Sextus Propertius, (born 55–43 BCE, Assisi, Umbria [Italy]—died after 16 BCE, Rome), greatest elegiac poet of ancient Rome. The first of his four books of elegies, published in 29 BCE, is called Cynthia after its heroine (his mistress, whose real name, according to the 2nd-century writer Apuleius, was Hostia); it gained him entry into the literary circle centering on Maecenas. It is often said that she was a courtesan, but Elegy 16 in Book I seems to suggest that she belonged to a distinguished family. It is likely that she was married, though Propertius only mentions her other lovers, never her husband. From the poems she emerges as beautiful, passionate, and uninhibited. She was intensely jealous of Propertius’s own infidelities and is painted as a woman terrible in her fury, irresistible in her gentler moods. Propertius makes it clear that, even when seeking pleasures apart from his mistress, he still loved her deeply, returning to her full of remorse, and happy when she reasserted her dominion over him.Complete entry here.
Poetry Month 2015: Propertius
ELEGY III.3 by Sextus Propertius (trans. David R. Slavitt) A vision: I’m sprawled on the shady grass of a mountainside. It’s Helicon, near the spring Bellerophon’s horse made with its hoof, and the world is bright and clear and small, like something a jeweler had made, and my mind is affected. I have the peculiar idea that I could take up the lyre and sing of Alba’s kings and their deeds of yore. All I need to do is drink from that babbling fountain and my voice will change and from out of my mouth will come such splendid lines as issued from Ennius who once sipped from this same source and invented for Latin verse hexameter lines in which to celebrate such great subjects as that of the three Curian brothers who fought the Horatians, killing two, but the third killed all three of them; or I might retell the story of cackling geese that saved the Capitoline from the oncoming Gauls; or perhaps rehearse the tale of Fabius’ clever delays and how he refused to confront the Carthaginian forces, which, as the rout at Cannae later proved, was sane and shrewd. (Thank heaven, we won the Punic war, nevertheless, and drove Hannibal home, and Aemilius’ galleys brought back those splendid battle trophies) . . . But all this was still in my mind, an attractive plan, when Phoebus Apollo approached from Parnassus’ wooded slopes, leaned on his golden lyre, and deigned to speak: “Are you out of your mind? Or maybe sunstruck? None of those noble subjects your taste from the fountain has prompted within you is right for you. It’s a joke, as you will be, too, Propertius. Yours is no martial chariot. You’ve got a cart with little wheels that are suited to smooth and grassy ground, in a park where some pretty girl on a bench is waiting for her beau to show up and, maybe, to pass the time might read that kind of light entertainment you provide. Why does your pen run wild? That fragile craft you sail in ought for safety’s sake to hug the shoreline: further from land, you risk a shift of winds and waves . . .” He shook his head and pointed his ivory plectrum to show me which way I should (or tell me where to get off). The scene changes abruptly, as happens in dreams, and there I am in a grotto, spooky but not unpleasant, with the walls decked with musical instruments, pipes of Pan, and a figure in clay of old Silenus. There are Venus’ birds, her doves, dipping their bills in the Gorgon’s pool, and the muses are busy with pastoral tasks: one is twining ivy to deck a thyrsus, another is tuning the strings of a lyre, and others are plaiting wreaths of roses. One of them comes to greet me, Calliope, I am assuming (from the “pretty face” of her name), and speaks: “Content yourself with one of our swan boats. The warhorses and battles are not, I’m afraid, for you. To the blaring trumpet call you ought not respond. These groves of Helicon should not be defiled with bloodshed and talk of carnage. The eagle of Marius’ standard is not your bird, and the German campaigns are none of your business. Of mangled Swabian bodies washing downstream you cannot convincingly speak. Keep to your stories of lovers languishing out in the rain at their mistresses’ doorways, and drinking to try to keep themselves warm and then getting sizzled. The kind of campaign you’re fit for is tricking husbands or sweet-talking a girl whom a father or husband is watching and nevertheless contriving a rendezvous.” Thus she spoke as she dipped some water out of the spring where Philetas used to drink, and she moistened my lips. * Line 2: Bellerophon’s horse was Pegasus. Line 9: Quintus Ennius (239-169 BCE) was the father of Latin poetry and famous for his epic, Annales. Line 12: In Ennius’ Annales is the story of the fight between the three Latin Curiatii brothers and the three Roman Horatii brothers. Line 14: The geese cackled an alarm that saved the Capitol from the Gauls in 387 BCE. Line 16: Fabius Cunctator’s delaying tactics were successful in the Second Punic War. Line 18: Rome was defeated at Cannae in the Second Punic War in 216 BCE. Line 21: Aemilius Regillus defeated Aniochus the Great off Myonnesus in Ionia in 190 BCE. Line 43: The Gorgon’s pool is the Hippocrene, out of which Pegasus sprang from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa. Line 52: Gaius Marius defeated the Teutons in 102 BCD and the Cimbri in 101. Line 54: The Swabians (Suebi) were defeated by Julius Caesar in 58 BCE. Line 62: Philetas, tutor to Ptolemy Philadelphus (3rd century BCE), was an important scholar-poet. Callimachus was the famous Alexandrian poet who was Philetas’ contemporary. His Aitia began with an account of a dream. [from Propertius in Love: The Elegies] * * * Based on the entry in Encyclopedia Britannica online: