BMCR 1999.06.06

Powerplay in Tibullus: Reading Elegies Book One

, Powerplay in Tibullus : reading Elegies book one. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii, 328 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521630832 $64.95.

In principle, a book that militated against the common critical estimation of Tibullus as sweet but nerveless — an assessment to which both his adherents and his detractors. generally subscribe — would be welcome, though not unique.1 New work appearing on the horizon (particularly that of Brenda Fineberg2 and Paul Allen Miller3) shows in fine and cogent detail the darker depths of Tibullus’ poetry. Lee-Stecum’s project of exploring power and power relations in Book I of Tibullus seems to promise, by the very fact of restricting its scope so tightly, a thorough examination of the poetry’s more sinister aspects. However, Stecum’s ambitions are executed far less satisfactorily than could have been hoped.

The introduction to the book offers a useful, if truncated, look at Tibullus criticism of the last several decades and summarizes the theoretical approaches (both within and without Tibullus studies) Lee-Stecum proposes to use. To aid in his analysis of power relations, he looks not only to several analyses of the historical structure of hierarchical relations in ancient Rome (between master and slave, patron and client), but also to Michel Foucault’s work on power, particularly The History of Sexuality, vol. I and Power/Knowledge. Closer to his chosen poetic subject-matter, Lee-Stecum cites Duncan Kennedy’s and Maria Wyke’s (cautious) use of Foucault to dissect the gendering of power in Roman elegy. Finally, to justify his plan to address each poem in Tibullus I serially, as if he were a “naïve reader” encountering it for the first time, he looks to reader-response theory. In formulating his approach, he considers himself to depend particularly upon the models of reading constructed by Wolfgang Iser and Michael Riffaterre, and to their latter-day sophisticated elaboration by Paul Allen Miller on lyric.4 “The multiplicity of complex inter-relations between poems and facets of poems, each opening up further possibilities in turn (and so on, and so on in an accelerating spiral), will be pursued, as vigorously as space allows, in the course of this reading” (4).

As laudably ambitious as the theoretical scaffolding of his introduction is, Lee-Stecum’s use of such material is both severely limited and seriously flawed. For example, he remarks that “the danger of viewing reading as a process, as Riffaterre, Iser, and Miller (in the context of a poetic collection) do, is that it becomes equated with progress” (4). While that may be fair to say of Riffaterre and Iser, it completely misunderstands Miller, who states very clearly that “the lyric collection does not allow itself to be reduced to any one ur-narrative, but rather generates a plurality of possible narrative explanations and temporal relations which seek to account for the poems themselves” (a principle that Miller’s finely-nuanced readings of various lyric collections deftly illustrates).5 Moreover, the best use Lee-Stecum can seem to make of the distinction he draws between himself and the reader-response critics he cites is to render his reading of each poem a general triumph of aporia. He rests content once he has articulated a rationale that could allow a reader to construe this or that feature of an elegy as an aspect of power. He never attempts to show how so construing the several details of any poem might contribute to a new, different, interesting view of Tibullus’ poetry; in fact, despite the conspicuously labeled “conclusion” sections to each chapter — which are really nothing but short recapitulations of the preceding exegeses, adding no new insight — this book advances no summary, enlightening viewpoint of any whole poem.

Miller, however misread, might still be grateful at least to be remembered per viam negativam in Powerplay. By contrast, most of the other illustrious names conspicuously dropped in Lee-Stecum’s introduction simply disappear from view, either as names or as precepts, after their brief initial appearances. He does not seem to have assimilated anything beyond the most simplistic understanding of his methodological sources; his readings of Tibullus’ poems are uniformly reductive and banal, where a more thorough understanding of his cited resources might have been expected to produce better. He so dilutes his analytical topos, power, as to make it meaningless as an analytical tool. On the one hand, he sees every facet of these poems as a power relation, nothing more and nothing less: the ability to construe the text is the reader’s power (e.g., 73, 164, 169), the farmer’s ability in I.1 to make his land produce is power (28-9), swimming in I.4 is power (because the swimming boy “violently disturbs the peace of water [ pellit placidam aquam ]”) (138), even Priapus’ failure to comb his hair in I.4 indicates his lack of power (135-6)! Given a nuanced analysis of more substantial details of these poems as supporting context, one might be prepared to admit these flimsier data as minor stitches that contribute to the overall canvas. However, Lee-Stecum rests content once he has articulated the rationale whereby the elegy’s different facets may be read as so many scattered metaphors for power: nothing more (he appears to think) need be said.

