Propertius: The Elegies
Translated by A. S. Kline © 2002, 2008 All Rights Reserved
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Here, whatever you see, stranger, which is now mighty Rome, before Trojan Aeneas was hills and grass: and Evander’s fugitive herd lay where the Palatine stands, sacred to Apollo of Ships. These golden temples sprang from earthly gods: there was no disgrace in houses made without art: Tarpeian Jupiter thundered from a bare cliff, and Tiber was foreign to our cattle.
Where Remus’ house raises itself from that stairway, a single hearth was a whole kingdom to the brothers. The Curia that shines up there, adorned with the purple hem of the Senate, held the Fathers, clothed in animal skins to its rustic heart. A shepherd’s horn called the citizens to speak in ancient times: often the Senate was a hundred of them in a field.
No billowing awnings hung over the theatre’s space: no scent on stage of its customary saffron. No man cared to seek out alien gods: while the awed people trembled at their father’s rites. But, they celebrated the Parilia, annually, with bonfires of straw, and such purification as we repeat now with the docked horse’s blood.
Vesta, poor, delighted in garlanded donkeys, and skinny cattle dragged along cheap emblems. At the Compitalia the narrow crossroads were purified with the blood of fatted pigs, and the shepherd offered sheep’s guts to the sound of reed pipes. The ploughman, dressed in skins, flourished his hairy scourge, from which lawless Fabius Lupercus took the Lupercalia’s sacred rite.
Their raw soldiers did not gleam with threatening armour: they joined in battle naked, with fire-hardened pikes. Lycmon, the countryman, pitched the first general’s tent, and the greater part of Tatius’s wealth was in sheep. Such were the Titienses, heroic Ramnes, and the Luceres of Solonium, such Romulus who drove four white triumphal horses.
Indeed, Bovillae was hardly a suburb of the tiny city, and Gabii greatly crowded, that now is nothing. And Alba stood, powerful, founded through the omen of a white sow, when it was far from there to Fidenae. The Roman child has nothing of his fathers save the name, nor reflects that a she-wolf was his race’s foster-mother.
Here, Troy, for the best, you sent your exiled household gods. Here, at such auguries, the Trojan vessel sailed! Even then the omens were good, since the open womb of the Wooden Horse did not fatally wound her, when the trembling father clung to his son’s back, and the flames were afraid to scorch those pious shoulders.
Then came the spirited Decii, and the consulship of Brutus, and Venus herself carried Caesar’s arms here, bore the victorious
arms of a resurgent
Wolf of Mars,
the best of nurses to our State, what towers have sprung from your milk! Now to
try and portray those towers in patriotic verse, ah me, how puny the sound that
rises from my mouth! But however thin the streams that flow from my chest, it
is all in the service of my country. Let Ennius
crown his verse with a shaggy garland: Bacchus,
hold out to me leaves of your ivy, so that my books might make Umbria swell with pride,
‘Where are you rushing to, Propertius, wandering rashly, babbling on about Fate? The threads you spin are not from a true distaff. Singing, you summon tears: Apollo’s averted: you demand words you’ll regret from an unwilling lyre. I’ll speak the truth from true sources, or prove myself a seer ignorant of how to move the stars on their bronze sphere. Orops of Babylon, child of Archytas, fathered me, Horos, and my house is descended from Conon. The gods are my witnesses; I’ve not disgraced my family. Now men make profit from the gods (Jupiter’s tricked by gold) and the return of stars on the slanting zodiac’s circle, Jupiter’s fortunate planet, rapacious Mars, and heavy Saturn a weight on every head: what Pisces determines, Leo’s fierce sign, and Capricorn washed in the western sea.
When Arria was in labour with her twin sons (forbidden by a god, she gave her sons weapons), I foretold they’d fail to bring back their spears to their father’s household gods: and now in truth two graves confirm my word. Since Lupercus, protecting his horse’s wounded head, failed to defend himself, when the horse fell: while Gallus guarding the standards, entrusted to him in camp, died for the eagle’s beak, bathing it in his blood. Ill-fated boys, both killed by a mother’s greed! My prophecy touched on truth, though unwillingly.
I, too, cried out, when Lucina prolonged Cinara’s labour pains, and her womb’s tardy
burden delayed: “Make Juno a vow she
must hear!” She gave birth: my books won the prize! These things are not
expounded in the desert
was a profound example: since he freed at Aulis
the ships clinging rightly to god-fearing cliffs: the same who bloodied a sword
on the neck of Agamemnon’s girl,
and granted the Atrides bloodstained
sails. Yet the Greeks did not return:
quench your tears, razed Troy, and
consider Euboea’s bay! Nauplius raises his fires by night in
vengeance, and Greece sails weighed
down by her spoils. Victorious
So much for history: now I turn to your stars: prepare yourself impartially to witness new grief. Ancient Umbria gave birth to you, at a noble hearth: am I lying? Or has my mouth revealed your country? Where misty Mevania wets the open plain, and the summer waters of the Umbrian lake steam, and the wall towers from the summit of climbing Assisi, that wall made more famous by your genius?
