Inadvisable Mutilations: The Unity of Propertius 2.22

A.P.A. (Chicago), December 29, 1997

(Read for me in my absence by Joy K. King, who chaired the session)

© M. Hendry 1997-2000

Editors of Propertius have long been divided into "conservative sheep and radical goats", as Shackleton Bailey puts it. I myself am a goat. The text of Propertius is in much worse shape than many would like to believe, and even the divisions between the elegies, particularly in Book II, are quite uncertain.

However, today I appear — or would be appearing, if I hadn't broken my ankle — as a goat in sheep's clothing. I will argue that Propertius 2.22 is a single elegy, as traditionally numbered, though nearly all editors divide it into 22A (lines 1-42) and 22B (lines 43-50). Some go further. In the most recent Teubner, Paolo Fedeli makes 22b a fragment of a lost elegy, marking lacunae before and after, and obelizes two of the eight lines, labeling 48 'locus deperditus' and 50 'uersus nondum sanatus'. (No doubt one reason so many wish to amputate 22b is that the text is in even worse shape than usual for Propertius.)

Those few editors who do not divide give no reasons, and may be suspected of unthinking deference to the traditional numeration, which has no manuscript authority whatsoever. It seems to have come about by accident or inertia, as eighteenth-century editors grew tired of renumbering for every new edition.

As recently as 1977, Richardson could write of 22A:

"The poem appears in the MSS with eight verses appended at the end that clearly do not belong to it. . . . I know of no attempt in modern times to defend them as part of this poem."

Three years later, Gordon Williams made just such an attempt in Figures of Thought in Roman Poetry. However, he did not go far enough, ignored several pertinent details, and missed some of the best arguments. The entire question needs to be reopened.

The subject of the first 42 lines ('22a') is the poet's newfound carefree promiscuity. The highly unPropertian — almost Ovidian — attitude of 22a is one point in favor of unity: it must be followed by a return to his usual persona. This occurs in the last 8 lines ('22b'), in which the poet is once again the pitiful slave of a single woman, presumably Cynthia. The reversal occurs fairly suddenly at line 43, but many details of 22a quietly prepare for it. Unfortunately, some of these significant details have been deleted by editors who favor division. For instance, Goold (in the new Loeb) emends away the masculine aliquis of line 5, the servant (ministro) of line 39, and the poet's inquiry about his fate in line 50, all of which, I will argue, are evidence for the unity of 2.22.

Williams notes that all of the exempla for the poet's sexual potency (21-34), Jupiter-Alcmene, Achilles-Briseis, Hector-Andromache, involve only one woman, which tends to undercut the argument of 22a and prepare for the reversal. The supposedly triumphant 22a also ends with a bathetic comparison of the lover to a worried mother, and it is made quite clear in lines 35-42 that the man needs (rather than wants) two women so that the second will take him in if the first will not. As Williams notes, "This is a long way from the abandoned plurality of the poem's opening". I will add three points to Williams' analysis.

Most important, the exempla for the inevitability of the lover's urges in 22a are extraordinarily negative. As symbols of carefree lust, we might have expected Heracles and the fifty daughters of Thespius, all of whom he impregnated in a single night, or nine nights, or at most fifty nights, depending on who's telling the story. What we get is quite different. If we leave to one side the tasteless digression on the poet's sexual potency (lines 21-34), there are only two brief exempla in the poem, in lines 15-16 and 19-20. In these two couplets, the narrator-ego-speaker-poetic voice — whatever you want to call him — compares himself first to a eunuch priest of Cybele or Bellona, slashing himself with knives to the accompaniment of flutes, and second to Thamyras, blinded after he was defeated by the Muses in a singing contest. (If he had won, his prize would have been to sleep with all nine of them.) The common theme of these two exempla is the lover's voluntary mutilation at the hands of his domina, a punishment that is either sexual (the Gallus) or inflicted as a punishment for sexual hybris (Thamyras). It may be ahistorical to refer to 'Masochism', but the comparison is hard to avoid. These exempla clearly undercut the cheerfully crass tone of the elegy, and prepares us for a fall. The effect is reinforced by two previous instances of peculiarly violent and negative imagery: in line 4, theaters are born for the speaker's destruction, exitio nata theatra meo, and in line 7, his eyes are seeking a wound for themselves, nostri quaerunt sibi uulnus ocelli. These are strong words, and quite at variance with the carefree attitude the lines purport to present. They are negative clues, which prepare us for the reversal at line 43.

My second point is related to the first. In lines 5-6, the narrator describes the temptations of the stage, siue aliquis molli diducit candida gestu / bracchia, seu uarios incinit ore modos! The problem here is the gender of aliquis. The form is masculine, though the context seems to demand that the actor or singer be feminine: as Camps notes, "it seems unlikely that candida bracchia mentioned in the present context would belong to anybody but a woman".

