BMCR 2006.06.17

The Elegiac Cityscape. Propertius and the Meaning of Roman Monuments

, The elegiac cityscape : Propertius and the meaning of Roman monuments. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2005. x, 223 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0814210090. $49.95.

This volume is an examination of the fourth book of Propertius’ Elegies by Tara S. Welch (hereafter W). It is divided into six chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue. It also includes 12 illustrations, as well as abundant and interesting notes at the end of the volume. The bibliography is rich but selective: it does not include any references not strictly related to W’s subject. W’s chief concern is the representation of Roman monuments in Propertius’ last book, hence she does not consider at length poems 3, 5, 7, 8 and 11, which do not explicitly deal with Roman topography: each chapter thus concentrates on one of the remaining poems.

This study contributes to a reassessment of Propertius’ fourth book, and, more generally, is part of a new trend concerning Roman elegy in American scholarship. After the seminal article by Judith P. Hallett in 1973,1 the so-called feminism of such poets as Propertius has been long and fiercely discussed during the eighties, and Foucauldian readings were then for the first time prompted to analyze elegy from various angles. The brief volume by Duncan F. Kennedy,2 in the wake of French deconstructionist theory, was another landmark, because it helps to show that elegy cannot be interpreted as a unilateral political and social message, but has to be read as a blending of traditional boundaries. Continuing this approach, Paul Allen Miller has recently published a book interpreting Roman elegy in the light of Lacanian and Foucaldian theories.3 W’s position should clearly be ascribed to this new group of critics, as she intends to prove that Propertius’ poetics is aimed at insinuating doubt and suspicion into the Augustan reading of the Roman past and urban project.

The fourth book in particular has recently been the object of two studies, one by Micaela Janan4 and one by Jeri Blair DeBrohun.5 It is natural enough that this part of Propertius’ oeuvre should arouse the interest of the new American school. Whereas in the first three books the poet, content with claiming his indifference to Rome’s destiny, mainly depicts his lifestyle with Cynthia and does not consider the realizations of the new regime but incidentally and, often, implicitly, in the fourth book he comes to develop and to thematize his relationship with the transformations of Roman life under Augustus. It thus provides an ideal material for the exploration of the complex intermingling between public and private matters in Roman elegy.

In her introduction, W sets out the topic of her study: she intends to interpret how Propertius represents the evolutions Augustus has implemented or accompanied in the Roman cityscape. She relevantly shows that the exploration of subjectivity is not at all abandoned in the fourth book, but, on the contrary, that the question of social identity is placed at the very heart of this book through its relationship to the Augustan construction of the individual as it appears in new or restored monuments.

The first chapter (” Fallax opus, Reading Rome(s) in Elegy 4. 1,” 19-34) is devoted to the constitution of Roman identity. W objects to Stahl’s conclusion that Propertius’ discourse established a continuity between Roman past and present:6 she shows that the poet also expresses his unfamiliarity with the primitive age of Romulus. She also notices the great number of allusions to foreign citizens and cities and, to begin with, the apostrophe to the hospes in the first line: these people are at the same time Roman by virtue of their present legal situation and non-Roman by virtue of their origin and history. The words of Propertius in the first part of the poem illuminate such gaps and contradictions inside Roman history and destiny, that Augustan policy tried to dissimulate. Willing to lay out the walls of Rome ( disponere), the poet clearly rivals his prince in his architectural and urbanprojects. The reply by Horos challenges this new status claimed by Propertius: topography, especially a male-centered one, does not suit elegy. According to W, this initial elegy provides an open program for the last book, suggesting that there are manifold readings for one monument in Rome, following different subjective perspectives. This conclusion is convincing and stimulating. There is just one minor flaw: commenting on the presence of semi-foreigners in the Roman metropolis, Welch cites an insightful remark by Ralph Johnson on this matter (actually she mentions it in this chapter for the second time, since the very same passage is (more briefly) quoted in the introduction). Even if this quotation is very judicious indeed and Ralph Johnson one of the most brilliant and original interpreters of Augustan culture, such repetitions should be excluded.

