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Cambridge University Press
Propertius: Elegies, Book IV / Edition 1

Propertius: Elegies, Book IV / Edition 1


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Propertius' fourth book is his most challenging and innovative. It disrupts genre; dislocates time and order; and meditates on gender, perception and history. A sort of postmodernism combines with narrative and structural verve, incisively physical writing and a gallery of colourful characters. This edition makes a demanding and rewarding text more accessible and more intelligible. The text is new; help and fresh ideas are offered on the text and meaning of words. A wide range of literary, inscriptional and archaeological material is used to illuminate this many-sided poetry. Much more space is given than in previous editions to literary interpretation and historical contextualization, in the light of modern work. The book is approached as a dynamic sequence of poems rather than a collection. The edition should be valuable to both students and scholars.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521525619
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 08/31/2006
Series: Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 990,111
Product dimensions: 5.43(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Gregory Hutchinson is Professor of Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Exeter College. His most recent publications include Cicero� Correspondence: A Literary Study (1998) and Greek Lyric Poetry (2001).

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Propertius Elegies
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-81957-2 - Propertius Elegies - Book IV - Edited By Gregory Hutchinson



Propertius’ fourth book is a spectacular, and bewildering, creation, unlike anything else in Augustan poetry. The reader encounters a dazzling series of poems sensationally diverse in subject and speakers; the diversity is obviously meaningful rather than random. What underlies the book, paradoxically, and most generates its impact and its questioning, is discontinuity (and continuity). The introduction will pursue this subject through various interlocking areas, and in doing so will supply context and essential information.1

   Though the analysis would still obtain without attention to the abstract idea, continuity was a vital concern of ancient philosophy and literary theory; it had bearing both on genre and on Roman history. Time and our experience of it was thought to be or seem continuous. Roman history was considered an unbroken series of events from Aeneas to the present and will have appeared so in Ennius’ and Livy’s realizations, however each work varied in internal narrative pace. In general terms, oneness and continuity were thought to go together (i.e. discontinuity excluded oneness), even if continuity implied a division of one thing into parts. The more elevated literary genres offered, as a basis of their unity, a ‘continuous andsingle’ action (Arist. Poet. 1452a14–15, of tragedy), a perpetuum argumentum, like Iliad or Annales (Varro Men. fr. 396 Cèbe). Narrative sequence in these genres thus mirrors their representation of continuous time. (Narrative ellipses, analepses etc. complicate the picture.) The master elegist Callimachus claims to be faulted for not writing a work which was one and continuous (ἓν ἄειcμα διηνεκέc, Aet. fr. 1.3 Massimilla). Horace implicitly contrasts himself with those who write unum opus . . . carmine perpetuo in praise of the city of Athens (C. 1.7.5–7).2

   P.’s approach to his book and to Roman history is multiply and abundantly discontinuous; discontinuity in chronology and in reading sequence are intimately connected. Critics rightly seek connections between the poems and blurrings between the types of poems; as will be seen, these are numerous and crucial. But this impulse should not make us underplay the disconcerting and forcefully conflicting elements in the book. If we represent continuity loosely by the one-way series of seamlessly joining entities abcde . . . , then some of the types of discontinuity in book 4 may be represented as (i) az (ii) ca (iii) aδ. In (i), the beginning and end of a chronological series (the history of Rome) are confronted and so maximize the gap and the disparity: cf. e.g. the conjunction of 4.4 and 4.5, or the depiction of Rome’s beginnings 4.1.1–38. One may contrast the aim of ancient philosophy and modern mathematics to achieve continuity by eliminating or minimizing a gap. In book 4 the maximum gap can be combined (as in the sequences 4.3–4.4 or 4.8–4.9) with (ii), a movement against the arrow of time. (ii) occurs most dramatically in the sequence 4.7–4.8, from Cynthia dead to Cynthia living (see introduction to 4.8). It can be combined (as in 4.5–4.6) with (iii). In (iii) material of a startlingly different nature appears in a successive poem, or even within a poem (as in the sequence 4.8.1–26). It is this type of discontinuity, found all over the book, which most directly transgresses P.’s generic norms: for the world of books 1 and 2 is largely homogeneous, whereas narrative sequence between poems arises infrequently in love-elegy’s universe of incessant but reversible change. The jump from 4.2 to 4.3 is an early example of (iii). One may indeed see in book 4 a rough underlying pattern of aetiological poems alternating with non-aetiological poems, first singly then in pairs (4.7–8, 9–10); but the conflict within 4.1 prevents us from seeing this as straightforward or unproblematic. And the crossings (4.4 ancient love, 4.6 modern aetiology etc.) increase unexpectedness without diminishing discontinuity. Book 4 is pervaded by an aesthetic of meaningful surprise.3