For this reason, some would like to take aliquis as feminine, though aliquis for aliqua is, as Camps notes, entirely unparalleled. Markland's siue aliqua in molli is consequently tempting, and is printed by Goold. However, this has a patchwork look about it, since gestu does not need any preposition and does not have one in the parallel passages.

It seems to me that the word should be masculine. The narrator identifies with and emulates the male lovers he sees on stage. Like Thamyras, they are singers and aspiring lovers — probably unsuccessful lovers, their songs laments. Like a Gallus, they are effeminate. The proverbial mollitia of actors explains why their arms are pale and pretty (candida) and their gestures effeminate (molli). Both words suit the theme of mollitia which is implied at several other places in the elegy: note in particular line 13, where the poetic persona is mollis, and 11, where the unreceptive woman is dura.

The third problem comes in line 39, aut si forte irata meo sit facta ministro, one of the worst interpretative cruces in the elegy. Who or what is this minister? Shackleton Bailey, quoted on your handout, lists three possibilities: (1) "that it refers to the circumstances of an actual quarrel", (2) that he is "a servant sent with a message to which the lady gives an angry answer", and (3) that 'servant' is a euphemism for the narrator's penis. He rules out 1 because "such unexplained private allusions are out of place in Roman elegy", 2 because "it seems unlikely that in a hypothetical case she would be supposed to 'vent her rage on the innocent servant'", and 3 as unparalleled Latin. His own solution (quoted on the handout) is equally implausible, and it is not surprising that Giardina, for instance, daggers the word, while Camps (followed by Goold) emends to ingrata . . . cubili. In fact, the second interpretation, which goes back to Otto and Rothstein, is quite correct, if 2.22 is a single poem and the minister of line 39 none other than the puer of line 50. I follow Camps' text and interpretation of the last three (very obscure and corrupt) lines of the elegy:

"The speaker 'forbids it be accepted (as as a fact) that she will not come, and wearies his slave-boy by asking again what he has already heard (quaerendo audita), ordering him to inquire about the fate which he already knows.'"

Now we find out why the woman was so angry in 22a: the narrator keeps sending his slave-boy to pester her with pleading invitations. This would be very like the modern harassing telephone call, and she might well take out her annoyance on the messenger. If her repeated negative reply is described as his doom, fata, that is a reminder of his role as Gallus, enslaved to a single all-powerful woman, or Thamyras, punished for his all-embracing lust.

One final point to note is that 22b explicitly denies the truth of 22a's boasts of promiscuity, but says nothing about the question of potency, treated at such embarrassing length in lines 21-34. Nevertheless, the implications are there, particularly in the Gallus exemplum, if we care to speculate as to just why Cynthia — or whoever she is — is now unwilling. It was left to Ovid, in Amores 3.7, to write a whole elegy explicitly about impotence.

Numerous problems of text and interpretation remain, but I hope I have at least convinced you all that the unity of Propertius 2.22 should not be dismissed out of hand.


Other than my name and the title of the paper, the only things on the handout were the text of Propertius 2.22 and the following quotation from D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Propertiana (Cambridge, 1956), 107-8:

"On 39 perhaps the most obvious, but certainly not the most acceptable view is Hertzberg's, that it refers to the circumstances of an actual quarrel. Realizing, as Paley, for instance, did not, that such unexplained private allusions are out of place in Roman elegy, he takes refuge in the theory that 4.8 had been written shortly beforehand. More plausibly minister has been taken to mean a servant sent with a message to which the lady gives an angry answer (so in substance Otto and Rothstein). But the dative (assuming it to be such) cannot mean merely 'gegenüber' (Rothstein), and it seems unlikely that in a hypothetical case she would be supposed to 'vent her rage on the innocent servant' (Otto). Besides, irata sit facta suggests the arousing of anger, not the demonstration of it . . . . BB. take ministro 'probably sens. obsc. = id quod officium (cf. 24) facit'; but even if such as phrase as si irata sit facta mentulae meae might pass, I know no better evidence for minister thus than Sen. N.Q. 1.16.8 nihil egit natura quod humanae libidini ministeria tam maligna dedit. A new solution seems required. It may be suggested that by minister is meant the kind of servant that we find in Mart. 9.22.11 aestuet ut nostro madidus conuiua ministro, 9.25.3 quod, rogo, quod scelus est mollem spectare ministrum?, 10.98.1 addat cum mihi Caecubum minister / Idaeo resolutior cinaedo . . ., and that the anger is inspired by jealousy: Mart. 12.96.3 quid quasi paelicibus torqueris inepta ministris? (cf. 11.23.9). ministro may be dat., but is more probably abl. of cause."

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