BMCR 2008.06.14

Textual Permanence. Roman Elegists and the Epigraphic Tradition

, Textual permanence : Roman elegists and the epigraphic tradition. London: Duckworth, 2007. ix, 197 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715636324. $81.00.

Perhaps better described as a monograph, Teresa Ramsby’s book provides an informative overview of verses influenced by epigraphic form and then embedded within the poetry of Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and most of all Ovid, while at the same time offering some intriguing readings of well-known poems. In her Introduction, “Elegiac Inscriptions and the ‘Epigraphic Habit’,” Ramsby argues for renewed attention to the relationship between the actual inscriptions presented to Romans in the real world, from the formal epitaphs on funerary monuments to common graffiti scrawled on public buildings, and the fictive inscriptions occurring in the artificial world created by the elegiac poets of the Augustan Age for their literary audience. Dismissing ‘ekphrasis’ as a motivating concern for the poets, and rather embracing the concept of ‘mimesis’ as the impetus, Ramsby determines the textuality of epigraphic verses as primarily communicating the poet’s artistic agenda and facilitating the interpretation of the poetry by the reader, even to the point of becoming “part of the ongoing dialogue between the educated Roman elite and the emerging imperial court” (p. 10).

At the end of her Introduction, Ramsby provides a summary of the structure, substance, and arrangement of the chapters of the book. In fact the structure of the Introduction itself also serves as a paradigm for Ramsby’s pedagogically oriented methodology for the book as a whole: each chapter begins with an introductory statement of thesis and context, followed by a discussion of contextual ‘exempla’ chosen to validate that thesis, and ends with a concluding statement comprising a reiteration and brief summation of the thesis and the ‘exempla’ discussed. While this approach may mirror the qualities of a good teaching lecture in which the lecturer states what will be said, says it, and then reviews what has been said, in book form this method unfortunately does elicit a certain sense of repetitiveness where more analysis would be welcome, at least by those familiar with the selected texts.

The first chapter, “Elegy and the Inscription,” is devoted to a general discussion of the elements of versification in the epigraphic tradition of ancient Rome. Ramsby concentrates on the historical and evolving relationship between inscriptions and literary verses from mid-Republic to the Augustan Age, with an eye toward validating her assertion that “inscribed verses” are intended to glorify, and in some senses solidify, the imagined world of the poet. The bibliographic explication of her theoretical approach, moving from the pioneering research and compilations of Mommsen to the magisterial and interpretive work of Lattimore, emphasizes those scholars who have studied “invented inscriptions within Roman literature” and points to the influence of Wolfgang Iser’s conception that epigraphic verses underscore textuality, rehearsing the graphic expressions presented to the ancient Roman reader on a daily basis throughout the city. This idea combined with Kathyrn Gutwiller’s attention to context in her study of Hellenistic epigrams becomes the departure point for Ramsby to consider the contextualized meaning of “inscribed verses” in the chapters that follow, and in the tradition of Lattimore to focus more on the interpretation of such verses rather than notation and categorization. Indeed it is Ramsby’s opinion that these “inscribed verses” often signify, if not reify, essential aspects of the poet’s intentions and imagination.

The second chapter, “Epitaphic Revelations in Catullus and Propertius,” begins her more pointed examination of elegiac poetry, and, perhaps not surprisingly, given his influence on Augustan elegiac poetics, Catullus is included in a discussion of Propertius. The chapter opens with a defense of elegy as a serious poetic form and important mode of “self-representation” for poets wishing to imitate, if not appropriate, the role and manner of the Roman elite classes. Briefly examining the influence of Catullus, especially poems 65 and 68, for their funerary expressions of loss and grief and for how they thus become akin to verbal monuments, Ramsby then elaborates on her proposition that Propertius makes explicit the memorializing possibilities of epigraphic verses, whether in an attempt to elevate himself beyond the demeaning role of ‘servus amoris’ (2.13) or to give voice to the dead and thus revisit an original function of elegy (4.7 and 4.11).

