The poems of Propertius translated by Ronald Musker

He errs who expects the madness of love to end;
Love that is true can know no measure…
In life I shall always be hers; in death
I shall be hers still.
(Book 2, elegy 15)

Robert Maltby’s introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the elegies of Tibullus is outstanding in its clarity and authority and includes elements which make a good introduction to Propertius, too.

Maltby explains that in the last decades of the first century BC, Rome was home to a small cohort of leading Roman poets who took the Greek metre associated with elegies and which had come to be called ‘elegiacs’, and repurposed them as vehicles to describe very personal (or personal sounding) love affairs. Or, in Propertius’s words:

Priestlike I lead the way from the crystal spring
To adapt Italian rites to Grecian measures.
(3.1)

To repeat what I wrote in the Tibullus review:

What is an elegy?

The modern sense of ‘elegy’ as a lament for the dead only crystallised during the 16th century. Two thousand years ago, for the ancient Greeks and Romans the word had a much wider definition – elegies could cover a wide range of subject matter (death, love, war).

The defining feature of them was that they were written in elegiac couplets or ‘elegiacs’, which consist of a dactylic hexameter line followed by a dactylic pentameter line i.e. six ‘feet’ in the first line, five in the second. In English it looks like this, 6 beats, followed by 5:

My girl is now held hostage by a surly guard (6)
and her stout door is shut and bolted tight. (5)

I’ve often tried to banish pains of love with wine,
but sorrow turned the uncut wine to tears.

Obviously you’re not meant to say it out loud emphasising these beats, that would be silly. It’s just a structuring device, a convention, a code buried under the words, a rhythm you’re meant to be only dimly aware of, if at all, which gives a subliminal sense of regularity and rhythm.

The effect of a long line followed by a slightly shorter one was to create a kind of dying fall, repeated every two lines – hence its attraction for poets who wanted to write an elegy in our sense, a lament for someone who’d died, and the elegiac couplet was in fact the metre used for writing funeral inscriptions and sometimes examples of these were included in elegiac poems. However, the most famous of the Roman elegists copied the way that late Greek or Hellenistic poets had taken to using it to express personal and often ‘amatory’ subject matter.

The variation between the two lines helped to build the impression that elegiac couplets were more appropriate for the expression of ‘direct and immediate concerns’ i.e. the poet’s personal life, than a poem written entirely in hexameters, which was felt to be the metre for continuous narrative, as in Homer’s epics.

Catullus (84 to 54 BC) was the first Roman poet to co-opt the form from the Greek Hellenistic poets and adapt it to Latin for his scandalous love poems and execrations. Catullus was followed by Tibullus (55 to 18 BC, in his elegies), Propertius (50 to 16 BC in his elegies) and Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD, in a series of works, namely the Amores, Heroides, Tristia and Letters from Pontus).

Elegiacs as love poems

The classic Roman elegists used the form to write love poems, often surprisingly candid about their own love affairs. The convention quickly arose of devoting some or all of the poems to a Beloved Mistress, who receives the poet’s devotion despite being often capricious or antagonistic.

‘Your theme shall be flower-wreathed lovers at someone’s door,
And the signs they leave of their drunken flight through the night…’
(The Muse Calliope telling Propertius what his subject should be, book 3, elegy 3)

Catullus (b.84 BC) can be said to have invented many aspects of this convention in his poems to ‘Lesbia’, universally taken as a pseudonym for the Roman aristocrat Clodia Metelli with whom he (if the poems are to be believed) had a passionate affair and then an equally emotional falling-out. (Catullus and Lesbia are mentioned a couple of times by Propertius; he consciously compares his love for Cynthia with Catullus’s for Lesbia, 2.32, 2.34C).

In the next generation Tibullus (b.55 BC) is a little unusual in addressing elegiacs to three figures, two women and a boy. The dates of publication of Tibullus’s two books interlink with the first books by Propertius. Propertius (b.50 BC) is more typical in addressing most of his elegies to just the one figure, who he names ‘Cynthia’. A little later, Ovid (b.43 BC), wrote love elegiacs addressing a figure named ‘Corinna’, though there is widespread agreement that she probably didn’t exist but was a poetic convention.