The book will not have appeared before 16 BC. In that year (4.6.77–8n.) the Sugambri, a German tribe, defeated M. Lollius (probable allusion 4.1.95–6); they were forced, however, to sign a treaty by Augustus’ arrival in 16. It is to this submission that 4.6.77 memoret seruire Sugambros is most aptly referred, rather than to their later crushing by Drusus (cf. Epiced. Drus. 17–18, 311) and then Tiberius. The submission is also spoken of in Horace’s Odes 4 (14.51–2), perhaps published in early 13. The death of Cornelia is less enlightening. 4.11.65–6, which date her death to her brother’s consulship, are probably spurious; the consulship is 18 BC, or less probably 16. If the synchronism of death and consulship should be correct, the earlier the poem marking her death is published the better.

   Book 4 mostly confronts stories from the time of Romulus or before with stories or implied stories from the present day. The initial effect, modified by many twists and complications, is to create a chasm between past and present. This approach, though often found in Latin literature, is very different from the approach of Augustus. Augustus, though or because responsible for the largest change in Roman history, presented a studied image of innovation within tradition, which he continues and renews: so in the elaborate balances of Aug. RG 8.5 legibus noui[s] m[e auctore l]atis, m[ulta e]xempla maiorum exolescentia iam ex nostro [saecul]o red[uxi et ipse] multarum rer[um exe]mpla imitanda pos[teris tradidi]. Much that we call Augustan was to be seen as Roman.

   Many of his actions bring out the joining of new and old. He restores old temples in great number, and builds new ones. (Cf. Aug. RG 19–21.1, App. 2–3; P. 4.6, 4.10.) He associates himself with Romulus, and so shows both involvement with tradition and a new start. Recent events show a particular concern with these questions. Augustus ends his prodigious run of consulships in mid-23 BC; his power, as he continues to make clear, must find expression in forms that are less obtrusive, and seem traditional. His social legislation (c. 18 BC; cf. P. 4.11) is innovative in its interference; but it aims at reinforcing traditional morals and hierarchies. So does his purging of the Senate (18 BC). The Ludi Saeculares of 17 BC mark a ‘new age’; but the age is one in a series. The ceremony is to seem traditional. (Cf. the series of Ludi Saeculares marked in XIII 1.62–3 (with 20), and the emphasis on precedent in ILS 5050.111.) The hope is that the Roman people and its old values will continue (cf. Hor. Saec. 57–9). Perhaps connected with the games, at least in impact, is Augustus’ adoption of his grandsons in 17 (cf. P. 4.6.82): the novelty of an implicitly monarchical line will carry on Augustus’ revival of what is truly Roman.4

