PROPERTIUS, GREEK MYTH, AND VIRGIL: Rivalry, Allegory, and Polemic

Peter J. Heslin

OUP (2018) h/b 304pp £65.00 (ISBN 9780199541577)

This is a work of the very best kind of scholarship. Anyone who has ever read anything by the author knows what to expect: a lucid, densely argued, yet attractively presented revisionist argument, supported by penetrating close-readings of the evidence. H. offers a compelling interpretation of the continuous interaction with Vergil in Propertius’ first three books (Horace is a regular guest). As with all scholarship that likes to pull at the seams of an existing communis opinio, however, not everyone will accept the (entire) argument, even though it is well worth making. This book throws a big rock into the pond of Augustan poetry; the ripples will be seen for some time to come.

H.’s starting-point is that Propertius’ mythological exempla, often incongruent or rhetorically ineffective, are not the result of incompetence or textual corruption but rather an allegory for his engagement with Vergil’s poetry. In that sense, H. is in tune with current postmodern scholarship on Propertius, which prefers a pragmatic approach to these issues. Such allegorical interpretations have been advanced for individual mythological figures in Propertius and other authors, such as Achilles (M. Fantuzzi’s Achilles in Love [OUP, 2012]), Hylas (M. Heerink’s Echoing Hylas [Wisconsin UP, 2015]; cf. my review here) and Linus (by the present reviewer, forthcoming). I think most scholars will be persuaded by this sustained redemption of Propertius’ exemplary rhetoric. The argument rests on two pillars: (1) the contents of the poetry of Cornelius Gallus, elegiac or otherwise, is unknowable on the present state of the evidence and therefore best disregarded in establishing the ties between Vergil and Propertius; (2) the currently accepted chronology of the publication of Vergil’s and Propertius’ poetry should be revised to explain better the intertextual contact between both poets as a back-and-forth polemic.

Regarding (1), I am sympathetic to H.’s line of reasoning and have argued for a similar approach in my own book. H. thus diverges from other important studies on this topic, such as D.O. Ross’ Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry (CUP, 1975), F. Cairns’ Sextus Propertius: The Augustan Elegist (CUP, 2006) or P. Gagliardi’s Gravis cantantibus umbra (studi su Virgilio e Cornelio Gallo) (Patròn, 2003), her commentary on Vergil’s tenth Eclogue (Olms, 2014), and numerous papers, all of whom trace elaborate Gallan echoes in the works of Vergil and Propertius. Often such studies employ a kind of equation: ‘Propertius’ minus ‘Vergil’ equals ‘Gallus’—a hangover from Quellenforschung that runs the risk of being excessively reductive and of making later poets mere minions of their grandmaster. H. is right to avoid such scenarios. At the same time, it is fiendishly difficult to talk about the interactions of Propertius and Vergil without speculating about Gallus’ influence. Although source criticism has its drawbacks, it is an indispensable tool: something always gets lost in translation if one filters out potential actors within those relationships and so it is worth formulating hypotheses of Gallus’ role as inspirer or mediator for Vergil and Propertius. Despite this (rightly) cautious attitude towards Gallus’ poetry, speculation about lost Hellenistic versions, alternative mythological variants, and the influence of fragmentary or lost poetry by Ennius or Varro of Atax as foils for Propertius’ engagement with Vergil looms large. In Heslin’s book, too, Gallus inevitably appears passim.

As concerns (2), the standard narrative of literary history runs, more or less, as follows: Vergil’s Eclogues: published ca. 38 BC—Georgics: post 31 BC, i.e. after Actium—Propertius Book 1: before 28 BC, dedication of the Temple of Apollo—Propertius Book 2: published after 26 BC, Gallus’ suicide—Vergil’s Aeneid: begun ca. 25 BC, published posthumously—Propertius Book 3: published after 23 BC, death of Marcellus—Propertius Book 4: after 16 BC, Cornelius Scipio’s consulate. This neat picture is complicated by the long gestation of some of these works, during which the poets may have had access to each other’s poems as work-in-progress, the most famous example of which is Propertius 2.34, where the poet seems to allude to the opening of Aeneid 7. The relative chronology is often determined on the basis of allusions from one poet to another, in our case generally from Propertius to Vergil. The book under review, on the basis of a ground-breaking article by H. (‘Virgil’s Georgics and the Dating of Propertius’ First Book’, JRS 100 [2010], 54-68), assumes that Propertius’ Monobiblos may have appeared before Actium, meaning that it can be read as a sustained engagement with Vergil’s Eclogues, to which Vergil then responded in the Georgics. As a result, many of the allusions usually marshalled in support of antedating Vergil now can be interpreted to antedate Propertius.

This is the basic chronological framework onto which H. maps the polemic between Vergil and Propertius. In Book One Propertius engages with Vergil’s implicit claims in the Eclogues that bucolic is a more successful genre for love-poets than elegy. Vergil responds in kind in the Georgics’ finale, by portraying the elegiac lover as a solipsistic, self-obsessed, unsuccessful Orpheus as opposed to the toilsome but moderately successful pastor Aristaeus who represents Vergil. The basis of Vergil’s famous Orpheus (or Aristaeus) epyllion is Propertius’ own Hylas-poem (1.20), which is now reconfigured as a kind of katabasis before Orpheus’ real katabasis or Aristaeus’ watery descent to his mother Clymene. In Book Two, Propertius rails against Vergil’s assertion that Orpheus is a suitable template for the elegiac lover’s unsuccessful condition and latches onto the ekphrasis of Vergil’s temple for Octavian in Georgics 3: whether it actually heralded the inception of the Aeneid or was understood simply as representing Vergil’s epic ambitions, Propertius opposes Vergil’s generic promiscuity at every turn, contrasting it with his own fidelity to Cynthia and elegy. This is continued in Book Three, after Propertius must have been able to form a better picture of the contents of the Aeneid, which was now truly underway. He mischievously represents it as an annalistic epic in the mould of Ennius’ Annales—an outmoded kind of epic, as compared to the mythological epics of, say, Catullus 64 or Varro of Atax’ adaptation of Apollonius’ Argonautica.

H.’s book is the first to offer such a cogent interpretation of Propertius’ mythological exempla in Books 1 to 3. It is rich in political implications, which saves Propertius from the claim that he wrote art pour l’art. Nothing is taken for granted, no difficulty skirted. The book is carefully produced, with only a handful of innocuous typos. There are Indices Locorum and Nominum (unfortunately, for those tracing motifs, a subject-index is lacking). One laudable practice deserves to be highlighted: as in his other books, H. in the Bibliography consistently provides cross-references to discussions of scholarship in the book’s main body. This allows a reader to assess his engagement with the state of play, which given the nature of his argument is a highly valuable tool and thus a sterling example of scholarly integrity. If you liked the author’s The Transvestite Achilles (CUP, 2005) and The Museum of Augustus (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015), you will love this book: as indispensable for understanding Propertius’ poetry as Cynthia’s perennial lure is crucial to its magic.

Gary Vos

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