Friday, October 9, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
W. R. Johnson, A Latin Lover in Ancient Rome: Readings in Propertius and His Genre. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 165. ISBN 9780814203996. $29.95.
Reviewed by Randall Childree, Union College

This is an old-fashioned book. By that I mean, first, that while our current age of specialization obliges most books to address a carefully circumscribed patch of literary context, Johnson is at ease roaming from Propertius to Augustine to Frank O'Hara to Ovid to Stendhal to Robert Browning to country music. He may describe a passage of Latin poetry as 'Mozartian' or say it reminds him of Kafka. In this sense, the book is reminiscent of certain passages in Kirby Flower Smith's commentary on Tibullus,1 and the similarity of form is no doubt due to a similarity of purpose: both intend their authors to participate in the larger literary conversation. Johnson explicitly addresses his book to 'readers of European poetry who want a sketch of the kinds of pleasure and thought that Propertius has to offer them' and specifies that Propertian scholars are not his primary audience (xiii).

But there is a second sense in which the book is old-fashioned, and it has a great deal to do with those Propertian scholars. Johnson makes it clear that he intends his book to stand out from the usual book on Propertius; indeed, the genesis of the book is at least partly his distaste for what he sees as the current direction of scholarship on Propertius. In a short but polemical preface, Johnson claims that Propertius 'is now examined less for his own sake than for the purpose of exemplifying--one might almost say, of testing--current literary theories, particularly as they address themselves to the problem of how modern theories of gender, identity, and metaliterary processes can be made to relate to the literature of ancient Rome' (xii).2

This avowed old-fashionedness, then, makes it unsurprising when the first chapter opens with Cyril Bailey's eighty-year-old collection of essays on 'the legacy of Rome.'3 The brief life of Latin elegy is passed over in that work, and Johnson envisions his book as a supplement, proposing to restore the omission by discussing 'Rome's reformulation of erotic experience' as an important contribution to Western culture. He also proposes to restore Propertius to the chief position in the canon of love elegy, a second goal deeply intertwined with the first.

For Johnson, the birth of elegy--or rather, of elegists--can be attributed to the growing cosmopolitanism of Romans at the end of the republic. Soldiers, public officials, and travelers had novel experiences in the far reaches of the empire, then came home and found that they just no longer fit into the Rome they had left. The new complexity of this much larger world meant that they 'no longer understood themselves or their city, could no longer figure out the disconnections between what they were doing . . . and what they were supposed to be doing, what their inherited values required them to do and not to do' (4). Traditional Roman masculine roles were rejected. At the same time, Catullus, Calvus, and the other usual suspects were experimenting with the new forms and content that had been imported from Hellenistic Greece. 'As their luck would have it,' Johnson writes (he does not attempt to search further back for a prime mover), they discovered the perfect vessel for the feelings and troubled identity of their new generation: 'the lover.' The lover offered these poets, and by extension a whole generation of Romans, a character 'whose passions dismantle what he wants and who he is' and force him to fashion a new self (5). This new self is the embodiment of 'the confrontation between the traditional Roman erotic ideology and a hedonistic, libertarian erotic ideology that sought to replace it; between sexual instinct viewed as procreative and sexual instinct viewed as amusement or as a form of self-fashioning . . .' (24).

Johnson tracks the development of this character through Julius Caesar, through Quintus Lutatius Catulus, through Plutarch's depiction of a carnal/romantic Sulla, and through the chief exempla, Antony and Gallus. The last two receive special attention because Gallus is tied to the hidden beginnings of elegy through his poems on Lycoris, and Lycoris (or Cytheris, or Volumnia) is of course tied to a flesh-and-blood romance with Antony. This leads to Johnson's main contention in chapter 1, namely that the content of elegy is a combination of the influences of art and life. It is patently obvious that he is correct here, and he shows more precision than most proponents of the view: experiences that become the content of a poem need not be the poet's own, but they are still experiences, and even the influences a poet takes from literature are, in turn, owed to experience somewhere down the line.

