Elegies, Book 4.8

The last of Cynthia!

by Propertius

In this, the very final Cynthia poem, she has gone off on an excursion with someone else, and pretty dissolute he sounds too. In her absence Propertius takes to drink and to other diversions. All pretty much in character for both parties.

But wait a minute – this is elegy 4.8, and only just now in elegy 4.7 Cynthia was stone dead and a ghost, telling us about her abode among the virtuous and faithful women of myth in the Elysian Fields. Now here she is again, full of life and carrying on as normal: what is going on?

I sometimes wonder whether, during the 1200 years that separate Propertius from our earliest surviving manuscript of his poems, a copyist accidentally got this poem and the preceding one in the wrong order. Both poems would work that way round: for example, the treatment of Lygdamus the house-slave in this poem could help to provide a motive for the revenge that Cynthia accuses him of taking in the one about her ghost. Scholarship tends to prefer to look for pattern and artistry in the sequence of poems, rather than random human accidents, however, so the commentators I have read assume that the order is deliberate, and who am I to say they are wrong? If the ghost poem was the very last in the Cynthia cycle, it would admittedly make an uncharacteristically dark ending.

If the commentators are right, then Propertius is certainly ending the Cynthia poems, literally, with a bang. Following directly on from the poem about Cynthia’s ghost, this one comes as a big surprise. Clearly, it was never intended to be taken seriously, and the sudden and extreme contrast with the ghost poem prompts the thought that that one isn’t to be taken seriously either. It looks as though we should have been less credulous about Cynthia in the Elysian fields and all the other unlikely and exaggerated things her ghost told us. Maybe Propertius is also making a point about the difference between fiction and biography: whether or not aspects of Cynthia were based on real people, her death and spectacular resurrection are possible only because she is Propertius’s creation, and not a “real” person, and she lives and dies according to choices that he makes in the creative realm, and not according to the vagaries of real life.

Once again, the text has suffered in transmission and is corrupt in places, so it and the translation should be relied on with caution. The lamps not burning steadily and the overturned table are unlucky omens; “Venus” and “dogs” are auspicious and inauspicious dice throws; and whereas in the translation Teia calls out, “Fire!”, in the text she calls out “Water!” (to put the fire out with).

Goodbye, Cynthia darling, and, dead or alive, the best of luck to you.

See the illustrated blog post here.

The reading covers the passage in italics in the text and translation. To listen, press play:

To scroll the original and English translation of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

disce, quid Esquilias hac nocte fugarit aquosas,
cum vicina nouis turba cucurrit agris.
turpis in arcana sonuit cum rixa taberna;
si sine me, famae non sine labe meae.

Lanuvium annosi uetus est tutela draconis,
hic, ubi tam rarae non perit hora morae,
qua sacer abripitur caeco descensus hiatu,
qua penetrat (virgo, tale iter omne caue!)
ieiuni serpentis honos, cum pabula poscit
annua et ex ima sibila torquet humo.
talia demissae pallent ad sacra puellae,
cum temere anguino creditur ore manus.
ille sibi admotas a virgine corripit escas:
virginis in palmis ipsa canistra tremunt.
si fuerint castae, redeunt in colla parentum,
clamantque agricolae ‘fertilis annus erit.’

huc mea detonsis avecta est Cynthia mannis:
causa fuit Iuno, sed mage causa Venus.

Appia, dic quaeso, quantum te teste triumphum
egerit effusis per tua saxa rotis!
spectaclum ipsa sedens primo temone pependit,
ausa per impuros frena movere locos.
serica nam taceo vulsi carpenta nepotis
atque armillatos colla Molossa canis,
qui dabit immundae uenalia fata saginae,
vincet ubi erasas barba pudenda genas.

cum fieret nostro totiens iniuria lecto,
mutato volui castra movere toro.
Phyllis Auentinae quaedam est vicina Dianae,
sobria grata parum: cum bibit, omne decet.
altera Tarpeios est inter Teia lucos,
candida, sed potae non satis unus erit.

his ego constitui noctem lenire vocatis,
et Venere ignota furta novare mea.
unus erat tribus in secreta lectulus herba.

quaeris concubitus? inter utramque fui.
Lygdamus ad cyathos, vitrique aestiva supellex
et Methymnaei Graeca saliva meri.
Nile, tuus tibicen erat, crotalistria Phyllis,
haec facilis spargi munda sine arte rosa,
Magnus et ipse suos breviter concretus in artus
iactabat truncas ad cava buxa manus.

sed neque suppletis constabat flamma lucernis,
reccidit inque suos mensa supina pedes.
me quoque per talos Venerem quaerente secundam
semper damnosi subsiluere canes.
cantabant surdo, nudabant pectora caeco:
Lanuvii ad portas, ei mihi, solus eram;

cum subito rauci sonuerunt cardine postes,
et levia ad primos murmura facta Laris.

nec mora, cum totas resupinat Cynthia valvas,
non operosa comis, sed furibunda decens.
pocula mi digitos inter cecidere remissos,
palluerantque ipso labra soluta mero.
fulminat illa oculis et quantum femina saeuit,
spectaclum capta nec minus urbe fuit.

Phyllidos iratos in vultum conicit unguis:
territa vicinas Teia clamat aquas.
lumina sopitos turbant elata Quiritis,
omnis et insana semita nocte sonat.
illas direptisque comis tunicisque solutis
excipit obscurae prima taberna uiae.

