provides the reader with a systematic, if arduous, training: for instance, anyone who perseveres with Cairns's analysis of etymological wordplay stands to come away with the requisite philological equipment to spot that the aforementioned emendation of oves at Tib. 2.1.58 to opes restores an etymological gloss of Cairns's type 1 (i.e. opes derives from oves) in positional marker β.1 (since ovili stands in a parallel position at the end of the previous line).

In this way, Cairns's collected papers exemplify his use of traditional philological knowhow in innovative ways. No talk here, then, of gender, or Lacan, or focalization, or metapoetics, or intertextuality as such, yet anyone who might criticise these papers for being theoretically disengaged should first remember that they were in the main written before the boulevard of literary exegesis became rutted by the comings and goings of theoretical traffic, and that Cairns's Generic Composition was itself the first, and arguably the most revolutionary (and certainly one of the most controversial), of the theoretical schools brought to bear on Latin poetry in the latter years of the twentieth century. Moreover, later modes of analysis will find plenty in Cairns that can be repackaged or reorganised with a little retroactive theorising. For instance, in positing 'remote analogues' in literary and non-literary sources for Latin elegies (as paper 22 does for Propertius 4.9), Cairns's methodology has something in common with intertextuality, often avant la lettre. Similarly, the thinking behind such formulations of poetic imitatio as "there is a sliding scale from the fleeting to the substantial and from the merely verbal to the significantly conceptual" (71, see also 423) may look a little woolly in the light of, for example, Stephen Hinds' work on the dynamics of appropriation in Latin poetry (e.g. in what sense can imitation be "merely verbal"?), but that is not to say that the many parallels compiled in Cairns's articles are of no use to students of allusion and intertextuality, and it can be pointed out that, with commendable prescience, Cairns himself called in 1977 for "a framework within which Hellenistic and Augustan self-imitation and imitation of others can be discussed in an objective manner" (56).

Again, article 12 commits to a 'pro-Augustan' reading of Propertius via elegy 2.7 (in which the poet adopts an ostensibly 'anti-Augustan' stance on marital legislation) on the basis that "[a]ny reader who considered himself a decent Roman and had a feeling of social responsibility could only react to the elegy by concluding that Propertius' attack on the law was without basis and was unworthy of serious consideration" (142), and by arguing that "[w]e must [...] recognise even in this portrayal of a degenerate's defiance of a good law some implicit acceptance of the social norm" (145): the former statement is at least sentient of the possibility of competing interpretations on the basis of reader-situatedness, thus anticipating Duncan Kennedy's application to the same elegy of the Barthesian view of the construction of meaning at the point of reception,6 while the latter argument suggests another way in which elegy's counter-cultural ethos has been found susceptible to deconstruction. That said, these notions have since been formulated as precise theoretical imperatives which, to the possible frustration of those readers who accept them, are subordinated to the 'pro-Augustan' agenda which Cairns continues to espouse in his readings of Propertius; similarly, although frameworks for analyses of allusion and intertextuality have now been evolved, they have had less discernable impact on the terms in which Cairns's more recent work handles even quite diffuse lexical parallels. Cairns might thus be said to have steered his own course, giving to classical philology theories of his own, but remaining independent of those advanced by others.

If ever a scholar could claim odi uulgus et arceo, therefore, it might be the one encountered by the reader of this volume: with the exception of one or two articles written with the general reader in view (e.g. paper 9), these articles mostly presuppose familiarity with Cairns's Generic Composition, and take no prisoners in pursuing highly specialised, but fundamentally important, inquiries through their innovative use of traditional philological rigour. These collected papers record Cairns's very great service to Latin studies; although they are unlikely to make the challenging genre of elegy any less challenging for a debutant reader, for the same reasons no serious student of elegy can afford not to consult this serious (and affordable) volume.7


1.   These are the principal objections of J. Griffin, 'Genre and Real Life in Latin Poetry', JRS 71 (1981), 39-49, (republished as Ch. 3 of Latin Poets and Roman Life, London, 1985), here quoted at p. 42; the second objection, on the grounds of achronicity, is voiced also by D.A. Russell and N.G. Wilson in the introduction to Menander Rhetor. Edited with Translation and Commentary (Oxford, 1981), xxxi-iv.
2.   More welcoming than Griffin of generic labelling (even if not on the basis of Menander Rhetor) is R.G.M. Nisbet, 'Pyrrha among Roses: real life and poetic imagination in Augustan Rome', JRS 77 (1987), 184-90: 'In spite of all reservations Cairns has done much to identify commonplaces applicable to particular situations' (186); for a wholehearted defence of the generic approach, see I.M. Le M. DuQuesnay, 'Vergil's First Eclogue', PLLS 3 (1981), 29-182, at 53-62.
3.   See also chapter 9 ('The Origins of Latin love-elegy') in F. Cairns, Tibullus. A Hellenistic Poet at Rome (Cambridge, 1978), reprinted with a postscript in H.-C. Günther (ed.), A Companion to Propertius (Brill: Leiden 2006), 69-95.
4.   Against the view Callimachean influence in the Monobiblos (with specific reference to paper 11), see J. Butrica, 'The Amores of Propertius: Unity and Structure in Books 2-4', ICS 21 (1996), 87-158, at 104-7.
5.   For this technique, see S. Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: dynamics of appropriation in Roman poetry (Cambridge, 1998), 1-16.
6.   D.F. Kennedy, The Arts of Love: Five Studies in the Discourse of Roman Love Elegy (Cambridge, 1993), 35-7.
7.   Following the prescription for the genre of the review, I note (only) the following typographical errors: p. 100 (line 12): the reference is to 2.34.91-92 (not 2.32.91-92); p. 164 (first line): 'Propertius' (not 'Propcrtius'); p. 168 (last line): 'patterns' (not 'pattems'); p. 207 (line 14): opening inverted comma is missing; p. 383 (second last line): 'celebrate' (not 'celebrating'); p. 427 (line 9): 'two' (not 'tvo'); p. 428 (sixth last line): 'too old' (not 'to old').

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