The Insistence of Memory: Propertius 22

The Roman gate of Perugia today.
What sort of man am I and whence, and who
are the gods of my house: you ask this of me, even now?
If Perusine tombs are known at all to you–
the funerals of fathering Italy in hard times–
when Roman discord set her citizens upon themselves–
(& for me an especial sadness, O Etruscan dust,
you shun the brave-cast bones of my beloved
you cover his weeping bones with nothing at all–)

<But nearby Umbria (below here, not here at all)
bore me out from her rich belly.>
Qualis et unde genus, qui sint mihi, Tulle, Penates,
quaeris pro nostra semper amicitia.
si Perusina tibi patriae sunt nota sepulcra,
Italiae duris funera temporibus,
cum Romana suos egit discordia civis,
(sic mihi praecipue, pulvis Etrusca, dolor,
tu proiecta mei perpessa es membra propinqui,
tu nullo miseri contegis ossa solo)

proxima supposito contingens Umbria campo
me genuit terris fertilis uberibus.

At long last, the promised back-half of the dual sphragis that concludes Propertius’ first book of elegies. It’s still deeply at odds with the rest of the book, but this at least serves as a mate to poem 21: another war poem, another civil war poem, another epitaph for a dying soldier.

Or, presumably a soldier. We know little about the narrator, save that he is from Perusia, and that he is dying– or perhaps just speaking to a friend, for in spite of the funereal tone and epitaph-driven format of the poem there is no explicit situation that prompts the speaker’s confession, save for the fact that his friend is asking after his homeland pro nostra semper amicitia, “on account of our always-friendship.” It may not be that this is a dying soldier; it may be that this is simply a conversation between two friends. The traditional reading of this poem is that it’s something of an epilogue to the story of Gallus related in poem 21: Gallus died at Perusia, and the narrator of this poem is a friend of his, lamenting both his demise and the broader horrors of the civil war between Antony and Octavian. Why else would the narrator mention his erstwhile neighbor in the same breath as Perusia?

Dying or not, the funereal tone of this poem remains: like 21 it’s written in language reminiscent of a Roman epitaph. Even beyond the similarity in format, the fundamental conceit is the same. Whether the event that prompts it is a simple inquiry by a friend, or a mortal wound on the battlefield, the narrators of both poems are attempting to memorialize themselves. Who are you? Where were you born? Who will remember you when you’re gone?

Specifically, Tullus asks our narrator two things of note: what people are you from (unde genus), and who are your Penates, your household gods? Genus typically means something like race or people, but specifically in the generative sense of an origin: where, and how, were you born? What made you? In the Aeneid, Vergil uses genus to refer both to Aeneas’ Trojans and to the Romans-yet-to-be (who will eventually trace their propagandistic imperial lineages all the way back to those first generes). Penates is also a Vergilian word. Though the concept dates back to early Rome and the inception of the Vestal cult, Vergil was the first to find an aetiology for the Penates, giving them an origin in the gods of Priam’s household which Aeneas takes with him when he flees. Before all the other Roman cults, those instruments of state power and majesty, there were the small gods of three generations of refugees: the memory of where they came from, for a memory was all that their home had become.

What’s the point of a genus? Of Penates? I’m not an anthropologist, but the answer in Roman literature seems to me to be clear: these things exist in service of memory, to ensure that even when we are gone, we are still not wholly lost. I came from a place and a people; I remember them when they are gone, and in turn I hope that someone will remember me. Our lives are brief, so we chase permanence and persistence– and though we build our thousand-year monuments and our cities of marble, the surest guess at conquering our short spans is still to embed ourselves in the hearts and the minds of the living.

The Augustan period, during which Propertius lived and wrote, bore witness to a rewriting of history on a scale unprecedented in Roman memory. For the first time in five hundred years Rome had a king– except he didn’t call himself a king, and it wasn’t tyranny. Augustus misliked the fratricidal myth of Rome’s foundation, so he re-tooled it, and cemented his own origins in a constructed past. All roads lead to Rome, and all history leads to Augustus: benevolent autarch, philosopher-king, whose leadership of a brutal civil war of Roman-on-Roman was an unfortunate necessity (if it’s mentioned at all). At the end of days there is a perfect city, eternal and ruinless, a utopia ruled by the one true king(-in-all-but-name).

Who is forgotten, here in paradise? Even as Gallus’ neighbor remembers him, he laments that his bones lie exposed, unburied on the Etruscan plain: they are proiecta, cast out, shunned by the Earth itself. Cicero, condemned to die by Augustus, uses the same verb to refer to the political punishment of exile, banishing a Roman from Italy on account of a grave transgression. The literal construction of the verb (pro “forward, in front of” + iacio, iacere “to throw”) recalls in some sense the shared lots of poem 21, the terrifying insignificance of a fateless existence. The very first dice in the archaeological record were made from carven bone: from that origin we get the phrase “rolling the bones” to mean determining some future outcome via random chance. Gallus, unlucky victim of an unfortunate lot, has in death become the agent by which chance works its lack of a will.

