- A Latin Lover in Ancient Rome: Readings in Propertius and His Genre
The first glimpse one has of W. R. Johnson's book on Propertius is its cover, Waterhouse's beguiling image of beguiling Circe. She lures you in, tricks and traps you, delays you in a new world that is remote from the call of everyday life and [End Page 513] not without other charms. Circe appears nowhere and everywhere within the book. She is not mentioned by name even once, but the figure of the beguiling woman looms large in Johnson's interpretation, which devotes to Cynthia and her predecessor Dido two long chapters (totaling seventy pages) before we ever really meet Propertius in chapter 4 (97). A sort of Circe has also lured Johnson, who admittedly lingers in the otherworld of the pleasures of the text (62) rather than the regular business of modern Propertian scholarship which, to Johnson, is overly theoretical, disengaged, and prone to reduce the pleasure of reading.
The Propertius that emerges in Johnson's book is both a product of and a reaction to his time. Johnson's first chapter traces the evolution of the Latin lover from Catulus, whose epigrams phrased in Latin erotic sentiments more familiar in Greek verse, to Sulla felix who balanced work with play, to yearning Catullus and Calvus who refined the Latinity of love, to dissipate Antony the Mad Lover who practiced an elegiac lifestyle, to the enigmatic Gallus who fell afoul of the new order, to Propertius, inheritor of a mature Latin poetic form and an erotic identity by now well-established as countercultural. Johnson's second chapter also examines background. "Aeneas in Love" (the chapter's title) is an unlikely elegiac prototype but a prototype nonetheless. Johnson focuses in this chapter not so much on Aeneas as on Dido and her literary forebears (Phaedra, Apollonius' Medea), women who love out of the ordinary, and each "circumscribed by a patriarchal sign system that has grown too small for her and her desire" (45). A third chapter treats Cynthia's appearance in Book 4, after the poet claims to have abandoned her. He cannot, for she is, whether real or ideal or fictive (Johnson argues for all three together), "the catalyst of a new style of self-fashioning" that inspires Propertius' poetry (94). This chapter dwells on elegies 4.7 and 4.8, the latter of which is Cynthia's literal post mortem examination of her faith and their affair. This poem leaves the lovers eternally bound, either in a skeletal embrace of undying love, or, when the ghost vanishes, in everlasting longing.
In the fourth chapter, ninety-seven pages into the book, we finally meet Propertius proper. This extensive chapter traces the poetry in chronological order, charting a path similar to Stahl's in which Propertius meets and variously responds to the pressures of the new order. Our poet in Book 1 shows us his life in love in tension with other modes of living in Rome. Four friends are his four foils, four "anti-Propertiuses" against whom he defines himself: Tullus, Bassus, Gallus, and Ponticus. Here Johnson begins to flesh out the notion of the lover-as-iconoclast as he refuses a life of military or political travel (Tullus); he asserts his difference from the unsuccessful lover (Gallus); he puts down epic poetry as of little use in love (Ponticus); and he cautions a misogynist (Bassus) against the dangers of belittling women. In Books 2a and 2b (for Johnson Book 2 is to be divided), more foils and negative models emerge as Maecenas presses Propertius into a kind of service for which he is ill-suited or ill-tempered or both. Johnson's reading of Book 3 rounds out this chapter. Here Propertius responds deftly to the increasing pressure of his boss and of the Zeitgeist to write and live a different way. Johnson's reading of 3.22 looms large and is trademark Johnson: incisive and expert, and likely to hold the field...