BMCR 2008.09.67

Propertius Elegies Book IV. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics

, , Elegies. Book IV. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xi, 258 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0521819571. $32.99 (pb).

This book is an edition of and commentary on Propertius’ Book 4, by the Oxonian scholar Gregory Hutchinson. It belongs to the so-called ‘green and yellow’ collection of the Cambridge University Press, which regularly includes very extensive and up-to-date works. It also belongs to a strong renewal of Propertian scholarship. While Hutchinson was working on his commentary, Simone Viarre published her edition for the Budé collection and Stephen Heyworth was finishing his long-awaited edition for the Oxford Classical Texts. A Brill Companion has also been published, recently reviewed for BMCR by Christina Shuttleworth Kraus (BMCR 2008.08.31). To be more precise, Book 4 has attracted unprecedented attention, and has been under scrutiny in the works of Micaela Janan, Jeri DeBrohun, and Tara Welch1 to name only a few of the major recent publications. In this respect, Hutchinson’s edition and commentary is most welcome as it will provide students and scholars with a very thoroughly documented tool to approach the last collection by Propertius.

The book consists of three main parts: a general introduction, an edition and a commentary. They are followed by a bibliography (which only includes the references that are relevant for the whole book, whereas more specific references are to be found in the sections devoted to the commentary of each poem) and two indices, of Latin and modern words.

In the introduction (1-23), Hutchinson insists mainly upon the manifold presence of discontinuity in Book 4 and relates it to “an aesthetic of meaningful surprise” (2). This applies firstly to the representation of history: while Augustus’ policy was aimed at inscribing the prince’s innovations into the wider perspective of Rome’s greatest traditions, Propertius usually stresses the contrast between past and present, and by so doing, he offers a new treatment of themes that had been or were being handled by Virgil and Horace, and gives them a meaning which is less in accordance with the new regime’s agenda. Discontinuity also affects the elegiac genre itself: Propertius breaks with the kind of elegies he had himself created and practiced in his previous collections, and returns to earlier versions of this poetry, like the Hellenistic epigram and Callimachus’ Aitia, which in his last book prevail as models over love elegy. Inside the book itself, discontinuity can be perceived through a sequential reading, which reveals the constant presence of opposition and conflict as themes in the poems: the conflict between male and female identities, for instance, pervades most pieces of the collection and the opposition between different elegies is not infrequent either. Finally, the last elegy in which the poet lets Cornelia speak does not elucidate the enigmas of the book which remain open to various interpretations.

This introduction is a valuable general preliminary to the reading of Book 4, and faithfully announces the lines of interpretation which are developed in the commentary of each poem: it mentions the relationship with the historical and literary background, the poetic project of Propertius himself, and the questioning of his poetics and its evolution. It also leaves the reader with an insight into the originality and unity of the book, which does not conceal its enigmatic aspect in defying any attempts at univocal interpretation.

It ends with some explanations about the manuscript tradition, especially acknowledging a debt to Heyworth’s researches in the field: the rest of the edition and the commentary shows indeed that the discussions between Hutchinson and Heyworth must have been intense and fruitful, and even though he endorses some reading by his colleagues, Hutchinson’s edition remains independent.

All aspects of Hutchinson’s editorial work can obviously not be discussed here, but some general tendencies can still be remarked. First of all, Hutchinson’s establishment of the texts and the apparatus reflects an admirable ethicof scholarship: it is always considerate, balanced and justified. It is evident that Hutchinson seeks to serve the text and does not contrive to make it his own. He explores Propertius’ verses enlightened by the long scholarly tradition, from Heinsius to Heyworth, and intervenes in the text only when it seems necessary (and carefully explains why he thinks he should) so that the reader is never left with the impression that a text has been imposed on her. Some of his conjectures are interesting, such as aeratis (4, 1, 27), exstinctas (4, 8, 85) and quaere (4, 11, 82). These are largely most of the time only suggested but three last examples are supported by detailed and convincing argument. quaere, in particular, resolves a textual problem in a satisfactory way, and is backed by a parallel in the CIL.

