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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Classical Review
Vol. 4 (1890), pp393‑396

The text is in the public domain:
William Young Sellar died in 1890.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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 p393  The Birth-Place of Propertius

The controversy about the birth-place of Propertius, which seemed to have been settled definitely in favour of Assisi, has been recently revived by the publication of Sr. Giulio Urbini's book entitled La Patria di Properzio. Although it can make no difference in our enjoyment of the poetry of Propertius to know whether he was born at Spello or Assisi, yet an attempt to solve the question by a comparison of the sites of these towns with the three passages in which the poet describes or alludes to his birth-place will bring us into the presence of scenes of natural beauty and places of historic interest, which were familiar to the poet in his childhood and were re-visited by him in later life, and may thus help us to realise some of the influences which acted on his imagination.

The three well-known passages in which the riddle is proposed are: (1) the short epilogue subjoined to the book by which Propertius first introduced himself to the world; and (2 and 3) two passages from the long introductory poem of that fourth book, in the first of which (IV.1.65‑66), in his own name, he describes, in two lines, the characteristic features of his native town, in the second of which (IV.1.121‑6), by the voice of the astrologer Horon, he repeats, with a slight alteration, that description, and adds two lines introducing two familiar landmarks visible from or in the immediate neighbourhood of the town.

The first passage which professes to be an answer to the enquiries of his friend or patron Tullus, to whom the book is dedicated, determines the locality only by its neighbourhood to Perusia, a town only too well known as associated with the most tragic events of the Civil Wars. The lines

Proxima supposito contingens Umbria campo

Me genuit, terris fertilis uberibus

define the 'patria' of Propertius, as a town the territory of which lay beneath it, and extended to the border of the territory of Perusia. This passage, if taken alone, might suggest the inference that he was born in a country-house situated in the rich plain, extending from the foot of the mountain-range, on two spurs of which Assisi and Spello are built, to the Tiber, forming the boundary between Umbria and Etruria. If Assisi possessed any territory at all, it is difficult to conceive where it could have been, if it was not part of this plain extending in the direction of Perusia, till it met the river.

The second passage (IV.1.63‑66) —

Ut nostris tumefacta superbiat Umbria libris,

Umbria Romani patria Callimachi,

Scandentes quisquis cernit de vallibus arces,

Ingenio muros aestimet ille meo —

associates his poetic fame more definitely with a town of Umbria, situated on a steep height. There are two ambiguities of expression in line 65. Are we to translate 'arces' 'heights' or 'battlements'? and are we to take 'de vallibus' after 'cernit' or after 'scandentes'? Is the whole passage to be translated 'Whoever  p394 marks the battlements (or heights) climbing up steeply from the valleys,' or is it 'Whoever from the valleys beneath marks the battlements (or heights) towering upwards'? The position of the words does not determine which interpretation is right. Reasons will be given later for holding that the latter is required by the only locality to which the words can apply.

In the next passage the town is still more definitely marked by its neighbourhood to two places, one of which at least is perfectly well known —

Umbria te notis antiqua Penatibus edit.

Mentior? an patriae tangitur ora tuae,

Qua nebulosa cavo rorat Mevania campo,

Et lacus aestivis intepet Umber aquis,

Scandentisque Asis (arcis?) consurgit vertice murus,

Murus ab ingenio notior ille tuo?

In this passage there are more serious uncertainties both of interpretation and reading.

Do the words noti Penates apply to the family residence of Propertius or to his native town? It is argued that they cannot apply to the former because Propertius tells us that he was neither of noble birth, nor of a particularly rich family (non ita dives). But 'noti does not mean either 'rich' or 'noble,' but 'respectable'; and that is exactly what the parentage of Propertius was. He was not of knightly birth like Tibullus and Ovid, but he was a member of a good provincial family possessing a considerable estate —

Nam tua cum multi versarent rura iuvenci,

Abstulit excultas pertica tristis opes.

Penates might be used of his native town, but not necessarily or even naturally. When Catullus writes to Verannius

Venistine domum ad tuos Penates?

we do not naturally think of Rome or any town of Italy, which may have been the home of Verannius. This point is of some importance, as one of the chief arguments urged in favour of Spello was that Hispellum was, or became after it was turned into a military colony, a much more important place than Assisium. But even if we were constrained to regard Penates as indicative of the town, though Hispellum may have been more famous, Assisium may yet have enjoyed a certain repute, which would justify the use of the word noti. Had he meant to imply any greater distinction the poet would probably have use some such word as clari or insignes.

