BMCR 2007.12.40

Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry

, , Gendered dynamics in Latin love poetry. Arethusa books. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. ix, 372 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0801881986. $55.00.

Table of Contents (also listed at the end of the review)

(The reviewer wishes to apologize to the editors and contributors to this volume for the late appearance of this review.)

As anyone who has ever put together a collection of essays by divers hands might tell you, the process can occasionally resemble — depending on the relative agility or sheer determination of the contributors — the herding of cats and turtles. Editors who have (eventually) coaxed a wandering contributor back towards the agreed centre ground of the collection, may return to discover that others have padded silently away or shifted themselves firmly out of reach and over the horizon. Ronnie Ancona and Ellen Greene, the editors of the collection under review, are much to be admired for their success in producing a volume which displays clear evidence of unity. The unifying theme of ‘gendered dynamics’ — which here involves focus on ‘the ways in which Roman amatory texts present a complex picture of male desire and female subjectivity’ (p. 2) — is admittedly something of a Big Tent of a concept. But the three sections into which the volume is subdivided show high levels of internal coherence: ‘Male Desire and Sexuality’ (4 papers); ‘The Gaze’ (6 papers); and ‘Female Subjectivity and Silence’ (3 papers). The volume as a whole is valuable in another way too, since ‘Latin love poetry’ is not confined to the ‘personal’ elegy of the early Augustan era, but includes the erotic poetry of Catullus and Horace, Ovid’s later elegiac works, and even the Metamorphoses. The editors have not pushed the boundaries of ‘love poetry’ beyond breaking point, in the way that inclusion of an essay on Vergil’s erotic themes or Horace’s satiric texts might arguably have done. Instead they have successfully demonstrated that ‘canonical’ Roman love elegy can enter into productive dialogue with other amatory texts of the late republic and Augustan era, including the nominally epic Metamorphoses, which, as the papers of Kirk Ormand and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell usefully demonstrate, displays clear continuities with Ovid’s earlier love poetry.

For all that the volume as a whole opens up critical possibilities in this way and crosses generic boundaries, its heart lies with Propertius, who receives fully five out of the volume’s thirteen essays. The other winner is Ovid, and particularly his later ‘marginal’ elegiac works, which receive four essays: Rimell on the Medicamina, Bowditch on the Ars, Brunelle on the Remedia, and Spentzou on the Heroides and Tristia. There is no separate essay on the Amores, but the real loser is, as usual in the study of Latin love poetry,Tibullus (who is mentioned intermittently at best). Why do those of us who work on elegy — and here the reviewer cheerfully admits his own culpability — seem unable to invite Tibullus to the party?1

The brilliant opening contribution by Trevor Fear is among the most stimulating in the book. Shifting the focus away from the female protagonists of elegy onto their male counterparts, Fear notes that the first three books of Propertius, through the opening and ending poems of this grouping, situate themselves within a narrative of a period of (condoned) youthful excess: ‘the closural sequence of Propertius Book 3 … appears to present a containment of elegy’s youthful challenge’ (p. 27). However the author goes on to argue powerfully that just because Propertius designed his elegies to be processed (ultimately) in a non-disruptive way, does not by itself restrict readers to reading them in precisely this manner. Playing down the implications of the closing poems of Book 3, individual readers can choose — and have chosen — to maximize the text’s ideological challenge as a whole rather than to minimize it. Certainly this flexible approach allows us to understand why so many critics of the past 30 years have been able to make claims for the subversiveness of Roman love elegy, but (e.g.) politically conservative men of the generation of Pliny the Younger were apparently able to absorb the text of Propertius (and Catullus) harmlessly within their polite literary culture.2 In an chapter which shares this preoccupation about how readers respond to complex and contradictory texts, Ronnie Ancona notes that Catullus 61 contains within itself traces of two ideals: that after marriage a husband should forsake all other sexual relationships, or that, if he continue such relationships, they be conducted only with persons of low status. As a reader of the Catullus poem in his Ode 2.8, Horace, rather than maintaining a tension between the two ideals, concentrates instead on the disruptive elements in Catullus’ text, and presents a picture of men unable to direct their desires in a socially acceptable manner (where the earlier author had dealt only with threats to such direction). In a close and rigorous reading of the programmatic Propertius 2.1, fellow-editor Ellen Greene performs the signal service of teasing out the multiple illogicalities and contradictions of the poem, as Propertius oscillates between the softness of elegy and the masculine values of epic. In the final essay in the section on ‘Male desire and sexuality’, Kirk Ormand tackles the same-sex love affair of Iphis and Ianthe in the Metamorphoses. Beginning with a clear justification of the place of the Metamorphoses in this collection and the elegiac overtones of its love stories (pp. 79-80), the author takes issue with the understanding that the story of Iphis and Ianthe is to be placed within the category of homosexual love in the ancient world (and attendant homophobia), and reasserts the primacy of the ancient categories of ‘active’ versus ‘passive’. In a stimulating conclusion, Ormand argues that the true love which may not speak its name in ancient love poetry is that of non-hierarchical love (which has no place on the active versus passive conceptual grid).