Johnson's insistence on this issue, I suspect, is meant to be taken in tandem with his distaste for theory, which often seeks to dissolve poetry's connection with reality. This is particularly true in the case of Propertius, where the 'sincere' reading which looks for the thoughts and ideas of a real person in the poems is thoroughly rejected in current scholarship. Johnson opens chapter 3 by discussing this theoretical turn (which he calls 'the death of pleasure') as part of a dialectic response to the excesses of the previous approach. The remainder of the chapter is framed as a response to Roy Gibson's statement that elegy's representation of the love-object is clichéd or typical.4 Johnson reads 4.7 and 4.8 as a vivid two-part representation of Cynthia, one that distinguishes her from Catullus's Lesbia, Tibullus' Delia or Nemesis, or Ovid's Corinna: 'No other ancient poet wrote anything like her' (90). As he continues, however, Johnson portrays Cynthia primarily in relation to her effects on Propertius, whether her effects on his style (his 'ransacking' of Latin vocabulary and syntax in the attempt to catch her description) or on his mere existence as a poet (a shrewd but brief reading of gaze in 1.1 against 3.24). Johnson ends up with a Cynthia every bit as metaphorical as those he began by arguing against: for him, Cynthia is a metaphor for Propertius's experience of the 'erotic imperative,' the drive to imagine and explore alternate versions of the self outside of the strictures of traditional Roman masculinity. As such, he can never truly abandon her because she is 'the source and shape of his poetic identity' (96).

Propertius is the hero in Johnson's narrative of this erotic (counter-)movement. Book 15 reveals the poet, as Johnson sees it, defining himself in opposition to a series of anti-Propertiuses (Tullus, Gallus, Ponticus, and Bassus). He has removed himself from the crumbling and confusing world of the late republic and built himself a 'private artificial paradise' (107) with love at the center; he is brash, arrogant, loud, and passionate. Beginning with book 2, however, any reader notices changes in the poems: Propertius seems more troubled, and the text of the poems becomes unstable. Johnson connects these two problems, and ascribes them both to the entrance of 'representatives of the new regime': Maecenas, Lynceus (whom he identifies with Varius), and Vergil. Their growing presence inside his poems, as shown in Propertius's recusationes and the Lynceus-cycle, announces their growing power outside them. Propertius is forced to reassess his role as the poet of the 'erotic imperative.' Likewise, poems which would otherwise have been spent on Cynthia are spent satirizing Rome's new leadership: Johnson offers brief satiric-ironic readings of 3.9, 11, 13, 14, 18, and 22. 3.22 in particular is smartly read against 1.22--which Johnson calls an 'explosive,' 'emotional,' 'bitter,' and 'defiant' poem (116)--as a near-parody of the new poetry of empire. But as Chapter 4 concludes, Johnson's Propertius does not succumb to the force of empire. Propertius's poetics is a poetics of disengagement; his movement is away from empire. He is irreconcilable.

Chapter 5 is Johnson's attempt to answer the question 'Where did love elegy go?' He sets out to see the Ars amatoria and Ovid's exile through the eyes of Augustus, imagining his thoughts and feelings as Ovid's popularity grew and became a challenge to the 'new morality.' Ovid in turn is set up as the defiant successor to Propertius, and the last champion of the 'erotic imperative.' Again the chapter is framed as a response to a critic; in this case, to Duncan Kennedy's 'Augustan and Anti-Augustan: Reflections on Terms of Reference.'6 He argues that Kennedy attempts to diminish the relevance and power of anti-Augustan voices, but this is a rather uncharitable reading of Kennedy's essay, and in the end, Johnson shows himself to be in agreement with Kennedy's main point. Kennedy argues that the true demonstration of Augustus's power is that he establishes, to a great extent, the terms of debate: Romans were forced, whether they liked it or not, to frame their discussions in terms of Augustus, in the same way that bookstores shelve books on atheism in the 'Religion' section. None of this denies the power of Ovid's voice in Tristia 2; but it does mean, as Johnson writes, 'The emperor is no longer a remote, beneficent oddity; now he and his ideology have invaded the air the poem breathes' (136). Just as Johnson would have it, Tristia 2 shows a poet massing all his rhetorical power to fight against the system. Johnson sees Ovid's poem as one that 'celebrates what happens when two irreconcilable sign-systems collide and the feeble energies of art smash into the seemingly irresistible yet curiously inefficacious brute force of governments that are desperate to usurp the strengths of art and direct them to their own designs' (144). Ovid is a hero, following in Propertius's footsteps. Augustus may exile him, but he cannot silence him.7

Since Johnson himself places his book outside of the current of Propertian scholarship, it is hard for a reviewer to figure out where to slot it. The book began in the John and Penelope Biggs lectures at Washington University in 2004, and a lot of the lecture heritage remains; the tone drifts from scholarly to conversational and footnotes are generally of the 'further reading' sort, rather than an engagement with scholarship.8 Moreover, in the closing coda Johnson describes his book honestly as 'speculations' and 'observations' (146); there is little that could be called in-depth argument. But Johnson's great zeal for Propertius shows throughout--especially in his enthusiastic translations--and for his declared audience of Propertian neophytes, at least, he draws with passion a picture of Propertius as liberator of the imagination against the forces of the status quo.