   Particularly expressive are the lists of Roman triumphs and, in smaller letters, consuls which were probably placed in 19 BC on a triple arch in the Forum celebrating Augustus’ Parthian success (20 BC). These graphically exhibit the continuous sequence to which Augustus belongs – even though triumphs are to become the monopoly of the princeps’ family. The later Forum Augustum will contain many statues of Republican great men, often in triumphal clothing ( XIII 3.1–41). The much-celebrated Parthian success itself (P. 4.6.79–80) shows Augustus rectifying the acts of earlier politicians-cum-generals through the return of in particular the standards lost to the Parthians by Crassus in 53 BC. He spends much of his time, despite the difficulties, in the traditional sphere of great Romans: military and organizational activity in the provinces. His return in 19 BC (cf. P. 4.3.70–2) is celebrated in a new altar to Fortune and new feriae, the Augustalia (other honours are declined). The Parthians’ surrender of the standards, though not actually the fruit of military victory, is made to sustain Augustus’ own coherent career from the forties on, as is brought out by the temple of Mars Ultor decreed in 20 BC (Dio 54.8.3, cf. RIC I2 Aug. 28, 39, 68–74, 103–6, 507, all c. 19 or c. 19–18 BC). One side-question for the reader of book 4 is how far this consistent career, growing in greatness (4.6.24, 37–44), is like or unlike that of the book’s poet-narrator.5

   The idea of the continuous line of great Romans appears in P. 4.11, from a female and familial perspective; 4.10 and 4.11 bridge the historical gap between Romulus and the present. But for most of its course book 4 dwells on radical oppositions; these are driven home by various explicit passages, including the opening and 4.4.9–14. But form is especially significant. Varro’s De vita populi Romani, though a primary source for such oppositions of time in Augustan literature, in its own structure portrayed the gradual development of Rome. So did Livy’s vast embodiment of Roman history, still being written. P. draws on Livy and his sources; but the portion of Livy from which he draws for his narratives is both minute and unified – since the story of Cacus (P. 4.9) in Livy appears inset within his account of Romulus (1.7.3–15 within 1.4–16). Tibullus 2.5 and Aeneid 8 are other important embodiments of the contrasts. Yet Propertius 4 does not reflect the diachronic depiction of Roman history at the end of Aeneid 8 which draws the different times of that book together, and joins Augustus to outstanding men of the late Republic, Cicero and Cato (667–70). From that depiction of history one event, Actium, appears in isolation (4.6). Tibullus 2.5 is a single poem, integrated into its collection at beginning and end (lines 1–18, 83 –122, cf. 2.1, 2.2, 2.3.11–28). Propertius 4, in its drastic confrontations of different times through successive poems (2–5, 8–9), has a uniquely potent form for expressing these oppositions.6

   Augustus, when he appears in 4.6, displays continuity with his ancestors, and is essential to the continuity of Rome (37–46). He is, in conjoining phrase, the Longa mundi seruator ab Alba: Rome’s scope is now the whole world (cf. 19, 39). In 4.11.60 he appears as deo: an innovation shared with Julius Caesar (4.6.59–60), but also a link with Hercules and Romulus (4.6.21, 9.13?, 32, 10.11). Even apart from the move towards continuity in its last two poems, the book’s discontinuous approach to Roman history is not personally enough directed to appear antagonistic towards Augustus. (Ovid’s disjunction of the denigrated Romulus from the great Augustus (F. 2.133–44) admits an antagonistic reading.) The book maintains a decorous surface of praise for the ruler. It thus invites questions from the reader on the poet’s own continuity. He has proceeded from the depiction in book 1 of his family’s suffering at the hands of Octavian (not yet Augustus) to the formal adoption in books 2 and 3 of a laudatory stance towards the princeps. The change coincides with the patronage of Maecenas; it is accompanied by some outspoken comments and barbed references in book 2, and by some sly combinations of poems in book 3.7

