Academic journal article Helios

How Women (Re)act in Roman Love Poetry: Inhuman She-Wolves and Unhelpful Mothers in Propertius's Elegies

Academic journal article Helios

How Women (Re)act in Roman Love Poetry: Inhuman She-Wolves and Unhelpful Mothers in Propertius's Elegies

Article excerpt

The Roman poet Propertius uses motherhood as one lens through which to explore the intersection of gender and ethical behavior in first-century B.C.E. Rome. Using familiar and traditional figures, such as the Greek mythological heroides Thetis, Niobe, and Medea, as well as figures otherwise unknown to us, such as a woman named Arria, he paints a different, more negative picture of mothers than we receive in most other documents and texts from this period. (1) I will explore here the figure of the mother as it was constructed and presented by Propertius in the last two to three decades of the first century B.C.E. when women seemed to be gaining a stronger foothold both in the Roman family and in Roman political life but did not enjoy a concomitantly positive role in much of the literature of the period, including the poems of Propertius.

Before I examine in their particulars some of Propertius's mother figures, I would like to lay the groundwork for understanding these figures, first by discussing a mythological bogey figure, the child-killing demon, which seems to share and to prefigure many of the characteristics of the mother, and, second, by outlining the social context in the late first century B.C.E., out of which Propertius and his figures arose.

In saying that the child-killing demon figures found in Greek myth, such as Empousa, Mormo, Gello, and Lamia, prefigure characteristics of the mother as she is delineated in certain Roman texts, I do not mean that all mothers were constructed as child-killers. But many of these demonic figures are used to express the values of a society, negatively or positively, by reinforcing these values or deviating radically from them. (2) One scholar makes the following broad claim about how such demon figures work as social markers: "Negative valence is attached to things which escape place (the chaotic, the rebellious, the distant) or things found just outside the place where they properly belong (the hybrid, the deviant, the adjacent) ... Demons serve as classificatory markers which signal what is strong and weak, controlled and exaggerated in a given society in a given moment." (3)

Such demons, then, are a reflection of how a society organizes itself, what it values negatively and positively, what it fears, and what it wishes to reinforce. Social categories of this sort are set up in a rigid way, with little room for ambiguity or fluidity. And anything or anyone that does not fit neatly into a category (and who thus cannot be controlled) is an object of fear and must be constrained by those who are perceived as the normal people of that society. When such liminal creatures as the werewolf are figured, they seem to be dreaded for their hybridity and their shape-shifting, characteristics that pose a danger to society because the creature is ever-shifting or the opposite of the norm. (4) And often this figure can pose a danger in more than one way. Thus it is by looking at what this creature is not that we can affirm to ourselves what the norm for society is.

Let us take as an example of such demons Empousa. Empousa is a shapeshifter and part of Hecate's entourage, a chthonic dweller, the child-eating monster who frightens Xanthias and Dionysus in Aristophanes' Frogs (285-96):


  XA: You know, I think I do hear something moving around.
  DION: Wh-wh which direction?
  XA: Right behind us.
  DION: Get behind.
  XA: No it's in front of us now.
  DION: You better stay in front.
  XA: I see it. It's an animal--an enormous thing.
  DION: What does it look like?
  XA: Monster. It keeps changing shape. Now it's a cow. Now it's a mule.
      Oh, now it's a girl, whew-whew, what a beauty!
  DION: Let me at her. Where'd she go?
  XA: Too late. No girl any longer. She turned into a bitch.
  DION: It's Empousa.
  XA: Whoever she is, she's caught fire. Her face is burning.
  DION: Does she have one bronze leg? … 
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