BMCR 2021.12.43

Latin elegy and the space of empire

, Latin elegy and the space of empire. Oxford studies in classical literature and gender theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 256. ISBN 9780198871446 $85.00.


In Latin Elegy and the Space of Empire, Sara Lindheim expands our intellectual map of the world of Latin elegy. Although temporally confined to the seventy-year period between Catullus’ compositions and Ovid’s exilic corpus, elegy bore witness to the immense augmentation of the Roman world under Caesar and Pompey, the demise of the Republic, and the rise of Octavian to become Augustus and unabashedly engage in empire-building. The increased geography of empire sparked Agrippa’s impulse to establish a public map of the Roman world, but also led to anxieties over the shifting identification of what was Roman and what was not. Just as the imperial fines of which she speaks, Lindheim’s innovative work is not fixed within a single theoretical discourse or bounded by the expectations of the Oxford Studies in Classical Literature and Gender Theory series. Rather, it embraces the spatial turn in modern scholarship, impressively weaving together considerations of space, cartography, and the widening Roman world with a gender-sensitive reading of Roman elegy informed by Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories of subjectivity and desire. In constructing zones of interaction between these multiple approaches, Lindheim brings to light a concordance between the ever-changing limits of the empire and concerns over what it meant to be an elite, male Roman in an empire without end: both concepts find expression in Roman elegy and the gendered instabilities of amator and puella.

Lindheim’s work is comprised of an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion, divided chronologically. The introduction justifies the author’s employment of Lacan as a theoretical framework. Paul Allen Miller and Micaela Janan have applied Lacanian theories to elegy with illuminating results; Lindheim differentiates herself by combining Lacan with considerations of geography and cartographic knowledge, arguing that the sense of dislocation and decentering caused by the ever-expanding Roman world had an impact at the level of the individual subject that is decipherable in Roman elegy.[1] The author does not refute Miller and Janan, but rather returns to them continually throughout the book and emphasizes how a lens of geographical space nuances our interpretations in different ways. Lindheim addresses the idea of a map, Roman maps, and the map of Agrippa in particular. Observing the inherent egocentrism of a map, Lindheim states, “When we look at a map, we seem to be looking, first and foremost, for ourselves, no matter what else we might also, simultaneously be searching for” (5). Mapmaking implies a desire to express authority and control over geography; the many references to boundaries and travel in elegiac poetry suggest that geography is a central issue of Roman elegy as well. The following five chapters illustrate how each elegist responds to the dramatic shift in the Roman (elite, male) worldview caused by the increasing Roman empire.

Chapter one centers on Catullus and the expansion of the Roman empire under Caesar and Pompey as precursor to Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid. Lindheim argues that geographical references in Catullus’ poetry resonate with the late Republican context and the seemingly limitless expansion of the Roman world. Poems centering on Lesbia and the amatory experience as well as poems addressing the concept of a world sine fine impact the idea of the subject as a fixed entity. Poem 11 showcases Catullus as a man of Rome while also looking outward with Furius and Aurelius, whereas other poems bolster the claim that neither space nor the subject remain fixed. Poem 63 suggests that the sense of a fractured subject is not limited to the poet, but applicable to Attis as well. Poems 10 and 28 present Bithynia in opposition to Rome and a challenge to the masculinity and elite male status of the poet. With the death of his brother in the Troad, poems 101, 65, and 68 render Catullus’ identity unstable and question the location of his domus. In addressing the poetic subject, space, and gender, Lindheim showcases mastery of the Catullan corpus; she works beyond well-trodden scholarly paths to add new meaning through her focus on geography. With unstable boundaries of empire, the subject’s identity becomes precarious, and Lesbia and Catullus oscillate between presenting images of masculinity and femininity: in the end, the Catullan subject comes undone.

In the first of two chapters on Propertius, Lindheim draws a contrast between Catullus and the Propertian amator in the paired elegies 1.8a-b and 1.11-12. Propertius’ Monobiblos has Octavian in the background and his self-presentation as an “unabashed expansionist” (56). While Catullus is both excited and anxious about expansion, Propertius’ subject clings to the possibility of definable boundaries, identifies Cynthia as his finis (1.12.20), and anchors his own self-definition to her. Lacan has been used by Janan and Miller to study desire and subjectivity in Propertius: Lindheim shifts this interpretive strategy to argue that the “disintegrating Propertian ‘I’ is inextricably bound to the geographical aspects of the poem” (59).[2] The poetic fines in the paired poems reveal a contrast between Cynthia’s freedom of movement and the amator’s immobility and increased anxiety as he attempts to contain the puella. While Propertius attempts to bind Cynthia and render her immobile, despite her threat to make a journey (1.8a) and her presence at Baiae (1.12), the amator is incapable of leaving Rome, detained by his desire. The anxieties experienced by the poet increase due to Cynthia’s unbounded mobility and reflect the difficulty in determining the fines of the expanding empire; the two sets of paired poems addressing Cynthia’s freedom to move and the poet’s immobility reveal the disintegration of the amator’s subjectivity. Additional uses of finis in Propertius books 1–3 and Tibullus 1.3 allow Lindheim to contrast Propertius with Tibullus’ fantasies about an unbounded world, although both poets display anxieties about the increasing physical space of empire.

