Sextus Propertius was born around 50 BC, probably near Assisi in Umbria, and seems to have been dead by 2 BC. His family were well-to-do farmers who lost land after the Perusine War, but neither the confiscation of estates nor the early death of Propertius's father reduced its equestrian standing. Money was found to send the young man to study law in Rome, where he won a literary reputation with startling ease. His first collection of Elegies was published in 29 or 28 BC, when the poet was still in his early twenties, and brought something new to Latin literature: a slavish subjection to love expressed in vivid elegiac couplets that no one has bettered. Catullus was more intense and personal, but published only short pieces in the metre. Tibullus was more continuously graceful, but seems over-refined when set against the turbulent moods that Propertius depicts in his love affair with Cynthia.
That inspiration was we cannot fully know. Apuleius identified the model with Hostia, a vivacious demi-monde, which there is no reason to doubt, but Cynthia is also a literary stalking-horse, a persona Propertius created to explore the many facets of romantic infatuation. By turns, the lover is tender, ecstatic, despairing, worldly-wise, self-pitying and importunate. Cynthia is just as various, everything from the warmed-hearted and cultivated lover to the calculating hussy. Anyone who has been in love will recognize these shifting fictions of the heart, which are a tribute to what poets have created from the emotional turmoil of our lives, and where the Latin elegists played a large part.
The free e-book in pdf format includes the Latin text, glossary, notes on the translation and references. Revised January 2014.