Other Literary Forms
Sextus Propertius is known primarily for his poetry.
An extremely popular poet in Augustan Rome, Sextus Propertius brought to perfection the love elegy form which flourished briefly in Rome in the late first century b.c.e. Clearly influenced by the poetry of Catullus and the elegies of such contemporary poets as Calvus and Gallus, whose works are now lost, Propertius claimed in his poetry to have imitated the style of the Alexandrian poets Callimachus and Philetas. Like the other Latin love elegists whose works have survived, Propertius made the elegiac meter, previously used especially for epigrams and reflective themes, into a meter of love. The Latin love elegist focuses his poetry on his devotion to a single woman and depicts the love affair in its various stages but not necessarily chronologically. Propertius’s poetry, centered on a woman he called Cynthia, reveals his ability to handle well the conventional themes and forms of the genre, including the theme of the exclusus amator, or “locked-out lover,” and forms such as the birthday poem, the ecphrastic poem, which describes a piece of artwork, and the love letter (elegy 3 in the fourth book may have provided the model for Ovid’s Heroides). Preeminently, however, Propertius is admired for his ability to combine the personal love theme with a whole range of elements from Greek mythology and Roman religion and politics in a sophisticated and original way.
Propertius’s influence on Ovid is evident especially from book 4, elegy 3, and book 4, elegy 5. Propertius was mentioned favorably or imitated by later Latin writers, including Lucan, Juvenal, and Martial. In the late Silver Age, a revival of interest in Propertius was evident, especially in the poetry of Claudian (late fourth century c.e.). Propertius was known but not popular in the Middle Ages, during which period his fellow elegist, Ovid, was preferred. Petrarch was the first Renaissance humanist to show an interest in Propertius and even imitated the Roman elegist in his sonnets. In the eighteenth century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Römische Elegien (1793; Roman Elegies) was also influenced by Propertius. It has been in the twentieth century, however, that Propertius has made the strongest impact, especially on the poetry of Ezra Pound, whose Homage to Sextus Propertius (1917) is partly free translation and partly poetic creation in its own right, and whose Literary Essays (1954) provide a significant modern interpretation of the Latin elegist.
Sextus Propertius wrote in the period just after the tumultuous series of civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 b.c.e. Both Propertius’s life and his poetry were deeply affected by the social and political changes which resulted from the near anarchy lasting from 44 b.c.e. until the defeat of Mark Anthony by Octavian, the future Augustus, at Actium in 31 b.c.e. In the early years of the Pax Augustana, Octavian’s near-paranoid dread of opposition to his autocratic rule, as well as a general fear of the return of civil war, encouraged intensely propagandistic literature, evident in the poetry of both Vergil and Horace. It was a period of contradictions when Augustus strove vainly, through legislation, to encourage a return to old Roman values and virtues centered on marriage and the family, while, at the same time, Roman society experienced major social upheavals resulting from the political rise of the equestrian class and from the emancipation of women. The major themes of Latin love elegy, including allusions to contemporary political events and a yearning for the Golden Age of Rome’s past, were clearly the result of the prevailing social and political mood, and the women about whom the Latin love elegists wrote, such as Propertius’s Cynthia, were examples of the new breed of Roman women, socially independent and politically powerful.
What little is known about Propertius’s life is derived from references in his own poetry, especially book 1, elegy 22, and book 4, elegy 1. There are almost no independent ancient references to the poet, and what information can be inferred from his poetry is often unreliable because of the difficulty in distinguishing between the historical Propertius and the persona projected in the poetry. Propertius was writing love elegies, not autobiography, and was therefore not bound by historical accuracy, even in references to his own life. Consequently, there is almost no aspect of his biography that is not disputed today.
Propertius was born sometime in the decade 57-48 b.c.e. into a well-to-do equestrian family of Umbria, in North Italy. Traditionally, he is said to have been from Assisi, but this is uncertain. Propertius’s pride in his native Umbria and its Etruscan heritage is evident in his poetry (book 1, elegy 22; book 4, elegy 1; and book 4, elegy 2). His family supported the wrong side in the war between Octavian and Anthony, and their property was almost certainly confiscated by Octavian in 41-40 b.c.e. to pay his troops. While Propertius was still a child, his father died, and the boy was reared by his mother. Book 4, elegy 1, line 134, implies that Propertius was sent by his mother to study in Rome for a career as a lawyer; the many rhetorical features of Propertius’s poetry, such as his fondness for methodically enumerating instances as proof, support such an inference.
