Tuesday, August 20, 2019


Jonathan Wallis, Introspection and Engagement in Propertius: A Study of Book 3. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. x, 241. ISBN 9781108417174. £75.00.

Reviewed by Christian Lehmann, Bard High School Early College - Cleveland (clehmann@bhsec.bard.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Jonathan Wallis has written a study of Propertius 3 brimming with interpretations that are rooted in close textual readings, an awareness of the rich bibliographical and textual tradition of Propertius' text, and a concentrated attention to the poet's engagement with Horace and Vergil and introspection (Wallis's word) of his own body of work. Anyone interested in the study of the Roman poetry book, Latin poetry, or Propertius specifically will find much to consider in these pages.

Wallis opens the volume with a succinct introduction that offers a review of bibliography, an overview of the book's structure, and a brief textual note. He bases his analysis on Fedeli's 1984 Teubner with a recusatio concerning Heyworth's OCT: "it will take some time longer for the editorial decisions it makes to be assessed fully by Propertian scholars" (p. 20). Throughout the book, Wallis makes judicious use of footnotes to discuss important points of difference and agreement with Heyworth.

Wallis begins his analysis of Propertius' thematic, poetic, and societal interests with his understanding of the book's structure. "The current study proposes a new way of reading the arrangement of poems in Book 3—as a broad structure consisting of three series of eight poems" (p. 5). The three narratives Wallis identifies are 3.1-8, 9-16, 17-24, and he suggests that each narrative begins with a programmatic elegy that underscores the major theme explored in the sequence. Thus, 3.1-8 show Propertius re-engaging with a Latin poetic tradition that spans Ennius, Horace, Vergil, and his own elegies. 3.9-16 explore a series of prominent Augustan themes. Finally, 3.17-24 explore Propertius' renewed confidence in himself to write about the important issues of his age. Regrettably, for a single-book monograph, several poems (4, 5, 7, 14, 19, and 21) are left undiscussed or mentioned merely in passing.

Chapter 1, "Turning Elegy Upside Down: Propertius 3.1-3," suggests that the first three poems are a direct response to contemporary literary developments: "Propertius Book 3 appears hot on the heels of Horace's Odes 1-3, and with Virgil's Aeneid looming on the literary horizon" (p. 22). In 3.1 Propertius announces his new elegiac project by borrowing Horace's claim of being a sacerdos (Odes 3.1.3) in the same place as his predecessor (last word of the third line of the first poem in the third book)1 along with triumphal language taken from Vergil's Georgics. This poem develops the potential of elegy for political commentary while 3.2 engages with Horace's lyrics and explores elegy's erotic dimensions. Finally, 3.3 takes the different themes of the first two poems and places them in alternating focus through the injunction of Calliope that elegists stick to drunken and amorous themes. Wallis raises an interesting idea when he points out that the reader suddenly becomes aware "of how long it has been since elegy has looked as Calliope describes it" (p. 45).

Chapters 2, 4, and 8 unpack the changing representation of fides over the course of the collection. In chapter two, "Seeking Fides in Poets and Poetry" Wallis uncovers a Propertius in 3.6 who simultaneously desires fidelity from his mistress, friends, and go-betweens while he himself does not hesitate to dissimulate. Throughout the second chapter, Wallis usefully imagines a variety of readers. There is the "gullible reader" (p. 46) who reads Propertius on the surface, and there is the "suspicious reader" (p. 49) who questions Propertius in the same way that the poet questions Lygdamus. The "suspicious reader" is a particularly valuable construct because it allows Wallis to discuss the plurality of ways that readers may have encountered ancient texts.2