But skepticism could probably be described as the main and most original feature of Hutchinson’s edition. Many interventions express a suspicion that the verses under consideration might be inauthentic. These doubts can sometimes be doubted themselves. For instance, the argument for the interpolation of 4, 3, 49-50 can be considered as somewhat arbitrary: “The assertion omnis amor magnus is curious” sounds slightly lightweight, since Propertius is often keen on such general maxims; the phrase magnus amor can be found in 1, 19, 12. In other cases, the arguments (grammatical and literary) proposed by Hutchinson are very convincing, as for 4, 4, 35-36. As a whole, these suspicions do not hinder the reader’s perception of the text: they should rather create stimulation for further reflection on the text we read and interpret in so far as they open discussion rather than ending it.

The commentary on each poem is preceded by a short introduction, which explains the major questions and interpretations about it, and ends with a specific bibliography. These pages form a valuable guide on the commentary itself and usually represent a relevant synthesis of the research on the poem which is to be read. The bibliographies are up-to-date and rich, even if some references are still missing: one would expect the entire book devoted by John Warden to 4, 1 to be mentioned (and even quoted, given its quality), or the article by Oliver Lyne on Catullus’ 682 to enrich the commentary on the pattern of doomed marriage, as it is reinstated by Arethusa (4, 3, 11ff.).

As it could be expected from the general introduction, the commentaries themselves incorporate a wide range of sources, which are literary, epigraphic, artistic, historical…The reader is thus provided with a considerable amount of useful information. The primary purpose of these annotations is to illumine the literal meaning of the text, and allow the development of different interpretations: this is undoubtedly delivered. Hutchinson, for instance, often points out the parallels that can be drawn between one passage and other verses in Propertius (outside Book 4), as for 4, 2, 1 and 3, 11, 1, or 4, 8, 59-60 and 3, 10, 26. Likewise, the historical data are usually given with some references both to the ancient testimonies and to the modern works on the subject: this is especially useful for the national elegies in the book.

The reviewer’s main reservation concerns literary interpretation. Some stimulating questions are approached (like the relationship between the lena and the elegiac values in 4, 5, or the comparison between Horos’ and Cornelia’s genealogies which they both boast about) in the introduction and even in the specific remarks. But it is not clearly apparent according to which criteria Hutchinson judges that one passage requires a fully developed literary explanation, and another does not. For example, elegy 4, 1 starts with ten lines which evoke the rustic simplicity of ancient Roman times and contrast it with the contemporary urban development of the city. Hutchinson, commenting on verses 5-6, writes that “pottery statues of gods and the hut of Romulus often make points against present values (in 2. 16. 19-20 with cheek against Augustus)”. Yet, he does not insist more explicitly upon the mischievousness of this opening given that Augustus constantly pretended to strive for simplicity and modesty in his personal life and style of government, whereas this would have been consistent with the remarks which are made in the general introduction on Propertius’ original treatment of Augustan themes and values. More generally, most of the time, Hutchinson does not seem to have much sympathy for metapoetical readings of the poems, but sometimes they would have been worth referring to. On 4, 2, 23, the commentary recalls the presence of the Coan cloth pattern in Propertius’ earlier poetry and relates it with the genre of love elegy, but, even though the name of Philitas is indeed mentioned, the notion that the statement made here by Vertumnus might be a metapoetical hint at Propertius’ Greek model is not considered. It is generally difficult for a commentary with the limited length provided by a collection such as the Cambridge Classics to determine which remarks should be considered as absolutely necessary and which should not. But on some occasions Hutchinson’s commentary could leave the reader frustrated. Nonetheless there is satisfaction to be gained with the richness of the information provided.

As a whole, this new edition and commentary of Book 4 is most welcome: it does not only form an introduction to Propertius’ last collection, but should also stimulate reflection on the text and permit well-informed interpretations. It is written in a rigorous and elegant style. It is dedicated to the late Professor R.O.A.M. Lyne, and there is no doubt that he would have been deeply pleased with such a remarkable tribute.


1. Micaela Janan, The Politics of Desire, Propertius IV, Berkeley, Londres: University of California Press, 2001; Jeri Blair DeBrohun, Roman Propertius and the Reinvention of Elegy, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003; Tara Welch, The Elegiac Cityscape. Propertius and the Meaning of Roman Monuments, Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2005.

2. John Warden, Fallax opus: Poet and Reader in the Elegies of Propertius, Toronto, 1980; R.O.A.M. Lyne, “Love and Death: Laodamia and Protesilaus”, CQ 48, 1998, 200-212.