1902 Encyclopedia > Propertius (Sextus Propertius)

Propertius
(Sextus Propertius)
Roman poet
(c. 50 - c. 15 BC)




SEXTUS PROPERTIUS, the greatest elegiac poet of Rome, was born of a good Umbrian family, who were con-siderable landed proprietors in the fair and fertile region between Perusia and the river Clitumnus. The seat of the Propertii was at Asisium or Assisi, the birthplace of the famous St Francis ; and here also was Propertius born. The year of his birth is uncertain, and it has been vari-ously placed between 57 and 44 B.C. We learn from one passage of Ovid that Propertius was his senior, but also his friend and companion ; from another that he was third in the sequence of elegiac poets, following Gallus, who was born in 69 B.C., and Tibullus, whose birth has been assigned' to 54 B.C., and immediately preceding Ovid himself, who, as he tells us elsewhere, was born in 43 B.C. We shall not be far wrong in supposing he was born about 50 B.C., a date which also agrees well with the indications of the poems themselves. His early life was full of misfortune. He buried his father before his time; and grief was closely followed by poverty. After the battle of Philippi and the return of Octavian to Rome the victorious legions had to be provided for; their clamorous need and cupidity could only be appeased by wholesale agrarian confiscation, and the north of Italy had to be surrendered. In common with his fellow poets Virgil and Horace, Propertius was de-prived of his estate; but, unlike these, he had no patrons at court, and he was reduced from opulence to comparative in-digence. The widespread disaffection which these measures provoked was turned to account by Lucius Antonius, the brother of the triumvir, and his wife, the notorious Fulvia. The insurrection which is generally known as the bellum Perusinum from its only important incident, the fierce and fatal resistance of Perugia, deprived the poet of another of his relations, who was killed by brigands while making his escape from the lines of Octavian. The loss of his patrimony, however, thanks no doubt to his mother's providence, did not prevent Propertius from receiving a superior education. After or, it may be, during its completion he and she left Umbria for Rome; and there, about the year 34 B.C., he assumed the garb of manly freedom. He was urged to take up a pleader's profession ; but the serious study went against the grain, and, like Ovid, he found in letters and gallantry a more congenial pursuit. Soon afterwards he made the acquaintance of Lycinna, about whom we know little beyond the fact that she subsequently excited the jealousy of Cynthia, and was subjected to all her powers of persecution (vexandi). This passing fancy was suc-ceeded by a serious attachment, the object of which was the famous " Cynthia." Her real name was Hostia, and she was a native of Tibur. She was a courtezan of the superior class, somewhat older than Propertius, and seems to have been a woman of singular beauty and varied accomplishments. Her own predilections led her to literature; and in her society Propertius found the intellectual sympathy and encouragement which were essential for the development of his powers. Her character, as depicted in the poems, is not an attractive one; but she seems to have entertained a genuine affection for her lover. The intimacy began in 28 and lasted till 23 B.C. These six years must not, however, be supposed to have been a period of unbroken felicity. Apart from minor disagreements, an infidelity on Propertius's part excited the deepest resentment in Cynthia; and he was banished for a year. The quarrel was made up about the beginning of 25 B.C.; and soon after Propertius published his first book of poems and inscribed it with the name of his mistress. Its publication placed him in the first rank of contemporary poets, and amongst other things procured him admission to the literary circle of Maecenas. The intimacy was renewed; but the old enchantment was lost. Neither Cynthia nor Propertius was faithful to the other. The mutual ardour gradually cooled; motives of prudence and decorum urged the dis-continuance of the connexion ; and disillusion changed in-sensibly to disgust. Although this separation might have been expected to be final, it is not certain that it was so. It is true that Cynthia, whose health appears to have been weak, does not seem to have survived the separation long. But a careful study of the seventh poem of the last book, in which Propertius gives an account of a dream of her which he had after her death, leads us to the belief that they were once more reconciled, and that in her last illness Cynthia left to her former lover the duty of carrying out her wishes with regard to the disposal of her effects and the arrange-ments of her funeral. Almost nothing is known of the subsequent history of the poet. He was certainly alive in 16 B.C., as some of the allusions in the last book testify. And there are two passages in the letters of the younger Pliny in which he speaks of a descendant of the poet, one Passennus Paullus. Now in 18 B.C. Augustus carried the Leges Julise, which offered inducements to marriage and imposed disabilities upon the celibate. It would seem therefore at least a natural conclusion that Propertius was one of the first to comply with the provisions of the law, and that he married and had at least one child, from whom the contemporary of Pliny was descended.

