PROPERTIUS Book IV, 11
Cornelia's Funeral Elegy
If Dido's famous death is an classic example of foreign, frenzied, female madness, the death of Propertius' Cornelia is exactly the opposite. Here are true traits of what made the Roman character worthwhile, a sense of family and the values of belonging to a great and responsible line of forebears, encased in a right, Puritanical code of honor and behavior, and backed up by the highest sense of personal "character". If there is one place to see Roman personality operating on its highest plane, this poem is that place.
Over the years I have read this Elegy with that disappearing phenomenon of a seminar of four or five students (who all have half a dozen years of Latin behind them, people who can deal with Latin as a language rather than an exercise). Again and again I have heard my voice choking up with emotion as I read the Latin aloud, stopping here and there to make a point or add a comment. I think it was reading just last week Margaret Hubbard's 1975 remark that Cornelia represents a kind of soft-headed "Schwaermerei", specifically attractive to male commentators, which made me consider the danger of Cornelia becoming an embarrassment to the aggressive liberated-women's world. That decided me on getting this text with commentary online directly.
There are many kinds of "character" and Cornelia's is our best example of the traditional Roman kind, one which disappeared soon enough from the social scene of the Empire. This Roman woman is not to be emulated, she simply cannot be copied nor are we completely comfortable with her tight moral standards, her self-righteousness. But whatever she represented, that made sense to one Roman poet, who gave us this remarkable character-study, a unique glimpse into the social fabric of the Roman world.
Propertius is not an easy author to approach. His extensive use of mythology as well as his often tortuous connecting of phrases and ideas which do not easily follow each other, makes him rough going. He changes gears continually, often verges into whiny complaint about his love-life, his fear of women, his distrust of their female magic and power, his misunderstood manic-depressive writing (Book I, 8, A and B which are NOT two parts at all), and his sexual voyeurism --- and this is all just in the early Monobiblos!
Furthermore the manuscript tradition is simply terrible, it all goes back to the scored-up Neapolitanus of perhaps 12th c., and its worse Renaissance copies. One critic has counted some 7300 corrections from the MSS, which gives about two errors per line, but some of these are orthographic variants, and other may well be clever hyper- corrections which can be disregarded. But there are still many problems! And then there are inexpliacable transpositions of lines and sections from one place to another where they don't make sense, something perhaps like the "torsion" of the organs of pre-vertebrates in a remote biological past. And our poem is no exception. If you took the MS tradition seriously, you would find it very odd to read, but a modern "cleaned-up" text reads well enough to understand, and I am starting from that point.
This is a great poem, and it is strange that is appears, as it were, tacked on to the end of the last book of Propertius' poetry. It is so entirely different from his other writing that I have suspected a different authorship, much as I believe the last two short poems which conclude the first Book or Monobiblos, are of different origin. I would not try to prove this odd hypothesis to scholars, other than by noting that these three poems have a tough, gutsy character which Propertius does not demonstrate much elsewhere. But my suspicion does not alter our grasp of this remarkable poem, which provides a bird's eye insight into the Roman world of family and family relationships. Content not authorship is the serious consideration, always.
This is not a poem you would read over in a free hour. It takes time and some effort to get it all right in your understanding, and there are many ancillary things to say by way of commentary. This poem is not usually available in selections from the Latin Poets, and is hardly seen in a college Survey Course. My aim in writing this essay is to place it firmly online in public view for those who reading Latin as literature, along with comments which I think will help in its comprehension. Let me proceed to some Notes on the text:
In the first section of the Latin text of 102 lines, I have broken it into sense-based paragraphs, which I think should make it easier to read for intermediate students who still have to deal with grammar and vocabulary, or for rusty readers coming back to Latin later. I add general, literary notes to introduce each "paragraph", in an effort to get at the feel and sense of each paragraph.
I have then given the text just as it stands, continuous Latin with the indents for the second line of the elegaic couplet. If you want to read it through in the purist format, especially after you know it well, this would be a proper, unencumbered reading copy.
For an even more authentic reading copy, there follows an unindented, plain text. Note that the indents of the elegaic line are a modern editorial convention, perhaps it may be interesting to read it as a MS would have it written.
