Propertius, Sextus (ca. 50-15 B.c.) Roman elegist
An enthusiastic poet and critic during Rome's golden age of literature (83 B.C.-A.D. 17), Sextus Propertius wrote elegies regretting the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Caesar Augustus's empire. Propertius retained much of the rural perspective he gained in early childhood on his family estate at Mevania near Assisi in Umbria. Reared in Rome from age 10 by his widowed mother, he received a good education and made friends among the privileged class. He was an impressionable six- year-old when conspirators stabbed Julius Caesar in the Senate chamber. Propertius retained a zeal for republicanism and a horror of civil war, which threw Rome and its provinces into turmoil for 17 years. In his late teens, he began writing reflective verses on the rise of Augustus from Caesar's nephew and heir to princeps (first man), the sole ruler of Rome. At a height of military opportunity for the enlistee, in the 92 poems of his four-book Carmina (Elegies, 15 B.C.), Propertius declared himself “ill-equipped for glory or for arms” (Propertius 1996, 9), a distaste he shared with the contemporary poets HORACE and TIBULLUS.
After the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony 11 days apart in August 30 B.C., Propertius abstained from public adulation of Augustus, the murderer of Cleopatra's son Caesarion. In a subdued elegy, the poet ventured a muted criticism of imperialism: “Caesar is great in war, but conquered nations mean nothing in love” (34). The 10th poem of the second book of Carmina launches into sarcasm at the larger-than-life statue of Augustus, which is too tall for the poet to reach with garlands. A more desultory praise colors the fourth elegy in the third book, in which the poet portrays himself in the crowd on the Sacred Way while viewing “Caesar's axles heavy-laden with spoil and his horses often halted at the mob's cheers” (76). Again, Propertius applies visual perspective to place him at ground level looking up at an oversized ruler.
In detailed surveys of the city skyline, the poet criticized imperial finery and flashy building projects, a palpable form of imperial self-adulation. He turned the myth of Tarpeia, betrayer of the Roman Citadel during the Sabine War (750 B.c.), into a cautionary tale to remind Rome that rot from within exacts a terrible punishment. In “Luxury Is Destroying Rome,” his 13th elegy in the third book, he abandons tentative criticism to confront the greed and venality that Roman courtiers manifested under Augustus. Plutocrats wealthy from civil war and property confiscations relax with showy extravagance; their ostentation ranges from pomades to purple dyed robes and vices from impiety to public lewdness. Injustice reigns in courts where corruption buys judges. Echoing Tibullus’s lore of pastoral retreats, the poet repines, “Lucky of old the country youth, living in peace” (89). With bold defiance, Propertius reproaches his proud homeland for rotting away under prosperity, but he predicts that, like the prophecies of Cassandra, his scolding will go unheeded.
Propertius. The Poems. Translated by Guy Lee. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1996.
Welch, Tara S. The Elegaic Cityscape: Propertius and the Meaning of Roman Monuments. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.