Perugia and the plots of the MonobiblosThe Cambridge Classical Journal


Brian W. Breed
Linguistics and Language / Language and Linguistics / Classics / Literature and Literary Theory


Rape in marriage

Lee H. Bowker, o̊Dean of the Graduate School and Research

Max born medal and prize

The Institute of Physics



There is, alas, no secret code or mystical number lurking in the text of Propertius' first book of elegies which, if discovered, could reveal essential truths about the book. Or at least there is none that I can claim to have found.' The search for some key to unlock secrets of meaning and authorial design is a well-known phenomenon of the interpretation of Roman poetry books, and Propertius' 'single book' has featured prominently in such investigations.2 The present paper does not put forth a new structural scheme for understanding the Monobiblos or another description of numerical patternings in it, nor does it insist that a true appreciation of the book's 'architecture' is essential for understanding its meaning. Instead, it has the goal of considering how the book format affects the experience of reading and the interpretation of this one important work of Roman poetry in light of its generic identity and the literary-historical context in which it was produced.3

In particular, I am interested in describing how the book format makes available to readers of the Monobiblos a sense that even in the absence of a single narrative spanning all of the poems of the book it is nevertheless possible to supplement them so that something like a plot or story emerges. I first consider how this sense of a possible plot or plots arises in the reading process, looking also at how some previous influential studies of the Monobiblos have relied upon various ways of construing a story or plot for the book. In the non-narrative environment of the elegiac collection, it is the reader who takes the lead role in forming a story. While this readerly activity will always take place ultimately beyond the control of the author, this paper considers three retroactive attempts by Propertius himself to define the plot of the Monobiblos.

In the first instance, in the concluding epigrams of the book, the poet alludes to stories that might be told in the book but are not, at least not until readers reach the end.

Simultaneously he signals the book's availability for re-reading and the potential for minimal narratives to be expanded. In the other two instances, the initial poems of 1

This article began taking shape as a talk given to the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge in March 2007.1 am grateful to my hosts and audience on that occasion, both for the invitation and for their comments and questions. My thanks go also to two anonymous readers for the journal who provided criticism and suggestions that have improved it in numerous ways. 2

Fedeli (1980) 13-17 gives a survey of accounts of the book's structure. 3

While recognizing that 'Monobiblos' was not Propertius' title for his first book of elegies (Butrica (1996) 90-4), and maybe never described the book in antiquity (Heyworth (1995) 175-8), I have retained the label, largely because of its affinity for the conception of the book as an interpretable unit. 24


Propertius' second and fourth books,4 the poet himself takes on the role of reader of the Monobiblos to summarize or paraphrase, and thereby define, plots for the book. In each of these three interventions we can see the poet positioning his book with regard to what could easily claim the status of the most important story of the period of the

Monobiblos' creation, the civil wars fought by Octavian on his route to sole power, among which the siege of Perugia in 41-40 BC figures prominently. Where Propertius works out ways of talking about Perugia and about civil war, especially in the two concluding epigrams to the book, he is also actively exploring the book's generic identity and origins and the relationship of the elegiac book to its reader. It is in that relationship that the plot of the Monobiblos is ultimately formed both through the contributions of readers and through the ways the text reflects and manages their experiences.5


In the 20s, after Virgil and Horace had moved on from their initial experiments with highly crafted books of short and closely linked poems, the poetry book format remained productive for elegy. Tibullus and especially Propertius maintained generic momentum over multiple volumes, and then came Ovid.6 Maybe market forces were at work. Readers of elegy, conditioned likely by collections of Greek epigrams and by the no doubt important, but still somewhat mysterious, publication formats of the poems of Catullus and Cornelius Gallus, were, we can assume, comfortable with books.7 And there is something distinctive about elegy and the book format beyond any kinship with epigram collections. Roman elegiac books tend, of course, to raise the expectation that the poet will tell an extensive, connected story about his love affair (or affairs), only for this expectation to be foiled by a format that is disjunctive, that 4

For numbering I rely on the traditional division of the Propertian corpus into four books, but without total confidence in this scheme's accuracy. s

For a complementary argument that a non-narrative genre nevertheless creates a sense of plot in the reading process because reading in some sense is the plot, see Fowler (2000a). 6

On the dating of early Propertius, see recently Lyne (1998). Knox (2005) has now proposed backdating

Tibullus 1 to 29, to precede the publication of the Monobiblos, which is plausible but not necessary. 7

On Greek epigrams and the Catullan book or books (surely books), see recently Hutchinson (2003). How

Greek epigrams were collected and read is a rapidly expanding area of interest for Roman poetry, not least because of the Milan Posidippus. See, to start, Gutzwiller (1998), Hutchinson (2002), Barchiesi (2005).

Hutchinson (2008) gathers some new and some previously published work, including the two papers cited here, into a volume rich for the study of poetry books, especially where literary criticism encounters books as objects. 25

PERUGIA AND THE PLOTS OF THE MONOBIBLOS leaves elements of what might be a cohesive story separated, temporally displaced, and generally hard to reassemble into a chronological narrative.