Propertius & Prudentius show gender allocation of credit and blame

To demonstrate romantic sensibility and gain warm acclaim, a successful man often proclaims that he owes all his success to his wife. Under the common law of coverture, a husband is responsible for all the crimes his wife commits. Such examples aren’t unusual. Crediting women while blaming men underpins the modern idea of gender equality. Propertius and Prudentius attest to that also being a classical practice.

nude woman (maenad) in fresco in ancient Pompeii

In first century BGC Rome, the poet Propertius became famous for writing in the tradition of Gallus’s love elegy. The Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition of Propertius’s poems in English translation, published in 2009, declares on its book-back blurb:

Of all the great classical love poets, Propertius (c. 50-10 BC) is surely one of those with most immediate appeal for readers today. His helpless infatuation for the sinister figure of his mistress Cynthia forms the main subject of his poetry and is analyzed with a tormented but witty grandeur in all its changing moods, from ecstasy to suicidal despair. [1]

Propertius’s poems have immediate appeal to many readers today for their appalling celebration of men’s abasement to women. More men die from suicide than from homicide. Four times more men than women commit suicide. To make men’s lives matter, by far the most important policy would be to reduce the power of sinister women over men. Instead, women and men delight in reading about Propertius’s infatuation with the sinister figure of Cynthia.

Like many successful men today, Propertius credited his mistress Cynthia for all his poetic success. She is the source of his poetry. She makes him a genius:

You ask, how do I write so many songs of love,
how my soft book comes forth, the talk of all.
Not Calliope nor Apollo sings me this;
my girl herself makes me a genius.
If I see her go forth in shining Coan silk,
from that silk gown a scroll of verse comes;
or if I see her tresses roam loose along her brow,
she goes rejoicing, famous for her hair;
or if her ivory fingers strike songs forth on the lyre,
I marvel how her skilled hands press the strings;
or when she droops her drowsy eyes that yearn for sleep,
I find a thousand new themes for my poems;
or if she throws her gown off to wrestle with me nude,
ah, then, then I compose whole Iliads!
Whatever she has done, whatever she has said,
great legends spring from nowhere into being.

{ Quaeritis, unde mihi totiens scribantur amores,
unde meus veniat mollis in ore liber.
non haec Calliope, non haec mihi cantat Apollo.
ingenium nobis ipsa puella facit.
sive illam Cois fulgentem incedere vidi,
totum de Coa veste volumen erit;
seu vidi ad frontem sparsos errare capillos,
gaudet laudatis ire superba comis;
sive lyrae carmen digitis percussit eburnis,
miramur, facilis ut premat arte manus;
seu compescentis somnum declinat ocellos,
invenio causas mille poeta novas;
seu nuda erepto mecum luctatur amictu,
tum vero longas condimus Iliadas;
seu quidquid fecit sivest quodcumque locuta,
maxima de nihilo nascitur historia. }[2]

Propertius imagined the Muses placing Cynthia in front of their dancing. Then they would give to Propertius poetic laurels. He understood Cynthia’s eminent place, “for without you my genius has no recognized value {nam sine te nostrum non valet ingenium}.”[3] In our age of individuality and intense concern for gender equity, how can such a fanciful gender allocation of credit be supported?

Although Cynthia is said to have created all of Propertius’s love poetry, women allegedly lack agency with respect to wrong-doing. The poet Prudentius, writing about 400 GC, underscored the importance of recognizing agency:

So did the horse, iron, bull, lion, rope, or olive
have criminal power within them when formed?
The cause in madness by which man is killed isn’t iron,
but the human hand, nor is a horse the creator of the frenzied insanity
of the circus, its folly and wild applause.
That’s mob mentality, destitute of reason, not the horses’ course,
that rages on. Shameful passion ruins a useful gift.

