Prope'rtius, Sex. Aure'lius(The agnomen, NAUTA, found in some Codices and early editions, seems to have been derived from a corrupt reading of 2.24. 38.) The materials for a life of Propertius are meagre and unsatisfactory, consisting almost entirely of the inferences which may be drawn from hints scattered in his writings. We know neither the precise place nor date of his birth. He tells us that he was a native of Umbria, where it borders on Etruria, but nowhere mentions the exact spot. Conjecture has assigned it, among other towns, to Mevania, Ameria, Hispellum, and Asisium; of which one of the two last seems entitled to the preference. The date of his birth has been variously placed between the years of Rome 697 and 708 (B. C. 57 to 46). Lachmann, however, was the first who placed it so low as B. C. 48 or 47; and the latest date (B. C. 46) is that of Hertzberg, the recent German editor. The latter's computation proceeds on very strained inferences, which we have not space to discuss; but it may possibly be sufficient to state that one of his results is to place the tenth elegy of the second book, in which Propertius talks about his extreme aetas (5.6) in B. C. 25, when, according to Hertzberg, he was one-and-twenty! For several reasons, too long to be here adduced, it might be shown that the year assigned by Mr. Clinton, namely, B. C. 51, is a much more probable one, and agrees better with the relative ages of Propertius and Ovid. We know that the latter was born in B. C. 43, so that he would have been eight years younger than Propertius : a difference which would entitle him to call Propertius his predecessor, whilst at the same time it would not prevent the two poets from being sodales (Ov. Tr. 4.10. 45). Propertius was not descended from a family of any distinction (2.24. 37), nor can the inference that it was equestrian be sustained from the mention of the area bulla (4.1. 131), which was the common ornament of all children who were ingenui. (Cic. in Verr. 2.1, 58, with the note of Asconius ; Macrob. 1.6.) The paternal estate, however, seems to have been sufficiently ample (Nam tua versarent cum multi rura juvenci, 4.1. 129); but of this he was deprived by an agrarian division, probably that in B. C. 36, after the Sicilian war, and thus thrown into comparative poverty (in tenues cogeris ipse Lares, Ib. 128). At the time of this misfortune he had not yet assumed the toga virilis, and was therefore under sixteen years of age. He had already lost his father, who, it has been conjectured, was one of the victims sacrificed after the taking of Perusia; but this notion does not rest on any satisfactory grounds. The elegy on which it is founded (1.21) refers to a kinsman named Gallus. We have no account of Propertius's education; but from the elegy before quoted (4.1) it would seem that he was destined to be an advocate, but abandoned the profession for that of poetry. That he was carefully instructed appears from the learning displayed in his writings, and which was probably acquired altogether at Rome; the smallness of his means having prevented him from finishing his education at Athens, as was then commonly done by the wealthier Romans. At all events it is plain from the sixth elegy of the first book, written after his connection with Cynthia had begun, that he had not then visited Greece. In the twenty-first elegy of the third book he meditates a journey thither, probably at the time when he had quarrelled with his mistress; but whether he ever carried the design into execution we have no means of knowing.
Life and Works
The history of Propertius's life, so far as it is known to us, is the history of his amours, nor can it be said how much of these is fiction.
He was, what has been called in modern times "a man of wit and pleasure about town ;" nor in the few particulars of his life which he communicates in the first elegy of the fourth book, does he drop the slightest hint of his ever having been engaged in any serious or useful employment.
He began to write poetry at a very early age, and the merit of his productions soon attracted the attention and patronage of Maecenas.
This was most probably shortly after the final discomfiture and death of Antony in B. C. 30, when, according to the computation adopted in this notice, Propertius was about one-and-twenty.
This inference is drawn from the opening elegy of the second book (5.17. &c.), from which it appears that Maecenas had requested him to describe the military achievements of Octavianus.
At that important epoch it formed part of that minister's policy to engage the most celebrated wits of Rome in singing Caesar's praises; his object being to invest his master's successes with all those charms of popularity which would necessarily prove so conducive to the great object which lay nearest to his heart --the establishment of Caesar's absolute empire.
This is also evident from the works of Horace.