Chapter 3, "Thematic Experimentation" introduces the second sequence (poems 9-16) by focusing on 9-11. The first of these introduces Maecenas as both "an intervening outsider" and "an internalized 'elegiac' figure" (p. 64). In this poem, Propertius offers an explanation of his poetic interests (not epic) to a figure who has become an important symbolic addressee for Latin poets, especially Horace and Vergil. For Propertius to address him, after these others have already done so, means that "Maecenas also represents an internal marker of a dialogue between poets about literary development itself" (p. 69). This identification of Maecenas with both metapoetic reflection and societal observation keenly underscores the strategies at play in Propertius' third book. This chapter also contains an important reflection on the reception of the Georgics in the late 20s BCE. Wallis next offers a reading of 3.10 (a genethliakon to Cynthia), about which he says, "the announcement of a 'birthday' provides an ideal opportunity to reflect on the past while looking to the future... 3.10 becomes a poem that remembers the birth of Cynthian verse as much as that of Cynthia herself. Mostly, Cynthia's birthday becomes a device through which Propertius can reflect upon his own third anniversary as a poet" (p. 76). Propertius' Cleopatra poem, 3.11, ends the chapter where "Propertius offers a paradoxical celebration both of his submission to his mistress and of Octavian's victory at Actium (p. 83). This analysis forms a crucial strand in Wallis' argument that Book 3 contains a variety of poems that weave the poet's personal erotic experience together with the theme of imperialism.

Chapter 4 expands upon the theme of fides in Book 3. "Marriage and the Elegiac Woman," presents us with a poem (3.12) that honors Aelia Galla as a model wife for her husband Postumus. At the start of this analysis, Wallis references another arrangement of poems when he notes that 3.12 is the middle poem (of 24) and therefore "negotiates the reader's passage into the second half of the book" (p. 93). (At this point it can feel as if every poem has some structural significance, and I was left wondering what happened to the three-part structure). He argues that by beginning with Galla, Propertius shifts elegy's focus from the mistress' infidelity toward the wife's fidelity. Wallis shows the way in which Propertius places this poem in dialogue with Horace Odes 3.7 and his own 1.11 to establish this new emphasis.

Chapter 5, "Delays and Destinations," examines 3.16 and the larger theme of travel in book 3. The chapter opens with a nuanced discussion of "middles" as measurements of time and space. This poem returns us to the three-part structure as it concludes the middle set of poems, 9-16. As Wallis observes, "the poem's metaphorical drive also serves to highlight the transience of 'middleness' in subjects as linear as life and poetry" (p. 122). Wallis suggests, via a discussion of membra, that 3.16 expresses a variety of anxieties. In addition to the surface concerns about journeying in general, the poem conflates the threats to a body with the fear of assault on textual bodies after publication. This is a particularly elegant chapter that would work well as a model for close reading in the classroom.

Chapter 6, "A Hymn to Bacchus," begins the final sequence of eight poems. Wallis reminds the reader that they should read 3.17 as a programmatic poem that introduces a sequence of poems that will "flirt with bringing elegy into alignment with an Augustan mainstream" (p. 133). This chapter features some of Wallis's most intricate, and enjoyable, intertextual readings, and throughout he carefully explains what he finds pertinent in such connections. Wallis' discussion of "these resistant Horatian reverberations" is consistently illuminating and a useful consideration of Horace's importance for Propertius (p. 153). For Wallis, 3.17 is also deeply concerned with Vergil's Georgics, and he patiently shows that any similarities between the two are deliberate rather than "coincidental," (p. 157). Wallis ends the chapter with an important consideration of Propertius standing outside the doors of Bacchic temple (ante fores templi, 3.17.37). He makes the obvious connection to Vergil's famous temple in Georgics 3 but adds that "at an intertextual level he occupies a position from where—ike all Roman poets who write after Virgil—e will view, interpret and critique the literary edifice that will soon lodge at the heart of the Augustan cultural landscape" (p. 162).

Chapter 7, "In Lament for Marcellus," treats 3.18 and is one of Wallis's most successful moments of thinking about how Propertius interacts with his cultural milieu and with himself.3 I found the chapter especially compelling for considering how the poem engages with Aeneid 6: "by sending Marcellus back to the underworld after his death, Propertius returns us to where Virgil had introduced Marcellus before he was born" (p. 182).

