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Elegiac Eyes

Vision in Roman Love Elegy


Stacie Raucci

Elegiac Eyes is an in-depth examination of vision and spectacle in Roman love elegy. It approaches vision from the perspective of Roman cultural modes of viewing and locates its analysis in close textual readings of Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. The paradoxical nature of the Roman eyes, which according to contemporary optical theories were able to penetrate and be penetrated, as well as the complex role of vision in society, provided the elegists with a productive canvas for their poems. By locating the elegists’ visual games within their contemporary context, Elegiac Eyes demonstrates how the elegists were manipulating notions that were specifically Roman and familiar to their readership.


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Chapter Four. The Look of Love 89


CHAPTER FOUR THE LOOK OF LOVE ∢ “Neither by touch nor by hearing do [lovers] suffer so deep a wound as by seeing and being seen.”1 Plutarch’s statement is part of a larger discussion of the vision of lovers: Vision provides access to the first impulse to love, that most powerful and violent experience of the soul, and causes the lover to melt and be dissolved when he looks at those who are beautiful, as if he were pouring forth his whole being towards them. For this reason, we are entitled, I think, to be most surprised at anyone who believes that, while men are passively influ- enced and suffer harm through their eyes, they yet should not be able to influence others and inflict injury in the same way. The answering glances of the young and beautiful and the stream of influence from their eyes, whether it be light or a current of particles, melts the lovers and destroys them, amid pleasure commingled with pain, a pleasure that they themselves call bittersweet.2 (Quaestiones conviviales 5.7 Moralia 681b–c) According to Plutarch erotic vision is not a one-way activity. The eyes of the viewer do not always hold power and the viewed person is not necessarily a passive object. Rather, vision is a complex process in which the eyes can both penetrate and be penetrated, wound and be wounded, be a cause as well as an effect. Although Plutarch is writing in the late first-century CE, he can still provide...

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