Propertius appears to have had a large number of friends and acquaintances, chiefly literary, belonging to the circle of Maecenas. (Amongst these may be mentioned Virgil, the epic poet Ponticus, Bassus (probably the iambic poet of the name), and at a later period Ovid. He does not seem to have come across Tibullus; and his relations with Horace were not particularly friendly. Horace may have, regarded him as an interloper in the favour of Maecenas, though there is nothing in the poems of Propertius to warrant the supposition. In person Propertius was pale and thin, as was to be expected in one of a delicate and even sickly constitution. He was very careful about his personal appearance, and paid an almost foppish attention to dress and gait. He was of a somewhat voluptuous and self-indulgent temperament, which shrank from danger and active exertion. He was anxiously sensitive about the opinion of others, eager for their sympathy and re-gard, and, in general, impressionable to their influence. His over-emotional nature passed rapidly from one phase of feeling to another; but the more melancholy moods predominated. A vein of sadness runs through his poems, . sometimes breaking out into querulous exclamation, but more frequently venting itself in gloomy reflexions and prognostications. He had fits of superstition which in healthier moments he despised. It must be added that the native weakness of his character was no doubt considerably increased by his infirm and delicate constitution.





The poems of Propertius, as they have come down to us, consist of four books containing 4046 lines of elegiac verse. The unusual length of the second one (1402 lines) has led Lachmann and other critics to suppose that it originally consisted of two books, and they have placed the beginning of the third book at ii. 10, a poem addressed to Augustus. This theory, somewhat modified, has been powerfully advocated by Th. Birt (Das Antike Buchwesen, pp. 413-426). He divides the poems into two parts,—a single book (lib. L), published separately and called Cynthia Monobiblos, as in the MSS. and the lemma to Martial (xiv. 189), and a Tetrabiblos Syntaxis, a collec-tion of four books, published together, consisting of the remainder of his poems. If this view is correct, the greater part of the first book of the Syntaxis must have been lost, as ii. 1-9 only contain 354 lines. The first book, or Cynthia, was published early in the poet's literary life, and may be assigned to 25 B.C. The date of the publication of the rest is uncertain, but none of them can have been published before 24 B.C., and the last, at any rate, was probably published posthumously. The subjects of the poems are threefold:—(1) amatory and personal, mostly regarding Cynthia—seventy-two (sixty Cynthia elegies), of which the last book contains three; (2) political and social, on events of the day—thirteen, including three in the last book ; (3) historical and antiquarian—six, of which five are in the last book.