   Equally, the approach of the book would not particularly fit the idea of imperial pressure, in a supposed ‘second Augustan period’ from c. 19 to c. 8 BC. Suetonius alleges that Horace was compelled by Augustus to write his fourth book of Odes (Vit. Hor. 39–43 Rostagni). He may simply be drawing an inference from Odes 4.4 and 14 (praising Tiberius and Drusus’ recent victories); on these poems in turn he may or may not have evidence. But the thesis of ‘compulsion’ is at least made more plausible than in the case of Propertius book 4 by the relation of those Odes to things done lately by Augustus’ close family; this fits in with the concerns of Aug. Epist. fr. 39 Malcovati (Augustus’ regrets about, probably, Epistles book 1). Augustus’ recent achievements receive only brief coverage in P. 4.6.77–84. ‘Compulsion’ is also made more plausible for Odes 4 than Propertius 4 by the particular interest of Augustus in Horace: Augustus commissioned him to write the Carmen Saeculare, obliged him to write Epistles 2.1, wanted him to become his secretary for correspondence, and addressed to him affectionate and uneasy letters (Suet. Vit. Hor. 18–61, Aug. Epist. frr. 37–41 Malcovati). Positive pressure on P. to write book 4 does not follow from the low profile of Maecenas both there and in Odes 4 (indirect allusion P. 4.8.1; Odes 4.11.13–20 devoted but isolated reference). The disharmony between Maecenas and Augustus spoken of by Dio and others (Dio 54.19.3, 6 (16 BC), 55.7.5, Tac. Ann. 3.30.2–4; Suet. Aug. 66.3) would account for this tact in regard to the patron with whom both poets were associated. It is not even clear that P. is driven by tact, when book 4 so reduces the role of the narrator-poet, and when books 2 and 3 address only one poem each to Maecenas (2.1; 3.9). If the manuscripts’ book 2 was originally two books, book 2b addresses no poem to him.8

   The two poems in book 4 with relatively direct relations to the régime, 6 and 11, have counterparts in book 3, probably published soon after 23 BC (3.11 on Actium; 3.18 on Marcellus, closer to the princeps than Cornelia). In this area, a gradual development of P.’s work from books 2 to 4 appears more plausible. More broadly, a poetic fashion for exploring the remote Roman past seems likelier than imperial insistence on that unpersonalized theme. Tibullus’ great poem on the past, 2.5, praises his patron Messalla rather than Augustus. It draws inspiration from the Aeneid, which was already being written by 25 BC. The detail and plan at least of Virgil’s poem seem to be his own initiative: Augustus did not know its outline (Don. Vit. Verg. 31, Aug. Epist. fr. 36 Malcovati). At all events, P.’s treatment of the past follows literary predecessors and his own design rather than the outlook of Augustus.9

   One aspect internal to literature is of particular significance: the deaths of Virgil in 19 BC and of Tibullus in c. 19. Death places these figures themselves in the past. The Aeneid, whose process of birth was celebrated in 2.34.61–6, now exists; but its author is a dead classic. Propertius 4 reworks much Virgilian material: so the first poem mentions Aeneas in the second line and 4.6 and 4.9 connect throughout with Virgil. The book avoids the Aeneid’s monumental (if intricate) continuity of narrative; but through its own discontinuity it creates a still wider image of Rome. The Aeneid is diverged from, played with and constantly present. One book of the Aeneid (8) is concentrated on especially; such concentration eschews the appearance of reworking or miniaturizing the whole epic. 4.6, as was indicated, removes from Actium the context of Virgilian continuity. 4.9 affects as it were to make Virgilian continuity denser by inserting a fresh story between act and altar (Aen. 8.185–275); it thus in fact light-heartedly disrupts Virgil’s narrative connection and its own cohesion of mood. Virgil’s metamorphoses as a writer of hexameter, dwelt on in P. 2.34.59–84, stand in the background of P.’s own evolution as displayed in book 4.10

   The death of Tibullus, who is never mentioned in P. but with whom he is often in dialogue, leaves P. as a kind of continuator (like one historian continuing another). The last part of Tibullus’ last and probably unfinished poem is taken up in P. 4.5 and to some degree 4.7 (Tib. 2.6.29–42 (dead sister), 43–54 (lena)). The first poem, and the whole book, take up from Tibullus’ penultimate poem. This is somewhat like continuous things having the same extremity (Arist. Phys. 5.227a10–13), as in continuous parts of a geometrical line. One may contrast the interpolation within Virgil’s narrative in 4.9. The continuity also marks a significant caesura: elegy continues without and beyond Tibullus. In 4.7 itself, the death of Cynthia is a more prominent and intimate expression of the apparent end of P.’s love-elegy, but not of elegy or the elegist.11

   Horace’s career is less of a presence (there seem no strong grounds to equate him with Hōros). Even in Odes books 1, 2 and 3 a biological dynamic is much more prominent in the depiction of the narrator. In Odes 4 (13 BC?), which may very well be later than Propertius 4, the age and achievement of the narrator are much more conspicuous for the reader than they are here. The Odes are played with specifically as the book investigates the possibility of love-poetry without Cynthia (4.8). Horace’s Satires may have made a general contribution to the poetry of the particular in Propertius 4, especially in conjuring up Rome (see section 3 below on vocabulary). The effect of the youngish Ovid is unknowable; the likelihood that P. 4.5 precedes Amores 1.8 suggests the same for P. 4.3 and the Heroides (see introductions to those poems). A background will also have been created by numerous other poets now lost.12


A fundamental area of continuity or discontinuity for the reader of book 4 is the poet’s own past, and particularly the preceding books. P. was born c. 58–54 BC, book 4 indicates (1.131–2n.), in or near Assisi (cf. 1.[125–6]n.); his family suffered from confiscations. After his first book, like Virgil after the Eclogues and Horace before his first publication, P. was taken up by Maecenas. Book 1 was not published before L. Volcacius’ governorship of Asia, which probably began earlier than 27 BC; book 2, or at least 2a, appeared not later than 25, book 3 not long after 23. After this intensive activity (cf. 2.3.1–4) followed a substantial pause. Book 4 is also preceded by what looks like emphatic closure to the series of P.’s books: at the close of book 3 the affair with Cynthia which was the basis of the series is said to be at an end (3.24–5, cf. 3.17, 20, 21, 23). This is an unexpected development after the elaborate build-up in the book’s prologue poems of love-elegy as P.’s genre (3.1–3, cf. 3.5.19–24, 9.43–6). The contemporary reader was left to wonder what would come next: (a) nothing; or (b) a resumption of love-elegy (in literature lovers’ break-ups need never be final); or (c) a resumption of poetry but an abandonment of love-elegy and the principles of 3.1–3. In fact, after years of (a), both (b) and (c) are realized.13

   The question for the reader of book 3 is made the more interesting, and (c) seems the more possible, because the body of that book has strained its links with love-elegy, while formally maintaining them. Many poems in book 3 connect with the narrator-poet’s love at beginning or end but diverge into other subjects, including a mythological narrative (3.15); that type of escape is paralleled near the end of book 1 (1.20). Few poems deal directly with the narrator’s love throughout. 3.5.19–48 have actually contemplated the possibility of change after the affair: but a change to studying philosophy, with no mention of writing it, let alone in elegiacs.14

   3.1–3 have presented the most elaborate account of the genre, a topic which P. handles with growing fullness. As in 1.9 and 2.34, the tradition of elegy is connected with love. In 1.9.11–12 Mimnermus, who wrote among other things of love, is made the Greek representative of the genre. In 2.34.29–32, the imitation of Callimachus and Philetas, who were commonly ranked first and second as elegists, is conjoined with writing love-poetry. The list of Latin love-poets at the end of the poem (85–94) reinforces the elegiac connection. Callimachus and Philetas frame the group 3.1–3. The imitation of Callimachus’ elegiac prologue (Aet. frr. 1–4 Massimilla) is here much more extensive; but P.’s sort of poetry is linked with love by Apollo and the Muse (3.3.19–20, 47–50), and with Cynthia by the poet (3.2, cf. 3.1.11 Amores). Grounds for connecting Callimachus himself with love were developed by Ovid (Rem. 381–2, cf. 759–60); his love-epigram is prominently quoted by Horace (Sat. 1.2.105–8).15