That poet was a republican; yet, after the battle of Actium, Maecenas succeeded in inducing him to magnify Caesar, with whom there was nobody left to contest the world.
These considerations, by the way, lead us also to the conclusion that there must have been at least a difference of eight years, as stated above, in the ages of Ovid and Propertius.
The latter poet was already known to fame when it suited the political views, as well as the natural taste, of Maecenas to patronise him. Ovid, on the contrary, was then a mere boy; and his reputation would have been just bursting forth, when the faithful minister of Augustus was dismissed by his ungrateful master.
An earlier, and perhaps more disinterested, patron of Properties was Tullus, the nephew, probably, of L. Volcatius Tullus, the fellow-consul of Octavianus, in B. C. 33. Tullus, however, seems to have been much of the same age as Propertius, as may be inferred from the conclusion of 3.22 ; and they may, therefore, be in some degree looked upon as sodales.
It was probably in B. C. 32 or 31, that Propertius first became acquainted with his Cynthia.
He had previously had an amour with a certain Lycinna, and to which we must assign the space of a year or two.
This connection, however, was a merely sensual one, and was not, therefore, of a nature to draw out his poetical powers. In Cynthia, though by no means an obdurate beauty, he found incitement enough, as well as sufficient obstacles to the gratification of his passion, to lend it refinement, and to develope the genius of his muse.
The biographers of Propertius make him a successful lover at once. They neither allow time for courtship, nor assign any of his elegies to that period.
It is plain, however, from several passages, that his suit must have been for a length of time an unsuccessful one (see especially 2.14. 15), and several of his pieces were probably written diuing its progress; as the first of the first book (which Lachmann refers to the time of his quarrel with his mistress), the fifth of the fourth book, and others. Cynthia was a native of Tibur (4.7. 85), and her real name was Hostia. (Appuleius, Apolog. ; Schol. in Juven. 6.7.) As Propertius (3.20. 8) alludes to her doctus avus, it is probable that she was a grand-daughter of Hostius, who wrote a poem on the Histric war. [HOSTIUS.] She seems to have inherited a considerable portion of the family talent, and was herself a poetess, besides being skilled in music, dancing, and needlework (i 2. 27, 1.3. 41, 2.1.9, 2.3.17, &c.). From these accomplishments Paldamus, in the Ep. Ded. to his edition of Propertius, inferred that she was a woman of rank; and some have even absurdly derived her genealogy from Hostus Hostilius. But the truth seems to be that she belonged, as Hertzberg thinks, to that higher class of courtezans, or rather kept women, then sufficiently numerous at Rome. We cannot reconcile the whole tenor of the poems with any other supposition. Thus it appears that Propertius succeeded a lover who had gone to Africa for the purpose of gain (3.20), perhaps after having been well stripped by Cynthia. Propertius is in turn displaced by a stupid praetor, returning from Illyricum with a well-filled purse, and whom the poet advises his mistress to make the most of (2.16). We are led to the same conclusion by the fifth elegy of the fourth book, before alluded to, as written during his courtship, which is addressed to Acanthis, a lena, or procuress, who had done all she could to depreciate Propertius and his poems with Cynthia, on account of his want of wealth. Nor can we draw any other inference from the seventh elegy of the second book, which expresses the alarm felt by the lovers should be separated by the Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus, and the joy of Cynthia at its not having been passed. What should have prevented Propertius, then, apparently a bachelor, from marrying his mistress ?
It was because women who had exercised the profession of a courtezan were forbidden by that law to marry an ingenuus. There was no other disqualification, except that libertinae were not permitted to marry a man of senatorial dignity.
The objection raised might, indeed, be solved if it could be shown that Cynthia was a married woman.
But though Broukhusius (ad 2.6. 1) has adopted that opinion, he is by no means borne out in it by the passages he adduces in its support.
That she had a husband is nowhere mentioned by Propertius, which could hardly have been the case had such been the fact.
The very elegy to which Broukhusius's note is appended, by comparing Cynthia to Lais, and other celebrated Grecian courtezans, proves the reverse. Nor can the opinion of that critic be supported by the word nupta in the twenty-sixth line of the same piece.
