Something Missing in Propertius

John Flaxman, The Dancing Hours

Something Missing in Propertius 

 by Darrell Sutton

Readers can be perplexed by the arguments that textual critics employ when they emend the wording of ancient writers. Critics’ trains of thought are not easy to follow at times; but assiduity is needed in the correction of texts. Since text-critical criteria are not infallible standards, the pathways to truth are strewn with obstructions, requiring detailed studies of a text’s contexts in order to establish a text’s profile. Articles and books on how to perform text-critical procedures can be acquired, and reviewing one’s predecessors can show how they opened new ranges of thought and broadened investigations.

This essay is an analysis of some ‘missing’ words in a MS of an ancient Latin poem composed by Propertius (c.55BC-16BC). The dates of his birth and death remain insecure. No one doubts the perspicacity of Propertius. He was a great poetic stylist. His elegies are unique, well-nigh inimitable. His use of metaphor and simile, and his many allusions to Greco-Roman myth, fill the reader’s mind with symbolism. Some of his phrases form intricate webs of meaning like those found in Catullus’ poems.

The history of the text’s transmission is avoided in all that follows. But a rapid survey of the contents surrounding the missing verses is given before an examination of the textual issues of III.1.27 begins.

About Poem III.1

In book three, Propertius scales new heights. The opening poem is not imprecatory in its conception; it pleads for blessing. At III.1.1 Propertius begins his prayer by adverting to the sacred poetry of Callimachus (c.305BC-240BC) and with a petition – quaeso – for entrance into sacred precincts: to be first in fact. But his eye ultimately is toward the future, in which he can attain greatness on the lips of Romans if incidents in the history of Troy are recited well by him. He avers that ‘after his death the honor given to his name would doubly increase’: post obitum duplici faenore reddet honos [III.1.22]; such was the case for Homer who depicted the Fall of Troy. This intriguing request cannot be carried out without the assistance of Jupiter, God of gods. If he wants honor, he, himself must bestow honor first by seeking the favor of the Muses.

Historical/Philological/Theological Backgrounds

Propertius was not compelled by the gods to adorn himself in sacred garb each time he composed his offerings of verse. Nonetheless, he applied to himself the liturgical referent sacerdos (III.1.3); it is unclear if he was a traditional celebrant. He seemingly labored under the impression that as an author/poet he was mediating blissful words to his auditors. His lot was to be a priestly scribe, a poet providing a pure path around unpolluted waters. His poems were the holy texts needed to enter sacred realms of elegiac verse. Quite often mystical celebrations in verse required the Muses’ literary help.

Book III’s invocation is not dissimilar to those of other Latin poets (e.g., Hor.Carm. I.26 and I.32); but Propertius’ theological vocabulary is rife with overt meanings that some might attribute to descriptions of initiates into mystery sects. His familiarity with Greco-Roman deities, where they dwell and who worships them, permits the admixture of myth and verse: this strategy displays a synergy of ideas beyond the reach of those who were uninstructed in the wisdom of the sacred groves. Therein the mysteries enlighten. In this numinous world of poetry, the Iliad’s theological overtones dot the landscape of III.1

There are roughly 239 words in a standard Latin text of III.1.  Propertius has in his mind a single grand narrative with one big idea: approbation. As an invocation it is a literary niche built upon several minor episodes. These brief segments speak loudly of Italian celebrations (ln.4), of the nativity of a neoteric muse, Fama, who uplifts him (ln.9-10); of crowds who through stealth removed the prizes he felt were rightfully his (ln.21); the heroic is enumerated (ln.7,26,32), and the geographical sites multiply as the varied events of memory are recalled (ln.16,27,32,37). This poem is lyrical history, structured in the mold of devotional appeal and reflection.

Problems in the Text

R.A.B. Mynors (1903-1989), a noted classicist and medievalist, considered Propertius a ‘beastly difficult poet’. He was right. Propertius tamped complex ideas into succinct lines of verse. Researches into these complexities continue. In this vast discipline though, students encounter a number of analyses of readings that were badly transmitted in the manuscripts [MSS], thereby degrading their quality. Since copyists of his texts often exhibited feeble minds, close readers meet one corrupt reading after another and in some places no reading at all, as in the text before us at III.1.27.

III. 1. 25-28

Nam quis equo pulsas abiegno nosceret arces
Fluminaque Haemonio comminus isse uiro
Idaeum Simoenta Iouis†cunabula parui†
Hectora per campos ter maculasse rotas.

