Counter-cultural and traditionalist approaches in Roman Love Elegy

Submissions Rader Sienna Melki examines how approaches relating to counter-culture and traditionalism weaved their way into Roman Love Elegies.

The poetry of Roman love elegists, rather than simply being a discussion on love, can be seen as a response to the social expectations of male and female behaviour. In discussion with Hallett’s argument that Roman Love Elegy was counter-cultural, this essay will focus specifically on the social expectations of female subservience to the authority of men and their stereotypical characterisations, as defined by Robbins, as either ‘ideal (virginal, beautiful, passive, dependent, nurturing)’ or ‘monstrous (whorish, sexually voracious, independent and dangerous)’. Although Hallett was not engaging with Robbins, it is important to note that these stereotypes existed in literature before Robbins directly expressed them, and both views need to be considered to conclude the nature of the elegists’ responses. It is also important to investigate whether the elegists are conforming to or opposing these expectations. Through the exploration of Ovid 1.5 and Propertius 1.3 it becomes evident that elegists conform to traditionalist approaches more than expressing counter-cultural views. 

On one hand, in agreement with Hallett, the Roman love elegists can appear to be counter-cultural, although this is a fairly outdated argument. In Ovid’s poem 1.5 he describes Corinna’s ‘smooth shoulders, delectable arms… nipples inviting caresses, the flat belly outlined beneath the flawless bosom, exquisite curve of a hip, firm youthful thighs’. Propertius conveys similar admiration to his beloved Cynthia when he allegorises her as ‘the girl from Knossos… and as Cephean Andromeda… and as Maenad’. Both poets exalt their mistresses through adoring descriptions; a sense of flawlessness is attributed to Corinna through a seemingly endless list of perfections whilst Propertius’ allegories of Cynthia to literary women connotes a sense of importance and fame. Hallett argues that the glorification of the mistress subverts the typical response to the female gender because in Roman society ‘women were not as a rule admired for their individual qualities, much less permitted to function autonomously or esteemed for doing so’.  With this understanding in mind, these lines of the poem appear extremely counter-cultural; the mistresses are not simply ‘admired’ but the poetic depictions portray them as paragons of perfection. They are ‘esteemed’ for their personal qualities and so the elegists are going against societal norms by presenting women in such an exalted light.

Furthermore, both Ovid and Propertius’ delicate portrayals are unusual, not only because they convey a sense of admiration, but because they imply a purely romantic rather than penetrative form of intimacy. Ovid even exclaims ‘fill in the rest for yourselves!’ and he mockingly acknowledges the fact that he is omitting the climax of his poem. This is particularly significant because, in Rome, sexuality was perceived as penetrative as it was an example of duritia which represented the dominant, active role in a relationship, a role which Ovid intentionally omits. However, in these poems, the sincerity and awe surrounding the depictions of the mistresses prove that their love is an innate feeling rather than a sense of obligation. The romantic presentations may not seem particularly counter-cultural to a modern audience; however, to a contemporary one, these descriptions would have been a lot more emphatic and shocking. Segal conveys the absolute rigidness of Roman society where ‘every Roman institution was a sacred patriarchy, every family the state in miniature’. This reveals the overbearing expectation to put duty before love and to deny innate emotions emphasising the extent to which the elegists were counter-cultural; they were undermining the fundamentals of a rigid society. The expression of counter-cultural emotions suggests that literature compensated for the lack of emotion in society, especially as Segal also states the formality of Roman society caused its citizens to become ‘a people with an overdeveloped superego’, emphasising that they needed a sense of catharsis. In support of this theory, Freud argues that ‘readers enjoy literature because in it… they find encrypted fulfilments of forbidden desires’.   Therefore, the love elegists can be interpreted as not only being ‘counter-cultural’ but, by expressing ‘forbidden’ desires, they can be seen to be criticising society indirectly by opposing social expectations.

