change must come: learn from Lygdamus & Propertius vs. domina Cynthia

Men can understand the experience of Lygdamus and Propertius. They were under Cynthia’s thumb. A highly privileged domina {ruling lady} in first-century BGC Rome, Cynthia held Lygdamus as her household slave. He carried messages for her, served her drinks, and did anything else that she commanded. Propertius was nominally a free man, but he made himself Cynthia’s slave in love. Too many men today live in slavery to women. The time for change has come.

Propertius endured Cynthia’s numerous infidelities. Pretending to visit Lanuvium’s cave in which a fearsome snake tests a women’s virginity, Cynthia actually took work as beard and first for a pathic seeking an assignation. He was a young, well-shaven wealthy man with close-clipped ponies, a silk-lined carriage, and two exotic dogs sporting luxurious collars. Cynthia, plucking the man and his ponies for all they had, drove the carriage hard along the Appian Way to Lanuvium. The young man held a passive position in the carriage.[1] In a pervasive pattern that meninist critical theory has uncovered and encompassed, Propertius with Cynthia and this young man constructed a hard tableau of men’s soft subjugation to women’s subjectivity. Women often financially exploit men, even men who have no sexual interest in them.

Cynthia meanly controlled Propertius sexually. After enjoying a relationship with a more sexually receptive woman, Propertius sought to reconcile with the distraught Cynthia. Lygdamus brought her Propertius’s propitiatory message. She responded with hostility, hatred for a highly skilled woman, and prophecies against Propertius:

Were you put up to this, Lygdamus? A slave’s
false witness bears harsh penalty.
This man who’s cast me off when I did nothing, keeps
I won’t say whom within his house.
He would have me wasting in a lonely bed. Be pleased
to revile him for the death of me, Lygdamus.
She topped me not by morals but vile herbs. So he’s
caught by a thread-drawn rhombus wheel.
He’s lured by magic powers of toads, their swelled-up pus,
the desiccated bones of snakes,
and screech-owl’s feathers found in recent tombs, and wooden
fillets snatched from a funeral bier.
If my dreams aren’t vain, give evidence, Lygdamus.
He’ll pay in late but added pain, and lie at my feet.
His empty bed will be draped with dusty cobwebs, and Venus
will snore through their nights together.

{ haec te teste mihi promissast, Lygdame, merces?
est poena et servo rumpere teste fidem.
ille potest nullo miseram me linquere facto,
et qualem nolo dicere habere domi,
gaudet me vacuo solam tabescere lecto
si placet, insultet, Lygdame, morte mea.
non me moribus illa, sed herbis improba vicit
staminea rhombi ducitur ille rota.
illum turgentis sanie portenta rubetae
et lecta exsuctis anguibus ossa trahunt,
et strigis inventae per busta iacentia plumae,
cinctaque funesto lanea vitta toro.
si non vana canunt mea somnia, Lygdame, testor,
poena erit ante meos sera sed ampla pedes;
putris et in vacuo texetur aranea lecto:
noctibus illorum dormiet ipsa Venus. }[2]

Cynthia depicted her rival in love as a sorceress. At the same, time, Cynthia herself issued a vicious love curse against Propertius.

Adding to her offenses, Cynthia attempted to seduce Lygdamus. She encouraged him to denounce Propertius by threatening to punish Lygdamus for false witness. She claimed that she was wasting away lonely in bed. There Lygdamus was. She urged him to blame Propertius for her death and insinuated that Lygdamus should bring her back to life with sexual companionship. She dreamed of again being the beloved lady-lord, with him lying as a slave at her feet. Because of the great power imbalance between them, a lady having sex with her man-slave is now widely regarded among the learned as illicit.

Even if Propertius was guilty of sexual faults, Cynthia treated him disrespectfully by seeking material advantage in traveling to Lanuvium for a threesome with two men. Propertius’s situation in relation to Cynthia was like that of Tibullus with respect to Delia:

I was the one, with my devotions, who snatched you
from gloomy sickness, when you were lying there.
I myself cleansed you by pure sulfur scattered round,
once the old woman had chanted her magic spell.
I myself expiated wild nightmares, lest they harm you,
three times averting them with sacred grain.
I myself in woolen headband and loose tunic
offered nine vows to Trivia in the silent night.
I’ve paid for all, yet now another enjoys love’s fruits;
that happy man benefits from my prayers.