The scene begins at a funeral pyre, just as the wood is flaming up and consuming the pyre and the body of the woman who is being commemorated. The whole poem from start to finish, is as if spoken by her spirit, pneuma-anima or "ghost" somehow rising above the flames and making a declaration about her life, a virtual justification. She knows there is no praying for mercy to the Underworld Gods, their door stand hard as steel (adamas), nobody hears prayers and the words disappear into the abyss. When the Ferryman takes the coin, carries you over, the door slams shut, while funeral trumpets sound something probably much like our military "taps". (Roman trumpets were about 4 feet long and straight, they sounded the harmonic series of the "natural series"...). The touch kindling the pyre, the trumpets, the visual scene.......
Desine, Paulle, meum lacrimis urgere sepulcrum,
Now she reacts in terror, first because with all the support of her famous family, their insignia, their reputations, what avail had they been to her, now dead? What am I now, a handful of dust and ashes? And then she seems to be wading through the marshes of Hades, a nightmarish wandering in the swamps.........but then comes her proud claim that she was there not for SIN but for Fate...no fault of my own. Let heaven judge and treat me kindly (but not Christian Hell, this is an actual repository of the dead since Achilles' time. Not good place indeed, but not hell for the bad).
Quid mihi coniugium Paulli, quid currus auorum
Now we change to the Greek mythology of Hades, the three Judges, sitting in a courtroom row like a Roman court trial. But add to this the Greek touch, Ixion on the stopped wheel of mis-fortune, Cerberus having a barking holiday, and strangely in reverse grammatically, the water letting itself by grabbed by Tantalus! Today everything stops in sheer shock for this fine lady.
Aut si quis posita iudex sedet Aeacus urna,
Now the poems proceeds with something which every Roman, man or woman, understood well : A Court Procedure. "I conduct my own defense.." spoken like a Roman. But with the literary Greek overlay so near at hand for the litterati, the Penalty which follows become mythological: The Danaids seem out of place, carrying empty, leaking pails for deceit, forever. ----But quickly we go to the Roman historical scene, the Libones from whom her line came, connected with the more famous Scipios. On paternal side she came from Scipio Africanus the younger, hence Numantia in Africa and the defeat of Carthage. The toga praetextata was forn by uperclass girls as well as boys, but at the marriage "torchlight" ceremony was put off, just as after marriage a girl's long hair was tied up with woolen vittae. (Aside: On this stone is carved: Married to one man!....she is now departing thus.)
Ipsa loquor pro me: si fallo, poena sororum
Still continuing the courtroom atmosphere, " I DO SWEAR..." by all the accumulated history of the conquerors of Africa (Carthage), the victory over Perses of Macdonia emulating his ancestor Achilles, that I never asked tough old Cato the Censor to soften any judgment against me........I had no fault, was a great model of behavior for my, family.
Testor maiorum cineres tibi, Roma, colendos,
And now even more strongly: Nothing was changed, I was all pure, between the two torches (marriage and pyre!). My character came from my family, not from fear of being charged. The Urn was a voting urn for the court procedure, even if the vote is bad, I am pure good!
The story of Quinta Claudia is this: A woman of suspect chastity proved herself pure by single-handedly towing the stranded ship bearing the statue of the Asia Minor goddess Cybele (or Cybebe) off the rocks. This was the appearance of the ritual of Cybele in Italy in 205 BC., and the feat proved her purity. --- Aemilia a senior priestess of Vesta took the responsibility when a young vestal let the fire die out. Praying, she touched her linen dress to the ashes and it blazed up,a holy sign of purity.
Nec mea mutata est aetas, sine crimine tota est.
Your mother's complaint only about me......is my dying. Caesar weeping is contrary to Divification, gods don't weep, but even here a tear is in order. Cornelia was the half-sister of Julia, the daughter of Caesar Augustus, hence the connection is indirectly mentioned here.
