BMCR 2004.06.52

La femme et l’amour chez Catulle et les Élégiaques augustéens. Collection Latomus, 249

, La femme et l'amour chez Catulle et les Élégiaques augustéens. Collection Latomus ; v. 249. Bruxelles: Latomus, 1999. 420 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2870311907 €49.58.

[This book arrived at BMCR in December 2002. The reviewer apologizes for the subsequent lateness of the review.]

This study considers topics familiar to readers of Roman elegy: love, cultural climate, attitudes toward woman and marriage, and so forth. It is descriptive rather than analytical; hence no clear argument emerges. Instead, it makes the same points repeatedly, chiefly that Catullus and the elegists (a) present love as madness, illness, warfare, etc., and (b) propose a new image and concept of woman. Neither point is new, and Laigneau musters no reason for presenting them as such. Indeed, she begins by acknowledging that the elegists have been much studied for several decades (7), but considers that the new generation of scholarship on women in antiquity means that a “precise synthesis of the female condition from the end of the Republic to the Augustan era … could have its interest” (8). This modestly stated purpose does little to prepare readers for the rest of the book, in which Laigneau focuses, perhaps inevitably, significantly more on the poets than on “the female condition” in this period and repeatedly makes unsupported assertions.

Laigneau announces — in a single footnote (p. 12, note 32), citing very few scholars on the subject — that she will treat Catullus jointly with the elegists. No argument supports this treatment other than the brief comment that, since Catullus’ presentation of women influenced that of the elegists, the two may be handled jointly. Readers are simply to add “and Catullus” every time she speaks of the elegists, without having to be reminded. This assertion amounts to a breathtaking dismissal of every element that distinguishes Catullus from the elegists. Though she makes much of Augustus’ moral agenda as influencing the elegists, Laigneau gives only token acknowledgment that Catullus’ era was different from Augustus’. The chief distinction she draws is that “Catullus is, without doubt, the most sincere” of the poets (136; on page 18 Ovid is designated “less sincere without doubt than his predecessors”), though she calls sincerity a “false problem” (10-11). Readers seeking nuanced discussion of the relation of Catullus to the elegists will have to undertake a substantial suspension of disbelief in order to read further.

Throughout this book, Laigneau takes the poetic speakers at their word, and thus treats the poetry as representing a historical or biographical reality, particularly when dealing with expressions of passion. This tendency also leads her to assume that every puella in Propertius and Ovid is Cynthia or Corinna, unless the poet specifies otherwise. Thus the puellae of Amores 2.2 and 3.4 are other women, but the puella of 3.7 is Corinna, though the poet clearly identifies Corinna as a past, not a present, lover (25-26). Even when the poets give strong indications that the puella in question may be someone completely new (Propertius 3.20, for example), Laigneau sees only Corinna and Cynthia. This treatment can be disorienting to readers alert to male infidelity and serial liaisons in elegy.

Drawing inspiration from Judith Hallett’s reading of elegy as proto-feminist,1 Laigneau seeks to connect it to contemporary social history. She dismisses as “extremist” (9), without discussion, Paul Veyne’s reading of elegy as poetic play. She notes (9-10, n. 20) that “un certain nombre d’universitaires americaines” share this view, but cites only Maria Wyke, who will surely be surprised to find herself transferred so summarily across the pond. Laigneau acknowledges that elegy does not represent certifiable biographical reality: she is seeking not an erotic history for her poets, but the “image of the woman that emerges from their works” (11). This image has, of course, been well-studied, particularly by the “universitaires americaines,” of whom only Hallett is cited (I would include myself in this group, though my publications were not available to Laigneau). Granted, Laigneau could not have read Ellen Greene’s 1998 book,2 but many other pieces of scholarship on this subject have been omitted.3 Even Saara Lilja’s 1965 book, The Roman Elegists’ Attitude to Women (repr. New York, 1978), is only barely cited here.

Chapter 1 considers the “physical portrait” of the elegiac woman. According to Laigneau, the ideal puella is blonde with white skin (radiance and shining qualities are desired as well). These romantic, naive readings would have benefited from a review of Keith and Wyke, who have demonstrated the generic resemblance between the puella and elegy itself.4 It is never made clear why 40 pages on the puella‘s physical appearance are needed.

