BMCR 2006.03.25

Properzio: Elegie, Libro II. Introduzione, testo e commento. ARCA Classical Texts, Papers and Monographs 45

Sextus Propertius, Paolo Fedeli, Elegie. Libro II. ARCA, classical and medieval texts, papers, and monographs, 45. Cambridge: Francis Cairns, 2005. 1070 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0905205421 £150.00/$300.00.

Students of Latin elegy, after long having to make do with a few slim commentaries like Camps on Propertius or Hollis on Ars 1, now live in an age of Megacommentaries, amid such riches as the large-scale works now devoted to individual books of Ars, Fasti, and Tristia, McKeown’s on-going Amores, Maltby’s Tibullus, and Fedeli’s Propertius II, which caps his series of commentaries on all four books, most of them on a similar scale.

Unfortunately, his Propertius II does not begin well. The introduction (pp. 21-35) is devoted entirely to the controversy, nearly two centuries old, over whether Propertius wrote 4 books of elegies or 5, and Fedeli now joins the ranks of those who opt for 5, with our “Book 2” alleged to be an accidental conflation of two originally independent books; following Lyne, he ends the first of these (“IIA”) with 11 and begins the second (“IIB”) with 12, and he proposes substantial losses from our text of IIA, though he refuses to allow the consequences of this theory to affect the way he edits the text. Even more unfortunately, however, readers who want an informed review of the controversy and of the arguments that have fueled it will need to look elsewhere; Fedeli simply leaps from Lachmann to the present, and the debate over the significance of the ancient grammarians’ citations, which subsequently came to claim as much attention as Lachmann’s original arguments, is virtually passed over in silence, on the irrelevant grounds that there are “only” 13 such citations. (He ignores completely such vital issues as the lack of titles in the Propertian archetype and why certain grammarians by-pass illustrative examples in Book 1 in favour of the first available example in Books 2-4, and he inaccurately identifies Menes’ 1983 article as the most recent discussion of the latter.)

Nor can one say that Fedeli provides adequate justification for his views. Though he adduces the extraordinary length of Book 2 as one reason for dividing it, he never explains why he is certain that its length can be explained only through amalgamation rather than (for example) through interpolation. His second reason is of course the belief that the indicative verb form “est” in 13.25 (“sat mea sat magna est si tres sit pompa libelli”) proves that Propertius had written 3 books of elegies when he composed the line. Now, unlike other advocates of the 5-book theory, Fedeli is aware that his preferred version of that line is only a conjectural restoration of the unmetrical version transmitted by the mss, “sat mea sit magna” etc. Curiously, however, he makes no mention of that fact here, and discusses it only in the commentary ad loc., with no cross-reference. But even in the commentary Fedeli does not justify the emendation convincingly, because he never identifies the real issue: why we should accept the conjectural restoration of an indicative verb in a context where all the other principal verbs are jussive subjunctives (and where the paradosis in fact offers the subjunctive form “sit” that we would expect — a form that makes the “three books” just as potential as everything else here). His arguments for it are entirely unpersuasive: 1) the alleged imitation of Propertius at Silius 6.122 “sat tibi sat magna et totum uulgata per orbem”, where, of course, the all-important “est” is not to be found, and 2) the ease with which the corruption to the paradosis could be explained, though this consideration also applies to other proposed emendations, including the one that I believe to be correct, “sat sit magna, mihi si tres sit pompa libelli”. A comparable lack of rigor is evident elsewhere too when Fedeli discusses issues related to the manuscript tradition or to editing in general.

Fedeli began in 1965 with a conventional commentary on Book 4, but his working method has evolved since then (Book 1, Florence 1980; Book 3, Bari 1985) toward a kind of “essay-commentary”. First he presents the text of each poem or fragment, without apparatus criticus — an unfortunate inconvenience in a text so deeply corrupted. (I wish, by the way, that Fedeli had somewhere identified the 150 passages in which he says he has changed his mind since his Teubner text of 1984; it would be fascinating to see precisely how his views have evolved, though it does seem clear that he is now more willing to suspect, to emend, and even to delete a few obvious interpolations.) The text is then followed by an enumeration of bibliographical references, a full paraphrase, and an interpretive essay.

When the commentary proper begins, it does not proceed line by line and lemma by lemma but rather short paragraph by short paragraph, with philological points treated as they arise in context; and these sections of the commentary themselves generally begin with yet more paraphrase. This approach accounts for much of the book’s substantial bulk. Certainly the commentary is not stuffed full of parallels, though it does cite them often; Fedeli is just as likely to send his readers to the OLD or TLL, just as he sends them to Hofmann-Szantyr for justifications of syntax. I feel strongly, however, that a troubled text like that of Propertius is better served by an entirely self-sufficient commentary that contains whatever information the user needs to reach an informed judgment; surely it matters a good deal, especially when a disputed paradosis is being defended, whether a particular iunctura is attested in Ovid or in Corippus, and whether a disputed reading is being supported from the Latinity of Cicero or of the Itinerarium Egeriae. In similar fashion, Fedeli often dismisses others’ opinions by referring to an article or review where someone else has supposedly refuted them; in all such cases, of course, the truly cautious and skeptical reader does not need a reminder to check the validity of Fedeli’s assertions.

