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Social Navigation in Elegiac Worlds: Travel, Immobility, and Identity in Roman Love Elegy

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In this dissertation, I explore the spatial dynamics of Roman love elegy, how its poets imagine their place in the world both physically and socially. Specifically, I argue that Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid use spatial tropes to explore the challenges of sharing an elegiac identity, as well as the difficulties of coexisting with those who do not share one’s identity. Drawing upon the growing body of scholarship on the social dynamics of Roman spaces, I reevaluate the programmatic spatial tropes of elegy: the lover’s unmoving vigil, the propempticon, which contemplates travels abroad, and the triumphal poem, which returns itinerant soldiers back to Rome. I show that through these tropes Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid offer competing visions of the role of elegiac identity in their contemporary world. Elegy is often characterized as a self-obsessed genre; I instead emphasize the social quality of this self-consciousness, how it explores the challenges of inhabiting a homogenized and marginal identity within an ideologically diverse world.

In my first chapter, I reexamine the paraclausithyron, the lover’s vigil in the doorway. Scholars have tended to read this programmatic trope in terms of how it represents the dynamics of unrequited desire. I instead show that it draws upon the traditional role of doorways in elite self-presentation in republican Rome. In light of this connection, the lover’s laments in the doorway should be viewed not only as persuasion directed at the beloved within, but also as a performance of identity directed towards external audiences. By dramatizing both the performance of identity in the doorway and misrecognition of it by other figures, elegiac poets raise questions about the stability of identity and its dependence on external characteristics. Moreover, close readings of Propertius 1.16, Tibullus 1.2, and Amores 1.6, reveal how the three poets conceptualize the performance of their identity, and its significance, in markedly different ways: Propertius focuses on the challenges of either truly knowing or successfully communicating one’s identity in a world ruled by subjective experience, while Tibullus instead highlights the physical dangers of being recognized as a lover and the need to disappear from the view of a hostile unelegiac world. Ovid, by contrasting the lover with an actual slave and depicting the end of his vigil, emphasizes the artificiality of this elegiac identity and its compatibility with mainstream society.

My second chapter looks at elegiac propemptica. Elegiac poets typically use this trope to convey the lover’s distaste for travel. However, I show that in their rejections of travel Propertius, Ovid, and Tibullus advance very different ideas about their own power to resist the demands of the real world and about what it would mean to acquiesce to the demands of mainstream culture by traveling abroad. In Propertius’ first book, the paired propemptica 1.6 and 1.8 use contrasting interpretations of journeys to show how subjective experience is shaped by physical realities and specific points-of-view, making the lover’s physical station in Rome essential to his existence as a lover. 3.7 and 3.21, however, return to and test this idea, exploring the possibilities of elegiac emotional experiences outside of Rome, and even outside erotic contexts. Tibullus’s propempticon, 1.3, through a careful melding of Odyssean references and elegiac motifs, offers a model for how elegiac figures can yield to mainstream demands, and travel abroad on campaign, while still maintaining a distinctively elegiac outlook and identity. Finally, in Amores 2.10, instead of wrestling with the pressures of the external world, through extensive references to the propemptica of his predecessors, Ovid reflects on the pressures of writing within a genre, with its potential for both tedium and creative union.

These differences in how the elegiac poets conceptualize their relationship to their world, both social and geographic, also inform their triumphal poems, in which the poets confront the figure of the soldier returning to Rome. In my third chapter, I analyze how elegiac poets negotiate questions of identity and their relationship to mainstream culture by looking at elegiac responses to triumphs, which at least ostensibly center traditional Roman masculinity. I argue that Propertius and Tibullus both adopt and disrupt triumphal representational strategies, in particular through representations of foreign geographies and manipulations of the triumphal route through the city. Propertius and Tibullus manipulate the mobility of the triumph, redirecting it in ways that allow the poet-lover to benefit from and thrive amidst Roman imperialism. For Tibullus this means using the triumph and Roman conquest to create a Roman cosmopolitanism that allows the lover to survive, contribute, and thrive under the radar, amongst many other minority identities. For Propertius, the triumph instead offers an opportunity for the elegiac lover to assertively shape public narratives around elegy, just as generals do around conquest. Ovid, in contrast, includes no representations of literal triumphs in his Amores, instead translating the ritual into entirely elegiac terms in the triumph of love. This omission is reflective of Ovid’s focus, in the Amores at least, on his relationship to other elegiac poets rather than on his relationship to a broader unelegiac community.

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This item is under embargo until October 12, 2023.