Agents and Patients

More often, the speaker is not the initiator or subject of the magic but its object, not agent but patient. The ardent lover is warned in 1.5.5—6 that he will have to walk over “unknown fires”[1] and—presumably also without knowing—“drink poisons from all over Thessaly,” which I interpret as an indication that he is crazed enough to persist in a painful romance. In 2.24.27 the insane lover ingests “foul poisons” (taetra venena); problems with the transmitted text leave open whether he does this “happily” (libens) or he merely “sips” (libet) them.[2] In 1.12, the unnatural intensity of Propertius and Cynthia’s relationship, and its sudden dissolution, are attributed to divine or magical action: “I was an object of envy: Was it a god that overwhelmed me, or did some herb gathered on Promethean hills separate us?” (1.12.9—10)

In the opening poem of book 2 the lover again expresses the strength of his love by imagining himself the victim of poison attacks.

seu mihi sunt tangenda novercae pocula Phaedrae, pocula privigno non nocitura suo, seu mihi Circaeo pereundum est gramine, sive Colchis Iolciacis urat aёna focis. una meos quoniam praedata est femina sensus, ex hac ducentur funera nostra domo.

Though I be doomed to drink of the cup that the stepdame Phaedra brewed, the cup whereof her stepson |i.e. Hippolytos| was destined to take no hurt, or must die of Circe’s herbs; or though for me the Col- chian heat the cauldron on the fires of Iolcus, yet since one girl hath stolen away my senses, from her house only shall go forth my funeral train. (2.1.51-56)

The argument is then extended: “Medicine cures all the anguish of mankind; love alone loves not the physician of the sicknesses caused by it”


The attacks described above never include the terms “magic” or “witch” (saga), though translations introduce such words liberally.[3] The same holds true for poem 2.4, which again describes at length the tribulations that the speaker suffers for his love.

non hic herba valet, non hic nocturna Cytaeis, non Perimedaeae[4] gramina cocta manu;

quippe ubi nec causas nec apertos cernimus ictus, unde tamen veniant tot mala caeca viast.

nam cui non ego sum fallaci praemia vati? quae mea non decies somnia versat anus?

For such a case as mine avails no drug, no Colchian woman in the night, no, nor the herbs Perimede’s hands distilled. For here we see no cause nor whence the blow is dealt; dark is the path whereby so many griefs come none the less. . . . For of what lying seer am I not the prey? What hag has not three times three pondered my dreams? (2.4.7—10, 15—16)[5]

Again, the poison is qualified by geographical and mythical terms, not by any specific contemporary practitioners, such as those Propertius openly designates in the last verses quoted. The same observation can be made of 3.6.25—30, which describes the details of a magic attack, though the term “magic” is absent. The situation of the passage is complex:[6] the speaker of the poem demands that his slave report the miseries of his (the speaker’s) mistress and fantasizes that she complains about his infidelity. Thus he imagines her words, as she speculates on his reasons for abandoning her and as she disparages the female rival she supposes:

non me moribus illa, sed herbis improba vicit staminea rhombi ducitur ille rota.

illum turgentis ranae portenta rubetae et lecta exsuctis anguibus ossa trahunt, et strigis inventae per busta iacentia plumae, cinctaque funesto lanea vitta viro.

Not by her conduct, but by herbs the wretch [the rival] has conquered me: he [i.e. my former lover] is led captive by the rotating string of the rhombus.

He is drawn to her by the monstrous charms of the swelling bramble-toad and by the bones she has gathered from dried serpents, by the owl-feathers found on low-lying tombs, and the woolen fillet bound about the |wax figure of the] doomed man.[7]

Here, the imagined complaint is very precise and descends even to details of ritual activities.[8] The initiator of this attack is identified, but the question of whether ritual specialists are involved or not is left open. Interestingly enough, the term “herbs” (herbis) introduces and generalizes the nonherbal ingredients of the ritual practices. As stated above, I do not aim to contribute to the reconstruction of rites and their logic—detailed here in an interesting selection of standard practices, starting with the swirling “magic wheel.” It is clear both from the text quoted and from the following lines that these practices achieve a single end: the victim is sexually attracted to the woman who has instigated these practices.

Funestus hints at the devastating consequences of such an attraction, but it does not activate the association of herbs with poison that is so prominent in the passages quoted previously. As in the case of Odysseus as victim to Circe’s enchantments, the application of herbs need not have deadly consequences.[9]

The insights gained so far can help resolve an interpretative problem in another poem, which in turn will illuminate the final passage I will discuss.[10] Poem 2.28 (which I take as a unity)[11] presents the beloved as dangerously ill.[12] The poem begins as a prayer, first to Jupiter, then to various goddesses; it repeatedly returns to this frame, but intermittently addresses the beloved as well. Her illness is so serious that a (never-named) human addressee is exhorted to be prepared for death or for a last-minute reversal (2.28.32), and the speaker contemplates, as a final resort, the simultaneous deaths of himself and his beloved (2.28.39—42).[13] Interposed is a statement about the conclusion of magical activities and the appearance of ominous sounds (35—38):

deficiunt magico torti sub carmine rhombi, et tacet[14] exstincto laurus adusta foco; et iam Luna negat totiens descendere caelo, nigraque funestum concinit omen avis.