What, next, is the meaning of 'patriae tangitur ora tuae'? Does Propertius mean to define the exact boundaries of the territory attached to his native town, as being Mevania on the one side and the 'lacus Umber' on the other? Or is it sufficient to regard these two places, the 'Umbrian lake'​a and Mevania in its low-lying plain, with the mists from the Clitumnus rising over it, as conspicuous land-marks in the neighbourhood? This question becomes of great importance if the ordinary interpretation of the words 'lacus Umber' is accepted. The territory lying between Bevagna and the sources of the Clitumnus may have formed part of the territory of Spello, but it could not possibly have been that of Assisi, nor could it in any sense be described as the part of Umbria nearest to Perusia. But Sr. Urbini raises here an important question, his answer to which really seems to tell against his own contention in favour of Spello. Is the interpretation of 'lacus Umber' as 'the broad pool formed by the sources of the Clitumnus' really right? It is said that a scholiast on Vergil (Georgics II.147) applies the word lacus to the Clitumnus, and Pliny, in the well known passage of his Letters in which he gives an account of his visit to its sources, describes the pool of running water in which these various sources met as 'gurgitem qui lato gremio patescit.' But does not the word 'gurges' almost exclude the notion of a lake in the natural sense of the word, and still more of a lake to which the words 'aestivis intepet aquis' are applied? But the characteristic of the water at and near these sources to which Pliny and other ancient writers draw emphatic attention is their extreme coldness, and the truth of their statement may be verified by any one who visits them in the present day.​1 If this 'gurges' ever extended to the dimensions of a lake, it has now shrunk to the dimensions of a moderately sized pool, overgrown with weeds, through which however the 'divini fontes' still flow in a clear stream, 'splendidior vitro.' It is impossible to conceive a description less applicable in every way than the line 'Et lacus aestivis intepet Umber aquis' to the clear-flowing cold stream of the Clitumnus, of which the charm was so great in  p395 the eyes of those accustomed to the muddy streams of central Italy, as to be deemed worthy of a temple to mark the sanctity attached to it. How then is the line to be explained? The words point to a sheet of water of considerable size, which would be a conspicuous object from the town, whether it was Hispellum or Assisium. But no such lake is visible in the neighbourhood of Perugia, Assisi, or Spello, nor indeed anywhere in what was the ancient territory of Umbria. It seems to follow that either the text is corrupt — and that has been suggested, though on no sufficient grounds — or that what was once a lake has disappeared and become part of the rich flat plain which stretches between the Tiber and the hill on which Assisi is built. Sr. Urbini states that in a medieval document the modern Bastia, which is the first station after crossing the Tiber on the railway between Perugia and Assisi, is spoken of as an island,​2 and its inhabitants are called 'Isolani.'​3 Bastia is situated at the confluence of two considerable streams, the Chiascio and the Tescio, which flow into the Topino, of which the Clitumnus also is an affluent: and their united waters empty themselves into the Tiber about fifteen miles from Perugia. The flat plain above and below Bastia looks as if it might have been at no very distant date covered by the waters of a shallow lake, to which the two streams mentioned above may have contributed their waters. From its vicinity to the frontier it might naturally receive the general name of the 'Umbrian lake,' not being of sufficient size or importance to receive a distinctive name, like the Thrasimene lake, the lake Vadimon, or the lake Velinus. The disappearance of a shallow sheet of water, by natural causes or by drainage, in a well-cultivated territory, is not an unusual occurrence. Thus, for instance, the waters of the 'Nor loch,' familiar to readers of the Fortunes of Nigel, have been replaced within recent memory by the Princes Street Gardens that separate the old and new town of Edinburgh. The existence of such a lake in the neighbourhood of Bastia can, of course, only be a matter of more or less probable conjecture, based partly on the fact that the land on which it stands was at one time known as 'the island' and its inhabitants as 'the islanders,' and partly on the appearance of the district. There is certainly no such difficulty in admitting such a conjecture as there is in supposing that Propertius, or any other poet or any person of sane judgment, should have selected the 'steaming warmth of its summer waves' as the special characteristic of the pool of clear, cold, running water, in which the sources of the Clitumnus meet, a few feet below the spot where they issue 'ab Umbro tramite.'4

It remains to ask which of the two walls or walled towns described as 'climbing up a steep height' answers best to the description given in  p396 

Scandentes quisquis cernit de vallibus arces,


Scandentes Asis (arcis?) consurgit vertice murus.

