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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 January 2024

Joshua M. Paul*
Boston University
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This note on Propertius 4.7 argues that Cynthia, repeatedly cast in the role of the poet's Muse, rejects the burden of inspiration through a learned choice of words (non tamen insector, 4.7.49). The verb insector constitutes a clear reference to the invocation of the Camena in Livius Andronicus and of the Muse in Ennius. Cynthia recalibrates the parlance of poetic inspiration to end her relationship with Propertius, both as his puella and as his Muse.

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Propertius 4.7 treats the unexpected death and equally unexpected return of the poet's on-again, off-again girlfriend Cynthia.Footnote 1 Cynthia's ghost excoriates Propertius on several points, from the minutiae of her funeral procession (4.7.23–34) to the poet's inaction against the alleged assassins Lygdamus and Nomas (4.7.35–8) to the poor treatment of her favourite handmaids Parthenie and Latris in her absence (4.7.73–6).Footnote 2 Cynthia suggests that Propertius deserves further criticism for his various shortcomings, but restrains herself from additional rebuke (4.7.49–50):Footnote 3

non tamen insector, quamvis mereare, Properti:
longa mea in libris regna fuere tuis.

Nevertheless, I do not attack you, Propertius, even though you deserve it: long was my reign in your books.

In the works of Propertius, we find the unusual verb insector only here.Footnote 4 Even so, insector has attracted surprisingly little attention. Some commentators pass over the verb altogether.Footnote 5 Others identify a legal slant to insector, as if Cynthia prosecutes the defendant Propertius.Footnote 6 One critic has even compared Cynthia's insector with the behaviour of the rationalized Furies in Cicero's De legibus, where the Erinyes ‘hound’ (insectenturque, 1.40) criminals who suffer from a guilty conscience.Footnote 7

On the one hand, Cynthia's insector in 4.7 corrects the poet's fantasy in 2.8, where Propertius imagines his puella, alive and well, ‘hounding’ (sectetur, 2.8.19) his deceased shade. On the other, I argue that Cynthia's choice of the verb insector acknowledges yet expressly rejects the burden of divine inspiration Propertius has repeatedly forced upon her. First, I compare Cynthia's insector with the invocation of the Muse or Camena in Homer, Livius Andronicus and Ennius. I then offer a brief overview of the many instances in which Propertius presents Cynthia not just as his source of inspiration or as a goddess but as one of Mnemosyne's daughters.Footnote 8 Together, these observations suggest that Cynthia repurposes the language with which poets demand divine inspiration to end her relationship with Propertius, as both his puella and his Muse.

The verb insector recalls two important inspiration scenes in Latin literature. Livius Andronicus translates the incipit of Homer's Odyssey—‘tell me, Muse, about the man of many turns’ (ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον)—as virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum (‘tell me, Camena, of the clever man’, Od. 1.1).Footnote 9 Livius conveys ἔννεπε with insece: the two verbs in fact share a common origin in PIE *en-sekw.Footnote 10 Ennius, too, employs the verb insece in the Annales, where he reverts the local Italian Camena back to the bona fide Greek Muse (fr. 10.1 Skutsch [322–3]):

insece Musa manu Romanorum induperator
quod quisque in bello gessit cum rege Philippo

Tell me, Muse, what each of the Roman commanders accomplished by hand in the war against King Philip.

In short, poets across the Graeco-Roman literary canon employ the imperatives ἔννεπε and the etymologically related insece to command their Muse or Camena to inspire their undertakings.

Cynthia's insector diverges from insequor proper through the iterative -to infix. This discrepancy, however, does not hinder a reader's ability to connect insector with the Livian–Ennian insece. Horace provides valuable testimony on the matter. He explains that, however much some classics fall short of his standards, he does ‘not, for [his] part, attack the poems of Livius’ (non equidem insectorcarmina Livi, Epist. 2.1.69). The specific invocation of the name ‘Livius’ has led scholars such as Hinds (n. 9), 71 to see the verb insector as a pointed reference to insece, from the opening line of the Odusia. Horace further corroborates this link to the incipit with an etymological joke on the Livian Camena and her supposed namesake from the carmina she inspires.Footnote 11 The infix -to, therefore, does not prohibit a link between insector and the insece of Livius or Ennius.

Propertius repeatedly compares Cynthia to a Muse, sometimes as a peer, sometimes as a superior.Footnote 12 In 1.2, for instance, Calliope yields her precious lyre to the new Muse (1.2.27–8). Propertius doubles down on his claims to Cynthia's supremacy when he explicitly denies Calliope any credit in the programmatic opening elegy of his second book (2.1.3–4). Instead, the poet attributes his ingenium to Cynthia's fashion sense, fancy coiffure, musical talents, and so on (2.1.5–16).Footnote 13 In fact, Propertius invites Cynthia to join the Muses in a grove which eerily resembles Mt Helicon (2.30.27–8).Footnote 14 The Camenae even announce Cynthia's birthday (3.10.1–4).

As early as 2.10, however, Propertius flirts with the Pierides of different (aliam citharam, 2.10.10) or loftier (magni oris opus, 2.10.12) genres.Footnote 15 Indeed, Propertius enlists the aid of the real Pierides to seduce his personal Muse: ‘[Love] forbid [him] from despising such graceful Muses’ (hic me tam graciles vetuit contemnere Musas, 2.13.3). Propertius even joins hands with a chorus of Muses (3.5.19–20). More specifically, Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, rises to greater and greater prominence over the course of the elegies, whereas Cynthia gradually fades into the background. Calliope, for instance, dances along to elegy (3.2.15–16) and castigates Propertius for straying too far from love poetry (3.3.39–52). Propertius even grants Calliope special honours in the Actian elegy (4.6.11–12). All the same, the newfound importance of Calliope in Books 3 and 4 only emphasizes the extent to which Cynthia plays the role of the Muse in the Monobiblos and in Book 2.

