BMCR 2015.01.11

The Cambridge Companion to Latin Love Elegy. Cambridge companions to literature

, The Cambridge Companion to Latin Love Elegy. Cambridge companions to literature. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xiv, 435. ISBN 9780521129374. $38.00 (pb).


The last decade has seen an impressive number of volumes dedicated to exploring the many facets of Latin love elegy, and to resolving some of its enigmatic qualities.1 This recent Cambridge companion to the genre is one more helpful guide to the issues surrounding Latin love elegy, including its origins, its generic affiliations, its representations of love and gender, and its nachleben and influence throughout European literary history.

The volume is divided into five sections: on history and context – dealing primarily with literary predecessors; on the elegists themselves – Gallus, Sulpicia, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid; on the world of elegy – dealing primarily with elegy’s generic tropes; on the ends of Latin love elegy – with emphasis on the ways that the elegists transgress not only Rome’s societal expectations, but even their own poetic premises; on reception – with essays that address the major periods of love elegy’s resurgence (Late Antiquity, the medieval period, the Renaissance, and the sixteenth seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly in England, France, Russia, and Germany); and on the elegiac meter.

There are twenty-four essays within this volume, including the introduction. As is evident, the editor has assembled an impressive team of scholars, and whether or not she assigned the specific topics for each to address (there is much evidence of intelligent design here), the essays speak from in-depth inquiry and research, and many essays build upon others within the collection. There exist frequent references to other essays within the book, and the editor, the contributors, and the series editors can take credit for the book’s discursive as well as informative qualities. The collection also features the useful closing paragraph in each essay where materials for further reading receive recommendation. The quality of the editorial work is likewise commendable.2

Essays frequently work synergetically to offer an account of the significant developments and controversies relevant to the genre. For example, Hunter and Bessone neatly clarify what is known and what is speculated regarding the influence of Hellenistic poetry upon Latin love elegy; Harrison, Keith and J.F. Miller offer intriguing explanations as to the evolutions of elegy within Propertius’ four-book collection; and Moul and Loubère provide many examples of adaptations of the tropes of Latin love elegy in poems of much later centuries.

For anyone interested in the tensions created by poetry’s creation within and reaction to external forces, there is much to delight the reader. Thorsen writes in her introduction that the fundamental achievement of the elegists under the totalitarian authority of Augustus, is that they “merged the mode of lament with a concept of totalitarian love” (p. 2). In the early principate, with all its super-authority bestowed upon one figure, the hyper-political culture still simmering after the Republic’s end had to take shelter in whatever recesses it could find, and not surprisingly poetry served as one such shelter. It is therefore difficult to read the poetry, whether by Vergil or the elegists, without thinking about the political reverberations their words would have in the age of Augustus. Latin love elegy is particularly provocative because it imagines a world in which society’s expectations and rules may not apply, an alternative world to that prescribed by the princeps. Some of the most intriguing essays in this volume are those that examine the transgressive nature of love elegy and its adaptation of gender-related inequalities to express the un-level playing field for the poet in a place like Rome, and for poetry in the world shaped by Augustus.

One such extended discussion on the tensions between elegy and the dominant culture is found in the chapters by P. A. Miller, Sharrock and Gibson who survey the spectrum of representations of the poet as amator and of his love-object(s) in elegy. Miller identifies the role of the puella as a substitution figure who embodies the anxieties of the poet. Tibullus’ Delia, for example, “stands for the impossible unity of a fantasy of rural ease and urban sophistication” (p. 171), while Propertius’ Cynthia evolves over time, substituting for the act of literary engagement and literary appropriation in the first book, but by Book 4 she becomes a prediction of “the final crystallization of the genre [in Ovid] where the puella becomes truly an interchangeable figure in a series of stock narratives” (p. 176). Sharrock examines recusatio and nequitia in the elegists and distinguishes the different purposes to which they apply them, with Propertius taking the lead in his various uses of self-deprecation to highlight different kinds of literary activities. Ovid’s relative lack of recusationes, she notes, is indicative of the power he wishes to bestow upon his poetry, raising it to the artistic level of the more traditionally vaunted genres, like epic (a point given more emphasis in Thorsen’s essay about elegiac meter when she discusses Ovid’s elevation of the pentameter line; see pp. 376-7). Sharrock agrees that the poets “celebrate their immoral and countercultural values as positive aesthetic choices” (p. 165) – although she rightfully points out that their play-mates, the puellae in the poems, are expected to play by society’s norms. Gibson takes to task the notion of love in elegy as a devoted love toward one woman, and focuses on the numerous infidelities that lie seemingly incongruously throughout the various elegiac works. He examines in particular the plural affections self-consciously displayed in Propertius and Ovid. If the puella, as Miller shows, is a substitution for the poet’s anxieties, then what do we make of the insertion of all these other loves? Gibson sees these extensions of the love-paradigm as “experiments pushing the boundaries of elegy” (p. 214), as seen by the innovative topics that appear in Book 4 of Propertius. Ovid pushes the boundaries even further when in the Ars amatoria he “applies dissolving agents more liberally” (p. 221), turning the reader’s (and wannabe lover’s) attention to the crowd of women (of all types) whom he may seduce. These three essays do much to advance the discussion of both the role of the puella in the elegiac narrative, and the changes to the genre that the various representations of objets d’amour signify.

There are many other threads of discourse that can be pulled from the rich material in this volume. The trio of essays by Sharrock, Fulkerson and Drinkwater provides an excellent crash-course on the major tropes of the elegiac corpus, nequitia, servitium amoris and militia amoris, and the extent to which they are employed by the various artists. In addition each author takes the discussion to a new level of inquiry and discovery. Drinkwater, for example, points out the frequency with which the female lovers of the Heroides utilize militia amoris. She offers a case study of Briseis, who voices her protests to Achilles in a way that evokes a post-civil-war Roman complaint against the “perceived hypocrisy” of a princeps who has spent many lives, confiscated much land and not delivered on all his promises (p. 205). The five chapters on the elegists themselves, their styles, their idiosyncrasies and their poetic voices are highly informative and equally retrospective and groundbreaking. It is useful to note that a consensus emerges from these pages that Propertius’ Monobiblos preceded Tibullus’ first book of poems, despite arguments to the contrary.3

This collection is a worthy addition to the ongoing research and discussion on Latin love elegy, a genre that by no means has exhausted literary analysis, and that still provides valuable insights to Augustan Rome. ​


1. Some of the past decade’s recent edited collections on Latin love elegy include: G. Liveley and P. Salzman-Mitchell (eds.), Latin Elegy and Narratology: Fragments of Story. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008; K. Weisman (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010; B. Gold (ed.), A Companion to Roman Love Elegy. Malden, MA; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

2. Two errors were noted: page 203, line 25, 2.12 should be 2.13; page 377, line 20, 2.14 should (also) be 2.13.

3. See Thorsen, p. 7, Lee-Stecum, p. 68 and Keith, p. 100.