Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.26

S. J. Heyworth, J. H. W. Morwood, A Commentary on Propertius, Book 3.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. xi, 377.  ISBN 9780199571499.  $44.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Tara S. Welch, University of Kansas (

In their preface to their new commentary on Propertius Book 3, Heyworth and Morwood give a narrative about how and why the commentary came to be. The narrative is full of details resonant of rich traditions: Wadham, A2 exams, Oxford Classical Texts. To the novice on the Classics scene in Britain, these details might baffle, but Heyworth and Morwood write so graciously that they gloss, explain, and contextualize them without patronizing. The same is true in the commentary that follows, which opens up Propertius’ overwhelming world to the newcomer with generosity and patience. Their target audience is undergraduates “who have not been learning Latin for long and for whom aspects of the ancient world, including its literature, may well be mysterious” (p.ix). This commentary will surely supplant Camps’ 1966 commentary for those focusing on Book 3 and may tempt more professors to tackle this text in their Latin classes.

The book comprises an introduction in eight parts; the text of Book 3 with the apparatus criticus following the whole book; the commentary, each poem’s notes preceded by a paraphrase of the poem and an introductory essay (the latter curiously lacking for 3.16); a brief postscript on Book 4; an appendix of significant intertexts (plus translations) lettered A through R, and including passages from Hesiod, Callimachus, Lucretius, Gallus, Vergil, Horace, and Propertius Books 1 and 2; bibliography; and indices.

The introduction of sixty pages covers all bases, with sub-sections on “Propertius and Cynthia” (which introduces Book 1), “Historical Context,” “Propertius, ‘Liber II’, and the Augustan Regime,” “Book 3,” “Metre, Scansion, and Versification,” “Text and Transmission,” “Glossary,” and “Paraphrase, Images, and Maps.” The first three of these are quite detailed – so much as to be daunting to the student who does not yet know this material, however well the authors have presented it. There is no substitution for reading Books 1 and 2 in Latin (or at least carefully and slowly in good translation) and taking a course in late Republican history. Yet the inclusion of so thorough a survey of the backgrounds to Book 3 is not in vain, and it is of course better to have the information to hand than not. Introductions are often most illuminating and helpful when read after (or while) going through the text rather than before, and the detail offers the teacher a treasure trove of things to discuss and note while going through the text.

These three sections present Propertius primarily as an inventive littérateur working within a rich textual tradition, and secondly as a skeptic of the Augustan regime whose bitterness stems from personal loss in the civil wars. The commentary bears out this emphasis, with individual notes offering thorough and probing explorations of poetic predecessors. The notes frequently refer the reader to the appendix of intertexts but more often cite new ones with various relationships to Propertius’ text.

Heyworth and Morwood seem to have heeded Roy Gibson’s call for commentators to be clear about the relationship between texts posited by “cf.,” for they explain parallel passages more than usual.1 Where comparanda are grammatical or lexical they say so (see, respectively, the note on 3.17.21-38 and the introduction to 3.13). When parallels reveal poetic conventions they are clear about that function (an amusing instance: ad 3.8. 5-8: “for female attacks on hair, cf. 3.15.18, 4.8.61”; more typical, and very fulsome, is the extended discussion of the trope of wealth’s danger in the introductory note on 3.7).

Just as frequently other texts are accompanied by mini-essays. The exemplary note on 3.11.71-2 (in which Propertius’ Cleopatra poem ends with a finale in Caesar’s triumph) cites as an intertext an epigram from the Posidippus fragment on Arsinoe, then explains, “Arsinoe has been replaced by the conqueror of her descendant: Rome is learning to treat its rulers as Alexandria treated the Ptolemies; and significant within this poem is that a male leader has replaced a female, the elegist’s world turned upside-down.” I imagine the classroom discussions starting from this note, which allows for expansion on the means of intertextuality, to politics, to the erudition of Propertius’ readers, to Roman philhellenism, to papyri.

Because of the usual clarity, unelaborated comparanda are somewhat frustrating. On 3.5.37-8 Heyworth and Morwood mention the song of Iopas in Aeneid 1, without telling us whether this is a pointed intertext or representative of a sub-genre. At 3.11.21-6 they note that the Euphrates, which Cleopatra here controls, is the river scorned by Callimachus. To what end does Propertius exploit this identification, and to what end to Heyworth and Morwood mention it?

As in the introduction, the contemporary political milieu and Propertius’ stance toward it have a strong place in the notes, though politics most often takes a back seat to poetics and metapoetics. Propertius had personal reasons for his distance from the Augustan regime and maintained this distance even in the less personal third book. Yet Heyworth and Morwood’s distant Propertius is the mildest malcontent I’ve seen in recent scholarly literature. He has a jaundiced view of patronage (ad 3.9 introductory note), shows intense disdain for warmongering (ad 3.5.47-8) and the like, but more often than not Heyworth and Morwood admit the tone of more political elements in the poetry to be complex (see, e.g., the introductory notes on 3.18 and 3.4, and p.18 “attitudes can be disconcertingly hard to read”). At 3.11.29-30, for example, they mention my own interpretation of Antony as a Propertian hero, then gently offer a “one can, however, observe...” corrective.

