BMCR 2007.06.25

Propertius. Elegies I-IV

, Propertius. Elegies I-IV. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. 504. $19.95 (pb).

The volume under review is the paperback reissue of an edition originally published some thirty years ago. Aside from the addition of a short “Preface to the Paperback Edition” and the correction of “a few minor errors that marred the original publication,” the work is the same as it was when it was first published in 1977. This fact is both a good thing and a bad thing, much like the work itself. On the one hand, Richardson’s edition remains a useful all-in-one volume, featuring an introduction, text, and commentary which will indeed help the “student coming to the poetry of P[ropertius] for the first time” to read the Latin of this often difficult author with success. On the other hand, the edition suffers from problems, some of which were remarked by reviewers of the original edition, and others of which have accrued to it over the course of the passing decades. In what follows I will discuss in turn the introduction, text, and commentary, and then offer some general conclusions.

When it was originally published, Richardson’s introduction (pp. 3-30) would have provided an undergraduate with an excellent orientation in the poet and his work. Today, while it still offers much that is of value, the introduction is, as one might expect, significantly outdated on some points. The introduction comprises four parts. Richardson (henceforth “R.”) begins the first and longest part (“General Considerations: Propertius and Roman Elegy” (pp. 3-16)) by arguing against a biographical reading of Propertius’ poetry, particularly in regard to the affair with Cynthia. R. argues that, while we may believe Apuleius when he says a living-and-breathing woman named Hostia was the inspiration for Cynthia, the latter is primarily a literary vehicle through which the author attempted to explore “the servitium amoris from every possible angle” (p. 4). Next, after a good, brisk discussion of the evidence for Propertius’ life, Richardson presents a concise book-by-book analysis of the whole corpus, covering such fundamentals as: the evidence for the dating of each book; the identity and significance of the dedicatees and other named characters; the problematic character of book 2; the question of the arrangement of poems for publication; and the basic subject matter of the books, from the primarily erotic first book to the more wide-ranging third and fourth. This is an excellent section, which gives the student in short order a sense of the arc of Propertius’ poetic career with some historical context. Within this same part of the introduction, R. goes on to discuss the ‘invention’ of Roman elegy, and the relationship of Propertius’ poetry to the poetry of his predecessors and contemporaries. This is in many ways an uncontroversial handbook-style account, featuring a brief discussion of the canonical ‘fathers’ of Roman elegy (as listed by Propertius and Ovid in their poetry) as well as a glance at the impact of Catullus on Propertius’ ‘spontaneous’ and ‘hortatory’ style (p. 14).

There are, at the same time, aspects of R.’s account which present the student with an inaccurate picture of Roman elegy and the current state of the scholarly debate. Since the introduction has not been updated, R.’s volume does not take into account the impact of work by scholars such as Judith Hallett and Maria Wyke in the area of gender and sexuality studies (certainly a sine qua non in any responsible course on elegy these days) or the work of scholars such as Paul Allen Miller and Micaela Janan in the area of psychoanalytic criticism. An introduction to Propertius should address at least these strands of criticism.

Beyond these omissions, there are other problems. A minor problem, in my opinion, is R.’s discounting of the importance of the figure of Gallus (“P. would seem to have taken for his first models and mentors Catullus and Calvus rather than Gallus” (p. 14)). Such a position would already have been problematic in 1977,1 and is all the more problematic for the discovery (in 1978) of the Qasr Ibrim papyrus and the nearly thirty years of scholarship since then. Just to give a sense of the current state of the debate: in his recent book Sextus Propertius: the Augustan Elegist, Francis Cairns devotes five of the book’s twelve chapters to issues related to Gallus and his influence.2. A larger problem is R.’s denial of a substantial literary relationship between Propertius and his near-contemporary Tibullus. R. writes: “What the appearance of Tibullus’ book [i.e. his first book of elegies] may have meant to P. is hard to say, but evidently it was not deeply affecting, and this is easy to understand. He must have admired the felicity of Tibullus’ verse, but it probably could teach him almost nothing more than an occasional nicety of phrasing. He and Tibullus moved in different circles and had very different aims as artists; they were neither friends nor rivals” (p. 14-15). R. also writes that P. and Tibullus composed “without communication” (p. 14). This is not, in fact, the case. As Oliver Lyne has persuasively demonstrated, from early in their careers P. and Tibullus were consistently responding to one another’s work, and these responses often took the form of what Lyne has called “spirited ripostes.”3 While R. does remark some of these ‘spirited’ communications in his notes (e.g., ad II.5.25-6 he writes “Just possibly a gibe at Tibullus; cf. Tibullus 1.10.43-68”), he does not appreciate the extent of the phenomenon. Propertius and Tibullus were certainly in communication though their poetry, often in a way that does indeed suggest an air of rivalry. One has to think that if R. had rewritten this section of the introduction for the new paperback edition it would have turned out very differently.