The second chapter (“Shifting Vertumnus, Plurality, Polysemy, and Augustan Rome in Elegy 4.2,” 35-55), one of the most original in the book, explores the various layers of diversity implied by the Propertian representation of the statue. W begins with an interpretation of the two monuments vowed to the Etruscan god in Rome, the statue on the Velabrum (Propertius’ Vertumnus) and the temple on the Aventine. While the statue can be seen as a point of contact and boundary between Rome and Northern incomers, which at the same time protects Rome from their arrival and assimilates them into the metropolis, the temple has a more markedly negative symbolism, because it reminds one of the violence needed for Rome to defeat its foreign enemies and to overwhelm plebeian seditions (traditionally taking place on the Aventine). The Propertian Vertumnus’ discourse allows a metapoetical reading of the god but also a culturalist approach to his presence on the borders of the city: Roman identity cannot but be hybrid. Vertumnus, who can be understood differently by each observer, stands for the persistent alterity and diversity of peoples and men assimilated to Rome. In this chapter, W in a masterly way manages to articulate archeological and historic data with fine literary and poetic analyses, and elegantly proves that there is still a meaning in Roman elegy, and in this poem especially, beyond mere metapoetics: she invites her reader to think it over again, and to integrate a culturalist approach with his/her comprehension of any elegy.

The third chapter (” Amor vs. Roma, City and Individual in Elegy 4.4,” 56-78) considers the character of Tarpeia in 4. 4. While this elegy is one of those in Book 4 to have benefited from sustained critical attention, W succeeds in proposing an original interpretation by giving Tarpeia’s tragedy a topographical meaning. She first shows that Tarpeia was an ambivalent character in Roman legendary history, since the famous rock, the name of which is derived from hers, is associated with treason, but her tomb was assiduously venerated. In the age of Augustus (or just before), her portrait also appears on two coins and on the frieze in the Basilica Aemilia (which results from a restoration by Augustus). She must have been represented here to embody a counter-model to the chaste and virtuous ideal woman whose image was promoted by the new regime through the joint efforts of Augustus and his wife Livia. In such a political and social context, it can be no accident that Propertius chose the version of the legend according to which Tarpeia was a Vestal Virgin: such a choice insists on the sexual impurity of the young woman, and reminds one of another lost Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia. The poet thus questions the Roman national representation of sexuality: the Vestals were paradoxically trusted to preserve fertility in the city by their own infertility. Significantly, Tarpeia’s discourse in Propertius does not sound antipatriotic: she dreams of reconciling her desire for Tatius with her loyalty to Rome by uniting the Sabine and the Roman peoples thanks to her marriage to the Sabine general. This will indeed be the end of the story, but without her, or rather, with her being slaughtered. The inescapability of her death is given a topographical expression, as Tarpeia quits the Capitol, the center of Roman might, where her love cannot be fulfilled, and tries to join Tatius in the future Forum Romanum, another theater for Roman political history. There is just no place where Tarpeia can exist. This representation of the violence imposed by Rome and public life on individual desire can be seen as a new version (in Propertius’ poetic career), as well as an antique and archetypical one (in Roman history) of the relationship between Rome and the poet lover of the previous books. In this chapter, W completely justifies her project to read Propertius’ last elegies and Roman monuments together, and clearly establishes the continuity between the first three books and the fourth.

The fourth chapter (” Ars gratia Martis, Art, War, and Palatine Apollo in Elegy 4. 6,” 79-111), though centered on the Actium elegy, is actually founded on a rigorous comparison between 4. 6 and 2. 31, the latter of which is then commented on at length, because it includes a description of the temple of Palatine Apollo, which is supposed to be the occasion for 4. 6. The temple has been vowed in 36 after Naulochus and dedicated in 28 after Actium, so that there is a discrepancy between its initial purpose, commemorating the victory over Sextus Pompeius, and its final signification, linked with the battle which ended the civil wars. It included many artistic references, constructing the image of the princeps as a protector of the arts. There was a passage between the temple and the princeps’ domus, which illustrates the blurring of private and public lives in the new regime. Propertius himself, when evoking the temple in 2. 31, links this public monument with his private life, since he addresses his description to Cynthia in order to apologize for his being late. Moreover, the architectural style of the temple is taken as a model for the elegiac poetic style, and, whereas the presence of Augustus is omitted, Apollo is mentioned as a poet reciting verses. The temple is turned by Propertius from a celebration of Octavian’s victories to a celebration of elegiac poetry. On the contrary, 4. 6 does not include any description of the temple, but Apollo is represented as a warlike god. Octavian himself, far from his concern for the city’s landscape, is entirely involved in (if not overwhelmed by) the battle. Propertius even makes him resemble Romulus when he killed his brother: the opposition between the two brothers echoes the civil wars. Apollo as a poet only returns at the end of the elegy, then accompanying the triumph of Propertius himself. The comparison between the two elegies brings out a fruitful conclusion which illuminates Propertius’ intention to unmask the princeps’ architectural and artistic project and to disclose the bloody foundations of the new regime. While this conclusion may sound a little excessive, the analyses in the course of the chapter are undeniably convincing and hit the mark.