A thousand pages of commentary would seem to promise an extraordinary degree of thoroughness, and generally this book delivers on that promise. For example, on the opening lines of 30, Fedeli offers a full discussion of various topoi and rhetorical figures deployed there, such as the flight from love, and cites the appropriate parallels for most of them (though the alleged imitation by Petrarch contributes nothing to the interpretation, and I doubt that Horace, Epod. 7 served as Propertius’ immediate model here). Nevertheless, I suspect that every user of Fedeli’s commentary will feel at times that he has neglected some important feature or other (probably more a comment on human nature than on the commentary). For example, his discussion of the opening lines of 30 could be improved by including references to Theognis 1287-94 and P. Oxy. 2885.1, in both of which we have a threefold repetition of φευγ‐ comparable to Propertius’ fugis / fuga / fugias (the Oxyrhynchus fragment, like the Propertian context, even seems to include Scythia as the destination; knowledge of these passages might have saved Fedeli from the rather dubious suggestion that the lines depict “un’epica situazione, con la fuga dell’eroe o del suo antagonista” rather than a centuries-old erotic topos).

More substantially, I was surprised to find only a superficial discussion of “ingenium” at 1.4; not only is this a key term of Roman literary theory, it is particularly prominent in the Propertian tribiblos as a whole and in Book 2 above all (see 24.23, 30.40, 34.58). I would have liked to see Fedeli explain why he capitalizes “Musa” in 1.35, 10.10, and 12.22, when he acknowledges that it means nothing more than “poetry” in the first two passages at least (his note on the third passage is not so explicit; he might also have cited some of the Greek examples where μοῦσα simply means “poem” or “poetry”). In his discussions of 8.16 and 9.26 he seems unaware of the idiom by which “caput” can stand for a person; note the overly literal interpretation in the former passage, where Cynthia is addressing Propertius abusively, not metaphorically “beaning” him with words “come se fossero oggetti contundenti”. On “tura damus” at 10.24 it would not hurt to refer to Servius Danielis on A. 8.106 for the religious use of “dare”. And I doubt very much that subsequent versions of the notion that “if it’s a tough job, willingness alone is enough” are imitations of 10.6-7 (“Il distico è stato ripreso … da” etc) rather than independent versions of an old proverb, especially when the “Panegyric of Messalla,” for one, could well predate Propertius II if it was indeed composed for Messalla’s consulship in 31 B.C.; similarly, I doubt that Propertius’ “quod si deficiant uires” itself must be an imitation of Horace’s “uires / deficiunt” (S. 2.1.12f.), as though he lacked the talent to combine these two commonplace words without the Horatian model to inspire him.

Naturally a number of the cases where I miss a discussion involve difficulties that I believe are symptoms of corruption but which Fedeli, dedicated to the defense of the transmitted text, passes over in silence. To mention only a few out of dozens and dozens of examples, I would be delighted to know what he thinks it means to say that the Meander “deceives its own paths” (“decipit … uias,” 34.36), or why he thinks that the author of 34.25 says that “Lynceus himself” is now in love, or why there is a sudden switch from speaking about Lynceus in 25 to addressing him in 26 (invoking “un incalzante ricorso al ‘Du-Stil'” certainly does not answer the question, for me at least). I do not understand why the author of 32, in defending the conduct of a mortal woman, adduces the conduct of goddesses without explaining their relevance, or why the woman he is defending is suddenly described as wealthy (32.41f. — a passage, by the way, that cries out for a reference to Prop. 3.13, at least); as he does so often elsewhere in comparable passages, Fedeli simply rolls with the punch, expounding the sense of the text without inquiring too closely into how it fits the context — but then he seldom discusses any given phrase or couplet in the broader context of a passage, an elegy, or a book.

Despite my criticisms, and despite its self-imposed (and usually unacknowledged) limitations, I happily aver that Fedeli’s commentary has much to say that is true and sound and genuinely useful for understanding Propertius. It disappoints me, however, and fails its audience when it displays an unwillingness to grapple with the most recent developments in Propertian scholarship and even an active reluctance to expose its readers to those developments (in general, Fedeli either ignores or dismisses anything that seriously challenges his own convictions). One is in his approach to editing. Though I suspect that he would prefer not to be called a “conservative” textual critic tout court (he would presumably prefer “cautiously conservative”), his work is nevertheless in the conservative tradition that has prevailed for nearly a century and a half: as he makes quite clear on pp. 34-35, his method is dedicated to preserving the vulgate, not to a fresh re-examination of the tradition. For over 30 years now one scholar after another has challenged this conservative approach to editing Propertius, arguing from ancient estimates of his style and/or from the evidence of the text in Antiquity that substantially more emendation is appropriate than can be found in the conservative vulgate; but Fedeli ignores those challenges, and does not defend his approach against demonstrations that the Propertian archetype was at least as corrupt as, say, the archetype of the Catullan tradition.