While in Rome, Propertius apparently met the woman who so strongly affected his life and made him into a poet instead of a lawyer. She is called Cynthia in his poetry, but this is clearly a pseudonym in the tradition of ancient love poetry; Catullus’s Lesbia was really named Clodia. Cynthia’s pseudonym is poetically appropriate because of its associations with Apollo, the Greek god of inspiration, and with his sister Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon. Ancient sources say that Cynthia’s real name was Hostia, but Propertius’s poetic reference to Hostius, an epic poet of the late second century b.c.e., as Hostia’s grandfather, is generally discounted today as poetic license. The image of Cynthia developed in Propertius’s poetry is of a well-educated freedwoman, probably a high-class meretrix, or prostitute (although some still argue today that Cynthia was actually a respectable married woman). Propertius developed a relationship with Cynthia in his poetry that appears to have lasted, on and off, for approximately five years. Based on the evidence of book 4, elegy 7, Cynthia probably died in poverty about 18 b.c.e. and was buried at Tibur. Experts generally agree today that the poetic relationship between Propertius and Cynthia was based loosely upon actual events, although facts cannot be distinguished from poetic distortion in the Elegies.
J. P. Sullivan, in his book on Propertius, has used these meager biographical details concerning Propertius, as well as the attitude of the poet toward Cynthia in his Elegies, to advance the theory that Propertius’s relationship with Cynthia can be explained by Sigmund Freud’s theory of Dirnenliebe, or prostitute love. Propertius’s loss of his father at an early age and his maternal upbringing suggest the Freudian description of men who are unable to dissociate their lofty maternal image from the general female image and are thus able to develop a passionate relationship only with a female who is the opposite of the maternal image, such as a prostitute. The general pattern of this passion exactly fits Propertius’s relationship with Cynthia: the presence of an injured third party, either a husband or another lover; the love of a woman who is neither faithful nor chaste; a contradictory overestimation of the beloved, despite her sexual shortcomings; a false ideal of the lover’s own fidelity; intense jealousy toward potential rivals; and the desire to “rescue” the beloved from her degradations. The close similarity between Propertius’s feelings for Cynthia and Freud’s theory of Dirnenliebe sheds great light on Propertius’s characterization of his relationship with Cynthia and strongly suggests a kernel of personal experience and feeling lying behind the poetic screen.
It is generally assumed that after the appearance of his first book of Elegies, Propertius was invited to join the poetic circle of Maecenas, who was the patron of Vergil and Horace and the intimate friend of Augustus. Certainly, Maecenas is presented in book 2, elegy 1, and book 3, elegy 9, as suggesting historical/epic themes for Propertius, which the poet rejects in favor of love elegy. The unsuitability of elegiac themes to the political and social program of Augustus is something of which Propertius is acutely conscious in his poetry. Book 4, published after 16 b.c.e. and conspicuously different from the earlier books with its prominent aetiological poems and praise of Actium, is usually said to mark Propertius’s final conversion to the propaganda poetry advocated by Maecenas and Augustus and demonstrated by Horace and Vergil; Sullivan, however, has argued convincingly that this is not the case at all, that the poems of book 4 are not sincere but rather deliberate parodies of propaganda poetry. Whatever the actual relationship between Propertius and Maecenas, it is clear that the poet moved in Maecenas’s circle, at least after 30 b.c.e. Propertius gives evidence of his good relations with the imperial family in book 3, elegy 18, and book 4, elegy 11. He knew Vergil and appears to have been greatly influenced in book 3 by Horace’s Odes (23 b.c.e., 13 b.c.e.). There is a strong suggestion in their poetry, however, that Horace and Propertius disliked each other, at least professionally. Curiously, Propertius and Tibullus, another contemporary love elegist, appear to have worked independently, with no allusions to each other’s works. Ovid, however, shows a deep regard for Propertius and frequently imitates Propertius’s work.
The later part of Propertius’s life lies completely in shadows. The last datable reference to contemporary events in his poetry, the funeral of Cornelia, took place in 16 b.c.e. From a reference in Ovid’s Remedia amoris (before 8 c.e.), it is certain that Propertius was dead by 2 c.e. Some critics argue that Propertius’s poetic silence after 16 b.c.e. was caused by early death; others, by the dangerous political climate that led eventually to Ovid’s banishment in 8 c.e. Some ancient evidence exists to suggest that Propertius married and produced an heir before his death. Propertius’s trip to Greece about 20 b.c.e., mentioned by some critics, is completely hypothetical.
The personality of Propertius projected through his poetry is that of a young man whose unhappy childhood, scarred by the death of his father and the loss of his family farm, led to an only slightly veiled disillusionment with the totalitarian rule of Augustus, whose conception of poetry as a political tool Propertius rejected. Indeed, Propertius’s infatuation with the love theme and with the creation of poetry for its own sake was clearly antithetical to Augustan tastes and may help to explain his poetic silence after 16 b.c.e.
The genre of Latin love elegy in which Sextus Propertius wrote was a rich amalgam of the early Greek lyric tradition of Archilochus and Sappho; of the intensely learned and form-conscious...