Sunday, April 27, 2014


Ruth Rothaus Caston, The Elegiac Passion: Jealousy in Roman Love Elegy. Emotions of the past. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 176. ISBN 9780199925902. $74.00.

Reviewed by Bob Cowan, The University of Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

[The reviewer would like to apologize for the lateness of this review.]

Emotions continue to run high among the preoccupations of classicists, and "Emotions of the Past", a new series from Oxford University Press, edited by two of the paladins of Classical emotion studies, Robert Kaster and David Konstan, promises still further to nurture work on this important and fascinating area. In this first volume, Ruth Caston makes the case both for jealousy as a quintessentially elegiac emotion, and for elegy as a genre structured by jealousy. By the end of her interesting discussion, this claim feels a little overstated, or at least undersubstantiated by the evidence presented, but the range of examples—ancient and modern, literary and sociological—which she offers, her provocative analyses, and her suggestive (if ultimately unstable) taxonomies, all make this a stimulating and rewarding study. If it leaves the reader with a sense of slightly unfulfilled potential, that is in itself a testimony to its ambition.

There are various problems with defining jealousy, perhaps even more than with other emotions which recent work has carefully historicized. This results partly from its frequent confusion with envy, partly from the rarity and problematic nature of its ancient terminology, and partly from a reluctance in ancient texts to talk about it. The book opens with a judicious attempt in the direction of such a definition, carefully balancing cognitive and other approaches, and rightly emphasizing the triangular nature of jealousy, that is responds to a (perceived or actual) threat to an existing relationship, and _less convincing as a sine qua non — the impulse to repulse or avenge the threat. Caston also, understandably, argues for the uniqueness of elegy's emphasis on jealousy, building on Konstan's rejection of its presence in tragedy and other earlier genres. While she unquestionably shows in the course of the monograph that jealousy is extremely important in elegy, it is neither, for many readers, persuasive to downplay its importance in tragedy, new comedy and even epic, nor ultimately necessary for the overall argument.

The second chapter consists of a comparison between elegiac and philosophical attitudes to erotic passion. In doing so, Caston moves a little away from the central theme of jealousy, about which philosophy has little to say, but this remains an important background to the later discussions. The significance of the largely neglected philosophical material is undeniable, and Caston follows the lead of Roy Gibson and others in drawing wider scholarly attention to it. Her use of Lucretius could be nuanced by more overt acknowledgment that De Rerum Natura 4 is often engaging with the same literary topoi (from Hellenistic and Neoteric epigram) as Augustan elegy, rather than representing an independent response to a wider cultural construction of amor. The overall argument, that the elegists set themselves up as "rival authorities" to philosophers, offering an alternative and often more humane solution to love's problems, is a provocative and stimulating one. Ultimately, I remained unconvinced that elegy was in fact offering a positive alternative to philosophy. Even the examples given tended to suggest either a self-consciously paradoxical embrace of precisely the follies which philosophy condemns, or a Conte-esque "hidden author" mocking the persona who so rashly embraces the life of love. However, the case is well made and will no doubt encourage further thought on the nexus of elegy and philosophy.

In the remaining chapters, Caston rightly attempts to taxonomize the instances of jealousy in terms of type, trigger and manifestation. Sometimes the impulse to taxonomize results in a slightly forced and artificial distortion either of the categories or of the evidence, and sometimes the poems chosen as test-cases do not seem the most obvious choices. The first chapter of the discussion proper, on "The Nature of Jealousy", sets out to establish certain norms and parameters, and it might be expected that relatively normative examples might have been chosen. Instead, Caston discusses Propertius 1.3 and Amores 2.7. In the former, Propertius' own jealousy is limited to the brief and enigmatic fantasy over what Cynthia is dreaming (which seems closer to rape than consensual infidelity) and Cynthia's is problematized by its probable subtext as a unilateral attack concealing her own dalliances. In the latter, the reader only has Ovid's projection of jealousy onto his puella, a projection further complicated by the way it is depicted as groundless in 2.7 but revealed as totally justified in 2.8. In many ways, the choice of these off-centre examples is the more interesting and stimulating one, but it is still hard not to feel that straightforward, normative examples might have better laid the basis for the discussion of more complex examples later on.

The emphasis on the role of the senses in Chapter Four is an important and illuminating one, which will be of considerable utility in the wider interpretation of both jealousy and elegy, as well as the intersection of the two. Caston's attempts to draw clear gender distinctions between the modes of jealousy is a promising one, but in the event does not convince. The chapter contrasts the alleged skepticism of women in the face of potential evidence of infidelity, with the rash credulity of men. The examples illustrating male gullibility are strong, but those of female caution are far less so. Caston offers two examples from the Heroides (a text which, incidentally, might have been used far more, offering as it does rich evidence of jealousy) and one from Propertius 4.3. To take Oenone's gradual comprehension that Paris was coming back to Troy with a new lover as indicating a determination to have corroborative evidence is at best pressing the text rather hard, but to interpret Arethusa's overheated fantasies about what Lycotas might be up to—as Caston herself notes, "even though Arethusa herself is responsible for creating the suspicious data"—in the same way does feel like special pleading. Nevertheless, there is much important material in this chapter on rumour, self-construction and, as mentioned, especially on the importance of sensory evidence. Similar strengths and weaknesses can be found in the chapter on responses to jealousy, which contrasts female violence with male restraint (as constructed, of course, by a male voice), but overall this is one of the strongest chapters.