That term by no means excludes the notion of an illicit connection. Such an arrangement, or conditio (2.14. 18), as that between Propertius and his mistress, did not take place without some previous stipulations, and even solemnities, which the poet has described in the twentieth elegy of the third book (5.15, &c.), and which he does not hesitate to call sacra maria.
The precise date and duration of this connection cannot be accurately determined. Properties' first success with his mistress must have been after the battle of Actium, from 2.15. 37 and 44; and as it was in the summer time (3.20. 11, &c.), it should probably be placed in B. C. 30.
The seventh elegy of the fourth book seems to show that the lovers were separated only by the death of Cynthia.
See especially the fifth and sixth verses : -- “Cum mihi somnus ab exequiis penderet amoris,
Et quererer lecti frigida regna mei.
” That Propertius married, probably after Cynthia's death, and left legitimate issue, may be inferred from the younger Pliny twice mentioning Passienus Paulus, a splendidus eques Romanus, as descended from him. (Ep. 6.15, and 9.22.) This must have been through the female line. The year of Propertius's death is altogether unknown. Masson placed it in B. C. 15 (Vit. Ovid. A.U.C. 739), and he has been followed by Barth and other critics. Masson's reasons for fixing on that year are that none of his elegies can be assigned to a later date than B. C. 16; and that Ovid twice mentions him in his Ars Amatoria (3.333 and 536) in a way that shows him to have been dead. The first of these proves nothing. It does not follow that Propertius ceased to live because he ceased to write; or that he ceased to write because nothing later has been preserved. The latter assertion, too, is not indisputable. There are no means of fixing the dates of several of his pieces; and El. 4.6, which alludes to Caius and Lucius, the grandsons of Augustus (1. 82), was probably written considerably after B. C. 15. (Clinton, F. H. B. C. 26.) With regard to Masson's second reason, the passages in the Ars Am. by no means show that Propertius was dead; and even if they did, it would be a strange method of proving a man defunct in B. C. 15, because he was so in B. C. 2, Masson's own date for the publication of that poem ! Propertius resided on the Esquiline, near the gardens of Maecenas. He seems to have cultivated the friendship of his brother poets, as Ponticus, Bassus, Ovid, and others. He mentions Virgil (2.34. 63) in a way that shows he had heard parts of the Aeneid privately recited. But though he belonged to the circle of Maecenas, he never once mentions Horace. He is equally silent about Tibullus. His not mentioning Ovid is best explained by the difference in their ages; for Ovid alludes more than once to Propertius, and with evident affection.
Forged statue and inscriptionIn 1722, a stone, bearing a head and two inscriptions, one to Propertius, and one to a certain Cominius, was pretended to be discovered at Spello, the ancient Hispellum, in the palace of Theresa Grilli, Princess Pamphila. Though the genuineness of this monument was maintained by Montfaucon and other antiquarians, as well as by several eminent critics, later researches have shown the inscription of Propertius's name to be a forgery. The same stone, discovered in the same place, was known to be extant in the previous century, but bearing only the inscription to Cominius. (See the authorities adduced by Hertzberg, Quaest. Propert. vol. i. p. 4.)
