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How Are Men Portrayed as the Passive Heterosexual Lover in Both Catullus’ and Propertius’ Love Poetry?

Info: 12271 words (49 pages) Dissertation
Published: 16th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Literature


Table of Contents


  1. Introduction……………………………………………………….3


  1. Men as dependent lovers……………………….…….……………5

– Catullus 8

– Catullus 8

  1. Men as Hysterical lovers……………………….…………………7

– Propertius

– Catullus

  1. Men as victims of love…………………………………………….9

– Propertius

– Catullus

  1. Women as active lovers……………………………….……….11

– Propertius

– Catullus

  1. Conclusion…………………….……..…………………….…….13

– Propertius

– Catullus

  1. Bibliography………………….…………………….…………….15





Men are portrayed as the passive heterosexual lover in Catullus’ love poetry by highlighting their “dependence” and in Propertius’ elegies by perpetuating how they “suffer as lovers”. Gaius Valerius Catullus and Sextus Propertius were neotericinfluenced poets, known as the “novi poetae”, who redefined the portrayal of men within a heterosexual relationship through their elegies by depicting men in passive and submissive roles. Lesbia is a character in Catullus’ elegies who stands as the literary pseudonym for his lover. Cynthia similarly, is the literary pseudonym for Propertius’ lover. Aspects of passivity such as the pain, madness, desperation and hyperbolic expressions of love have seen both poets positioned in the passive role within their relationship through motifs like paraclausithyron, servitium amoris and militia amoris. Their elegies exemplify the concept of the male passive lover and will be analysed to evaluate how they effectively portray men in this way.


Men as dependent lovers

Catullus 8

Translation: (Tuftsedu, 2018)

nunciamillanonvult: tuquoque, impotens, noli,

necquaefugitsectare, necmiservive,

sedobstinatamenteperfer, obdura.

vale, puella!

Now, now she is not willing; you, powerless, must not want: do not follow one who flees, do not live miserably, but endure with a resolute mind, harden yourself. Farewell, girl!


In Catullus 8, we see that men can only attempt to be resolved after being so intensely affected by love – they are incapable of enduring through the suffering that love and women cause them, thus, suggests that they are in some way passive and almost victims). Catullus employs rather cynical tones of sarcasm to illustrate his feeble attempt to resolve his troubles. Catullus sarcastically states he is going to do these impossible actions to accentuate how impossible and frivolous it is to even attempt to “endure with a resolute mind” . Furthermore, he employs asyndeton to show the extensive nature of the pain he is feeling whilst listing imperatives in the second person as if someone else is commanding him. The final lines, “harden yourself,” echo the theme of this extract; He is, “powerless” which illuminates that his problem is not that Lesbia is fleeing from him, but that his relationship with Lesbia threatens his masculinity, constantly following her dependent for her love.

Catullus 107 –

Translation: (Tuftsedu, 2018)


insperanti, hocestgratumanimoproprie.

quarehocestgratumnobisquoque, cariusauro,

quodte restituis, Lesbia, micupido:

restituiscupidoatque insperanti, ipsareferste

nobis. olucemcandidiorenota!

quismeunovivitfelicior, autmagishacres


If ever something happens that you long for and want and is unhoped for, this is genuinely pleasing to the soul. And thus it is pleasing to us and far dearer than gold, that you have returned, Lesbia, to longing me, you have returned to me, longing and without hope, you brought yourself back to us. O day of whiter note! Who lives more happily than I alone, or who can name things greater to be wished for in this life?

This extract from Catullus 107 illustrates the dependence Catullus has for Lesbia. It is insinuated that he is unable to live happily unless she is with him. This cherished sense of connection and bond is portrayed through Catullus’ employment of royal “we’s” in both “gratum nobis” and “refers te nobis” when Lesbia is said to be brought “back to us” in a manner that is “pleasing to us”. Furthermore, Catullus highlights his excitement by comparing his happiness to everyone in general. The comparative in “felicior” sees Catullus exclaim “who lives more happily than I alone” implying that incomparable happiness can only be brought to him by Lesbia’s accompaniment. Through a rhetorical question, Catullus further hyperbolises the state of pleasure he is in by asking, “who can name…this life?”.

In conjunction with the comparative, Catullus implies that having Lesbia is the ultimate thing to be wished for, placing her on a pedestal. Lesbia is then depicted as more important than his own necessities, accentuating the dependency Catullus has on Lesbia, a characteristic that in inherently passive in nature. A similar effect is created through the anaphora of “cupido” to highlight the extent to which Catullus requires Lesbia’s accompaniment. Through this anaphora, Catullus illustrates his excessive love for her as a “longing”. Typically, a longing is associated with either the love for or necessity of a good. This conveys Lesbia as a requirement for Catullus to be able to live happily.

