1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Propertius, Sextus
PROPERTIUS, SEXTUS (fl. 30–15 B.C.), the greatest of the elegiac poets of Rome, was born of a well-to-do Umbrian family at or near Asisium (Assisi), the birthplace also of the famous St Francis. We learn from Ovid that Propertius was his senior, but also his friend and companion; and that he was third in the sequence of elegiac poets, following Gallus, who was born in 69 B.C., and Tibullus, and immediately preceding Ovid himself, who was born in 43 B.C. We shall not then be far wrong in supposing that he was born about 50 B.C. His early life was full of misfortune. He lost his father prematurely; and after the battle of Philippi and the return of Octavian to Rome, Propertius, like Virgil and Horace, was deprived of his estate to provide land for the veterans, but, unlike them, he had no patrons at court, and he was reduced from opulence to comparative indigence. The widespread discontent which the confiscations caused provoked the insurrection generally known as the bellum perusinum from its only important incident, the fierce and fatal resistance of Perugia, which 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, 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 succeeded 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 courtesan of the superior class, somewhat older than Propertius, but, as it seems, 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 discontinuance of the Connexion; and disillusion changed insensibly 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 arrangements of her funeral. Almost nothing is known of the subsequent history of the poet. He was alive in 16 B.C., as some allusions in the last book testify. And two passages in the letters of the younger Pliny mention a descendant of the poet, one Passennus Paullus. Now in 18 B.C. Augustus carried the Leges Juliae, which offered inducements to marriage and imposed disabilities upon the celibate. Propertius then may have been one of the first to comply with the new enactments. He would thus have married and had at least one child, from whom the contemporary of Pliny was descended. Propertius 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. We hear nothing of Tibullus, nor of Horace, who also never mentions Propertius. This reciprocal silence is probably significant. 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 regard, 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 reflections and prognostications. He had fits of superstition which in healthier moments he despised.
The poems of Propertius, as they have come down to us, consist of four books containing 4046 lines of elegiac verse. The first book, or Cynthia, was published separately and early in the poet's literary life. It may be assigned to 25 B.C. The dates of the publication of the rest are uncertain, but none of them was published before 24 B.C., and the last not before 16 B.C. 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, thus making five books, and this arrangement has been accepted by several editors.
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 their disorder. The workmanship is unequal, curtness alternating with redundancy, and carelessness with elaboration. A desultory sequence of ideas, an excessive vagueness and indirectness of expression, a peculiar and abnormal latinity, a constant tendency to exaggeration, and an immoderate 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. For power and range of imagination, for freshness and vividness of conception, for truth and originality of presentation, few Roman poets can compare with him when he is at his best. And this is when he is carried out of himself, when the discordant qualities of his genius are, so to say, fused together by the electric spark of an immediate inspiration. His vanity and egotism are undeniable, but they are redeemed by his fancy and his humour.
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 presentation he particularly excels. Softness of outline, warmth of colouring, a fine and almost voluptuous feeling for beauty of every kind, and a pleading and melancholy 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 expressive word blanditia. His poetic facundia, or command of striking and appropriate language, is more noticeable still. Not only is his vocabulary very extensive, but his employment of it extraordinarily bold and unconventional. New settings of use, idiom and construction continually surprise 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 the Ovidian distich, in a formal and conventional system. An elaborate symmetry is observable in the construction of many of his elegies, and this has tempted critics to divide a number of them into strophes.
Propertius’s poems bear evident marks of the study of his predecessors, both Greek and Latin, and of the influence of his contemporaries. He tells us himself that Callimachus and Philetas were his masters (iii. 1, seq.), and that it was his ambition to be the Roman Callimachus (iv. 1, 64). But, as Teuffel has said, his debt to these writers is chiefly a formal one. Even into his mythological learning he breathes a life to which these dry scholars are strangers. We can trace obligations to Meleager, Theocritus, Apollonius Rhodius and other Alexandrines, and amongst earlier writers to Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus and others. Propertius’s influence upon his successors was considerable. There is hardly a page of Ovid which does not show obligations to his poems, while other writers made a more sparing use of his stories.
A just appreciation of the genius and the writings of Propertius is made sensibly more difficult by the condition in which his works have come down to us. Some poems have been lost; others are fragmentary; and many are more or less disfigured by corruption and disarrangement. The manuscripts on which we have to rely are both late and deeply interpolated. Thus the restoration and interpretation of the poems is one of peculiar delicacy and difficulty.
On the Propertii see Mommsen in Hermes, iv. 370; Haupt, Opusc. i. 282. Inscriptions of Propertii have been found at Assisi. Propertius’s family was not “ noble, ” ii. 34, 55, 6, and ii. 24, 37 seq. Apart from the question of reading in 1v. 1, 125 (MSS. Asis.), “the climbing walls of his town” (scandentes arces, scandens murus, iv. 1, 65 and loc.cit.), its nearness to Perugia, and its position close above the plain (i. 22, 9, 10) are decisive for Asisium as the birthplace of Propertius. Ovid thus assigns Propertius his place: successor fuit hic (Tibullus), tibi, Galle: Propertius illi (Tibullo): Quartus ab his serie temporis ipse fui (Tr. iv. 10, 53, 54) (cf. ib., ii. 467). For Ovid’s friendship with Propertius see below-iv. i, 121 seqQ is the chief authority for the earlier events of his life, 127 seq.: “Ossaque legisti non illa aetate legenda Patris et in tenues cogeris ipse Lares. Nam tibi cum multi versarent rura iuvenci Abstulit excultas pertica tristis opes." Elsewhere he says that he is “non ita dives” ii. 24, loc. cit.) and that he had “ nulla domi fortuna relicta, " ii. 34, loc. cit. His living on the Esquiline, iii. 23, 24, points to a competence. For the death of his kinsman, general y supposed to be the Gallus of 1. 21, see i. 22, 5–8. Propertius’s mother is mentioned more than once, in very affectionate terms in i., ii. 21. She was dead when iii. 13 (I 1) 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 iii. 15, 3–10, 43. Cynthia (Hostia) was a native of Tibur (iv. 7, 85), and probably a granddaughter (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 older than Propertius (ii. 18, 20). That she was a meretrix is clear from many indications—her special accomplishments, her house in the Subura, the occurrence of scenes like those ini. 3, ii. 29, the fact that Propertius could not marry her, &c. For re erences to her beauty see ii. 2, 5 sqq. and 3, 9 sqq.; ii. 13, 23, 24; to her poetry, ii. 3, 21; to other accomplishments, i. 2, 27 seq.; iii. 20, 7 seq. She was fickle (i. 15, ii. 6, &c.), avaricious (ii. 16, II, 12), fond of fmery (ii. 3, 15, 16), violent of temper (iii. 8; i. 4, 18 seq.). For the five years see iii. 25, 3, “quinque tibi potui servire fideliter annos”; and for the year of estrangement, iii. 16, 9, “ peccaram semel, et totum sum pulsus in annum." The second separation is vouched for by the two last elegies of book iii. For the evidence which iv. 7 furnishes in favour of a reconciliation see Postgate (Prop. lntrod. p. xxv. seq.); iv. 6 commemorates the celebration of the ludi quinquenales, in 16 B.C., and iv. 11, 66 alludes to the consulship of P. Scipio in the same year. For Passennus Paullus (or as an Assisi inscription calls him C. Passennus Sergius Paullus Propertius Blaesus), see Pliny (Ep. vi. 15), “municeps Properti atque etiam inter maiores Propertium numerat”; (9, 22), “in litteris veteres aemulatur exprimit reddit: Propertium in primis a quo genus ducit, vera suboles eoque simillima illi in quo ille praecipuus, si elegos eius in manum sumpseris, leges opus tersum molle iucundum et plane in Properti domo scriptum.” ii. 1 and iii. 9 are addressed to Maecenas, ii. 10 to Augustus. Virgil is spoken of in the highest terms in ii. 34, 61 seq. Other poems are addressed to Ponticus (i. 7, 9), Bassus (i. 4), Lynceus, a tragic poet (i. 19, ii. 34). In ii. 2, 87 seq., Horace has been thought to make a direct attack on Propertius. On Propertius’s personal appearance, see i. I, 22, 5, 21. A likeness of him has possibly been preserved in a double Hermes in the Villa Albani and the Vatican, which represents a young beardless Roman, of a nervous and somewhat sickly appearance, together with a Greek poet (Visconti, Iconograph. romana., pl. 14, 3, 4). Ill health is proved by i. 15 and the frequent references to death and burial-i. 19, ii. 1, 71 sqq., ii. 13, 17 sqq. For his care about dress and the like see ii. 4, 5, seq. For want of courage and energy see ii. 7, I4, ii. 19, 17-24; and for superstitious leanings, ii. 27, ii. 4, 15, iv. 5, 9 seq. The four-book numbering is now the current one and is adopted in this article though there is little doubt that there were originally four books besides the Cynthia. Few of the poems can be dated with certainty, but those that can, with the exception of iv. 6 and II, fall between the years 28 and 23 B.C. 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; T r. iii. 465, v. 1, 17; Mart. xiv. 189, viii. 73; Pliny, loc. cit. above, Stat. Silv. i. 2, 253.
There is no existing MS. of Propertius older than the 12th century. Up till the publication of Bährens’s edition (1880), the oldest one, Neapolitanus (N., now at Wolfenbüttel), was universally regarded as the best, and even now critics are found to maintain its paramount claims. But the more judicious admit the value of the four MSS. collated by Bährens. Vossianus, c. [300 (A); Laurentianus, end of 14th century (F); Ottoboniano-Vaticanus, 15th century (V); Daventriensis, 15th century (D), to which has to be added the Holkhamicus, 1421 (L), collated by Postgate, Cambridge Philological Transactions (1894) vol. iv.
The editio princeps of Propertius is that of 1472 (Venice). Among later editions we may mention the following, those with explanatory or critical notes being marked with an asterisk: *Scaliger (1577, &c.), *Broukhusius (2nd ed., 1577), *Passeratius (1608, with index verborum), *Vulpius (1755, with index verborum), *P. Burmann (and Santen) (1780), *Lachmann (1816), *Hertzberg (1843–1845, L. Muller (1870), Haupt-Vahlen (last ed., 1904), *Bahrens (1880, *A. Palmer (1880), *Postgate (1881), selections with introduction (text with critical notes in the Corpus poetarum latinorum, 1894, also issued separately), *Rothstein (1898), *H. E. Butler (1 05), index verborum (to his own text), S. Phillimore (1906), E. Housman (without publishing an edition) has done much to im rove and explain the poems. For further information we ma refer to F. Plessis, Etudes critiques sur Properce et ses élégies (1886), and the sections on the poet in Teuffel’s and Schanz’s Histories of Roman Literature.
The following translations into English verse are known: G. F. Nott (1782), bk. i.; C. A. Alton, selections in his Specimens of the Classic Poets (1814), ii. 215 seq.; C. R. Moore (1870); J. Cranstoun (1875); F. A. Paley (1866), verse translations from bk. v. with notes; also a few translations by the poet Gray, vol. i. (Gosse, 1834); S. G. Tremenheere (1899), bk. i. Prose translations: P. J. F. Gantillon (with Nott’s and Elton’s versions, Bohn, 1848); J. S. Phillimore (1906). (J. P. P.)