{ ille ego cum tristi morbo defessa iaceres
te dicor votis eripuisse meis;
ipseque te circum lustravi sulpure puro,
carmine cum magico praecinuisset anus;
ipse procuravi, ne possent saeva nocere
somnia, ter sancta deveneranda mola;
ipse ego velatus filo tunicisque solutis
vota novem Triviae nocte silente dedi.
omnia persolvi: fruitur nunc alter amore,
et precibus felix utitur ille meis }[3]

Women should appreciate all that men do for them. Instead, women commonly love jerks, badboys, and offensive rock stars.

ancient Greek cup-bearer filling wine-jug

With true commitment to gender equality, Propertius decided to exercise equal freedom. He arranged a pleasurable situation for himself:

Because she had so often wronged our bed,
I chose to move my camp to another couch.
Near Aventine Diana a girl named Phyllis dwells,
prim when sober, but when she drinks, watch out!
And in Tarpeia’s Woods lives Teia: a pretty girl,
and she takes all comers when she’s drunk.
These two I invited, to soothe my lonely night
and stir new lust by a secret escapade.
We all three shared one little couch on a private lawn.
You ask how we lay? I was between the two.
Lygdamus filled our cups, the settings were summer glass,
the wine was Greek — a luscious Lesbian vintage.
An Egyptian piped, and Byblis rattled her castanets
with artless grace as we pelted her with roses,
and a dwarf, the famous Big Boy, was there to dance for us,
bobbing his stubby arms to the hollow flute.

{ cum fieret nostro totiens iniuria lecto,
mutato volui castra movere toro.
Phyllis Aventinae quaedamst vicina Dianae,
sobria grata parum: cum bibit, omne decet.
altera Tarpeios est inter Teïa lucos,
candida, sed potae non satis unus erit.
his ego constitui noctem lenire vocatis,
et Venere ignota furta novare mea.
unus erat tribus in secreta lectulus herba.
quaeris discubitus? inter utramque fui.
Lygdamus ad cyathos, vitrique aestiva supellex
et Methymnaei grata saliva meri.
Miletus tibicen erat, crotalistria Byblis,
(haec facilis spargi munda sine arte rosa),
Magnus et ipse suos breviter concretus in artus
iactabat truncas ad cava buxa manus. }[4]

It was a classic, one of those great times a man would remember through the ages. All should be grateful to the medieval scribes who, with much effort and some corruption, copied this text forward to our ignorant, bigoted, and repressive age.

reclining man at ancient Greek banquet

Within these lively and propitious circumstances, Propertius suffered terrible misfortune. Bad omens signaled impotence and one-itis:

But the flames kept flickering out in the lamps, though they were full,
and the table collapsed flat onto the floor;
and when I threw the dice, in hopes of a lucky Venus,
the sinister Dog was all I ever rolled.
Their songs fell on deaf ears, I was blind to their naked breasts:
I stood despairing at Lanuvium’s gates.

{ sed neque suppletis constabat flamma lucernis,
reccidit inque suos mensa supina pedes.
me quoque per talos Venerem quaerente secundam
semper damnosi subsiluere canes.
cantabant surdo, nudabant pectora caeco:
Lanuvii ad portas, ei mihi, solus eram }

Even amid the wine, song, and dancing, with Phyllis and Teia pressing their naked breasts against him, Propertius tragically endured the epic disaster of men’s impotence. He imagined penetrating Lanuvium’s cave with Cynthia. He thought only of her:

I admire
but don’t desire
any hand except for yours,
which I desire
with such fire
I could stop a lion short,
lady whom my heart adores!

fine rosette,
lovelier than any flower;
fine rosette,
do not let
me fall too far into your power!

It was chance that
acting madly
made me fall in love with you,
and the madness
keeps on lasting:
there is nothing I can do
before such beauty, pure and true!

fine rosette,
lovelier than any flower;
fine rosette,
do not let
me fall too far into your power!

{ Das que vejo
nom desejo
outra senhor se vós non,
e desejo
tan sobejo,
mataria hũu leom
senhor do meu coraçon:

fin roseta,
bella sobre toda fror,
fin roseta,
non me meta
en tal coita voss’amor!

Mha ventura
en loucura
me meteu de vos amar:
é loucura,
que me dura,
que me non posso en quitar,
ay fremosura sem par:

fin roseta,
bella sobre toda fror,
fin roseta,
non me meta
en tal coita voss’amor! }[5]

Impotent men relish flowery visions of their beloved women.

portrait of furious Medea

Then suddenly Cynthia threw open the courtyard gates,
her hair undone, but beautiful in her fury.
The goblet slipped from my limp fingers and fell to the ground,
and, flushed with wine as I was, my lips went pale.
Her eyes flashed fire, she raged as only a woman can:
a scene as frightful as a city’s sack.

