BMCR 2020.08.04

Propertius, Greek myth, and Virgil: rivalry, allegory, and polemic

, Propertius, Greek myth, and Virgil: rivalry, allegory, and polemic. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xii, 304 p.. ISBN 9780199541577 $85.00.


In this learned and thought-provoking book, Peter Heslin has two primary aims. The first is “to show that, from his earliest work, Propertius deploys Greek mythology with a brilliance worthy of the great Alexandrian poets, and that he often does so in the service of an agenda which Callimachus would appreciate: literary polemics with friends, rivals, and enemies” (20). The second is to argue for, and trace the evolution of, a specific polemical relationship between Propertius and Virgil that begins with Propertius’ forceful response, in his first book, to Virgil’s Eclogues, and in particular to Virgil’s attempt, with his depiction of a semi-mythological Gallus in Eclogue 10, to subsume elegy within pastoral and thereby stake a claim for his own pastoral poetry, rather than love elegy, as the rightful future representative of the aesthetics of Roman Alexandrianism; the polemic then continues in Books 2 and 3 (Book 4 is excluded from Heslin’s discussion), where the primary focus of Propertius’ criticism shifts to Virgil’s change of genres from pastoral to didactic to epic, and especially to Virgil’s decision, announced in the proem to Georgics 3, to produce an Augustus-centered historical epic to replace Ennius’ Annales.

The book is divided into six chapters and a conclusion.  The substantial first chapter (“The Lover’s Mockumentary,” 1-54) serves as an introduction and usefully sets out the basic premises and preliminary arguments that are necessary background for both of Heslin’s aims, especially where they overlap most closely. Heslin states his approach to Propertian myth clearly (8): “The fundamental methodology of this book is intertextual, which is to say that references to mythology are treated as always being potential allusions to earlier literary treatments of the myth.” His argument is that Propertius regularly employs Greek mythology as a vehicle for literary polemic and generic self-definition, and he is particularly interested in attempting to interpret, rather than emend, instances of apparent mythological aporia (where a mythical reference, evidently deployed for a rhetorical purpose, does not make obvious sense) and of what he terms “deviant exemplarity,” the “ironic deployment of wildly inappropriate or incorrect mythological exempla as an element of characterization” (48). Of particular relevance here is Heslin’s decision to use Barber’s 1960 OCT, which “provides a text as close as possible to the manuscript tradition without descending into gibberish” (31), rather than the more radical 2007 OCT of Heyworth. Readers will benefit from Heslin’s lucid discussion of some of the difficulties faced by both textual and literary critics when encountering Propertius’ seriously corrupt textual transmission; he defends the choice of a minimally-emended paradosis as starting point especially on the grounds that Propertius’ mythical references are often associated with those aspects of his style (abruptness, obscurity, irony) that have been treated by some textual critics as signs of corruption, interpolation, or displacement.

Heslin also sets out several fundamental assumptions on which his argument for a mutual literary polemic between Propertius and Virgil is based: that the identity of the “Gallus” in several poems of Propertius’ first book is to be linked with the poet Cornelius Gallus; that the Augustan regime had made it known that a new national epic to replace Ennius’ Annales was desired and that Virgil’s vow in the proem of Georgics 3 to build a temple for Caesar was his public promise to undertake that task; and that the traditional post-Actium date of 30/29 BCE for Propertius Book 1 should be revised to an earlier, pre-Actium 33 BCE. The revised chronology, for which Heslin first argued in a 2010 article,[1] is not, of course, necessary to make a case for Propertius’ engagement with the Eclogues in his Monobiblos (though Heslin prefers to envision the works appearing in close succession). It is more vital for Heslin’s larger argument to postulate that the Georgics appeared not only after Propertius Book 1 but, ideally, enough later that the elegist of the Monobiblos could be assumed to be unaware of its contents (or even its contours).

