BMCR 2008.08.31

Brill’s Companion to Propertius

, Brill's companion to Propertius. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2006. 1 online resource (ix, 476 pages).. ISBN 9047404831 $323.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Propertian studies are experiencing interesting times. The tragic death of James Butrica in 2006 brought to a premature end the career of the textual scholar who has arguably done the most in recent times to shake up the editing of this notoriously difficult poet. His work, first published in 1984, continues to challenge: three new editions or partial editions of Propertius appeared in 2005, that of Simone Viarre citing the X family of MSS as Butrica desiderates (p.39). Gregory Hutchinson’s Cambridge edition of Book 4 — exceptionally textual, for that series, and following the Butrica/Heyworth lead — appeared in 2006. And S. J. Heyworth’s OCT of the poem, with companion volume of textual commentary, appeared in late 2007. Heyworth, who was working in Oxford on the text at the same time as Butrica, now brings their work together in what promises to be a groundbreaking new edition, incorporating not only their skeptical approach to the MS tradition, but also the previously unpublished conjectures of a host of eminent Latinists (A. W. Allen. M. Hendry, A. S. Hollis, D. Kiss, C. E. Murgia, and M. Winterbottom, to cite only a few). This 2006 companion volume, then, is in some ways already out of date, though in ways that can only encourage Propertian textual critics to continue to push the envelope.

Unfortunately, there are other ways in which this volume is out of date, ways not likely to encourage progress. The Propertius we find here stands with one foot in the 1970s and one in 2008. Considerable space is given to discussions of the text and the history of Propertian scholarship, much of it very aware of modern developments (though the contributors do not always agree). But the literary interpretations — in more than one case really no more than summaries of the poem — range from solid to uninspired to almost breathtakingly behind the curve of Propertian scholarship. I do not suggest that a Companion should take up a Lacanian position (to pick one example of many recent books on the poet that does not find a place in the bibliography 1), or indeed any position at all: but one certainly should expect that such a volume provide a vade mecum to the whole field, not just to parts of it.

We find the cutting edge of Propertian scholarship in Parts 1 and 2: Paolo Fedeli, on “The History of Propertian Scholarship” and Butrica and Richard Tarrant on “The Transmission of the Text of Propertius” and “Propertian Textual Criticism and Editing” respectively. But Fedeli’s survey of scholarship focusses overwhelmingly on the history of editions; after Wilamowitz (mysteriously cited as (1962)) and Hubbard (1975), the only literary scholars he finds worth mentioning are the lucky few (Luck, Stroh, Lyne, and Holzberg) who work on issues of definition (is it love poetry? is it something else?). Butrica on textual transmission clearly sets forth the issues involved in trying to understand this legendarily corrupt tradition. Tarrant’s contribution, on the history of Propertian editions, is one of the best in the volume; in addition to a refreshingly flexible approach and modest tone, he does an excellent job of sorting out the myriad different scholarly opinions, in particular on the unity or otherwise of Book 2 (pp. 55-7). Many of the volume contributors have a view on where, and how, that book should be divided; only Tarrant actually gives us guidance on whether these views are, in fact, controversial (e.g. p.55, n.29).

Part 3 deals with Propertius’ antecedents; Part 4, with major themes and poetic technique. The contributors to both sections are extremely distinguished scholars who are experts in the fields they cover. Overall, I found these sections largely unexceptional — but also relatively unexciting. Francis Cairns is surely right to say that the debate on the origins of Latin love elegy has largely stalled (p.69); hence the decision to reprint his chapter from Tibullus: A Hellenistic Poet at Rome (1979), followed by a postscript whose dual purpose is (1) to refute objections to that chapter, and (2) perhaps more usefully, to survey the contributions made to the question by the new Gallus and P.Oxy. 3723. Adrian Hollis and Peter Knox survey Propertius’ responses to Hellenistic and neoteric poetry respectively; I was surprised that in the latter (indeed, throughout the volume) Zetzel’s critique of Ross on Gallus (“Gallus, Elegy, and Ross”, CP 72 [1977] 249-60) is ignored. More surprising, however, is that Steele Commager’s glorious 1974 Prolegomenon to Propertius — a book that anticipated Wyke’s discussion of the textual Cynthia by over a decade — is cited by no one. The readings of Cynthia and other Propertian women in this volume are neither fully poetological (though more than a gesture is made in this direction by several of the contributors) nor properly historical; the closest we get to the social reality that may or may not lie behind Cynthia is in Fantham’s lucid discussion of the difficulties involved in identifying her status (p.189). Reading her as a projection of a “real” woman does not preclude reading her as an instantiation of the poetry; again, however, the critical discussion outside this Companion has moved beyond the 80s (Sharon James’s 2003 Learned Girls and Male Persuasion is in the Index but I was unable to find it in the notes, let alone actually discussed.)