{ numquid equus, ferrum, taurus, leo, funis, olivum
in se vim sceleris, cum formarentur, habebant?
quod iugulatur homo, non ferrum causa furoris
sed manus est; nec equum vesania fervida circi
auctorem levitatis habet rabidive fragoris:
mens vulgi rationis inops, non cursus equorum
perfurit: infami studio perit utile donum. }[4]

God made Adam with freedom of choice. Adam didn’t have to be a slave to God or a slave to women:

“Go forth,” says the very parent, the maker and creator of Adam,
“Go forth, human, ennobled above all through my mouth’s breath,
not a slave, powerful, ruler of things, ruler also
and judge of your own mind. Subject yourself to me only
by your free will, so that your subjection will be itself a liberty
in your free judgement. I don’t force or constrain you by my might,
but remind you to flee injustice and pursue justice.
Light is companion of the just; the wicked’s companion is horrid death.
Choose the way of life. Virtue shall conduct you through the ages;
your fault in turn will condemn you for eternity.
With freedom granted, choose between these alternate fates.”

{ “vade,” ait ipse parens opifexque et conditor Adae,
“vade, homo, adflatu nostri praenobilis oris,
insubiecte, potens, rerum arbiter, arbiter idem
et iudex mentis propriae, mihi subdere soli
sponte tua, quo sit subiectio et ipsa soluto
libera iudicio, non cogo nec exigo per vim,
sed moneo iniustum fugias iustumque sequaris.
lux comes est iusti, comes est mors horrida iniqui,
elige rem vitae; tua virtus temet in aevum
provehat, aeternum damnet tua culpa vicissim,
praestet et alterutram permissa licentia sortem.” }[5]

With his own freedom and faulty choice, Adam fell. Eve, so blameless that she isn’t even named, bore no guilt for Adam’s fall:

By this kindness and so abundant gift, Adam is a wanderer.
He then transgresses established law, and with foresight
and volition chooses lethal ways, while believing more useful to himself
what, against God’s prohibiting, the clever serpent persuaded,
persuaded certainly by exhortations, not compelled by harsh
command. Accused of this criminal act, the woman
responded to God that, herself enticed by evil artifice,
she persuaded her man. Her man himself then freely
consented. Could he not have spurned her exhortations with the freedom
of his upright soul? He could have. For surely God earlier
urged him to follow the better way willingly, but he,
spurning counsel, believed more the savage enemy.

{ hac pietate vagus et tanto munere abundans,
transit propositum fas et letalia prudens
eligit atque volens, magis utile dum sibi credit
quod prohibente Deo persuasit callidus anguis,
persuasit certe hortatu, non inpulit acri
imperio; hoc mulier rea criminis exprobranti
respondit Domino, suadelis se malefabris
inlectam suasisse viro; vir et ipse libenter
consensit, licuitne hortantem spernere recti
libertate animi? licuit; namque et Deus ante
suaserat ut meliora volens sequeretur; at ille
spernens consilium saevo plus credidit hosti. }[6]

In theory, Adam could have chosen to do other than what Eve urged. Most men with wives or girlfriends understand that such a choice isn’t feasible in practice. Systemic gynocentrism is real. Under U.S. tax law, 90% of the “innocent spouses” granted tax relief for illegal joint marital tax filings are wives.[7] With remarkable foresight into social development, Prudentius assigned Adam all the blame for his fall.

Cynthia made you a poet, lustful Propertius.
Gallus’s genius was lovely Lycoris.
Beautiful Nemesis is the fame of witty Tibullus.
Lesbia dictated to you, learned Catullus.

{ Cynthia te vatem fecit, lascive Properti;
ingenium Galli pulchra Lycoris erat;
fama est arguti Nemesis formosa Tibulli;
Lesbia dictavit, docte Catulle, tibi }[8]

Leading authorities work assiduously today to promote gender equality for women. Promoting “gender equality for women” isn’t the same as promoting gender equality. Promoting gender equality for women actually means crediting women for more and blaming men for more. That’s classical practice, now enhanced by the modern propaganda apparatus and the ideological zeal of rabidly monomaniac post-modernists. Men living within the Roman colonial legacy should seek a divorce from the Sabine women.

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[1] Lee (2009), from back cover.

[2] Propertius, Elegies 2.1.1-16, Latin text from Goold (1990), English translation (with my small changes) from Corelis (1995). A. S. Kline offers all of Propertius’s poems in English prose translation in a web-native presentation.