   A divorce between love and elegy appears, as was seen, a possible consequence of book 3. But there are particular problems. First, the image of elegy built up in books 1 to 3 involves a close association between the poet and his notional life. The conception is probably not new to P.: so in Eclogue 10 the love-elegist’s supposed life is bound up with his poetry, and escape in genre and place is a paradox. How is a change from love within the elegiac genre to be expressed in terms of the narrator’s life? Second, in P. books 1 to 3 there seems to be a strong generic specification: this is first-person poetry, set in the present day (and typically in Rome); it deals with the narrator-poet’s own supposed love. It will, by extension, be emotionally and pragmatically useful to other lovers. In P. the specification is to appear all-pervasive: the softness and seductiveness of elegy applies at every level from style onwards. How, then, is a separation of love and elegy possible? What has been published seems to determine the future much more strongly than, say, for Virgil, who keeps to hexameter but ranges from love to war. Particularly relevant to book 4 is the inclusion in elegy’s self-definition of an opposition with epic, which has been presented as a genre concerned with war and with Roman history and politics. Very early Roman history and Actium have been prominent among the subjects contrasted with the elegist’s love-poetry.16

   The emancipation in book 4 rests partly on an event within the poet’s notional life, the death of Cynthia; but more fundamental is a larger movement into the past, to create a redefinition of elegy. Elegy does not have an evolutionary history of continuous progress, like that of Rome, or indeed Latin literature (cf. 4.1.61 on Ennius). Rather, the single work of the single supreme exemplar forms the basis for a more profound restoration of the past. P. is in a way to Callimachus as Augustus is to Romulus (his re-creation of Romulus is supported at 4.6.37–44); P., however, is crossing nationalities. Nor is he returning to the founder, disputed for elegy. He does, however, also make something of a return to the early stages of the genre: it supposedly originated, apparently not before its literary inventor, in lament or eulogy of the dead, and then in inscriptions (Hor. AP 75–8). Inscriptions feature extensively in the book, and two poems are themselves inscriptions (2 and 11); the last poem, going back further still, recalls lamentation for the dead.17

   The actual literary history of Greek elegy is hard for us to write. The tendency of new discoveries is to expand our notion of its possibilities. Poetry on mythical and contemporary war, including narrative, is now seen in archaic and classical elegy; love-poetry probably formed a part of Hellenistic elegy. The tight definition of the genre seen in Propertius books 1 to 3 and in some works of Ovid is likely to be a Roman invention. But after the accumulation of P.’s own and other Roman love-elegy, this return is to seem a bold and discontinuous leap.18

   Formal discontinuity, recent finds suggest, is a significant concern of Hellenistic books of elegy and epigram. The sections of Posidippus’ book cultivate discontinuity and so variety; Parthenius’ (?) poem on metamorphosis (P. Oxy. 4711) proceeds by separated sections rather than a flowing narrative. Continuity and discontinuity on many levels form a major concern of Callimachus’ Aetia. That work traces practices which (theoretically) have lasted into the present. The poet presents himself as having continued his approach to poetry throughout his life (fr. 1 Massimilla). This self-presentation is perhaps connected with the gap in time between the first and last pairs of books. However, the approach which the self-presentation defends involves discontinuity (fr. 1.3 Massimilla): the defence particularly concerns the disjoined sections (or ‘poems’) of books 3 and 4, which by that very form are discontinuous with books 1 and 2. In most of books 1 and 2, the Muses answered the narrator’s questions, within a continuous narrative. Those books provided an orderly set-up, with a relatively definite specification: the sections we know of predominantly explain surprising aspects of ritual in particular cities, and also of religious objects (statues of Artemis and Athena, frr. 35–8, 110 Massimilla). In books 3 and 4, diverse sections (poems) succeed each other with no liaison, not even a connecting particle (contrast frr. 9.19, 35, 50.84 Massimilla). Only a minority follow the ‘classic’ pattern of the religious πόβλημα (tricky question followed by answer) as seen in the previous books. Some have no explanation of present religious practice or objects at all (e.g. frr. 64, 67–75, 96, 102, 106–7 Pfeiffer); some deal with the ending of a past ritual (frr. 91–3, 98–9 Pfeiffer; cf. already, perhaps, fr. 51 Massimilla in book 2). There are, however, numerous thematic interconnections between these sections and across the whole poem; these touch P.’s thematic network only incidentally.19

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Introduction; SEX. PROPERTI LIBER QUARTVS; Commentary.

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