Propertius’ autobiographical poem – Elegy 22
As an amateur Latinist and lover of ancient roman Literature I enjoy the journey of discovery involved with some Latin poems. The only means open to me of understanding and experiencing a Latin poem is to research the work/translations of others and couple it with some heuristic thinking: ie use a sense, (and feeling!) of what is most probable and then test to see whether the solution might be made to match. This might involve studying a latin dictionary or two!
An Elegy by Propertius which at first struck me as rather disjointed, boring and sentimental has actually turned out to be a small gold mine of learning. It is also short enough to match my feeble attention span. It happens to sit at the very end of a book of poems which in itself is a curious place for it to be, unless of course (a) it doesn’t belong there – quite possible or (b) he felt it had a special quality, perhaps a particular achievement and final personal message to those who had supported the books writing, a sort of personalized signature.
Propertius Monobiblos – book 1, Elegy 22. “I was born in Umbria”
The poem I chose to experience is from Elegies bk1,22 – “I was born in Umbria”. The translations I have found give a rather dissatisfying sense of a disjointed piece of work. Surely the great Propertius could do better than this! Surely he would have saved something truly great to finish off a set of poems!
Some minor remodeling of the translation makes me wonder whether the translators I chanced across (who certainly know Latin far better than I), indeed got it right or whether it’s meaning has been subtly altered, say by shifting punctuation through time. Or indeed whether we’re missing something in its reading. Somewhere I read someone suggest that there was a piece of the poem missing…. Perhaps.
A further possibility is that the poem was written with multiple meanings in mind and hence cannot be translated in a linear fashion: The poem touches and contrasts various themes including friendship, personal lineage versus social history, memories of death and painful events versus rebirth and future hope. So perhaps Propertius tackled the multiple themes in parallel by weaving a set of double meanings and language which evokes in the (Roman) reader a similar experience. If that were so it could be possible to have a unitary meaning to the poem whilst at the same time a jigsaw of thoughts and experiences, like a mosaic.
A little internet research soon shows that the translations can be quite diverse: hmmm evidently the poem has more to it than first hits the eye.
Let’s start with the poem taking it at face value: Propertius is talking in first person to his friend Tullus, answering a question he has presumably been asked about his lineage, something very important to Romans and people of the time. The central piece of the poem seemingly digresses into a rather distressed memory of the civil war (41BC) and the horrifying events (killings) which accompanied it, with the bones of the dead left unburied on Etruscan (Tuscan/Umbrian) soil. In the last two lines he returns to the initial question, essentially saying – that’s the land where I hail from, Umbria’s fertile lands.
|Qualis et unde genus, qui sint mihi, Tulle, Penates,
quaeris pro nostra semper amicitia.
Si Perusina tibi patriae sunt nota sepulcra,
(Italiae duris funera temporibus),
cum Romana suos egit discordia cives,
(sic, mihi praecipue, pulvis Etrusca, dolor:
tu proiecta mei perpessa es membra propinqui,
tu nullo miseri contegis ossa solo),
proxima subposito contingens Umbria campo
me genuit terris fertilis uberibus.
|You ask, always in friendship, Tullus, what are my household gods, and of what race am I. If our country’s graves, at Perusia, are known to you, Italy’s graveyard in the darkest times, when Rome’s citizens dealt in war (and, to my special sorrow, Etruscan dust, you allowed my kinsman’s limbs to be scattered, you covered his wretched bones with no scrap of soil), know that Umbria rich in fertile ground bore me, where it touches there on the plain below.
(Translated by A. S. Kline © 2002, 2008 All Rights Reserved)
The translation above is surely learned and very similar to others I have found, including one from an Italian text which I use to assist me translate to English below, this time verse by verse:
|Qualis et unde genus, qui sint mihi, Tulle, Penates,
|Of what descendency am I, which might be my, Tullus, household gods
|quaeris pro nostra semper amicitia.
|You ask in name of our longlasting (uninterrupted) friendship
|Si Perusina tibi patriae sunt nota sepulcra,
|If it is true that the graves of Perugia our homeland are known to you
|Answer to the question starts here: asking him (and the reader) to remember and hence participate.
|(Italiae duris funera temporibus),
|Italy’s mourning in hard times
|And this is where he seemingly jumps to his own thoughts and recollections of Etruria and his personal losses.
|cum Romana suos egit discordia cives,
|when Rome agitated her citizens in discord
|The civil war of 41AD when Augustus sieged Perugia and then butchered its citizens.
|(sic, mihi praecipue, pulvis Etrusca, dolor:
|Thus, Etruscan land, are you above all a cause for pain:
|Emphasis driven by the “you” of the next two lines.
|tu proiecta mei perpessa es membra propinqui,
|You have endured by kinsman’s limbs to be scattered
|“propinquus” is often translated as someone near to Propertius – a form of relative – conjecture suggests it to be Gallus
|tu nullo miseri contegis ossa solo),
|You didn’t cover with but a scrap of soil the bones of those undeserving dead
|“miseri” refers to those who died a premature death
|proxima subposito contingens Umbria campo
|(know that) the underlying fields of nearby umbria
|Ie near Perugia, and referring back to the initial question of Propertius’ provenance.
|me genuit terris fertilis uberibus.
|Florid fertile land generated me
|At this point we can imagine the fields of poppies – reminder of the dead at the battle of the Somme in WW1.