Now cease the wheels whirled to the magic chant, the altar fire is dead and the laurel remains quiet in the ashes. Now the moon refuses to descend so oft from heaven, and the bird of night sings ominous of death.

As the immediately following verses stress the unity of the lovers, the verses quoted cannot point to the dissolution of the magic that had caused the speaker’s attraction to the beloved. Rather, it must refer to a magical ritual on the part of, or on behalf of, this woman in order to attract some third party.[15] [16] This would fit with the statement that now even Juno, who protects conjugal bonds, pities her (33—34).4/ The pragmatic content of the verses would be: “Your infidelity toward me has also ceased.” This would give a new aspect to her beauty, earlier identified as rousing the gods’ envy (10). And it would also prepare the reader for the pun of the final line,[17] demanding that the woman not only pay Isis with vigils, but also dedicate ten nights of lovemaking to the speaker as votive offering: “I’ll leave Rome, the place of sexual distractions” (as shown in 2.19 and there stressed by reference to sacrifices to Diana) “I’ll end my sexual relationship with the other man by keeping celibate vigils for Isis, and I dedicate ten nights to you.” This is the invalid’s votive formula that underlies the structure of the poem.[18]

For our purposes, it is important to observe that there is no indication of the magical agent: Propertius evades the question of true agency by assigning it to inanimates (as subjects of the cessative verbs: deficient, tacet, negat descendere). Only in the final line of the excerpt is the grammatical subject identical with the pragmatic subject: the bird, whose singing illustrates the shift away from the topic of magic practices. The beloved is only implicitly responsible for this binding, but not physically harmful, magic.

  • [1] See Fedeli 1980, 157 on the expression, who rightly rejects any reference more specific thanthat of fire treacherously hiding under ashes.
  • [2] Hendry 1996.
  • [3] Thus, I do not follow Fedeli (2005, 87) in his strict differentiation between the love magicof ll. 51-52 and the generic magic in the following lines. Papanghelis (1987, 31) rightly points out:“their common dominator is their being enchanting and deadly at the same time.”
  • [4] This correction is supportable (see also Papanghelis 1987, 33), but Tupet’s arguments forpreserving the manuscript tradition with per Medeae (Tupet 1976, 358—59) are not without force.The decision has no consequences for my purposes.
  • [5] I do not follow the interposition of vv. 15—16 after 8 proposed by Birt and followed byFedeli 2005, 165. The reasoning offered by the latter is revealing: “La trasposizione . . . apparenecessaria perchc illogica sarebbe la loro collocazione in un contesto in cui non si parla piu dellemaghe.” His argument assumes clear borders for the field of cultural practices termed “magic.”Thus the modern observer excludes what he considers to belong to the (modern) field of medicine.Gunther (1997, 49), supposing a much damaged book 2, hypothesizes that the original positions of9—10 and 15—16 have been lost.
  • [6] This contributes greatly to the dramatic vivacity of the poem (Fedeli 1985, 206—7).
  • [7] Funestus is difficult with vir and has lead to numerous conjections, e.g., raptaquefunesto . . . toro or rogo (see ed. Heyworth and S. J. Heyworth and Morwood 2011, 153). Tupet (Tupet 1976, 367) favors mero; Fedeli 1985 obelizes the phrase (see 220—21). The transmitted textis reproduced by Viarre 2005 with no comment.
  • [8] For a lucid discussion, see Tupet 1976, 361—68; S. J. Heyworth and Morwood (2011, 151—52) point to Hor. Epod. 5.17—24 as an important intertext.
  • [9] Cf. Prop. 3.12.17: et Circae fraudes, lotosque herbaeque tenaces, stressing the binding qualityof the herbs.
  • [10] See Hubbard 1974, 55—56 for previous attempts at elucidation.
  • [11] See Fedeli 2005, 779—80 for pertinent arguments.
  • [12] Hence classified by Cairns (1972, 151—57) as among the “soteria.”
  • [13] For the importance of the association of love and death, see Papanghelis 1987.
  • [14] Fedeli (2005, 801), following Canter, suggests the (easy) correction of the transmitted iacetto tacet. Cf. Prop. 4.3.58 and Harmon 1986, 1933 with further references.
  • [15] Syndikus's interpretation (2006, 301) that the reference is to magic intended to heal thewoman is untenable. Likewise Tupet’s proposition that the references to magical practices arecommonplaces (“d’une faqon tres large,” Tupet 1976, 360), nothing more than characterizations ofan atmosphere of anxiety, misses the point. It is, however, more or less followed by Fedeli 2005,who interprets the end of the wheel's spinning as an omen (800).
  • [16] Verses 33—34 are frequently transposed; Gunther (1997, 22—24) rightly preserves the continuity of verses 33—46, but transposes them after l. 2, bringing 28a (as a separate poem) to an endwith l. 32.
  • [17] Pun: Fedeli 2005, 815.
  • [18] Alessi 1985 has argued that the reason for Cynthia being “affected” (l. 1) is Jupiter’s sexualinterest in her rather than some illness. Such an interpretation would fit in the verses in questioneven better, but the textual clues that support this reading remain very subtle.
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