{ nec mora, cum totas resupinat Cynthia valvas,
non operosa comis, sed furibunda decens.
pocula mi digitos inter cecidere remissos,
palluerunt ipso labra soluta mero.
fulminat illa oculis et quantum femina saevit,
spectaclum capta nec minus urbe fuit. }[6]

Just as Aeneas faltered against Helen amid the sack of Troy, Propertius feebly sputtered, “Cynthia, I’m sorry, really!” That wasn’t enough:

After these words she blazed forth in fury
driven by insane desire for war,
as in the Carthaginian fields
closed in by a circle of hunters
a lioness with yellow neck;
as a snake, nourished with malicious herbs,
that winds itself
and that, swollen, the frost covered:
it raises its head high for battle
and flashes from its mouth the three-forked tongue.

As the maenad every other year
rages through the city howling to Bacchus,
among the desert lairs of beasts,
gathered up with a bloodstained coat,
she calls her sister’s cruel band.

{ Dictis exarsit in iras,
insani Martis amore,
Poenorum qualis in arvis
venantum saepta corona,
fulva cervice leaena;
qualis mala gramina pastus,
tractu se colligit anguis,
tumidum quem bruma tegebat:
caput altum in proelia tollit,
linguis micat ore trisulcis
furit ululata per urbem
qualis trieterica Baccho
inter deserta ferarum,
palla subcincta cruenta,
vocat agmina saeva sororum }[7]

In contrast to gender-bigoted representations of domestic violence, violence against men has been prevalent throughout history. Here, however, Cynthia assaulted both women and men:

She scratched at Phyllis’s face with her nails, in a frenzy of wrath;
in terror Teia shrieked, “Help, neighbors! Fire!”
The local citizenry rushed out with torches high,
and wild shouts echoed up and down the street.
The girls, their hair all torn, their dresses ripped to shreds,
fled to the first wine-shop in the dim-lit road.
Cynthia came triumphant home, rejoiced in her spoils,
and gave me a bruising slap with the back of her hand,
and left a scar on my neck, and bit me till she drew blood,
and struck at my eyes most of all, for their offense.
And when she had exhausted her arms with beating me,
she noticed Lygdamus hiding under the couch
and yanked him out. He begged for help by my Guardian Spirit.
Lygdamus, what could I do? She’d taken us both!

{ Phyllidos iratos in vultum conicit ungues:
territa “vicini,” Teïa clamat “aquam!”
crimina sopitos turbant elata Quirites,
omnis et insana semita voce sonat.
illas direptisque comis tunicisque solutis
excipit obscurae prima taberna viae.
Cynthia gaudet in exuviis victrixque recurrit
et mea perversa sauciat ora manu,
imponitque notam collo morsuque cruentat,
praecipueque oculos, qui meruere, ferit.
atque ubi iam nostris lassavit bracchia plagis
Lygdamus, ad plutei fulcra sinistra latens
eruitur, geniumque meum protractus adorat.
Lygdame,nil potui: tecum ego captus eram. }[8]

Women make ferocious fighters. They certainly should be required to register for military drafts on an equal basis with men.

Medea flies away after massacring Jason's wife and children

Men readily surrender to women. So it was with Propertius:

Finally, pleading with outstretched arms, I sued for peace,
and letting me barely touch her feet, she said:
“If you wish me to forgive the crime you have committed,
here are the terms you must surrender by:
no more will you prowl the Pompeian shade in your finest clothes,
nor the Forum, when it is strewn with festive sand;
and beware of turning your gaze to the theater’s upper rows,
nor slow your pace, lured by some open sedan.
Above all, Lygdamus, prime cause of my complaint,
is to be sold. Put chains on both his feet.”
She thus laid down her terms. I said, “Your word is law!”
She laughed, gloating over the power she’d gained.