In Book 4, when Cynthia finally speaks in what is ostensibly her own voice, the puella distances herself considerably from the elegies of Propertius.Footnote 16 This estrangement applies both to the past, as Cynthia commands Propertius to burn all the elegies she previously inspired (4.7.77–8), and to the future, as the puella makes no mention of Cynthia in her self-composed epitaph, the means by which posterity might remember her (4.7.85–6).Footnote 17 Finally granted her own voice, Cynthia answers the imperative ‘tell me’ (insece) with a negated indicative iterative verb: ‘I will tell you nothing more’ (non tamen insector). In other words, Cynthia breaks up with Propertius through the same verb with which the likes of Homer, Livius Andronicus and Ennius commanded their Muses and Camenae to inspire them.


I thank James Uden and CQ's anonymous referee for their valuable insights and suggestions.


1 For the colossal bibliography on Propertius 4.7, see especially Heyworth, S.J., Cynthia: A Companion to the Text of Propertius (Oxford and New York, 2007), 463Google Scholar; Fedeli, P., Dimundo, R. and Ciccarelli, I., Properzio: Elegie, Libro IV (Nordhausen, 2015), 2.904Google Scholar. I frequently cite Heslin, P.J., Propertius, Greek Myth, and Virgil: Rivalry, Allegory, and Polemic (Oxford and New York, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Hutchinson, G., Propertius Elegies Book IV (Cambridge and New York, 2006), 178Google Scholar, 197 and É. Coutelle, Properce, Élégies, livre IV (Brussels, 2015), 836 entertain Cynthia's charges of poisoning, especially since Lygdamus serves drinks again in the very next poem (4.8.37–8).

3 All translations are mine. I print the text of Heyworth, S.J., Sexti Properti Elegi (Oxford and New York, 2007)Google Scholar with consonantal v instead of u.

4 The verb insequitur appears in the manuscript tradition at 4.10.23 but lacks the iterative -to infix. Forms of the uncompounded sector appear at 1.20.25 (sectati), 2.8.19 (sectetur) and 3.14.16 (sectatur).

5 Camps, W.A., Propertius Elegies Book IV (Cambridge, 1965), 120Google Scholar and Butler, H.E. and Barber, E.A., The Elegies of Propertius (Oxford, 1933), 362–3Google Scholar make no comment.

6 Warden, J., Fallax Opus: Poet and Reader in the Elegies of Propertius (Toronto, 1980), 37Google Scholar and Coutelle (n. 2), 782.

7 L. Richardson, Jr., Propertius Elegies IIV (Norman, OK, 1977), 459.

8 As a scripta puella, Cynthia inspires and embodies the poetry Propertius composes. See especially Wyke, M., ‘Written women: Propertius’ scripta puella’, JRS 77 (1987), 4761Google Scholar. Curtis, L., ‘Elegiac women and the epiphanic gaze: the case of Propertius’ Cynthia’, CPh 114 (2019), 406–29Google Scholar compares Cynthia's entrances with divine epiphanies.

9 Scholarship often notes that virum mihi precisely captures ἄνδρα μοι both lexically and syntactically. versutum, meanwhile, approximates πολύτροπον, with the added twist that versutum can also mean ‘translated’. Livius has also replaced the foreign Greek Muse with the local Italian Camena. See Hinds, S., Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge and New York, 1998), 5862Google Scholar.

10 Chantraine, P., Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. Histoire des mots (Paris, 1968), 349–50Google Scholar. Aulus Gellius (NA 18.9) observes a notional, if not strictly scientific, link between ἔννεπε and insece.

11 On the folk etymology, see Maltby, R., A Lexicon of Latin Etymologies (Leeds, 1991), 99Google Scholar.

12 In 1.1, the elegist announces that he has recently come ‘to hate chaste girls’ (castas odisse puellas, 1.1.5). Some have read this vexed phrase as a testament to Cynthia's superiority over the Muses: Stahl, H.-P., Propertius: ‘Love’ and ‘War’. Individual and State under Augustus (Berkeley / Los Angeles / London, 1985), 3641Google Scholar; Lyne, R.O.A.M., ‘Introductory poems in Propertius: 1.1 and 2.12’, PCPhS 44 (1998), 158–81Google Scholar, at 163 n. 19; Heyworth (n. 1), 4–6.

13 Propertius elsewhere equates Cynthia's fame, if not Cynthia proper, with his fickle Muse (haec mea Musa levis gloria magna tua est, 2.12.22).

14 Thus Heslin (n. 1), 210.

15 Propertius later acknowledges the dangers of courting more than one Muse. The elegist compares himself with the poet Thamyras (2.22a.19–20), who aspires to sleep with all nine Muses, but instead suffers blindness after his defeat in a singing contest. The analogy establishes Cynthia as the one Muse who demands the poet's full attention. See Heslin (n. 1), 52.

16 Hutchinson (n. 2), 171 observes a general ‘emphasis on female viewpoints in book 4’. Others, however, have argued that such female speeches serve as an elaborate form of ventriloquism. On the state of the question, see Damer, E. Zimmermann, In the Flesh: Embodied Identities in Roman Elegy (Madison, 2019), 175–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 On the title Cynthia as the first word of the Monobiblos, see Heyworth, S.J., ‘The elegiac book: patterns and problems’, in B.K. Gold (ed.), A Companion to Roman Love Elegy (Malden, MA / Oxford / Chichester, 2012), 219–33, at 227–8Google Scholar.