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Propertius

(c. 50—16 bc)


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Roman elegiac poet, between 54 and 47 bc, at Asisium, where his family were local notables. His father died early, and the family property was diminished by Octavian's confiscations of 41–40 bc (see augustus; proscription)—not so diminished, however, that Propertius needed to earn a living. In the two last poems of bk. 1 the poet notably identifies with the side vanquished by Octavian at Perusia in 41; for the losing side see antonius (pietas). It is the first sign of a political independence that continues throughout his life, despite involvement in Maecenas' circle. As the Augustan regime toughened, Propertius' modes of irreverence become more oblique, but irreverence towards the government is maintained none the less. Propertius was dead by 2 bc. He is best known as a love poet. He celebrated his devotion to a mistress whom he called Cynthia (a name with Apollonian and Callimachean associations; see apollo; calli‐machus 2 ). Apuleius says her real name was Hostia (Apology 10). Many of the incidents suggested in the poems seem conventional, but there is no reason to doubt Cynthia's basic reality. Her social status is uncertain.

Characteristic of Propertian love poetry is the claim to be the slave of his mistress, and the claim that love is his life's occupation; it replaces the normal career move of a young equestrian (service in the cohort (see cohors) of a provincial governor—barely military service. Propertius distils this last point by referring to love as his military service. Typical too of his love poetry is his use of mythology: he cites figures and events from myth as ‘romantic standards’, as examples of how things in a romantic world might be.

Bk. 1, consisting almost entirely of love poems, is addressed to a variety of friends. Bk. 2, still largely devoted to love poems, evidences his entry to the circle of Mae‐cenas, but there is no suggestion that he was ever economically dependent on him in the way that Virgil and Horace were (see patronage, literary). Bk. 3 also contains a prominent poem to Maecenas, but bk. 4 omits all mention of him. Maecenas fades from Propertius' poetry as he fades from Horace's: probably because of the great patron's loss of favour with Augustus in the wake of the conspiracy led by Fannius Caepio in 23 bc.

Bk. 3 shows a greater diversity of subject‐matter, and Propertius here first makes an ostentatious claim to be a Roman Callimachus. Some scholars think the claim is not well justified: Horace had claimed to be the Roman Alcaeus; with some humour Propertius responds by making his claim to be the first Roman to adopt the mantle of another Greek poet. Notable among the many non‐Cynthia poems in bk. 3 is 3. 18 on the death of Augustus' nephew Claudius Marcellus 2. It is hard to imagine Propertius writing this a few years earlier. The toughening of the Augustan regime and the fading influence of the mediating Maecenas were having their effect. But Propertius can still be irreverent. The concluding poems of the book recall bk. 1 in various ways, and mark the end both of the affair with Cynthia and of his career as a love‐poet (or so it seems).

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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