Propertius, Elegies

LCL 18: 16-17

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Problems of the Text

[Richardson (20–2); Goold (1987, 1989)]

The transmission of Propertius from late antiquity took place in a single manuscript, and the journey of its text to the archetype was affected by various vicissitudes which collectively have left it in a deplorable condition.

To begin with, the poet himself is given to novel and recondite ways of expressing himself; likewise his chain of thought is often unexpected; and his mythological allusions are often abstruse to the point of being unintelligible except to initiates. Secondly, it is highly improbable that the division between poems (which never bore any titles) was indicated in any but a perfunctory manner, and at times no division was marked at all. Then we are obliged to infer, from the absence of evidence to the contrary, that Propertius aroused no special attention from the late empire until the age of John of Salisbury. Not only were there no scholia, there was hardly a reader, and certainly none schooled in the appreciation of the poet’s art.

If we should consider what was involved in copying Propertius in the Middle Ages, and copying with a view to reading the text with enjoyment, it will seem only natural—given that Propertius was ever copied at all—that some effort was made to smooth the path of understanding by attempting to clarify much which was obscure and also to correct the manifold errors with which the text abounded. It is unlikely that many engaged in these attempts, but we can dimly discern at least one energetic figure whose bold dedication and endeavours have proved not a salvation but a disaster for Propertius. A simple example


is furnished by 3.11.5, where the poet wrote ventorum . . . morem: at an earlier stage of the tradition a slight error produced mortem. Our medieval corrector realized that this was absurd, but altered the wrong word; so we find in the archetype venturam . . . mortem. One of Propertius’ finest poems will serve to illustrate another kind of mishap: exasperated at the perversity of Love, he had at 2.12.18 written si pudor est, alio traice tela, puer; in the aetas Ovidiana someone quoted in the margin a similar expostulation, Ars Amatoria 3.735f... supprime tela,.. . puella tuo. Our medieval corrector, sensing a superior critic, crossed out tela and substituted puella tuo; but what about puer? Well, he wasn’t too sure about pudor earlier in the line, so he replaced it with puer. It verges on the miraculous that Housman, unaware of what actually happened, was able, by sheer intuition of the poet’s words, to restore them. But the greatest damage to the poet’s text concerns verses which the medieval corrector transposed.


Since the couplet is the unit of elegiac verse, it is only to be expected that problems of verse-order should mostly involve couplets. Some of these are mechanical, as for example 1.15.15f: it appears that when the scribe reached 14 lae titiae his eye was distracted by 22 pudi citiae and he mistakenly copied the couplet he found after that word; possibly he noted his error at once and entered dots to signify the correction; but if so, they have been lost: to restore the hand of Propertius we are obliged to transpose 15f after 22. A similar phenomenon is the anticipation of one couplet ahead of what the scribe should have written, as at 4.4.83-86, and the shuffling of consecutive pentameters