Why Love is a Little Boy (as explained by Propertius)

Eros evolved over time (much like humans themselves) by a process of neoteny (whereby juvenile features are retained into adulthood). The early Iron Age and presumably earlier (see Hesiod (Theogony, 120) had him as the fourth of the original, primal beings (after Chaos, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (whence Light and the Cosmos)), “fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.” Both Phaedrus and Acusilaus in Plato’s Symposium (178b) say that Eros was third, but agree with Hesiod that he had no parent. As an ancient deity he was involved in uniting the unruly forces of the primeval universe as well as inventing procreation, both essential for our production. He was, in short, a formidable Agency.

By Classical times poets had reduced Eros to a minor deity, but youthful and handsome, either bearing a bow with arrows (e.g., Theocritus, Idylls 23 [in English]) or with wings (Nonnus, Dionysiaca V:88ff [in English]). He no longer was the product of spontaneous generation, but his parents were not clear. Usually his mother was said to be Aphrodite by Ares (the same book by Nonnus), although fragments (including of Sappho) have him as the son of Iris, Gaia or Aphrodite by Ouranos. He is capable of inflicting desire on both humans and gods and he occasionally is mentioned in this connection, but it is not until Imperial Roman times that his own story with Psyche is recounted in Apuleius’s Golden Ass (Book iv, Chapter 22 [in English]).

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

It was in the Hellenized world after Alexander, however, that Eros became the chubby child Cupid represented in many works of art in various Hellenistic kingdoms, where children were a much more common subject than in Classical times. The small (15 ½”) terracotta statuette from Myrina shown in the recent Pergamon exhibition at the Met (which we reviewed) and seen at the right, is a particularly famous example, given its impish charm. The child god is hiding something behind his back with his left hand (the object has since disappeared), and he cautions someone with his left hand. He has a disrespectful or smirking expression on his face. Such insolence is never found on Classical representations of children, and the pose is certainly one that Classical artists would not try to reproduce. But Hellenistic artists were more interested in sui generis portraits representing intimate rather than abstract situations. The infantilization of Eros is an interesting example of how the Hellenistic world personalized and in some ways domesticated not only art, but also religion and common culture. It was a world not looking for Truth but rather diversion. Hellenistic poets did the same in literature.

Sextus Propertius (? ca. 50 B.C.E.–before 1 B.C.E.) wrote in Latin rather than Greek, and while he lived at the end of the Hellenistic period, he resided as an adult in Rome, not a Hellenized kingdom. But he modeled himself after the most important of Hellenistic poets, Callimachus, once a scholar at the Library of Alexandria.1 Propertius wrote four books of elegies. The first (published around 26 B.C.E. and titled in some manuscripts as Cynthia Monobiblos) mostly contained poems detailing his erotic obsession with a woman he calls Cynthia. Apparently that book made him immensely popular in Rome. The second book (published in 24 or 23 B.C.E.) describes his agony in Cynthia’s unfaithfulness and rejection. The third book (published in 22 or 21 B.C.E.) treats poetic topics other than just his love and by the end he finally breaks with her. The fourth (which is half the size of the other three, perhaps because he died before it was completed; it was published in 16 B.C.E. or later) shows that he outlived Cynthia but never really resolved the affair.2

Propertius was born in Assisi, in the modern Perugia of Umbria. (Assisi was later also the birthplace of the friar Francis, who venerated animals.) In his major autobiographical poem, what the ancients called a sphragis, the “signet” by which a poet gives his name and provenance (IV:i), Propertius implies that his wealthy father died when he was young, around the time that Octavian ordered the redistribution of land for his soldiers in 41 B.C.E. Propertius’s circumstances was thus diminished but he was not reduced to abject poverty as was Horace when his own father’s estate was seized. Perhaps his estate was treated more leniently because the Propertii were of equestrian rank (IV:i:131-34), whereas Horace’s father was a newly freed slave. Propertius says that he gave up study of law for poetry. He soon fell in love with Cynthia who dominated the rest of what we know of his life. By law, Propertius was unable to marry her because she was a prostitute (II:vii:7) and so chose to remain a bachelor.

When in Rome Propertius was part of the circle of Maecenas, the wealthy minister of Augustus. But he was not economically dependent, as were Horace and Virgil. (The first book was dedicated not to Maecenas but to Volcacius Tullus, nephew of the proconsul of Asia, and he treats him as an equal (I:i:9).) Yet Maecenas was a literary taste-maker so it was useful to curry his interest and even recite poetry in his great estate house. Whether it was envy of his wealth or independence or his middlebrow popularity, Horace took a dislike to Propertius, telling a correspondent that he had to stop up his ears to avoid hearing the second Callimachus (Epistles II:ii:87-104 [in English]). But it could simply be that Horace could not make the break from Classicism that the new Hellenistically-inspired taste demanded. In any event, Propertius’s poetic description of Cupid is a good example of how lightly tripped the lyrics of this new school and how easily the gods were treated, both things strange to those who studied to imitate the more austere masters.

