Propertius, Carmen 4.2

The material to be investigated in this chapter is a text by the Augustan poet Sextus Propertius (54/47—before 2 BC). Propertius won fame by publishing a book of elegies on the theme of his love (or that of his male persona) for a fictitious Cynthia, with both characters as members of the upper echelons of society. The poems also dwell on the political context of the civil wars preceding the sole rule of Caius Iulius divi filius Caesar, called Augustus from 29 BC onward. Interspersed among the love elegies are poems that deal with the cruelties of Augustus’s subjection of Etruria and Umbria (the region of the poet’s birthplace, Assisi). During the second half of the first century BC, the cultural and political unification of Italy was an ongoing and still-painful process, invoked by all the poets dominating the literary circles of Rome, who issued from the different Italic regions.[1] Propertius was a very careful observer of politics and of the society of his time, and he had access to the immediate circle around the princeps. Book 4, an addition to the earlier poems in books 1—3, brings religion center stage, from the opening poem onward.[2]

Propertius 4.2 has held a degree of prominence in histories of Roman religion due to its references to topography and early Roman history.[3] However, as far as I can see, this text, which has a god speak about himself in the first person, has never been the subject of an analysis interested in ritual or modes of religious representation and appropriation of gods. One might read it as a contribution to the ancient controversy about the status and power of images of divinities, a controversy that has generated much interest in previous decades, as noted above.[4] My analysis, however, will be focused on the practices through which the image is addressed and their consequences. This is relevant for our understanding and even for the constitution of a text that is among the most disputed in Latin poetry. As it turns out, my readings are extremely conservative. The text presented is much closer to the pre-twelfth-century archetype than those of all modern editions. Evidently, this poem presents a good example of a hermeneutical circle that begins with faulty expectations regarding cultural (and, in this case, specifically religious) patterns, and thus arrives at the necessity to alter a transmitted text even where it is inherently acceptable and hardly the result of misunderstandings on the part of copyists.[5]

Our poem begins the careful sequence of interspersed aetiological and erotic elegies contained within Propertius’s relatively short fourth book. It is preceded only by a pair of programmatic elegies, which call for and subsequently criticize aetiological poetry on Roman topics (4.1 and 4.1a).[6] Review of all possible contemporary references has led to a general agreement that the book was composed in or shortly after 16 BC. The dense network of motifs (such as unus and una puella) and the well-organized range of subjects indicate that many of the poems were composed specifically for this book, and were edited or at least finished by the poet himself.[7] As a whole, they put into practice what is asserted in the very first elegy: “I will sing rituals and gods and the old toponyms.”[8] In the ensuing poems, a variety of speakers are found in locations of ancient ritual in the center of Rome. They are interested in antiquarian details and provide aetiological explanations for various phenomena.[9] Erotic poems appear at regular intervals. Evidently, Propertius is pursuing his initial poetological deliberations on the appropriate subject of elegy, as formulated in 4.1a and b. One might read the whole book as a metapoetic discourse. If I neglect this dimension, as my analysis is directed toward Roman religion, I do not negate it. The existence of this strand does not, however, diminish the relevancy of Propertius’s observations on religious practice. Rather, it supports a critical reading that is focused on the media portrayed within the text.

The poem also participates in a discourse—important to the poets and the Italic peoples at large of Propertius’s generation and the previous one—on ethnicity after the bloody civil war of the forties:[10] What did Ro- manitas constitute for inhabitants of the Italian peninsula? How Italic was Roman culture? How many patriae did a Latin-speaking Italian at Rome have? Etruscans and Oscans are agents mentioned in the Vertumnus poem, while the speaker of the introductory elegy of the fourth book had defined himself both as an Umbrian and at the same time as a “Roman Callimachus” (4.1.63—64). This discourse is prominent in the antiquarian contents of our elegy; it has dominated, as mentioned above, the religio-historical interpretation of the text.[11] Nevertheless, it will be disregarded in the following.

I start by presenting the text, mostly following the rather conservative edition of Gregory Hutchinson, but without his transposition of verses. James Butrica’s evaluation of the textual tradition and Stephen Heyworth’s edition built thereon have not been neglected in their contributions to determine the archetype and its problems.[12]

Qui mirare meas tot in uno corpore formas, accipe Vertumni signa paterna dei.