In chapter 2 Laigneau asserts that the elegiac woman is not a courtesan or prostitute (she uses the terms interchangeably for the most part, though Roman literary treatments distinguish clearly among the low-level scortum, the meretrix owned by a pimp, and the independent courtesan), but ideally would combine the voluptuousness and sensuality of the courtesan/prostitute with the pudor and chastity of a faithful Roman matrona (65). The learning of the docta puella is not actual erudition but musical and poetic training; Laigneau cites C. Pascal, from 1916,5 to the effect that even the poetic speaker’s doctrina is a form of social artistry appropriate to salon life (68). On the other hand, Propertius and Cynthia exchange intellectual words (Prop. 2.15.3-4) rather than mere sweet nothings (81). Again, Laigneau could not have read Thomas Habinek’s work on doctitude in women,6 but the issue of erudition in Roman Alexandrian poetry calls for engagement with more recent scholarship on the subject, which is hardly lacking.

Chapter 3 reviews elegy’s well-known tropes: love as war, death, illness, fire, intensity, insatiability, anxiety, grief, suffering, and so forth. Laigneau treats elegiac passion as representing genuine emotional and erotic experiences, ranging from joyous love to elegiac death wishes and “l’homicide amoureux” (152). Her belief that the poets effectively worship their mistresses (she does note [147] that Propertius occasionally treats Cynthia like a prostitute) leads to the statement that in Amores 1.5 Corinna is “implicitly assimilated to a goddess.” The explicit comparison of Corinna to Lais and Semiramis (lines 11-12), who are hardly divinities, is simply ignored.

In Chapter 4, Laigneau reviews the status of the various women in elegy, concluding from Amores 2.7-8 that Ovid had a typical attitude toward female slaves, namely that they are merely objects rather than subjects.7 She asserts, with neither argument nor evidence, that “high-level courtesans” mostly lived with their mothers, who kept their eyes closed, or with “complaisant” husbands (185). There is no citation of Herter’s study of prostitution in antiquity, though it is an obvious source on the subject.8 Laigneau sees no need to make specific biographical identifications of the various elegiac girlfriends, but she reviews them all regardless, asserting a specific status to each. Thus: Lesbia is Clodia; Delia is a freedwoman wife; Nemesis is a courtesan; Glycera (Horace Ep. 1.4) is probably a courtesan; Cynthia is of consular rank (this on the basis of the door’s lament in Prop. 1.16); and Corinna is a matrona“living a free life” (207). She admits that the lines between members of the demi-monde can be fuzzy, but persists with her identification of Corinna and Cynthia as historical, elite women. Thus the descriptions of Corinna’s hair, in Amores 1.14, testify to both the quality of the historical Corinna’s actual hair and her character, which is inferrable from her generous treatment of her ornatrix (171).

Chapter 5’s review of the Roman matrona is called for because, in Laigneau’s view, most elegiac girlfriends are married. Laigneau considers the “rights and obligations” of matronae, who have, according to her, both leisure and opportunity to fool around. She wonders why the poets don’t talk more about contraception (259) — a surprising question in a book arguing that the elegists idealize their mistresses and consider them like goddesses. Ovid, Laigneau asserts, considers abortion a crime against the state and thus agrees with Augustus on the subject (265-66). This subject would presumably be one of the few on which the two agreed; Laigneau later describes Ovid as opposed to Augustus’ moral legislation but does not reconcile these two points. She briefly discusses the lena, but never considers what business her two elite women, Cynthia and Corinna, have with such a person. Overall, Laigneau concludes, the elegists have a very traditional Roman attitude toward women and sex (271).

The final section considers an “elegiac revolution” (a term borrowed from Quinn9) against political power structures and mores. Chapter 6 discusses terms like foedus, fides, and amicitia, arguing that the poets wanted to make their relations with their amicae (who deserved fides) into a type of marriage. In addition, the poets valorize not only their own sexual desire but female desire as well, and exchange traditional gender roles with their puellae. Here Laigneau gives no attention to the enormous amount of scholarship on these issues; the list of missing names is long, but I will limit myself to noting that the works of Marilyn Skinner in particular stand out as conspicuously absent from a discussion of gender roles in Catullus. Laigneau goes on to assert that the poets seek reciprocity of sexual pleasure with their girlfriends (though Tibullus is never cited); in Ovid sex becomes a relation of equals in which each serves the other’s pleasure (305). Here Laigneau relies heavily on Ars 2.717-28 but overlooks the conclusion of that very passage, which instructs the male pupil that when time is short he should ride his own horse to the finish line, regardless of his partner’s progress (729-32).10

Chapter 7 conducts a lengthy review of Augustan moral legislation, finding numerous references to the Julian laws in the Amores, and surveys apparent evidence for the elegists’ attitudes toward adultery. In her discussion of Prop. 2.7, she takes into account the chronology of elegiac composition relative to the passage of the Julian laws, as well as early attempts by Augustus to encourage or enforce marriage. Laigneau ends by asserting that the elegists perhaps propose that “woman is a reasonable being whose virtue can be founded in free consent to a moral law known as just: fides” (367). The fact no elegiac puella actually practices fides seems not to concern her.