The oddly ironic effect of power-as-topos used as such a reductive lens — so that not only is everything power, but everything is nothing but power — is to underexploit his theme as hermeneutic lever. Lee-Stecum shuts down prematurely potentially interesting avenues of inquiry that would naturally develop from the theme of power. For example, when he attempts to read Tib. I.7, the poem that celebrates Messalla’s triumph (September 25, 27 B.C.E.), he rather timidly advances two possible interpretations of the poet’s hesitation over what to say and what to suppress in his paean (I.7.13-24). He argues that Tibullus’ hesitation over what to include, and why, in his panegyric implies the poet’s power also to mold the portrait of Messalla as he chooses. Tibullus’ hesitation might mean that his attempts to associate himself with Messalla’s power (“non sine me est tibi partus honos,” 1.7.9) should be read as humorous, given the poet’s claims elsewhere in the corpus to be powerless over nearly everyone in his sphere — even his mistress — and a poor soldier to boot (213). But which should be read as humorous, the earlier protestations of powerlessness before Delia, or the boast of shared responsibility in the events that gained Messalla a triumph? Lee-Stecum does not specify — an omission symptomatic of his generally unclear, underdeveloped thinking. (In fact, for someone who writes about power, he oddly shies from conviction, preferring the soft-pedaling subjunctive: his exegesis frequently states that this or that line “might be read as,” “suggests that,” “may be an indication of,” and the like; softening the assertiveness of his conclusions substitutes poorly for clear thinking and cogent argumentation).

Lee-Stecum’s reading of Tib. 1.7.13-24 simply ignores the hermeneutic problem of self-censorship and credibility vis-à-vis the whole corpus that this praeteritio subtly raises: when Tibullus deliberates over what to say, it is reductive to assume (as Lee-Stecum does) that the motive force for foregrounding, or suppressing, a topos comes entirely from the poet himself, as though he operated autonomously. (Lee-Stecum here seems implicitly to be working with a model of the subject as an autonomous, discrete entity, unaffected by social forces beyond the subject’s self, a model that rather jars with his aspirations to the post-modernist methodology sketched in his introductory chapter.) Tib. 1.7 praises Tibullus’ patron, Messalla, and is addressed directly to him; the poet’s hesitation rather obviously raises the question of what he would choose to reveal (or conceal) in order to please that patron. Moreover, underlining the poet’s power to shape the reader’s reaction by choosing what he shall say (or not) clearly implicates the corpus as a whole in deception. Lee-Stecum, however, refuses to follow up the further implications of Tibullus’ praeteritio for the reader, content to remark blandly that this implied reversal of the “reader’s superior position over the powerless poet … points to another level of this ‘public’ poem in the construction and operation of power in the collection” (213-4).

Powerplay‘s determination to rest content with the superficial leads not only to incomplete, but to erroneous, exegesis. For example, Lee-Stecum greatly oversimplifies when he takes Veyne’s analysis of Roman homosexuality — which emphasizes power, rather than anatomical sex, as the determining axis — as a model that “maps easily onto the amor -relationships of Tibullan elegy” (288). He quotes Veyne as remarking that “to be active was to be male, whatever the sex of the compliant partner. To take one’s pleasure was virile, to accept it servile — that was the whole story” (287-8). Lee-Stecum ignores the fact that, despite Tibullus’ protestations of poverty, he still commands far more economic and social power than either Marathus or Delia. Tibullus’ protestations of weakness, poverty and servility must always be set against the economic and social position he represents himself as enjoying in the corpus. He has a country estate (I.1.19-22) that, albeit diminished from its ancestral grandeur, he expects to support himself and his mistress, and to entertain his patron at least adequately (1.5.21-34); the very fact that he can contemplate foregoing various lucrative professions in order to pursue his mistress indicates that economic necessity does not force him to chase after money (I.1.1-6, 53-8, 75-8); yet he also enjoys close relations with his wealthy patron, which allow him, when he so chooses, to pursue profitable military expeditions at Messalla’s side, as a member of his intimate entourage (I.3, I.7.5-12).6