Nec te, dulce caput, mater Scribonia, laesi,
I "earned" the honor of my wifely dress, not "stolen" (the quasi-rape of the Sabine women by Romulus) from a unfertile house. You two my sons were there when I died. Then moving to her other family, the brother twice consul (when his sister died). Daughter, be like me: One Husband, unlike rampant divorce of the early Empire; and be the "balance point" for this family, past to the future. Aside: The boat is ready to go, am I am glad knowing all you are there to carry on. This is a woman's reward......
Et tamen emerui generosos uestis honores,
Now speaking to her husband Paulus directly (Lucius Aemilius Paullus Lepidus, a.k.a. Paullus Aemilius Lepidus) as wife to surviving man. "Our pignora" are duties and pledges, also used for mortgages, pledges on a debt, in sort business terminology, not really out of place when you consider the contractual responsibilities of marriage. And these next words still heard today: You must be mother as well as father now!.... as the burden rests with you. Caution: No tears, or if any, hide them well, the tough yet feeling side of the Roman personality.
Nunc tibi commendo communia pignora natos,
The pathetic touch of his lonliness, dreaming of her, looking at her painting (Roman painters were as life-copying as l9th c. artists.). Talk to the painting and I'll answer..! But the stepmother, in ancient world a very bad danger for the children, ranging from hate to poison-----if she has to come......be quiet, smooth it with her, children, until she accepts your winning ways. Sat tibi sint noctes, quas de me, Paulle, fatiges,
somniaque in faciem credita saepe meam:
Atque ubi secreto nostra ad simulacra loqueris,
ut responsurae singula uerba iace.
Seu tamen adversum mutarit ianua lectum,
sederit et nostro cauta nouerca toro,
coniugium, pueri, laudate et ferte paternum:
Capta dabit uestris moribus illa inanus.
nec matrem laudate nimis:. Collata priori
uertet in offensas libera uerba suas.
But if you stay alone, Paullus.......and old age comes.....our children will be there to help your failing years. My loss of years add to your lives, again a ledger balance natural to Romans. Roman family cares for the aged, something we have recently somehow lost sight of.
seu memor ille mea contentus manserit umbra
So be it, I am not the lamenting type (Roman Stoicism!) but this does not preclude deep feelings. They all come in a crowd to this place. And then suddenly we are reminded that this whole poem was cast in the form of a legal Defense for Her Life! "The case rests...!" just as as before "I plead my own case...!" The witnesses rise at conclusion of a case, as now when the defendant rises for sentence, but weeping for her.
This third line from the end is remarkable: While the gracious earth weighs back the price of life. (I must pause on that.........!)
Et bene habet, numquam mater lugubria sumpsi;
How amazing that she says: Heaven opens for Character!... in a world where Achilles wandered annoyed down there in his field of asphodel, where the river flowed forever with the port-man waiting for us all. Is this a burst of a new feeling which would lead to the coming Christian Heaven? But she is not desperate, just very clear and very secure in her personal integrity. ---And then: I would be found worthy... but only by Deserving it (not by grace of god or forgiven-ness or someone carrying away the sins of mankind). You earn you way to honor!
And then with what would seem most normal to a person of Asian ancestry, "my bones are borne off to the honorable ancestors"!(The reading of honoratis equis is so unlikely as to hardly deserve comment.)
