One of the things that doesn’t immediately seem obvious about this poem is how fun it is to translate. After all, who but a bitter old harridan could find pleasure in translating a break-up poem – not just a break-up poem, but one that also contains programmatic references (referring to the art of poetry itself) that imply Propertius might lay down his pen?

Strangely enough, it really is fun. It’s one half of a slanging match carried out by a man who trained in law (if you’ve ever read Cicero, you’ll know there was a large component of “elaborate slanging match” in Roman courts), was highly educated, and was perhaps a little too unafraid of showing it – and so there’s a lot of spite in the original Latin that classy English sadly doesn’t translate particularly well.

Risus eram positis inter convivia mensis,
et de me poterat quilibet esse loquax.
quinque tibi potui servire fideliter annos:
ungue meam morso saepe querere fidem.
nil moveor lacrimis: ista sum captus ab arte;
semper ab insidiis, Cynthia, flere soles.
flebo ego discedens, sed fletum iniuria vincit:
tu bene conveniens non sinis ire iugum.
limina iam nostris valeant lacrimantia verbis,
nec tamen irata ianua fracta manu.
at te celatis aetas gravis urgeat annis,
et veniat formae ruga sinistra tuae!
vellere tum cupias albos a stirpe capillos,
iam speculo rugas increpitante tibi,
exclusa inque vicem fastus patiare superbos,
et quae fecisti facta queraris anus!
has tibi fatalis cecinit mea pagina diras:
eventum formae disce timere tuae!
When the tables were put in place among the guests I was mocked,
and anyone who wanted to could gossip about me.
I could serve you faithfully for five years:
your nails bitten, you’ll often grieve for my loyalty.
I am moved by no tears: I was captured by that art;
Cynthia, weep forever through guile alone.
I will weep as I leave, but your abuse overcomes my weeping:
you don’t let a yoke fit you well.
Now the weeping thresholds bid farewell to my words,
but not the door shattered by an angry hand.
But may heavy age weigh down upon you with hidden years,
and may unlucky wrinkles crease your beauty!
Then may you burn to tear out your white hairs by the root,
as already the mirror derides your wrinkles,
and may you, excluded in turn, suffer proud haughtiness,
and, changed into an old woman, you have done these things; may you regret them!
My page sang of these dire things, fated for you:
learn to fear your beauty’s destiny!
Magnum iter ad doctas proficisci cogor Athenas
ut me longa gravi solvat amore via.
crescit enim assidue spectando cura puellae:
ipse alimenta sibi maxima praebet amor.
omnia sunt temptata mihi, quacumque fugari
possit: at ex omni me premit ipse deus.
vix tamen aut semel admittit, cum saepe negarit:
seu venit, extremo dormit amicta toro.
unum erit auxilium: mutatis Cynthia terris
quantum oculis, animo tam procul ibit amor.
nunc agite, o socii, propellite in aequora navem,
remorumque pares ducite sorte vices,
iungiteque extremo felicia lintea malo:
iam liquidum nautis aura secundat iter.
Romanae turres et vos valeatis, amici,
qualiscumque mihi tuque, puella, vale!
ergo ego nunc rudis Hadriaci vehar aequoris hospes,
cogar et undisonos nunc prece adire deos.
deinde per Ionium vectus cum fessa Lechaeo
sedarit placida vela phaselus aqua,
quod superest, sufferre, pedes, properate laborem,
Isthmos qua terris arcet utrumque mare.
inde ubi Piraei capient me litora portus,
scandam ego Theseae bracchia longa viae.
illic vel stadiis animum emendare Platonis
incipiam aut hortis, docte Epicure, tuis;
persequar aut studium linguae, Demosthenis arma,
librorumque tuos, docte Menandre, sales;
aut certe tabulae capient mea lumina pictae,
sive ebore exactae, seu magis aere, manus.
aut spatia annorum aut longa intervalla profundi
lenibunt tacito vulnera nostra situ:
seu moriar, fato, non turpi fractus amore;
atque erit illa mihi mortis honesta dies.
I’m compelled to set out on the grand tour to learnéd Athens
so that that long road might free me from love’s burden.
For my care for my girl grows continuously as I look at her:
love itself provides its own greatest nourishment.
Everything’s been tried by me, in whichever way it could be
banished: but out of everyone, the god himself besets me.
But she hardly receives me, or once when she’s refused many times before:
or if she comes, she sleeps covered on the edge of the bed.
There is one remedy: when the land’s changed, Cynthia will be as far from
my eyes as love travels from my heart.
Now let’s go, my friends, to launch a boat upon the level sea,
and draw out by lot the equal places at the oar,
and hoist the happy sails to the very top of the mast:
now the wind helps sailors along their watery path.
Farewell, Roman towers, and farewell, my friends,
and you too, my darling, whatever you were like to me, farewell!
So now I’ll be carried along as a new guest of the level Adriatic,
and now I’ll be forced to approach with a prayer gods who make the waves roar.
Then when my yacht has been carried through the Ionian sea
and rested its tired sails in the calm waters at Lechaeum,
for what remains, keep going, feet, to endure the work,
where the Isthmus wards off one sea and another from the land.
Then when the shores of Piraeus’s harbour capture me,
I’ll ascend the long arms of Theseus’s roads.
There I might even begin to repair my mind at Plato’s Academy
or in your garden, learnéd Epicurus;
or I’ll pursue the study of language, Demosthenes’s weapon,
and the salty wit of your books, learned Menander,
or certainly painted pictures will capture my eyes,
whether in the ivory of a pointed hand, or more frequently in bronze.
Either the length of the years or the long spaces of the deep
will heal my wounds in a silent heart:
if I die, I will be broken by fate, not shameful love;
and that day of death will be an honour for me.

