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American Journal of Philology 122.2 (2001) 223-253

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The Economics Of Roman Elegy: Voluntary Poverty, The Recusatio, And The Greedy Girl

Sharon L. James

Roman love elegy presents sexual relationships between elite men and women of lower status in apparently reversed gender and power positions, so that the male is enslaved to his beloved domina. This metaphorical reversal, however, actually retains standard Roman social structures, suggesting an inequity even within a private love affair: rather than sharing goals and desires, lover and beloved stand in a gendered opposition. Historically, elegy has been interpreted from the perspective of its male speakers, and much scholarship has focused on the characterizations of those speakers. But as it is legitimate to study the male elegiac speakers' viewpoint, it is likewise appropriate to consider that of his preferred love object and frequent addressee, the elegiac doctapuella. Since much of elegy is directed at a fictive, if named, woman, 1 such an approach may illuminate some of its rhetorical strategies and gender values, particularly as they derive from and relate to Roman gendered power constructs. Since elegy in particular generically anticipates the perspective of the docta puella, 2 and makes it a structural element of the [End Page 223] genre, to read elegy from that perspective provides both a necessary corrective or balance to the dominant male voice of the genre and a revelation of its inherent disingenuity. I will examine two related topoi of elegy--the recusatio and the problem of the "greedy girl"--from the position of the puella, a viewpoint that demonstrates the relationship between these two topoi and reveals the engine of Roman love elegy to be self-interested sexual persuasion rather than sincere confession of passion. 3

This approach requires identifying the elegiac puella, the counterpart to the recognizable elite male speaker of Roman love elegy, the lover-poet. In my view, she is a fictional construct based upon the courtesan of New Comedy--that is, she is an elegant, educated woman who has no financial security and thus must earn her own living while she can. 4 [End Page 224] Identifying her in this way has several consequences, but only two concern us here.

The first consequence is that many apparently individual character traits in an elegiac puella turn out to be professionally motivated behavior, as dictated by both Dipsas and Acanthis in Amores 1.8 and Propertius 4.5. A primary example is greed, for which the elegiac speakers never tire of criticizing their puellae, as though avaritia were a character flaw of a specific woman rather than a professional obligation. 5 Thus, when the lover-poet in Propertius 2.16 complains that Cynthia always weighs the purses of her lovers ("semper amatorum ponderat una sinus," 2.16.12), he is actually describing the behavior prescribed for her not only by the lena Acanthis, in poem 4.5 but in the pages of Roman comedy as well. 6 Comedy routinely presents the courtesan's needs and the young lover's desires as being at odds. The same structure of economic opposition governs the elegiac love affair: the puella plays a generic, professional part that may conflict with her personal inclinations or character (cf. Thais and Bacchis in Ter. Eun. and Hecyra). She is also presented as retaining her self-control while her impassioned lover loses his. 7 Like other courtesans of Roman comedy, Phronesium (Plaut. Truc.) is fully aware of both her present material and social circumstances and the [End Page 225] expiration date of her professional viability. Thus she necessarily seeks money and gifts from her lovers, both to maintain her attractions as an elegant woman 8 and to prepare for the future when she will no longer be able to practice her profession. Her literary granddaughter, the elegiac puella, does likewise (see, as noted above, the instruction of Acanthis and Dipsas, particularly lines 59-62 of Prop. 4.5 and 49-56 of Am. 1.8), and here it is worth recalling that even the male speakers of elegy allude...


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