Men as Hysterical lovers

Propertius, Elegies 2.17 –

Translation: (Tuftsedu, 2018)






nec, modosisapias, quodminusessevelis.



nunciacereedurocorpusiuvat, impia, saxo,




quodquamvisitasit, dominammutarecavebo:

tumflebit, cuminmesenseritessefidem.

Whether you’re moved by Tantalus’s fate by the water, parched as the liquid retreats from his thirsty mouth, or whether you admire Sisyphus’s labour, rolling his awkward burden up the whole mountain side: nothing in the world lives more harshly than a lover, nor, if you are at all wise, is it what you’d less wish to be.

I whom envious admiration once considered happy, I too am hardly allowed in, now, one day out of ten. Now I’d enjoy hurling my body from a hard rock, impious girl, or take powdered drugs in my fingers. I can’t even sleep at the crossroads under a clear moon, or send my words through the crack in the door.

But though it’s a fact, I’ll take care not to change my mistress: then she will cry, when she senses the loyalty, in me.


The perpetual depiction of men being excluded by a female in a relationship is conveyed through the motif of paraclausithyron. “I too am hardly allowed in, now, one day out of ten”, metaphorically places Propertius, the “exclusus amator” outside his mistress’ door. The excluded lover is typically passive thus depicting Propertius as unable to do anything about the predicament he is in. He is controlled by the actions of his mistress alone and remains in a state of paralysis at the doorstep of Cynthia. The metaphorical door is obdurate and unyielding compounding the desires and passion of Propertius, and emphasising the magnitude of his affectional rejection. (Revolvycom, 2018). As Propertius is not allowed to be in his lovers bedroom as the “exclusus amator”, a paradoxical imperative is illustrated. Propertius is unable to sleep outside nor inside, highlighting the passivity of the man and the commanding nature of the female. This depicts love as something that dominates the man driving him to hysteria.

Propertius’ hysterical reaction to this plight is portrayed through his allusion to suicide, “now it would be pleasing to throw my body off a hard rock”. This exemplifies the effects of love on the male as such a visceral and powerful emotion that makes you submit like suicide. The allusion to suicide creates a vividly grotesque image through violence. This concept of submissiveness inherently places the victim in a passive role. Furthermore, Propertius exaggerates Cynthia as the “wicked one”, forcing him to “take powdered drugs in my fingers”.

Catullus 7 

Translation: (Tuftsedu, 2018)


tuae, Lesbia, sintsatissuperque.





autquamsideramulta, cumtacetnox,






You ask, how many kisses of yours, Lesbia, may be enough and more for me. As many as the countless Libyan sands which strew silphium-bearing Cyrene between the oracle of sweltering Jove and the sacred tomb of ancient Battus, or as the many stars, when night is silent, look upon the furtive loves of mortals, to kiss you with kisses of so great a number is enough and more for passion-driven Catullus: so many that prying eyes may not avail to number, nor ill tongues to bewitch.

The Noevi Poetae construct their poems in a light-hearted fashion. This is illustrated through the recurring theme of obsessive and hysterical love in Catullus 7 through anaphora, hyperbole’s and comedic tone. Through the unorthodox word choice such as, “basiationes” a term meaning “kissifications” Catullus’ obsession is conveyed in a light-hearted sense emphatically creating a comedic tone. This is further reinforced through the hyperbole of the amount of kisses Catullus desires. He requires, “As many as the countless Libyan sands which strew silphium-bearing Cyrene”, placing a number on an emotion that is not countable. As he portrays his obsession by suggesting this, Catullus identifies himself as “passion driven” that can only be satisfied by a “so great a number” of kisses. Moreover, the anaphora of “multa” accentuates this tone of obsession as he is dependent on an infinite number of kisses from Lesbia. Catullus is therefore positioned as passive when he suggestions that his love is unsatisfiable, portrayed through the obsessive nature in which he conveys his desires.














Men as victims of love

Propertius, Elegies 1.1 –  

Translation: (Tuftsedu, 2018)






improbus, etnullovivereconsilio.

eimihi, iamtotofurorhicnondeficitanno,



Cynthia was the first to ensnare miserable me with her little eyes (me), having been touched before by no desires. Then Love cast down my eyes of continual pride and trod down on my head with feet placed upon it until the wicked one taught me to hate chased girls, and to live without plan. It’s already been a whole year that the frenzy hasn’t stopped.

