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Home | 2017 | November

Sextus and Cynthia, a lovely couple

Posted by Mad Mitch on UTC 2017-11-14 07:47.

The Roman poet Sextus Propertius (45?BC-15?BC), about whom we know next to nothing, fell passionately in love with the prostitute Cynthia, about whom we really know nothing at all. From her poet lover we learn that she was tall, blonde and had dark eyes. She had a fiery temper and, like her poet lover, liked her drink – fans of Italian films should think of a blonde version of Anna Magnani.

Propertius first tried controlling, perhaps even reforming this wild woman of the streets to whom he had lost his heart:

What pleasure does it gives you, my love, to go along the street with your hair done up, reeking of perfume, sashaying along in a silky see-through dress, wearing foreigners' gifts, your natural beauty hidden under bought cosmetics? Why not just let your limbs radiate their own beauty? Believe me, your body has no need of beauty products: The god Amor is naked and does not love cosmetic artifice.

Elegiae I 2 1-8

To which we moderns can only say: foolish boy! We get the impression from everything that poor, smitten Sextus writes about her, of a strong, independent-minded woman who was not going to let some poet push her around. After all, a girl has to eat. She certainly cannot rely on a poet:

Cynthia, breathing softly, lay stretched out like a sleeping goddess, her head resting on her arm. I, my head befuddled with wine, had dragged my drunken feet to her house along late-night streets lit by boys with torches.

I tried to get next to her – I still had some faculties left – and gently pressed myself into the mattress at her side. I was stirred by a double desire from the gods of love and wine, those two pitiless masters, to touch her stretched-out form gently, draw her to me, steal her kisses and begin the battle of love. But I did not dare disturb the peace of my mistress because I feared her wild anger, of which I knew only too well. Instead I was held in suspension, my eyes fastened on her.

I took the coronal from my head and laid it on your cheeks, Cynthia. I arranged your wild, unbound hair. In your open hands I laid apples I had stolen. All these offerings I gave to you whilst you slept on ungratefully; my gifts rolled down across the mound of your bosom. Whenever you took a deep breath or moved I froze at this little sign of a dream in which someone was forcibly trying to ravish you. But then the moon moved across the window opposite, the fleeing moon with its light that would have liked to have stayed, and in its gentle rays your eyes opened.

Propping herself up with her elbow on the soft bed, she spoke:

'So, has the complaint of some other women forced you back to my bed and driven you out from gates now closed? Where have you spent this long night that belongs to me only to return now weak and faded, poor me, when the night has passed?

'I hope you too, you bastard, will have to spend such nights as these to which you condem me – me, the unhappy one!

'I was trying to keep awake with my embroidery; then, more tired still, with the music of the Orphic lyre. From time to time, I, the abandoned one, softly complained about your frequent lengthy stays with another lover until I, the tired one, was overcome by the healing wings of sleep – sparing me at last more tears.'

Elegiae I 3 6-46

This sort of behaviour would keep the police, the courts and the media busy these days, especially when naked little boys get in on the act:

My love, I was wandering around drunk last night, with no servant to guide me, when a gang of little boys came up to me – no idea how many: my fear did not let me count them. Some carried torches, some arrows and some were holding bindings for me at the ready.

They were all naked. One of them, bolder than the others shouted: 'Seize him, we know him all too well! This is the one whom that angry girl committed to us'. Before I knew it there was a noose around my neck.

'Another one shouted to push me into their midst, another cried: 'may he perish who thinks we are not gods. She has waited hours for you, undeserving wretch. You, however, you idiot, have been looking for who-knows-which door.

'When at night she loosens the ribbons of her silk bonnet and looks at you, her eyes drunk with sleep, scents that do not come from Arabian perfumes will enfold you, scents made with his own hands by the god of love himself.

'Release him, brothers, now that he promises constancy; look, we have arrived at the house that called us.' They threw my cloak over me and said: 'Go now and learn to spend the nights at home!'

Elegiae II 29A 1-22

Propertius' behaviour, racked by jealousy, eventually goes from controlling to creepy, but Cynthia is not the sort of girl who takes this lying down, prostitute or not, and his plan backfires badly:

It was early morning and I wanted to see whether she was sleeping alone: but Cynthia lay alone in bed.

I stood, stunned: she had never appeared more beautiful to me. She seemed like someone who had just woken up: ah, how powerful a natural beauty is in itself!

'Have you come early to spy on your love? Do you think my morals are as bad as yours? I am not so fickle: I am happy with one lover: you – or perhaps someone else more faithful. There are no indentations on this bed, there are no signs of the writhing lust of two people here. On my entire body there are no scents as evidence for infidelity.'

