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Propertius-Poems Of Political Disenchantment

Armand-Charles Caraffe: ‘Metellus Raising the Siege’. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a selection from Propertius’ Four Books of Elegies, here in translation of A. S. Kline. Propertius’s family was on the unsuccessful side in the civil war that sealed the end of the Roman Republic and gave rise to the imperial appetite of Octavian-Augustus, changing the fate of Rome forever. Land confiscated and granted to war veterans. Horace, Ovid, Virgil, among his fellow poets, also survived sharing the same collective trauma. When he became a noted poet, Propertius never wanted to serve a patron, and the new emperor. He was just part of Maecenas-Augustus confident-literary circle, as a free electron, devoting himself to celebrate the poetry of love but stubbornly refused to compose anything to glorify Augustus and the imperial function.

‘ ‘But Caesar’s mighty’. But Caesar’s might’s in armies: conquered people are worth nothing in love‘.

It is a miracle that Propertius survived, while Ovid was harshly exiled to the Black Sea Region. His entire poetic corpus is devoted to love poems, literally inventing the romantic genre, but some of his poems, more of a political essence, differ in a bitter-sweet and disenchanted tone, pointing to his allergy to military hegemonies, empire building and absurd and pointless wars that hurt people in their flesh and soul. Propertius had courage to denounce the drum-beats of war and the ego of powerful statesmen who do not hesitate to sacrifice their country-men to satisfy their greed and lust for power. A fine voice from the past, human to the core.


Book I.21:1-10 Gallus speaks his own epitaph

‘You who rush to escape the common fate, stricken soldier from the Etruscan ramparts, why turn your angry eyes where I lie groaning? I’m one of your closest comrades in arms. Save yourself then, so your parents might rejoice, don’t let my sister know of these things by your tears: how Gallus broke through the midst of Caesar’s swordsmen, but failed to escape some unknown hand: and whatever bones she finds strewn on Etruscan hills, let her never know them for mine.’

Latin original

Tu, qui consortem properas evadere casum,
miles ab Etruscis saucius aggeribus,
quid nostro gemitu turgentia lumina torques?
pars ego sum vestrae proxima militiae.
sic te servato possint gaudere parentes, 5
haec soror acta tuis sentiat e lacrimis:
Gallum per medios ereptum Caesaris enses
effugere ignotas non potuisse manus;
et quaecumque super dispersa invenerit ossa
montibus Etruscis, haec sciat esse mea.


Book I.22:1-10 Propertius’s place of origin.

You ask, always in friendship, Tullus, what are my household gods, and of what race am I. If our country’s graves, at Perusia, are known to you, Italy’s graveyard in the darkest times, when Rome’s citizens dealt in war (and, to my special sorrow, Etruscan dust, you allowed my kinsman’s limbs to be scattered, you covered his wretched bones with no scrap of soil), know that Umbria rich in fertile ground bore me, where it touches there on the plain below.

Latin original

Qualis et unde genus, qui sint mihi, Tulle, Penates,
quaeris pro nostra semper amicitia.
si Perusina tibi patriae sunt nota sepulcra,
Italiae duris funera temporibus,
cum Romana suos egit discordia cives— 5
sic mihi praecipue, pulvis Etrusca, dolor,
tu proiecta mei perpessa’s membra propinqui,
tu nullo miseri contegis ossa solo—
proxima suppositos contingens Umbria campos
me genuit terris fertilis uberibus.


Book II.7:1-20 Lifting of the marriage law

Cynthia was overjoyed, of course, when that law was repealed: we’d wept for ages in case it might divide us. Though Jupiter himself can’t separate two lovers against their will. ‘But Caesar’s mighty.’ But Caesar’s might’s in armies: conquered people are worth nothing in love.

I’d sooner suffer my head being parted from my body than quench this fire to humour a bride, or as a husband pass by your sealed threshold, and, having betrayed it, look back with streaming eyes. Ah, what sleep my flute would sing you to then, a flute sadder than a funeral trumpet!

Is it for me to supply sons for our country’s triumphs? There’ll be no soldiers from my line. But if I follow the true camp of my mistress, Castor’s horse will not be grand enough for me. It was in fact through this my glory gained such a name, glorious as far as the wintry Dneiper. You’re the only one who pleases me: let me please you, Cynthia, alone: that love will be more to me than being called ‘father’.

