Sextus Propertius was one of the four great Roman elegists in the Augustan age, the other three including Gallus, Tibullus, and Ovid. He was born no later than in the early 40’s BCE to an equestrian family in Umbria, perhaps at Assisi. Like other families in northern Italy, his ancestral lands were confiscated after Octavian became princeps (emperor) of Rome.
Traditionally, he then embarked on a political career in Rome, but quit after he became attracted to Cynthia (whose real name Apuleius reveals as Hostia). It is supremely doubtful whether this narrative actually occurred, or whether—as seems more likely—Cynthia is fictional, a ploy to mask political ideology, and this part of his life was constructed later from what was thought to be biographical references in his poetry.
Propertius’ Elegiae share many similarities with Ovid’s and Tibullus’. Like them, and Gallus and Catullus before, his works seemed to revolve around a pseudonymous beloved name Cynthia. Propertius engages in standard elegiac themes of love, heartbreak, adultery, and poetry as an escape from the Augustan regime. The first book likely comprised a separate work entirely called the Monobiblos, the success of which led to Propertius joining the literary circle around Maecenas and three more books of elegies.
His fourth book is a departure from the tropes of love and focuses instead on the origins of Rome. While some of the poems are similar in content to his earlier books, interposed among those poems are takes on a particular moment in Rome’s mythical and historical past, e.g. Hercules and Cacus (4.9), Tarpeia and the Sabines (4.4), and those military commanders who were granted the honor of giving the spolia opima at the temple of Jupiter Feretrius (4.10). The content matter likely fulfilled some wish of Augustus for patriotic writing, and its publication paved the way for Ovid, who took a similar stance in his Amores, to compose the Fasti, a narration behind the festivals of the Roman calendar, in elegiac meter.
All of Propertius’ poetry came down through the ages to us as a collection of four books of elegies in a single manuscript, likely located in northwest France and dated to the Carolingian period. However, since all of the works derive from a single manuscript, there are numerous problems with the given readings. Comparison to lines preserved on the walls of Pompeii have led scholars to estimate that just a few lines could contain as many as seven corruptions; interpolations, transpositions, and incorrectly numbered carmina prove any interpretation tenuous.
- Cairns, F. 2006. Sextus Propertius: The Augustan Elegist. Cambridge University Press.
- Hubbard, M. 1974. Propertius. Bristol Classical Press.
- Joy K. King 1975-1976. “Propertius’ Programmatic Poetry and the Unity of the Monobiblos.” Classical Journal 71: pp. 109–124.
- Hans-Peter Stahl 1985. Propertius: “Love” and “War”: Individual and State under Augustus. Berkeley: University of California Press.