Elegies, Book 4.7

The last of Cynthia?

by Propertius

Tragedy has struck and Cynthia has died, it seems. Her apparition as a ghost, leaning over the head of the bed where Propertius lies awake (or dreaming), showing the signs of death and damage from the flames of her pyre, is a poignant and strikingly original piece of writing. Poor Cynthia, and poor Propertius!

But wait a minute – Propertius seems to be only just back from the funeral, but Cynthia describes developments in his household that must have taken time to unfold after her death. And since she is complaining that there is a new mistress who is now in control of Propertius and the servants, why is he on his own in bed, and ruing the fact? Don’t Cynthia’s complaints about a cheapskate funeral, her accusations of poisoning, the persecution of her favourites that she describes, and what she wants done to Nomas and her bugbear, Lygdamus seem a bit extreme? Does Cerberus really leave Hades and roam the Earth at night, like a cat that Charon the ferryman has put out? And is Cynthia – Cynthia – really so well placed to look down her nose at the sexual misdemeanours of Clytemnestra and Pasiphaȅ, and sit in the Elysian Fields swapping affirmations of fidelity with the most virtuous heroines of myth? Still, one has to admit that these are just the sort of things that the Cynthia we know and love would say. Farewell, then, Cynthia …

The “ball and chain” that I have shackled Petale to would actually have been a large block of wood. Roman tombs were often at the roadside, and the poem’s references to Roman funerary customs are illuminating. Hypermnestra was the only one of the fifty daughters of the mythical King Danaus (the Danaids) who refused to murder her husband on her wedding-night.

The text has suffered in transmission and is corrupt in places, so it and the translation should be relied on with caution.

See the illustrated blog post here.

The reading covers the passage shown in the text and translation in italics. 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.

Sunt aliquid Manes: letum non omnia finit,
luridaque evictos effugit umbra rogos.
Cynthia namque meo visa est incumbere fulcro,
murmur ad extremae nuper humata uiae,
cum mihi somnus ab exsequiis penderet amoris,
et quererer lecti frigida regna mei.
eosdem habuit secum quibus est elata capillos,
eosdem oculos; lateri vestis adusta fuit,
et solitum digito beryllon adederat ignis,
summaque Lethaeus triverat ora liquor.
spirantisque animos et vocem misit: at illi
pollicibus fragiles increpuere manus:
‘perfide nec cuiquam melior sperande puellae,
in te iam vires somnus habere potest?
iamne tibi exciderant vigilacis furta Suburae
et mea nocturnis trita fenestra dolis?
per quam demisso quotiens tibi fune pependi,
alterna veniens in tua colla manu!
saepe Venus trivio commissa est, pectore mixto
fecerunt tepidas proelia nostra vias.
foederis heu taciti, cuius fallacia verba
non audituri diripuere Noti.

at mihi non oculos quisquam inclamavit euntis:
unum impetrassem te revocante diem:
nec crepuit fissa me propter harundine custos,
laesit et obiectum tegula curta caput.
denique quis nostro curvum te funere uidit,
atram quis lacrimis incaluisse togam?
si piguit portas ultra procedere, at illuc
iussisses lectum lentius ire meum.
cur ventos non ipse rogis, ingrate, petisti?
cur nardo flammae non oluere meae?
hoc etiam grave erat, nulla mercede hyacinthos
inicere et fracto busta piare cado?
Lygdamus uratur — candescat lamina vernae —
sensi ego, cum insidiis pallida vina bibi —
at Nomas — arcanas tollat versuta salivas;
dicet damnatas ignea testa manus.
quae modo per vilis inspecta est publica noctes,
haec nunc aurata cyclade signat humum;
et graviora rependit iniquis pensa quasillis,
garrula de facie si qua locuta mea est;
nostraque quod Petale tulit ad monumenta coronas,
codicis immundi vincula sentit anus;
caeditur et Lalage tortis suspensa capillis,
per nomen quoniam est ausa rogare meum.
te patiente meae conflavit imaginis aurum,
ardente e nostro dotem habitura rogo.
non tamen insector, quamvis mereare, Properti:
longa mea in libris regna fuere tuis.
iuro ego Fatorum nulli revolubile carmen,
tergeminusque canis sic mihi molle sonet,
me servasse fidem. si fallo, vipera nostris
sibilet in tumulis et super ossa cubet.
nam gemina est sedes turpem sortita per amnem,
turbaque diversa remigat omnis aqua.
unda Clytaemestrae stuprum vehit altera, Cressae
portat mentitae lignea monstra bovis.
ecce coronato pars altera rapta phaselo,
mulcet ubi Elysias aura beata rosas,
qua numerosa fides, quaque aera rotunda Cybebes
mitratisque sonant Lydia plectra choris.
Andromedeque et Hypermestre sine fraude maritae
narrant historiae tempora nota suae:
haec sua maternis queritur livere catenis
bracchia nec meritas frigida saxa manus;
narrat Hypermestre magnum ausas esse sorores,
in scelus hoc animum non valuisse suum.
sic mortis lacrimis uitae sancimus amores:
celo ego perfidiae crimina multa tuae.
sed tibi nunc mandata damus, si forte moveris,
si te non totum Chloridos herba tenet:
nutrix in tremulis ne quid desideret annis
Parthenie: potuit, nec tibi avara fuit.
deliciaeque meae Latris, cui nomen ab usu est,
ne speculum dominae porrigat illa novae.
et quoscumque meo fecisti nomine versus,
ure mihi: laudes desine habere meas.
pone hederam tumulo, mihi quae praegnante corymbo
mollia contortis alligat ossa comis.
ramosis Anio qua pomifer incubat arvis,
et numquam Herculeo numine pallet ebur,
hic carmen media dignum me scribe columna,
sed breve, quod currens vector ab urbe legat:
‘hic Tiburtina iacet aurea Cynthia terra:
accessit ripae laus, Aniene, tuae.’
nec tu sperne piis venientia somnia portis:
cum pia venerunt somnia, pondus habent.
nocte vagae ferimur, nox clausas liberat umbras,
errat et abiecta Cerberus ipse sera.
luce iubent leges Lethaea ad stagna reverti:
nos vehimur, vectum nauta recenset onus.
nunc te possideant aliae: mox sola tenebo:
mecum eris, et mixtis ossibus ossa teram.’
haec postquam querula mecum sub lite peregit,
inter complexus excidit umbra meos.

