Sextus Propertius Essay - Critical Essays

Propertius, Sextus


Sextus Propertius c. 50 B.C.-c. 16 B.C.?

Roman poet.

Considered the finest elegiac poet of ancient Rome, Propertius wrote four books of elegies, the first of which was published in about 29 B.C.; it is known as the Cynthia, after its subject, or as the Monobiblos (or the Cynthia monobiblos), because it often circulated separately from the other elegies. Propertius wrote in a style that was radically different from that of the classical Greek poets so extolled in Rome. He took great leaps in thought, was intensely personal, and used striking visual imagery. Particularly in the first book, love is his entire, all-consuming focus; he writes that he will forgo politics, business, and military service because "love is my career." Propertius achieved fame in more recent times by virtue of Ezra Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius" (1917), a group of poems inspired by and loosely modeled after certain aspects of Propertius's own work.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Propertius's life beyond what he states himself in his poetry. He was born at Assisi, in Umbria, around 50 B.C., into a wealthy, equestrian family. His father, a landed proprietor, died when his son was a child. In the year 41 land was confiscated and then distributed as a form of pension to the veteran soldiers who served under the emperors Octavian and Antony; much of Propertius's inheritance was annexed at this time. Raised by his mother, who saw to it that he was well-educated (probably in Rome), he briefly read for the bar, but soon abandoned law for a literary vocation. Propertius seems to have been able to retain enough wealth that he never had to work or seek a patron. He associated with a group of young poets who used third-century Greek Alexandrian poets as their inspiration, but added strong expression of personal feelings, particularly concerning love and its ecstacies and frustrations. While in his twenties Propertius fell in love with Cynthia, a passionate woman with a fair complexion and "star-like eyes"—possibly a high-class courtesan, possibly a sophisticated married woman. The woman's true name was given as Hostia by Apuleius more than a hundred years later, and while this identification is generally accepted, it is by no means certain. Under the name of Cynthia, the woman became the main theme of Propertius's poetry, the first book of which made his reputation. Their liaison was full of passion and jealousy. Cynthia refused to be true to Propertius and while he sometimes accepted the fact, at other times he railed against it. Their relationship lasted some five years, then broke off, and Cynthia died a few years later. It is unknown when Propertius died. The last date ascertained from his poems is 16 B.C., and some scholars believe that he died shortly thereafter. Others believe that Propertius married, had descendants, and lived a number of additional years.

Major Works

Propertius wrote four books of elegies, their approximate dates of composition as follows: Book I 29-28, Book II 27-25, Book III 23-21, and Book IV 16-15. The first book, often referred to as the Cynthia monobiblos, is a highly personal account of a man overwhelmed with his love for a woman he cannot marry. The focus of the book is not her own qualities and merits, but the poet's deep obsession with her. It is carefully arranged in a symmetrical pattern. The second book is much larger and indeed some editors believe it actually should be divided into two books. It continues thematically in the same vein as the first book, although with more recognition of the impossibility of resolving the author's predicament. The third book, in which Propertius claims he is the Roman Callimachus, shows a more relaxed poet, one more accepting of the reality of his situation. He generalizes about all lovers instead of concentrating on his personal situation, until he harshly parts ways with Cynthia in the closing poem. Propertius's final volume has only two poems concerning Cynthia, one of which describes her ghost. There are also several attempts at writing in the manner of Callimachus on historical subjects. These elegies are generally considered his least successful and some critics cite them as evidence that Propertius could write at his best on only one subject; other critics disagree and assert that the book contains several poetic masterpieces.

Critical Reception

Propertius was well received in his own time, gaining a remarkable reputation at an early age for his first work. While some readers were taken aback by his break with classicism, others welcomed his fresh approach. Roman critics including Ovid, Martial, Quintilian, and Pliny praised his work. He was imitated by Italian poets including Petrarch, and later inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Pound. Pound took special pride in reintroducing readers to the then-neglected Propertius. Propertius holds an outstanding position among critics today, who praise his boldness in breaking with tradition; his daring, richly visual, and difficult language; and his practice of making abrupt changes during the course of a single poem. These abrupt changes are also the source of much debate among scholars. Propertius's texts are in poor shape: no manuscripts exist earlier than about 1200, all are incomplete, and all are plagued with copyist errors and illegible verses and gaps. The same abrupt changes praised by some critics are seen as defects to correct by others. To rectify these textual problems, scholars have proposed thousands of emendations and more than a thousand transpositions; there have been many dozens of different editions with varied arrangements. Many words are suspect, and many are the guesses as to what should be in their place. The text of Book II is particularly bad; it is seldom certain where one poem ends and the next begins, and some couplets seem totally out of context. In addition to attending to transpositions and lacunae, scholars have devoted themselves to studying the structure of Propertius's poems, particularly on questions of unity, symmetry, and how one poem corresponds to another. Also of interest is speculation concerning to what extent Propertius wrote about his own experiences, and to what extent he embellished Cynthia, presenting her in mythic terms.