A quick note on the edition, for those who know and care about such things: I’m using Camps (1985), as that’s what my exam board are using. I know, I know, I don’t like it either as I’d much rather use Heyworth’s edition – but I don’t set the exams. Anyway, if the Latin text looks a bit different, that’s why.

Nox media, et dominae mihi venit epistula nostrae:
Tibure me missa iussit adesse mora,
candida qua geminas ostendunt culmina turres,
et cadit in patulos nympha Aniena lacus.
quid faciam? obductis committam mene tenebris
ut timeam audacis in mea membra manus?
at si distulero haec nostro mandata timore,
nocturno fletus saevior hoste mihi.
peccaram semel, et totum sum pulsus in annum:
in me mansuetas non habet illa manus.
nec tamen est quisquam, sacros qui laedat amantes:
Scironis medias his licet ire vias.
quisquis amator erit, Scythicis licet ambulet oris,
nemo adeo ut feriat barbarus esse volet.
luna ministrat iter, demonstrant astra salebras,
ipse Amor accensas percutit ante faces,
saeva canum rabies morsus avertit hiantis:
huic generi quovis tempore tuta via est.
sanguine tam parvo quis enim spargatur amantis
improbus? exclusis fit comes ipsa Venus.
quod si certa meos sequerentur funera cursus,
talis mors pretio vel sit emenda mihi.
afferet haec unguenta mihi sertisque sepulcrum
ornabit custos ad mea busta sedens.
di faciant, mea ne terra locet ossa frequenti
qua facit assiduo tramite vulgus iter!
post mortem tumuli sic infamantur amantum.
me tegat arborea devia terra coma,
aut humer ignotae cumulus vallatus harenae:
non iuvat in media nomen habere via.
It was the middle of the night, and a letter from my mistress came to me;
she ordered me to come to Tivoli without delay,
where the white hilltops show twin towers,
and Anio’s water falls into wide lakes.
What am I to do? Do I trust myself to covering darkness
to fear a bold hand on my body?
But if I brush aside these orders out of my fear,
her tears will be fiercer for me than enemies by night.
I sinned once, and was kicked out for a whole year:
she lays no merciful hands on me.
But there is no-one who would harm sacred lovers:
they may go freely in the middle of Sciron’s roads.
Whoever shall be a lover may walk on Scythian shores,
no-one would want to be so barbarous as to attack him.
The moon tends to the way, the stars show the rough ground,
Love himself waves flaming torches before him,
the fierce madness of dogs turns aside its gaping fangs:
For them the road is safe at any time.
For what dishonest man is so splashed with the scanty blood
of a lover? Venus herself becomes the companion to those shut out.
But if my course leads to certain burial,
even such a death might be worth buying at that price for me.
She would bring to these perfumes and garlands to my grave;
sitting as guard, she’ll watch over my tomb.
May the gods make sure that she doesn’t place my bones in crowded earth
where the common crowd constantly make their way along the track!
Thus after death are the tombs of lovers defamed.
Let the leaves of a tree cover me in faraway ground,
or let me be buried, surrounded as a mound of unknown sand:
to have my name in the middle of the road brings me no joy.