Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, as they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.—Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Propertius begins 4.9 with his version of the story of Hercules and Cacus that he adapts from Virgil’s recently published Aeneid. 1 Once he has recovered his stolen cattle, slain the monstrous, thieving Cacus and founded the Forum Boarium, the Propertian Hercules feels an overwhelming thirst. He hears the laughter of women and follows the sound to a grove in which the worship of the Bona Dea is taking place. Arriving on the threshold of the sanctuary, he pleads for some water from the spring he hears inside the grove, citing his heroic deeds as credentials for admittance. When his request achieves no immediate results, however, he considers that perhaps the women hesitate to open their sanctuary to a strong hero. He then offers a second self-presentation, this time telling how he once dressed as a woman and served Omphale, queen of Lydia. When the high priestess denies him entrance, reminding him that men, by religious prescription, cannot look upon the rites, Hercules gains access to the grove violently, drinks the spring dry, and announces that the Ara Maxima which he establishes 2 will forever exclude women from worship.
The poem purports to offer a myth of origins for the Ara Maxima. Indeed, in the opening elegy to his fourth and final poetic collection, the poet proclaims his desire to dispense with love and to concentrate [End Page 43] instead on aetiology. Subscribing to Callimachean poetics, he will now compose aetiological verse on Roman subjects. Yet a second voice threatens the unity of the poet’s declaration, suggesting a second and incompatible thematic focus. Even as Propertius proclaims his bold, new stance, Horos the astrologer interrupts, insisting on the poet’s inability to leave behind themes of erotic elegy. 3 The programmatic elegy never resolves the tensions between the two poles of the bipartite agenda, promising that warring interests will haunt the elegies in the fourth book.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that antithetical arguments surface in poem 4.9. I argue that the tension animating the poem emerges from its two competing discourses about gender identity. An exploration of the three stories about the hero in the poem—the opening account offered by the poet, as well as the two self-defining, yet contradictory, narratives that Hercules weaves, in which he presents himself first as a great masculine force and then as the cross-dressed servant of Omphale—suggests the ephemeral nature of “real” gender identity. Considering briefly a modern theoretical model of cross-dressing, I examine Propertius’ own manipulation of transvestism to categorize gender, on the one hand, as a fluid construction, a social performance. On the other hand—and here lies the poem’s tension—a second, antithetical argument also emerges from the poem, which insists on the possibility of assigning persons to a specific gender category based on firm, stable criteria. When the priestess reads Hercules as man, and when the hero ultimately differentiates himself from woman by establishing male-only worship at the Ara Maxima, gender becomes essential or biological. The question I want to pose is: why do these discourses stand side by side, and what kind of synthesis between them ultimately materializes? Finally, I suggest that this debate about gender reaches beyond poem 4.9. By constructing Hercules so that the hero comes to represent, on an exaggerated scale, the Propertian amator, who himself vacillates between “masculine” and “feminine” identities, Propertius invites the reader to see a similar tension in the poet’s first three books of elegies. Thus, towards the end of his poetic career, the poet issues a reconsideration [End Page 44] of the portrait of the lover/poet in light of the questions elegy 4.9 raises about gender identity.
While some might consider that to seek out, within ancient texts, whether gender appears essential or constructed in nature reveals an...