Not of an age to gather them, you gathered your father’s bones, and yourself were forced to find a meaner home. Since though many bullocks ploughed your fields, the merciless measuring-rod stole your wealth of land. Soon the bulla of gold was banished from your untried neck, and the toga of a free man assumed in front of your mother’s gods, then Apollo taught you a little of his singing, and told you not to thunder out your words in the frantic Forum.
But you create elegies, deceptive art: – this is your battlefield – that the rest of the crowd might write by your example. You will suffer the charming struggles of Venus’s arms, and will be an enemy fit for Venus’s boys. Since whatever victories your labour wins you, one girl will escape your grasp: and though you shake the deeply fixed hook from your mouth, it will do no good: the fishing-spear will spike your jaw.
You’ll gaze at night or day at her whim: unless she commands it the tear won’t fall from your eye. A thousand sentries won’t help you, or a thousand seals on her threshold: a crack is enough once she’s decided to cheat you.
Now whether your ship is tossed about in mid-ocean, or you go unarmed among armed men, or the trembling earth yawns in a gaping chasm: fear the avaricious back of the Crab, eight-footed Cancer.’
‘Why marvel at the many shapes of my one body? Learn the native tokens of the god Vertumnus. I am a Tuscan born of Tuscans, and do not regret abandoning Volsinii’s hearths in battle. This crowd of mine delights me, I enjoy no ivory temple: it’s enough that I oversee the Roman Forum.
Tiber once took its course here, and they say the sound of oars was heard over beaten waters: but once he had given so much ground to his adopted children, I was named the god Vertumnus from the river’s winding (verso) or because I receive the first fruits of returning (vertentis) spring, you believe them a ‘return’ for your sacrifice to Vertumnus.
The first grape changes hue, for me, in darkening bunches, and hairy ears of corn swell with milky grains. Here you see sweet cherries, autumn plums, and mulberries redden through summer days. Here the grafter pays his vows with apple garlands, when the unwilling pear stock has borne fruit.
Be silent echoing rumour: there’s another pointer to my name: believe the god who speaks about himself. My nature is adaptable to every form: turn me (verte) into whatever you wish: I’ll be noble. Clothe me in Coan silk, I’ll be no bad girl: and when I wear the toga who’ll say I am no man? Give me a scythe and tie twists of hay on my forehead: you can swear the grass was cut by my hand. Once I carried weapons, I remember, and was praised: yet I was a reaper when burdened by the basket’s weight.
I’m sober for the law: but when the garland’s there, you’ll cry out that wine’s gone to my head. Circle my brow with a turban I’ll impersonate Bacchus’s form: if you’ll give me his lyre I’ll impersonate Apollo. Loaded down with my nets I hunt: but with limed reed I’m the patron god of wildfowling.
Vertumnus has also a charioteer’s likeness, and of him who lightly leaps from horse to horse. Supply me with rod and I’ll catch fish, or go as a neat pedlar with trailing tunic. I can bend like a shepherd over his crook, or carry baskets of roses through the dust. Why should I add, what is my greatest fame that the garden’s choice gifts are given into my hands? Dark-green cucumbers, gourds with swollen bellies, and the cabbages tied with light rushes mark me out: no flower of the field grows that is not placed on my brow, and fittingly droops before me. Because my single shape becomes (vertebar) all my native tongue from that gave me my name.
Six lines should yet be added: you, who hurry to answer bail, I’ll not delay you: this is your last mark on the way.
I was a maple stock, cut by a swift sickle: before Numa, I was a humble god in a grateful city. But, Mamurius, creator of my bronze statue, let the rough earth never spoil your skilful hands that were able to cast me for such peaceful use. The work is unrepeated, but the honour the work is given that is not.’
‘Arethusa sends this message to her Lycotas: if you can be mine, when you are so often absent. Still, if any part you wish to read is smeared, that blot will have been made by my tears: or if any letter puzzles you by its wavering outline, it will be the sign of my now fading hand.
A moment ago Bactra in the east saw you again, now the Neuric enemy with their armoured horses, the wintry Getae and Britain with its painted chariots, and the dark-skinned Indians pounded by the eastern waves.
Was this the marriage oath and the night sealed with kisses, when, an innocent, I yielded to the urgency of your conquering arms? The ill-omened torch, carried before me by those who led, drew its dark light from a ruined pyre: and I was sprinkled with Stygian waters, and the headband was not set right upon my hair: the god of marriage was not my friend.
Oh, my harmful vows hang from every gate: and this is the fourth cloak I weave for your camp. Let him perish who tore a stake from an innocent tree, and made mournful trumpets from shrill horns, he is more worthy than Ocnus to lean on, and twist the rope, and feed your hunger, mule, to eternity!