Even now, the gods are against me.

Present in this extract from Propertius’ elegy 1.1 is the underlying theme of the servitium amoris. Servitium Amoris is an expression of the lover’s humility and abasement in the name of love to undergo punishments and to undertake duties which were felt to be peculiar to the slave alone. The tasks for pursuing love were entirely unworthy of a free man as it idealises love over all aspects of life (Jstororg, 2018). In this first poem Propertius portrays himself as a victim of love, someone who is not to blame for being in love, but rather struck by Amor and Cynthia and unable to escape. The speaker is captive and bound by the pursuits of love just as “miserum me” is placed in the centre of the first line surrounded by “Cynthia” and “cepit ocellis” putting miserable Propertius in a framed position. This draws attention to his victimization as Propertius is often not the subject of the sentence (nominative), but instead the direct object (accusative). Similarly, many of the verbs refer to him passively such as, “contactum” (passive participle), and “cogor” (passive verb) suggesting Propertius cannot act, he must be acted upon.

Through violent verbs such as, “cepit” meaning ensnared and “caput impositis pressit” in which love is trodding down on his head, Propertius is positioned as a victim to the abuse of Cupid, an inherently a passive act. – this is the personification of love. by personifying love as an aggressive, hostile and violent figure he accentuates the abuse he receives. There is such a stark tonal shift between “having been touched before by no desires” and “then Love cast down my eyes of continual pride”. The innocence and naivety of Propertius is juxtaposed with such a harsh transition in a manner that is almost self-depreciative of his passivity.

Propertius mentions Amor, who cast down Propertius’ eyes (deiecit) and taught him about love (docuit). He is refers to Love as “improbus” – wicked as he is inflamed with passion or “furor”, forcefully pressed to love in “impositis pressit Amor pedibus”. Furthermore, it is because of his bestowed passion that, “aduersos cogor habere deos” – the gods are against him, reiterating his victimization. Part of the reason he sees this love as hostility is because he has been burdened by it for “toto…anno”, a whole year and will never be free of it, as he hints with “never is Love inactive” (nullo…tempore…defit Amor). Love makes the man, usually a person who is in a power in roman society, elite male citizen as a servant as lover. By opening his poetry with this poem and these themes, Propertius emphasizes his struggle with love and what it means to be in the service of love.

Catullus 85 –

Translation: (Tuftsedu, 2018)

Odietamo. quareidfaciamfortasserequiris

nescio, sedfierisentioetexcrucior.

I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.

The poems in the Catullan corpus relate to a love affair between the male speaker and a female figure known as Lesbia through “The Lesbia Cycle”. Lesbia is the name Catullus gives to the primary love interest of his male speaker. She is provided with a strong and compelling personality. The Lesbia cycle is most obviously an erotic narrative in which Catullus illustrates the full extent of the troubled relationship between Lesbia and Catullus. From its blissful beginnings to its doubt and infedility and furthermore its destructive impact on the speaker. Odetamo captures the Lesbia cycle brilliantly with the elided title translating to, “ I hate and I love”. This, when spoken aloud in verse, creates a single figurative verb of hating and loving, “Odetamo”.

Furthermore, Catullus 85 portrays love as a bearer of extreme pain or extreme pleasure. Through the employment of these polarities, “I hate and I love” we see that the extent of Catullus’ emotions are hyberbolised to convey the effect of love on his emotions. A roman male citizen was expected to play the role of the active sexual subject, the aggressor, while women were seen as sexual objects and the passive partners. However, throughout the Lesbia cycle, Catullus is rarely in control.

Women as active lovers

Propertius, Elegies 2.12 –

Translation: (Tuftsedu, 2018)


sipudorest, aliotraicetelauna!


nonego, sedtenuisvapulatumbramea.

quamsiperdideris, quiseritquitaliacantet,



et canat ut soleant molliter ire pedes?

What pleasure is there for you to live in my dry marrow? If there is shame, hurl your darts together at another person!

It is better to test those untouched by that poison: Not I, but my insubstantial ghost is beaten, if you destroy it, who will it be who might sing such things, (this, my slender Muse – nymph – inspirational goddesses of literature science and arts, is your great glory) who might sing about the head and fingers and dark eyes of a girl, and how daintily her feet are accustomed to move?