The writings of Propertius are noted for their difficulty; and this has undoubtedly prejudiced his reputation as a poet. His style seems to unite every element by which a reader could be deterred. Not to speak of the unequal quality of his workmanship, in which curtness alternates with redundance, and carelessness with elaboration, the indistinctness and discontinuousness of his thought is a serious strain upon the attention. An apparently desultory sequence of ideas, sudden and often arbitrary changes of subject, frequent vagueness and indirectness of expres-sion, a peculiar and abnormal Latinity, a constant tend-ency to exaggeration, and an excessive indulgence in learned and literary allusions,—all these are obstacles lying in the way of a study of Propertius. But those who have the will and the patience to surmount them will find their trouble well repaid. In power and compass of imagination, in freshness and vividness of conception, in truth and originality of presentation, few Roman poets can compare with him. If these qualities are seldom eminent for long together, if his flights are rarely steady and sustained, this is matter for regret rather than cavil or even astonishment. Propertius was essentially incapable of self-criticism, constitutionally intolerant of the slow labour of the file. His work is ever best when done under the urgency of a supreme and rapid excitement, and when, so to say, the discordant qualities of his genius are fused together by the electric spark of an immediate inspiration. Two of his merits seem to have impressed the ancients themselves. The first is most obvious in the scenes of quiet description and emotion in whose presenta-tion he particularly excels. Softness of outline, warmth of colouring, a fine and almost voluptuous feeling for beauty of every kind, and a pleading and almost melan-choly tenderness—such were the elements of the spell which he threw round the sympathies of his reader, and which his compatriots expressed by the vague but expres-sive word blanditia. His facundia, or command of striking and appropriate language, is more noticeable still. Not only is his vocabulary very extensive, but his employ-ment of it extraordinarily bold and unconventional. New settings of use, idiom, and construction continually sur-prise us, and, in spite of occasional harshness, secure for his style an unusual freshness and freedom. His handling of the elegiac couplet, and especially of its second line, deserves especial recognition. It is vigorous, varied, and even picturesque. In the matter of the rhythms, caesuras, and elisions which it allows, the metrical treatment is much more severe than that of Catullus, whose elegiacs are comparatively rude and barbarous; but it is not bound hand and foot, like that of the Ovidian distich, in a formal and conventional system. It only now remains to call attention to the elaborate symmetry of construction which is observable in many of his elegies. Often indeed the correspondence between different parts of his poem is so close that critics have endeavoured with more or less success to divide them into strophes.

Propertius's poems bear evident marks of the study of his predecessors both Greek and Latin, and of the influ-ence of his contemporaries. He tells us himself that Callimachus and Philetas were his masters, and that it was his ambition to be the Roman Callimachus. We can trace obligations to Theocritus, Apollonius Rhodius, and other Alexandrines, but above all to Meleager, and amongst earlier writers to Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, and others. Amongst Latin writers he had read with more or less care the works of Ennius, Lucretius, the dramatists, and Catullus. We find coincidences too close to be for-tuitous between his poems and those of Virgil, Horace, and Tibullus his contemporaries; but it is very possible the influence was reciprocal. Propertius's influence upon his successors was considerable. There is not a page of Ovid which does not show obligations to his poems, while other writers made a more modest use of his stores. Among these may be mentioned Manilius, Juvenal, Martial, Statius, Claudian, Seneca, and Apuleius.

The works of Propertius have come down to us in a far from perfect condition. Some of the poems have been lost; others are fragmentary; and most are more or less disfigured by corruptions. The manuscripts on which we have to rely are late and in several cases interpolated; and these circumstances, combined with the native difficulty of the poet's writing, make the task of his restora-tion and interpretation one of peculiar delicacy and difficulty.

Donatus (or Suetonius) in his life of Virgil, 30 (45), is the. authority for the full name of Propertius. " Aurelius" and "Nauta," which are added in the MSS., are due to confusion with Prudentius, and a corrupt reading of iii. 19, 22 (Miiller), (ii. 24, 22, Palmer).— On the Propertii, see Mommsen in Hermes, iv. p. 370 ; Hanpt, Opuse., i. p. 282. Besides the Propertius Blsesus (the Passennus Paullus of Pliny), we hear of a C. Propertius who was triumvir capitalis and proconsul in the time if Augustus, and a Propertius Celer, a poor senator under Tiberius. Inscriptions of the Propertii have been found at Assisi, cf. Hertzberg, Prop., i. pp. 10-12.