Incidentally, the term “elegy” in Greek and Latin poetry is not the same as in English, where it describes a plaintive poem lamenting a death. In classical times an elegy was simply a poem written in elegiac couplets. In such a couplet the first line is written in dactylic hexameter (the epic meter used by Homer and everyone else describing monumental themes). The second line is in dactylic pentameter. The rules of prosody are a bit arcane and in any event can’t be reproduced in English. The basic idea is that the first line is made up of six feet and the second five. (The number of syllables in a foot, however, depended on the vowel quality of each syllable.) The effect is supposed to be of a rising cadence in the first line and a falling one in the second (something I tried to recreate using a simpler English meter). Propertius’s “domestic” poetry uses the form rather than the spirit of the elegy, as we can see in his Elegy to Cupid’s Image.

Elegia XII
from Elegiarum, Liber Secundus
by Sextus Propertius
(edition of H.E. Butler, Propertius, Loeb Classical Library
(Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard University Pres, 1912))

Quicumque ille fuit, puerum qui pinxit Amorem,
nonne putas miras hunc habuisse manus?
is primum vidit sine sensu vivere amantes,
et levibus curis magna perire bona.
idem non frustra ventosas addidit alas,
fecit et humano corde volare deum:
scilicet alterna quoniam iactamur in unda,
nostraque non ullis permanet aura locis.
et merito hamatis manus est armata sagittis,
et pharetra ex umero Gnosia utroque iacet:
ante ferit quoniam, tuti quam cernimus hostem,
nec quisquam ex illo vulnere sanus abit.
in me tela manent, manet et puerilis imago:
sed certe pennas perdidit ille suas;
evolat ei nostro quoniam de pectore nusquam,
assiduusque meo sanguine bella gerit.
quid tibi iucundum est siccis habitare medullis?
si pudor est, alio traice duella tua!
intactos isto satius temptare veneno:
non ego, sed tenuis vapulat umbra mea.
quam si perdideris, quis erit qui talia cantet,
(haec mea Musa levis gloria magna tua est),
qui caput et digitos et lumina nigra puellae,
et canat ut soleant molliter ire pedes?

Elegy II:xii
[translated by D.K. Fennell]

Whoever first painted Amor as a child
Had marvelous touch, don’t you think?
He saw just how childishly lovers behave
Forfeiting the great for the small.

He usefully added two fluttering wings
Divinely convulsing their hearts.
Indeed we are tossed on buffeted waves
Our wind never blowing one way.

And apt is he armed with aquiline shafts
A quiver from Crete on each arm,
Because we are struck without seeing our foe
A wounding from which one can’t flee.

Transfixed as I am with his darts and his form
But surely his wings have been lost.
Alas! from my breast he never takes flight
Instead he makes war in my blood.

What joy is there living within my dried heart?
Know shame; throw your darts somewhere else!
Much better to poison the ones still unscathed;
Not me, it’s my shadow that’s drubbed.

For if you shall waste me, then how shall I sing
(Though slight is my Muse, your glory is great)
Her head and her fingers, my lady’s dark eyes,
The delicate sound of her feet?

Text note: In line 18, other (better?) manuscripts have “puella” for “duella” and “tuo” for “tua.” A modern emendation is simply to replace them with “tela una.” In other poems Propertius plays fast and loose with diction and syntax so it is difficult to know precisely what he originally intended, although the general sense is discernible. In this sense his poetry contrasts with that of other Augustan poets, particularly Virgil.

Notes

1In III:i:1-2 Propertius writes: Callimachi Manes et Coi sacra Philitae, /  in vestrum, quaeso, me sinite ire nemus. (“Ghost of Callimachus and rites of Coan Philitas, / permit me, I pray, to enter into your grove.”) In IV:1:62-64 he writes: mi folia ex hedera porrige, Bacche, tua, / ut nostris tumefacta superbiat Umbria libris, / Umbria Romani patria Callimachi! (“Hold out for me your ivy leaves, O Bacchus, / So that my books may make Umbria swell with pride / Umbria, country of Rome’s Callimachus!”) [Return to text.]

2In IV:7:1 Propertius recounts the visitation of her ghost: Sunt aliquid Manes: letum non omnia finit. “Spirits are real: death is not everything.”) [Return to text.]

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