Latin original

GAVISA est certe sublatam Cynthia legem,
qua quondam edicta flemus uterque diu,
ni nos divideret: quamvis diducere amantis
non queat invitos Iuppiter ipse duos.
‘At magnus Caesar.’ sed magnus Caesar in armis:
devictae gentes nil in amore valent.
nam citius paterer caput hoc discedere collo
quam possem nuptae perdere more faces,
aut ego transirem tua limina clausa maritus,
respiciens udis prodita luminibus.
a mea tum qualis caneret tibi tibia somnos,
tibia, funesta tristior illa tuba!
unde mihi Parthis natos praebere triumphis?
nullus de nostro sanguine miles erit.
quod si vera meae comitarent castra puellae,
non mihi sat magnus Castoris iret equus.
hinc etenim tantum meruit mea gloria nomen,
gloria ad hibernos lata Borysthenidas.
tu mihi sola places: placeam tibi, Cynthia, solus:
hic erit et patrio nomine pluris amor.


Book II.10:1-26 A change of style needed.

Now it’s time to circle Helicon to other metres; time to give the Thessalian horse its run of the field. Now I want to talk about squadrons brave in fight, and mention my leader’s Roman camp. But if I lack the power, then surely my courage will be praised: it’s enough simply to have willed great things.

Let first youth sing of Love, the end of life of tumult: I sing war now my girl is done. Now, I want to set out with more serious aspect: now my Muse teaches me on a different lute. Surge, mind: vigour now, away from these low songs, Muses: now this work will be large-voiced, thus:

‘Euphrates now rejects Parthian cavalry protection, and mourns that he reduced Crassus’s presence. Even India, Augustus, bows its neck to your triumph, and Arabia’s virgin house trembles at you; and if any country removes itself to the furthest ends of the earth, let it feel your hand later, once it’s captive.’

I’m a follower of camps like this: I’ll be a great poet singing of your camp: let the fates oversee that day!

When we can’t reach the head of some tall statue, and the garland is set before its lowly feet, so now, helpless to embark on a song of praise, I offer cheap incense from a poor man’s rites. My verses as yet know not Hesiod’s founts of Ascra: Love has only washed them in Permessus, Apollo’s stream.

Latin original

SED tempus lustrare aliis Helicona choreis,
et campum Haemonio iam dare tempus equo.
iam libet et fortis memorare ad proelia turmas
et Romana mei dicere castra ducis.
quod si deficiant vires, audacia certe
laus erit: in magnis et voluisse sat est.
aetas prima canat Veneres, extrema tumultus:
bella canam, quando scripta puella mea est.
nunc volo subducto gravior procedere vultu,
nunc aliam citharam me mea Musa docet.
surge, anima, ex humili; iam, carmine, sumite vires;
Pierides, magni nunc erit oris opus.
iam negat Euphrates equitem post terga tueri
Parthorum et Crassos se tenuisse dolet:
India quin, Auguste, tuo dat colla triumpho,
et domus intactae te tremit Arabiae;
et si qua extremis tellus se subtrahit oris,
sentiat illa tuas postmodo capta manus!
haec ego castra sequar; vates tua castra canendo
magnus ero: servent hunc mihi fata diem!
at caput in magnis ubi non est tangere signis,
ponitur hac imos ante corona pedes;
sic nos nunc, inopes laudis conscendere carmen,
pauperibus sacris vilia tura damus.
nondum etiam Ascraeos norunt mea carmina fontis,
sed modo Permessi flumine lavit Amor.


Book III.4:1-22 War and peace

Caesar, our god, plots war against rich India, cutting the straits, in his fleet, across the pearl-bearing ocean. Men, the rewards are great: far lands prepare triumphs: Tiber and Euphrates will flow to your tune. Too late, but that province will come under Ausonian wands, Parthia’s trophies will get to know Latin Jupiter. Go, get going, prows expert in battle: set sail: and armoured horses do your accustomed duty! I sing you auspicious omens. And avenge that disaster of Crassus! Go and take care of Roman history!

Father Mars, and fatal lights of sacred Vesta, I pray that the day will come before I die, when I see Caesar’s axles burdened with booty, and his horses stopping often for vulgar cheers, and then I’ll begin to look, pressing my dear girl’s breast, and scan the names of captured cities, the shafts from fleeing horsemen, the bows of trousered soldiers, and the captive leaders sitting beneath their weapons!

May Venus herself protect your children: let it be eternal, this head that survives from Aeneas’ line. Let the prize go to those who earn it by their efforts: it’s enough for me I can cheer them on their Sacred Way.

