Thursday, May 12, 2016


Éric Coutelle, Properce, Élégies, livre IV. Collection Latomus, 348. Bruxelles: Éditions Latomus, 2015. Pp. 1,021. ISBN 9789042932418. €125.00.

Reviewed by Nicoletta Bruno, Università degli Studi di Bari "Aldo Moro" (

Version at BMCR home site

Great authors have the privilege, in every age, of being constantly an object of study. Propertius is a very good case in point, particularly as regards Book 4, the most controversial book of his Elegies. In the last decades, numerous scholars, from all over the world, have studied this text, which is especially difficult in terms of composition, unity of topics and textual transmission. A new edition and commentary on book 4 of Propertius is thus always most welcome.

Some years ago, Goold pointed out that "there exists no good text of Propertius" (HSCPh 71, 1967, 59) and Éric Coutelle begins his introduction with the opening sentence of the Propertian edition by J.S. Phillimore (OCT, 1901): quot editores, tot Propertii. A strong consensus has been created around Fedeli's first edition (Teubner-Stuttgart, 1984), for many years. However, the works of Shackleton Bailey, Butrica, Günther, the Loeb edition by Goold (1999) and the OCT by Heyworth (2007) have undermined this general position. Despite this recent revisionist tendency, the text printed in the volume by Éric Coutelle is conservative.

Coutelle has worked on his edition and commentary after Gregory Hutchinson's valuable and widely recognized edition and commentary on Propertius' book 4 (CUP, 2006) and while Fedeli, Dimundo and Ciccarelli (Verlag T. Bautz Nordhausen, 2015) were finishing their new work (a text of and commentary on book 4), strongly innovative and deeply different from Fedeli's previous editions published in 1965 (Adriatica Editrice Bari) and 1984 (Teubner-Stuttgart). A large amount of information and ideas, in the huge and massive commentaries, are useful to the reader and clarify the choices and the interpretations of the author. In fact, a great merit of Coutelle's commentary is structure: it is clearly divided into two parts, in order to avoid disorder and dispersal. Furthermore, the reader can choose which part of book 4 to examine: the content or the text.

The book opens with a broad introduction of over forty pages. Coutelle discusses the manuscript tradition; in particular, the first chapter reviews the older editions and the corrections and the differences made by modern editors. Coutelle also examines the main manuscripts and analyzes the two main theories of Propertian tradition: the 'binary' and the 'ternary' hypothesis. The former is: "l'ensemble de la tradition se répartit entre les manuscrits N et les manuscrits issus de A qui dérivent sans doute d'un archétype medieval" (p. 4). The 'ternary' hypothesis is endorsed by Butrica and Heyworth and amounts to the following:

"un groupe de manuscrits du XVe siècle forme une troisième famille, différente de N et A, qui dériverait d'un codex vetustus (X chez Butrica, lambda chez Heyworth), aujourd'hui disparu, jumeau de N, qui aurait été acquis par Poggio Bracciolini durant son voyage en Angleterre en 1423 près de Paris et ce que dernier a fait parvenir en 1427 à Niccolò Niccoli".

Apart from the paragraphs devoted to the identification of the codex vetustus collated by Politianus and to ms. T, this section on the history of the textual transmission concludes with a proposal by Marc Dominicy, as regards the three types of stemma codicum: traditional binary stemma, ternary stemma, complete binary stemma.1

The second part of the introduction focuses on the following topics: the principles that guide this edition, the originality of the fourth book, the evolution of Propertian poetry since book 1, the structure of book 4, and the role of Callimachus. In the chapter entitled "Les principes qui guident la présente édition", Coutelle introduces his work: it is divided into two different parts, each of them constituting a separate volume.

The first part includes the general introduction, the edition of the Latin text with apparatus and a translation in prose. Each elegy is analyzed in a general commentary, with a thorough bibliography (editions, commentaries, translations, bibliographic surveys; lexicons and concordances; general and special studies). The general commentary is very useful to the reader in search of the main topics: sources, myths, history, characters, genre. The ad verbum line by line commentary is the bulk of the whole book: it is complete and exhaustive. Coutelle admits his debt to Marc Dominicy, the mentor of his text and its critical apparatus.

Philological analysis, according to Coutelle, requires a close attention to grammar, style, and history, not only to aesthetic and cultural issues. The author strongly defends the manuscript tradition:

"un éditeur digne de ce nom ne peut se substituer à l'auteur. Cela ne veut pas dire qu'il doit s'interdire de modifier les manuscrits, qui n'ont rien de sacré. Choisir entre les différentes variantes qu'offrent les manuscrits, c'est déjà faire des conjectures." (p. 18)

Coutelle welcomes the choice of the most interesting variants from ms. T and from family L (lambda) and supports many conjectures proposed by Marc Dominicy. In addition, the 'positive' critical apparatus is not only designed editorum in usum, to borrow Housman's phrase, but also lectorum in usum, as Heyworth writes. Coutelle's commentary is by no means a mere collection of variants, conjectures and loci similes, but he makes his ad verbum a deep analysis of the elegies, line by line. I cannot consider here all the elegies: I have picked up some pieces with especially thorny problems.

Book 3 of the Elegies ends with a farewell to Cynthia and love poetry seems to be firmly in the past. Basically, book 4 is a mixture of aetiological elegies on Roman topics and others in line with his previous love poetry. The terminus post quem for the composition is 16 BC, the year before the Horatian Carmen Saeculare, a key moment for the Augustan Age. Regarding Propertius exclusively as a poet of love is a restricted view, and perhaps Roman aetiological poems and love poems are closer than it may appear at first sight. Therefore, Propertius' main resolution was to redefine the elegiac poetry and open up new horizons for the genre: by juxtaposing the glorious past of the origins of Rome, the celebration of the pax Augusta and the love poems devoted to Cynthia. One of the most complex issues is the overall architecture of the book and the structure of some elegies, for instance 4,1.

