Elegies, Book 2.22A

Propertius on the razzle

by Propertius

Who is this lecher boasting that he can go all night and one woman is not enough? What happened to the Propertius who is always pledging exclusive and eternal loyalty to Cynthia, even when she is treating him like a doormat? It’s a reminder that poets are not necessarily autobiographers or diarists: if they are any good, they are artists, using their creative imagination. If you were a Roman who wanted to write love elegy and didn’t have a lover, you would invent one. If you did have one, you – and she or he – might have views on how literally the relationship should be turned into verse. Conversely, when they seem at their most imaginative and spontaneous, Roman poets may be following a convention or a model from centuries of Greek precedents that we may or may not know about.

Thamyras was a mythical singer who challenged the nine muses to a music contest in which their stake was sex with all nine of them. He lost and was deprived of the gift of song and of his sight (could have been even worse).

Alcmena was one of Jupiter’s mythical conquests: he took her husband’s form to seduce her, and stopped the motion of the stars to make the night longer.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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Scis here mi multas pariter placuisse puellas;
scis mihi, Demophoon, multa venire mala.
nulla meis frustra lustrantur compita plantis;
o nimis exitio nata theatra meo,
sive aliquis molli diducit candida gestu
bracchia, seu varios incinit ore modos!
interea nostri quaerunt sibi vulnus ocelli,
candida non tecto pectore si qua sedet,
sive vagi crines puris in frontibus errant,
Indica quos medio vertice gemma tenet.
quaeris, Demophoon, cur sim tam mollis in omnis?
quod quaeris, ‘quare’ non habet ullus amor.
cur aliquis sacris laniat sua bracchia cultris
et Phrygis insanos caeditur ad numeros?
uni cuique dedit vitium natura creato:
mi fortuna aliquid semper amare dedit.
me licet et Thamyrae cantoris fata sequantur,
numquam ad formosas, invide, caecus ero.
sed tibi si exilis videor tenuatus in artus,
falleris: haud umquam est culta labore Venus.
percontere licet: saepe est experta puella
officium tota nocte valere meum.
quae si forte aliquid vultu mihi dura negarat,
frigida de tota fronte cadebat aqua.
Iuppiter Alcmenae geminas requieverat Arctos,
et caelum noctu bis sine rege fuit;
nec tamen idcirco languens ad fulmina venit:
nullus amor vires eripit ipse suas.
quid? cum e complexu Briseidos iret Achilles,
num fugere minus Thessala tela Phryges?
quid? ferus Andromachae lecto cum surgeret Hector,
bella Mycenaeae non timuere rates?
ille vel hic classis poterant vel perdere muros:
hic ego Pelides, hic ferus Hector ego.
aspice uti caelo modo sol modo luna ministret:
sic etiam nobis una puella parum est.
altera me cupidis teneat foveatque lacertis,
altera si quando non sinit esse locum;
aut si forte ingrata meo sit facta cubili,
ut sciat esse aliam, quae velit esse mea!
nam melius duo defendunt retinacula navim,
tutius et geminos anxia mater alit.

Demophoon, you know that lately I have fancied many
girls at once, and know that that has given me
a lot of trouble. I roam no square in vain: all too
successfully, the theatre was made to be my ruin,
should an actress gesture with her white arms,
or sing a lively song. Meanwhile, my eyes
look for what will only do them harm,
should a fair-skinned girl sit with her top showing,
or hair stray over smooth foreheads,
caught at the top with an Indian gem. You ask,
Demophoon, why I’m so susceptible to all of them?
No love comprehends the “why” you ask for.
Why do people gash their arms with sacrificial knives,
and jig to the crazy rhythms of Cybele’s music?
Nature gave everyone a weakness at birth: mine
was always to be making love to something.
Even if what happened to Thamyras should happen to me,
I will never be blind to pretty girls, you killjoy!
If my limbs seem scrawny and thin, you’ve got it wrong!
The rites of Venus never take hard labour.
Ask around: girls have often found
that I keep going all night long, and if one
was difficult and said no to something,
my brow broke out all over in cold sweat!
For Alcmena, Jupiter stopped the constellations twice
and heaven lacked a king for two nights running, but
he wasn’t tired when he came back to his thunderbolt!
Love never deprives you of the strength it takes.
What? When Achilles came from Briseis’s embrace,
did the Trojans run less from his spear?
What? When fierce Hector came from Andromache’s bed,
didn’t the Greek fleet fear the onset? Both
were still well able to waste fleets or walls: in love,
I am Achilles, and fierce Hector is me! You see
how first the sun, and then the moon does duty
in the sky? It’s the same with me, one girl is not enough.
Let the first hold me, hug me in her loving arms,
but let the second, if the first one won’t give in;
or maybe, if the first’s no good in bed, let her
remember there’s another willing to be mine,
since two cables hold a ship better than one,
and a mother worries less if she has twins to rear.