In Maltby’s opinion Ovid rang pretty much every possible permutation on the use of elegiac as love poem and made it obvious that he was experimenting with the form for its own sake. Maltby thinks he used it up and hollowed it out and as a result the metre fell out of fashion.

Publishing in ancient Rome

Using the word ‘publishing’ gives a misleading impression. There were no printing presses in the West for another 1,500 years. ‘Publishing’ meant that a hand-written manuscript of the text was given to secretaries or amanuenses to copy out in full, by hand, on rolls of papyrus. These rolls were then rolled up and slipped into tubular containers. A library’ consisted of numerous tubes containing manuscripts.

As this implies, not many copies were made, generally scores, rarely into the hundreds. There was no question of making money from this process. The aim was a) if you were rich, to gain a reputation among the people who counted, the educated class or b) if you were less well-off (as Virgil, Horace and Propertius were) to win the patronage of a rich sponsor, as all three were lucky enough to do with Maecenas, who gave land, property and money to both Horace and Virgil.

Ronald Musker’s introduction

I read Propertius’s poems in the 1972 Everyman edition translated by Ronald Musker. In his introduction Musker points out that Propertius came from the equestrian class i.e. the second rank of the aristocracy below the senatorial class. His family had extensive lands in north-central Italy but, like many of his class and generation, lost a substantial amount during the enforced confiscations of Octavian after the Battle of Phillippi.

Too early you gathered up your father’s ashes;
And you had to accept a straitened hearth and home,
For many an ox had turned your rich lands over,
But the ruthless surveying rod took your wealth away. (4.1)

It also appears from one of the elegies, that a close relative or perhaps guardian was killed in the bitter localised civil war known as the Perugine War because it ended up with the rebels (led by Mark Anthony’s wife and brother) holed up and besieged by Octavian’s forces in the city of Perugia, near Propertius’s birthplace. Musker considers the trauma of these events may explain the tone of melancholy which recurs throughout his poems.

In Rome young Sextus Propertius was a friend of fellow poets Gallus and Virgil and, through them, was adopted by the renowned patron of the arts, Gaius Maecenas. His poems survive in 4 books containing around 92 poems. Actually the number varies because editors of book 2 in particular think some poems are jumbled together which must once have been separate poems and so snip and separate them; other scholars disagree; hence the difficulty of giving an exact number.

The translator, Musker, appears to have given each poem a tabloid-style title, which aren’t in the original. These are actually quite helpful in distinguishing between them and indicating the topic of each poem at a glance.

Book 1, 25 BC (23 poems)

Cynthia is the main subject, the first word of the first poem and mentioned in over half the other poems. The poems proceed through the set subjects and attitudes of the afflicted male love for his mistress, including mad declarations of love, promises to be true, lists of her achievements and perfections, jealousy of other men, despair at being abandoned, rage at being abandoned, laments on why women are so fickle and/or easily bought by rich men with shiny trinkets – and so on.

It includes a paraclausithyron i.e a poem describing the lover at the locked door of his beloved. Apparently, Propertius’s version of this is a novelty because he has the door itself speak – we get the door’s point of view, a rather cutting description of the wretched poet pining outside.

I noticed, reading Propertius, that the way these poets created the bulk of a poem, most of its content, is to address a friend, sometimes a rival or enemy – either calling them to witness aspects of your sorrow and affliction, or giving wise advice to them if they fall in love, or any other kind of address.

This conceit of addressing the poem to a pal a) makes it more dynamic b) makes it more like a speech than a solitary meditation. At many points a poem reminded me of Cicero’s legal speeches. All of them, without exception, make a case.

Also, addressing a friend in a poem makes it very public because you have to respect politeness and decorum. The two friends whose names crop up most frequently are Gallus and Tullus, apparently, historically verified real people.

Why, Bassus, by praising all these other girls
Must you try to change me… (1.4)

Put an end, my envious friend, to your tiresome talk… (1.5)

I am not afraid, my Tullus, to learn with you
The Adriatic’s moods… (1.6)

While you, my Ponticus, tell of the city of Cadmus… (1.7)

I told you, my scornful friend, that love would visit you… (1.9)

You, as your way is, Gallus, will be delighted
At my plight… (1.13)

I suppose it’s worth pointing out that the poet addresses a cohort or circle of friends and they are all men. A group of men talking about a woman, one woman’s behaviour. Hmmm. Very much a one-sided perspective, not just a guy talking about a girl but a buy recruiting all his mates to pile in behind him and back up his interpretation.

