Propertius, Elegies

LCL 18: 2-3

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form, is what survives of his second and third books. Datable events fall between 28 and 25.

Book Three cannot be earlier than the death of Marcellus and the publication of Horace, Odes 1-3, both in 23; but it can hardly be later than 22. A number of echoes of Horace (see Index), none showing the unreserved admiration he had expressed for Virgil in 2.34, may indicate some personal antipathy between the two poets, who never overtly refer to each other (still, neither do Propertius and Tibullus).

The death of Virgil in 19 left Augustus without his most effective encomiast in literature and prompted him to assume the role of a more demanding patron than Maecenas had been: Book Four shows that Propertius no less than Horace felt obliged to respond to the increased pressure. The final poem securely dates it to 16 or a little later.

It is likely enough that Propertius died soon after, for his last book breaks new ground and it is not in an artist’s nature to abandon a promising mine of material barely opened up. A reference in Ovid (Rem. Am. 764) shows that he was dead by a.d. 1. But before he died he seems to have married and become a father, if we can believe Passennus Paullus (ap. Pliny, Ep. 6.15.1; 9.22.1), who claimed Propertius as an ancestor.

Propertius and Roman Elegy

Elegia quoque Graecos provocamus, cuius mihi tersus atque elegans maxime videtur auctor Tibullus. sunt qui Propertium malint. Ovidius utroque lascivior, sicut durior Gallus: ‘In elegy also [i.e. as well as in hexameter poetry]


we rival the Greeks. Among poets of this genre I think that Tibullus achieves the greatest polish and elegance, though some give the palm to Propertius. Ovid is more flippant than either, as Gallus is harsher.’ Quintilian’s pithy account of Roman elegy (Inst. Or. 10.1.93) is valuable for confirming Ovid’s statement (Trist. 4.10.53f) of the canon of the elegists and also for implying that Propertius disputed primacy among them with Tibullus. Gallus is lost and cannot be profitably discussed, and Ovid would seem only to be considered for his Amores. Interestingly Ovid (Trist. 2.465; 5.1.17) terms Propertius blandus ‘attractive’ and Martial (14.189), facundus ‘eloquent’; Pliny (Ep. 9.22.2) commends the elegies of Passennus Paullus as opus tersum, molle, iucundum, et plane in Properti modo [domo mss] scriptum ‘a polished, delicate, and charming work, quite in the manner of Propertius.’ Since the ancients regarded Propertius’ poetry as elegant and attractive, it would seem to follow that clumsiness and ugliness in manuscript readings are probably the result of textual corruption and not to be imputed to the poet’s incompetence.

In one respect Quintilian’s summary is misleading, for he implies that Augustan elegy was merely the Roman counterpart of a Greek genre. It is true that Propertius confessedly regards Callimachus and Philitas as his models, and that the former particularly exercised a great influence on Roman poetry; but the employment of the elegiac metre in long and elaborate poems wherein the poet bared his heart was a peculiarly Roman development. The genesis of this may be seen in Catullus: his 66th poem, a straight translation of Callimachus, is typical of the narrative elegy we find in the Aetia, completely lacking any