But at least we know what happened to him. The unfortunate fate of his bones aside, at least we know who he was and where he came from, how he died and who he left behind. His neighbor not only remembers that he lived at all, but mourns for him: he describes his grief at the death as praecipue, an odd usage that here probably means something like “especially” or “particularly.” Etymologically it derives from praecipio, “to fall or rush headlong,” which in turn comes from pro or prae, “in front of, first,” and capio, capere, “to take” or “to seize.” Which makes a sort of sense; if something is particular or especial it captures one’s attention before all else, hurries heedless of trial to get a word in edgewise before its brief span is done. It falls headlong— in a way it’s similar to the sense of proiecta, something thrown forth with little sense of rhyme or reason.

The grammar is strange here, too. Praecipue is an adverb but seems to be largely referring to dolor, which in turn is acting in a vaguely adjectival manner. The overarching sense of the full phrase is something close to “this was especially painful for me,” but there is no grammatical this, and no verb to describe its action or its being. There’s a hole in the center of the line, not unlike the chiasmatic skip that sometimes describes the indescribable in the elegists: something happened to turn Gallus from living neighbor into cast-out bones, but the narrator either cannot or will not get at quite what that something was.

If it is Gallus after all— for we don’t get the name of the propinqui miseri, and to a certain way of thinking there is very little evidence that he is, in fact, the Gallus of poem 21. Our suspicion that he is comes primarily from the poem that immediately precedes this one, but then again, 21 itself is such a radical departure from its own predecessor. The intentional elision of the identity of the bones in 22 throws into profound doubt the assumed connection with 21, and undercuts the mention of maybe-Gallus to a pronounced degree. 21 is a dying man’s last wish to be remembered, and in 22, we learn that he has been, at least by one person, at least initially. Except he lacks a name, and a tombstone, and a proper burial; his bones still, still, many years after the end of the long war, lie exposed beneath the hot Etruscan sun. If this is even Gallus we’re talking about; if he has even the fragmentary grace of a half-remembered eulogy. If he has even that much.

If Perusine tombs are known at all to you is the phrase with which our narrator introduces his remembrance of the civil wars. Are they? Who remembers the civil wars— who wants to remember the civil wars, now that they’re things of the past? Roman fighting Roman and brother fighting brother; small wonder that Augustus disliked the story of Romulus and Remus, that murder on the Palatine that made the world as the Romans knew it, enough to have it relegated to a mere chain-link in a much longer history. Perusia is an ugly, upsetting chapter in the story of Rome, and in the story of Augustus and his victory over the perennial death of the Republic. We don’t do that anymore. We don’t want to think about that anymore. Bones or no bones.

Gallus, whether he is in this poem or not, is a victim of history. His death is referenced only in the vaguest of terms: the funerals of Italy in hard times, when Roman discord turned her citizens upon themselves. These are bloodless phrases, acceptable in their lack of meat. No one bled at Perusia, and no one died speared on Augustus’ swords, trapped behind enemy lines. No one’s bones remain unburied, because as Sophocles reminds us to leave even the hated, reviled dead above-ground is a pollution, a tyranny, and Kreon ends the Antigone a wreck of mad remorse. Augustus is no Kreon. We are no Thebes. Pay no attention to the bodies beyond the wall.

There’s something to be said for this poem’s retroactive similarity to the proem of the Pharsalia, Lucan’s mad civil war epic obsessed with the revenants of everything and everyone buried after Actium. Where Propertius’ description of civil war is relatively bloodless— who’s to say what “turned her citizens upon themselves” actually means?— Lucan’s is gleefully gory, referring to the Roman people “plunging their hands into their own guts.” It makes a certain sort of sense. For Lucan history was undead, unstoppable, devouring the order of the cosmos and the Roman state alike. In Lucan no one forgets, because no one can forget: it’s all right in front of them, the sky crashing down, the dead rising from the grave, the thousand follies of every Roman to come before baying like the hounds of Hell at their backs. Lucan is not very interested in grief.

Propertius is, though. His history is plagued by rewrites, but it’s still a lot more stable than Lucan’s. And even as the narrator weeps bitterly for his lost friend, he returns to his original subject: Tullus’ first question and ours, who are you? And he tells us: Umbrian, not Etruscan, marked by war but not made by it. Born from land rich and full, whose fields are not made fallow by corpses, whose rivers do not run red with Roman blood. There is grieving in the forgetfulness of good men, in the unburial of Polynices, in the great engine of history that will one day return all our names to shadow and dust. But there are other lands. The morning after Perusia, the sun rises, the blood dries, and the world begins to turn once more.

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