One can find many similar claims throughout literary history. The man trobairitz Peire Vidal in twelfth-century southern France sung of his lady-love:

If I know how to speak or act
I owe her thanks, for she gave me
wisdom and understanding.
My heart fills with joy and song;
any good I ever do
comes from her beauty, her charm,
even when I lose myself in dreams.

{ E s’ieu sai ren dir ni faire,
Ilh n’aia.l grat, que sciensa
M’a donat e conoissensa,
Per qu’ieu sui gais e chantaire.
E tot quan fauc d’avinen
Ai del sieu bell cors plazen,
Neis quan de bon cor consire. }

Peire Vidal, “I breathe in the air {Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire}” st. 4, Old Occitan text from Anglade (1913) p. 61 (song 19), English translation from Paden & Paden (2007) p. 133 (song 59). Alternate English translation and a musical performance of “Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire” by the Camerata Mediterranea (Joel Cohen, director) from their album Lo Gai Saber: Troubadour and Minstrels 1100-1300, issued in 1990.

Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest recognized gender injustice in the allocation of credit and blame. One such medieval work protested:

When business prospers, wives maintain
that they take credit for the gain.
If hardship strikes, they’re quick to stress
their husband’s blame for their distress.

{ Cum res coniugibus succedunt prospere,
Uxores asserunt se totum facere;
Si fiunt pauperes volunt arguere
Quod propter homines sunt ipse misere. }

About not getting married {De coniuge non ducenda} P5, Latin text and English translation from Rigg (1986) pp. 64-5.

[3] Propertius, Elegies 2.30A.40, Latin text from Goold (1990), my English translation. Cf. 2.1.4.

[4] Prudentius, The Origin of Sin {Hamartigenia} vv. 358-64, Latin text from Thomson (1949) p. 228, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Malamud (2011) p. 21. These verses provide an early instance of the influential argument, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Subsequent quotes from Hamartigenia are similarly sourced.

A proposed reform of U.S. tax law defining “innocent spouse” tax relief similarly emphasizes agency:

the existing innocent spouse relief regime should be replaced with one that respects joint filers’ agency when signing joint returns and affords relief only when a joint filer was unable to exercise that agency.

McMahon (2014) p. 141. Agency in earning money within a marriage, however, has no legal relevance in determining the allocation of assets upon divorce. Moreover, since the spouse that works outside the home to earn money for the marriage has less time to spend with children, that spouse is highly disadvantaged in seeking custody of children of the marriage.

[5] Hamartigenia, vv. 697-707. Cf. Genesis 2:7 (“God formed the human from the dirt and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”), Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (“Behold, today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. …”), James 1:25 (“the perfect law, the law of liberty”).

[6] Hamartigenia, vv. 708-19. In his Cathemerinon, Prudentius recognized Eve’s culpability in Adam’s fall:

Then the treacherous serpent
tempts the virgin’s untrained mind.
So with evil persuasion on her man, her partner,
she forces him to eat what was forbidden.
She herself will be ruined in the same way.

{ Hic draco perfidus indocile
virginis inlicit ingenium,
ut socium malesuada virum
mandere cogeret ex vetitis
ipsa pari peritura modo. }

Prudentius, Book of the Daily Round {Liber Cathemerinon} 3, “Hymn before the meal {Hymnus ante cibum},” st. 23 (vv. 111-5), Latin text from O’Daly (2012) p. 88, my English translation benefiting from that of id. p. 89 and Malamud (2011) p. 142.

Prudentius’s Hamartigenia distinctively treats Adam’s culpability:

Perhaps the most peculiar feature of the Hamartigenia to readers brought up on the Genesis account of the Creation and Fall of mankind and influenced by a literary tradition that has been fascinated by the figure of Eve is the way she is minimized, almost eliminated, from the narrative of the origin of sin. In this, Prudentius’s account of original sin differs greatly from the biblical account.

Malamud (2011) p. 140. Prudentius was a highly sophisticated writer who apparently understood gynocentric oppression. He may have been ironically invoking the classical practice of shifting blame from women to men.

