About 55 BCE - after 16 BCE

Much of Propertius’s work is love poetry, mainly addressed to a mistress, real or imaginary, whom he calls Cynthia. This was a conventional arrangement for Roman poets, but both Cynthia and the way in which Propertius describes his love for her are out of the ordinary. A love/hate element often features in the feelings that poets express for their mistresses, and in Propertius both elements are particularly vivid. They lead each other quite a dance, and a faint whiff of something akin to sadomasochism sometimes hangs in the air.

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About Propertius himself we know very little. References in the poems suggest he was in his mid-teens in around 40 BCE. One of his poems mentions something that happened in 16 BCE, and Ovid, who says he heard Propertius recite, mentions him in the past tense in a work dated to 2 CE, so he presumably died sometime in between.

Propertius is a first-rate poet, but the manuscripts we have for him are less reliable than those for contemporaries like Virgil and Horace. It is sometimes hard to know where Propertius’s compressed and individual way with words stops and textual errors begin. This adds a touch of mystery and an extra challenge to reading his work. In dealing with him on Pantheon Poets, an excellent set of commentaries published by W A Camps from 1961 onwards have been invaluable.

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