{ supplicibus palmis tum demum ad foedera veni,
cum vix tangendos praebuit illa pedes,
atque ait “admissae si vis me ignoscere culpae,
accipe, quae nostrae formula legis erit.
tu neque Pompeia spatiabere cultus in umbra,
nec cum lascivum sternet harena Forum.
colla cave inflectas ad summum obliqua theatrum,
aut lectica tuae se det aperta morae.
Lygdamus in primis, omnis mihi causa querelae,
veneat et pedibus vincula bina trahat.”
indixit leges: respondi ego “legibus utar.”
riserat imperio facta superba dato. }

Cynthia thus imposed strict controls on Propertius’s behavior. She ordered him not to dress smartly and stroll about Pompey or the Roman Forum. That was a typical way to make amorous acquaintances. She strictly controlled his male gaze: she forbade him to make eye contact with women in the theater’s upper row or with women riding in privilege in a sedan. Living under women’s power and control, men have long tolerated oppressive regulation of their sexuality. Thus any man who has studied literature recently has been taught that the male gaze is a terrible crime.

Women shouldn’t keep men as slaves. If emancipation of men remains unthinkable, women should at least refrain from treating their slaves brutally. Cynthia kept Propertius. She ordered Lygdamus to be sold. Underscoring her inhumanity to men, she required Propertius himself to put chains on Lygdamus’s feet. Moreover, she falsely accused Lygdamus of poisoning her as a pretext for having him tortured:

Burn Lygdamus, heat metal white hot for that slave:
I knew it, when I drank the wine his poisons stained.

{ Lygdamus uratur candescat lamina vernae:
sensi ego, cum insidiis pallida vina bibi. }

Women haven’t even begun to think about how to make reparations for what they have done to men slaves and to many other men. All should begin to think now.

Even worse than demanding an elaborate, expensive special-day wedding celebration, Cynthia complained to Propertius about her funeral ceremony. No one did enough, no one spent enough for a fine funeral:

And no one called my name when my eyes finally dimmed:
had you cried out, I’d have gained another day.
No guard was set over me to shake a split reed,
and a broken roof tile cut my head where it lay.
And who saw you bowed down with grief at my last rites
or wetting a black toga with your warm tears?
If you could not trouble to go beyond the gate, at least
you could have ordered my bier move more slowly.
Why were you not there, praying for winds for the fire?
Why, grudger, were my flames not scented with nard?
Was it too much to ask, to throw cheap hyacinths on my body,
and shatter a wine-jar to hallow my smoldering ashes?

{ at mihi non oculos quisquam inclamavit eunti:
unum impetrassem te revocante diem:
nec crepuit fissa me propter harundine custos,
laesit et obiectum tegula curta caput.
denique quis nostro curvum te funere vidit,
atram quis lacrimis incaluisse togam?
si piguit portas ultra procedere, at illuc
iussisses lectum lentius ire meum.
cur ventos non ipse rogis, ingrate, petisti?
cur nardo flammae non oluere meae?
hoc etiam grave erat, nulla mercede hyacinthos
inicere et fracto busta piare cado. }

A bride once thanked her mother-in-law for funding the nicest wedding she ever had. At least with a funeral, the relatives can be sure they’ll pay only once. Moreover, the ghost of the deceased typically doesn’t come back and complain if a few corners are cut for the sake of the living. In contrast to claims in mere media stories, as always, men are hurt the most.

Men too readily settle for a feminine ending. Cynthia expunged all signs of Propertius’s independent, inclusive sexuality:

Whatever those alien girls had touched, she purified
with incense, and with pure water she scoured our door;
and she ordered all the lamps emptied and filled again,
and thrice she grazed my brow with burning sulfur.

{ dein, quemcumque locum externae tetigere puellae,
suffiit, at pura limina tergit aqua,
imperat et totas iterum mutare lucernas,
terque meum tetigit sulpuris igne caput. }

Cynthia didn’t thus save her beloved man’s life. She dominated it. She pushed Propertius around and established peace with him under her thumb:

And after every cover that lay on the couch was changed,
I made my obeisance, and peace reigned over our bed.

{ atque ita mutato per singula pallia lecto
despondi, et toto solvimus arma toro. }

That’s a feminine ending just like Tibullus imagined with his beloved Delia:

She’ll rule the whole, all will be her care,
and I’ll rejoice in being nothing at home there.

{ illa regat cunctos, illi sint omnia curae:
at iuvet in tota me nihil esse domo. }[9]

In the sixteenth-century, an influential Catholic scholar stated:

The Senate of Marseilles had reason to agree to the request of a husband for permission to kill himself so as to escape his wife’s petulance. That evil can never be removed except by removing the other part. One cannot make any worthwhile arrangement with it except by fleeing from it or enduring it. Both of those two are fraught with large difficulties. That man understood, it seems to me, who said that a good marriage needs a blind wife and a deaf husband.