Wallis' trio of chapters on the theme of fides concludes with chapter 8, "Renewing the Elegiac Contract." In 3.20 Propertius seeks to change his habits and take a new lover with whom he will mark his fides in a foedus (contract). Wallis pairs 3.20 with 3.12 because both feature a husband leaving. When he triangulates these poems with Odes 3.7, he can assert that "Propertius qualifies what had been a (Horatian) idealisation of constancy in 3.12" (p. 196). One of the great pleasures of reading Wallis's diachronic study is the way he draws attention to the Propertian strategy of presenting the reader with something that feels familiar from other Latin poets and himself before destabilizing such comforts.

Chapter 9, "Breaking up with Cynthia," investigates the final poem of Propertius's book, 3.24, which Wallis reads as a single poem. Here the poet is engaged in "an established game of elegiac brinkmanship" in which the reader wonders if the poet will succeed in quitting love elegy (p. 202). Wallis indulges in a welcome "Ovidian Reflection" (p. 209-213) where he shows us an Ovid steeped in Propertius. I would have liked to see a more dynamic reading of a Propertius who may well be reacting to hearing a young Ovid.4

Wallis concludes with a brief epilogue focused on 3.22. The decision to end his book with a poem that is not the end of Propertius' collection underscores a difficulty of assessing Wallis' undertaking namely, the importance of his structural argument to his larger claims. Wallis explains his decision as follows "When Propertius reached the end of the twenty- second elegy, Book 3 contained the same number of poems as Book 1…Propertius uses this moment of symmetry to signal ostentatiously that he was wrapping things up" by addressing Tullus, who had last appeared as an addressee in 1.22 (p. 217). Although this is a compelling use of symmetry, nevertheless it, like many of the most compelling points that Wallis makes in other chapters, is not related to the tripartite division he has identified. Wallis' structural discussions in no way enervate his success in defending his primary thesis about Book 3. I am fully persuaded that Propertius engages with his own material (introspection) and that of Horace and Vergil (engagement) in order to explore the potential of elegy to talk about personal narratives and contemporary public affairs. Occasionally these arguments are bolstered by structural observations, but they neither begin with, nor fully depend upon, the structural argument.

Wallis writes in a lively manner and ends with a succinct and polyglottal bibliography, although references to works after 2013 are rare. The reader will in no way be hindered by any errors in the text.


1.   Although he does not use a specific term for this kind of line-counting, others have. Hinds calls it "stichometric intertextuality" (Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), 92 n.10). Wills calls it "allusion by line-number" (Jeffrey Wills, Repetition in Latin Poetry: Figures of Allusion. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 159 n.82). Vergil employs this method in naming Maecenas in the Georgics: 1.2, 2.41, 3.41, 4.2. An elaborate example occurs between Aen. 10.475 (vaginaque cava fulgentem deripit ensem) and Met. 10.475 (pendent nitidum vagina deripit ensem).
2.   For a similar use of a suspicious reader, I recommend Stephen Hinds, "Ovid among the Conspiracy Theorists," in Classical Constructions: Papers in Memory of Don Fowler, Classicist and Epicurean, eds. S. J. Heyworth, P. G. Fowler, S. J. Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 194-220.
3.   In using the word "interacting" I am thinking about Alice K├Ânig, and Christopher Whitton's Roman Literature under Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian: Literary Interactions, AD 96-138 reviewed recently in BMCR 2019.02.51.
4.   For a recent reflection on the timeline, see Stephen Harrison, "The Chronology of Ovid's Career," in Dicite, Pierides: Classical Studies in Honour of Stratis Kyriakides, eds. A. N. Michaelopoulos, S. Papaioannou, and A. Zissos (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017) 188-201.

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