Latin Original

Arma deus Caesar dites meditatur ad Indos,
    et freta gemmiferi findere classe maris.
magna, Quiris, merces: parat ultima terra triumphos;
    Tigris et Euphrates sub tua iura fluent;
sera, sed Ausoniis veniet provincia virgis;
    assuescent Latio Partha tropaea Iovi.
ite agite, expertae bello, date lintea, prorae,
    et solitum, armigeri, ducite munus, equi!
omina fausta cano. Crassos clademque piate!
    ite et Romanae consulite historiae!
Mars pater, et sacrae fatalia lumina Vestae,
    ante meos obitus sit precor illa dies,
qua videam spoliis oneratos Caesaris axes,
    et subter captos arma sedere duces,
tela fugacis equi et bracati militis arcus,
    ad vulgi plausus saepe resistere equos,
inque sinu carae nixus spectare puellae
    incipiam et titulis oppida capta legam!
ipsa tuam serva prolem, Venus: hoc sit in aevum,
    cernis ab Aenea quod superesse caput.
praeda sit haec illis, quorum meruere labores:
    me sat erit Sacra plaudere posse Via.


Book III.18:1-34 The death of Marcellus, Augustus’s nephew.

Where the sea, barred from shadowy Lake Avernus, plays by Baiae’s steamy pools of water; where Misenus, trumpeter of Troy, lies in the sand, and the road built by Hercules’s effort sounds; there, where the cymbals clashed for the Theban god when he sought to favour the cities of men – but now Baiae hateful with this great crime, what hostile god exists in your waters? – there, burdened, Marcellus sank his head beneath Stygian waves, and now his spirit haunts your lake.

What profit did he get from birth, courage, or the best of mothers, from being embraced at Caesar’s hearth? Or, a moment ago, the waving awnings in the crowded theatre, and everything fondled by his mother’s hands? He is dead, and his twentieth year left ruined: so bright a day confined in so small a circle.

Go now, indulge your imagination, dream of your triumphs, enjoy the whole theatre’s standing ovation, outdo Attalus’s cloths of gold, and let the great games be all a glitter: you’ll yet yield them to the flames. All must still go there, high or low of station: though evil, this road’s frequented by all: the triple-headed baying hound, Cerberus, must be entreated, the grim old boatman Charon’s common ferry must be boarded. Though a cautious man sheathe himself in iron or bronze, death will still drag down his hidden head.

No beauty saved Nireus, no courage Achilles, no wealth Croesus, produced from Pactolus’s streams. This was the sadness that unknowingly ravaged the Achaeans, when Agamemnon’s new passion cost them dear.

Let them carry this body void of its soul, to you, Boatman, that ferries across the dutiful shades: where Marcus Claudius conqueror of Sicily’s land, and Julius Caesar are, he leaves mankind, takes the path to the stars.

Latin original

Clausus ab umbroso qua tundit pontus Averno
fumida Baiarum stagna tepentis aquae,
qua iacet et Troiae tubicen Misenus harena,
et sonat Herculeo structa labore via;
hic ubi, mortalis dexter cum quaereret urbes,
cymbala Thebano concrepuere deo–
at nunc invisae magno cum crimine Baiae,
quis deus in vestra constitit hostis aqua?–
Marcellus Stygias vultum demisit in undas,
errat et inferno spiritus ille lacu.
quid genus aut virtus aut optima profuit illi
mater, et amplexum Caesaris esse focos?
aut modo tam pleno fluitantia vela theatro,
et per mirantis omina festa manus?
occidit, et misero steterat vicesimus annus:
tot bona tam parvo clausit in orbe dies.
i nunc, tolle animos et tecum finge triumphos,
stantiaque in plausum tota theatra iuvent;
Attalicas supera vestes, atque ostra smaragdis
gemmea sint Indis: ignibus ista dabis.
sed tamen huc omnes, huc primus et ultimus ordo:
est mala, sed cunctis ista terenda viast.
exoranda canis tria sunt latrantia colla,
scandendast torvi publica cumba senis.
nec forma aeternum aut cuiquamst fortuna perennis:
longius aut propius mors sua quemque manet.
ille licet ferro cautus se condat et aere,
mors tamen inclusum protrahit inde caput.
Nirea non facies, non vis exemit Achillem,
Croesum aut, Pactoli quas parit umor, opes.
at tibi nauta, pias hominum quo traicit umbras,
huc animae portet corpus inane tuae:
qua Siculae victor telluris Claudius et qua
Caesar, ab humana cessit in astra via.