She said that, slipped on her sandals and jumped up from the bed, defending herself from my kisses with her right hand. In this way I, the keeper of such an unbreakable love, was rejected at arm's length. Since then there have been no happy nights.

Elegiae II 29B 1-42

The poor girl is doing her best with this creepy, drunken poet, but it is understandable that she needs the odd soother herself:

Through wine beauty fades, through wine youth withers, through wine lovers cannot even recognise each other. I, poor man, must accept that all the wine you have drunk has changed you not a jot! Carry on drinking. You are beautiful and wine cannot subtract from your beauty, when your head dips and the coronal slips and falls forward on your goblet whilst you are reading my verses in a husky voice. May your table flow over with even more spilt wine and may the wine in your goblet foam with even more desire.

Elegiae II 33B 35-44

Eventually and quite predictably, the two drunks set about each other with fire and passion. Our modern Roman version, Anna Magnani, was also responsible for a lot of broken crockery, too, both on-screen and off-screen. These days we would call it a 'domestic' and our thoughts would go out to their neighbours:

How sweet for me the fight yesterday in the lamplight and how sweet to hear so many crude insults from your demented voice as you, crazed with wine, threw over the table and threw the full goblet at me with a wild hand. Go for my hair, scar my face with your beautiful nails, threaten to burn out my eyes with fire, rip my tunic and bare my chest!

No love is true that cannot turn into a fight: my enemies can have calm lovers; my comrades should be able to see the bite wounds on my neck; a dark bruise will reveal that my love has been with me.

Either I have to be suffering in love myself or hear how you are suffering, and see tears, yours or mine, when you send me secret messages with your eyebrows or write secret messages on me with your fingers. I hate sleep that is not interrupted by sighs: I want to be pale with longing with for a demented lover.

Elegiae III 8 1-10, 20-28

She is, ultimately, as even drunken poets have to recognise, the master of this relationship.

It is midnight and a letter arrived from my mistress: she ordered me to come without delay to Tibur, where you see the twin towers and the waters of the Anio plunge into a broad pool.

What shall I do? Should I trust myself to the broad darkness, trembling in fear of the robber's hand? But if I put off following this instruction because of my fear, her torrent of tears would be worse than anything a bandit of the night could do. I made that mistake once and was rejected for a whole year: she is not gentle with me.

Elegiae III 16 1-10

The arc of this love affair ended badly, as it always would. After five years Propertius dumped his great love Cynthia, seemingly after one last humiliation. Not only that, but he's a poet, so he dumped her in verse, ensuring that people will read about it more than two thousand years later. He was hurt and bitter – the moment has come for him to enjoy his cold revenge on her long dominion over him:

I am now a general laughing stock at feasts.

Five long years have I served you truly: you will bite your fingernails thinking of my lost fidelity.

I shall not be moved by tears – that is the art that ensnared me in the first place. You always used to weep whilst you were planning treachery. I shall cry when I leave, but wrongs are stronger than tears. Thanks to you, we cannot go on in the yoke that so fitted us.

Farewell to the thresholds of your house, wet with tears from my words, and to your door, that my hand, even in rage, never broke down.

But may the passing years catch you up, even when you keep them secret. May wrinkles overwhelm your beauty!

Then you will pluck out white hairs and their roots while the mirror screams to you of your wrinkles. Rejected from society, you will have to bear the proud contempt of others. As an aged crone you can complain about the injuries done to you that you once did to others. My song has told you of this terrible fate: learn to fear what will happen to your beauty!

Elegiae III 25 1-18

Propertius never achieved the old age he predicted for Cynthia: he died around thirty years old, a fitting time to go for someone who thought that 'in the case of a burning love an old man is useless'. [Elegiae II 34B 30]

About when and why and how he died we know nothing. About Cynthia post Sextus we know nothing either – whether she became an aged crone or died young like him; whether, frantic with grief, her Anna Magnani lipstick a crude red slash, she rent her blowy silken mousseline and threw herself on his pyre with a long scream of insane, drunken grief; or whether she settled down with a wealthy Roman merchant and his trinkets and forgot about this crazy poet – well, who knows?

We have raised their shades briefly, but in our emasculated and defeminised modern world there is no place for these two wild things, Propertius and his Cynthia. Fifty years ago, when your author first encountered these verses, he thought them astonishingly modern. Now, they just seem to come from a distant country in a distant time. Time to go.


The Latin text used here for the translations is from Sexti Properti Carmina, E.A. Barber, Oxford, OUP, 1960. The Latin originals can be found online at Perseus. The translations here are in the spirit of the original, but not word for word.