Propertius and Maecenas' Requests for Epic

Shannon N. Byrne

Xavier University

Judging from the two poems that Propertius addressed to Maecenas (2.1 and 3.9), Maecenas seems to have asked Propertius for an epic in honor of Augustus. Atlhough many scholars take these requests at face value, an analysis of them and their Horatian and Vergilian echoes will show that Propertius is only pretending about requests for epic. In reality the poems are Propertius' way of playfully restating imagery found in the works of Virgil and Horace. He uses Maecenas as part of his own Callimachean stance, but more importantly to count himself among the best poets of his day.

The recusatio in 2.1 is fairly typical of the genre. Propertius announces to Maecenas that if fate had granted him the talent to compose epic, he would not waste his time on worn-out themes from Greek myth or Rome's distant past (cf. Virg. Ecl. 1.1-12, Hor. Sat. 2.12-15, Carm. 1.6), but rather he would write of Caesar's deeds and Maecenas' loyalty. Specific allusions to Virgil and Horace are more significant in 3.9, in which Propertius explains to Maecenas why he does not write epic. In the first line (Maecenas, eques Etrusco de sanguine regum), Propertius imitates Horace's many references to Maecenas' royal Etruscan heritage and distinguished equestrian status (cf. Carm. 1.1.1; 1.20.5; Sat. 1.6.1-4). Lines 3-4 also show imagery of a poetic voyage found in G. 2.39-46: both Virgil and Propertius bristle at the open sea, but unlike Virgil who invited Maecenas to join him on the poetic voyage of the Georgics, Propertius wants to know why Maecenas would ever want him to undertake the "journey" of epic.

In the last section, Propertius seems willing to take up Roman themes with Maecenas as his inspiration and guide (47-60). His talent will grow to meet Maecenas' encouragement (crescet et ingenium sub tua iussa meum, 52), which echoes the third Georgic, where Maecenas was portrayed as a spiritual leader whose haud mollia iussa (referring to the Georgics) Virgil agreed to fulfill (G. 3.40-42). Propertius recalls these iussa in crescet et ingenium sub tua iussa (3.9.52), but here Maecenas' encouragements do not refer to the present collection, but rather to a future endeavor on Augustus, evoking the future epic Virgil had promised in G. 3.1-38. Propertius takes the epic that Virgil offered voluntarily at the beginning of G.3 and turns it into a request from Maecenas at the beginning of 3.9, which the poet promptly rejects, although by the end of the poem we find Propertius willing to approach material concerning Augustus in a Callimachean manner. Propertius concludes that under Maecenas' guidance, he will be considered a member of Maecenas' circle (ferar in partis ipse tuas), precisely with the greatest poets of his day.

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