The poetry of Tibullus dominates the relatively short and somewhat self-contained third chapter, “Tibullan Inscriptions: Between Self and Persona,” which approximates a lengthy journal article. Ramsby begs the question of why Tibullus, as opposed to Propertius or even Catullus, used his own name in distiches explicitly modeled on inscriptions (the epitaph in 1.3 and the votive in 1.9). Offering an interesting reading of Tibullus 1.9 under the influence of Cornelius Gallus, specifically the fragment on votive inscriptions commemorating Caesar’s victories (2.2-5, Courtney), Ramsby’s answer would seem to be that this is another instance, as in Propertius, of the need to memorialize poetic achievements against the backdrop of Roman cultural expectations and experience, another example of the conflation of poetics and politics through inscribed verses. In her view Tibullus blurs the line further between poetic persona and reality by the use of his own name in his inscribed verses, thus reinforcing the notion that the poet hopes to remedy a certain anxiety over how his own artistic ‘service’ and ‘piety’ in a poetic life devoted to love in a rustic setting may be read by the imperial urban establishment.

Completing her exegesis of Augustan elegiac poetry in the final three chapters of the book, Ramsby showcases one poet, Ovid, explicitly acknowledging both the elegiac nature and the greater frequency and variety of epigraphic verses in the Ovidian corpus. In Chapter 4, “Naso’s Inscriptions,” Ramsby highlights the frequent use of Ovid’s own name in epigraphic verses not only from the Amores, but also from the Ars Amatoria and the Tristia. In each work the type of inscription reflects the self-identified changing persona of the poet: votive for the ‘amator’ of the Amores, the ‘tituli’ of the ‘praeceptor’ in the Ars Amatoria, and the epitaph for an exile in the Tristia. In Chapter 5, “The Heroides Inscriptions,” Ramsby calls attention to how often Ovid uses inscribed verses within his epistolary work to create a sense of realism. At the same time these fictive inscriptions may also grant a voice to women who were not normally accorded such power or recognition in reality. Following this exploration of the gendered nature of inscriptions and Ovid’s potential manipulation of such, in Chapter 6, “Ovid’s Epic Inscriptions,” Ramsby offers an interesting analysis of three explicitly worded inscriptions from the Metamorphoses (Phaethon, Iphis, and Caieta) as evolving commentaries on the gendered and traditional roles of women within the patriarchal Roman world. In Ovid, as many other scholars have argued in recent years, Ramsby finds an iconoclast who subtly rails against Roman cultural norms in general, and the conservative Augustan regime in particular, a poet who uses epigraphic verses to comment on the repression of freedom, whether based on gender or art.

Following the structure of individual chapters, the brief Conclusion to the book is a final reiteration of Ramsby’s thesis, encapsulating an argument ultimately linking poetics and politics, communication and culture. Ramsby, as she did for each chapter, does indeed summarize her major contentions in respect to the framework and examples used throughout the book. Here Ramsby reviews the unquestioned associations between elegy and inscriptions, and emphasizes how the selected poets have in her view used this association for their personal poetic agendas. According to Ramsby, the Augustan elegists, inspired by the conventions of Hellenistic epigrams and the example of Catullus, essentially found in epigraphic verses a particularly Roman mode for attributing to their own texts the quality of desired permanence evoked in the inscriptions of the physical world. As inscriptions so often gave voice to the unseen dead, so epigraphic verses created a bridge between the poetic imagination and the very real, if more and more circumscribed, world of the new Principate, and in some sense such verses could also give a voice for the subsequently marginalized in Roman imperial society.

While some readers will no doubt quibble with specific translations (for example, I would question why Ramsby chooses to translate “ignotas” as “thuggish” from Propertius 1.21.7-8, since the denotation of “unknown” better suits the sense of the poem and her own comments, p. 53) or some of her more sweeping generalizations (for example, I would question how Ramsby knows what Ovid has in mind when she states “As Ovid suggests by way of Iphis’ inscription, it may very well be new and yet unheard voices that determine the direction of Rome’s future, p. 142), most readers should find that this book does open “one more window into the complex interrelationships between Latin poetics and Roman culture, and into the hopes and anxieties of their authors” (p.147). This is a book that certainly deserves a place in undergraduate libraries, both as a bibliographic resource and as an example of thought provoking interpretations derived from a close reading of literary texts based on current critical theories.