Significant, too, is Heslin’s decision to eliminate consideration of the actual content of Gallus’ poetry from the interpretation of passages where intertextual links between Propertius Book 1 and Virgil’s Eclogues involve the figure of “Gallus,” a strategy devised in response to scholarship that has privileged the attempted recovery in such passages of allusions to Gallus’ lost work over interpreting the relationship between Propertius and Virgil. While Heslin’s approach offers a useful corrective, it at times provokes a degree of skepticism. Heslin asserts (57): “The parallels between Propertius’ first elegy and the final eclogue do not need to go back to the poetry of Cornelius Gallus; they can be fully explained in terms of Propertius responding to Virgil’s polemic with elegy and its distinctive geographical setting in Arcadia.” Most readers will, I expect, still believe that the recovery (alas, unlikely!) of Gallus’ poetry would enable a more complete, and very likely more complicated, reading of both Virgil’s and Propertius’ poems. Chapter 1 ends with three demonstrations of Heslin’s methodology for reading Propertian mythological exempla:  Propertius 2.2 and Horace Carm. 1.8 offer instances of mythological aporia (Horace is adduced to assure readers that Heslin’s approach is not applicable only to Propertius), and Propertius 2.22a provides an example of “deviant exemplarity.”

In Chapter 2 (“Programmatics,” 55-95), Heslin explicates the mythological exempla in the first three poems of Propertius Book 1 as programmatically significant in two ways: even as they serve already in their primary role as vehicles for literary polemic and generic self-definition, they simultaneously offer paradigms for how Propertian myths are to be interpreted. Heslin convincingly makes the case that Propertius employs the Milanion exemplum of 1.1.9-16 polemically, as his means to reclaim the suffering “Gallus” of Virgil’s Eclogue 10 for love elegy over pastoral; Callimachus, Meleager, and, less directly, Theocritus are adduced as intertextual contributors in addition to Virgil. The paradigmatic lesson for the interpreter of Propertian myth is that sometimes the version the poet pointedly alludes to but does not tell (here the alternative, pastoral story of Hippomenes’ wooing of Atalanta) is as important as the story told. Both 1.2 and 1.3 offer examples of “deviant exemplarity.” The complicated relationship between Propertius’ set of three mythological exempla in 1.2.15-20 and their Greek intertexts (from Pindar, Homer, and Theocritus, respectively) undermines their ostensible rhetorical purpose, which is to support the poet’s message to Cynthia that ornament is superfluous to beauty; instead, the myths convey the programmatic lesson that appearances are deceiving: “To dismiss Propertius’ frequent references to Greek myth as mere rhetorical flourishes, with no real semantic value, is to be tricked by the poet” (83). In 1.3.1-6, myths that at first appear to reflect the narrator’s point of view are exposed, when Cynthia appears at the poem’s end, as expressions also of her quite different perspective. Heslin concludes: “An important programmatic function of this elegy is to provide a hint of what Cynthia’s point of view must be in every poem in which Propertius claims to be the victim of unjust treatment at her hands” (95).

Chapter 3 (“Myth and Genre,” 97-138) offers intertextually-informed close readings of mythical references in nine additional poems from Propertius Book 1, in eight of which (1.4, 1.7, 1.9, 1.12, 1.14, 1.15, 1.17, and 1.19) Propertius employs myth as he defines, and explicitly or implicitly defends, the distinctive concerns of his own elegiac poetry in relation to other genres, including most prominently epic but also iambic, tragedy, and the proto-elegiac poetry of Catullus; the chapter ends with a consideration of 1.13 in relation to Gallan elegy. The strengths of Heslin’s methodology as well as his considerable skills in close, intertextual reading and in the synthesis of arguments are displayed at their best in his discussion of 1.19 (‘Love and Death,’ 126-31), where he builds on the interpretations of two earlier scholars to show that Propertius’ treatment of the Protesilaus and Laodamia story anticipates a reader who knows that the myth has multiple variants and who recognizes that Propertius means in particular to distinguish his version from that of Catullus 68.