Laigneau’s conclusion: the elegists do not care for fame, and Apollo’s injunction ( Ars 2.500) that every man should know himself “consecrates the definitive superiority of the lover over every other cultural type and establishes the soundness of the new ethic promulgated by the elegists” (378). Though she recognizes the Ovidian parody of the Delphic injunction, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, Laigneau perceives no absurdity or humor in this passage. Instead, she takes it as she takes everything in elegy: at its word.

The credulity of this book means that it misses elegy’s wit and fun; it also misses elegy’s deliberate undercutting of the speaker. In Laigneau’s hands, elegy reads like a genuine erotic tragedy — indeed, she speaks precisely of “le tragique des Élégiaques,” namely that they perceived better than anyone else “at what point love was a war” (110). She recognizes a literary relationship between elegy and ancient comedy but admits no humor into elegy, even when discussing Ovid, though she acknowledges his parodic dimension (281-82 n. 38). Scholars who perceive irony, undercutting, wit, play, or any subversive subtext (other than opposition to marital legislation and old-fashioned mores) are dismissed as pursuing “radical” (189) or “excessive” (263) interpretations. No argument, analysis, or line of reasoning accompanies these dismissals.

Beneath its veneer of attention to elegy’s subversive moral and political content, this book is a throwback to much earlier scholarship. Its romantic and naive readings of the poets as expressing pure devotion to love could have been produced forty, even a hundred, years ago. Its dismissive treatment of recent scholarship means that its argumentation (where such can be perceived among so much overt assertion) is hard to take seriously. That is a shame, as a lot of work went into this book, and its subject would be of interest to many elegy (and Catullus) scholars. This is not the definitive study of women and love in Catullus and the elegists. That book, if such a thing is possible, remains to be written.


1. “The Role of Women in Roman Elegy: Counter-Cultural Feminism.” Arethusa 6: 103-124.

2. Greene, E. 1998. The Erotics of Domination: Male Desire and the Mistress in Latin Love Poetry. Baltimore.

3. To list only a handful: Gold, B. 1993. “‘But Ariadne Was Never There in the First Place’: Finding the Female in Roman Poetry.” In Feminist Theory and the Classics, edd. N. S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin. London. 75-101; —. 1993. “The ‘Master Mistress’ of My Passion: The Lady as Patron in Ancient and Renaissance Literature.” 279-304 in Woman’s Power, Man’s Game: Essays on Classical Antiquity in Honor of Joy K. King, ed. M. deForest. Wauconda. Hallett, J. 1989. “Women as Same and Other in Classical Roman Elite.” Helios 16: 59-78. Keith, A. 1994. “Corpus Eroticum: Elegiac Poetics and Elegiac Puellae in Ovid’s Amores.” CW 88: 27-40. Skinner, M. 1993. “Ego Mulier: The Construction of Male Sexuality in Catullus.” Helios 20: 107-30. Wyke, M. 1990. “Reading Female Flesh: Amores 3.1.” 113-143 in History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History, ed. A. Cameron. Chapel Hill. —. 1994. “Taking the Woman’s Part: Engendering Roman Love Elegy.” Ramus 23: 110-28.

4. Wyke, “Reading Female Flesh,” and Keith, “Corpus Eroticum,” note 3, above.

5. C. Pascal. 1916. “Doctus Catullus.” Athenaeum 4: 1-5.

6. “Roman Women’s Useless Knowledge.” Chapter 6 in Writing, Empire, Identity in Rome. Princeton. My own discussion of the puella’s erudition (Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy. Berkeley. 2003), which obviously postdates Laigneau, takes a different view.

7. I have argued the opposite: 1997. “Slave-Rape and Female Silence in Ovid’s Love Poetry.” Helios 24: 60-76.

8. Herter, H. 1960. “Die Soziologie der antiken Prostitution im Lichte des Leidnischen und Christlichen Schrifttums.” JbAC 3: 70-111.

9. The Catullan Revolution. London. 1959.

10. The instructions to women, Ars 3.795-802, for faking their pleasure further complicate the question of Ovidian sexual egalitarianism, but Laigneau takes no notice of them either.