BMCR 2006.03.20

Properzio. Elegie. Edizione critica e traduzione

, , Elegie. Testi e commenti = Texts and commentaires ; 19. Roma: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 2005. 418 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8884761182 €95.00 (pb).

This book is a new edition of Propertius, with an Italian translation, by Giancarlo Giardina (hereafter G). It is part of a relatively recent collection which over the last fifteen years has published about twenty volumes, under the direction of W. Goeffrey Arnott, Bruno Gentili and Giuseppe Giangrande. The authors presented in the collection are usually not as famous as Propertius: G’s work indeed is far from isolated, and the end of 2005 has seen no fewer than two other great contributions to Propertian scholarship, with the commentary on the second book by Paolo Fedeli, and the long awaited new Budé edition, produced by Simone Viarre.1 More generally, G has benefited from the thorough research previously carried out by James Butrica, G. P. Goold and Stephen Heyworth, not to mention the earlier Propertiana by Shackleton Bailey. G himself has long been interested in Propertius: he has already published an edition of the second book in 1977 as well as written various articles and notes on the Propertian text. G’s edition and translation have therefore to be compared with those high standards of scholarship.

The book includes an introduction, the content of which is limited to editorial matters and does not deal with literary issues. It also has an index nominum in the final pages. But, although it mentions many other critics in the apparatus criticus, the book does not contain any bibliography or history of Propertian editions and emendations. This can be regarded as one major flaw in this critical edition. Nor will one be able to find anything about the metrical aspects of Propertius’ elegies. The absence of notes may also account for some controversial choices in the translation which will be discussed below.

This review will examine first the introduction, which explains the principles followed for the establishment of the text, secondly the text itself, and finally the translation.

The introduction (17-23) is rather short and exclusively focused on textual aspects. G, following Goold, dismisses Butrica’s hypothesis of a third series of manuscripts, which he names X, showing that X never provides a better reading in difficult passages. Such a point of view also runs contrary to Heyworth’s and Viarre’s2 but both approaches have their interest and their legitimacy, so that G’s argument could be convincing. G also explains why he has chosen not to mention the MSS D, V and Vo systematically but rather to include them into recentiores.

G might encounter more skepticism when it comes to the way he develops his own principles for editing the text. In short, he judges that the complexity and the obscurities of Propertius’ poetry should be ascribed to textual transmission rather than to poetic design, so that relevant conjectures will be needed to restore the text’s original but lost clarity.3 So G expresses his dissatisfaction with the loci similes often referred to by the advocates of the textual tradition, wishing to show they are frequently misused and do not prove anything. He then lists some cases where given the manifest corruption of the text as it has been transmitted the editor has to resort to conjecture. After this sample of examples, G argues for the necessity of larger rather than letter for letter corrections.

One example among others nonetheless reveals the exaggerations his method has led G to. Commenting on 3, 7, 45-46, he argues that the transmitted reading of 46 pauper, at in terra nil ubi flere potest is not defensible, and proposes the following conjecture, pauper, at integras nunc retineret opes. Thoughsome emendation seems indeed necessary even if another less radical, reading might be suggested,4 G holds that his conjecture shows how corrupted the tradition has been: this is however a circular argument. He adds a large-scale re-writing of the previous line, transmitted as uiueret ante suos dulcis conuiua Penates and corrected into duceret ante suos dulces iumenta Penates, since conuiua would have no meaning here, there being no mention of a dinner. However, the etymological meaning of the adjective would perfectly suit here and makes this conjecture useless. We will further see in considering the edition that the supposed need for the conjectures proposed by G is often the main problem raised by his text.

The text edited by G is in close concordance with the way he conceives the task of the Propertian scholar. The difficulties of the text must result from a chaotic transmission since there is often no equivalent in the Latin language for controversial phrases in Propertius and ancient poetry is supposed to tend to clarity of meaning. It is then incumbent upon the editor to propose conjectures in order to get the clearest text possible.