In the second part of the introduction (“The Manuscripts and the Text” (pp. 16-22)), R. begins with a detailed account of the most important Propertian manuscripts (i.e., N, A, F, L, and π discussing fundamental points such as date, provenance, the text attested, the relationship between the individual manuscripts, marginalia and corrections. R. also discusses the itineraries of the manuscripts through time and the various personalities who came into contact with them. This is dense material, but R. manages to present it in a lively way that will be accessible to an interested undergraduate. R. then goes on to discuss his editorial choices and his text, which, he says, is “as conservative as is consonant with the aim of producing readable poetry” (p. 21). As R. acknowledges in the new preface, his treatment of the text “raised some eyebrows” among reviewers of the original edition, primarily for its extensive use of transposition, of which he presented twenty-eight instances.4 The greatest number of these transpositions appear in the latter part of Book 2, where “the chaos of the text. . .points to a violent physical damage to the archetype and must preclude any notion that minor surgery is all that is required” (p. 23). In the case of most of these transpositions—including some of the most substantial 5—the editor is relying on the past work of highly regarded Latinists (such as Housman and Baehrens). With regard to his original transpositions, R. has in a few cases been successful in providing an attractive, more ‘readable’ alternative to what the student will find in Barber’s O.C.T. Two brief examples. First, R. is right to point out that 2.2.9-12, describing the relatively obscure mortal Ischomache, does not sit well in its context, which features Juno, Pallas, and a reference to the Judgment of Paris. (Housman, it will be noted, thought there was a missing description of Venus here and supplied a couplet of his own creation.) These verses fit much more comfortably after 2.29.28, within a description of Cynthia waking up from her night’s sleep. Second, like other editors before him, R. makes a good case that poems 2.17 and 2.22B should be joined; unlike editors before him, R. realized that a much more rhetorically effective poem is created by moving 2.17 (along with 2.18.1-4) to follow 2.22B. In this case, R. does succeed in making a coherent poem from the “mangled remains” (his term, p. 21) he finds in the O.C.T. One could argue that such coherence makes the text more accessible and ‘readable’ for someone coming to Propertius for the first time. With regard to the audience of professional scholars, such attempts at major reconstructive surgery will not all meet with universal acclaim or acceptance.

The third part of the introduction—”Meter” (pp. 22-5)—and the fourth part—”Grammar and Syntax” (25-30)—are as thorough an introduction to these topics as a novice undergraduate will require. In “Meter” R. offers a brief word on the history of the elegiac couplet followed by an analysis of the development of Propertius’ metrical practice over time. In “Grammar and Syntax” R. covers the most important characteristics of the poet and lists a number of references the student can follow up on if she so desires. The latter section, in particular, is too dense for a linear read-through, but could be used well as a reference for dipping into when the student encounters points of interest in the notes. These final two parts of the introduction are followed by a Selected Bibliography (pp. 31-2)—which has not, unfortunately, been updated for the paperback edition—and a list of Sigla (p. 33).

With regard to the presentation of the text (pp. 35-145): there are two points to be made beyond the question of R.’s editorial decisions already addressed above. First: no apparatus criticus is printed. R. writes, in the preface to the new edition: “The omission of an apparatus criticus was viewed by some [earlier reviewers] as reckless dereliction of duty. Apparently those reviewers did not read far enough to realize that every variation of any significance from the consensus of the major manuscripts was discussed at length in the notes, and the APA Textbook Committee decision to omit an apparatus was taken with the object of keeping the price of the book affordable for college students” (p. vi). It is indeed true that R.’s discussions of significant variations from the consensus are quite full. At the same time, more advanced readers would surely appreciate some indication, on the page with the text itself, that such a variation had in fact been printed. (Alternatively, R. could have printed a list of variants from the Oxford Classical Text such as we find in Camps’ commentaries.) Second: as is true of most editors of Propertius, R. chooses to print the text of individual poems continuously, without breaks indicating the poems’ major structural units.6 Given the fact that R. does an excellent job, in the notes, of analyzing the structure of individual elegies, it would have been helpful to the student to see these structural units reflected in the presentation of the poems.

With regard to the notes (pp. 146-489): R.’s commentary on each poem comprises an introduction—ranging in length from a short paragraph to more than a page—and notes of the line-by-line variety. The introduction to each poem generally treats its tone (e.g., poem 1.3 “recreat[es] warm affection and inebriated romanticism”); its structure; and its form (e.g., poem 4.4 is a combination of “the aetion, a poem explaining origins, and the love lament. . .”). In the case of a poem with a complicated manuscript history, R. provides the student with a concise, lucid account of the problems and a discussion of his editorial choices. These introductions are just the right length and level of detail for the novice undergraduate.