Tuscus ego et Tuscis orior, nec paenitet inter proelia Volsinios deseruisse focos. haec me turba iuvat, nec templo laetor eburno:

Romanum satis est posse videre forum. hac quondam Tiberinus iter faciebat, et aiunt remorum auditos per vada pulsa sonos: at postquam ille suis tantum concessit alumnis,

Vertumnus verso dicor ab amne deus. 10

seu, quia vertentis fructum praecepimus anni,

Vertumnmi rursus creditur esse sacrum. prima mihi variat liventibus uva racemis, et coma lactenti spicea fruge tumet; hic dulces cerasos, hic autumnalia pruna cernis et aestivo mora rubere die; insitor hic solvit pomosa vota corona, cum pirus invito stipite mala tulit. mendax fama, vaces: alius mihi nominis index:

de se narranti tu modo crede deo. 20

opportuna mea est cunctis natura figuris: in quamcumque voles, verte, decorus ero. indue me Cois, fiam non dura puella:

meque virum sumpta quis neget esse toga? da falcem et torto frontem mihi comprime faeno: iurabis nostra gramina secta manu. arma tuli quondam et, memini, laudabar in illis: corbis in21 imposito pondere messor eram. sobrius ad lites: at cum est imposta corona,

clamabis capiti vina subisse meo. 30

cinge caput mitra, speciem furabor Iacchi;

furabor Phoebi, si modo plectra dabis. cassibus impositis venor: sed harundine sumpta fautor plumoso sum deus aucupio. est etiam aurigae species Vertumnus et eius traicit alterno qui leve corpus equo. sub petaso pisces calamo praedabor, et ibo mundus demissis institor in tunicis. pastor me ad baculum possum curvare vel idem

sirpiculis medio pulvere ferre rosam. 40

nam quid ego adiciam, de quo mihi maxima fama est, hortorum in manibus dona probata meis? caeruleus cucumis tumidoque cucurbita ventre me notat, et iunco brassica vincta levi; nec flos ullus hiat pratis, quin ille decenter impositus fronti langueat ante meae.

21. I follow Hcyworth’s conservative treatment of the transmitted but superfluous in imposito (Heyworth 2007b, 439).

at mihi quod formas unus vertebar in omnes, nomen ab eventu patria lingua dedit. et tu, Roma, meis tribuisti praemia Tuscis,

unde hodie Vicus nomina Tuscus habet, 50

tempore quo sociis venit Lycomedius armis quoque Sabina feri contudit arma Tati. vidi ego labentes acies et tela caduca, atque hostes turpi terga dedisse fugae. sed facias, divum sator, ut Romana per aevum transeat ante meos turba togata pedes.

(sex superant versus: te, qui ad vadimonia curris, non moror: haec spatiis ultima creta meis.) stipes acernus eram, properanti falce dolatus,

ante Numam grata pauper in urbe deus. 60

at tibi, Mamuri, formae caelator aenae, tellus artifices ne terat Osca manus, qui me tot docilem potuisti fundere in usus. unum opus est, operi non datur unus honos.

(Prop. 4.2)[13]

You who wonder at the many forms I have in a single body, learn the features that from the days of your forefathers have distinguished the god Ver- tumnus. I am Etruscan, and come from Etruria; but I don’t regret having deserted the hearths of Volsinii in time of war. The crowd here pleases me; nor do I take delight in a temple decorated with ivory: it is enough to be able to see the Roman forum. Once Tiber made his way past here, and they say one could hear the sounds of oars striking the shallows. But after he gave up the pool to his nurselings, thanks to the turning of the stream I am called the god Vertumnus; (11) or again, because we pluck the first-fruits of the passing year, the rite is believed to belong to Vertumnus. It is for me the early grape changes colour as the bunches redden and the hairy ears of corn swell with juicy fruit; here you see sweet cherries, here plums in autumn, and the mulberry ripening on a summer day; here the grafter his vow with a garland of fruit, when the pear has borne apples on a reluctant stock.