Propertius tells us himself that his family was not "noble," iii. 32 (ii. 34), 55, 6, and iii. 19, I.e.—Mevania (Bevagna) and Hispellum (Spello) have been put forward as the birth-place of Propertius, but the poet's own expressions are decisive for Asisium. Apart from the question of reading in v. (iv.) 1, 125 (MSS. Asis.), the climbing walls of his town (scandentes arces, scandens murus, v. (iv.), 1, 65 and I.e.), its nearness to Perugia, and its position close above the plain (i. 22, 9, 10) are altogether unsuitable to Spello and Bevagna.—Ovid thus assigns Propertius his place:—successor fuit hie (Tibullus), tibi, Galle : Propertius illi (Tibullus): quartus ab his serie temporis ipse fui (Tr., iv. 10, 53, 54); and again (ib., ii. 467), his (to Tibullus and Propertius) ego successi. For Ovid's friendship with Propertius see below.—v. 1, 121 sq. is the chief authority for the earlier events of his life. For the premature death of his father and the loss of his property, see 127 sq.:—ossaque legisti non ilia aetate legeuda patris et in tenues cogeris ipse Lares, nam tibi cum multi uersa-rent rura iuuenci abstulit excultas pertica tristis opes. Elsewhere he says that he is non ita diues (iii. 19 (22), I.e.), and that he had nulla donii fortuna relicta, iii. 32, 55, I.e. Indirect evidence, such as his living on the Esquiline, iv. (iii.), 23, 24, points to a competence. For the death of his kinsman, generally supposed to be the Gallus of i. 21, see i. 22, 5-8. Propertius's mother is mentioned in ii. 8, 39 ; iii. 13, 15; and in very affectionate terms in i. 11, 21. She was dead when iii. 13 (11) was written, i.e., six months after the publication of the first book. For the quality of Propertius's education, the poems themselves are the only, but a sufficient, testimony.—For Lycinna see iv. 14 (iii. 15), 3-10, 43.— Cynthia, or Hostia (Apul., Apol., p. 415) of Tibur (v. (iv.), 7, 85), was the granddaughter (iv. 19 (iii. 20), 8) of L. Hostius, who wrote a poem on the Illyrian war of 178 B. c., of which some fragments are preserved. She was much older than Propertius (iii. 10 (ii. 18), 20). That she was a meretrix is clear from many indications—her accomplishments, her house in the Subura, the occurrence of scenes like those in i. 3, iii. 27 (ii. 29), the fact that Propertius could not marry her, &c. For descriptions of her beauty see ii. 2, 5 sq., and 3, 9 sq.; iii. 3 (ii. 13), 23, 24 ; her poetry, ii. 3, 21 ; and other accomplishments, i. 2, 27 sq., iv. 19 (20), 7, 8. In char-acter she was fickle (i. 15, ii. 6, &c), greedy (iii. 8 (ii. 16), 11, 12, Cynthia non sequitur fasces, nec curat honores: semper ama-toruni ponderat una sinus), and fond of finery (ii. 3, 15, 16); her temper was violent, iv. 7 (iii. 8), &c, and led her to slander those who had offended her (i. 4, 18 sq., &c).—For the five years, see iv. (iii.) 25, 3, quinque tibi potui seruire fideliter annos ; and for the year of separation, iv. 15, 11 (iii. 16), 9, peccaram'semel, et totum sum pulsus in annum. The second separation is vouched for by the two last elegies of book iv. The evidence which v. (iv.) 7 furnishes in favour of a reconciliation is analysed by Postgate (Prop., Introd., p. xxv. sq.).—v. 6 commemorates the celebration of the ludi quinquennalcs, and v. 11, 66 alludes to the consulship of P. Scipio in 16 B.C. For Passennus Paullus (or as an Assisi inscription calls him C. Passennus Sergius Paullus Propertius Bltesus), see Pliny (Ep., vi. 15), munieeps Properti atque etiam inter maiores Propertium numerat; (9, 22), in litteris ueteres aemulatur exprimit reddit: Propertium in primis a quo genus ducit, uera soboles eoque simillima ill in quo ille praecipuus, si elegos eius in manum sumpseris, leges opus tersum molle iucundum et plane in Properti domo scriptum. —ii. 1 and iv. (iii.) 9 are addressed