Then there is the question of poem-division. Over the same 30 years, one scholar after another has impugned the poem-divisions of the tradition, in Book 2 above all, and has called for a fresh examination of the problem; nevertheless, Fedeli clings to the vulgate numeration, despite its lack of authority — in the case of 34, he champions the unity of a poem that, in its current dimensions, was “invented” around 1445 by an anonymous Renaissance scholar, and shows no awareness that he is assuming the rightness of a conjecture rather than, as he ought, justifying it.

What does distinguish Fedeli’s work from that of other conservative critics is that he is the best philologist among them, having no time, for example, for nonsense like the temporal interpretation of “quando” in 10.8, and that he is the most open-minded of them. I am delighted that he is now willing to eject 3 couplets from the text of Book 2 as interpolations; I can only hope that he will one day recognize that the criteria he invokes (stylistic inferiority, contextual irrelevance) also justify the deletion of many, many more. Fedeli also rejects recent developments in the study of the manuscript tradition, dismissing the Poggian mss on the grounds that they have no new “good” readings to offer. I have no hesitation is asserting that, had the advocates of those mss pleaded their case on the basis of such “good” readings, Fedeli would be rejecting them on the grounds that those readings are nothing more than humanist conjectures. The value of these mss lies of course in the light that they shed on the state of the Propertian archetype and thus on the genesis of corruption in the tradition (and especially when they help point the way to restoring a correct reading, as they do in Book 2 at 3.22 and 28.53, for example). Fedeli fails to understand that they deserve citing for their own sake simply because they are witnesses to the text independent of N and ἁφλπζ) and therefore vital to reconstructing the archetype (contrast Giardina’s recent edition, which cites the readings of Z, a Petrarchan ms not previously used, not because it offers “good” new readings but because it is an independent witness to the same strain of text as FLP); instead of first reconstructing the archetype (the only proper method of editing a tradition that begins with an archetype), Fedeli still edits Propertius by choosing among transmitted readings, hoping all the while for guidance in difficult cases from a “best” manuscript.

Despite being nowhere near as up-to-date in its coverage of the literature as its year of publication suggests, Fedeli’s commentary nonetheless represents the best result that could be achieved with his chosen methodology, and it is no exaggeration to say that it is (all the more so in combination with his commentaries on the other three books) an achievement that commands and will long continue to command the respect and gratitude of everyone concerned with the study of this author, and that it will serve as a place of first reference, though not always as the final word. It is therefore all the more unfortunate that he has chosen to mar this monument with a display of “odium philologicum” directed against another scholar. (That I am that target was unknown to me when I agreed to review the commentary, and it was, I assume, unknown to the editors of BMCR when they asked me to review it.)

This review is not the place for an extended rebuttal of all the passages where, instead of acknowledging my work in a neutral or even positive manner (as he does from time to time), Fedeli misrepresents it; but something must be said of his assault (a word I use deliberately, since he makes it clear that he intends a form of chastisement here) on my proposal to delete 34.65-84 as a series of two interpolations: 65-66 are authentically Propertian but have been introduced into our mss from Donatus’ biography of Virgil, while 67-84 are the work of another Augustan poet. In both cases his “rebuttal” simply fails to answer my objections, relying on such standard techniques of the conservative critic as defending a corruption from other corruptions or simple special pleading. Highly disturbing, however, and fully worthy of mention in a review is the inaccuracy of his attack on the proposal to delete 67-84, which Fedeli ridicules on the grounds that, if I were right, we would have to imagine a mediaeval interpolator who knew not only Theocritus but Varius as well: and yet my discussion of these lines both begins and ends with the assertion that they must be ancient, not mediaeval. Since he has implied that he intends to show my views more respect than I have allegedly shown to those of others, I suppose that we must give him the benefit of the doubt and assume carelessness; but the very same problem arises again when he cites my words “there is no reason to think that these lines are Propertian at all” as an example of my alleged habit of making confident, peremptory assertions, since he has suppressed the end of that sentence, where I mention one of my reasons for regarding the lines as interpolated (an anomaly in metrical practice), and has also neglected to observe that those words are not the ex cathedra pronouncement he implies but a conclusion based on two and a half pages of logical argumentation. (I suspect that Fedeli has mininterpreted some remarks of mine in CQ 1997 and thinks that I regard his Teubner as a “disaster”; it is probably as good as a deliberately conservative edition of a desperately corrupt text could be, and far better than the likes of Phillimore or Rothstein or any number of lesser editions, but I stand by my assertion that to edit an author from the author himself can indeed be “a recipe for disaster” when the text is as corrupt as this one obviously is and depends upon a single source.) Unfortunately, users of this commentary need to be advised that no statement of Fedeli’s about my own work can be taken at face value, and that they should be alert to the possibility that he may be grinding other axes here as well.

The book is rounded out by a modest bibliography and a series of useful indices dedicated to “nomi,” “cose notevoli,” “lingua, stile, tecnica compositiva,” “prosodia, metrica, struttura del distico,” “poeta, poesia, poetica,” topoi, and passages cited. Fedeli and his publisher are to be congratulated on the high standard of production: typographical errors of any kind are extremely rare, and the only important one I noticed is on 328, where “haec” rather than “hac” is said to be the reading transmitted by the primary mss in 10.21.