Although the Cynthia poems felt competent, the single poem which stood out for me was the ante-penultimate one, number 20, which Musker titles ‘Beware of the nymphs!’. This advises his friend, Gallus, on his love affair with a boy, warning him that the (unnamed) boy is so beautiful that he, Gallus, should keep him away from predatory girls, otherwise he’ll lose him, just as the legendary Hylas was lost to Naiads (spirits of the water) on the voyage of the Argonauts. Apart from 4 or 5 lines at the beginning and end, this is a verse description of Hylas’s story i.e. an extended fantasia into Greek legend, describing the way Hylas was sent off by Hercules to gather firewood but wandered too far and was seduced by the water nymphs while Hercules’ voice echoed wanly from afar. This was genuinely haunting.

This raises the issue of the extent to which Propertius not just incorporates Greek myth and legend into his poems, but packs them with mythological references (see below).

Book 2, 24 BC? (55 poems, including 10 or more ‘fragments’)

Book 2 for the first time features poems addressing Augustus’s great ‘minister for the arts’, Maecenas. He is described, rather unctuously, in the first poem as:

True heart alike in peace or war

and:

hope of the youth of Rome
And their envy, and my true glory in life and death…

Scholars deduce that the first book brought Propertius to Maecenas’s attention and in this second one he has become one of the great man’s circle. So not only does it address Maecenas himself but also, as was required, directly addresses Augustus.

Book 2 contains as many poems as 1 and 3 put together so some scholars think it actually combines 2 separate books. This is also suggested by the poor state of many of the poems in it. This has led some scholars to drastically rewrite the poems, taking bits which from poems where they seem out of place and stitching them into other poems where they seem to fit better. I can imagine this leads ultimately to a nightmare jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of fragments on the table in front of you as you rack your brains to recombine them in more ‘sensible’ ways.

Musker explains all this and concludes that, although many of these scholarly editions are intriguing for experts in the field, in this edition he rejects almost all of them. Because there is an alternative explanation – which is that Propertius deliberately made sudden swerves and juxtapositions in his verse, as policy. One of the elements that contributes to what Musker calls Propertius’s ‘elusiveness’ and has made him less popular in modern times that the far more sensible, down-to-earth Horace, or the scandalously sexy Catullus.

The subject matter of the poems is more varied though still circling round the figure of Cynthia. Several describe a rich rival who appears to have won her affections with jewels, and throw deep hatred his way. But then the next one might be another hymn of fulsome love and devotion. So the poems follow no order i.e you can’t make out a narrative, in fact they seem almost deliberately randomised.

Book 3, sometime after 23 BC (27, including 2 ‘fragments’)

The poems start to range in subject matter beyond simple love songs to tackle more public themes. For example, several invoke Augustus’s previous victories against Antony and Cleopatra and his current campaign in Parthia (3.4) (cf the long poem in book 4 celebrating the battle of Actium and repeatedly criticising Cleopatra).

There’s one very close to the royal family, lamenting the death of young Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’s nephew, who he legally adopted then married to his daughter Julia, only for him to die in 23 BC, his twentieth year (3.18).There’s one on the standard topic of how Rome has become corrupted by foreign riches and let its shrines and temples fall into shameful disuse:

Proud Rome is falling, crushed by her own prosperity. (3.13)

Several of the early ones are recusatios, a stock type of poem in which the poet bashfully excuses himself from writing the grand epic poem about Rome’s heroic military victories which society expected, and instead gets a Muse or god to explain that the poet’s real vocation is love poetry.

Wars I would tell of in patriotic verses,
But, alas, how weak the notes that sound on my lips! (4.1)

He writes a long poem to Maecenas saying everyone has his own nature and his (Propertius’s) is emphatically not either going to war or writing about war. The only war he enjoys is the battle of love (‘love’s sweet strife’, 3.20B). In fact this is continuing a trend which began in book 2, with 2.34 actually mentioning Virgil as the great epic poem of Propertius’s time.