Tell me, does the breastplate cut your tender shoulders? Does the heavy spear chafe your unwarlike hands? May they sooner hurt you than some girl’s teeth cause me tears, by marking your neck! They say your face is lean and drawn: but I pray that pallor’s from desire for me. While I, when evening leads on the bitter night, kiss the weapons you have left behind. Then I moan by starlight that your cloak doesn’t clothe the bed, and that the birds that bring the dawn don’t sing.
On winter nights I labour to spin for your campaigns, to cut Tyrian cloth for the sword: and I learn where the Araxes flows that you must conquer, and how many miles a Parthian horse travels without water: I’m driven to study the world depicted on a map, and learn what kind of position the god set up there, which countries are sluggish with frost, which crumble with heat, which kindly wind will bring your sail to Italy.
One caring sister sits here, and my pale nurse swears that the winter’s a time of delay. Fortunate Hippolyte! With naked breasts she carried weapons, and barbarously hid her soft hair under a helmet. If only the Roman camps were open to women! I would have been a loyal burden on your campaign. Scythian hills would not hinder me, where the mighty god turns water to ice with deeper cold. Every love is powerful, but greater in an acknowledged partner: this fire Venus herself fans into life.
Why then should robes of Phoenician purple gleam for me now, or clear crystals decorate my fingers? Everything’s mute and silent, and the Lares’ closed shrine is barely opened, through custom, by a girl, on the infrequent Calends. The whimpering of the little puppy Craugis is dear to me: she’s the only one to claim your share of the bed.
I roof over the shrines with flowers, cover the crossroads with sacred branches; and the Sabine herb crackles on ancient altars. If the owl hoots perched on a neighbouring beam, or the flickering lamp merits a drop of wine, that day proclaims the slaughter of this year’s lambs, and the priests readied, burning for fresh profits.
I beg you
not to set so much glory in scaling Bactra’s
walls, or the plunder of fine linen torn from a perfumed chieftain, when the
lead shot scatters from the twisted sling, and the cunning bow twangs from the
wheeling horse! But (when the
I’ll tell of the Tarpeian Grove, and Tarpeia’s shameful tomb, and the
capture of Jupiter’s ancient
threshold. Tatius encircled this
hill with a maple-wood palisade, and ringed his camp securely with mounds of
earth. What was
There was a pleasant grove hidden in an ivied hollow and many a tree filled the native streams with rustling. It was Silvanus’s branched house, where sweet pipings called the sheep out of the heat to drink. Here Tarpeia drew water for the Goddess: and the jar of earthenware burdened her head.
How could one death be sufficient for that wicked girl, who wanted, Vesta, to betray your flames? She saw Tatius practising manoeuvres on the sandy plain, and lifting his ornate spear among the yellow crests. She was stunned by the king’s face, and the royal armour and the urn slipped through her careless hands. She often feigned that the innocent moon was ominous, and said she must wash her hair in the stream. She often took silver lilies to the lovely nymphs, so that Romulus’s spear might not hurt Tatius’ face: and when she climbed the Capitol clouded with the first fires, she brought back arms torn by hairy brambles. And sitting on that Tarpeian Hill of hers, she sobbed out, from there, her wound that nearby Jupiter would not forgive:
‘Campfires and royal tent of Tatius’
host, and Sabine weapons lovely to my eyes, O if only I might sit as a prisoner
before your household gods, as a prisoner contemplating my Tatius’ face! Hills
No wonder Scylla was fierce with her father’s hair, and her white waist was transformed to fierce dogs? No wonder the horns of her monstrous brother were betrayed when the winding path showed clear from Ariadne’s rewound thread. What a reproach I will become to Ausonia’s girls, a traitress chosen as servant to the virgin flame! If anyone wonders at Pallas’s quenched fires, let them forgive: the altar’s drenched with my tears.
So rumour says, tomorrow, there will be a purging of the whole city: you must seize the dew-wet spine of the thorny hill. The whole track is slippery and treacherous: since it always hides silent water on its deceptive path. O if only I knew the incantations of the magical Muse! Then my tongue would have brought help to my lovely man. The ornate robe is worthy of you, not him without honour of a mother, nourished by the harsh teats of a brutal she-wolf.
Stranger, as your queen, shall I give
birth so in your palace!
Now the fourth bugle-call sings out the coming of day, and the stars themselves fall slipping into Ocean. I will try to sleep: I will search out dreams of you: let your kind shadow come before my eyes.’
She spoke, and let her arms drop, in uneasy sleep, not knowing alas she had lain down among fresh frenzies. For Vesta, the blessed guardian of Troy’s embers, fuelled her sin, and sank more raging fires in her bones. She ran, like a Thracian by swift Thermodon, tearing at her clothes, with naked breasts.
It was a festival in the city (the
city-fathers called it Parilia). On
the first such day the walls were started, the annual shepherds’ feast, holiday
in the city, when rural plates drip with luxuries, while the drunken crowd
leaps with dusty feet over the scattered piles of burning straw.