There are such things as ghosts – death does not put an end to everything, and a pallid shade escapes the defeated pyres, for I saw Cynthia, who had just been buried by the bustle at the highway’s edge, lean over the head of my bed when my sleep was fitful after my dear one’s burial and I was ruing the cold realm of my bed. Her hair was as when she was borne to the pyre, the same look in her eyes: her dress was fused onto her side, on her finger the fire had bitten into the beryl ring she always wore, and the damp of the world beyond had just touched the edge of her lips. Her voice, and her temper, were the same as when she was alive, and her fragile hands rattled as she gave a flick of her thumbs: “You’re a traitor to me, and you’d be no better to any girl! Can sleep have power over you at a time like this? Have you forgotten already what we got up to in the small hours at the Subura, how my window-sill was worn away with your tricks at night, all those times I let down a rope from it and came down hand over hand to embrace you? How often we coupled at the crossroads, breast crushed against breast, and our bouts took the chill off the street! But, alas, the lying words of the tacit oath between us were blown away by winds that were never going to heed them. No-one called to me to stay as the life faded from my eyes – I could have managed one more day, if you had called me back – there was no watchman shaking his split-cane rattle for me – and the broken tile my head was plonked onto was cutting into it. And who saw you stoop in grief at the service, or wearing mourning that you’d warmed with your tears? Even if you couldn’t be bothered to go further than the gates, you could at least have had them carry my bier there more slowly. You bastard, why weren’t you there yourself to summon the winds for my pyre? Why weren’t my flames perfumed with nard? Was it too much even to strew cheap irises on me, or break a wine-jar to hallow my ashes? That house-slave Lygdamus, burn him, get the hot plates glowing for him! I realised straight away when he’d tricked me into drinking wine that was pale with poison. And Nomas – even if she is crafty enough to get rid of her secret potions, the red-hot plate will reveal that she has guilt on her hands. As for that woman, who not so long ago was on public show as a whore, and a cheap one too, now she’s tracing the ground with the gilded edge of her fancy gown, and weighs out unfair amounts of wool to spin for any of the women who have said too much and talked about my beauty, and because old Petale took flowers to my grave she finds herself shackled to an enormous ball and chain, and Lalage is hung up by her plaited hair and flogged because she asked for something in my name! You even put up with it when she melted down the gold of my image, so she could draw a dowry out of my own pyre! But I won’t pursue you further, Propertius, however much you may deserve it: my reign in your works was a long one. I swear by the song of the fates, which can be unsung for no man, and so may three-bodied Cerberus bark gently at me, that I kept faithful. If I am lying to you, may a viper hiss in my grave and squat on my bones. Because there are two homes that may fall to one’s lot over the grim river, and the throng all row their different ways on the water. One current carries Clytemnestra the adulteress, and bears Cretan Pasiphae’s wooden horror, that counterfeit heifer. But see, there is another group, disembarked from vessels which are crowned with garlands, where the blessed breeze of Elysium caresses the roses, where there are tuneful strings, and Lydian plectra playing among the turbaned dancers and making Cybele’s rounded cymbals sing. Andromeda and Hypermnestra, those virtuous wives, tell of the dangers for which they were famed in legend: Andromeda complains that her arms were livid with chains she bore on her mother’s account, and that, through no fault of hers, her arms and hands were like freezing stone; Hypermnestra tells how her sisters came to dare the enormity they did, and how in her own mind she could not bring herself to commit the crime. So with the tears of death we sanctify our earthly loves; I keep my counsel about many of the charges to which your treachery lays you open. But now we urge you, if perhaps you can be moved, if Chloris’s spells have not taken you in completely: let my nurse, Parthenie, not want for anything in the years of her infirmity: she was not unkind to you, although she could have been. And may my darling Latris, “handmaid” by name and by nature, not have to hold up the mirror to the new mistress. And whatever verses you made in my name – burn them all for me: do not cling to praise that you won through me. Plant ivy on my tomb, that will bind my fragile bones in its twisting tendrils with their swelling berries. Where the fruitful river Anio lies on the wooded fields, and ivory, by the grace of Hercules, never loses its brightness, there, in the centre of a column, put an epitaph which is worthy of me, but short enough for a traveller from the city to read as he hurries by: “Here in the earth of Tibur lies golden Cynthia, an embellishment, Anienus, to the renown of your banks”. And don’t ignore dreams that come to you through the gates of virtue: when those virtuous dreams arrive, they carry weight. At night, we shades are carried on our wanderings, the night frees us from captivity and, the bolt thrown back, Cerberus himself wanders abroad. With the daylight, the laws say we must return to the pools of Lethe: we are on board, and Chiron the mariner keeps count of the load he carries. Other women may possess you now: soon I alone will have you: you will be with me, and mine shall rub against yours in the mingling of our bones.” When she had finished her accusations and complaining, her shade passed beyond the reach of my embrace.