Sextus Propertius Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman poet{$I[g]Roman Empire;Sextus Propertius[Propertius]} Sextus Propertius expanded the scope and power of the Roman love poem in the passionate poems to and about Cynthia.

Early Life

Sextus Propertius (proh-PUR-shuhs) was born between 57 and 48 b.c.e. in Umbria, in the small town of Assisi. He was the son of a knight who was a well-off landowner. Propertius’s father died while Propertius was still a child, and his world was further dislocated by the appropriation of land in Umbria to settle the soldiers of Marc Antony and Octavian (later known as Augustus).

Propertius grew up under the shadow of the continuing civil wars among Antony, Octavian, and Pompey the Younger—and the early consolidation of power by Augustus. His first book of poems was published about 30 b.c.e., and it attracted the attention of Gaius Maecenas, the patron of Vergil and Horace. This support improved Propertius’s financial situation, but he continued to refuse to write poems in celebration of Augustus.

Life’s Work

Propertius’s poetry came at the end of the great period of the Roman love poem. His work does not have the passion of Catullus or the polish of Horace, but it does have a complexity and an intensity not found in the poetry of his predecessors. Some critics have complained about Propertius’s heavy use of myth, but the allusions in his poetry are well employed—especially the contrasting of the distant gods to the immediate relationship with a woman he called Cynthia.

Propertius’s poetry survives in four books. At the heart of the poems are those on Cynthia, and while commentators have been unsuccessful in discovering an autobiographical sequence, the poems do give one of the fullest portrayals of an intense relationship in all literature. The first poem (book 1, elegy 1) immediately evokes this intensity: “She was the one to enslave me, and she did it with her eyes;/ till then I’d never felt love’s poison arrows.”

For Propertius, love is not a pleasant or a sentimental state but a terrible visitation and a loss of control. He contrasts his subject state to mythic figures and urges the powers of love to visit his mistress with the same poison. The poem shifts at the end, as Propertius becomes adviser rather than victim and warns his friends to avoid this sorry state of unrequited love by sticking “to your own love.”

In the poems that follow, Propertius frequently complains about Cynthia’s mistreatment, yet in book 1, elegy 7, the poet defends his choice of the love poem over the more traditional and valued epic. Propertius’s poems are his “life’s work” and come from bitter and joyful experience, while the epic of one Ponticus—according to Propertius—is straight out of books. Propertius writes that when Ponticus falls in love, in vain he will try to turn his hand to love poems, while Propertius will be celebrated as “the greatest poet of them all.”

In book 1, elegies 21 and 22, Propertius addresses war, not love. The speaker in elegy 21 is a dead man who advises a fleeing soldier. The dead man urges the soldier not to be brave but to “Save yourself/ and bring your parents joy.” He also asks the soldier to bring a message of “tears” to his sister. The poem ends ironically, for the dead man was also a soldier and had escaped “the swords of Caesar,” only to fall to robbers. It is a personal and a political poem; it evokes the sorrow of the dead soldier and points unmistakably to its cause, the wars of Antony and Octavian.

Elegy 22 is also a political poem. It begins with a question from a man named Tullus about Propertius’s origins. The answer is that he comes from “the graveyard of our fatherland/ when civil war set Roman against Roman. . . .” Once more he evokes a landscape littered with “my kinsman’s bones” but ends with an opposite image, life and birth: “where the fertile plain touches the foothills/ Umbria gave me birth.”

The first poem in book 2 is addressed not to Cynthia but to Propertius’s patron, Maecenas. Once more, he contrasts the supposedly trivial love poem to the great epic, but because Cynthia is his inspiration “each trivial incident begets/ a mighty saga.” Even if he had the power to write an epic, he would avoid the usual subjects, because they are all clichés. If he had the power he would write about “your Caesar’s wars” (another example of the distancing of the poet from the emperor). Yet he has no such power or ability; he can only write “of the battles I fight in bed.” The poem ends in an amusing fashion, as Propertius asks Maecenas to visit his obscure tomb, drop a tear, observe the burial rites, and say, “Here lies one for whom destiny/ Was a Cruel mistress.” As the poems show, Propertius’s destiny was a cruel mistress, Cynthia.