The hill was difficult to climb, but unguarded due to the feast: suddenly he slew with his sword the dogs that were liable to bark. All men were asleep: but Jupiter alone resolved to keep watch to your ruin. She had betrayed the gate’s trust and her sleeping country, and sought to marry that day as she wished. But Tatius (since even the enemy gave no rewards to wickedness) said: ‘Wed, then, and climb my royal bed!’ He spoke, and had her buried under his comrades’ heaped up shields. This was your dowry, virgin, fitting for your services.
The hill took its name from the enemy’s guide, Tarpeia. O, watcher, unjustly you win that reward from fate.
May Earth cover your grave with thorns, Procuress, and your shadow feel what you do not wish for, thirst: and may your ghost rest not among your ashes, and vengeful Cerberus terrorise your shameful bones with famished howling!
Clever at winning even adamant Hippolytus to love, and always darkest omen to a peaceful bed, she could even force Penelope to be indifferent to rumours of her husband, and wed with lascivious Antinous. If she wished it, the magnet was unable to attract iron, and the bird played stepmother to her nestlings.
And indeed, if she brought herbs from the Colline field to the trench, what’s firm would be dissolved to flowing water. She dared to set rules for the spellbound moon, and disguise her shape as a nocturnal wolf, so that by art she could blind watching husbands, and tear out the innocent eyes of crows with her nails, and took counsel with owls concerning my blood, and for me collected the fluids produced by a pregnant mare.
She practised her role, alas, with flattering words, and just as the diligent mole drills out his stone-filled track: ‘If, at dawn, the golden shores of the Dorozantes delight you, or the shell that’s proud beneath the Tyrian waters, or King Eurypylus’s weave of the silk of Cos should please you, or limp figures cut from beds of cloth of gold, or the goods they send from palmy Thebes, or murra cups baked in Parthian fires, then forget your loyalty, overturn the gods, let lies conquer, and shatter the harmful laws of chastity! Pretending to have a husband raises the price: employ excuses! Love returns mightier for a night’s delay.
If by chance he roughs up your hair, his anger’s useful: after it press him into buying peace. Then when he’s purchased your embraces and you’ve promised love, pretend that these are the pure days of Isis. Let Iole flag up April Kalends to you, Amycle hammer home that your birthday’s in May. He sits in supplication – take your chair and write anything at all: if he trembles at these wiles, you’ve got him! Always have fresh bite-marks on your neck, that he might think were given in the to and fro of love-quarrels. But don’t be taken with Medea’s clinging reproaches (surely she endured scorn for daring to ask first), but rather that costly Thais of witty Menander, when the adultress in his comedy cheats the shrewd Scythians.
Alter your style for the man: if he boasts of his singing, go along with him, and join in with your tipsy words. Let your doorman look out for the bringers of gifts: if they knock empty-handed, let him sleep on, with the bolt slid home. Don’t be displeased at the soldier not fashioned for love, or the sailor carrying gold in his rough hand, or one from whose barbarous neck a price-tag hung when he danced with whitened feet in the market-place. Consider the gold, and not the hand that offers!
Though you listen to poems what will you get but words? “What need is there, mea vita, to come with your hair adorned, and slither about in a thin silk dress from Cos?” The one who brings poems but no gifts of silken gowns let his penniless lyre be dumb for you. While it’s springtime in the blood, while your year’s free of wrinkles, make use of your face today lest it pleases none tomorrow! I’ve seen the budding roses of fragrant Paestum left scorched at dawn by the South Wind.’
While Acanthis troubled my mistress’s mind like this my bones could be counted under my paper-thin skin. But, Venus O Queen, accept a ring-dove as an offering, its neck cut before your altars. I saw the cough congeal in her wrinkled throat, and the bloodstained phlegm issue from her hollow teeth, and she breathed out her decaying spirit on her father’s mat: the unfinished hut cold with a shivering hearth. For the funeral there were stolen bindings for her scant hair, and a turban dull from lying in the dirt, and a dog, ever wakeful to my distress, when I went to slip the bolt with secretive fingers. Let the procuress’ tomb be an old wine-jar with a broken neck: and a wild fig-tree press down with force upon it. Whoever loves strike at this grave with rough stones, and mingled with the stones add your curses!
The priest makes the sacrifice: let silence aid it, and let the heifer fall, struck down before my altars. Let Rome’s wreath compete with Philetas’s ivy-clusters, and let the urn provide the waters of Cyrene. Give me soft costmary, and offerings of lovely incense, and let the loop of wool go three times round the fire. Sprinkle me with water, and by the new altars let the ivory flute sing of Phrygian jars. May Fraud be far from here, may Injury depart for other skies: let purifying laurel smooth the priest’s fresh path.
Muse, we will speak of the
The enemy fleet was doomed by Trojan Quirinus, and the shameful javelins fit for a woman’s hand: there was Augustus’s ship, sails filled by Jupiter’s favour, standards now skilful in victory for their country. Now Nereus bent the formations in a twin arc, and the water trembled painted by the glitter of weapons, when Phoebus, quitting Delos, anchored under his protection (the isle, uniquely floating, it suffered the South Wind’s anger), stood over Augustus’s stern, and a strange flame shone, three times, snaking down in oblique fire.