The poem starts to get really interesting and a tad more touching when we go into further depth on one or two points:
- Who is involved in the conversation, who are they and what is their relationship
- What about the erratic jump from a conversation about personal origins to thoughts about civil war
- Let’s start by asking ourselves about Tullus :
- There are many conjectures about who Tullus is and whether he is in fact a friend of Propertius or Propertius’ patron and indeed whether they are of equal social standing. It is generally thought that he is perhaps nephew of L.Volcacius Tullus, co-consul with Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) in 33BC. However, it is not clearly stated so we might also assume that as with many names in Roman poetry it could have been a nick-name for someone else.
- Tullus asks Propertius from where he comes and who his ancestors are (his household gods, Penates)
- Within the poem Tullus was certainly a friend (“pro nostra semper amicitia”),
- Perhaps Propertius is making a comparison with Tullus’ own provenance? After all, he tells us they bemoan the same burials, they share the same homeland.
- Last but not least we shouldn’t forget the period the poem is being written in – after Octavian laid waste Perugia and after he had acquired ultimate power.
- We therefore have a situation of two friends, “Etruscans” who have made their way into the new regime, yet bemoan the past events and losses they have borne. They can but look forward to future abundance and fertility, “fertilized” by the events (and losses) they have had to witness.
- The erratic jump in the poem:
- It appears that the central verses (shaded in the table able) are a digression from the central question of Propertius’ provenance – a digression to recall a painful memory (both personally for Propertius and for the two of them, as well as all of Romanity).
- However, many elements within the opening and closing lines firmly tie in with the themes of the central body:
- Qualis et unde genus – From what lineage and whence do I hail:
- lineage = Etruscan
- from whence = near Perugia (Assisi), those lands of abundance made fertile (by our dead, our Penates, our forefathers)
- Qui sint mihi Penates- which might be my household gods- gets answered in the central body of the work: they’re those undeserving dead who lay unburied! It is worth noting that in ancient Roman belief, the soul of the dead would not find peace until they were buried.
As we look through the poem we can see that many words link ideas which stitch the poem together, I mention the ones which came to my mind….
- “Tulle”, like Servius Tullius, ancient King of Rome, an Etruscan who became king of Rome, beat the Etruscans for the good of Rome. Particularly poignant written in the same line as Genus and Penates – placing the Etruscan Servius Tullius as a forefather, a guarantor of how men of Etruscan lineage could be fundamental in the success of Roman civilization.
- “Penates”, sets the idea of forefathers: In vivid contrast to the concept of those dead who lay restless unburied in the fields of Etruria. Household gods on the other hand would actually have their peace in a household to guard.
- Nostra “semper” amicitia – lovely recollection of the concept of eternity, fitting with the concepts of family lineage and even death in the sense of eternity.
- “Pulvis Etrusca” – he refers to the soil of Etruria as “dust” as in the dust of the dead – ie the Penates, his (their) dead ancestors who lay there unburied, butchered by effect of the civil war (note how the blame lays on the land of Etruria, not on the hand of Augustus)
- “Proiecta” and “Propinqui” a good sense of scattering something that is close, like dust. Scattering family relatives, destroying your lineage.
- “campo” – fields but can also be intended as battle field – suggesting the deepest significance – that Propertius is not only of Etruscan lineage but indeed generated of those battle fields – ie he is himself a man of the new age, the result of that painful yet “necessary” event which fertilized the new golden age they now enjoy (ie the pax romana).
Conclusion about Propertius’ poem 1.22:
The poem is not as fragmented as might seem: the translations of it tend to make it so because the translations themselves cannot translate many of the double entendres. It manages to compress in relatively few lines a whole host of thoughts, inferences and memories by creating a patchwork of interrelated themes which stretch backwards and forwards across the poem.
The poem is the last in the book because it contains a message for the Roman elite and possibly for Augustus himself: I am of important lineage and am the product of those dark but necessary events which have cast the future of the Roman people. My penates have been blown away like dust, I am a fruit of (Italian) soil and intend to continue the road ahead in longlasting friendship “semper amicitia”. This is a signature piece for the book.
And so to the final master-stroke: Might Tulle actually be his friend Tullus, or a sideways reference to Augustus (Servius Tullus)? Or indeed Maecenas who was both a close supporter of Augustus and himself an Etruscan. Tulle therefore seems to fit a variety of patrons: Propertius has written a very personal poem which can be read by many, even the public at large in a very personal manner.
I have found and interesting dissertation about this poem by William Harris at Middlebury College, I am happy to note that my own sensation seems to be largely aligned with his far more lucid and professional work (although with some differences).