Armaque Fraternae Tristia Militiae: The Seven Against Thebes, Civil War, and Grief in the Poems of Sextus Propertius Public Deposited

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  • May 14, 2019
  • Bryant, Jermaine
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Classics
  • This paper argues that Propertius uses the myth of the Seven Against Thebes to reflect his feelings about Roman civil war. Throughout his corpus he draws on the versions of Greek tragedy, invoking Aeschylus (2.34.44) when referring to conflicts of the past, using Euripides’ Phoenissae to illustrate familial grief during war, especially of women; and drawing on the civic and personal (i.e., the losses in his own family) trauma of un¬buried bo¬dies found in Antigone. In poem 2.1, he includes Thebes alongside the recent civil disputes of Mutina and Philippi (2.1.21-34). In all, Propertius invokes the Seven in ten poems: 1.7.1-2, 1.9, 1.15.15, 21; 2.1.21; 2.8.21; 2.9.50; 2.16.29; 2.34.37-44; 3.5.41 3.13. Furthermore, he invokes the Seven at places thematically concerned with Roman civil strife, a juxtaposition that thematically connects the two. By contrast, the other elegists do not mention this myth. The Seven do not appear in prior extant Latin poetry; they are also absent from Callimachus, whom Propertius claims as his model (Callimachus Romanus, 4.1.64). Propertius’ frequent use of it is thus all the more striking. I argue that the cultural backdrop of the period, along with the poet’s regular at¬tention to Roman civil conflict, makes his interest in the Seven significant.The prominent characters in the myth fa¬cilitate seam¬less drifting between the wider themes of elegy and a distinctly Propertian invoca¬tion of political strife, enabling the poet to call upon both simultaneously. When invoking to his friend Ponticus’ Seven, Propertius uses the phrase armaque fraternae tristia militiae (1.7.2), a characterization that is equally applicable to the Roman civil wars. Propertius also uses references to the Thebes to begin and end book 2, his book that is most concerned with civil war. In 2.1 he invokes the city as a more traditional topic (“nec veteres Thebas, nec Pergama nomen Homeri” 2.1.21) before discussing the more taboo topics of civil strife: “…eversosque focos antiquae gentis Etruscae, | et Ptolemaeei litora capta Phari…” (2.1.29-30).Similarly, in poem 2.34, Propertius situates several references to the Theban saga near an invocation of Vergil’s commemoration of the war in the then unpublished Aeneid: “…desine et Aeschyleo componere verba coturno” (2.34.44) “Actia Vergilium custodis litora Phoebi, | Caesaris et fortis dicere posse ratis…” (2.34.61-62)Breed (2010) has noted the connection between the Seven and civil war in Book 2; I propose that the connection is pervasive throughout Propertius’ verse. Over the past century, scholars have explored the political bent of Propertius’ poet¬ry, from Sullivan’s notion of Propertius as a “make love, not war” poet, to Stahl’s idea that Pro¬pertius’ poetry explores the nature of the tensions inherent to the relationship between the in¬ter¬ests of the individual as opposed to the interests of the state. Others, such as Janan and Mil¬ler, have taken a more psychoanalytical approach to the poetry.Grief character¬izes every invocation of civil war throughout Propertius’ poetry. He does express resentment, but the resentment is always secondary to grief, and his resentment is not di-rected towards Augustus specifically. Rather, he focuses on civil war and its effects more gener-ally. In poems 1.21 and 1.22, Propertius presents the horrors of the Perusine War (1.21.9: et quaecumque super dispersa invenerit ossa; 1.22.6-7: “…sic mihi praecipue, pulvis Etrusca, dolor, | tu proiecta mei perpessa's membra propinqui…”) and in 2.15 and 2.16, Propertius is clearly concerned with the restless dead following the battle of Actium (2.15.44: nec nostra Actiacum verteret ossa mare; (2.16.37-38: …complevit inani | Actia damnatis aequora mili¬tibus). Just as Froma Zeitlin argues that Thebes is the “anti-Athens,” (Zeitlin, 145) Propertius uses the tragedy to warn of the dangers of civil strife in Rome. Via the Seven, Propertius uses elegiac lament to explore his feelings of grief for his relatives and his country.
Date of publication
Resource type
  • James, Sharon
  • Bachelor of Arts
Academic concentration
  • Classics
Honors level
  • Honors
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Graduation year
  • 2019
  • English

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