Phoebus did not come with his hair streaming round his neck, or with the mild song of the tortoise-shell lyre, but with that aspect that gazed on Agamemnon, Pelop’s son, and came out from the Dorian camp to the greedy fires, or as he destroyed the Python, writhing in its coils, the serpent that the peaceful Muses feared.
spoke: ‘O Augustus, world-deliverer, sprung from Alba
Longa, acknowledged as greater than your Trojan ancestors conquer now by sea: the
land is already yours: my bow is on your side, and every arrow burdening my
quiver favours you. Free your country from fear, that relying on you as its
protector, weights your prow with the State’s prayers. Unless you defend her, Romulus misread the birds flying from
the Palatine, he the augur of the
and lent the contents of his quiver to the bow: after his bowshot, Caesar’s
javelin was next.
Triton honoured all with music, and the goddesses of the sea applauded, as they circled the standards of freedom. The woman trusting vainly in her swift vessel headed for the Nile, seeking one thing only, not to die at another’s order. The best thing, by all the gods! What sort of a triumph would one woman make in the streets where Jugurtha was once led!
So Apollo of Actium gained his temple, each of whose arrows destroyed ten ships.
I have sung of war enough: Apollo the victor now demands my lyre, and sheds his weapons for the dance of peace. Now let guests in white robes enter the gentle grove: and let lovely roses flow round my neck. May wine from Falernian wine presses be poured, and Cilician saffron three times bathe my hair. Let the Muse fire the mind of drunken poets: Bacchus you are used to being an inspiration to your Apollo.
Let one tell of the slavery of the Sycambri of the marshes, another sing the dark-skinned kingdoms of Cephean Meroe, another record how the Parthians lately acknowledged defeat with a truce. ‘Let them return the Roman standards, for they will soon give up their own: or if Augustus spares the Eastern quivers for a while, let him leave those trophies for his grandsons to win. Crassus, be glad, if you know of it, among the dark dunes: we shall cross the Euphrates to your grave.’
So I will pass the night with drinking, so with song, until daylight shines its rays into my wine.
There are Spirits, of a kind: death does not end it all, and the pale ghost escapes the ruined pyre. For Cynthia, lately buried beside the roadway’s murmur, seemed to lean above my couch, when sleep was denied me after love’s interment, and I grieved at the cold kingdom of my bed. The same hair she had, that was borne to the grave, the same eyes: her garment charred against her side: the fire had eaten the beryl ring from her finger, and Lethe’s waters had worn away her lips. She sighed out living breath and speech, but her brittle hands rattled their finger-bones.
‘Faithless man, of whom no girl can hope for better, does sleep already have power over you? Are the tricks of sleepless Subura now forgotten, and my windowsill, worn by nocturnal guile? From which I so often hung on a rope dropped to you, and came to your shoulders, hand over hand. Often we made love at the crossroads, and breast to breast our cloaks made the roadways warm. Alas for the silent pact whose false words the uncaring South-West Wind has swept away!
None cried out at the dying light of my eyes: I’d have won another day if you’d recalled me. No watchman shook his split reeds for me: but, jostled, a broken tile cut my face. Who, at the end, saw you bowed at my graveside: who saw your funeral robe hot with tears? If you disliked going beyond the gate, you could have ordered my bier to travel there more slowly. Ungrateful man, why couldn’t you pray for a wind to fan my pyre? Why weren’t my flames redolent of nard? Was it such an effort, indeed, to scatter cheap hyacinths, or honour my tomb with a shattered jar?
Let Lygdamus be branded: let the iron be white-hot for the slave of the house: I knew him when I drank the pale and doctored wine. And crafty Nomas, let her destroy her secret poisons: the burning potsherd will show her guilty hands. She who was open to the common gaze, those worthless nights, now leaves the track of her golden hem on the ground: and, if a talkative girl speaks of my beauty unjustly, she repays with heavier spinning tasks. Old Petale’s chained to a foul block of wood, for carrying garlands to my tomb: Lalage is whipped, hung by her entwined hair, since she dared to offer a plea in my name.
You’ve let the woman melt down my golden image, so she might have her dowry from my fierce pyre. Still, though you deserve it, I’ll not criticise you, Propertius, my reign has been a long one in your books. I swear by the incantation of the Fates none may revoke, and may three-headed Cerberus bark gently for me, that I’ve been faithful, and if I lie, may the vipers hiss on my mound, and lie entwined about my bones.
There are two places assigned beyond the foul stream, and the whole crowd of the dead row on opposing currents. One carries Clytemnestra’s faithlessness, another the monstrous framework of the lying Cretan cow: see, others swept onwards in a garlanded boat, where sweet airs caress Elysian roses, where tuneful lutes, where Cybele’s cymbals sound, and turbaned choirs to the Lydian lyre.