Cynthia still pops up. In some he celebrates Cynthia’s birthday (3.10), but overall he seems to be tiring  of her, and the final poems declare himself well shot of her:

False is that trust of yours in your beauty, woman,
Whom my favouring eyes have long made overproud.
Yes, Cynthia, greatly indeed my love has praised you;
It shames me now that through my verses
You gained such fame. (3.24)

And the last poem in the book is an execration, calling down curses on her, and looking forward to her aging and withering and losing her beauty (3.25).

Book 4, published sometime after 16 BC (12 poems)

Book 4 contains only half the number of poems as book 1, leading some scholars to speculate that it may have been published posthumously, a tidying-up operation. Several of the poems imply that Cynthia is dead – in 4.7 her ghost complains to Propertius that her funeral wasn’t lavish enough.

The other poems move well beyond love poetry, addressing a variety of subjects. They include several ‘aetiological poems’, a genre which explains the origin of various Roman rites and landmarks. They’re longer than before, too. Many poems in book 1 were one page long. All those in book 4 are at least 2 pages long, some 3 or even 4.

  1. The poet describes the early history of Rome for 2 pages and the original rural appearance of Rome in terms very reminiscent of the Aeneid before the second half is spoken by a Babylonion priest predicting Propertius’s horoscope.
  2. The Etruscan god Vertumnus speaks, speculating about his own origins and purpose; he is a chameleon and can be male or female or take any role or profession.
  3. Two-page poem in which a young wife, Arethusa, writes to her husband, Lycótas, away at the wars, describing her sadness and devotion.
  4. Three pages describe the iniquity of Tarpeia, a vestal virgin back in the earliest days of Rome, when it was little more than a village, who falls in love with Tatius king of the neighbouring tribe of the Sabines; she betrays a secret path up the Palatine Hill into Rome but when Tatius marries her, as he promised, he gets his men to crush her with their shields for her treachery. This, supposedly, is the origin of the name of the Tarpeian Rock on the Palatine.
  5. Execration of a procuress named Acanthis, who incited his (unnamed) love to spurn the gods, whore after gold, reject his love, and so on.
  6. Three pages celebrating Augustus’s victory at the Battle of Actium. Always good policy to suck up to the emperor.
  7. Cynthia’s ghost comes back from the tomb to upbraid him on the evening of her funeral. At the end he tries to embrace her but her ghost vanishes into air which reminds me of the umpteen time the same thing happens in the Aeneid.
  8. To get his own back on Cynthia (see how the poems are not in any narrative order) the poet organises a little orgy with two hand-picked courtesans at the height of which Cynthia storms in, drives the girls out scratching and screaming, then demands complete submission from the poet, before fumigating the place. Then they have championship sex.
  9. Another poem describing what Rome looked like before it was founded i.e. was idyllic countryside – very reminiscent of book 8 of the Aeneid – here the backdrop for the legendary moment when Hercules stopped on the site only to have his cattle stolen by Cacus. The poem describes the Forum when it was just a grazing ground and explains the origin of the Great Altar which still stood in Propertius’s time. I wonder if it was Augustus and Maecenas’s pressure which led him to drop love poetry and turn to accounts of Rome’s founding legends.
  10. If a Roman military leader defeated the leader of the enemy in single combat and kept the latter’s arms and armour, these were called the spolia opima and brought back to be dedicated in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius. It had only happened three times in Roman history and this poem describes those three great personal achievements, by Romulus, Aulus Cornelius Cossus (consul in 428 BC) and Marcus Claudius Marcellus (consul in 222 BC).
  11. The final poem is a touching address by the recently deceased Cornelia consoling her husband, Paullus Aemilius Lepidus (77 to 11 BC). This man’s father had been brother to the Lepidus who was in the Second Triumvirate alongside Anthony and Octavius. Not long after Cornelia’s death, he married Claudia Marcella Minor, a daughter of Octavia the Younger, sister of Augustus. So like the lament for Marcus Claudius Marcellus (3.18) this is by way of being an imperial commission. However, its stately beauty has led to it being described as the ‘queen of the elegies’ and it is commonly considered the best poem in the entire collection.