Yet nowhere is Propertius a troubled exemplar of his conflicted times or the voice of a more sustained philosophical opposition to Roman mores, still less a self-conscious male in a strongly gendered world. Stahl’s extensive treatment of dissident 3.4, 3.5, and 3.22 are noted at the end of each poem but do not appear in the notes. Allen Miller’s 2004 assessment of 3.4 and 3.5 as embodiments of the essential contradictions in subjectivity found throughout Propertius’ poetry (contradictions which, to Miller and others such as Barbara Gold render his voice “feminine”) is not mentioned at all, nor does his book appear in the bibliography.2 Duncan Kennedy’s Arts of Love appears in the bibliography and occasionally in the notes, but there are points at which fuller reference to his work would introduce complexity and fruitful discussion (on arms and amor at 3.13.17-22, and on libertas and servitium at 3.6 introduction). This blind spot makes more difficult the task for the teacher who wishes to use Propertius’ poetry to problematize students’ notions of “the glory that was Rome,” notions that are all too pervasive because of the way modern media treat the Romans and because of the virtuous sententiae through which students learn Latin. A brief example will suffice. Heyworth and Morwood are quite expansive on Propertius’ stance against greed, but their treatment of it as a literary feature (see the notes on poem 13 particularly, which cite parallels for the various luxuries and note the diatribe tradition in which this poem participates) obscures social and political considerations; they do not mention, for example, Catullus’ scathing connections of greed, power, and masculinity. In a commentary so thorough in other ways, this is a missed opportunity.

The text is based on Heyworth’s 2007 OCT and accompanying volume Cynthia. It is not my task here to review the text as such; for that, see Ramirez de Verger’s BMCR review.3 I disclose, however, that I prefer textual conservatism. Heyworth and Morwood’s commentary is by far the best introduction to “textual issues” that I have ever seen in any commentary. Throughout the commentary the student will find revealed the editorial principles that result in the text they read. The introductory note on 3.7 treats transposition, interpolation, and omission, then goes on to propose a narrative history of the jumble: there was a gap in the text, scribes added lines or couplets into the margins, a later scribe gathered these and inserted them into the text (the authors then direct the student to Cynthia for further discussion). Heyworth and Morwood then admit that some scholars (Richard Thomas, Benjamin Acosta-Hughes) see the poem’s disjointedness to be the result of Propertius’ use of epigrams. They then argue against that assessment.

The note to 3.8.2 reveals the editors’ reasoning on an emendation (fumida[que exundant] stagna tepentis aquae) for the transmitted fumida Baiarum stagna tepentis aquae. They cite the line’s need for a verb (and the awkwardness of the transmitted line as apposition), the “baldness” of Baiarum in anticipation of the name at verse 7, and the inelegance of the genitive in a line that already includes another genitive phrase. They remark, “Deficiency and superfluity in combination mark corruption,” and posit a scribal process that might have resulted in the error. Others have argued that our desire for elegance and continuity might lead us to flatten Propertius’ complexity.4 Quite frequently the editors flag their emendations as “possible solutions” (never as the solution), but the dispute is whether a solution is needed at all. As with the interpretive slant mentioned above, this feature gives to the students an easier Propertius than might be the case.

Yet the textual notes are extremely helpful in introducing the student to the fact that the text of Propertius, or of any author, is not a given but is the product of a fallible process of transmission. Undergraduates are rarely introduced to this concept in any systematic way. This volume (and a course built around it) could serve that function. The portion of the introduction on the textual tradition is clearer that most such discussions (though it is still rough going). The explanation of abbreviations from the apparatus criticus on p. 49 will be especially helpful (though the apparatus itself appears not beneath each poem but at the end of the whole book, discouraging simultaneous engagement with it). “No text is definitive,” say the authors on p. 50; “we hope that readers of this volume too may be moved to propose alternative readings as well as alternative interpretations.”

A final note on content: The authors are generous to students, not only in the wealth of material they provide (including translations of all passages quoted in the commentaries), but in their assessment of what the students need; here perhaps they overestimate their audience’s facility with Latin. The grammatical notes are clear and helpful everywhere – exemplary, in fact; it is my sense that undergraduate students need rather more of them than appear in this book.

The book is easy to use and affordably priced in paperback. It is clean throughout (I discovered three errors: the introductory statement for 3.16 is missing, there is a typographical error in the note on 3.13.23-4 [‘there may well a note or irony’], and another typo ironically in an entry on Heyworth’s article in the bibliography [‘Propertius, patronage, and polities’]). The citation method alone is somewhat confusing, with some secondary sources mentioned within the notes – sometimes with full citation, sometimes with venue and date, sometimes with date only (the latter even on some sources that don’t appear in the bibliographies). Each poem is followed by a brief bibliography, and then there is a bibliography at the end of the volume. The reader familiar with Propertian scholarship and with other names in Latin poetry will have no problem, but the teacher will have to help undergraduate students with many references.

This book offers much to the student and to the teacher; the latter, I trust, will fill in what’s missing as the opportunity arises.


1.   Gibson, R. 2002. “A Typology of Parallels and the Function of Commentaries on Latin Poetry.” In C. Kraus and R. Gibson, eds. The Classical Commentary: Histories, Practices, Theory. Leiden: Brill, 331-58.
2.   Miller, P. A. 2004. Subjecting Verses. Latin love elegy and the emergence of the Real. Princeton: Princeton University Press, especially pages 130-159 and 257-63, and Gold, B. 1987. “But Ariadne was never there in the first place. Finding the female in Roman poetry.” In N. S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin, eds. Feminist Theory and the Classics. New York: Routledge, 75-101.
3.   BMCR 2009.07.23

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 13:08:23, Saturday, 17 September 2011