Robert Maltby’s thorough piece on the themes in Propertian poetry adopts the useful device of unpacking the major themes in the four books using 1.1 as a springboard. I do question his claim that that programmatic poem does not foreshadow the theme “relating to Propertius’ own poetic composition” (p.147). While it is true that no explicit reference to poetry is made in 1.1, Zetzel has shown ( Materiali e Discussioni 36 [1996] 73-100, an article indexed but perilously underused) that the poem is loaded with self-referential devices, from the elaborate adaptations of Gallus and Catullus in the beginning and end (e.g. 1.1.28 ferte per extremas gentes et ferte per undas to Cat. 101.1 Multas per gentes et multa per aequora uectus) to the cooptation of magic as an alternative poesis (cf. Manuwald, p.235). Maltby also sees the theme of the praeceptor amoris as “rare” in 3 (but he misses 3.3.19-20) and “totally absent” from 4 (p.148). But if there is one unabashed praeceptor in the collection, it is the lena who dominates 4.5! The last chapter in these sections, Tobias Reinhardt on the rhetorical elements in Propertius, is both enlightening and helpful; his construction of a typology of rhetorical features may seem restricting, but it makes his piece clear and — well — rhetorical.

The worst problems come in Part 5, “An Interpretation of Propertius’ work”. Gesine Manuwald’s thematically structured overview of the so-called “Monobiblos” would interact nicely with Maltby’s survey of themes; unfortunately, neither author, nor the editor, makes any connections, depriving us of the deepened understanding that would bring. Book 1 would seem to stand on its own. Manuwald does not challenge the characterization (associated most often with Skutsch’s influential analysis of the book’s structure) of 1.20-22 as a ‘coda’ to the book, apart from saying that “there is no reason to doubt that they belong to the book” because they continue the themes of death and separation (p.231). This is true, but superficial. She sees only poetic tradition in the two-part sphragis, and does not engage with any of the political readings proposed.2 Similarly superficial is her analysis of 1.3, the one poem of which she does a detailed explication; for example, after well bringing outwell how Cynthia’s self-characterization at 1.3.35-46 “can be understood as references to love by the educated reader” (p.242), she does not continue to show how it sets Cynthia up as an alternative, poetic voice — following, indeed, the hints given at the end of 1.2, and foreshadowing 2.1, 3.24-5, and 4.7-8 (among others). But Manuwald’s chapter is illuminating in comparison to the reading of Book 2 by Hans Peter Syndikus, that follows. His poem-by-poem trawl through the book identifies the importance of the transitions between poems and the links in these elegies with Book 1; there is a wealth of information on topoi in the footnotes (though again no links to Maltby’s discussions of the same themes). But his impressionistic summaries of the poems do not take us far in literary analysis, and soon become difficult to concentrate on. He demonstrates little or no skepticism about the historical “information” in the poems: so, for example, the marriage legislation alluded to in 2.7 is accepted without reference either to Badian’s debunking of it or to Cairns’s discussion of its relevance to the poem,3 nor is there any querying of Cynthia’s status (she is described as “a Roman lady” on p.293; p.253 discusses “emancipated female figures” in late Republican Rome, with a reference to Sall. BC 25).

From the standpoint of pure literary excitement, Kevin Newman’s discussion of Book 3 is the most interesting chapter in the book. It is, like much of his work, idiosyncratic; but it is terrifically learned, and refreshingly comparative. Russian, Greek, German, and English literature are brought in to explicate Propertius’s journey toward “defining a poetic self”. Though I disagree with some of Newman’s conclusions, I enjoyed especially his insistence that we take the Pindaric in Propertius more seriously; his spirited discussion of Propertius’s obsession with water (“Propertius nauta“, p.338); and his insistence that Propertius could be both satyric and serious, slender and grand, in the same book ( passim). This chapter reprises and supplements the arguments from Newman’s 1997 Augustan Propertius (p.326). Finally, Günther takes on Book 4, again as a poem-by-poem analysis, following a brief discussion of structure and date. Here, at last, we find from the editor some cross-references to earlier chapters in the Companion; and Günther’s summary analyses of these 11 poems take us much further into the realm of literary interpretation than do those of Books 1 and 2. I found it almost unbelievable, however, that a piece designed to be an overview of Book 4 could so systematically ignore any of the recent work on Roman topography and the poems: no Welch, no DeBrohun,4 no Wiseman, not even any Richardson, whose commentary (in the Index here) on Propertius is especially useful on matters of mythology, nomenclature, and place. Elaine Fantham’s good piece in The Roman Cultural Revolution is cited (n.37) but not used. Given this Companion’s overall tendency toward a historicizing reading of the elegies, this seems all the more remarkable.