  • (19) Lying rumour, be quiet: you are a false witness of my name; reader, you should believe only what the god tells about himself. (21) My nature is suited to all forms: turn me into whichever you like, I shall be at home in the part. Dress me in Coan cloth: I shall become an easy girl;[14] and who would deny me a man when I put on a toga? Give me a scythe and press my brow with a twist of hay: you will swear my hand has been cutting grass. I bore arms once, and, I remember, I was praised in them. I was a harvester, equipped with the weight of a basket placed on me. Sober I go to court; but when a garland has been put on, you will shout that wine has gone to my head. (31) Surround my head with a turban: I shall steal the appearance of Iacchus; I shall steal Phoebus’s, if only you give me a plectrum. With nets placed on me I hunt, but when I’ve taken up a |limed| reed, I am the god who favours the capture of feathery fowls. Vertumnus is also the image of a charioteer, and of the man who nimbly transfers his body from one horse to another. Under a cap I shall catch fish with a rod, and I will travel as a spruce pedlar with my tunic trailing. A shepherd, I can bend myself to the crook, and also carry roses in baskets amidst dust.
  • (41) Why should I add what I am most famous for, that the choicest gifts of horticulture are in my hands? The dark-green cucumber, the swollen-bellied gourd mark me out, and cabbage tied with light rush. Nor does any flower spread wide in the meadows without first elegantly drooping, placed on my forehead. But because I alone changed into all kinds of shapes my country’s tongue gave me my name from the result, and you, Rome, granted a reward to my Etruscans thanks to which Tuscan Street has its name today. (51) What time the Lycomedian came in allied arms and crushed the Sabine arms of fierce Tatius, I myself saw battle lines slipping, weapons dropped, and the enemy turn their backs in ignoble flight. But, father of the gods, may you ensure that the toga’d Roman throng passes before my feet for all time.
  • (57) (Six lines remained to be performed; I do not delay you who hurry to answer bail: this is the finishing line of my circuits:) I was a maple stump, fashioned by a hastening sickle, a poor god in a grateful city before the days of Numa. But, Marmurrius, divine sculptor of my bronze form, may the Oscan earth not wear away your artist’s hands, you who had the ability to cast me to be taught so many roles. It was a single work; not single is the honour given to it.

Copy of a statuette of a libatinggenius centuriae with mural crown and cornucopia, bearing a revised dedication: “in honor of the divine [i.e., imperial] house” (CIL 13.7748). Mid-third century AD, from the Saalburg castle. Photo by J. Rupke, used by permission of Archaologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Wurttemberg.

  • [1] See, e.g., Feichtinger 1991; Rupke 2009d, 123—24; and Gunther 2012 for the civil warcontext; on Assisi, see Newman 1997, 54—99 and Cairns 2006, 4—14.
  • [2] For very different approaches, cf. Burck 1966; Gurval 1995; Edwards 1996; Fox 1996;Newman 1997; Janan 2001; Keith 2008; Lowrie 2008; W. R. Johnson 2009; Rupke 2009d; Cristo-foli, Santini, and Santucci 2010; O’Rourke 2010; Bettini 2012; Lentano 2012.
  • [3] For example, Latte 1960, 191.
  • [4] Gordon 1979; Scheer 2000. I leave aside the stimulating, but also limited, discussion onancient regimes of seeing, much furthered by Jas Elsner (e.g., Elsner 1995; Platt 2011, 386-393;Francis 2012).
  • [5] For a methodological discussion of the problem with regard to Roman religion, see Rupke1998b.
  • [6] On which see Rupke 2009d with further bibliography.
  • [7] Hutchinson 1984.
  • [8] Sacra diesque canam et cognomina prisca locorum, 4.1.69.
  • [9] See the map in Welch 2005, 16; for signum Vertumni, see ibid., 39.
  • [10] See in general Farney 2007; Whitmarsh 2010; W. R. Johnson 2009, 67—68; for ethnicitiesin Roman religion, see Rupke 2014a.
  • [11] Recently Cairns 2006, 281-85; Gibson 2007, 68, n. 72.
  • [12] Hutchinson 1984, 2006; Butrica 1984; Heyworth 1986, 1995, 2007a, 2007b.
  • [13] The translation is Heyworth's (Hcyworth 2007b, 590—91), restored, however, to the sequence of the verses as transmitted and printed above. Likewise, differences in the reading of theLatin text in lines 34, 48, and 57 are rendered.
  • [14] That is, a prostitute (see O'Neill 2000, 268).
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