Most of the poems in book 2 complain about Cynthia’s ways or lack of faithfulness. Elegy 5 is the most interesting of these. It begins with a series of accusations as Cynthia is called a “whore” and the poet looks forward to following her example and acquiring a new love. The focus of the poem shifts, however, as Propertius looks not to the future but to past moments they shared like “tender sacraments.” He then lists all the brutal things he will not do to her; he will, instead, “mark” her with his poetic curse that will last to her dying day.

Book 2, elegy 7, speaks of a more tender relationship between the poet and Cynthia as well as of the complex relationship he has with Augustus. It begins with relief that some “law” was not put into operation by Augustus that would separate the poet and his beloved. The relief is tinged with defiance,...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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...

(The entire section is 4713 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sextus Propertius (proh-PUR-shee-uhs) was born in the province of Umbria, probably in the town of Assisi. Both his birth and death dates are conjectural. Propertius was born into a family of equestrian rank. While still a young child he lost his father, and his patrimony was considerably diminished when some of his family’s land was confiscated in the great distribution of land to the veterans of Octavian and Antony in 41 and 40 b.c.e. As a youth he was destined by his mother to study law, but he early turned to poetry. Around the age of eighteen, he fell in love with one Lycinna. Two years later, however, he met and fell in love with Cynthia, whose real name was Hostia. Cynthia was the great passion of Propertius’s life, and she was the most important subject of his poetry. Their affair, as it is reflected in the poetry, was tempestuous and marked by mutual infidelities and recrimination; it lasted about five years, when Propertius finally broke with her (probably before 21 b.c.e.). Cynthia died before 16 b.c.e., and Propertius’s fourth and last book of elegies mentions her death. There is no information regarding the poet’s life after his rupture with Cynthia. He may have married and had children, however; according to Pliny the Younger (61-112 c.e.), the poet Passennus Paullus claimed Propertius as an ancestor. Paullus was a resident of Assisi, where there is an inscription containing his name.{$S[A]Sextus Propertius;Propertius, Sextus}

Propertius left four books of elegies. The first, probably published about 26 b.c.e., is almost wholly concerned with Cynthia. It was a great success and opened the way for the poet to enter the circle of Maecenas, the great Roman patron of letters and the unofficial propaganda minister of the emperor Augustus. As a member of Maecenas’s group, Propertius became acquainted with Horace, who did not like his style of composition. The younger poet Ovid, however, knew and respected Propertius. Book 2 of the elegies was published about 24 or 23 b.c.e., and book 3 about 22 or 21 b.c.e. Book 4 must have been written not earlier than 16 b.c.e., for some of the poems mention events that occurred that year.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Greene, Ellen. The Erotics of Domination: Male Desire and the Mistress in Latin Love Poetry. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Chapter 3 is a feminist critique of gender roles and ideology in the Monobiblos. Greene sees Cynthia not as a true subject but rather as being reduced to materia, an object of Propertius’s male fantasy.

Günther, Hans Christian. Quaestiones Propertianae. New York: Brill, 1997. A comprehensive study dealing with the major critical problems of one of the most difficult authors of Latin literature. A systematic examination of the two major factors which have been assumed to be responsible for the state of the transmitted text of Propertius: dislocation and interpolation. Günther covers a large number of cases of verbal corruption and discusses problems of the manuscript tradition on the basis of the most recent research.

Highet, Gilbert. Poets in a Landscape. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Contains an evocative discussion of Propertius and other Roman poets that concentrates on the poets’ biographies and societies. Well written, providing background information but no interpretation.

Janan, Micaela Wakil. The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Reassesses Propertius’s last elegies using psychoanalytic theory. Includes bibliography and index.

Luck, G. The Latin Love Elegy. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1981. A useful study of some of the techniques and concerns of the Roman love poem. It is quite good on the literary tradition but not much of a guide to individual poems.

Propertius, Sextus. The Poems of Propertius. Edited by Ronald Musker. London: J. W. Dent, 1972. A brief and adequate introduction to the poetry of Propertius, with an excellent translation. Good introduction to Propertius for readers without knowledge of Latin.

Stahl, Hans-Peter. Propertius: Love and War, Individual and State Under Augustus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. A superb study of Propertius’s ambiguous relationship with Augustus and the themes of love and war. It is written primarily for an academic audience, but other readers will find it clear and informative.

Williams, Gordon. Tradition and Originality in Roman Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A scholarly treatment of many aspects of Propertius’s thought and interests. The book is very good on the background and tradition of the poems but assumes knowledge of Latin.