Are the mistresses of elegy ever more than metaphors for the poetic projects and/or political interest of their authors?

Emily Lane

The argument that expresses the docta puella as simply a metaphor for the vehicle of the lover-poet to illustrate his own feelings and political views has been a matter of debate amongst scholars. As tempting as it may be to form an interpretation of the mistresses of Roman love elegy as a deploy of the poet, a deeper analysis of the poems and an understanding of the historical and social context, may allow the reader to gain glimpses of specific information about the lives of the mistresses, albeit unwittingly on the part of the lover-poet. Thus, this essay will hope to address the tension of reality, fiction and politics that is at play throughout the works of the love elegists, and find a place for the mistress throughout the narrative.

This tension can be explicitly seen in Ovid’s Amores 1.4. This poem contains a set of “instructions” (Am. 1.4, 10) for his puella, Corinna, at a banquet on how to avoid contact with the contracted vir, allowing the mistress to communicate secretly with the lover-poet.1 Ovid dictates his mistress’s behavior, instructing her every movement, “Above all, don’t you dare/ Kiss him, not once”(38-41). This command illustrates a degree of force and reveals his sexual jealousy constructing himself as a servus amoris, setting himself up against rival lovers. Thus, Ovid reasserts the authority that Corinna undermines at the dinner party through elegy, allowing him to announce his control, as the insistent nature of his command confirms his dominance. This interpretation would at first seem to release the mistress from a metaphorical realm, the use of first person manipulates the reader, enticing us into believing the situation is real. However, this process of mimesis allows the reader to have complete control of the focalization.2 Perhaps this facade of reality is used as a device by Ovid to subtly use the figure of a mistress as a device for his own poetic project as a trope for poetic inspiration, allowing the lover-poet to have a sense of mastery through text, revealing a meta-poetical reading to the poem.

The idea of the mistress as a metaphor is perhaps confirmed in Propertius’ poem 1.3. Propertius roots his mistress in the world of dreams and mythology, comparing Cynthia to “Cephean Andromeda” (Prop. 1.3, 3). This also begs the question if his puella represents the lover-poet’s drunken fantasy as Propertius “was dragging footsteps drunken with much Bacchus […] in the small hours” (Prop.1.3, 9-10). Furthermore, when Cynthia “drew a sigh” he “froze in superstitious dread” (28-9). This could indicate the idea that dreams fulfill your desires, explaining the fear of waking up, as the harsh realities of the everyday world may crush his romantic dream. This may demonstrate how the mistress is represented as both art and flesh, perhaps deliberately making her identity ambiguous, as for a mistress to be constructed in a realistic light may diminish her attractive and alluring nature. However, Cynthia’s identity is further questioned with Propertius’ ironic take on the militia amoris. Military language is juxtaposed within the poem such as “stand to arms” (16), perhaps reinforcing how the two worlds of love and war are incompatible, perhaps further exemplifying how Cynthia is the lover-poet’s ultimate sexual fantasy. This may lead on to the idea that the mistress acts as an allegory for an extension of the lover-poet’s fantasy, providing a muse for poetic inspiration. This links with Propertius’ physical description of Cynthia in 1.3 and is compounded with Tibullus’ description of his mistress Delia. Delia is described as having blonde hair, an archetype of female beauty followed on from Helen of Troy, and blue eyes, “that bewitching face, / soft arms and yellow hair/ like the Nereid of old who rode a bridled dolphin/ to the Thessalian Peleus – Thetis the Blue-eyed” (Tib. 1.5, 43-47). The use of the word “bewitching” perhaps exemplifies how the mistresses are a construction of the males’ sexual fantasy, as they are steeped in mythological language that cannot be fully harnessed in real life. Thus, as the scholar Sharon James argues, the mistress is a “generic woman, not a specific one”, and the details of their physique are “sheer fiction”.3 This would seem to confirm the motion that mistresses are simply metaphors of male gratification, drawing a verbal picture of the puella, presenting her as a construct of the text.4 However, this interpretation, aided by James and Sharrock, is perhaps challenged in Ovid’s poem Amores 1.14 with a detailed description of Corinna’s hair.

