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September 27, 2020 | History

Sextus Propertius

ca. 47 BC - 15 BC

Very little information is known about Propertius outside of his own writing. His praenomen "Sextus" is mentioned by Aelius Donatus, a few manuscripts list him as "Sextus Propertius", but the rest of his name is unknown. From numerous references in his poetry it is clear he was born and raised in Umbria; modern Assisi claims for itself the honor of his birthplace. As a boy his father died and the family lost land as part of a confiscation, probably the same one which reduced Virgil's estates when Octavian alloted lands to his veterans in 41 BC. Combining this with cryptic references in Ovid implying he was younger than his contemporary Tibullus, a birthdate in the early 40s seems appropriate.

After his father's death, Propertius' mother set him on course for a public career--indicating his family still had some wealth—while the abundance of obscure mythology present in his poetry indicates he received a good education. Frequent mention of friends like Tullus--the nephew of Lucius Volcatius Tullus, consul in 33 BCE—plus the fact that he lived on Rome's Esquiline hill indicate he moved among the children of the rich and politically connected during the early part of the 20's decade. It was during this time that he met Cynthia, the older woman who would inspire him to express his poetic genius.

Propertius published a first book of love elegies in 25 BC, with Cynthia herself as the main theme; the book's complete devotion gave it the natural title Cynthia Monobiblos. The Monobiblos must have attracted the attention of Maecenas, a patron of the arts who took Propertius into his circle of court poets. A second, larger book of elegies was published perhaps a year later, one that includes poems addressed directly to his patron and (as expected) praises for Augustus. The 19th century classics scholar Karl Lachmann argued—based on the unusually large number of poems in this book and Propertius' mention of tres libelli--that the single book II actually comprises two separate books of poetry mashed together in the manuscript tradition. Though some editors have previously numbered the poems accordingly, the idea has fallen out of favor in more recent times.

The publication of a third book came sometime after 23 BC. Its content shows the poet beginning to move beyond simple love themes, as some poems (e.g. III.5) use Amor merely as a starting point for other topics. The book also shows the poet growing tired of the demanding yet fickle Cynthia, and implies a bitter end to their torrid love affair. Book IV, published sometime after 16 BC, displays more of the poet's ambitious agenda, and includes several aetiological poems explaining the origin of various Roman rites and landmarks.

Book IV—the last Propertius wrote—has only half the number of poems as Book I. Given the change in direction apparent in his poetry, scholars assume only his death a short time after publication prevented him from further exploration; the collection may in fact have been published posthumously. It is also possible that Propertius had children, either with Cynthia or a later liaison. An elegy of Ovid dated to 2 BC makes it clear that Propertius was dead by this time.

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September 27, 2020 Edited by Clean Up Bot add ISNI
April 3, 2020 Edited by Camillo Pellizzari merge authors
March 31, 2017 Edited by Clean Up Bot add VIAF and wikidata ID
May 28, 2011 Edited by Budelberger merge authors
April 1, 2008 Created by an anonymous user initial import