More disturbing, and less explicable, than Lee-Stecum’s indifference to important points of the poems’ socioeconomic world is the way that he ignores or trivializes the more sinister implications of his stated theme when these come to the fore. For example, although Tib. I devotes considerable energy to constructing idylls both of contemporary rural life and of the putative Golden-Age past in which rustic and egalitarian simplicity held sway over the entire world (urban violence and corruption being as yet unknown), its last poem, 1.10, closes with a vivid picture of a drunken farmer beating his wife. Lee-Steecum does notice that this disturbs the contrast between “past versus present, Pax vs bella” that other poems of the corpus have established explicitly (and undermined implicitly): in this poem, he notes, ” amor is firmly placed on the side of bella and violent struggle” (280). On the other hand, he works hard — too hard — to “save the appearances” of Tibullus’ superficial dichotomies, and ignores the way 1.10’s ending complicates the Weltanschauung precariously constructed within the poetry-book. He draws a specious distinction between the brutal violence that the drunken farmer uses on his wife — a violence balanced, to Lee-Stecum’s mind, by the “emotional control” exerted by the farmer’s wife, before whose weeping the farmer regrets that his hands were so strong — and the milder version that the poem approves: enough, the narrator says, to rip the woman’s dress, derange her hair, make her cry (282-2). Yet the poem’s failure to reject entirely the violence the farmer uses to assert his dominance in the relationship, preferring only a more urbane version of such control, makes the elegy’s ending disturbing and sinister: it implies not only the corruption of Tibullus’ previous vision of the Golden Age, but an acceptance of that corruption.7 Whether resignation, despair and anguish, or glee colors that acceptance, is a matter for hermeneutic exploration beyond the scope of this review; however, the acceptance per se unsettles the image of Tibullus as an innocent nostalgic who yearns for a lost ideal. Here Tibullus — in his rôle as the poem’s narrator — seems not only to see the corruption of that ideal, but to be complicit, or at least complacent, in its corruption. None of this evidently impinges upon Lee-Stecum’s consciousness.

To sum up: Lee-Stecum’s book outlines a praiseworthy project, but then fails to fulfill it. Let us hope that a successor can make good on the author’s missed opportunities.


1. The best summary of twentieth-century views of Tibullus, both positive and negative, is in Paul Allen Miller, “The Tibullan Dream Text,” a summary encapsulated in the first few paragraphs of the section entitled “The Dream Text as a Formal Concept” and in n2 ( TAPA 129 [1999] forthcoming).

2. See Configurations of Desire in the Elegies of Tibullus, Diss. Chicago 1991; “The Dark Ladies of Tibullan Elegy,” in Woman’s Power, Man’s Game: Essays in Honor of Joy King, ed. Mary DeForest, Bolchazy-Carducci, 1993, pp. 249-56; “Repetition and the Poetics of Desire in Tibullus 1.2 and 1.4,” CW 92 (1998/99), forthcoming.

3. Paul Allen Miller, “The Tibullan Dream Text,” TAPA 129 (1999) forthcoming.

4. Lyric Texts and Lyric Consciousness, London, 1994.

5. Miller 1994, 54.

6. For the implicit economics that underpin social relations between elegiac mistress and lover, see Sharon James, “The Economics of Roman Elegy: Voluntary Poverty, the Recusatio, and the Greedy Girl,” forthcoming; Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: The Gendered Texts and Audiences of Roman Love Elegy, University of California Press, forthcoming.

7. Cf. Julia Haig Gaisser, “Amor, Rura and Militia in Three Elegies of Tibullus: 1.1, 1.5, and 1.10,” Latomus 42 (1983) 71-2.