Sextus Propertius (c.48 - 15 BC)
A love-struck Roman male was once construed an oxymoron. The Latin mos maiorum placed duty to the state above all other considerations, including romance. Had not Aeneas sacrificed his love for Dido in siring the Roman race? And yet it was Rome that developed the love elegy, the poet's exaltation of a man's amorous servitude. Sextus Propertius was one of the leading voices of those who, in so many words, placed Cupid's arrows before Rome's majesty. While Augustus' regime tried to co-opt Propertius for their moralizing mission, they were never entirely successful. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, Propertius' poetry resounds throughout the ages, to be appreciated readily by the modern romantic.
What we know of Propertius' life is short but telling. Of Equestrian status, he was born to provincial notables in Umbria between 49 and 47 BC. In 41 BC Marc Antony's brother took refuge in the region's city of Perusia during an unsuccessful struggle against Octavian; the so-called war that followed saw the city besieged and plundered. Propertius' family's estates were reduced as a consequence, and perhaps the family suffered the loss of a relative. While only a young child at the time, Propertius' identified with the losing side in the war. The only reference to politics in his first book of poetry is a lament to the vanquished:
Do you know our fatherland's Perusian graves,
The Italian massacre in a callous time;
When civil dissension hounded the Roman on?
(Hence grief for me especially, Tuscan dust, for you
Have allowed my kinsman's limbs to be flung out,
You cover with no earth his pitiful bones.)
Information on his upbringing and education is scant. By 29 BC he is connected with the literary currents of Rome, rather than anything resembling the first steps of a typical Equestrian career.
His first book of poetry was published in 28 BC, under the Greek name of Monobiblos (single book). Aside from the aforementioned reference to the Perusian war, the work consists entirely of elegies detailing the poet's experiences and feelings for romance. This romance is devoted entirely to a female figure called Cynthia. Cynthia prima suis miserum me cepit ocellis - 'Cynthia was the first to capture with her eyes my pitiable self,' the very first line of poetry proclaims. It then goes on to say:
Till then I was free from desire's contagion. Love
Then forced me to lower my gaze of steady hauter
And trampled my head with his feet
Until, perverse, he had taught me to demur
At faithful girls and live without taking thought.
A whole year and my frenzy does not flag,
Though I'm forced to know the gods' disapprobation.
Cynthia's exact social standing is not known. We are informed by a later writer the woman's real name was Hostia; it is speculated she may be have been a descendant of a second century BC poet named Hostius. Cynthia is literary name with connections to Apollo, the Greek god of poetry. Quite possibly she was a courtesan. In any event, she was refined and elegant, but not entirely faithful to the relationship Propertius presumed he had with her. She courts other men, and breaks off cordial relations with Propertius quite frequently. This leads to one of the hallmarks of love elegies - the suitor standing before the mistress' locked door, bemoaning her cruelty and fickleness, but pleading for another chance.
'Door, more inwardly cruel than my mistress' self,
Why are your silent, stern panels closed to me?
Ignorant how to feel, and forward my secret suit,
Why do you never, unbarred, let in my desires?...'
Propertius' first book was apparently a success. It was however not lost on the powers that be that the subject matter held nothing of patriotic interest, and was in fact hostile to the regime with its Perusine reference. Enter Maecenas. Augustus' de facto minister of culture courted the talented young poet, trying to harness his skill for sanctioned ends. In his second book (published c. 25 BC), Propertius protests, saying the divine powers have not marked him out to sing of war and glory, but a love sadly scorned:
Whenever, therefore, the Fates require my life,
And I shall be a brief name in little marble,
Maecenas, the hope and envy of our youths.
Well-founded boast of my life and death,
If your course should chance to bring you near my tomb,
Halt your carven-yoked British Chariot,
And, weeping, lay these words on my silent ashes:
'A cruel girl was the doom of this woeful man."
Propertius spends most of the rest of book two alternatively praising his mistress' charm and beauty, and vilifying her for a broken heart. Nonetheless, in the tenth elegy he writes a seemingly patriotic ode to Augustus' planned Parthian expedition.
Published c. 22 BC, book three varies in tone. While elegies to Cynthia continue, Propertius also praises Maecenas (III.9), lauds Italy (III.22) and writes more regime friendly elegies, such as a funeral song for Marcellus. Yet he also chides Rome for what he sees as corrosive avarice (III.13), and praises peace over war:
The god of peace is Love; we lovers venerate peace:
Hard battles with my mistress suffice for me.
My heart is not consumed for hateful gold;
My thirst doesn't drink from cups of precious stone
I am glad that in my early youth I worshiped Helicon,
And linked my hands in the Muses' choral dance:
I am glad that plenteous Bacchus enchains my mind.
And that I always keep my head in vernal roses.
Book four seems to have been almost written by a different man. Only two elegies address Cynthia (who seems to have died). The rest expounds an account of Rome and Italy's myth and tradition. While some amount of irony creeps in to the themes, it is for the most part limited and oblique. Far more interesting to the romantic's viewpoint is elegy number IV.7, where the shade (departed soul) of Cynthia appears to Propertius in one last emotional moment.
'For now let others possess you: soon I alone;
Shall have you: you shall be with me,
And I shall grind down bone entwined with bones."
Having brought to a close her complaint and her suit,
Her shadow fell away from my embrace.
In the sum of things, Propertius articulated a new venue for the values of the mos maiorum. Courage, devotion, steadfastness, implacability were still manly qualities, but they were divorced from their exclusive political and military connotations and transferred to the realm of romantic heterosexual love. There are those who might say the fatherland was a better recipient of these traditional values than Cynthia; the woman was after all fickle and manipulative. Indeed, at times Propertius almost takes a perverse pleasure in his mistresses' abuse. The later Ovid was amused at the whole charade of seduction, but Propertius took it seriously, and suffered his losses bravely. He was an ever-dutiful soldier, but despite his protestations one is left to wonder if his particular battle was worth fighting.
Propertius had died by c. 16 BC, a comparatively short life. Some Romans at the time considered him the greatest of elegists, and Ovid later reworked the genre which Propertius had helped to define. His works have been transmitted to posterity through a corrupted Medieval manuscript, and thus some of the elegies are missing lines. While not as epic as Virgil or as colorful as Ovid, Propertius' odes to a tortured love, which defy cultural norms, still attract him to readers two millennia later.
Did you know...
The writings of Propertius are noted for their difficulty and their disorder. The workmanship is unequal, curtness alternating with redundance, and carelessness with elaboration.