On the whole, the line-by-line notes are very good, and the student coming to Propertius for the first time will rarely feel that she does not have at least the minimum amount of commentary required to make good sense of the poetry. R. provides guidance on basic points of grammar (e.g., the supplying of est with a perfect participle; accusative of respect; ablative of specification, etc.), as well as on Propertius’ grammatical peculiarities (e.g., P.’s “ubiquitous use of the pluperfect” (p. 28) to express a preterite, where other authors would use a perfect or imperfect). For particularly difficult lines R. provides a translation. Frequently, R. will include other commentators’ interpretations alongside his own, thus giving the student a range of interpretive points of view. The notes are peppered with parallels with the writing of Propertius’ contemporaries and predecessors (at the levels both of language and of theme), and R. is also good about pointing out cross-references to other poems within the Propertian corpus (e.g., the ‘bark of genius’ motif at 3.9.3-4 is compared to 3.3.22-4). R. is very good about providing necessary cultural and historical background (to take but one example: he offers a concise account of the Perusine War in the introductory note to poem 1.21). R.’s references to places where we might find images of relevant visual art are plentiful, which is fitting for a highly visual poet like Propertius.

Along with the many positive aspects of R.’s notes there is one major negative aspect. R.’s commentary can at times be too vague or elliptical to be useful to a student new to Propertius’ poetry. This is particularly true with regard to R.’s use of ‘cf.’, which is at times unhelpful—and at times positively confusing—because R. does not say clearly what features he means for the reader to be comparing. For example: at the end of his note ad II.12.13 [ in me tela manent, manet et puerilis imago ] R. writes “cf. 1.19.5 [ non adeo leuiter nostris puer haesit ocellis ]. P. is fond of such wordplay.” A novice reader might be excused for wondering: “What ‘wordplay,’ exactly, is meant here?” It is quite clear that these lines share common language and themes—but how these commonalities represent an example of wordplay is unclear to me, and I think it would elude many an undergraduate as well. To take one more example: in his note ad I.3.1-6, R. writes: “Note the careful parallel of elements in these three exempla and the incantatory effect.” Parallel of elements? Presumably R. means to indicate the anaphora of qualis at ll. 1, 3, and 6, but does he mean to indicate more? And if so, what? The student would surely benefit from a greater precision in situations such as this.

By way of conclusion, I would like to assess briefly the utility of R.’s volume by considering its place alongside other, similar volumes. What distinguishes this volume, in my opinion, is its convenience, having as it does a helpful introduction, complete text, and commentary all at hand in a single volume. Undergraduate instructors devoting a trimester or semester to Propertius’ poetry, who want to read selections from each of the four books, will not find a better, more affordable option for their students. With regard to level of sophistication and target audience, R.’s commentary is, in my opinion, quite similar on the whole to the commentaries of W. A. Camps, although it is better in certain ways (e.g., R.’s individual introductions to each of the elegies are much more thorough and helpful than those of Camps). The price of R.’s volume (listed at $19.95) is extremely competitive (to pick one point of comparison: the paperback edition of Camps’ text and commentary on Book 3, published by Duckworth, has a list price of $25.50). With regard to Book 4 in particular, Gregory Hutchinson’s recently published Cambridge ‘green and yellow’ (Cambridge UP, 2006) is undoubtedly a more attractive option for instructors focusing on that book alone among Propertius’ corpus.

As R. implies in his new preface, this volume is intended for “college students.” Scholars will surely choose to rely on the common standard of the Oxford Classical Text, rather than on R.’s text, and for learned commentary will prefer on the whole to seek out the work of Fedeli or Butler and Barber. Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile volume. So long as potential undergraduate instructors are aware of the outdated points in R.’s introduction, this volume will prove an attractive and useful one.


1. J. C. Yardley had already commented, in his 1978 review of R.’s hardback edition ( Phoenix, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 350-353), that R. did not take account of important arguments in David Ross’ Backgrounds to Roman Elegy (1975).

2. The relevant chapters in Cairns’ book are: Chapter 3 — ‘Gallus’; Chapter 4 — Gallan Elegies, Themes and Motifs; Chapter 5 — Gallan Metrics I (Polysyllabic Pentameter Endings); Chapter 6 — Gallan Metrics II (Trisyllabic Pentameter Endings; Positioning and Clustering); Chapter 7 — Propertius 1.20, Gallus and Parthenius of Nicaea.

3. R. O. A. M. Lyne, “Propertius and Tibullus: Early Exchanges.” CQ Vol. 48, No. 2 (1998), pp. 519-44. The quote is from p. 519.

4. For a complete list of R.’s transpositions in Book 2 see W. A. Camps’ review in CR, New Ser., Vol. 29, No. 1. (1979), pp. 37-9.

5. For example: the transposition of O.C.T. 2.28.33-46 as a block to a place after 2.28.2, following Baehrens.

6. G. P. Goold’s Loeb text (in fact an important critical edition) is a notable exception. Goold discusses his decision to print with breaks in his introduction, where he mentions Richardson’s text, which he says is “unlovely” (p. 29).