to Maecenas, iii. 1 (ii. 10; to Augustus. Virgil is spoken of in the highest terms in iii. 32 (ii. 34), 61 sq. Other poems are addressed to Ponticus (i. 7, 9), Bassus (i. 4), Lynceus a tragic poet (iii. 32, ii, 34). Volpi con-jectured (in his edition of Propertius, i. pp. xv. sq.) that the inquisitive fellow of Horace, Sat, i. 9; but the conjecture is generally rejected on grounds of chronology. It has recently been re-discussed and rejected by Prof. A. Palmer in his edition of Horace's Satires, i. 9 (notes), p. 219. In Ep. ii. 87 sq., how-ever, Horace seems to make a direct attack on Propertius.—On Propertius's personal appearance, see i. 1, 22, 5, 21 ; pallorem nos-trum . . . cur sim toto corpore nullus ego. A likeness of him has possibly been preserved in a double Hermes in the Villa Albani and the Vatican, which represents a young beardless Eoman, of a nervous and somewhat sickly appearance, in combination with a Greek poet, possibly Callimachus or Philetas (Visconti, Iconograph. Eomana, plate 14, 3, 4 ; see E. Brizio, Annal. dell' inst arch., 1873, 105 ; C. Robert, Arch. Zeit, 38, 35, cited by Teuffel). Ill health is proved, as well by the specific allusion of i. 15 as by the frequent references to death and burial—i. 19; ii. 1, 71 sq. ; iii. 5, 1 (ii.
13, 17) sq. For his care about dress and the like, see ii. 4, 15, 16, (5, 6), nequiquam perfusa meis unguenta capillis ibat et expenso planta morata gradu. His character is mirrored in his poems. In particular it has had a great deal to do in moulding his vocabu-lary (Postgate, Introd., p. xxxvi. sq.). For want of courage and energy, especially, see ii. 7, 14 ; iii. 12 (ii. 19), 17-24 ; and for superstitious leanings iii. 23 (ii. 27) ; ii. 4, 15, (25) ; v. (iv.) 5, 9, sq. —The numbering of the books is one of the most vexed questions of Propertius ; but it is not unlikely that Birt's conclu-sions will be ultimately accepted. The dates of the several poems are, where known, some guide towards determining that of the books: i. 8 seems to have been written about'27 B.c. ; i. 6 not before 27 B.C. ; ii. 1 in 25 B.c. ; i. 8 after 27 B.c. ; iii. 1 (ii. 10) in 24 B.c. ; 29, 31, end of 28; 32 not before 28 B.c.; iv. (iii.) 17 (18) in or after 23 B.C. ; so 3 (4), 4 (5), 11 (12), but 20 about 28 B.C. ; v. (iv.) 6, 11 not before 16 B.c.; 3 in 23 B.c. For the evidence for believing book v. to be posthumous see Postgate, pp. liv., Iv.—It is beyond our limits to discuss the style and idiom of Propertius in full. For details see' Hertzberg, Introduction, pp. 47, sq. ; Postgate, Introduction, pp. lvii. sq. (literary style), txxxviii. sq. (grammar and vocabulary), cxxvi. sq. for metre and prosody; also L. Miiller's Introduction, pp. xlviii. sq. For ancient references to Propertius as a writer see Quint., x. 1, 93, where it is stated that some (not Quintilian) preferred him to Tibullus, Ov., A. A., iii. 333, Tr., iii. 465 (blandus P.), v. 1, 17 (blandus), Mart., xiv. 189 (faeundus P.), viii. 73, Pliny, I.e. above, Stat., Silv., i. 2, 253, Vmbro Propertius antro.—Prop., iii. (iv.) 1, Callimachi Manes et Coi sacra Philetae, in uestrum, quaeso, me sinite ire nemus ; v. (iv.) 1, 64, Vmbria Rom.ni patria Callimachi. But, as is well pointed out by Teuffel in his History of Roman Literature, Pro-pertius's debt to Callimachus and Philetas is chiefly a formal one. Even into his mythological learning he breathes a life to which those dry scholars were complete strangers.—For a summary ac-count of his relations to his predecessors and contemporaries see Postgate, Introd. ch. v. Coincidences with Horace are quoted in Teuffel (§ 246, 2); with Catullus, M. Magnus, Fleclceisen's Jahr-bücher, 115, p. 418; with Tibullus, A. Zingerle, Ovid's Verhaltniss, &c., i. 55, 98, 101, &c. ; with Virgil, Nettleship, Ancient Lives oj Vergil, p. 63, 64.

