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What Not to Wear: Cultus and Elegy in Rome

March 4, 2013 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Monday Seminar:

Kerry Lefebvre

Robert J. Reinhold Dissertation Fellow (2012-2013)

Classics, UW-Madison


In the fourth book of Propertius’ poetry, we encounter a statue of Vertumnus, who explains to passersby that, given the right clothing and accessories, he can take on any number of identities and occupations, even changing from an elegiac puella (mistress or girlfriend) to a Roman man who wears the toga (Prop. 4.2.21-28).

Like Vertumnus, Ancient Rome was a performance and appearance based culture, where one enacted and revealed one’s gender and social status through outward appearance, so this appearance, clothing, and adornment, which the Romans denoted by the word cultus, remained an important part of ancient life. Because cultus reveals information about ancient Roman culture, I believe it can also act as an interpretive tool for a particularly complex and elusive genre of poetry, namely Latin elegy.

Previous scholarship on elegy has argued that this poetry comprises a “counter-cultural” genre that undermines normative gender roles in Roman society during the rule of Augustus, primarily through the figures of the male lover-poet and the puella (or even Vertumnus). However, as I argue, an investigation into the role of cultus in the poetry of Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid resolves some persistent questions in scholarship on elegy, as they relate to the role of the puella, her identity, the effeminacy of the male lover-poet, and the metapoetic value of (primarily the puella’s) cultus. The cultus of the puella and the lover-poet acts as an interpretive lens through which we can interpret elegy’s gendered discourse and commentary on poetry, and I argue that the elegists use cultus to create and destabilize boundaries in ways that ultimately reinforce normative gender roles and male control in general, and that of the lover-poet over the puella in particular. In other words, my analysis of cultus attempts to redefine an important strand of elegiac scholarship: elegy is less “counter-cultural” and more normative than scholarship has previously argued.


Kerry Lefebvre, a Robert J. Reinhold Dissertation Fellow, is a Ph.D. candidate in Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research examines the dynamics of gender in Latin elegy through its descriptions of female and male cultus, or outward appearance. In support of this project, Lefebvre received a 2011-2012 Chancellor’s Fellowship. She has also received the Classical Association of the Middle West and South’s Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Classical Studies and has presented her research at a variety of domestic and international conferences. Lefebvre was also involved with UW-Madison’s Center for the Humanities’ Great World Texts program during 2011-2012 and prepared the teachers’ guide for that year’s great text, the Antigone.


March 4, 2013
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States