Andromeda and Hypermestre, blameless wives, tell their story, with accustomed feeling: the first complains her arms are bruised, with the chains of her mother’s pride, that her hands were un-deserving of the icy rock. Hypermestre tells of her sisters daring, her mind incapable of committing such a crime. So with the tears of death we heal life’s passions: I conceal the many crimes of your unfaithfulness.
But now I give this command to you, if perhaps you’re moved, if Chloris’ magic herbs have not quite entranced you: don’t let Parthenie, my nurse, lack in her years of weakness: she was known to you, was never greedy with you. And don’t let my lovely Latris, named for her serving role, hold up the mirror to some fresh mistress.
Then burn whatever verses you made about my name: and cease now to sing my praises.
Drive the ivy from my mound that with grasping clusters, and tangled leaves, binds my fragile bones; where fruitful Anio broods over fields of apple-branches, and ivory is unfading, because of Hercules’ power.
Write, on a column’s midst, this verse, worthy of me but brief, so the traveller, hurrying, from the city, might read:
HERE IN TIBUR’S EARTH LIES CYNTHIA THE GOLDEN:
ANIO FRESH PRAISE IS ADDED TO YOUR SHORES.
And don’t deny the dreams that come through sacred gateways: when sacred dreams come, they carry weight. By night we suffer, wandering, night frees the imprisoned spirits, and his cage abandoned Cerberus himself strays. At dawn the law demands return to the pools of Lethe: we are borne across, and the ferryman counts the load he’s carried.
Now, let others have you: soon I alone will hold you: you’ll be with me, I’ll wear away the bone joined with bone.’
After she’d ended, in complaint, her quarrel with me her shadow swiftly slipped from my embrace.
Hear what caused a headlong flight, through the watery Esquiline, tonight, when a crowd of residents rushed through New Fields, and a shameful brawl broke out in a secret bar: though I wasn’t there, my name was not untarnished.
Lanuvium, from of old, is guarded by an ancient serpent: the hour you spend on such a marvellous visit won’t be wasted; where the sacred way drops down through a dark abyss, where the hungry snake’s tribute penetrates (virgin, be wary of all such paths!), when he demands the annual offering of food, and twines, hissing, from the centre of the earth. Girls grow pale, sent down to such rites as these, when their hand is rashly entrusted to the serpent’s mouth. He seizes the tit-bits the virgins offer: the basket itself trembles in their hands. If they’ve remained chaste they return to their parents’ arms, and the farmers shout: ‘It will be a fertile year.’
My Cynthia was carried there, by clipped horses. Juno was the pretext, but Venus was more likely. Appian Way, tell, I beg you, how she drove in triumph, you as witness, her wheels shooting past over your stones. She was a sight, sitting there, hanging over the end of the shaft, daring to loose the reins over foul places. For I say nothing of the silk-panelled coach of that plucked spendthrift, or his hounds with jewelled collars on their Molassian necks, he who’ll offer himself for sale, fated for filthy stuffing, while a shameful beard covers those smoothly shaven cheeks.
Since harm so often befell our couch, I decided to change my bed by moving camp. There’s a certain Phyllis, who lives near Aventine Diana. When she’s sober nothing pleases: when she’s drunk anything goes. Teia is another, among the groves of Tarpeia, lovely, but full of wine, one man’s never enough. I decided to call on them to lighten the night-time, and refresh my amours with untried intrigue.
There was a couch for three on a private lawn. Do you want to know how we lay, I between the two. Lygdamus was cup-bearer, with a set of summer glassware, and Greek wine that tasted Methymnian. Nile, the flute-player was yours, Phyllis was castanet dancer, and artless elegant roses were nicely scattered. Magnus the dwarf, himself, tiny of limb, waved his stunted hands to the boxwood flute. The lamp-flames flickered though the lamps were full, and the table sloped sideways on its legs. And I looked to throw Venus with lucky dice, but the wretched Dogs always leapt out at me. They sang, I was deaf: bared their breasts, I was blind. Alas, I was off alone by Lanuvium’s gates.
When suddenly the doors creaked aloud on their hinges and a low murmur rose from the entrance by the Lares. Immediately Cynthia flung back the folding screens, with hair undone, and furiously fine. I dropped the glass from between my loosened fingers, and my lips paled though they were slack with wine. Her eyes flashed lightning, how the woman raged: a sight no less dire than the sacking of a city.
She thrust her angry nails at Phyllis: Teia cried out in terror to the local waters. The raised torches disturbed the sleeping neighbours, and the whole street echoed with madness. The first tavern in a dark street swallowed the girls, with loose dresses and dishevelled hair.
Cynthia exulted in the spoils, and ran back victorious to strike my face with perverse hands, put her mark on my neck, drew blood with her mouth, and most of all struck my eyes that deserved it. And then when her arms were tired with plaguing me, she rooted out Lygdamus lying sheltered by the left-hand couch, and, dragged forward, he begged my spirit to protect him. Lygdamus, I couldn’t do a thing: I was a prisoner like you.