Ovid chastises his mistress for dying her hair blonde, before her hair “was neither dark nor blonde, but a brindled auburn”(Am. 1.14, 9). Likewise Propertius berates his mistress for “fool[ing] around with exotic hair dye” (Prop. 2.18C, 24). This demonstrates how blonde hair was in vogue at the time, thus Corinna was trying to enhance her beauty. This may raise the mistresses out of the constraints of simply a metaphorical tool and roots the women firmly in the materialistic culture of the time. In order to sustain a living for themselves they needed to maintain their physical appearance in order to entice men to their bodies to gain profit. Ovid, perhaps unwittingly, exposes Corinna as a real woman, allowing the reader to acknowledge her financial needs. However, one could interpret the puella’s financial dependency as another means of control for the lover-poet, as the lover-poet knows he is an indispensible source of income. Further, as the scholar Booth acknowledges, nowhere in the Amores is Corinna appreciated for anything but her sexual allure, and despite sporadic references to her hair and complexion she remains an empty outline.5 This in conjunction with her lack of personality and inconsistently portrayed situation, as she was married in 1.4 to another man who had “licensed embracement” (Am. 1.4, 5), and seemingly in 1.8 has a brothel mistress, whom he refers to as an “old hag” (Am. 1.8, 19), highlights how Corinna is fictitious.6 This may add strength to the argument that the lover-poets are “bewitched” by an extension of their own

The Scholar Booth goes on to argue that although the characters and situations may resemble those of the elegists world, its texts do not reflect reality, and believes meaning is what the reader, as much as the author, constructs from the work.7 However, this reading does not take into account the political subtleties of the text, on which the elegists reflect and build upon pertinent politics and the social realities of the time, perhaps using the mistress as a metaphorical gateway for civic and diplomatic purposes. Further, a historical and social analysis may help build a stronger framework for the elegiac mistress, exposing the tension between reality and political agenda. The elegiac mistresses are presented as high-class courtesans, known as hertairai, a figure that was both physically and literarily available to the Roman elites, as a result of the expansion of their military empire into Greece.8 This allows us to see how elegy is entwined with Roman imperialism, with the celebration of the sexual spoils of military conquest. This allows us to see a fit between women in elegiac texts and women in Augustan society. The social history that is intimately correlated with elegy allows an insight into the Augustan moral reform; Augustus was seen to reject luxury due to moral corruption. Propertius’ description of luxurious items includes skepticism about the importation of exotic goods into the city. Propertius questions Cynthia’s need to go outside in “sheer curves in Coan costume? / Or why to drench your tresses in Orentes’ myrrh/ And sell yourself with foreign gifts” (Prop 1.2, 1-4). This quote displays a merging of the boundaries between the political and the erotic, illustrating how the two components are blurred together, subtly exposing the social history of the time. The “Coan costume” is a reference to the silk from the Greek island of Cos, a highly sumptuous item, seen as an eastern import to Rome. Propertius does not admire these items as Cynthia had “los[t] the charm of Nature for bought elegance” (1.2, 5). This could be seen to link back to Augustus who advocated the need for a simple life. Subsequently, it could be said that the mistress illustrates the expansion of the Roman Empire, as they are perhaps seen as imperialist goods, thus they can be seen as symbolic of social, political, economic and geographical relationships, allowing us to see a trace of the real women lost in the text.9

