As the new term commences, I’m researching and preparing to teach on a course exploring constructions of gender and sexuality in the ancient world. My classes will, unsurprisingly, discuss gender and warfare, specifically, Virgil’s Camilla and Lucan’s Scaeva.
During my reading, I came across Propertius’ 4.3: To a Husband away at the Wars.
I was struck, firstly, by the description of the wife, Arethusa, as spending her days manufacturing armour and weapons for her absent husband. Secondly, by the fact that Lycotas is stationed in Bactra, modern day Balkh, in Afghanistan.
PROPERTIUS 4.3: To a Husband away at the Wars, trans. A. S. Kline
Arethusa sends this message to her Lycotas: if you can be mine, when you are so often absent. Still, if any part you wish to read is smeared, that blot will have been made by my tears: or if any letter puzzles you by its wavering outline, it will be the sign of my now fading hand.
A moment ago Bactra in the east saw you again, now the Neuric enemy with their armoured horses, the wintry Getae and Britain with its painted chariots, and the dark-skinned Indians pounded by the eastern waves.
Was this the marriage oath and the night sealed with kisses, when, an innocent, I yielded to the urgency of your conquering arms? The ill-omened torch, carried before me by those who led, drew its dark light from a ruined pyre: and I was sprinkled with Stygian waters, and the headband was not set right upon my hair: the god of marriage was not my friend.
Oh, my harmful vows hang from every gate: and this is the fourth cloak I weave for your camp. Let him perish who tore a stake from an innocent tree, and made mournful trumpets from shrill horns, he is more worthy than Ocnus to lean on, and twist the rope, and feed your hunger, mule, to eternity!
Tell me, does the breastplate cut your tender shoulders? Does the heavy spear chafe your unwarlike hands? May they sooner hurt you than some girl’s teeth cause me tears, by marking your neck! They say your face is lean and drawn: but I pray that pallor’s from desire for me. While I, when evening leads on the bitter night, kiss the weapons you have left behind. Then I moan by starlight that your cloak doesn’t clothe the bed, and that the birds that bring the dawn don’t sing.
On winter nights I labour to spin for your campaigns, to cut Tyrian cloth for the sword: and I learn where the Araxes flows that you must conquer, and how many miles a Parthian horse travels without water: I’m driven to study the world depicted on a map, and learn what kind of position the god set up there, which countries are sluggish with frost, which crumble with heat, which kindly wind will bring your sail to Italy.
One caring sister sits here, and my pale nurse swears that the winter’s a time of delay. Fortunate Hippolyte! With naked breasts she carried weapons, and barbarously hid her soft hair under a helmet. If only the Roman camps were open to women! I would have been a loyal burden on your campaign. Scythian hills would not hinder me, where the mighty god turns water to ice with deeper cold. Every love is powerful, but greater in an acknowledged partner: this fire Venus herself fans into life.
Why then should robes of Phoenician purple gleam for me now, or clear crystals decorate my fingers? Everything’s mute and silent, and the Lares’ closed shrine is barely opened, through custom, by a girl, on the infrequent Calends. The whimpering of the little puppy Craugis is dear to me: she’s the only one to claim your share of the bed.
I roof over the shrines with flowers, cover the crossroads with sacred branches; and the Sabine herb crackles on ancient altars. If the owl hoots perched on a neighbouring beam, or the flickering lamp merits a drop of wine, that day proclaims the slaughter of this year’s lambs, and the priests readied, burning for fresh profits.
I beg you not to set so much glory in scaling Bactra’s walls, or the plunder of fine linen torn from a perfumed chieftain, when the lead shot scatters from the twisted sling, and the cunning bow twangs from the wheeling horse! But (when the land of Parthia’s brood are overcome, may the headless spear follow your triumphant horses) preserve unsullied the pact of our marriage-bed! That is the sole condition on which I’d have you back: And when I’ve carried your votive armour to the Capene Gate, I’ll inscribe there: A GRATEFUL WOMAN’S THANKS FOR HER HUSBAND’S SAFETY.