The work done by G in this field shows his great knowledge of previous scholarship. Numerous emendators are cited in the apparatus criticus : Burman, Guyet, Heinsius, Palmer, Passerat, Schrader, Volscus, among many others. One would all the more, then, wish they had been listed in a bibliography, which would have spared one the task of consulting other editions to check some references when needed.

On some passages acknowledged as difficult ones but also on other lines, less controversial but not less dubious, G’s creativity has accomplished excellent things: 1, 20, 4; 1, 20, 7; 1, 20, 49; 2, 6, 32; 2, 7, 8; 2, 7, 20 (where G could even adopt the larger emendation he has suggested only in the apparatus); 2, 13b, 39-40; 2, 22a, 39; 2, 34a, 1; 2, 34b, 26; 3, 7, 60; 4, 4, 38 are only a few examples.

In other cases, G has displayed his knowledge of earlier emendations and relevantly used them to correct unsatisfactorying passages: 1, 21, 6; 2, 1, 5; 2, 13a, 1; 3, 7, 25; 4, 1, 88; 4, 7, 2; 4, 7, 78 for example.

Despite these successful emendations, there are also many conjectures which seem quite arbitrary. G often gives parallel quotations to prove their plausibility, but still does not show they are needed. For instance, why change nostra Venus (1, 1, 33) to saeua Venus, even if Horace once wrote mater saeua Cupidinum ? Or miserae to immodicae (1, 2, 32)? Or raro to tardo (1, 3, 27)? And such unjustified emendations are indeed numerous. They can be all the more disturbing as they frequently ignore and damage the poetic subtlety of the transmitted text. The best example of such harmful correction is the replacement of fallax opus by audax opus in a passage which has not caused any difficulty up to now but which has prompted many stimulating interpretations (4, 1, 135). Similarly, luna moraturis sedula luminibus is far more interesting than the emended luna moraturis pendula luminibus, as an article by Joan Booth (“‘Moonshine’: Intertextual Illumination in Propertius 1.3.31-3 and Philodemus Anth.Pal. 5.123”, CQ 51.2, 2001, 537-544) develops. Some conjectures result in the disappearance of characteristic elegiac terms: thus, the correction of querenti into uidentur in 1, 18, 1; or of limen into nomen in 2, 6, 24.

According to G’s editorial principles given in the introduction of the book, most of these conjectures are supposed to give the poem a more obvious meaning, either from a grammatical point of view or in semantic terms. This often leads to no improvement of the text, but rather to a disappointing oversimplification. It appears just as arbitrary to transform the manuscripts’ tradition into a plain and poor text as to consider every unintelligible passage in Propertius as a poetic trouvaille. And more than once G has clearly indulged in the first tendency. Thus I think it is highly damaging to replace puluis Etrusca by uallis Etrusca without any necessity, unless the originality of the phrase given by the consensus codicum is to be considered as one. In 2, 1, 36 on Maecenas, et sumpto et posito fasce is meant to correct the more complex but more interesting et sumpta et posita pace in the name of the traditional image of Maecenas. In 2, 26c, 30, the substitution of nautas for fidos may make the text simpler, but it also makes it redundant: the reader obviously knows the lovers will be sailors if the poet follows his mistress, whereas the adjective fidos insists on an important value in the elegiac relationship. Some terms also seem to be undervalued without any solid reason: the noun corpus is twice corrected into something easier but less powerful (2, 26c, 56; 2, 34a, 15). All these emendations are irrelevant and spoil the poetic effect, since they are of no necessity, the text being quite understandable without them. The intrusiveness of such corrections becomes all the more evident when they affect several passages or when the emendation of one word is linked with the correction of another one. The construction artifex followed by the genitive is complicated and rarely found, but it appears twice in Propertius (1, 2, 8 and 2, 1, 58): G nonetheless chooses to correct it in both passages. In 1, 16, 29-30, G reads uiolentior instead of the manuscripts’ patientiori. To make his point, he cites a parallel passage in Ovid: uiolenta Ceraunia saxis, where one can find, as in Propertius, Ceraunius and saxum. But it should not be forgotten that Ceraunius itself in Propertius is a conjecture by G, and that it is justified only by the presence of saxum as in another Propertian phrase. To sum up, the whole correction of the distich is founded on nothing but the presence of the noun saxum, not a very infrequent word in Latin poetry and the Latin language… In 3, 20, 4, G similarly ignores the Propertian parallels for the genitive of price and corrects the tantine, given by the recentiores and adopted by most editors, into tantisne.