Principal Works

Elegies, Book I (poetry) 29-28 B.C.

Elegies, Book II (poetry) 27-25 B.C.

Elegies, Book III (poetry) 23-21 B.C.

Elegies, Book IV (poetry) 16-15 B.C.

Principal English Translations

The Elegies of Propertius [translated by H. E. Butler and E. A. Barber] 1933

Propertius. Elegies, Book I [translated by W. A. Camps] 1961

Propertius. Elegies, Book IV [translated by W. A. Camps] 1965

Propertius. Elegies, Book III [translated by W. A. Camps] 1966

Propertius. Elegies, Book II [translated by W. A. Camps] 1967

Propertius: Elegies [edited by G. P. Goold] 1990

The Poems [translated by Guy Lee] 1994


Vincenzo Padula (essay date 1871)

SOURCE: "Chapter VII, Part II" in A Romantic Interpretation of Propertius: Vincenzo Padula, translated by Paola Valeri Tomaszuk, L. U. Japadre L'Aquila, 1971, pp. 73-82.

[In the following excerpt from a work first published in 1871, Padula discusses Propertius's passionate love for Cynthia and asserts that it brought forth a new kind of love poetry.]

… First of all we must realize that the love that made [Propertius] burn for Cynthia—from now on I shall call her thus—was of a very passionate kind. He wanted her alone26, lived for her alone. War is near, young men are arming. Does he care? He stays in Rome and says: "My battles, hard battles, I wage...

(The entire section is 3437 words.)

W. Y. Sellar (essay date 1892)

SOURCE: "Propertius: Life and Personal Characteristics" and "The Art and Genius of Propertius" in The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1892, pp. 260-323.

[In the following essay, Sellar examines Propertius's life and personal characteristics, analyzes the merits of his verse and, with certain exceptions, declares him a great poet.]

Propertius: Life and Personal Characteristics.

There is a greater difference of opinion about the literary position of Propertius than about that of any other Roman poet. The place of Lucretius and Virgil, of Horace and Catullus, in the first rank of Latin authors and among the...

(The entire section is 21763 words.)

Arthur Leslie Wheeler (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: "Propertius as Praeceptor Amoris," Classical Philology, Vol. V, January, 1910, pp. 28-40.

[In the following essay, Wheeler discusses Propertius's elegies as instruction in erotic love.]

In his effort to justify the Ars amatoria Ovid mentions both Tibullus and Propertius as predecessors who had given erotic teachings. In the case of Tibullus he gives proof by paraphrasing many lines of Tibullus i. 6 (cf. Ov. Tr. ii. 447-64); with regard to Propertius he contents himself (ibid., 465) with the statement: "Invenies eadem blandi praecepta Properti." In spite of this perfectly definite testimony, a surprising difference of opinion has existed...

(The entire section is 4858 words.)

F. R. B. Godolphin (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "The Unity of Certain Elegies of Propertius," The American Journal of Philology, Vol. LV, 1934, pp. 62-66.

[In the following essay, Godolphin discusses Propertius's subjective dramatic monologues, suggesting that they have been overlooked by critics.]

Several elegies of Propertius have suffered from harsh treatment at the hands of the editors, who have divided them into A's, B's, and C's1 often without making sufficient effort to understand the author's technique where he departs from the usual types. The narrative elegy and what may be called the elegy of mood certainly occur most frequently. In the latter a given theme or topic is developed with no...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)

Friedrich Solmsen (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Propertius and Horace," Classical Philology, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, April, 1948, pp. 105-09.

[In the following essay, Solmsen considers the influence of Horace's Odes on Propertius's third book, particularly in regard to the idea of gaining immortality through literary accomplishments in poetry.]

It is well known that in Propertius' third book the love theme occupies a much smaller place than it does in the first and second books. The first poem that actually treats of his love and his puella is iii. 6. In the preceding five poems (which for our purposes may be regarded as a unit)1 Propertius is concerned not so much with his love as with...

(The entire section is 3201 words.)

W. A. Camps (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: An introduction to Propertius Elegies, Book I, Cambridge at the University Press, 1961, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Camps provides an overview of Propertius's life and works, and offers an analysis of his influences, allusions, and merit as a poet.]

Propertius' works

Propertius' works consist exclusively of poems in the elegiac metre. In the manuscripts they are divided into four books, containing respectively 22, 34, 25 and 11 elegies, making a total of 92. As, however, several of these are subdivided by modern editors, the total in modern editions is usually larger.

Most of the elegies in the first...

(The entire section is 4019 words.)

Palmer Bovie (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Sextus Propertius," in The Poems of Propertius, translated by Constance Carrier, Indiana University Press, 1963, pp. 9-22.

[In the following essay, Bovie considers the impact of Propertius on certain poems of Ezra Pound and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.]

Little is known of the life of Sextus Propertius. He was a Roman citizen, and an Italian who like St. Francis and Raphael came from the region of Umbria. He was born, probably at Assisi, around 50 B.C., and died some forty years later after earning recognition as a lyric poet whose main theme was love. Propertius' father died while Propertius was still a boy, and his mother during Propertius' early manhood; so...

(The entire section is 4149 words.)

Leo C. Curran (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Vision and Reality in Propertius 1.3," Yale Classical Studies, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 189-207.

[In the following essay, Curran examines Propertius's syntax and explores how his use of parallelism, proper adjectives, synecdoche, colloquialisms, and other literary techniques led to the achievement of his desired literary effect.]

Two Distinctive characteristics of Propertian elegy, as has often been observed, are mythological allusion and a language marked by a mixture of the elevated and solemn and the colloquial. It is sometimes assumed in criticism that the mythological learning is merely decorative or, worse, a pedantic display of erudition, and many of...

(The entire section is 6656 words.)

W. R. Johnson (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Emotions of Patriotism: Propertius 4.6," California Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 6, 1974, pp. 171-80.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson explains the importance of considering the Augustan age in order to place Propertius's works in their proper context.]

… The chief and the abiding problem for critics of Augustan poetry is the gentleman with the frank and terrifying blue eyes who succeeded where everyone else had failed and whose signet ring was, appropriately, a sphinx.19 In the years of his dominance miracle crowded on miracle, but for his contemporaries and his successors and perhaps even for himself the central miracle was...

(The entire section is 4086 words.)

J. P. Sullivan (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Cynthia Prima Fuit" in Propertius: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1976, pp. 76-106.

[In the following essay, Sullivan focuses on the personage of Cynthia, the object of Propertius's love in his poetry.]

The critical problems

In conventional regard, difficult to gainsay, Propertius' love affair with Cynthia dominates the bulk of his poetry before Book 4. The problem is to approach the material critically. In simpler days it was assumed that the first three books faithfully recorded the beginnings and the end, with all the joys and miseries in between, of a long relationship between a younger poet and a...

(The entire section is 10616 words.)

R. I. V. Hodge and R. A. Buttimore (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: An introduction to The "Monobiblios" of Propertius: An Account of the First Book of Propertius Consisting of a Text, Translation, and Critical Essay on Each Poem, D. S. Brewer Ltd., 1977, pp. 5-15.

[In the following essay, Hodge and Buttimore provide an overview on the-life of Propertius, consider the dating of the poems in his first book, and discuss his use of mythological elements.]


The life of Propertius and the biographical question.

We have very little external evidence for the life of Propertius, as is the case with most ancient poets. However, although he is not often clearly and anecdotally...

(The entire section is 5169 words.)

Further Reading

Allen, Archibald W. "Elegy and the Classical Attitude Toward Love: Propertius I, 1." Yale Classical Studies 11 (1950): 255-77.

Examines and interprets the opening elegy of the first book in the context of the time in which it was written.

Bailey, D. R. Shackleton. "Some Recent Experiments in Propertian Criticism." Cambridge Philological Society Proceedings for the Years 1952 and 1953. 9-20.

Explores the emphasis editors of Propertius's texts have placed on problems of transpositions, lacunae, and interpolations.

Benediktson, D. Thomas. Propertius: Modernist Poet of Antiquity. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill.: Southern...

(The entire section is 563 words.)