Mistresses and Lovers, Sextus Propertius

Sextus Petronius
Sextus Petronius
Umbria in Italy
Umbria in Italy
Gaius Maecenas, the great patron of Augustan Rome
Gaius Maecenas, the great patron of Augustan Rome
Ovid, friend of Propertius and our next author
Ovid, friend of Propertius and our next author

What did Rome think of its artists? Certainly the Augustan state saw a use for them in framing the Empire in a way that could be recognized, welcomed, and admired, but the artist as a figure was problematic in old Rome. Romans thought of themselves as warriors and conquerors, as pragmatic, pious men with a mission justified by their innate superiority. Artists as a class exhibited none of the stern virtues of the Roman male, none of the qualities which defined and justified Roman leadership and preeminence. They were soft, idle, voluptuaries, participating in a cult of beauty that left the real world of politics, ambition, and strife behind. They cultivated a mournful, self-defeating attitude and celebrated their domination by women of doubtful virtue. They were, almost by definition and rather joyously, decadent and corrupting. The later Christian difficulties regarding the place of the artist and depiction of the artist as one who has a deleterious effect on society, especially on manliness, can be directly traced to the Romans.

Sextus Propertius was one who achieved great skill and recognition based on his cultivation of mournfulness, of the elegy, of the figure of the lover dominated by a complex woman. Born in Assisi in 50 BCE, he published his first poems in 29 BCE, dedicated to the figure of Cynthia, a literary transformation of his living mistress Hostia. With the publication of this book of elegies he entered the literary circle surrounding the great patron Maecenas, along with Virgil and Horace. He was friends with Ovid, whom we will discuss later, dedicating his life to art and avoiding the more typically Roman activities of politics, the military, and the strife of empire. He had, in fact, already paid the price of empire, for in 40 BCE a portion of his estates were taken for veterans settlements by Octavian, soon to be Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. This diminished his income, although it did not render him poor. He remained a man of wealth and distinction, educated, with the leisure to devote himself to pleasure and art, a leisure no poor man could obtain.

World Poetry begins its selections from the works of Propertius with Ezra Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius". Ezra Pound is for me a problematic figure. Politically and personally, he was capable of great monstrosity, as his fascism illustrates. However, as an artist, Pound had great virtues, and as an advisor to young readers and writers he cannot be surpassed. His book How to Read , published in 1931, is a very valuable text, and one I too long ignored out of disgust with his persona and his politics. It is a sermon that preaches a return to the text, the act of reading the work, before any discussion of interpretation or meaning is made. This privileging of the commentary over the text, reversing the order of reading, so that many students know what they should think of a work before they read it, was a practice I witnessed again and again in my college years. Pound suggests that it is not a problem of our days alone, but one built into the academic practice of reading and the profession of the critic.

Out-weariers of Apollo will, as we know, continue

their Martian generalities,

We have kept our erasers in order.

A new-fangled chariot follows the flower-hung horses;

A young Muse with young loves clustered about her

ascends with me into the aether,…

And there is no high-road to the Muses.

Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations,

Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman celebrities

And expound the distentions of Empire,

But for something to read in normal circumstances?

For a few pages brought down from the forked hill unsullied?

I ask a wreath which will not crush my head.


Propertius is here portrayed as participating, as Pound does, in a conscious tradition of art and artists, reaching back into the Greece of Callimachus, to whom Propertius compared himself. The music of Greece moves, changed, into Rome, and is again re-worked and re-made in the verse of Pound. Pound insists, as the poets of ancient Greece also insisted, that the eternity of human action is created not in the deed, but in the poetic interpretation of the deed, in the image of the deed created and preserved by the poet.

And I also among the later nephews of this city

shall have my dog's day,

With no stone upon my contemptible sepulchere;

My vote coming from the temple of Phoebus in Lycia, at Patara,

And in the mean time my songs will travel,

And the devirginated young ladies will enjoy them

when they have got over thee strangeness,

For Orpheus tamed the wild beasts--

and held up the Threician river;

And Citharaon shook up the rocks by Thebes and danced them into a

bulwark at his pleasure.


Poetry, indeed, is the best of monuments to memory. The great stone pyramids, the feats of engineering and construction, remain, but the subject of which they are the expression is lost, and so they impress only by their size and the mass imagined to be involved in their achievement. Their substance does not remain.

Flame burns, rain sinks into the cracks

And they all go to rack ruin beneath the thud of the years.

Stands genius a deathless adornment,

a name not to be worn out with the years.

The poet is not remembered because of those whose names he mentions, but those he names are remembered because of him.

