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Comparative Literature Studies 43.3 (2006) 306-325

Propertius and the Gendered Rhetoric of Luxury and Empire
A Reading of 2.16
Lowell Bowditch
University of Oregon

Pearls, expensive fabrics, alluring scents, and colorful gems—these are some of the exotic or foreign goods that the elegiac mistress demands from her lovers.1 Indeed, such luxury goods may be in conflict with the lover-poet's ethos of poverty and simplicity, but they contribute to the atmosphere of leisure and Hellenistic refinement that provides the backdrop to elegiac relationships:2 thus, in the second poem of the monobiblos, the speaker famously questions Cynthia's penchant for elaborate hairstyles, seductive Coan silks, or perfume from the Orient (1.2.1–8)3 —claiming to prefer a "natural look," a disingenuous posture in a poem that relies on elaborate and recherché mythological exempla ["illustrations"] to ornament its thesis. Or, again, the festive goods required for a birthday celebration of Cynthia include "saffron oil" from a "myrrhine jar" (Prop. 3.10.22), exotic commodities from Cilicia, India, and Parthia. And just as the courtesan or beloved depends on such gifts and the goods of foreign trade in order to attract customers, so, too, does the text with which she is so often identified become "tricked out" with the dazzle and allure of foreign wealth, military booty, and the glitter of the city.4 As Propertius demonstrates in 2.1 in his defense of Cynthia's charms, her movements in soft Coan fabric provide inspiration—"a whole volume is written from Coan cloth," as he puts it—so that foreign exotica metonymically become the very stuff of elegy.5 Such material goods also function, then, as seductive rhetorical tropes for the reader, on a par with Hellenistic mythological ornament, and even should the speaker reject them, they nonetheless make their sensory appeal on the level of linguistic image:6 as recent readings have suggested, the desire of the elegiac "I" for his beloved stands in a parallel relation to the reader's desire for and pleasure in the text.7 [End Page 306] In some poems of Propertius, this equation between the elegiac mistress and the elegiac text intersects with the common cultural discourse that views woman as a metaphor for the body politic.8 And while the rhetoric that condemns a taste for luxury as feminine might drive the poet's censure of both his mistress and the Roman state or state of Rome that she represents, the erotic ambivalence that attends such censure—reproof commingled with desire—extends to the reader's experience of the imperial trappings of the text. This essay will provide an analysis of Propertius 2.16, arguing first that Cynthia herself serves as an unstable metaphor for Roman imperialism—as a signifier of moral and political ideology9 —and then claiming that the rhetoric of the poem produces a textual pleasure that embraces a vision of empire, despite the speaker's reproaches.10

The presence of luxury items in Augustan elegy can be traced both to the literary precedent of the courtesan in New Comedy,11 a stock figure of acquisitive greed, and to the particular historical conditions of Roman imperialist expansion of the centuries preceding and leading up to the Augustan era and the brief flowering of the elegiac genre. Roman domination in the Mediterranean, following the Punic and Macedonian wars, meant the absorption of Greek and Alexandrian culture and their literary conventions, as well as exposure to foreign goods, first in the form of military booty, and then as commodities that began to be increasingly available as a result of a more stable environment for trade.12 Elegy itself seems to rise and fall, as it were, with the Augustan regime, but the attitudes of its speakers at times look to the past, ironically adopting a discourse of moral censure regarding luxuria [luxury] and avaritia [avarice] that saw the political and social chaos of the Late Republic as the result of the imperialist expansion of...


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