The chapter on "The Lover as Poet" has a complex focus, moving between metapoetic readings (to which Caston is mainly reacting, or at least offering an alternative), constructions of internal and external readers, and the building of homosocial relationships with other poets. Finally, Caston broadens the discussion to situate elegiac jealousy within the wider context of fides in Roman, especially Augustan society, with a particular focus on Propertius. Occasionally, as elsewhere, Caston rather forces and arguably distorts the evidence (I discuss her reading of Prop. 2.6.15-22 below), but in general, this is a splendid way not so much to round off as to fan out the study, and, like much of the best scholarship on elegy, show that the genre is far less exclusively concerned with the narrow issues of sex than is often thought.

Occasionally, Caston builds an argument on a false, or at least doubtful, reading of the text in question. Her assertion that Amores 2.7 is set in the theatre (pp. 59-60) presumably arises from lines 3-4, sive ego marmorei respexi summa theatri, | eligis e multis unde dolere velis, but this couplet surely refers to just one of the numerous situations in which (according to Ovid) Corinna repeatedly manifests her irrational jealousy, rather than to the dramatic setting. As such, there is no "juxtaposition between public and private" in this poem and its pair 2.8, though Caston is quite right to stress the oppositions between "appearance and reality, deception and trust". If anything, the sharp shift from Ovid's indignant reproach of Corinna to his anxious threats against Cypassis offers an even more interesting juxtaposition, not least as it reveals the potential for unfaithful lovers to exploit the topoi of jealousy, and it would have been fascinating to read Caston's interpretation of this dimension of the two elegies. More problematic is Caston's interpretation of Propertius 2.6.15-22, which she reads as part of the connection between fides and elegiac jealousy. The vitia, she claims, must be disloyalty rather than unchastity because the "presence of Romulus and Remus...would not otherwise make sense in this list of stories. What links all these stories is the betrayal of trust that lies at their center, whether that be the theft of a spouse, as in the myth of the Sabine women, or the claims to a city, in the case of Romulus and Remus." (p. 149) This seems reasonable enough, and the fall of Troy could certainly be attributed to Laomedon's perfidy and Paris' violation of xenia as much as the latter's sexual transgression. However, it is hard to fit the Lapiths and Centaurs into a narrative of perfidy, and Caston ignores this couplet. When it comes to Romulus, the key word intactas is left untranslated, suggesting sexual stuprum against virgins rather than adulterium with wives against husbands, in keeping with the usual depiction of the Sabine rape. More importantly, there is in fact no mention of Remus or of claims to the city, so that Romulus, as in Ars 1, is elegized into an (almost) entirely erotic exemplum. As with Amores 2.7, Caston's underlying point is sound and important, but it feels weaker than it is by being based on distorted evidence, and the reader is left wondering what the consequences of a less tendentious reading might have been.

Throughout, Caston makes particularly good use of modern parallels, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy, Goethe to Robbe- Grillet, constantly illuminating, enriching and enlivening her discussion, but always avoiding the pitfalls of anachronism or an unreflective ahistorical approach to emotions. Though the book covers a wide range of topics and (within the limited corpus of Augustan elegy) texts, there are a few areas which might have been included. The Heroides, as has been mentioned, are a rich source of material on jealousy, and the ludic blend of contemporary elegiac motifs with mythical settings could have offered an interesting perspective. In terms of the nature of jealousy, the main absence was a reflection on personal status. This may be deliberate, since Caston's emphasis is very much on the triangular nature of jealousy, but it would have been good at least to address the issue of how far jealousy can be a matter, not so much of frustrated or perverted desire for another, but how the winning of the beloved by a rival diminishes the social standing and masculinity of the self. The anthropological material on "Mediterranean masculinity" so effectively applied by Wray to Catullus and by Edwards to Roman society more broadly might have provided a useful tool, here.

The book is admirably free of typos (I noticed only quarter for quater at Tib. 1.10.63 on p.103) and the formatting is elegant, though from time to time the pentameters in passages of elegiacs are not indented (pp. 106, 107, 120, 126, 153).

This is an important book, whose ambition and skill are admirable, and whose approach will undoubtedly be influential on future work on Augustan elegy. If that ambition sometimes leads the author to press the evidence too hard or force it into boxes which it does not necessarily fit, that can only increase its power to provoke and stimulate further research on this neglected area.

No comments:

Post a Comment