{ Le senat de Marseille eut raison d’accorder la requeste à celuy qui demandoit permission de se tuer pour s’exempter de la tempeste de sa femme: car c’est un mal qui ne s’emporte jamais qu’en emportant la piece, et qui n’a autre composition qui vaille que la fuite ou la souffrance, quoy que toutes les deux tres difficiles. Celuy là s’y entendoit, ce me semble, qui dict qu’un bon mariage se dressoit d’une femme aveugle avec un mary sourd. }[10]

Suicide kills about four times more men than women. Men shouldn’t turn to suicide or hope in sarcastic suicide quips. Even for Propertius after his embarrassing impotence and surrender to Cynthia, a better reading of the text indicates masculine assertion and vigorous action in bed:

And after every cover that lay on the couch was changed,
I responded firmly, and together we set free our weapons in bed.

{ atque ita mutato per singula pallia lecto
respondi, et toto solvimus arma toro. }[11]

That’s the actual manuscript reading. We don’t need no emendation. Stop being put down and pushed around. Change can come. You don’t have to live under her thumb.[12]

Peace can come other than through victory in war. It’s down to you and me. As Tibullus protested against Gallus, love poetically differs from war. Men’s genitals aren’t weapons, nor should women’s be used as weapons.[13] Women and men should love each other as they love themselves.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Propertius, Elegies 4.8.3-26. Alpheios provides a helpful Latin text. For freely available English translations, Corelis (1995), Holcombe (2009), Kline (2001a), and Alan Marshfield (2001). Dee observed:

while the description of Cynthia’s behavior reveals Propertius’ scarcely concealed admiration, there are no such ambivalences about the nepos {spendthrift}, whose disgraceful luxury and effeminacy he attacks in carefully chosen expressions of unusual intensity. … we cannot help sensing Propertius’ own satisfaction at his elegantly expressed malice.

Dee (1978) p. 46. Men should love other men as much as they love women.

Propertius offers “rich linguistic and rhetorical inventions and the steady obsession and bitter wit that nourish them.” Johnson (2009) p. xii. Literary scholarship in recent decades has tended to deny that Cynthia has an objective correlate in Propertius’s biography or men’s experience more broadly. That’s for men to consider and decide.

[2] Propertius, Elegies 3.6.19-34, Latin text from Goold (1990), English translation (with my small changes) from Holcombe (2009). While about 150 manuscripts of Propertius’s Elegies have survived, they perpetuate early textual corruptions. The best current Latin critical edition is Heyworth (2007). In this and subsequent quotes from Propertius, I use the Latin text of Goold, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Tibullus, Elegies 1.5.9-18, Latin text from Postgate (1913), English translation (modified slightly) from Kline (2001b). When Cynthia was ill, Propertius prayed to Jupiter / Jove to save her:

Jupiter, have mercy on my girl who’s sick,
spare death in one so beautiful.

For such a blessing I will write a sacred poem:
“through mighty Jove my girl is safe.”
She’ll sacrifice and at your feet will sit in worship,
telling stories of her troubles.

{ Iuppiter, affectae tandem miserere puellae:
tam formosa tuum mortua crimen erit.

pro quibus optatis sacro me carmine damno:
scribam ego ‘per magnumst salva puella Iovem’;
ante tuosque pedes illa ipsa operata sedebit,
narrabitque sedens longa pericla sua. }

Properties, Elegies, 2.28.1-2, 43-6, English translation (modified slightly) from Holcombe (2009).

[4] Propertius, Elegies 4.8.27-42, English translation (modified slightly) from Corelis (1995). The subsequent quote is similarly from 4.8.43-8 (But the flames kept flickering out…).

Phyllis commonly names an amorous woman in Latin love elegy. That name has roots in a Greek word for “beloved one {φίλος}.” Teia, from “of Teos,” is a more unusual name. It suggests pleasure:

Teos in Ionia was the birthplace of Anacreon, whose lyric poetry, full of wit and fancy, was mostly concerned with pleasure.

Currie (1973) p. 617.

[5] Joam {João} Lobeira (attributed, with considerable contention), “Song for Leonorette,” beginning “Senhor genta,” vv. 14-39, Galician-Portuguese text and English translation (with Cythiarette substituted for Leonorette) from Zenith (1995) pp. 168-71 (song 79). Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas has a slightly different presentation of the source text. This “song of love {cantiga d’amor}” survives only in the Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional (B 244/246bis). It probably dates from the thirteenth century, but that has been a matter of considerable controversy.