With outstretched hands, and only then, it came to a treaty, though she would barely allow me to touch her feet, and said: ‘If you’d have me pardon the sins you confess, accept what the form of my rule will be. You’re not to walk about, all dressed up, in the shade of Pompey’s colonnade, or when they strew the sand in the licentious Forum. Take care you don’t bend your neck to the back of the theatre, or give yourself over to your loitering by some open carriage. Most of all let Lygdamus be sold, he’s my main cause for complaint, and let his feet drag round double links of chain.’
She spelt out her laws: I replied ‘I’ll obey the law.’ She smiled, with pride in the power I had granted. Then with fire she purified whatever the alien girls had touched, and washed the threshold with pure water. She ordered me to change all my clothes again, and touched my head three times with burning sulphur, and so I responded by changing the bed, every single sheet, and on the familiar couch we resolved our quarrel.
In those days when Hercules, Amphitryon’s son drove the oxen, O Erythea, from your stalls, he reached the untamed, cattle-rich Palatine, and, weary himself, halted his weary herd, where the Velabrum dammed its flow, where the boatman sails over urban waters. But they were still not safe there, Cacus proving a treacherous host: he dishonoured Jupiter by thieving. Cacus lived there, robbing, from his dreaded cavern, he who gave out separate sounds from triple mouths. So there would be no obvious sign of the certain theft, he dragged the cattle backwards to his cave. Yet not without the god witnessing it: the bulls proclaimed the thief, and rage broke down the thief’s savage doors.
Struck three times on the forehead by the Maenalian club, Cacus fell, and Alcides spoke as follows: ‘Cattle, cattle of Hercules, go, my cudgel’s last labour, twice sought after by me, twice my prize, cattle, sanctify the Cattle-Market, with your deep lowing: your pastures will become the famous Roman Forum.’ he spoke, and thirst tormented his parched throat, while the fertile earth supplied no water.
But far away he heard the laughter of cloistered girls, where a Sacred Grove formed a shaded circle, the secret site of the Goddess, the women’s holy founts, and the rites never revealed to men without punishment. Wreaths of purple veiled its solitary threshold, and a ruined hut was lit by perfumed fires. A poplar with spreading foliage adorned the shrine, and its dense shadows hid the singing birds.
He rushed there, his un-moistened beard thick with dust, and uttered less than god-like words before the doors: ‘O you, who linger in the grove’s sacred hollows, open your welcoming temple to a tired man. I stray, in need of a spring, the sound of waters round me, and a handful caught up from the stream would be enough.
Have you not heard of one who lifted the globe on his back? I am he: the world I accepted calls me Alcides. Who has not heard of the mighty doings of Hercules’ club, and those shafts that were never used in vain against harmful creatures, and of how for me, the only mortal, the Stygian shadows shone? Accept me: weary, this land seems scarcely open to me.
Even if you sacrifice to Juno, bitter against me, she herself would not shut her waters from me. But if any of you are afraid of my face or the lion’s pelt, or my hair bleached by the Libyan sun, I am the same who has carried out slave’s tasks in a cloak of Sidon, and spun the day’s tally on a Lydian distaff. My shaggy chest was caught in a soft breast-band, and I was fit to be a hard-handed girl.’
So Hercules spoke: but the kindly priestess replied her white hair tied with a purple ribbon: ‘Avert your eyes, stranger, and go from this sacred grove, go then, and, by leaving its threshold, flee in safety. The altar that is guarded in this secluded hut is prohibited to men, and avenged by fearsome law. Tiresias the seer gazed at Pallas to his cost, while she was bathing her strong limbs, laying aside her Gorgon breastplate. Let the gods grant you other fountains: this water flows only for women wandering its secret channel.’ So the aged priestess spoke: he burst the concealing doorway with his shoulders, and the closed gate could not bar his raging thirst.
But after he had quenched the burning and drained the river, his lips scarcely dry, he gave out this harsh decree: ‘This corner of the world accepts me while I drag out my fate; weary this land seems scarcely open to me. The great Altar,’ he said ‘dedicated to the recovery of my herd, this greatest of altars made by my hands, will never be open to women’s worship, so that for eternity Hercules’s thirst will not go un-avenged.’
Hail, Sacred Father, on whom austere Juno now smiles. Sacred One, be favourable to my book. Thus the Sabine Cures enshrined this hero as the Sacred One, since he cleansed the world, purified at his hands.
Now I’ll begin to reveal the origins of Feretrian Jupiter and the triple trophies won from three chieftains. I climb a steep path, but the glory of it gives me strength: I never delight in wreathes plucked on easy slopes.
you set the pattern first for this prize, and returned burdened with enemy
spoils, victorious at the time when Caeninian
Acron was attempting the gates of
So he was accustomed to conquer, this
The next example was Cossus with the killing of Tolumnius of Veii, when to conquer
also threw the enemy back when they’d crossed the Rhine, at that time when the Belgic shield of the giant chieftain Virdomarus was brought here. He
boasted he was born of the
Now triple spoils are stored in the temple: hence Feretrian, since, with sure omen, chief struck (ferit) chief with the sword: or because they carried (ferebant) the arms of the defeated on their shoulders, and from this the proud altar of Feretrian Jupiter’s named.