In the first essay in the ‘Gaze’ section of the book, Elizabeth Sutherland uses film and audience-oriented theory to put to test the idea that in Odes 2.5 ‘the young woman in the ode is beautiful and desirable entirely because she is watched and commented upon’ (p. 113). The author acknowledges great diversity within audience and film theory (pp. 117-19), and, in a valuable close reading of the text, brings out well the range of audience positions offered by Odes 2.5 and how these shift and change over the course of poem. What is true of Sutherland’s article in miniature is largely true also of the book as a whole: this is a collection of essays tolerant of critical diversity. In a paper which shares a preoccupation with audience reactions, Christopher Brunelle looks at the notorious ‘ugly sex’ passage in the Remedia Amoris (Rem. 399-440), and illuminatingly focuses on Ovid’s technique here, learned from satire rather than didactic, of mocking a student who would follow the advice just given. Ovid hands responsibility for the text to readers by demanding from them a response — before revealing his own thoughts on the instruction offered. (Brunelle, in a notably un-Ovidian moment, does not take the opportunity of drawing our attention to two very stimulating earlier publications of his own on the Remedia.3) In a second article which successfully links the Metamorphoses with Ovid’s elegiac output (pp. 164-5), Patricia Salzman-Mitchell, drawing on the same theoretical sources as Sutherland, argues in detail that the power of Andromeda and Atalanta to stupefy their male viewers and of Medusa to petrify offer ‘moments where alternative roles for women are adumbrated’ (p. 174).

Any attempt to convey effectively the content of Victoria Rimell’s paper on Ovid’s Medicamina is apt to make a reviewer feel like a hapless entrant in Monty Python’s ‘Summarizing Proust’ competition. Rimell adopts the well-established and often richly productive John Henderson technique of a journey through a text (and its neighbours), where the scenery is documented, widely separated features of the landscape are strikingly juxtaposed, puzzling or startling features are pointed out, and the reader is deliberately provoked with a series of precisely calibrated over-statements. Insights abound, such as the observation that the Medicamina, deeply unflattering to its female audience, ‘like the Remedia … functions as the Ars Amatoria’s mirror text, performing an anti-seduction that cannot but seduce’ (p. 188). And the promised argument emerges that Perseus and Medea, and Narcissus are ‘animating subtexts … both for Ovid’s imagining of the self-indulgent puella at her toilette and for the poet’s and readers’ experience of spying on her cosmetic routine’ (p. 178). The reviewer has one suggestion to offer. Does an assumption of the ‘Medicamina’s systematic denuding of the elegiac puella’ (p. 182) need to deal first with the generic differences between ‘canonical’ first-person elegy and the eroto-didactic Medicamina? As Mario Labate has argued, where earlier elegy proclaimed a focus on a few women of exceptional beauty and talent, Medicamina and Ars 3, of generic necessity, explicitly address themselves to a wider female audience. This audience is assumed to be in need of the cosmetic assistance that earlier elegy had so vigorously denied was appropriate for the apparently unique beauty of Cynthia.4 Perhaps the former women cannot be identified too closely with the latter.

Hérica Valladares’ chapter on Propertius 1.3 is another of the highlights of the book. The author focuses on the ‘problematic’ realism of 1.3 and argues that ‘central to the poem is an analogy between the plight of the lover and the emotional dynamics elicited by the experience of viewing works of art’ (p. 212). Where the relevant works of art are concerned — such as Bacchus finding Ariadne or a sleeping Maenad — it is invigoratingly argued that ‘fascination, not possession, is the true subject of these images’ (p. 221) and that this in turn has implications for how we read Propertius 1.3. Where Valladares seems relatively unconstrained by her interpretive ideology and conveys a sense of critical freedom, O’Neill initially seems somewhat immobilized by the giants of ‘gaze studies’ (p. 243) — even when arguing against them. Nevertheless, a very convincing case is made for the stress laid by Propertius on the viewing and gazing of women (particularly successful in Book 2), and it is argued that Cynthia is made to show an awareness that she is the object of the lover’s desiring gaze and that this empowers her because she realises that she controls the access to what her lover wants (p. 245).