The edition proposed by G, thus, is enriched by his daring improvements of the manuscripts’ readings, and he suggests some stimulating conjectures. But generally speaking his attempt fails. In the introduction, he refers to the supporters of tradition as the conservative camp. But in reality, his method leads him to another sort of conservatism. Postulating that an elegy cannot but be simple to read and understand, he limits it to a narrow set of meanings and tries to preserve those few significations by emending every passage that does not fit in. G may be right in refusing to cherish all the obscurities as poetic treasures, but it does not allow him to rework all the lines which do not correspond to the average elegiac language.

The translation raises fewer questions, even if, from time to time, it also suffers from the tendency to oversimplification. It is generally very precise and exact; it refuses to elude the text’s difficulties by affecting an obscure phrasing. The Italian text is thus very clear and pleasant to read. It also respects the rhythmical variations in Propertian poetry, alternating longer and briefer sentences.

Sometimes, the wish to give an explicit translation may nonetheless have prompted the author to use too ponderous a style and even to resort to unnecessary additions. For instance, I do not think it is useful to render the diminutive ocellis (1, 1, 1) by begli occhi, or saeuos ignes (1, 1, 27) by il crudele fuoco dei chirurghi. Some renderings even sound like footnotes: giving the Italian for some periphrases in the Propertian text, G adds the proper noun, as if to make sure the reader, who is provided with no other source of information, will understand (1, 2, 19; 1, 18, 20; 3, 20, 18). The same happens with some dense Latin phrases which have been developed since explanations of their meaning cannot be mentioned in a footnote ( tunica in 2, 6, 14; carmen in 2, 14a, 26; durus in 2, 34b, 44; libellus in 3, 3, 19).

I have found few mistakes. I think however that rudis (in 2, 26c, 39 where it describes Argo) should not be translated as ‘recently constructed’ (as G suggests) but as ‘unexperienced’ as in the English translation by Goold and in the French translation by Simone Viarre, as the parallel with Catullus 64.11 incites us to do. In 3, 24, 19 I find it is less interesting to translate si qua dea es by se tu, dea, esisti (which acknowledges Reason as a goddess) than by ‘if goddess indeed you are as Goold has or si tu es une déesse as Simone Viarre has, in other languages.

To conclude, this book contains two distinct parts. The translation, close to the text established by the critic, is precise and proves a fine insight into Propertius’ poetry. But the text itself, even if it provides any Propertian scholar with a number of stimulating suggestions, cannot be used as definitive for this poet, and, above all, not as a reliable basis for a literary interpretation. If it deserves to be read, it is rather because it is an extreme example of interventionist principles applied to the edition of texts and the interpretation of Propertius’ corpus. It also provides the reader with many suggestions which oblige him/her to reflect on the text s/he usually reads and interprets. By paying thorough but unfortunately over-intrusive attention to every line, G has engaged us to remain alert to such matters.


1. In this review, I shall mention several times Simone Viarre’s edition. Since it was published a few weeks after G’s work, he was not able to read it, so that my references to the Budé edition should not be meant as if I wished he had done so. I have used the French edition only as a point of comparison.

2. See Simone Viarre’s introduction to her edition, XLIX.

3. A quotation from Margaret Hubbard as an epigraph to the introduction and a reference to James Butrica are supposed to support this point of view.

4. Baehrens, Fedeli, Goold and Viarre, for example, read 46 as pauper, at in terra nil nisi fleret opes, which is more economical and at least as convincing as G’s reading.