Cynthia gaudet in exuviis victrixque recurrit
et mea perversa sauciat ora manu,
imponitque notam collo morsuque cruentat,
praecipueque oculos, qui meruere, ferit.

atque ubi iam nostris lassavit bracchia plagis,
Lygdamus ad plutei fulcra sinistra latens
eruitur, geniumque meum protractus adorat.
Lygdame, nil potui: tecum ego captus eram.
supplicibus palmis tum demum ad foedera ueni,
cum uix tangendos praebuit illa pedes,
atque ait ‘admissae si vis me ignoscere culpae,
accipe, quae nostrae formula legis erit.

tu neque Pompeia spatiabere cultus in umbra,
nec cum lascivum sternet harena Forum.
colla cave inflectas ad summum obliqua theatrum,
aut lectica tuae se det aperta morae.
Lygdamus in primis, omnis mihi causa querelae,
veneat et pedibus vincula bina trahat.’
indixit leges: respondi ego ‘legibus utar.’
riserat imperio facta superba dato.
dein, quemcumque locum externae tetigere puellae,
suffiit, at pura limina tergit aqua,
imperat et totas iterum mutare lucernas,
terque meum tetigit sulpuris igne caput.
atque ita mutato per singula pallia lecto
respondi, et toto solvimus arma toro.

I’ll tell you about what alarmed the Esquiline Hill with all its fountains last night, when the people who live by the new gardens came running, when the sounds of a seedy brawl rang out in the obscure tavern there – if I wasn’t present myself, there was some damage to my good name nonetheless. Old Lanuvium is under the protection of an ancient serpent: an hour spent stopping to see such a rarity is not wasted, where the descent to the shrine goes steeply through a dark chasm, where the offering to the hungry serpent goes down (girls, keep your eyes open on a path like this!) when it comes looking for its yearly feed and fires up its hiss from the depths of the earth. The girls who are lowered down to these rites go pale, when their hands are rashly trusted to the serpent’s mouth. It grabs the food they hold out to it, while the baskets tremble in their hands. If they have kept themselves chaste, they return to the arms of their parents, and the farmers shout, “the year will be fertile!” Cynthia was driven there by her ponies with their clipped manes: Juno’s rite was the reason given, but Venus was a more likely one! Appian Way, be our witness to the triumphal progress she made, headlong over your stones! What a sight she was, inclining forward over the front of the car as she sat, boldly going at full tilt over the bumps and potholes. Not to mention the silk-covered coach of the wastrel she was with, with his plucked cheeks and Molossian dogs with bracelets round their necks, and who will sell his life and eat the mush they feed in the gladiators’ school, where to his shame the beard will overrun those carefully shaven cheeks.
Now since my bed is wronged so frequently, I decided to have a change and shift my headquarters. There is a woman called Phyllis who lives near Diana’s temple on the Aventine – sober, she does not have much to recommend her, but when she drinks, anything goes – and there is another one called Teia, who lives in the Tarpeian groves: an attractive girl, but one man won’t be enough for her if she’s been drinking. I sent for them, deciding to do some fresh cheating with new partners. There was one little dining couch for three on the inner lawn. How did we lie? I was between the two of them, Lygdamus served the wine, there was summer tableware made of glass and a fine-flavoured Greek wine from Lesbos; there was an Egyptian flute-player, Phyllis had brought her castanets, there were roses, in their natural grace, ready for strewing, and Magnus my dwarf was running his stunted hands over the hollow boxwood flutes. But the flame in the lamps burned unsteady although the oil had been topped up, and the table toppled over and fell flat on its back with its legs in the air, and as I was trying to make a favourable throw of “Venus” with the dice, those irritating “dogs” kept jumping up at me the whole time. The ladies were singing for a deaf man and baring their tops for a blind one: I was far away on my own, I’m sorry to say, by the gates of Lanuvium, when all at once there was a grating noise as the front door turned on its hinges, and low voices could be heard at the entrance.
In barely a moment, Cynthia flings both the doors wide open – she hadn’t done her hair, but she was lovely in her rage. My fingers lost their grip, the drinking-cups fell from them, my lips, slack with wine, had turned pale. She flashes thunderbolts from her eyes, and the woman is so angry, it was as great a spectacle as the fall of a city. She thrusts her angry nails into Phyllis’s face, and Teia, terrified, shouts “Fire!” so loudly the neighbours hear, lights come on and are carried aloft, and the street rings with the sound of our late-night brawling. The nearest tavern along the road gives a haven to the girls, their hair pulled awry and their shifts undone. Cynthia glories in the spoils, rushes back victorious and throws a punch that splits my lip, leaves her mark on my neck with a bite that draws blood there, then concentrates on my eyes, which deserved what they were getting, and when she has tired her arms out with hitting me, Lygdamus is yanked out from where he has been hiding under the left-hand leg of the couch and lies exposed and praying to my guardian spirit for help. Lygdamus, there was nothing I could do: I was as much a captive as you were. At last, hands held out in supplication, I sued for peace; whereupon she just about suffered me to touch her feet, and said: “If you want me to forgive you for the crimes you’ve admitted, listen, this is what my covenant of the law will be. No dressing-up and strolling round in the shade of Pompey’s portico, nor where the sand strews the randy Forum. Mind you don’t turn your head to look up at the women at the top of the theatre, or go along with your litter open and looking for distraction. Most of all, Lygdamus is the entire cause of my complaint: let him be sold, and drag a double layer of chains on his feet!” She had proclaimed her laws: I replied, “I will keep them”, and she smiled with pride at her success and my surrender. Then, wherever the newcomers had touched something, she fumigates; she washes the threshold with pure water, orders the oil in the lamps to be completely changed again and touched my head three times with burning sulphur. And so, after every single cover on it had been changed, I found my form again and we laid down our arms across the whole expanse of the bed.