Book IV.6:1-86 The Temple of Palatine Apollo

The priest makes the sacrifice: let silence aid it, and let the heifer fall, struck down before my altars. Let Rome’s wreath compete with Philetas’s ivy-clusters, and let the urn provide the waters of Cyrene. Give me soft costmary, and offerings of lovely incense, and let the loop of wool go three times round the fire. Sprinkle me with water, and by the new altars let the ivory flute sing of Phrygian jars. May Fraud be far from here, may Injury depart for other skies: let purifying laurel smooth the priest’s fresh path.

Muse, we will speak of the Temple of Palatine Apollo: Calliope, the subject is worthy of your favour. The song is created in Caesar’s name: while Caesar’s sung, Jupiter, I beg you, yourself, to listen. There is a secluded harbour of Phoebus’ Athamanian coast, whose bay quiets the murmur of the Ionian Sea, Actium’s open water, remembering the Julian fleet, not a route demanding of sailors’ prayers. Here the world’s forces gathered: a weight of pine stood on the water, but fortune did not favour their oars alike.

The enemy fleet was doomed by Trojan Quirinus, and the shameful javelins fit for a woman’s hand: there was Augustus’s ship, sails filled by Jupiter’s favour, standards now skilful in victory for their country. Now Nereus bent the formations in a twin arc, and the water trembled painted by the glitter of weapons, when Phoebus, quitting Delos, anchored under his protection (the isle, uniquely floating, it suffered the South Wind’s anger), stood over Augustus’s stern, and a strange flame shone, three times, snaking down in oblique fire.

Phoebus did not come with his hair streaming round his neck, or with the mild song of the tortoise-shell lyre, but with that aspect that gazed on Agamemnon, Pelop’s son, and came out from the Dorian camp to the greedy fires, or as he destroyed the Python, writhing in its coils, the serpent that the peaceful Muses feared.

Then he spoke: ‘O Augustus, world-deliverer, sprung from Alba Longa, acknowledged as greater than your Trojan ancestors conquer now by sea: the land is already yours: my bow is on your side, and every arrow burdening my quiver favours you. Free your country from fear, that relying on you as its protector, weights your prow with the State’s prayers. Unless you defend her, Romulus misread the birds flying from the Palatine, he the augur of the foundation of Rome’s walls. And they dare to come too near with their oars: shameful that Latium’s waters should suffer a queen’s sails while you are commander. Do not fear that their ships are winged with a hundred oars: their fleet rides an unwilling sea. Though their prows carry Centaurs with threatening stones, you’ll find they are hollow timber and painted terrors. The cause exalts or breaks a soldier’s strength: unless it is just, shame downs his weapons. The moment has come, commit your fleet: I declare the moment: I lead the Julian prows with laurelled hand.’

He spoke, and lent the contents of his quiver to the bow: after his bowshot, Caesar’s javelin was next. Rome won, through Apollo’s loyalty: the woman was punished: broken sceptres floated on the Ionian Sea. But Caesar his ‘father’ marvelled, and spoke from his comet released by Venus: ‘I am a god: and this shows evidence of my race.’

Triton honoured all with music, and the goddesses of the sea applauded, as they circled the standards of freedom. The woman trusting vainly in her swift vessel headed for the Nile, seeking one thing only, not to die at another’s order. The best thing, by all the gods! What sort of a triumph would one woman make in the streets where Jugurtha was once led!

So Apollo of Actium gained his temple, each of whose arrows destroyed ten ships.

I have sung of war enough: Apollo the victor now demands my lyre, and sheds his weapons for the dance of peace. Now let guests in white robes enter the gentle grove: and let lovely roses flow round my neck. May wine from Falernian wine presses be poured, and Cilician saffron three times bathe my hair. Let the Muse fire the mind of drunken poets: Bacchus you are used to being an inspiration to your Apollo.

Let one tell of the slavery of the Sycambri of the marshes, another sing the dark-skinned kingdoms of Cephean Meroe, another record how the Parthians lately acknowledged defeat with a truce. ‘Let them return the Roman standards, for they will soon give up their own: or if Augustus spares the Eastern quivers for a while, let him leave those trophies for his grandsons to win. Crassus, be glad, if you know of it, among the dark dunes: we shall cross the Euphrates to your grave.’

So I will pass the night with drinking, so with song, until daylight shines its rays into my wine.