Bowditch’s paper on Ars 3 opens the final section of the book, and, taking the extended retelling of the myth of Procris as her subject, sets out to recover a ‘feminine subject position not fully controlled and constructed by masculine discourse’ (p. 272). Whatever the larger intellectual problems of such a project, Bowditch’s reading of the myth is undeniably compelling. She notes the parallel between Procris’ misreading of aura as Aura and the external reader’s never-allayed suspicion that aura really conceals the name Aurora and then argues powerfully that Procris is emblematic of the reader’s subjective experience of reading a complex text as it unfolds: ‘a feminine reading … is experienced by a reader who first identifies with Procris’ suspicions and then resists the manipulation of the praeceptor by sustaining the hermeneutic uncertainty that many of the details in the digression encourage’ (pp. 283-4). Tara Welch, in a rich and suggestive reading of Propertius 4.4, argues that Tarpeia’s struggle between love and state is mirrored in the way that she is physically pulled between Capitol (Roman headquarters) and Forum (Tatius’ encampment). The latter nevertheless ominously foreshadows her doom, home as it was in Propertius’ day to a relief depicting the punishment of Tarpeia. The only place where Tarpeia can speak is on the steep slope between the two places — a place which echoes her own emotional marginality — and Propertius insinuates a significant parallel here between himself and Tarpeia. In the final paper of the collection, Effie Spentzou has found a way of introducing the Heroides and Tristia to one another and encouraging them to converse. Noting the contempt for the feebleness of writing as against direct speech often expressed in ancient literature, where the issue is one of control of the speaker’s meaning and reception, Spentzou applies this to understanding Ovid’s rhetoric of powerlessness and silence in the exile poetry. Ovid’s inability to come to terms with the limitations of letter-writing is then contrasted with the considerable presence built up in their letters by the heroines of the earlier epistles: ‘Ovid comes to writing having lost everything; the heroines come to writing with the hope it will help them break out of the silence in which they were traditionally imprisoned in “official myths”‘ (p. 328). However, in his reticence and enforced silence over the ‘error’, Ovid at last comes closer to his marginalised heroines.

In sum this is a successful and thought-provoking collection, which mixes close readings of individual texts with more generalised or thematic styles of research. Given the large amount of close readings in the volume, it is strange that there is no Index Locorum (always easier to put together than a Subject Index). Certainly, the provision of such an index in Maria Wyke’s Roman Mistress increased the utility of that volume considerably. Finally, a lament over continental drift. Just over 5 per cent of the works cited in the Bibliography are in a language other than English. Have we —- and I address this question also to myself — stopped talking to German and Italian scholarship? Table of Contents

Introduction (R. Ancona and E. Greene)


1. Propertian closure: the elegiac inscription of the liminal male and ideological contestation in Augustan Rome (T. Fear)

2. (Un)Constrained male desire: an intertextual reading of Horace Odes 2.8 and Catullus Poem 61 (R. Ancona)

3. Gender identity and the elegiac hero in Propertius 2.1 (E. Greene)

4. Impossible Lesbians in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (K. Ormand)


5. Vision and desire in Horace Carmina 2.5 (E. Sutherland)

6. Ovid’s satirical remedies (C. Brunelle)

7. The fixing gaze: movement, image, and gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (P. Salzman-Mitchell)

8. Facing facts: Ovid’s Medicamina through the looking glass (V. Rimell)

9. The lover as a model viewer: gendered dynamics in Propertius 1.3 (H. Valladares)

10. The lover’s gaze and Cynthia’s glance (K. O’Neill)


11. Hermeneutic uncertainty and the feminine in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria: the Procris and Cephalus digression (P. Lowell Bowditch)

12. Amor versus Roma: gender and landscape in Propertius 4.4 (T.S. Welch)

13. Silenced subjects: Ovid and the heroines in exile (E. Spentzou).


1. Compare Maria Wyke’s disarming admission in the preface to her collected elegy essays, that Propertius is her focus and that the ‘elegies of Ovid are considered only where they appear responsive to those of Propertius, and those of Tibullus scarcely feature at all’ (The Roman Mistress, Oxford 2002, p. 2 n.1).

2. Cf. e.g. Pliny, Epist. 4.14, 6.15, 9.22.

3. C. Brunelle (2000-01), ‘Form vs. function in Ovid’s Remedia Amoris’, CJ 96: 123-40, and idem (2002), ‘Pleasure, failure, and danger: reading Circe in the Remedia’, Helios 29: 55-68.

4. See M. Labate (1984), L’ arte di farsi amare: modelli culturali e progetto didascalico nell’ elegia ovidiana. (Biblioteca di MD 2, Pisa), 181ff.