Additionally, poems on abortion by Ovid have an overt political interest of the author, when considering the Augustan moral legislation that criminalised adultery and encouraged marriage and childbearing. This allows the reader an insight into how Romans perceived abortion, forming a social-political interpretation, raising questions about a woman’s control of her body and relations between the genders, and of course the power of that state.10 Corinna’s killing of the fetus suggests her independence from the poet, prompting Ovid to ask, “Why destroy their own dear flesh […] what Tereus or Jason/ Drives you to commit this deadly self-abuse? […] No lioness would destroy her own cubs.” (Am. 2.14, 31-36) Here Ovid constructs Corinna as the antagonist, comparing her actions to the child slayer Medea, and expressing that her action was more savage than a “lioness”, thus establishing his mistress in a barbaric light. Although, one at first may be tempted to read this poem as liberating for woman, perhaps celebrating the emancipation of the female sex, crucially, it is perhaps over ambitious to construct a real woman behind the text, when we only have their silence to read as their response. Therefore, the mistress’s voice is manipulated by the lover- poet and may use the mistress as an allegory to project his own feelings, providing a phallocentric reading of the text. This interpretation challenges the scholar Marina Wyke’s argument, that elegy advocates a more equal and empowered place for women in Rome, allowing us to see a fit between women in elegiac texts and women in Augustan society. The topic of abortion allows Ovid to display himself in a magnanimous light, in his plea to the gods to save Corinna and the child, “ save her – / She’s worth it, truly. Just say the word, / And I’ll robe myself in white” (Am. 2.13, 21-3). The mistress is employed in the text only as means of defining the male, allowing us to see the mistresses disparaging role in the poem. Whilst this response may appear heartfelt and self-sacrificing the effect is diminished with his references to Egypt, “Broad delta where swift Nile discharges” (Am. 2.13, 9), illustrating how Ovid uses this poetic opportunity of abortion as a rhetorical device to display his knowledge of Egypt, using his work as a self-promotion. As a result we can see how Ovid utilizes this political issue and turns it into his own poetic discourse. In Propertius’ poetry there are politically charged subtleties that run through his corpus, slightly contrasting with the style of Ovid, who is more self conscious in his demeanor. This can be seen in 1.1, where Cynthia goes on holiday to Baiae, what was a land of otium for the roman elite. This poem references a significant location of the Lucrine Lake, which would have brought to mind, to the contemporary reader, the Portus Ilulius that was built by Agrippa in 37BC. This was the first harbor constructed for the Roman naval fleet, under Augustus’ command in response to Sextus Pompey’s naval dominance in the western Mediterranean.11 Therefore, the image of Cynthia in a “little dingy powered by paddles” (Prop. 1.11, 9) may call to mind the image of soldiers training on the lake, showing how politics infiltrate the very essence of elegy. Propertius subtly draws attention to how Baiae has shifted from a location of leisure to that of military prowess. It may perhaps be this subtly that won the praise of his later patron Maecenas, which shifted his succeeding poetry away from the erotic to a more political stance, which saw Propertius become disillusioned with love.

Conclusively, Propertius’ poetry presents a more objective and detached perspective, contrasting to Ovid, who’s style is more playful and self-conscious. Likewise Tibullus’ poetry is characterised by its dis-continuity and is referred to by Johnson as a “fever’s dream”. Consequently, with each poet having his own style and possible agenda it is difficult to reach an overarching argument that fits all the poets. Though significantly, Ovid gives a profound clue in understanding the mistresses in love elegy in his kittenish line, “In my verse, you and you only shall give me creative / Impulse its shape and theme” (Am. 2.17, 33-4). This allows us to discern elegy as a fusion of two dimensions, firstly politics as it cannot escape the context of the time, as the genre coincides with the establishment of Augustus, and secondly, an urge of artistic passion inspired through the figure of the mistress. Therefore, although at glimpsing moments we are able to identify what may be a real woman in the course of elegy, the mistress is ultimately trapped within the elegiac world as a trope, for the use and abuse of the author.


Primary Sources:
Ovid. The Erotic Poems. Translated by Peter Green. London: Penguin Books, 1982.
Propertius. The Poems. Translated by Gay Lee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Tibullus. Elegies. Translated by Gay Lee. Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1990.

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1 James (2006), 232.
2 Sharrock (2002) 265.
3 James (2003), 36.
4 Sharrock (1991), 39-43.
5 Booth (2009), 66.
6 Booth, 66.
7 Booth, 70-1.
8 Keith (2016), 59.
9 Pandey (2018), 456.
10 Gamel (1989), 183.
11 Leonard (2015), 142.