Assisi and Spello are situated on two spurs, which jut out into the plain at each extremity of the long range of Subasio, a bare mountain running in a direction from north to south, and rising to a height of about 3600 feet. These spurs are about six miles from one another. Assisi is on the northern, that nearest to Perugia. The height on which Spello is built is considerably smaller and lower than that occupied by Assisi. The modern town of Spello rises at once out of the plain and climbs up the face and two sides of a kind of promontory, sufficiently detached to have the appearance of a separate hill, though connected with the main range by a narrow ridge. Assisi, on the other hand, does not rise out of the plain, but begins about half-way up the height, and the town does not rise on any side to the top of this height. It is to be noted that in both the passages Propertius fixes our attention not on the towns themselves but on their walls: —

Ingenio muros aestimet ille meo.—

Murus ab ingenio notior ille tuo.—

Sr. Urbini remarks that as the wall of Assisi does not begin to rise out of the plain, while that of Spello does, the description can only apply to the latter. But can 'de vallibus' possibly mean the same thing as 'de campo'? There are no valleys or no single valley lying below the height on which Spello is built; unless those words can be intended to denote the whole of the broad plain lying between the Monte Subasio — and the low range which separates the waters of the Clitumnus and the Topino from the valley of the Tiber. Professor Ramsay decides that the town meant cannot be Assisi, because it is situated not on the top (vertice) but on the side of the height. To any one looking at Assisi in front, from the 'campo supposito,' or walking through the town itself, there is nothing within sight to correspond with either the 'valleys' or with 'the wall rising on the summit of the height.' The first impression of any one looking at the two places will be that on the whole Spello deviates less from the actual description given. But if he climbs up to what was the old citadel and returns by the back of the hill, on which there are no houses built, the two conspicuous objects which fix his attention, as he makes his way to the town gate, are the turns and windings of the deep valley of the Tescio below him, and the great ancient wall which climbs up from that part of the hill on which the church of St. Francis is built, past the gate which rises above and to the right of the church, till it reaches the citadel and then continues to run along the summit of the ridge, by which the Monte Subasio joins the outlying spur on which the town is built. The wall, though not so ancient as that running up the height on which Cortona stands, has all the appearance of the workmanship of the old Roman times. If then we translate the first passage 'whoever from the valleys below observes the battlements rising one above the other,' and the second 'and a wall rises up along the summit of the steep height,' or 'the steep Asis' we shall find no difficulty in identifying the description with what any one may see who goes out of the gate, above and to the right of the famous church, and walks along the hill at the back of the town till he reaches the old citadel. The distinct statement of Propertius that his native district was that part of Umbria nearest to Perugia is thus confirmed by his description of striking characteristics of the site of the town to which that territory was attached. The number of inscriptions of the Propertii found at or near Assisi afford confirmation of this. If 'Asis' is the reading in line 125, it is difficult to see how it can apply to Spello. Sr. Urbini supposes that this was the name for the whole range of Monte Subasio. But in that case he is obliged to translate 'vertice' not 'the summit,' but 'a height,' certainly an unusual use of the word. If the 'lacus Umber' is to be sought in the neighbourhood of Bastia, it was within a short distance of Assisi, and may have formed one boundary of its territory. The neighbourhood of Mevania may have formed its southern extremity. In any case the town of Mevania, which was a much more considerable place in ancient than in modern times​5 — as is testified by the remains of an amphitheatre — and the mists rising over it from the valley of the Clitumnus, would be conspicuous objects from the heights on which Assisi is built. In the opposite direction the most conspicuous objects were the hill and town of Perusia, so fraught with tragic memories for Propertius.

The Author's Notes:

1 The waters were found to be pleasantly cold both to the taste and touch in a hot day of May in the present year.

2 He quotes from a document of the 12th century: 'Una petia de terra cum vinea quae posita est infra comitatum Assisinatum in loco qui dicitur de insula Romanesca.'

3 'Nel 1053, ch' è, per quanto si sappia, la più antica data sotto cui se ne faccia ricordo, gli abitanti erano chiamati, per la natura del luogo, isolani, semplicemente'.

4 Propert. III.22.23‑4.

Hic Anio Tiburne finis, Clitumnus ab Umbro


Compare I.18.27‑28.

Pro quo divini fontes et frigida rupes

Et datur inculto tramite dura quies.