A slightly different verson of this song exists in the medieval lay Amadis de Gaula. While it’s known to have existed earlier, the earliest surviviling complete version of Amadis de Gaula dates to 1508. That text is written in Spanish. The Galician-Portuguesas text of this song in Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional may have been an insertion sometime after the thirteenth century. See Zenith (1005) p. 260 and notes for the song in Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas.

[6] Propertius, Elegies 4.8.51-6, English translation (modified slightly) from Corelis (1995). To make clearer the parallels with the sack of Troy, I’ve used the translation of v. 56 from Holcombe (2009). The phrase “limp fingers {digitos remissos}” subtly alludes to Propertius’s impotence with Phyllis and Teia.

Cynthia’s entrance is similar to that of the witch Meroe breaking into Socrates and Aristomenes’s bedroom in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses.

[7] Hosidius Geta, Medea vv. 284-93, 298-302, Latin text and English translation from Rondholz (2012). Mooney (1919) provides a freely available Latin text and English translation. Hosidius Geta’s Medea is a Virgilian cento written probably in the second century. It survives only in Codex Salmasianus (Codex Parisinus 10318). Tertullian refers to it in his De Prescriptione Haereticorum, written in 203 GC.

In creating his Medea cento, Hosidius Geta engaged in creative cultural appropriation:

these examples show very well how Hosidius Geta works with Vergilian phrases. The central thing he does is to endow them with new brutal and paradoxical overtones that they did not have before. The pleasure we get from them derives not from thinking who said these words and when in Vergilian poems, but from the simple understanding that these new overtones could not have appeared in Vergil’s text. It is the centonist who manages to say with the old words something completely new and, in its brutality, even unimaginable in Vergil’s oeuvre.

Shumilin (2015) p. 147. Hosidius Geta’s appropriation of the revered Virgil has as its central tendency “to make the text sound as savage, brutal and barbarous as possible.” Id. Modern classical scholarship would benefit from more daring and creative approaches like that of Hosidius Geta.

[8] Propertius, Elegies 4.8.57-70, English translation (modified slightly) from Corelis (1995). Subsequent quotes are similarly from 4.8.71-82 (Finally, pleading with outstretched arms…), 4.7.35-6 (Burn Lygdamus…), 4.7.23-34 (And no one called my name…), 4.8.83-6 (Whatever those alien girls had touched…), and 4.8.87-8 (And after every cover…), which concludes the poem.

Propertius’s surrender to Cynthia (culminating with v. 4.8.81: “Your word is law {legibus utar}!”) uses “plain borrowing from legal language, formula legis {formula of law}.” Dee (1978) p. 51, citing specifically v. 74.

Privileged Roman women mistreated not just men slaves, but also women slaves. After Cynthia’s death, Propertius lived with the woman Chloris, said to have been formerly a sex-worker. Chloris beat Cynthia’s former personal slave Lalage and put in chains another of Cynthia’s personal slaves, Petale. Propertius, Elegies 4.7.43-6.

[9] Tibullus, Elegies 1.5.29-30, Latin text from Postgate (1913), my English translation.

[10] Michel de Montaigne, Essays {Essais} III.5, “On some lines of Virgil {Sur des vers de Virgile},” French text from the Villey & Saulnier (1965) version of the 1595 edition of Essais, my English translation benefiting from that of Screech (1993) p. 984. My English translation follows the French text more accurately and has shorter sentences to be more easily readable.

Montaigne refers to a saying of King Alfonso V of Aragon (Alfonso the Magnanimous, reigned 1416 to 1458), as recorded by the Italian Antonio Beccadelli il Panormita in The Sayings and Deeds of King Alfonso of Aragon {De dictus et factis Alphonsi regis Aragonum} 3.7 (saying on a peaceful marriage). Beccadelli wrote this compilation about 1455. It became a widely read work.

Probably via his reading of Beccadelli, the Catholic priest Desiderius Erasmus included in his Apophthegmata Alfonso’s saying on marriage:

Alfonso King of Aragon used to say that a marriage could be lived out peacefully and without recrimination only if the husband was deaf and the wife blind. He implies, I think, that women as a whole are inclined to jealousy and that this is the source of quarrels and complaints. On the other side, women’s chattering is very irritating to husbands. The husband will escape that annoyance if he’s deaf. She won’t be troubled by suspicion of his adultery if she has no eyes.