Moribus et caelum patuit: Sum digna merendo,
Here is a plain text version, which may be useful for unencumbered reading:
Desine, Paulle, meum lacrimis urgere sepulcrum, panditur ad nullas ianua nigra preces Cum semel infernas intrarunt funera leges, non exorato stant adamante viae. Te licet orantem fuscae deus audiat aulae, nempe tuas lacrimas litora surda bibent. Vota mouent superos, ubi portitor aera recepit, obserat umbrosos lurida porta rogos. Sic maestae cecinere tubae, cum subdita nostrum detraheret lecto fax inimica caput. Quid mihi coniugium Paulli, quid currus auorum profuit aut famae pignora tanta meae? Non minus immites habuit Cornelia Parcas, et sum, quod digitis quinque legatur, onus. Damnatae noctes et uos uada lenta paludes, et quaecumque meos implicat unda pedes, immatura licet, tamen huc non noxia ueni: Det pater hic umbrae mollia iura meae. aut si quis posita iudex sedet Aeacus urna, in mea sortita uindicet ossa pila: Assideant fratres, iuxta et Minoida sellam Eumenidum intento turba seuera foro. Sisyphe, mole uaces, taceant Ixionis orbes, fallax Tantaleus corripiare liquor. Cerberus et nullas hodie petat improbus umbras, et iaceat tacita laxa catena sera. ipsa loquor pro me: si fallo, poena sororum infelix umeros urgeat urna meos. si cui fama fuit per avita tropaea decori, Afra Numantinos regna loquuntur avos: Altera maternos exaequat turba Libones et domus est titulis utraque fulta suis. Mox, ubi iam facibus cessit practexta maritis, uinxit et acceptas altera uitta comas, iungor, Paulle, tuo sic discessura cubili: In lapide hoc uni nupta fuisse legar. Testor maiorum cineres tibi, Roma, colendos, sub quorum titulis, Africa, tunsa iaces, et Persen proauo stimulantem pectus Achille, quique tuas proavo fregit Achille domos, me neque censurae legem mollisse neque ulla labe mea uestros erubuisse focos. Non fuit exuuiis tantis Cornelia damnum, quin et erat magnae pars imitanda domus. Nec mea mutata est aetas, sine crimine tota est. Viximus insignes inter utramque facem. Mi natura dedit leges a sanguine ductas, nec possis melior iudicis esse metu. Quaelibet austeras de me ferat urna tabellas, turpior assessu non erit ulla meo. Vel tu, quae tardam mouisti fune Cybeben, Claudia, turritae rara ministra deae, vel cuius, rasos cum Vesta reposceret ignes, exhibuit uiuos carbasus alba focos. Nec te, dulce caput, mater Scribonia, laesi, in me mutatum quid nisi fata velis? Maternis laudor lacrimis urbisque querelis, defensa et gemitu Caesaris ossa mea. Ille sua nata dignam uixisse sororem increpat, et lacrimas uidimus ire deo. et tamen emerui generosos uestis honores, nec mea de sterili facta rapina domo. tu, Lepide, et tu, Paulle, meum post fata leuamen, condita sunt uestro lumina nostra sinu. uidimus et fratrem sellam geminasse curulem; consul quo factus tempore, rapta soror. Filia, tu specimen censurae nata paternae, fac teneas unum nos imitata uirum. Et serie fulcite genus. Mihi cumba uolenti soluitur aucturis tot mea facta meis. Haec est feminei merces extrema triumphi, laudat ubi emeritum libera fama rogum. Nunc tibi commendo communia pignora natos, haec cura et cineri spirat inusta meo. Fungere maternis uicibus, pater, illa meorum omnis erit collo turba ferenda tuo. Oscula cum dederis tua flentibus, adice matris: Tota domus coepit nunc onus esse tuum. Et si quid doliturus eris, sine testibus illis! cum uenient, siccis oscula falle genis sat tibi sint noctes, quas de me, Paulle, fatiges, somniaque in faciem credita saepe meam: atque ubi secreto nostra ad simulacra loqueris, ut responsurae singula uerba iace. Seu tamen adversum mutarit ianua lectum, sederit et nostro cauta nouerca toro, coniugium, pueri, laudate et ferte paternum: Capta dabit uestris moribus illa inanus. nec matrem laudate nimis:. Collata priori uertet in offensas libera uerba suas. seu memor ille mea contentus manserit umbra et tanti cineres duxerit esse meos, discite uenturam iam nunc sentire senectam, caelibis ad curas nec uacet ulla uia. Quod mihi detractum est, uestros accedat ad annos: prole mea Paullum sic iuuet esse senem. Et bene habet, numquam mater lugubria sumpsi; uenit in exsequias tota caterua meas. Causa perorata est. Flentes me surgite, testes, dum pretium uitae grata rependit humus. Moribus et caelum patuit: Sum digna merendo, cuius honoratis ossa vehantur auis.
The following version is as in the MSS, without indent for the elegaic line. This indenting of the elegaic couplet is after all a modern editorial convention, as an aid to the reading of Latin verse. Perhaps it is a good exercise good to read the Latin straight on.
Desine, Paulle, meum lacrimis urgere sepulcrum,