Paullus, no longer burden my grave with tears: the black gate opens to no one’s prayer. When once the dead obey the law of infernal places, the gate remains like adamant, unmoved by pleas. Though the god of the dark courts may hear your request, surely the shores of deafness will drink your tears. Entreaty moves the living: when the ferryman has his coin, the ghastly doorway closes on a world of shadows. The mournful trumpets sang it, when the unkindly torch was placed below my bier, and raging flames dragged down my head.
What use was my marriage to Paullus, or the triumphal chariot of my ancestors, or those dear children, my glory? Cornelia found the Fates no less cruel: and I am now such a burden as five fingers might gather. Wretched night, and you, shallow sluggish marshes, and whatever waters surround my feet, I came here before my time, yet I’m not guilty. Father, make sweet your judgement on my soul.
Or if some Aeacus sits as judge by his urn, let him protect my bones when the lot is drawn. Let the two brothers sit by, and near to Minos’s seat let the stern band of Furies stand, in the hushed court. Sisyphus, be free now of your rock: Ixion’s wheel now be still: deceptive water let Tantalus’ mouth surround you: today let cruel Cerberus not attack the shades, and let his chain hang slack from the silent bars. I plead for myself: if I lie, may the sisters’ punishment, the unhappy urn, weigh upon my shoulders.
If fame ever accrued to anyone from ancestral trophies, our statues tell of Numantian ancestry, equalled by the crowd of Libones on my mother’s side, and our house is strong in honour on both counts. Then, when the purple-hemmed dress was laid aside for the marriage torches, and a different ribbon caught and tied my hair, I was united to your bed, Paullus, only to leave it so: read it on this stone, she was wedded to one alone. I call as witness the ashes of my forebears, revered by you, Rome, beneath whose honours trampled Africa lies, and Perses, his heart stirred by having Achilles for ancestor, and Hercules, who shattered your house Avernus: and that the censor’s law was never eased for me: and my hearth never blushed for any sin of mine. Cornelia never harmed such magnificent war-trophies: she was more a pattern to be followed in that great house.
My life never altered, wholly without reproach: we lived in honour from the wedding to the funeral torch. At birth I was bound by laws laid down by my race: nor could I be rendered more in fear of judgement. Let the urn deal out whatever harsh measures to me, no woman should be ashamed to sit beside me: not you, Claudia, rare servant of the turret-crowned Goddess, who hauled on the cable of Cybele’s laggard image, nor you Aemilia, your white robe living flame when Vesta asked for signs of the fire you swore to cherish. Nor have I wronged you, Scribonia, mother, my sweet origin: what do you wish changed in me, except my fate? My mother’s tears and the city’s grief exalt me, and my bones are protected by Caesar’s moans. He laments that living I was worthy sister to his daughter, and we have seen a god’s tears fall.
Moreover I earned the robe of honour through child-bearing: it was not a childless house that I was snatched from. You Lepidus and Paullus, are my comfort in death: my eyes closed in your embrace. And I saw my brother twice installed in the magistrate’s chair: at the time of celebration of his consulship his sister was taken. Daughter, who are born to be a mirror of your father’s judgements, imitating me, make sure you have but one husband. And strengthen the race in turn: willingly I cross the ferry with so many of my own as my champions: this is the final reward, a woman’s triumph, that free tongues should praise my worthy bones.
Now I commend our children to you, Paullus, our mutual pledges: thus anxiety still stirs, stamped in my ashes. The father must perform the mother’s duties: your shoulders must bear all my crowd of children. When you kiss their tears away, do so for their mother: now the whole household will be your burden. And if you must weep, do it without their seeing! When they come to you, deceive their kisses with dry cheeks!
Let those nights be enough Paullus that you wear away for me, and the dreams where you often think you see my image: and when you speak secretly to my phantom, speak every word as though to one who answers.
But if the bed that faces the doorway should be altered, and a careful stepmother occupy my place, boys, praise and accept your father’s wife: captivated, she will applaud your good manners. Don’t praise your mother too much: thoughtless speech that compares her with the first wife will become offences against her. Or if Paullus, you remember me, content that my shade suffices, and consider my ashes thus worthy, learn to feel now how old age advances, and leave no path open for a widower’s cares. What was taken from me let it increase your years: so my children may delight the aged Paullus. And it’s good that I never dressed in mother’s mourning: all my flock were at my funeral.
My defence is complete. Rise witnesses who mourn me, as kindly Earth repays its reward for my life. Heaven is open to virtue also: let me be worthy of honour, whose ashes are carried to lie among distinguished sires.