The use of the word tramite in both these passages suggests that the 'divini fontes' are the sources of the Clitumnus, and that the 'deserta loca et taciturna querenti,' to which Propertius retired in his despair, is the same scene as that which he describes in a happier mood in II.19, where he proposes joining Cynthia in a few days, and enjoying such field sports as he was capable of

Qua formosa suo Clitumnus flumina luco

Integit, et niveos abluit unda boves.

The lines

Sola eris et solos spectabis Cynthia montes

Et pecus et fines pauperis agricolae

will at once occur to any reader of Propertius as he looks towards the amphitheatre of hills immediately to the south of the sources. But what is the exact meaning of tramite in these two passages and in III.13.43‑44

'Et leporem, quicunque venis, venaberis hospes,

Et si forte meo tramite quaeris avem'?

Hartzberg points out that these last two lines are a translation of two Greek lines of Leonidas of Tarentum: —

Εὐάγρει, λαγοθῆρα, καὶ εἰ πετεηνὰ διώκων

Ἰξευτὴς ἥκεις τοῦθ’ ὑπὸ δισσὸν ὄρος —

Propertius seems thus to use trames in the same sense as the Greek ὄρος. Can we translate in 1.i, 18, 'inculto tramite' 'wild hill-side' like 'the cold hill-side' in Keats' 'La belle dame Sans Merci,' a poem expressive of a mood not remote from that of this, one of the grandest of all the Elegies of Propertius? In Vergil's

Ecce supercilio clivosi tramitis (Georg. I.108)

the word must be used in the same sense as in Propertius. Dr. Kennedy translates it 'from the brow of a cross-lying slope,' and in all these passages something much nearer the notion of a 'hill' than a 'channel' or 'cross-way' is wanted. The bare range or hill-side at the foot of which, close to the road, the Clitumnus rises, runs across and forms one boundary of the plain, through which the stream flows in a northerly direction.

5 Mentioned in Tacitus Histories III.59 as evidently a place of importance: 'Ut terrorem Italiae possessa Mevania ac velut renatum ex integro bellum intulerat.'

Thayer's Note:

a It is only poetic justice that Prof. Postgate, a most distinguished scholar, having started his review of Giulio Urbini's book a few months earlier (CR 4:162‑163) by rather savagely trashing the scholarship of Italians and given us an example of their Mediterranean enthusiasm to laugh at, should have then found a follower of sorts, who went out of his way to pursue the matter, and in so doing proved himself so utterly wrong in his central notion, viz., that there was no lacus Umber, or — sniff — that well, there might have been a little pond somewhere near Bastia, why not. And both Sellar and Postgate by association come out looking very foolish.

As it turns out, that little pond was a rather large sheet of water extending from somewhere near the famous springs, thru the townships of Spoleto, Trevi, Foligno, Bevagna, Cannara (a town with no Roman past, whose name derives from "rushes", as probably does that of Cannaiola near Trevi), Bettona, Assisi, and Bastia; its reclamation, started by Benedictine monks in the Middle Ages, finished in the 16c by Francesco Jacobilli, an engineer from Foligno, and now safeguarded by levees thruout the region, is a matter of fairly continuous record; careful (Italian) scholarship has tracked the main lines of it from local cartularies and notarial records, and the existence of the lacus Umber/lacus Clitorius system is now generally agreed upon: even the Anglo-Saxons have come round. For an overview and a map, see for example Annamaria Angelucci's article in ArcheoFoligno, 2004, No. 4 (page 10) (which for a while was online, but with the continued shrinkage of the web, ArcheoFoligno's entire website has gone belly‑up); a more detailed history of the drainage, if mostly in the Trevi area, was once online on the Trevi de Planu site, but it too has vanished.

[image ALT: A photo of a flat fallow field in the foreground with a sharp embankment behind it, some six or seven meters high, covered with grasses, broom, and other shrubs. Behind that embankment the top of a church belfry — an elegant square tower with a cupola verging on onion-shape — peeks out; behind that, in the distance, dim mist-shrouded forms of tall mountains. It is a view of the Umbrian floodplain near Cannaiola.]

A few walks thru the area, much of it, very unusually for central Italy, flat as a board and slightly lower in spots than the many streams that traverse it, would have served our reviewer well; here is a fairly typical snapshot of the residual Umbrian floodplain, interrupted by the man-made embankment that prevents the Fosso Ciccotti from spilling into Cannaiola di Trevi.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 9 May 20