Propertian Elegy as "Restored Behavior": Evoking Cynthia and Cornelia

By Dufallo, Basil | Helios, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Propertian Elegy as "Restored Behavior": Evoking Cynthia and Cornelia


Dufallo, Basil, Helios


Perhaps no two poems of Propertius have together exerted more fascination on modern readers than Elegy 4.7 (the visitation of Cynthia's ghost to a sleeping Propertius: sunt aliquid manes) and Elegy 4.11 (the so-called Queen of Elegies: the monologue of the aristocratic Cornelia's ghost to her living husband, L. Aemilius Paullus Lepidus).(1) Despite the considerable scholarship on the poems' place within the ancient literary tradition and their relation to Book 4, we have yet to appreciate them fully as features of Roman culture--to appreciate, that is, all that these two poems can tell us about Propertian elegy as a catalyst for the cultural transformation between the Roman Republic and the Augustan principate. As I shall argue, our appreciation of the poems' cultural role can be enhanced by focusing afresh on their adaptations of oratorical conventions, a feature of Elegies 4.7 and 4.11 that has long intrigued scholars. Propertius's adaptation here of the rhetorical topos of mortuos ab inferis excitare (calling up the dead from the underworld) enables him to signal the similarities between elegy and the judicio-political oratory of the Republic, as well as their differences.

Oratory, the dominant form of verbal performance in the Republic and so worthy of emulation by the Augustan poets, was also a tool of Republican political infighting and clan-based competition, both ruinous aspects of late Republican life that Augustus himself took pains to quell. Adapting a rhetorical topos helped Propertius use the dead Cynthia and Cornelia as exempla in a manner more appropriate to Augustan elegy than the way the exemplary dead had traditionally been evoked in Republican oratory, and called attention to the fact that he was doing so. Propertius's use, however, of the mortuos ab inferis excitare topos was not merely advantageous to him as an Augustan poet; it was culturally transformative. That is to say, Propertius transformed the public, oratorical evocation of dead family members and ancestors--exploited to great effect by Republican speakers for politically charged invective and self-promotion--into a feature of his elegiac performance, with its complex, ambivalent embedding of the public in the private, and its focus on erotic rather than on genealogical ties.

A full understanding of Propertius 4.7 and 4.11 in cultural terms, therefore, entails reconsidering the poems as performance (little emphasized until recently in Propertian criticism (2) and, specifically, allowing ourselves to become more sensitive to a particular aspect of performance fore-grounded by modern theory, namely, its nature as "restored behavior." This kind of performance is not strictly reproductive of past actions, but is strongly predicated on some understanding, conscious or unconscious, of repeated, customary, or habitual types of actions--"behaviors"--which it transforms according to the concerns of performer and audience. (3) Such a perspective seems particularly opportune as a complement to recent work on Augustan elegy as performance, the focus of which has primarily been on the implications of performance for isolating the meaning(s) of the text rather than on the poetry's interaction with a broader field of Roman performance-types. (4)

In the case of Propertius 4.7 and 4.11, we can perceive this wider cultural interaction best by reading the poems closely with the textbook example in antiquity of the mortuos ab inferis excitare topos: Cicero's prosopopoeia of Appius Claudius Caecus in Pro Caelio 33-34. (5) Cicero's text provides a rich basis for comparison by illustrating the similarities-and the profound differences--between Propertius's version of the topos and its original use in Republican oratory. The comparison suggests, too, Cicero's speech as a subtext of Cornelia's monologue in Propertius 4.11, insofar as the speech and poem share striking similarities in form and content. When we read Propertius 4.7 and 4.11 with Cicero's Pro Caelio, however, we do far more than enhance our understanding of the poems' (un)conventionality or literary allusiveness. …

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