{ Alphonsus Aragonum Rex dicere solebat, ita demum matrimonium tranquille citraque querimonias exigi posse, si maritus surdus fiat, uxor caeca: innuens, opinor, foemineum genus obnoxium esse zelotypiae, atque hinc oriri rixas & querimonias: rursum maritis permolestam esse uxorum garrulitatem, qua molestia cariturus sit, si fiat surdus: nec illa vexabitur adulterii suspicione, si careat oculis. }

Erasmus, Apophthegmata / Apophthegmatum opus {Aphorisms / Work on Aphorisms} 8.4, Latin text from LB (1703) vol. IV, p. 378 (section A), English translation (with my insubstantial changes) from Knott & Fantham (2014) vol. 38, p. 960 (no. 8.291). Erasmus’s Apophthegmata is different from, but related to, his Collection of Adages / Thousands of Adages {Collectanea Adagiorum / Adagiorum chiliades}.

In 1578, the English public figure John Florio claimed to have translated from Italian a gender-reversed version:

There never shall be quarreling in that house, where the man is blind and the wife deaf.

{ Non ci sara mai grido in quella casa, doue che il patrone è or∣bo, & la patrona sorda. There neuer shal be chiding in that house, where the man is blynd, and the wife deafe. }

Florio (1578) p. 28. Florio may have been pandering to gynocentrism under the rule of Elizabeth I.

[11] Propertius, Elegies 4.8.87-8, my English translation of v. 88. No consensus exists on the Latin text of v. 88. Variants: “despondi, et noto solvimus arma toro” in Goold (1990), “despondi, et toto solvimus arma toro” in Holcombe (2009), “respondi, et toto solvimus arma toro” in Hutchinson (2006). Hutchinson obolizes respondi and comments “need not resemble what it has replaced. Nothing convinces.” Id. p. 205.

The reading respondi, which all the manuscripts provide, makes good sense with sexual innuendo. Propertius had been impotent with Phyllis and Teia because his mind was on Cynthia. He then gets in bed with Cynthia. Men’s penises have commonly been disparaged as “weapons {arma}.” Resistance to respondi and reading v. 88 sexually is consistent with modern philology’s anti-penis gender bias. On ambiguity in interpreting this verse, Janan (2001) pp. 116, 126.

[12] The fundamental question of Propertius is a question for many men:

Even the conventions of servitium amoris {man slave of love} do not necessarily demand that the lover enthuse over his mistress’ tyranny, only that he comply. Why should Propertius be such a happy idiot?

Janan (2001) p. 123. Johnson suggests that Propertius is happy because he enjoy’s Cynthia’s “greatness of soul”:

under the whining and the prevarications and the grand renunciations lurks the old arrogance, the old determination to manipulate and to dominate: to have things her way. When the ghost announces that she has plans for Propertius once he arrives in hell, she asserts her mastery over him even as she does when, in the next poem, she forgives the man she has just beaten to a pulp, decides to have mercy on him, to treat his derelictions with a clemency worthy of Caesar, and thus shows her greatness of soul.

Johnson (2009) p. 89. A man typically doesn’t enjoy having a woman beat him to a pulp, even if the woman subsequently has mercy on him. Johnson seems to lack the imagination to escape the world of gynocentric devaluation of men:

Without her — he has said it again and again — without her, no poems, no poetic identity. … she is the catalyst of a new style of self-fashioning. … when Cynthia bursts into the middle of what was supposed to be a volume devoted to patriotic forms and patriotic feelings, when she scares her lover-poet out of his wits and roughs him up and then has her way with him, both her macabre visitation and her brutal interruption of his swinging bachelor soiree seem, on reflection, anything but astonishing. Propertius cannot get rid of Cynthia because she is his worse and better half, she is his fate and his salvation, she is his Id and Super-Ego. She is the source and the shape of his poetic identity.

Id. pp. 93, 94, 96. Yes, of course, Propertius owes all his success to Cynthia. That’s the form of a tediously conventional claim that men commonly make to enthusiastic applause: “I owe all my success to my wife / girlfriend / mother.”

[13] Middle English includes the term “cunte-beten,” meaning an impotent man. Current vulgar English has “pussy-wipped” (cf. “pistol-whipped”), meaning generally a woman’s domination of a man. Historically, representations of the penis have been much more disparaging than those of the vagina.

