Brief Lives: Propertius 21

Roman tombs along the Appian Way.
‘Tu, qui consortem properas evadere casum,
miles ab Etruscis saucius aggeribus,
quid nostro gemitu turgentia lumina torques?
pars ego sum vestrae proxima militiae.
sic te servato ut possint gaudere parentes,
et soror acta tuis sentiat e lacrimis:
Gallum per medios ereptum Caesaris ensis
effugere ignotas non potuisse manus;
et quaecumque super dispersa invenerit ossa
montibus Etruscis, haec sciat esse mea."
You, who make haste to evade our shared fortune,
a wounded soldier from Etrurian country,
why do you turn your eyes away from our groaning?
I am a near part of your unit.
Preserve yourself, so that your parents might rejoice,
and so that your sister, made so by your tears, thinks
that Gallus, pierced by the swords of Caesar
amidst hostile forces, was not able to flee;
and when she should find these bones, scattered
across the Etrurian mountains— she'll know they were mine. 

I should begin with a disclaimer: I’ve only given you half a poem. The above is the first half of the double σφραγίς (sphragis, lit. “seal”) that ends the first book of Sextus Propertius, who is best known not for his war poetry but for his love elegy. Along with Tibullus and Ovid, he forms the triad of Augustan elegists who directly proceed from Catullus (arguable inventor of the genre in Latin), and his lady-love Cynthia is perhaps the most famous of the elegiac mistresses save for Lesbia herself.

Most all of the other poems in Propertius 1 are about Cynthia herself: seductress, dominatrix, darling, puella. Like all elegiac loves, Propertius and Cynthia’s relationship is violent first and foremost, enormous in its passion and devastating in its cruelty. In the coherent-ish narrative arc of the book, the affair ends with Propertius all but dead, imagining in morbid and Gothic detail his own funeral. Sick unto death with love, wracked and wrought by the abyssal despair of desire— that might be the central idea of classical elegy, the notion of love as suffering. It goes all the way back to Sappho.

There is a similar kind of proximity to death in poem 21, but it is not the proximity we are used to. It’s a strange transition— poem 19 has the poet’s love-death, poem 20 has the poet admonishing his friend not to let love ruin him as it has ruined the poet, and then we have poem 21. There’s no logical transition, unless you argue that the last two poems of the book are somehow a metaphor for Propertius and Cynthia’s love affair, which has always seemed to me to be something of a stretch. The book’s narrative grinds to a screeching halt, takes a hard left into a completely different subject treated with a completely different style. It doesn’t make any sense.

And that might be the point. Poem 21 is a departure from the rest of the work in pretty much every way imaginable. None of the previous poems have been interested in war as anything but a metaphor, in death as anything other than an abstraction of passion’s terrible force. The death here, though, is very real indeed. Poem 21 begins with a formula of address that seems odd to us, but would be immediately familiar to a Roman: consider the second-person address, the description of the addressee, the demand to be heard. You see exactly the same thing, almost down to the word, on the Roman tombstones that line the Via Appia, the Via Claudia, and all the other roads into the Empire’s beating heart. Stop and rest, traveller. Let me tell you a story.

Except, of course, the speaker is still alive— wounded, sure, but alive. He describes his own fate as casus […] consortem, which means something akin to “shared fate,” but not quite. Casus is related to the verb cado, cadere, “to fall” and often “to die,” but the noun form tends to mean something closer to “chance” or “fortune.” To a certain way of thinking, it’s the opposite of fatum, “fate,” which in Latin always means something ineffable and only partly visible: the thousands of tiny strings that weave through the tapestry of a life, or perhaps only the one string, spun and measured and cut by forces behind the walls of the world. Neil Gaiman puts it better than I could:

“With each step you take through Destiny’s garden, you make a choice; and every choice determines future paths. However, at the end of a lifetime of walking you might look back, and see only one path stretching out behind you; or look ahead, and see only darkness.”

If fatum is the single path in Destiny’s garden, or the string on Clotho’s loom, or Penelope’s tapestry, or the carpet that leads Agamemnon into the palace of the Atreidae— then casus is nothing but your own rotten luck. Casus is the fall (literally) of the dice, and coincidentally enough Propertius describes the particular casus that’s led the poor soldier to his nameless death as consortem, “shared” or “held in common.” In the Augustan period consors is often used as a legal term, describing mutually owned property; occasionally, it refers to a sibling or some other relative. Etymologically, it’s a compound of the prefix con, “together,” and sors, sortis, “lot” or “share,” a word frequently found in the context of gambling or drawing lots at random.