Thomas Campion provides the translation for our next piece of Propertius, shifting the Roman setting into that of a medieval tourney ground in "When Thou Must Home to Shades of Underground". The poet imagines his lover on the day she must leave earth entertaining hell with tales of the sacrifices and performances her beauty commanded from men:

Then wil thou speake of banqueting delights,

Of masks and revels which sweete youth did make,

Of Turnies and great challenges of knights,

And all these triumphes for thy beauty's sake".

Women, at least beautiful women, are enemies to men, for these tales of male destruction form the entertainment of the women, Propertius's lover, Helen, and Iope (another name for Cassiopeia, another beautiful woman of mythology). The suffering of men in the cause of their beauty is the substance of their honor, and women are pictured as competing in the collection of tales of what was done in their name and for their favor. The lovers of these women do not fare so well in honoring their beloved, as the last lines make clear:

When thou hast told these honours done to thee,

Then tell, O tell, how thou didst murther me.

Propertius's love for Cynthia was complex. He loved her, but neither he nor she was faithful within their relationship. She was probably married and enjoyed the company of other lovers in addition to Propertius. He pursued other women. Both were jealous of their mutual infidelities. She raged and he submitted. Later, as an older man, he adopted within his poetry a pose of regret for the ease with which he allowed himself to be dominated, unmanned, by this woman he ultimately left. However, we should be cautious in assigning too much truth to a poet's work. The confessional mode of poetry, in which writer's celebrate the honesty of their work and the expression of the true emotions unconfined by form, is a new phenomenon. Propertius wrote within a genre, and within that genre there existed poses and attitudes of love, forms of treatment and exposition, into which he placed his life's experiences, and so transformed them into something else. He had a lover, Hostia, but Hostia was not Cynthia, and we cannot say with any certainty that Propertius's poems are direct representations of their relationship or their personalities. In his works, they are both personas, masks disguising and deforming the reality of the individuals.

After Cynthia/Hostia died, Propertius appears to have regretted his treatment of her, for he brings her back to him as a ghost in an Ode translated by Robert Lowell.

A ghost is someone: death has left a hole

For the lead-coloured soul to beat the fire:

Cynthia leaves her dirty pyre

And seems to coil herself and roll

Under my canopy,

Love's stale and public playground, where I lie

And fill the run-down empire of my bed.

Cynthia's ghosts accuses him of neglecting her, of failing to honor her at her funeral. He did not participate in her mourning. He did not even scatter roses on her hearse. He treated her as a whore, entertaining himself with another as she lay dead. His new woman, Chloris, is inferior to her in every way, socially and physically. Chloris is the whore, not Cynthia, and yet it was for Chloris that Cynthia was neglected.

I will not hound you, much as you have earned

It, Sextus: I shall reign in your four books--

I swear this by the Hag who looks

Into my heart where it was burned:

Propertius, I kept faith;

If not, may serpents suck my ghost to death

And spit it with their forked and killing breath

Into the Styx where Agamemnon's wife

Founders in the green circles of her life.

She does not need to hound him, for she possesses him even as she passes on over Styx.

"Others can have you, Sextus; I alone

Hold: and I grind your manhood bone on bone."

Propertius wrote of Cynthia's beauty, but to him, and to other Roman lyricists, the cruelty of the lover was an attraction and torment they dwelled upon with as much passion as their physical attractions. We saw this in Catullus when we began our literary journey through Rome. Mistresses are always beautiful, but their willingness to be mistresses involves them in other moral judgments and grants them other attributes as well. They are, for example, not quite respectable, for if they were wholly so, they would not be betraying their husbands beds as they do, nor sneaking through the Roman streets to meet their lovers. They are granted a power over men, both the husbands whom they fool and the lovers whom they draw into dangerous, illicit relations. The mistress, not the wife, is a figure of power in Roman poetry.

Octavio Paz writes in Sor Juana of love in Western tradition, identifying it with two separate ancient sources, Greece and Rome. He identifies the homosexuality of Greece with a love of the body, love of the object. He identifies Roman lyric love with a love of the soul, love of a free spirit, who chooses to return that love or reject it on their own, apart from the lover. The beloved mistress can, and often does, choose others, tormenting her lover with the knowledge of her rejection of him, with the insecurity of his position, with her very freedom from his personal dominance, which coexists with her rejection of the married state's restrictions upon her person. These Roman mistresses receive the abuse they do from the pens of their lovers because they, unlike wives, can choose, and frequently do choose, to set their own terms, to dominate the relationship, dispensing the privilege of access to their body and their society.

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Comments 2 comments

Champ 22 months ago

BION I'm imerdsspe! Cool post!


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Larry Rankin 16 months ago from Oklahoma

Fascinating overview of the artist's stature in the Roman culture.

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