AssessmentAs an elegiac poet, a high rank must be awarded to Propertius, and among the ancients it was a moot point whether the preference should be given to him or to Tibullus. (Quint. 10.1.93.) His genius, however, did not fit him for the sublimer flights of poetry, and he had the good sense to refrain from attempting them. (3.3. 15, &c.) Though he excels Ovid in warmth of passion, he never indulges in the grossness which disfigures some of the latter's compositions. It must, however, be confessed that, to the modern reader, the elegies of Propertius are not nearly so attractive as those of Tibullus. This arises partly from their obscurity, but in a great measure also from a certain want of nature in them. Muretus, in an admirable parallel of Tibullus and Propertius, in the preface to his Scholia on the latter, though he does not finally adjudicate the respective claims of the two poets, has very happily expressed the difference between them in the following terms :-“Illum (Tibullum) judices simplicius scripsisse quae cogitaret : hunc (Propertium) diligentius cogitasse quid scriberet. In illo plus naturae, in hoc blus curae atque industriae perspicias.” The fault of Propertius was too pedantic an imitation of the Greeks. His whole ambition was to become the Roman Callimachus (4.1. 63), whom, as well as Philetas and other of the Greek elegiac poets, he made his model. He abounds with obscure Greek myths, as well as Greek forms of expression, and the same pedantry infects even his versification. Tibullus generally, and Ovid almost invariably, close their pentameter with a word contained in an iambic foot; Propertius, especially in his first book, frequently ends with a word of three, four, or even five syllables. P. Burmann, and after him Paldamus, have pretended to discover that this termination is favourable to pathos; but Propertius's motive for adopting it may more probably be attributed to his close, not to say servile, imitation of the Greeks. The obscurity of Propertius, which is such that Jos. Scaliger (Castigationes in Propertium, p. 169, Steph. 1577) did not hesitate to say that the second book was almost wholly unintelligible, is not owing solely to his recondite learning, and to the studied brevity and precision of his style, but also to the very corrupt state in which his text has come down to us. Alexander ab Alexandro (Genial. Dier. 2.1) relates, on the authority of Pontanus, that the Codex Archetypus was found under some casks in a wine cellar, in a very imperfect and illegible condition, when Pontanus, who was born in 1426, was a mere youth. This story was adopted by Jos. Scaliger (Ibid. p. 168), who, assuming as well the recklessness and negligence of the first transcriber, introduced many alterations and transpositions, which were adopted by subsequent critics to the age of Brmoukhius and Burmann. Van Santen, in the preface to his edition, published at Amsterdam, in 1780, was the first to question the truth of the story related by Alexander (p. x. &c.), chiefly on the grounds that there is extant a MS. of Propertius, with an inscription by Puccius, dated in 1502. in which he mentions having collated it with a codex which had belonged to B. Valla, and which he styles antiquissimus ; an epithet he could not have applied to any copy of the MS. alluded to by Alexander. That this codex of Valla's was not that found in the wine cellar is shown by an annotation of Ant. Perreius, in a copy of Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, dated in the early part of the sixteenth century, in which he distinguishes them. It may be observed that this reasoning allows that there was such a MS. as that mentioned by Alexander, who, however, does not say that it belonged to Pontanus. But though Van Santen's arguments do not seem quite conclusive, they have been adopted by most modern critics; and have been further strengthened by the observation that Petrarch, who flourished more than a century before Pontanus, quotes a passage from Propertius (2.34. 65) just as it is now read, in his fictitious letters (the 2d to Cicero) ; and that one at least of the MSS. now extant (the Guelferbytanus or Neapolitan) is undoubtedly as old as the thirteenth century. Whatever may be the merits of this question, it cannot be doubted that the MS. from which our copies are derived was very corrupt; a fact which the followers of Van Santen do not pretend to deny.
EditionsThe Editio Princeps of Propertius was printed in 1472, fol.; it is uncertain at what place. There is another edition of the same date in small 4to. The text was early illustrated and amended by the care of Beroaldus, Jos. Scaliger, Muretus, Passerat, and other critics. The works of Propertius have been often printed with those of Catullus and Tibullus. The following are the best separate editions :--
- By Broukhusius, Amsterdam, 1702, sm. 4to. By Vulpius, Padua, 1755, 2 vols. 4to. By Barthius, Leipzig, 1778, 8vo. By Burmannus, Utrecht, 1780, 4to.
This edition appeared after Burmann's death, edited by Santenius. By Kuinoel, Leipzig, 1804, 2 vols. 8vo. By Lachmann, Leipzig, 1816, 8vo.
This edition is chiefly critical. Many conjectures are introduced into the text, and the second book is divided into two, at the tenth elegy, on insufficient grounds. By Paldamus, Halle, 1827, 8vo. By Le Maire, Paris, 1832, 8vo, forming part of the Bibliotheca Latina. By Hertzberg, Halle, 1844-5, 4 thin vols. 8vo.
The commentary is ample, but prolix, and often fanciful and inconclusive.
- Propertius has been translated into French by St. Amand, Bourges et Paris, 1819, with the Latin text; into German by Hertzberg, Stuttgardt, 1838 (Metzler's Collection); into Italian terza rima by Becello, Verona, 1742. There is no complete English translation, but there is a correct, though rugged, version of the first book, accompanied with the Latin text, anonymous, London 1781.