On the other hand, the elegists can be interpreted as objectifying their mistresses rather than glorifying them. Ovid’s description of Corinna in lines 19-22 displays perfections that could only be found in a statue or painting. Initially the flattery of the descriptions could be perceived as positive, they are certainly adoring, however, they are ultimately superficial and the women are being exalted for nothing more than their appearances. The descriptions conform to the stereotype of the ideal woman as Corinna’s beauty transcends reality. Ovid himself defines his description as a ‘catalogue’ which suggests his muse is purely for display and an object to be viewed. Sharrock conveys a similar argument as she states that ‘the elegists represent the puella as both art and flesh’. This suggests that the women in the poems are more like literary constructs than constructions of real women which therefore cannot be empowering but is instead superficial. Propertius’ description of ‘the girl from Knossos’ is another example of a superficial relationship. As Cynthia is likened to Ariadne, Propertius, by extension, presents himself as Theseus who abandons Ariadne suggesting their own relationship will not be long-lasting. Propertius’ allegories undermine his sincerity and reveal his superficiality which implies he is purely writing for show. Therefore, these descriptions are not as counter-cultural as they initially seem; whilst they oppose the rigidness of a Roman society, they conform to the social expectation that women were inferior as in reality Roman laws also ‘reduc[ed] women to chattel status’. Therefore, the elegists are abiding by society’s expectations more so than being counter-cultural because they not only objectify women, but express their innate emotions through a figment of their carnal desires or literary figures and so any empowerment of women is destroyed by the fact that they are subjected to the male gaze. Therefore, Hallett’s argument about the glorification of the mistresses is very one sided; she omits the negative connotations which objectify the mistresses and builds on stereotypes and so the presentation of the mistresses is not counter-cultural.

The elegists are simultaneously conforming to the social expectations of male behaviour by diminishing the role of the women to purely objectified states whilst also expressing emotions counter-cultural to the rigid Roman society. For example, in Ovid’s poem 1.5 he compares Corinna to ‘some fabulous Eastern queen en route to her bridal chamber- or a top-line city call girl, out on the job’. Despite describing a ‘queen’ Ovid does not focus on her power but the fact she is going ‘to her bridal chamber’; the sexual implications of this line are amplified by the following where Ovid no longer hints at sex but directly compares Corinna to a ‘call girl’. This line is the most direct of the two and by placing it last Ovid clearly presents his message: Corinna is used for sex and nothing more. Ovid’s poem 1.5 and Propertius’ 1.3 both reveal how women are objects of desire for the male gaze, in support of this argument Robbins explains how men produced these idealistic images ‘to enforce their own ideals of femininity’. Furthermore, Mulvey states that ‘the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking’.  Although Mulvey was writing in respect to film, her theory is still relevant to literature, particularly as Ovid provides such a vivid description of Corinna and it is as if he is painting a picture for his audience. Therefore, with these theories in mind, it seems probable that women become a source of pleasure for the elegists to live out their fantasies and to escape their own social expectations. The elegists sublimate themselves within their poetry and, to avoid the restrains of their society, they paradoxically indulge in another social expectation which is less damaging to them: the objectification of women. Therefore, overall the elegists are conforming to social expectations more than they are opposing them.

Hallett also argues that elegists are counter-cultural because they ‘cast [the mistress] in the active, masterful role played by men’ however, this interpretation is also fairly limited. The portrayal of their beloved as a domina is indeed a common characterisation of the mistress, it not only refers to the women of the house who ruled the domestic slaves but entails the characterisation of the elegist as a servus. These characterisations can be seen in Propertius’ poem 1.3 where he describes how ‘I dared not disturb my lady’s peace fearing the fierce abuse I know so well’ and he describes himself as ‘staring intent, like Argus at Io’s unfamiliar horns’. In contrast to the previous lines where Propertius stated ‘Cynthia seems to me to bring soft peace’, rather than a tranquil, idealistic scene these later lines hint at a harsher reality and Propertius’ anxiety at waking Cynthia portrays her as unpredictable and irrational. Thus Cynthia is given authority as a domina whilst Propertius is reduced to her subject and servus revealing a complete reversal of a patriarchy and Roman societal status where masculinity dominated female subservience. Furthermore, although Cynthia is identified as Io in the simile, she can also be interpreted to adopt the role of Juno as she is also the one who is who is forcing Argus/ Propertius to watch. The potential comparison to Cynthia as the queen goddess and Propertius as her servus emphasises the extent to which Propertius was questioning Rome’s basic power relations; he completely subverts the social order and defies the expectations of women which demanded ‘wifely obedience… domesticity, chastity and fidelity to one man’. Hallett’s description reveals another way in which elegy could be perceived as a subversive genre; it presents an extra marital affair which is particularly significant because, in Roman society, there was increasing anxiety about sexual morality and Augustus was promoting marital values. 