The fifth chapter (“Masculinity and Monuments in Elegy 4. 9,” 112-132) analyzes the Propertian character of Hercules by taking into account the political nuances Antony and Augustus had lent to it. Despite some final interesting references to gaze theory, which show that the observer is manipulated by the images s/he contemplates as well as s/he can transform them by her/his gaze, this chapter is arguably the least stimulating in the book, because it makes use of well-known interpretations and is less original than others. W here recalls the policy led by Augustus and Livia to restore a social and sexual order. By turning Hercules into some kind of transvestite and having him narrate a paraclausithyron, Propertius obviously challenges the Augustan Hercules. W’s analysis is more interesting when she underlines that the scene provocatively takes place on the Aventine, a site associated with the Claudii, Livia’s family, and that the violence of Propertius’ Hercules, together with his thirst and submission to Omphale (insisted on by the poet), reenact the Antonian undertones of the mythological hero, since Antony was famous for his own bad temper and proneness to alcohol and women.

The last and sixth chapter (“Spoils for the Poet, Elegy 4. 10 and Propertius’ poetic Triumph,” 133-165) confronts the telling of the three legends associated with spolia opima by Propertius and Augustus’ political behavior with the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, where these spoils were exhibited. According to W, Augustus would have liked to celebrate a triumph with spolia opima, but had not been able to, as the battle of Actium had nothing in common with a single combat. So he prevented Crassus’ grandson from attaining such a triumph, pretending one should be a consul to be allowed to, and restored the temple, as if the history of the temple and the spoils should have ended with this restoration of his own. But Propertius reopens this history by his narrative of the three previous triumphs of this (highest) rank. The enemies of the Roman leaders generally appear as victims of illegitimate violence, and the poet even laments the defeat of Veii in the second part of the poem: the decay of such a grand city reverses the image of Rome in 4. 1, in ancient times a village and now a metropolis, and Propertius’ regrets about Etruscan ossa evokethe Perusian war and the poet’s own epigram at the end of the monobiblos, also mentioning ossa. At the end of the chapter, W suggests the real triumph comes to the poet, who Romanizes Callimachus, elevating elegy to its highest level.

The epilogue (166-170) encapsulates the interpretations previously proposed and gives them a more universal signification.

W’s book represents a real achievement in Propertian scholarship: her analyses of the fourth Book take into account a wide range of data and arguments, which she relevantly articulates together. These elegies are inserted into their historic and cultural context, but, by this meticulous reflection of the interrelationship between the poet and the princeps, W also succeeds in giving them a present force and value. The links and the continuity between the last book and the previous ones are brilliantly and opportunely explained, but the specificity of the cultural matter in these elegies is also assumed. Therefore, I recommend this book to any reader interested in Propertius’ Book 4, as well as in Propertius in general and in the relationships of Augustan poets to contemporary culture.

I shall just add three remarks about some more controversial points in W’s otherwise brilliant demonstration.

Firstly, at the end of every chapter, W turns her interest to the position of the poem just considered in the book, underlining the continuity and discontinuity effects supposedly created thereby. Most of the time, these observations, not fully developed, could be said to be artificial and are of no use in W’s analyses. Moreover, the authorship of the order of poems is still a matter of debate.

Secondly, the phrase “topographical poems,” coined by W, does not systematically suit the poems, in which sites and monuments are often elusive, as in 4. 6 and 4. 9, where, as W herself admits, the temple of Palatine Apollo and the Roman sites are almost absent.

Thirdly, W, while making the violence in Propertius’ representation of history and legends manifest, sometimes seems to think it is enough to conclude that the poet disapproved of this violence. Whereas she often rightly establishes Propertius’ own position by quotations and references, the denunciation of violence in some passages sounds as if it was hers, not his, and could be charged with transposing an American contemporary position. I think it is not the case in most passages, but I cannot help expressing my skepticism when she speaks of Propertius’ “contrition at the human cost of Roman expansion.” I am in great uncertainty as whether any citizen of Ancient Rome ever felt such contrition. But as a matter of fact, this Americanization of Propertius very seldom occurs and can even be seen as evidence for the seduction and the stimulation Roman poetry can still exert on contemporary minds. As such, this third remark is also a tribute to the liveliness W has put into her approach to the poet, and a regret that we, Europeans, are usually (but surely not always!) more timid in our interpretations.

As a whole, ω’ s book is definitely worth reading and pondering. I warmly recommend it.


1. “The Role of Women in Roman Elegy,” Arethusa 6, 1973, 103-124.

2. The Arts of Love (Five Studies in the discourse of Roman Love Elegy), Cambridge: CUP, 1993.

3. Subjecting Verses: Latin Love Elegy and the Emergence of the Real, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

4. The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

5. Roman Propertius and the Reinvention of Elegy, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.

6. Propertius: “Love” and “War”: Individual and State under Augustus, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.