The last section, two pieces on Propertian reception, I feel unqualified to assess. I enjoyed Bernhard Zimmermann’s reading of Goethe and Pound reading Propertius. Simona Gavinelli gives us a catalogue (partly overlapping with Butrica’s chapter, but that is not signalled) of Propertius’s presence from late antiquity through the Renaissance; both she and the reader would have been better served if someone had checked the English idiom of this piece.

I have not singled out the many individual observations in this volume that I found stimulating or educational, not because there were none — indeed, every chapter has good things to offer — but because I think that despite the good here, this book is overall more likely to do harm than help. It is not a Companion in any meaningful sense, as it shows only a lopsided view of this complex poet; it will not help students understand contemporary Propertian scholarship outside of a very narrow range; it presents idiosyncratic views without contextualization in the broader field; and its Index is very feeble, making even what is here relatively inaccessible. Günther is right (p.xi) that Propertius “offers ample room for disagreement”, but some editorial guide through the many opinions expressed here — even if only in the form of connections and comparisons between chapters inserted into the notes — really is necessary. (I say this as one who does not often desire artificially imposed coherence in an edited volume.) The editorial non-interventionism goes even beyond this. We are told neither the source of the “portrait” of Propertius on the cover (will readers think that we actually have ancient evidence on what he looked like?!) nor, indeed, even that it is supposed to be Propertius. Nor are we given a guide to the identity and careers of the expert contributors. Finally — not the editor’s fault, but amusing given the state of Propertius’s text — in my copy the two gatherings comprising Syndikus’s chapter on Book 2(!) were bound upside down and backwards.

This is the first big companion volume to a very difficult author. No doubt Oxford, Cambridge, and Blackwell will follow suit: and no doubt it will be a case of tot comites, tot Propertii. That multiplicity of viewpoint will not be a bad thing.

Table of Contents

1. Paolo Fedeli, “The History of Propertian Scholarship”.

2. James Butrica, “The Transmission of the Text of Propertius”.

3. Richard Tarrant, “Propertian Textual Criticism and Editing”.

4. Francis Cairns, “Propertius and the Origins of Latin Love-Elegy”.

5. Adrian Hollis, “Propertius and Hellenistic Poetry”.

6. Peter Knox, “Propertius and the Neoterics”.

7. Robert Maltby, “Major Themes and Motifs in Propertius’ Love Poetry”.

8. Elaine Fantham, “The Image of Women in Propertius’ Poetry”.

9. Tobias Reinhardt, “Propertius and Rhetoric”.

10. Gesine Manuwald, “The First Book”.

11. Hans Peter Syndikus, “The Second Book”.

12. Kevin Newman, “The Third Book: Defining a Poetic Self”.

13. Hans-Christian Günther, “The Fourth Book”.

14. Simona Gavinelli, “The Reception of Propertius in Late Antiquity and Neolatin and Renaissance Literature”.

15. Bernhard Zimmermann, “The Reception of Propertius in the Modern Age: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Römische Elegien and Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius“.


1. Including M. Janan, The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV (Berkeley, 2000); D. F. Kennedy, The Arts of Love: Five Studies in the Discourse of Roman Love (Cambridge, 1993) and ” Augustan and Anti-Augustan : Reflections on Terms of Reference” in Anton Powell ed., Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus (Bristol, 1992); R. A. Gurval, Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War (Ann Arbor, 1995).

2. E.g. I. M. le M. Du Quesnay, ” In Memoriam Galli : Propertius 1.21″, in Author and Audience in Latin Literature, eds. T. Woodman and J. Powell (Cambridge, 1992) 55-74.

3. E. Badian, “A phantom marriage law”, Philologus 129 (1985) 82-98; F. Cairns, “Propertius on Augustus’ marriage law (II,7)”, Grazer Beiträge 8 (1979) 185-204.

4. T. S. Welch, The Elegiac Cityscape. Propertius and the Meaning of Roman Monuments (Columbus, 2005); J. B. DeBrohun, Roman Propertius and the Reinvention of Elegy (Ann Arbor, 2003).