However, whilst these depictions destroy one stereotype they build on another; the stereotype as the monstrous and the mistresses inevitably become figures who cause pain and fear and the elegists are ultimately conforming to society’s stereotypes again. Ovid 1.5 and Propertius 1.3 reveal how women were either subjected to the power of the male figure by existing as the perfect ideal objects of sexual desire, or are presented as monstrous, sources of temptation, seducing the male off the conventional path. This is particularly evident in Propertius’ poem 1.3 in the line ‘but, through a prey to double passion, under orders (From love on this flank, Bacchus on that, both ruthless Gods)’ as he conveys the trope of militia amoris. The parallel between love and war would have been much more significant to a contemporary audience who were taught to inherently defy love and dedicate themselves to the prosperity of Rome and therefore this trope would inspire outrage at the mistress for inspiring such unpatriotic devotion. Therefore, the elegists are not really subverting the social hierarchy because they are not empowering women at all. Similarly to how Hallett’s argument surrounding the glorification of the mistress was one sided, purely focusing on the positive connotations and omitting the objectification of woman and their stereotypic representation as ideal, her argument that the domina empowers women is also limited as it omits the contrasting stereotype to the ideal: the monstrous. The fact that the elegists convey such contrasting images of their mistresses reveals how it was not their aim to convey their beauty or power, rather the presentation of the mistress was a method of achieving their own aim, to sublimate themselves in fiction away for their harsh Roman society. On the surface, it seems as if the elegists are counter-cultural however a deeper reading into the text reveals the demeaning connotations of women and it is therefore only to a minimal extent that the elegists are counter-cultural.

Hallett argues that the Roman love elegists are counter-cultural, firstly because they glorify their mistress and secondly because they are presented as more powerful than the male. However, whilst these arguments seem plausible on the surface, there are subtle undertones to the texts that suggest otherwise and they ultimately conform to society’s stereotypes. Therefore, the only way that the elegists are counter-cultural is through the expression of transgressive views that Roman society aimed to suppress. But these views are undermined by the fact that they are based on fantasy rather than reality and therefore, the evidence that the elegists are conforming to society’s expectations outweighs the argument they are counter-cultural.


1. Robbins (1999), 3.

2.Ovid, The Erotic Poems Amores 1.5.19-22.

3. Propertius 1.3.1-5.

4. Hallett (1984), 241.

5. Ovid, The Erotic Poems Amores 1.5.25.

6. Segal (1968), 13.

7. Segal (1968), 13.

8. Schmitz (2007), 4.

9. Ovid, The Erotic Poems Amores 1.5.23.

10. Sharrock (1991), 36.

11. Hallett (1984), 241.

12. Ovid, The Erotic Poems Amores 1.5.11-12.

13. Robbins (1999), 3.

14. Mulvey (1975), 8.

15. Hallett (1984), 241.

16. Propertius 1.3.17-18, 1.3.19-20.

17. Propertius 1.3.7.

18. Hallett (1984), 242.

19. Propertius 1.3.13-14.


Ancient Works

Ovid, The Erotic Poems, trans. P. Green, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1982.

Propertius, The Poems, trans G. Lee, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Modern Works

Hallett, J. P. (1984) ‘The Role of Women in Roman Elegy: Counter-Cultural Feminism’ in J. Peradotto and J. P Sullivan, eds. Women in the Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers. Albany: State of New York University Press. 241-264.

Mulvey, L. (1975), ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen 16.3, 6-18.

Robbins, R. (1999), ‘Introduction: Will the real feminist theory please stand up?’, in J. Wolfreys (ed.), Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Schmitz, T. (2007) Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Segal, E. (1987), Roman Laughter The Comedy of Plautus, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sharrock, A. (1991) ‘Womanufacture’, The Journal of Roman Studies 81: 36-49.