Else who would know the fortress battered by the fir-wood horse, the Rivers that fought in combat with Thessaly’s Hero, Simois of Ida together with Jove’s offspring Scamander, and the Chariot that thrice befouled Hector’s body on the plain? [Goold]

The lines have been studied many times. Gustav Wolff’s proposal, cum prole Scamandro for cunabula parui has been the received reading at Prop. El. III. 1.27 in several editions. Since then it has held a marked place in the text.

Nearly one century and a quarter ago A.E. Housman (1859-1936) provided a pithy, but lucid examination of these lines.[i] He offered no conjecture of his own. Siding with those who recognized the absurdity of cunabula parui [ii]he accepted Gustav Wolff’s seemingly correct emendation: cum proleScamandro.[iii] The former reading is allegedly inexplicable in the context of Propertius poem; but this latter one appears to be enigmatic in the specific context to which Propertius is alluding. Of this elegy no stylistic inventory hitherto had been taken. On historical grounds Housman derided Arthur Palmer’s (1841-1897) suggestion [iv] because he believed it provided the text a dry cradle, into which there was no one to insert.

Handwritten in AD1200, MS Neapolitanus [now Wolfenbüttel Gud. 224, s. XII ex.] has the reading “ideum simoenta iouis,”. Thereafter is a conspicuous missing space from which a bad reading was subsequently lost or displaced. Presumably “at some point in the transmission the words cum prole Scamandro [v] had been either severely corrupted, illegibly copied, or torn away, with only the first letters cu– still to be read.”[vi] If the copyist was unequal to the task of emending, his apprehension might have been restraint enough to keep him from further mutilation of the readings. Either the MS he followed was corrupt or he considered and refused an extant reading – on grounds unknown to us – and felt it necessary to jot down only two letters [cu].. In this poem the rebuilt word/phrase needs to make sense since it is at the center of a literary trope or of a binary informational unit.

If MS ‘N’ is adjudged to be a better MS than the others, it may be as good a time as ever to reexamine it. The line runs “Ideum Simoenta Iovis…”. More reconstruction is needed to mend this verse. Propertius sees the fall of Troy as a necessary antecedent to revelations which otherwise would not have been manifested (ln.25 ff.): e.g. who would have known of Achilles’ battle with the river godsHowever, the center of gravity in Homeric texts and Graeco-Roman Epic from which all else is suspended, is Zeus or Jove.[vii] His overarching influence is on display throughout Propertius’ poems, even in the Iliad he is Father of Gods and men (Il.20.56).

A bad reading may be foundational to the creation of an improved, yet still incorrect one. The determined critic may, through judgment and perseverance, arrive at the original reading. Or may close unnecessary gaps in knowledge through the process of trying to repair the damage caused by scribes. From a close reading of Propertius poem, my assessment is that Wolff’s proposal[viii] is irregular; not impossible, but unlikely. Although it brings together two characters, Scamander and Jove, whose avowed place in the context may be inferred, it does not fit snugly within the emotive elements being delineated by Propertius. And no critical arguments hitherto have situated it in Propertius’ contexts. The genius of it was ascribed to its correspondence to Greek facts in the Iliad, not to the Latin of the elegy. Indeed, so argued even Housman. Herewith, a new solution.

One reason for the interest in Wolff and Housman’s belief that Scamander is essential to the passage, in addition to Simoneis, is that flumina (plural) stands in the previous line. Another is that Skamandros beckons his brother Simoneis to help in Iliad 21.307 in the fight against Achilles. Iovis certainly is apposite to the context because the river Xanthos (=Skamandros) was a son of Zeus (=Jove). Cum prole is thus attractive. But Idaeum must refer to the Trojan Ida, not to the Getan. Robinson Ellis’ (1834-1913) reasoning (see footnote 8) is not without merit.

Even so, there is no need to begin the emendation of the text with “cu”. Anomalies may be understood in other ways. In Hesiod Theogony 27, the Muses say ‘we know how to say many false things resembling true ones’. Propertius was gifted in that way too. It seems plausible that the words Iovis cunabula parui are an intrusion from a comment upon Idaeum. The marginal commentator is distinguishing Idaeum in Gete and Ida(eum) in the Troad. The cradle of the baby Zeus means Gete where Zeus was born. From Homer we know that the rivers Simoneis and Scamander were brothers and both sons of Zeus. Simoneis aids Scamander in the fight against Achilles and both flow from the Ida range, something widely understood.

An interpretative possibility therefore is:

‘… that the rivers went with threats against the Haemonian man (Achilles), Idaean Simoneis son of Zeus and his brother Scamander.’ – So instead of:

Idaeum Simoenta Iouis cunabula parui, why not write: Idaeum Simonenta Iovise <fratremque Scamandrum>?