Latin original

sacra facit uates: sint ora fauentia sacris,
et cadat ante meos icta iuuenca focos.
serta Philiteis certet Romana corymbis,
et Cyrenaeas urna ministret aquas.
costum molle date et blandi mihi turis honores,
terque focum circa laneus orbis eat.
spargite me lymphis, carmenque recentibus aris
tibia Mygdoniis libet eburna cadis.
ite procul fraudes, alio sint aere noxae:
pura nouum uati laurea mollit iter.
Musa, Palatini referemus Apollinis aedem:
res est, Calliope, digna fauore tuo.
Caesaris in nomen ducuntur carmina: Caesar
dum canitur, quaeso, Iuppiter ipse uaces!
est Phoebi fugiens Athamana ad litora portus,
qua sinus Ioniae murmura condit aquae,
Actia Iuleae pelagus monumenta carinae,
nautarum uotis non operosa uia.
huc mundi coiere manus: stetit aequore moles
pinea, nec remis aequa fauebat auis.
altera classis erat Teucro damnata Quirino,
pilaque feminea turpiter acta manu:
hinc Augusta ratis plenis Iouis omine uelis,
signaque iam Patriae uincere docta suae.
tandem aciem geminos Nereus lunarat in arcus,
armorum et radiis picta tremebat aqua,
cum Phoebus linquens stantem se uindice Delon
(nam tulit iratos mobilis una Notos)
astitit Augusti puppim super, et noua flamma
luxit in obliquam ter sinuata facem.
non ille attulerat crinis in colla solutos
aut testudineae carmen inerme lyrae,
sed quali aspexit Pelopeum Agamemnona uultu,
egessitque auidis Dorica castra rogis,
aut qualis flexos soluit Pythona per orbis
serpentem, imbelles quem timuere lyrae.
mox ait “o Longa mundi seruator ab Alba,
Auguste, Hectoreis cognite maior auis,
uince mari: iam terra tua est: tibi militat arcus
et fauet ex umeris hoc onus omne meis.
solue metu patriam, quae nunc te uindice freta
imposuit prorae publica uota tuae.
quam nisi defendes, murorum Romulus augur
ire Palatinas non bene uidit auis.
et nimium remis audent prope: turpe Latinis
principe te fluctus regia uela pati.
nec te, quod classis centenis remiget alis,
terreat: inuito labitur illa mari:
quodque uehunt prorae Centaurica saxa minantis,
tigna caua et pictos experiere metus.
frangit et attollit uires in milite causa;
quae nisi iusta subest, excutit arma pudor.
tempus adest, committe ratis! ego temporis auctor
ducam laurigera Iulia rostra manu.”
dixerat, et pharetrae pondus consumit in arcus:
proxima post arcus Caesaris hasta fuit.
uincit Roma fide Phoebi: dat femina poenas:
sceptra per Ionias fracta uehuntur aquas.
at pater Idalio miratur Caesar ab astro:
“sum deus; est nostri sanguinis ista fides.”
prosequitur cantu Triton, omnesque marinae
plauserunt circa libera signa deae.
illa petit Nilum cumba male nixa fugaci,
hoc unum, iusso non moritura die.
di melius! quantus mulier foret una triumphus,
ductus erat per quas ante Iugurtha uias!
Actius hinc traxit Phoebus monumenta, quod eius
una decem uicit missa sagitta ratis.
bella satis cecini: citharam iam poscit Apollo
uictor et ad placidos exuit arma choros.
candida nunc molli subeant conuiuia luco;
blanditiaeque fluant per mea colla rosae,
uinaque fundantur prelis elisa Falernis,
terque lauet nostras spica Cilissa comas.
ingenium positis irritet Musa poetis:
Bacche, soles Phoebo fertilis esse tuo.
ille paludosos memoret seruire Sycambros,
Cepheam hic Meroen fuscaque regna canat,
hic referat sero confessum foedere Parthum:
“reddat signa Remi, mox dabit ipse sua:
siue aliquid pharetris Augustus parcet Eois,
differat in pueros ista tropaea suos.
gaude, Crasse, nigras si quid sapis inter harenas:
ire per Euphraten ad tua busta licet.”
sic noctem patera, sic ducam carmine, donec
iniciat radios in mea uina dies!

“Roman Ruins with Figures”,
Giovanni Paolo Pannini.

🌿’At magnus Caesar.’ sed magnus Caesar in armis: devictae gentes nil in amore valent.🌿‘’But Caesar’s mighty’. But Caesar’s might’s in armies: conquered people are worth nothing in love‘. 🌿


Latin text source: 🌿 English Translation source: 🌿 More about Propertius:
Propertius-Poems Of Political Disenchantment

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