Errata and typographical mistakes:

13 antimony is written for antinomy
55 uttterly
77 dona and bona do not rhyme
86 odd extra spacing between 'The poet' and 'refuses'
63 n.2 prespective
67 hirsute [for hirsuta] corona
69 incipe te [for tu] lacrimis aequus adesse novis 4.1.120
98 features a unintelligible sentence fragment and an incorrect reference: '. . . (just how important Tullus is in designing the Propertian persona will be clear when we look at how his presence in 3.23 [for 3.22], a poem that takes its place just before the end of Book 3, just before Propertius attempts to say 'goodbye to all that,' to Cynthia and to all she represents.)'
136, 138 show odd spacing and orphaned lines at the bottom of the pages
142 kind [of] poetry

In the bibliography:

John Bramble's article comes from Quality and Pleasure in Latin Poetry.
A comma has fallen out between Jack Goody's first and last names.
Newman's first name is given as Kevin, rather than the usual J.K. or John Kevin.
S.G. Owen, not Owens.
Of the three spellings given in the space of three lines (Raauflaub / Rauflaub / Raaflaub) only the last is correct.
Mark Toher, not Tober (twice).


1.   Smith, Kirby Flower. 1913. The Elegies of Albius Tibullus.
2.   Johnson disavows critical theory in his preface, drawing a distinction between others' use of that and his own use of 'literary criticism,' but his distinction does not hold up. Surprisingly, he suggests Roland Barthes as an antidote to the 'death of pleasure' (by implication, then, Barthes is not a 'critical theory' author?). If that confuses many readers, his valorization of Barthes when he describes Propertius's poetry as 'what amounts to a Roman version of A Lover's Discourse, Fragments' (90) will astound them. Regardless, his repeated invocation of 'the Voice of the Father' or the terminology of semiotics (sign, sign-system) betrays the theoretical foundations of his own approach. Indeed, A Latin Lover in Ancient Rome shares its interest in both elegy's brief flourishing and issues of identity with Paul Allen Miller's theory-embracing Subjecting Verses (2004).
3.   Bailey, Cyril, ed. 1923. The Legacy of Rome.
4.   Gibson, Roy. 2005. 'Love Elegy.' In Companion to Latin Studies, ed. Stephen Harrison: 160-73. Gibson's claim, of course, owes much to the work of Maria Wyke.
5.   Johnson is not an exceptional offender in this regard, but it is time to say it: Propertian scholars should discard the term monobiblos when discussing book 1. Butrica 1996 ('The Amores of Propertius: Unity and Structure in Books 2-4,' ICS 21: 85-158) has shown that the term has no legitimacy as a title for book 1, originating among the lemmata for Martial's gifts (14.189). It became a part of the MS tradition in A. Butrica has ascribed the title 'Monobiblos,' along with the corrupt and confused version of the author's name 'Propertius Aurelius Nauta' to Richard de Fournival, for whom the manuscript was copied and who misunderstood the lemma in Martial as an ancient title. But monobiblos means nothing more than 'a work contained in a single roll'; it was never a title for a work. In fact, it is only because Martial's poem begins with the word Cynthia, just as book 1 does, that it is even possible to identify Martial's gift as our book 1. Cynthia was more likely the title the book circulated under in antiquity (cf. Prop. 2.24.2). Monobiblos, then, has no ancient authority as a title. Moreover, if we assume that Propertius' four books were each published separately, as we must lacking evidence to the contrary, it also has absolutely zero value as a descriptive term (pace Butrica).
6.   Kennedy, Duncan. 1992. 'Augustan and Anti-Augustan: Reflections on Terms of Reference.' In Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus, ed. Anton Powell: 26-58.
7.   Chapter 2 promises to show how Vergil's Aeneas falls under the sway of the 'erotic imperative' as well--an intriguing topic. But the chapter is sidelined by an extended discussion of Stendhal's On Love and his concept of 'crystallization,' offered by Johnson as an alternative framework to Lacanian theory, which never really goes anywhere ('crystallization' is only mentioned, in passing, three times in the rest of the book). Chapter 5 makes hay, though, with the disrespect Ovid shows by reducing Augustus's imperial poem to its erotic value (Tr. 2.533-6); perhaps that justifies the inclusion of chapter 2, which would otherwise be a digression from the main argument of the book.
8.   Oddly, however, J.K. Newman is singled out at 63, 113 n.8, and 120 for some drive-by disparagement.

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