Interestingly, sors can also mean specifically the pronouncements of an oracle, the closest a human can get to the grand and terrible architecture of fate. The Pythia’s frenzy comes upon her when Phoebus Apollo seizes her, fills up her body, speaks with her tongue. She is transformed, and in the chaos of her madness she touches something ordered in a way she can never understand: the tapestry of history, the story of stories, the special providence in the fall of every sparrow. There is no rotten luck here, no random fall of the dice. There is only what was, and is, and is to come.

Of course, the other noticeable issue with consortem […] casum is the fact that it sits in logical contradiction to the narrative of the poem. The dying soldier is addressing a living comrade, whom he hopes will make it back home to tell his story. If the soldier’s fate is consortem, though, it stands to reason that his hope is doomed from the start: his comrade is going to die too, never to return to the family the dying soldier hopes will remember him. All of the rest of the poem— the rejoicing parents at the homecoming, the weeping of the prodigal comrade, the sister who gathers the bones from the mountaintops— is a paltry and pale dream, a last flickering wish of the condemned.

And it isn’t just rotten luck that the soldier and his comrade share. The speaker refers to nostro gemitu, “our groaning” instead of “my groaning”; in line 2, it’s manifestly unclear whether the speaker or the addressee is the miles in question. Identically fated, twinned in ill fortune, the two soldiers appear as doubles of one another. So much ancient poetry imagines that the land of the living and the land of the dead are divided by a river: look down at the water, and see your death reflected back at you.

This is a poem of contradictions. The dying soldier is a dead man talking, composing his own epitaph; his proximity to death, and the certainty of its nearness, these things give him a strange sort of liminal quality. Like the Pythia— wracked by the divine, brought near to the unknowable and transformed by its touch— the dying soldier finds himself speaking in riddles, knowing the fate of the man beside him, seeing (or perhaps only imagining) the strange landscape beyond his death. Something cannot be both casum and consortem, except when it is spoken by a man who is both dead and alive.

The prophetic dead are everywhere in Roman war poetry. Lucan is the most famous example, but the revelations of death are present even beyond the grisly necromancy of the Pharsalia. It is only from the dead that Aeneas learns the shape of his fate, after all: the dead and the yet-to-be-dead, who were and are and are to come. Dead men tell all sorts of tales, in Roman literature, and those tales tend to be about things that brush up against the architecture of Fate. Who can tell the story of the Odyssey, except for the dead Odysseus himself?

So the dying soldier— Gallus, he says, my name was Gallus— knows, in the way that only a dead man can know, that his appeal to his comrade-double is a futile one. They are both going to die here, behind enemy lines, at the sword of a tyrant— and it is explicitly the ensis Caesaris, “the swords of Caesar,” that will do (or have done) them in. There is no outrunning this consors causus, this rotten ill-fate, simultaneously prophesied and accidental. Gallus knows this, of course he knows this, he has to know this. And yet he begs: tell someone about me. Tell someone how I died. Bury me, find my bones, don’t let me stay nameless.

Gallus’s plea here reminds me a bit of Antigone, and specifically of the ultimate futility of Polynices’ burial. Like Cassandra, like Gallus, Antigone knows how this story ends: she will die and her brother will rot, her efforts wasted, her righteousness the price for an early grave. There is only one path in Destiny’s garden, only one thread on Clotho’s loom, only one way a story like this ever ends.

And yet, Antigone demands justice from Creon. And yet, Gallus begs his comrade to remember him. And yet, Cassandra cries out in blind animal terror at the door of the palace of the Atreidae— even though there are no more unknowns, even though she has seen and known the end, even though she knows that this is how it always, always happens. This is what is, and was, and ever shall be.

I find myself returning to the first point I raised about this poem, its status as a radical departure from the rest of Propertius 1. When I first read Propertius two years ago I imagined that it might be some statement on the horrors of the civil war, a harsh return to reality after the elegiac dream-walking of the previous twenty poems to remind the reader: this is the world we made. Now, though, I wonder about casus consortem, that strange little oxymoron, and I can’t help but fancy that it fits the poem itself. What is a story, after all, if not a miniature fate? What is narrative if not destiny? And what is a casus— a falling, a dying— if not the abrupt and unfair shock of the end of Propertius 1? Random as it is, ill-fitting and jarring as it is, the stubborn fact remains. This is a book, this is a narrative, and this is part of the narrative, it has to be: it is consors as much as it is casus, ordained happenstance, rotten Fate.

There is something heartbreaking and lovely about the futility of this poem, its self-conscious hopelessness. The last words of a dying man, unrecorded, unknown— some paltry earth sprinkled over your brother’s body, when you know it’ll be gone by morning. We can catch glimpses of eternity, and they drive us mad, or make us prophets, but ultimately we are creatures of brief lives. Dust and ashes and flickering candles, there and then gone, remembered only so long as there is someone left behind to name our scattered and momentary bones.

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