Musker’s translation

Having carefully explained what the Latin elegiac metre was, Musker then goes ahead and cheerfully ignores the strictness of it in his own translation. His versions are very free and all the better for it. Try and spot traces of the hexameter-pentameter combination in the following:

Whence, you ask me, come all my poems of love,
And my book that sounds on men’s lips its note of langour.
Calliope does not sing me these songs nor Apollo;
A girl provides me with all I have
Of poetic talent.
(2.1)

Instead of couplets defined by the elegiac metre, Musker uses the verse paragraph. Each poem, instead of presenting a solid column of verse –as they do in the original Latin – is divided into 3 or 4 or 5 verse paragraphs of 5 or 6 lines, the last one or two lines always notably shorter, maybe a kind of recreation of the ‘dying fall’ of the original. Thus:

Penelope, who was worthy of many suitors,
For twice ten years was able to live untouched;
To defer remarriage by feigning a womanly industry,
Then unwinding by nightly stealth the weft of the day.
And though, grown old with waiting, she had no hope
Of ever seeing Ulysses again,
She yet stayed true.
(2.9A)

This not being faced by a wall of verse, instead being able to read a paragraph at a time, makes the poems immensely more readable, as does Musker’s relaxed approach to metre

Conventions of the love poem

Scholars have suggested various real-life models for Cynthia but there is no consensus. As usual all we have to go on is hints within the poems and one remote historical reference.

Propertius mentions that Cynthia is a descendant of the Roman poet Hostius. He frequently compliments her as docta puella meaning ‘learned girl’. He tells us that she herself was a writer of verse. This kind of autobiographical clue-hunting strikes me as pointless. Even when you have confirmed that Lesbia was a codename for Clodia…does it change anything? If anything, it reduces the impact of the poems, which they gain from being about a shadowy unnamed woman.

Instead, the poems are artifices; they rehearse a number of postures or attitudes or emotions related to love affairs. These may or may not ever have been ‘genuine’ or related to ‘a real person’ but it’s a question of taste whether you need to believe that to enjoy them. I don’t.

Poems are verbal machines designed to evoke psychological states in the reader; some of these might be mimetic, directly replicating the emotion described in the poem. But once you’ve read a certain number of poems and start to recognise the same topics recurring in the same treatment, at least part of your mind becomes capable of detachment, regarding even the most moving poem as a verbal artifact, a device.

Mythology

Apparently, Propertius is often criticised because of his excessive use of references from myth and legend. For example, elegy 2.6 kicks off with a flurry of mythological comparisons: he cites three of the most famous courtesans from ancient times and the crowds of men who flocked around them and then claims they were all nothing compared to the hordes of men who swarm at Cynthia’s door. In other words, it is a poem about male jealousy.

The house of Laïs at Corinth, though at her door
All Greece paid court, was never thronged like yours;
Thaïs, famed by Menander and once the darling
Of Athens, attracted no such swarm;
Nor yet did Phrynë, enriched by all those lovers
So that she could have re-erected
Demolished Thebes. (2.6)

In his introduction Musker defends Propertius against the charge of introducing too much mythological matter into his poems. His defence is:

  1. The ancients thought through mythology. Lacking anything remotely like a modern scientific understanding of the laws of nature, their extremely dense and multi-layered mythology provided not exactly rules or laws but stories from history which suggested underlying tendencies, among humans and among the fate which seems to hover over them. Mythology helps to make sense (albeit a chaotic and violent sense) of the world.
  2. Sheer swank. Propertius’s jealousy risks coming over as petty, small-minded, unaristocratic. But if he devotes a paragraph to comparing himself and Cynthia to figures from myth and legend then he obviously flatters her, bigs himself up, and turns a personal peeve into what sounds like the grand statement of some general law rather than a trivial tiff between pampered layabouts.

Personally, I enjoyed Propertius’s use of mythology. In Horace the mythological references often felt dragged in – I think it’s because Horace is such a regular guy, his entire schtick is about living for the moment and enjoying life in a very realistically described Rome, his is such a down-to-earth, sensible philosophy, that Achilles and Apollo seem wildly out of place in it.

Whereas Propertius from the start is more intense and shrill, a little more hysterical and extreme, and so his use of myth and legend genuinely helps to expand and enhance the poems, gives them size, like adding echo to a voice track.

The Romans expected their lovers to give them prominent love bites (note to 4.3, p.220, and 4.5).


Credit

Poems of Propertius, translated by Robert Musker, was published by Everyman books in 1972. All references are to the 1972 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

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