Chapter 4 (“Against Pastoral,” 139-174) is transitional: as in Chapters 2 and 3, Heslin examines Propertius’ use of myth in Book 1 to defend the themes and concerns of his chosen genre, but he now turns to those poems (1.8, 1.18, and 1.20) in which, in addition to 1.1, the polemic between Propertian elegy and Virgilian pastoral is enacted. Heslin convincingly argues that Propertius in 1.18 reclaims for his poetry both Callimachus’ elegiac Acontius and “Gallus” as the representative love elegist, in response to Virgil’s attempt in Eclogue 10 to appropriate and pastoralize both figures. His allegorical reading of 1.20 is similarly compelling. Here, as with 1.19, he builds on the readings of other scholars to develop his own, distinct interpretation: whereas Virgil had attempted to seduce the elegiac “Gallus” into pastoral in Eclogue 10, Propertius subsumes Theocritean and Virgilian pastoral into elegy as he warns “Gallus” against succumbing to pastoral’s dangerous but destructive charms. At the chapter’s end, Heslin argues that Virgil’s Orpheus in the epyllion of Georgics 4 was in part meant as a reply to Propertius 1.20; Virgil’s solipsistic, tragic Orpheus symbolizes Gallan love elegy and, through Orpheus-Gallus, also Propertius.

Over the course of Chapters 2-4, Heslin offers readings of nearly every mythological reference in Propertius Book 1. In contrast, when in Chapter 5 (“The Return of Orpheus,” 175-225) he turns to Book 2, his exclusive concern to explore Propertius’ rivalry with the post-pastoral Virgil leads him to narrow his mythological focus primarily to a small selection of poems (2.7, 2.13, 2.27, 2.30) in which Propertius revisits and critiques Virgil’s use of Orpheus as representative of the love elegist. Best here is Heslin’s suggestion that in 2.13.53-56, Propertius substitutes for Virgil’s Orpheus the figure of Adonis, whose associations with Gallus Propertius also evokes in 2.34.91-2.

Myth is less central to Heslin’s chief objective in Chapters 5 and 6 (“Ennius Redivivus,” 227-257), which is to make his case that in the programmatic elegies of Books 2 and 3 (2.1, 2.10, 2.34; 3.1-3.3, 3.5, 3.9), Propertius is primarily concerned both to criticize Virgil’s decision to write an epic for Caesar, and to imply that Virgil’s Ennian-type epic-in-progress “will be a poetic catastrophe” (175). While Heslin’s position is forcefully presented, not all readers will, I expect, be convinced that Propertius’ recusationes are more about Virgil’s aesthetic choices than about his own, or that poetic motivations are more easily recovered (or less complicated) than political ones.

Heslin’s exclusion of Tibullus’ elegies, especially from the discussion of Book 2, sits uneasily beside the author’s concern elsewhere to ferret out and consider the influence of all potentially relevant intertexts. For some readers, Propertius’ intertextual polemics with Tibullus, whose elegiac poetry incorporated aspects of Virgilian pastoral and didactic, will problematize the notion of a Propertius in Book 2 who “promptly and utterly turns his back on the opposition between pastoral and elegy” (174). Propertius 2.4, for instance, Heslin’s discussion of which feels oddly displaced (in Chapter 4) amidst the anti-pastoral elegies of Book 1, is most often considered a likely riposte to Tibullus rather than to Horace. On a smaller point: the solo appearance of a raging Tisiphone in both Propertius 3.5 and Virgil Aeneid 6 is less a “surprising coincidence” (248) if both are looking to Tibullus 1.3.69-70.

When first introducing his approach to Propertius’ mythological references, Heslin provides a disclaimer (35): “I do not offer all of the interpretations in this book with an equal degree of confidence, and I expect that some readers will feel that a number of the issues I have tried to resolve by explication would be better solved by emendation.” It is a testament to the persuasiveness of Heslin’s arguments that in most instances where a reader disagrees with his interpretation, one is much more likely to seek an alternate explanation than to doubt the possibility of the myth’s relevance to its larger thematic context.


[1] P. Heslin, “Virgil’s Georgics and the Dating of Propertius’ First Book,” JRS 100 (2010), 54-68.