On loving one another, Leviticus 19:18, Galatians 5:14. Jesus, a Jew, explained God’s commandment in terms of his own personal witness to everyone: “love one another as I have loved you.” John 15,12, similarly John 13:34. On Jesus’s gospel in relation to the development of Latin love elegy, see my post about Parthenius and moral reflection.

[images] (1) Young man cup-bearer filing wine jug (oinochoe) at ancient Greek banquet. Painting by Cage Painter on Attic red-figure cup. Painted about 490-480 BGC. Preserved as accession # G 133 (Campana Collection, 1861) in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Image thanks to Jastrow and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Reclining man at ancient Greek banquet. From the same fifth-century BGC cup as the previous image, and similarly sourced. (3) Portrait of Medea in pastel (cropped slightly). Drawing by Charles Antoine Coypel about 1715. Preserved as accession # 1974.25 (Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Image thanks to The Met. (4) Medea flies away in a dragon-drawn chariot after massacring Jason’s wife and children. Painting on Red-Figure Calyx-Krater (Mixing Vessel). Attributed to the Policoro Painter working in southern Italy about 400 GC. Accession # 1991.1 (Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund) in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Image (cropped slightly) thanks to the Cleveland Museum of Art.


Corelis, Jon. 1995. Roman Erotic Elegy: Selections from Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid and Sulpicia. Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Poetic Drama & Poetic Theory 128. Salzburg: University of Salzburg.

Currie, H. MacL. 1973. “Propertius IV. 8 — A Reading.” Latomus. 32 (3): 616-622.

Dee, James H. 1978. “Elegy 4.8: A Propertian Comedy.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 108: 41-53.

Florio, John. 1578. Florio his firste fruites which yeelde familiar speech, merie prouerbes, wittie sentences, and golden sayings. Also a perfect induction to the Italian, and English tongues, as in the table appeareth. The like heretofore, neuer by any man published. London: Imprinted at the three Cranes in the Vintree, by Thomas Dawson, for Thomas Woodcocke.

Goold, G. P., ed and trans. 1990. Propertius. Elegies. Loeb Classical Library 18. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Heyworth, S. J. 2007, ed. Propertius. Sexti Properti Elegos. Oxford Classical Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Antonio Ramírez de Verger)

Hutchinson, Gregory, ed. and trans. 2006. Propertius: Elegies Book IV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holcombe, Colin John, trans. 2009. Sextus Propertius Elegies. Latin text and English translation. Ocaso Press. Online. Holcombe’s review of previous translations and characterization of his translation.

Janan, Micaela. 2001. The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Johnson, W. R. 2009. A Latin Lover in Ancient Rome: Readings in Propertius and his Genre. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press. (review by Randall Childree)

Kline, A. S., trans. 2001a. Sextus Propertius: The Elegies. A complete English translation with in-depth name index. Poetry in Translation. Online.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2001b. Tibullus. Elegies. Brindin Press Virtual Chapbook 40. Online. The Latin text here seems to me inferior to that of Postgate (1913 / 1988). Alternate presention without Latin text at Poetry in Translation.

Knott, Betty I., and Elaine Fantham, trans. 2014. Desiderius Erasmus. Apophthegmata. Collected Works of Erasmus, vols. 37 & 38. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

LB. 1703. Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami. Opera omnia emendatiora et auctiora … doctorumque … notis illustrata. Tomus quartus, complectens quae ad morum institutionem pertinent, quorum catalogum versa pagina docet. Lugduni Batavorum: curá & impensis Petri Lander Aa, 1703.

Mooney, Joseph J. 1919. Hosidius Geta’s Tragedy “Medea”: a Vergilian cento. Latin text with metrical translation. Appended is An Outline of Ancient Roman Magic. Cornish Bros: Birmingham.

Postgate, J. P. ed. and trans. 1913. Tibullus in Catullus. Tibullus. Pervigilium Veneris. Revised by G. P. Goold (1988). Loeb Classical Library 6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rondholz, Anke. 2012. The Versatile Needle: Hosidius Geta’s Cento Medea and its tradition. Berlin: De Gruyter. (review by Marcos Carmignani)

Screech, M. A., trans. 1993. Michel De Montaigne: the Complete Essays. London, England: Penguin Books.

Shumilin, Mikhail. 2015. “Hosidius Geta’s Cento Medea: Vergilian Tragedy or Tragedy against Vergil?Vergilius. 61: 131-156.

Zenith, Richard, trans. 1995. 113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Instituto Camões.