While chapter two focuses on fines, chapter 3 turns to vias in Tibullus, who dreams of a Golden Age in which there is no need for roads, travel, or boundaries, and the poet’s amor flourishes with Delia. The chapter centers on poem 1.3, repeating the central argument while differentiating between Propertius’ desire for fixity in Rome and Tibullus’ required travel away from Delia. Octavian/Augustus’ expansionist drive continues as an influential historical backdrop. In Tibullus’ use of via, Lindheim sees a powerful shorthand for empire. As Augustus connected the empire through roads, advertising the dominance of Rome, Tibullus both tries and fails to distance himself from the road. Via and amor become a complicated dichotomy as seemingly stable categories come unraveled. Just as the via longa is the antithesis to amor, Messala and Roman soldiers are the polar opposite to the amator. However, both oppositions are unfixed: The poet imagines himself as a military leader and soldier in the realm of Venus, constructing his masculinity differently from others. Tibullus illustrates that no masculine subject, even the elegiac amator, can escape the world of empire. Moreover, viae become interwoven with amor through commerce and the movement of luxury goods from periphery to center: The dress of Nemesis has stripes, uniquely identified as viae (2.3.54), thereby marking her body with the “emblems of empire” (121).

Chapter four returns to Propertius and considers Arethusa in poem 4.3 in conjunction with Vertumnus in 4.2 and Tarpeia and Tatius in 4.4. Lindheim convincingly argues that the poet introduces the idea of “porous limits” as an Augustan problem and applies it to Romulus’ wall and the very origins of Rome (26). Arethusa’s elegiac epistle to her soldier husband Lycotas suggests that she is looking at a map or a map-like representation of the world (4.3.37), and her position in Rome reverses the pattern of Cynthia’s mobility in book one. Arethusa’s depiction as a gender-conforming Augustan matron begins to unravel as she imagines herself another Hippolyta and wonders if Lycotas will be able to endure the harsh conditions of warfare. The Etruscan/Roman Vertumnus of poem 4.2 and Tarpeia’s betrayal of Rome in 4.4 prove that boundaries and walls are permeable; together, the three poems illuminate “an emerging Roman cartographic imagination of space” (143). As the dichotomy of Roman/non-Roman unravels, so too does our ability to differentiate clearly between Man and Woman. In contrast to book one, Propertius is no longer optimistic about establishing “meaningful fines on which to anchor definitions of identity” (152). Rather, the poet uses Vertumnus, Tatius, and Tarpeia to reveal the centrality of questions about identity in Augustan Rome that arise with the expansion of the space of empire.

In chapter five, Ovid forms a fitting conclusion. The chapter is separated into an analysis of the Ovidian puella in Amores 1.14, Ars Amatoria 3, Remedia Amoris, and Medicamina Faciei Femineae, and the poet himself in the exilic corpus. By Ovid’s time, the fines of empire were disintegrating through trade and the movement of goods and people. In Ovid’s puellae, Lindheim sees the ultimate consumers of luxury items. Whereas the anti-cosmetic tradition envisions adornment as evidence of moral dissoluteness and advises the removal of luxury items to rediscover the natural, chaste woman, Ovid praises feminine self-adornment but recognizes a concomitant loss of self. That is, it is impossible to rediscover the original puella once her adornment has been stripped away. Lindheim grapples with an immense amount of text in her summary-heavy discussion, providing a useful overview of the various bodily treatments and adornments available to women in the Augustan age. Feminine cultus provides one side of the coin; on the other side is Ovid’s experience at the end of the world. Ovid suffers a dissolution of the self once relegated to Tomis and forced to reckon with the expansion of Roman imperium, imperial fines, and what it means to be Roman. Lindheim focuses on Ovid’s narrative of Tomis as a site, the Tomitan and Greekness of its people, and his transformation into an almost Getic poet. Without stable fines, she argues, it is impossible to remain uniquely Roman, and hybridization and mélange take over: Ovid’s puellae display this hybridization on their bodies, while Ovid experiences it himself on the level of language. The chapter forms a satisfying culmination to Lindheim’s work by concretely illustrating the alienation of both the elegiac puella and amator from their former selves: This is the toll of empire.

The conclusion summarizes the previous chapters, serving as a final road map. Indeed, this book is full of guides for the reader, repeating prior arguments before embarking on new terrain. Throughout, Lindheim skillfully navigates the scholarship on well-known poems without losing sight of her specific interpretive lens. She assumes knowledge of the elegiac corpus, while providing sufficient summaries to serve the argument. Lindheim’s reading intersects with studies on gender and genre, subjectivity and Romanness, as well as concerns of the Roman historians about politics and changing Roman ideas of imperium, although she rarely brings in non-elegiac authors. By outlining major shifts in Roman geography and referencing triumphs, monuments, and coinage related to imperial expansion, the author directs the focus to the Roman experience of space from city to periphery. She illustrates the impact of Roman expansion at the level of the individual subject from Catullus to Ovid, demonstrating that “the dissolution of the elegiac subject reflects empire’s restless and unceasing movement outward beyond its (current and temporary) borders, the ultimate expression of imperium’s essential and intrinsic excess” (204). Lindheim’s clear, nuanced argumentation and thoughtful explanations of deeply theoretical material are sure to make her book essential reading for scholars and advanced students of elegy.


[1] Paul Allen Miller (2004). Subjecting Verses: Latin Love Elegy and the Emergence of the Real. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Micaela Janan (1994). “When the Lamp is Shattered:” Desire and Narrative in Catullus. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

[2] Miller (n.1); Micaela Janan (2001). The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV. Berkeley: University of California Press.