The first elegy transmitted by the mss., as a single elegy, should be divided in two different elegies, according to many scholars (cf. Reisch 1887, 127-9; Sandbach 1962, 264-271; Goold 1966, 92; Kidd 1979, 169-171; Murgia 1989, 265-6; ed. Viarre 2005; Heyworth 2007)2, into 1a (lines 1-70) and 1b (lines 71-150), but Günther 2006 ('Brill's Companion to Propertius'), 358, for instance, accepts Jachmann's division (1-66 and 67-150). Otherwise, Coutelle is content to read the elegy as a single poem, like Macleod 1976, 148-150,3 ed. Fedeli 1984, Hutchinson 2006, and again Fedeli, Dimundo, Ciccarelli 2015. The first elegy is particularly representative, as regards the new account of his poetry. Propertius describes to his guest the most famous places and monuments of Rome and celebrates its present greatness, springing from humble origins. In what follows I point out some editorial choices accepted by Coutelle: for instance, in line 4 the editor prints concubuere, which has a sexual connotation, while Goold, Hutchinson and Fedeli 2015 whereas prefer procubuere. Coutelle defends his choice with a stylistic comment: "malgré la cacemphaton constitué par profugae procubuere". In line 8 bubus erat remains unchanged, as in the text printed by Fedeli 1984. Coutelle preserves lines 87-88, as transmitted, while Müller and Heyworth transpose them after line 52. Fedeli 2015 and Hutchinson expunge them. The author accepts Dominicy's conjectures in line 9 qua and scandens in line 125.

Coutelle's text of elegy 4,2 on Vertumnus opens up with a conjecture proposed by Dominicy and printed here: ego Etruscis in line 3, which seems inexplicable in place of ego Tuscis. Likewise, in line 39 Coutelle accepts two conjectures by Dominicy, pastorum and cervice: thus, the line is pastorum at baculum possum cervice vel idem instead of the transmitted pastor me ad baculum possum curvare vel idem, printed by Fedeli 1984, Hutchinson, Heyworth and Fedeli 2015. Elegy 4,4 is devoted to Tarpeia and to her love for Tatius, a mythical romance inside an aetiological poem. The main object of investigation is the correct sequence of the lines: the text transmitted has not convinced many scholars, in particular Giardina, Hutchinson and Fedeli 2015. On the contrary, Coutelle is cautious and prefers to respect the transmitted ordo verborum. Elegy 4,4 has been subjected to many changes and transpositions: Coutelle prints the same text as Fedeli 1984 and Viarre 2005, unlike Hutchinson, Heyworth and Fedeli 2015, who publishes a new scheme of transposition, a synthesis of different proposals over the centuries: immediately after lines 1-2 the sequence is 9-10, 13-14, 11-12, 7-8, 3-6 and the most logical placing of lines 17-18 is after line 93, after the end of Tarpeia's tale. However, the best part of Coutelle's commentary on this elegy is the general one, in particular in chapter devoted to the meaning of rewriting the myth of Tarpeia.

In line 2 of elegy 4,7 we find a typo uridaque in place of luridaque. In 4,7 line 35 Coutelle defends the manuscript transmission, after several attempts at transposition proposed by Scaliger (who places lines 35-38 after line 46), by Postgate (who puts line 35 after 72) and by Schrader (who puts it after line 76).

The topos of ghosts relates elegy 4,7 to the last one, 4,11. Certainly, it is not a coincidence that book 1 and book 4 are both concluded with a speech by a ghost.

The speech of Cornelia to her widower husband Paullusis is the central feature of the 'queen of elegies'. Propertius praises the qualities of Cornelia, as virtuous mother and bride: the woman embodies the ideal of the matron, proud to die and to perform her duties. Coutelle accurately points out, in his general comment, the historical and the poetic reasons why Cornelia was a model: he devotes a whole paragraph to the importance of the laws on marriage, and to the Ludi and Carmen Saeculare. A keynote section regards the style and the evolution of the epigraphic genre of the laudatio funebris. Particularly interesting is also the section that concerns exemplary women: Claudia Quinta and the Vestal Aemilia. Moreover, Coutelle emphasizes (at page 293) the examples quoted to define Cornelia. They are undoubtedly Roman, but there are many references to Greek mythology, especially to heroines, such as Eurydice (cf. Verg. Georg. 4, 478 ff.). Coutelle compares, with the necessary distance, Cornelia to Arethusa and Tarpeia, because they are both related to the ideal of erotic sacrifice.

To sum up, the commentary is precise and accurate, up to date and copious. The bibliography is duly international and the structure itself of the volume is appealing. It should only be pointed out that its marked conservatism, and its totally 'positive' apparatus, make Coutelle's overall valuable work somewhat eccentric with regard to the latest trends in Propertian scholarship.


1.   cf. Günther, Quaestiones Propertianae, Leiden, 1997 and Brill's Companion to Propertius (Leiden-Boston, 2006), in particular the chapters by Fedeli, Butrica and Tarrant.
2.   Reisch, Properz-Studien. I: Zur Chronologie der drei ersten Büchern. II2: Das vierte Buch in WS 9, 1887, 94-150; Sandbach, Some Problems in Propertius in CQ 12, 1962, 263-276; Goold, Noctes Propertianae in HSPh 71, 1966, 59-106; Kidd, Propertius Consults his Astrologer in G&R 26, 1979, 169-179; Murgia, Propertius 4.1.87-88 and the Division of 4.1 in HSPh 92, 1989, 257-272.
3.   Macleod, Propertius 4,1 in PapLivLatSem 2, 1976, 141-152.

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