The puella: Accept no substitutions!

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The story, as it was once told in undergraduate classrooms, goes something like this. The Romans were a dour lot, interested only in money, war, politics and low entertainments. After the Punic Wars and the conquest of Greece, wealth, purveyors of Greek culture and sophisticated courtesans flowed into the capital. To match the tastes of their newly sophisticated men, Roman women, with time and money on their hands, began to play the part of courtesans themselves. The record of this change and the corresponding corruption of Roman values can be found not only in the fulminations of Cicero and Sallust but also in the love elegists of the first century bc: Catullus, Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid, as well as the lone woman, Sulpicia. In their texts, we read stories of sophisticated puellae (literally ‘girls’) and the poets who pursued them. And while certain allowances must be made for poetic exaggeration and convention, the record that these poems provide tells us stories of passion, pursuit, and poetic perfection worthy of La Bohème. Such is the story as it was once told and often still is. Nonetheless, by the 1980s, a reaction to this narrative had set in. While critics like Lyne still chose to speak of Catullus’ and the elegists’ desire for ‘whole love’ (1980), a new wave of criticism embodied in the work of scholars like Wyke (1989) and Veyne (1988) argued that the puellae were not real women in literary guise, but textual constructs. True, scholars had argued before against taking the poems as biographical evidence. However, the argument was largely aesthetic and formalist: appreciate the way a poem worked, not whether the poet was sincere or the beloved real. By contrast, Wyke and Veyne argued for the importance of the puella's fundamental textuality. While Veyne argued that all the beloveds were ironic fictions (Catullus’ Lesbia excepted), Wyke's more nuanced view allowed for the historical determination of the elegiac beloved by other images of women circulating within contemporary culture, while leaving the puella herself oddly underdetermined.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to
Subtitle of host publicationLatin Love Elegy
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781139028288
ISBN (Print)9780521765367
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2012


Dive into the research topics of 'The puella: Accept no substitutions!'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this