In Propertius Elegy 2.12, love is personified as a parasitic and invasive destructive agent. Love is therefore depicted as a virus which infects its hosts, placing the host in a passive position. Similarly Propertius, the victim, is made passive through the following line’s metaphor, “hurl your darts at another person”. Amor, or Love is said to be causing great pain to Propertius through depicting love as a weaponized dart. A tone vicious in nature is created at the start of the poem as love is illustrated as a powerful entity. By depicting love as a dart, it is portrayed that the feelings he has for her is like a poison. Love is once again perceived as invasive, and so powerful it can cause harm but also passion. Love is so powerful men are at the whim of its decisions.

We can see towards the middle section of the poem Catullus pleads to Cupid not to destroy his soul with the effects of Love, as no other poet will be able to write about his encounters with Cupid. “Not I, but my insubstantial ghost is beaten, if you destroy it, who will it be who might sing such things, (this, my slender Muse – nymph – inspirational goddesses of literature science and arts, is your great glory)”. Propertius is said to be writing his poem as a pledge to Love’s “great glory” and desires Love to have mercy on him.

Furthermore, towards the end of the poem Propertius accentuates his love for her by talking about her body parts individually. Synecdoche is employed by the poet when describing Cynthia’s fingers, head and dark eyes. By fragmenting Cynthia in this way, Propertius is depicted as analysing the finer details of her body, he’s so passionate he recognises the subtle parts of the female. demonstrating his obsessive love for her.

Specifically, this elegy reflects the motif of the Militia Amoris, a way of depicting the pursuit of the beloved by the lover and the actual fights between the two as military encounters. The assault on and occupation of the lover by love has obvious parallels in the sphere of warfare (Academiaedu, 2018).

Catullus 109 – 

Translation: (Tuftsedu, 2018)

Iucundum, meavita, mihiproponisamorem


dimagni, faciteutverepromitterepossit




My life, you declare to me that this love of ours will be an everlasting joy between us. Great Gods! grant that she may promise truly, and say this in sincerity and from her soul, and that through all our lives we may be allowed to prolong together this bond of holy friendship.

This extract from Catullus 109 portrays Lesbia as an active lover and therefore, Catullus, in a passive position. The first line of poem 109 reads, “iucundum, mea vita, mihi proponis amorem”, translating alone as “you offer me, my life, a pleasant amor.” The word amor in this sense would necessarily suggest a love or love affair. Such an affair had certain traditional Roman characteristics, at least in literary representations. Amor was a spell of overriding passion, a fit of madness, and the lover was regarded as the subject of temporary insanity.  Catullus then starts his following sentence with an invocation to Gods reinforced with the word “possit”. Here he is asking for a faithful relationship as Catullus worries that his beloved is unable to make a genuine promise. Catullus doubts his mistress’ ability to live up to her words placing himself in a passive position as Lesbia’s actions dictate the “aeternum…amicitiae”.


Through their use of paraclausithyron, servitium amoris and militia amoris, Propertius and Catullus have exposed the ideals and values associated with love in Augustan Society. In essence, it portrays love’s potential to shift gender roles, with men in turn becoming passive, and yielding to love’s irresistibility. The allure of the motif can be accredited to it’s ability to display these values in such a simplistic manner, through the depiction of a lovers suffering, their love interest, and the seemingly inevitable obstacles that remain obdurate between them.



















Bibliography (must in-text reference)

Academiaedu. 2018. Academiaedu. [Online]. [18 January 2018]. Available from: http://www.academia.edu/695733/From_militia_patriae_to_militia_amoris._Love_labour_and_post_obitum_remuneration_Tib._1.3_ – Militia Amoris

Jstororg. 2018. Jstororg. [Online]. [18 January 2018]. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/283500?seq=1 – Servitium Amoris

Revolvycom. 2018. Revolvycom. [Online]. [18 January 2018]. Available from: https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Paraclausithyron&item_type=topic&reload=1&_=370659 – Paraclausithyron

Tuftsedu. 2018. Tuftsedu. [Online]. [18 January 2018]. Available from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Prop. – Propertius Transaltion

Tuftsedu. 2018. Tuftsedu. [Online]. [18 January 2018]. Available from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0006:poem=1 – Catullus Translation

Booksgooglecom. 2018. Booksgooglecom. [Online]. [18 January 2018]. Available from: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=KKumCQAAQBAJ&pg=PA24&lpg=PA24&dq=catullus+poems+as+the+male+passive+lover&source=bl&ots=hfsB8pkN8j&sig=V5I4gk0VI3U8TBBKrZLdHvRDAZk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjJxfP2wODYAhWOQpQKHQS1CJAQ6AEINzAD#v=onepage&q=catullus%20poems%20as%20the%20male%20passive%20lover&f=false – Catullus Analysis


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