In ancient societies female sexuality was – and unfortunately still is in many contemporary societies – seen as something dangerous: a woman with too much sexual appetite disrupts the moral framework of a family or a city. Propertius – or at least his poetic persona – thinks his lover Cynthia sexually too demanding. In this poem he warns against such women, not so much addressing Cynthia, but womankind in general. The poem is not easy, as he evokes with a few words a situation known to his educated audience, but not to the modern reader. His Latin too is dense and requires careful reading. Well, easy texts make lazy readers and at a time universities here in the Netherlands and elsewhere tend to treat students as toddlers, reading a difficult text is an act of insubordination.
Propertius 3, XIX
Obicitur totiens a te mihi nostra libido:
crede mihi, vobis imperat ista magis.
vos, ubi contempti rupistis frena pudoris,
nescitis captae mentis habere modum.
flamma per incensas citius sedetur aristas,
fluminaque ad fontis sint reditura caput,
et placidum Syrtes portum et bona litora nautis
praebeat hospitio saeva Malea suo,
quam possit vestros quisquam reprehendere cursus
et rabidae stimulos frangere nequitiae.
testis, Cretaei fastus quae passa iuvenci
induit abiegnae cornua falsa bovis;
testis Thessalico flagrans Salmonis Enipeo,
quae voluit liquido tota subire deo.
crimen et illa fuit, patria succensa senecta
arboris in frondes condita Myrrha novae.
nam quid Medeae referam, quo tempore matris
iram natorum caede piavit amor?
quidve Clytaemestrae, propter quam tota Mycenis
infamis stupro stat Pelopea domus?
tuque, o, Minoa venumdata, Scylla, figura
tondes purpurea regna paterna coma.
hanc igitur dotem virgo desponderat hosti!
Nise, tuas portas fraude reclusit amor.
at vos, innuptae, felicius urite taedas:
pendet Cretaea tracta puella rate.
non tamen immerito Minos sedet arbiter Orci:
victor erat quamvis, aequus in hoste fuit.
obicio obieci obiectum: to throw before, object, taunt, reproach
mihi: regarding me
nostra: i.e. of all man
ista = libido
vobis: you womankind
contempti pudoris: i.e shame contemned by you women
rumpo rupi ruptum (-ere): to break
frenum: briddle, curb
captae (libidine) mentis
sedo (-are): to bring to rest, extinguish
arista: beard of corn
fontis caput: the origin of their spring
Sirtes: two sandbanks on the Northern coast of Africa (Sirtes praebeant)
praebeo praebui praebitum: to offer
Malea: a promontory in the Peloponnesus, at the south of Laconia
hospitio suo: with saeva `cruel with her hospitality’
cursus; `way of life’
frango fregi fractum: to break
testis –is (m. and f.): a witness (here Pasiphaë. She was a Minoan queen who fell in live with the Minotaur (Cretaeus iuvencus `the Cretean bull’). In order to look like a cow, Daedalus constructed a wooden cow in which she could fulfil her lust for the Minotaur.)
fastus –us (m.): disdain, contempt
patior passum: to suffer
induo indui indutum: to put on
abiegnus: made of fir wood
fragrans Slmonis: Tyro, daughter of king Salmoneus of Elis. She married her uncle Cretheus, but before her marriage she fell in love with the river god Enipeus. Poseidon changed himself into this god and they made love, from which two children were born . Tyro exposed the children, but they were saved by a herdsman.)
subire: to yield, but the literal meaning `to go under’ is quite apt in this situation
crimen et illa fuit: she too was a crime (Myrrha, she did not pay respect to Aphrodite and the goddess made her fall in love with her father. When her father noticed he had sex with his daughter, he became furious and chased her with a sword. The gods had pity and changed her in a myrrh tree. Out of this intercourse Adonis was born.)
succensa (set in fire for) and condita (founded, changed) depend on illa
patria senecta (abl.): the fatherly old age = her old father
frons frondis (f.): leafy branch
quo tempore matris iram natorum caede piavit amor: at the time love appeased the anger of the mother by the slaughter of her children. A difficult sentence, which has been variously translated. Many take matris with quo tempore, but Rothstein (1924) suggests the opposition matris iram vs caede infantorum. Most difficult is piavit amor: it is not love as such but hurt love, turned into rage when Jason had left Medea for another woman.
(crimen) Clytemnestrae: she lived with her lover Aegisthus and killed her husband Agamemnon, when he returned home from the Trojan war.
Mycenis Pelopea domus: the house of Pelops at Mycene
stuprum: lust, adultery
Scylla: daughter of king Nissus of Megara. Nissus had a lock of purple hair, which protected the city. When Minos besieged Megara, Scylla fell in love with him and cut of the purple lock and gave it to Minos and so he could take the city. Minos was disgusted by her lack of fidelity and left Megara immediately with his ship. Scylla swam after him, but her father – turned into a sea eagle - drowned her. Since then she is a seabird.
Minoa venumdata figura: Minoa is abl. from Minous `belonging to Minos’. venum-do is `to put up for sale’, especially slaves, so `enslaved by the beauty of Minos’ or something like that.
tondeo totondi tonsum: to shave
tondes purpurea regna paterna coma: as the meter shows, purpurea coma is abl., so it is the paterna regna which is cut of, together with the purple hair.
dos dotis (f.): dowry
despondeo despondi desponsum: to promise (in marriage)
recludo reclusi reclusum: to open
innupta: unmarried woman, virgin
urite taedas: burn the wedding torches
pendet Cretaea tracta puella rate: she clings to the Cretan ship and is dragged away
Minos: after his death, Minos became one of the three judges of the underworld (iudex Orci).
victor erat quamvis, aequus in hoste fuit: though he was victorious, he was fair towards his enemy. i.e. by turning down the love of Scylla.
Translation by A.S. Klyne.
You often taunt me with my passion: believe me, it controls you more. You, when you’ve snapped the reins of that modesty you despise, can set no limits to your mind ensnared. A fire in burning corn will sooner be quenched, the rivers return to the founts where they were born, the Syrtes offer quiet harbour, and Cape Malea offer the sailor a kind welcome on its wild shore, than any man be able to restrain your course, or curb the spurs of your impetuous wantonness.
Witness Pasiphae who suffered the disdain of the Cretan bull and wore the deceptive horns of the wooden cow; witness Tyro, Salmoneus’s daughter, burning for Thessalian Enipeus, longing to yield completely to the river-god. Myrrha too is a reproach, on fire for her aged father, buried in the foliage of a new-created tree. Why need I mention Medea, who, in her time as a mother, satisfied her fury by the murder of her children? Or Clytemnestra through whom the whole House of Mycenean Pelops remains infamous for her adultery?
And you Scylla, oh, sold on Minos’ beauty, shore off your father’s kingdom with his purple lock of hair. That was the dowry the virgin pledged his foe! Nisus, treacherous love opened your city gates. And you, unmarried ones, burn torches of happier omen: the girl clutched the Cretan ship and was dragged away.
Still Minos does not sit as a judge in Hell without reason: though he conquered, he was merciful to his foe.