Inhuman She-Wolves and Unhelpful Mothers in Propertius’ Elegies

Barbara K. Gold, Hamilton College

In his portrayal of women, Propertius is largely concerned with presenting to his readers various facets of the Roman mistress, the “liberated” woman of the late Roman republic.  Cornelia is an exception, one of the rare models of Roman motherliness and wifeliness to appear in Propertius’s verse.  Much has been written about both Cynthia (or the figure of the Mistress) and Cornelia, usually seen as representing opposite ends of the spectrum of womanly qualities in the Rome of the first century BCE. 

But little has been said about the figure of the mother in Propertius, who so far has remained a hidden category of woman.  If we take Cornelia as the model of the perfect wife and mother (see, among others, Hemelrijk  1999 on this),  exemplifying all the traditional virtues (univira,  loving, devoted, selfless, simple, unassuming, and self-controlled), we will note rather quickly that most mothers – and there are many of them – in Propertius fall far short of this model.   We also note that mothers outnumber fathers two to one (and that most of the time pater is used of a god or hero, not a human father).

Propertius is at once very interested by and but also repelled by the figure of the mater.  Certain standard figures appear often in his poetry, hapless and dangerous mothers like Niobe and Procne.  This is not surprising.  What is surprising is that both these paradigmatic figures and figures less celebrated for their maternal (or anti-maternal) qualities seem to be used in Propertius to prove a single point: that many mothers play a major role in destroying their children and are not able to bring aid when it is needed the most, whether by their own negligence, their aggressively harmful behavior, or their passive inability to muster up support.

Many mothers in Propertius, ones not always known in other texts for purposefully bringing destruction upon their children (or known at all),  are accused of just this action: so Arria sent her twin sons into battle to their deaths, vetante deo; these sons became duo funera matris avarae (4.1).  And Cassiopeia , whose boasting pride put her daughter Andromeda into chains (3.22), and Althaea, who “caused her own son’s undoing” (exitium nato matre movente suo) by burning the log that preserved Meleager’s life out of a fit of pique at the death of her brothers (3.22). 

Perhaps the paradigm of the bad mother is the inhumana lupa who nurtured Romulus, the founder of Rome who was sine matris honore (4.4).  We might almost say that this is the mother-figure that prefigures most of P’s other bad mothers.  Even the good ones – Thetis, Octavia – are unable to prevent the deaths of their children.  I would like to explore the complex paradigm of the mother that P.sets up and to put it into the historical context of the movement of the Roman mother into a more central and pivotal role in the late republic/early empire  (Dixon 1988).   A central question is this:  If mothers are now playing a more authoritarian and central role in the lives of their families and in Roman social and political life in general and if Propertius is perhaps advocating a better position for women and presenting models for this in his poetry, what can we make of his brutal portrayal of the Roman mother?         

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