Propertius’ songs, albeit risqué, will be read and sung for ages to come. Fortunately expurgated texts are no longer the fashion of the day. His lyrics can now be read and fully appreciated. His ambition was to attain Homer’s stature as a poet, but Propertius wrote no epic. Able as he was to estimate the value of his verse, his closing remarks in III.1 were prescient:

meque inter seros laudabit Roma nepotes [III.1.35]

I too will be praised by late generations of Rome.  [Goold]

Darrell Sutton publishes widely on ancient texts


Claude Lorrain, River Landscape with Tiburtine Temple at Tivoli


[i] See ‘The Manuscripts of Propertius [I]’ (p.232-276) in edd., J. Diggle and F.R.D. Goodyear, The Classical Papers of A.E. Housman (2004), Cambridge Press, p. 251.

[ii] Some scribe more than likely saw some linguistic connection to parui in line 11. M. Dominicy recently put forward a plausible theory for his conjecture: ruisse inpabula parta. He argues by analogy, using Petrarch’s 1342 reading, cunabula parua and that the 1333 MS ‘A’ bore parua; that parui was a later correction. See his paper Propertius 3.1.27, in Mnemosyne, volume 62, 3 (2009), pp.417-431.

[iii] G.P. Goold retained it in his 1990 Loeb edition of Propertius’s poems. Wolff’s text is the standard reading today. Of his genius in this specific case, R.J. Tarrant wrote “the young Gustav Wolff brilliantly emended them to Iouis cum prole Scamandro, on p.286 of his article ‘Toward a Typology of Interpolation in Latin Poetry,’ cf. Transactions of the American Philological Association 117 (1987), pp.281-298. Tarrant’s paper is not a defense of the reading, though he too may presume it to be the original. However, his is an investigation concerning the manner of the loss of the original reading. Moreover H.E. Butler retained Wolff’s reading in his complete edition, Sexti Properti Opera Omnia (1905), Oxford. But by vividly affirming Housman’s 1893 verdict, he endorsed a consensus-opinion with these calm words of assurance: “Wolff’s brilliant suggestion therefore may be regarded as certain,” p.261:n.27, of Sexti Properti Opera Omnia: (1905), London.

[iv] Palmer proposed idaeos montes Iovis incunabula parui.

[v] This was the reading in L. Mueller’s 1898 edition: Propertius. Elegies, Teubner, Leipzig. This is also the received reading in S.J. Heyworth’s recently published Oxford Classical Text: Sexti Properti Elegos (2007). Among the material in the apparatus on the page in question, in Heyworth’s shrewd and incisive judgment Palmer’s submission did not deserve notice there or in his commentary.

[vi] See Tarrant loc. cit. S.J. Heyworth notes there are “at least 7 unique errors between verses 21 and 37;” see Cynthia: A Companion to the Text of Propertius (2009), p.283, Oxford. In his commentary he prints “Iouvis cunabula parui?” and critiques lines 25-28 stating, “There can be little doubt that Scamander or Xanthus were mentioned by Propertius” loc. cit.

[vii] In Propertius’ elegies the Muses help the poet properly honor the gods with the recognition they deserve, particularly Jove. Cf. II.XXVI.46; IV.I.83,103; IV.IV.85; IV.VIII.16; IV.IX.16. For the use of Jupiter see, II.XVI.48; III.IX.15; IV.IV.54.

[viii] R. Ellis’ arguments against the proposal need reiteration here: “Haupt, as is well known, following the Naples Ms. which omits the words cunabula parui, accepted a conj. of Gustav Wollf’s Iouis cum prole Scamandro, which has been adopted by the last German editor as well as by Mr Postgate. I am glad to see that Palmer has not been misled by this ingenious emendation, which I cannot think but wrong. Not only has Manilius II. 15 Iouis et cunabula magni, Ovid Iouis incunabula Creten, but the very expression of Propertius is to be found in Pacatus’ Paneg. Theodos. IV terra Cretensis parui Iouis gloriata cunabulis. Palmer’s clever conj. Idaeos montes Iouis incunabula paruimay be right; but I do not feel certain that the MS. reading is vicious. What harshness is there in supposing that the poet in v. 26 spoke of rivers generally, then in 27 specified one? At any rate the superstructure which has been built up on the accidental omission of two words in the Naples MS. is very frail, and will not stand the test of serious criticism.” See The Journal of Philology, vol. XV, 1886, pp.12-20.

This entry was posted in Cultural Matters, QR Home and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.