There is no existing MS. of Propertius older than the 14th century. Up till the publication of Bährens's edition (1880), the Neapolitanus (N\, now often called the Guelferbytanus) was regarded as the best. Bährens, however, maintained its worthlessness as compared with the concurrence of four other MSS. of his own collating:—Vossianus, circa 1360 (A) ; Laurentianus, beginning of 15th century (F.); Ottoboniano-Vaticanus, end of i4th century (V.); Daventriensis, 1410-20 (D.). Bährens's attack upon the Neapolitan was answered by H. Leo (Rh. Mus., xxxi. 431), m\s(Amer. Journ. Phil.,i.389), Palmer (Hermathena,iv, 48-72). The contending merits of these MSS. have been examined by Solbisky (Comm. Phil. Jenenses, ii. 1883) with considerable care, and his conclusions as to the independent value both of N. and the consensus of D. V. are likely to be accepted.

The editio princeps of Propertius is that of 1472, Venice. Among the chief editions may be mentioned the following, those with notes being marked with an asterisk:—«Scaliger(1577, Ac), *Broukhusius (2d ed., 1577), *Passeratius (1608), »Vulpius (1755, 2 vols.), *P. Burmann (and Santen) (17S0), *Lachmann (1816; text only, 1829), «Jacob (1827), Hertzberg (1843-45, 2 vols.). *F. A. Palev (2d ed., 1872), L. Müller (1870), Haupt-Vahlen (1879), Bährens (1880), A. Palmer (1880); selections, with introduction, Postgate (1881). Those of Müller and Palmer are the editions cited throughout this article. It is impossible to cite the numerous programs, dissertations, papers, &c, which have been published on subjects connected with Propertius. For fuller bibliographies it is sufficient to refer to Hertzberg, Prop., i. pp. 248-59; Engelmann's Bibliotheca Scriptorum Latinorum (ed. Preuss, 1882) ; J. E. B. Mayor's Bibliographical Clue to Latin Literature (1875); W. Teuffel, Geschichte d. Rom. Litteratur (2d ed., 1882; Eng. trans., 1873-, sec. 246 gives an excellent account of Propertius); Pauly, Real-Encyclopädie, s.v. " Propertius." Reviews of recent Propcrtian literature are given in Bursian's Jahresbericht (1873), pp. 1447-54 (very meagre), and in the Trans. Camb. Philol. Soc, 1880 (i. 372-86), 1881-82 (ii. 226-36).

The following translations into English verse are known;—G. F. Nott, Book i. (published anonymously, 1872); C. A. Elton, selections in his Specimens of the Classic Poets, vol. ii. p. 215 sq. (1814, reprinted along with the preceding and a prose version by P. J. F. Gantillon, in Bohn's series, 1848, 1883); C. R. Moore (London, 1870); J. Cranstoun (Edinburgh, 1875); F.A. Paley, verse translations from Book v. with notes ( 1866) ; also a few translations by Gray (the poet) first printed in Gosse's edition, vol. i. (1884). (J. P. P.)






The above article was written by: Prof. J. P. Postgate.



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