[7] In enacting innocent spouse tax relief, the U.S. Congress clearly understood that such relief would vastly disproportionately benefit women:

All but one mention of innocent spouse relief in the Congressional Record referred to wives, most often divorced wives.

McMahon (2014) p. 149, n. 35. In Congressional debate concerning innocent spouse tax relief, Senator Jon Kyl declared: “Nine out of 10 innocent spouses are women.” Id. p. 49, citing statement of Senator Kyl in 1998. Available statistics on innocent spouse petitions are consistent with that claim:

Wives sought relief in 85.4 percent of total cases, 85.3 percent of the trial cases and 88.1 percent of appeals. Not only do women bring more cases, courts appear to be more sympathetic to wives than to husbands. Wives won 21.6 percent of their appeals and 37.4 percent of their trials and husbands won 0.0 percent of their appeals and 25.4 percent of their trial cases. As a result of the dominance wives have in bringing suit, wives won 89.5 percent of total taxpayer victories.

McMahon (2012) p. 662. Interpreted literally as a matter of reason and logic, innocent spouse law seems to undermine gender equality:

In the case of innocent spouse relief, in the attempt to help wives, relief might well cause more harm than good. For those spouses targeted for relief, we are creating a dangerous double standard. The reason for a more protective tax regime is that advocates worry that it is unfair to presume that wives can meaningfully evaluate the returns they sign. It is hard to see how this fails to send a signal to the nation that wives are not, or are at least not considered to be, equal members in marriage. This is not a message that we want Congress to send.

McMahon (2014) p. 184. More sophisticated interpretation better indicates the intended undermining of gender equality. The U.S. Congress gutted due process of law through domestic violence legislation enacted under grossly anti-men gender-bigoted claims about domestic violence. Gender-profiling husbands for arrest for domestic violence makes husband legally disadvantage spouses. Congress apparently intended to send a message of female privilege through its domestic violence laws. Congress plausibly sought to send a similar, politically advantageous message of female privilege with its innocent spouse tax law.

Innocent spouse law includes an open-ended opportunity to get tax relief under the heading “equitable relief.” According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service:

If you don’t qualify for innocent spouse relief or separation of liability relief, you may still qualify for equitable relief. To qualify for equitable relief, you must establish that under all the facts and circumstances, it would be unfair to hold you liable for the deficiency or underpayment of tax.

The anti-men gender bias Congress intended is made more obvious with the additional explicit stipulation: “the IRS will take into account abuse and financial control by the nonrequesting spouse.”

[8] Martial, Epigrams 8.73.5-8, Latin text of Heraeus & Borovskij (1925) via Perseus, my English translation.

[image] Nude woman (maenad) in Roman fresco in the Casa del Criptoportico (I 6,2) in Pompeii. Painted before 79 GC (probably first century). Image thanks to WolfgangRieger and Wikimedia Commons.


Anglade, Joseph, ed and trans. (French). 1913. Les Poésies de Peire Vidal. Classiques Français du Moyen Age, 11. Paris: H. Champion.

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.

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

Lee, Guy, trans. 2009. Propertius. The Poems. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Malamud, Martha A. 2011. Prudentius. The Origin of Sin: An English Translation of the Hamartigenia. Cornell Studies in Classical Philology, 61. Cornell University Press. (review by Dennis E. Trout)

McMahon, Stephanie Hunter. 2012. “An Empirical Study of Innocent Spouse Relief: Do Courts Implement Congress’s Legislative Intent?Florida Tax Review. 12 (8): 629-707.

McMahon, Stephanie Hunter. 2014. “What Innocent Spouse Relief Says about Women and the Rest of Us.” Harvard Journal of Law & Gender. 37 (1): 141-184.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Catherine Conybeare)

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden, trans. 2007. Troubadour Poems from the South of France. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Rigg, A. G. 1986. Gawain on Marriage: the textual tradition of the De coniuge non ducenda with critical edition and translation. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Thomson, Henry John, ed. and trans. 1949. Prudentius. Loeb Classical Library 387, 398. Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.