Skip to main content

This paper proposes a relationship between the poems of Sextus Propertius (specifically 1.11 and 3.18) and the changing identity of the area surrounding Baiae, Rome’s infamous resort spot on the Bay of Naples. The quest for leisure spots in Campania by Roman aristocrats dates to the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. With the influx of wealth from recent conquests in the east and alliances with new Roman colonies around the Bay of Naples, wealthy Romans sought properties to the south in ever greater numbers. An additional attraction of the region were the healing waters of Baiae which were sought by such famous Romans as consul Cn. Cornelius Scipio Hispallus, general and consul Cn. Marius, and M. Claudius Marcellus, nephew and heir of Augustus (D’Arms).

The emperor Augustus was never known to have visited Baiae, an unsurprising detail of the historical record, considering his simple tastes, moral legislation, and grim treatment of his granddaughter, Julia. Areas surrounding Baiae, however, were highly influenced by Augustan innovations, including the Aqua Augusta, changes to the temple of Apollo at Cumae, the relocation of the imperial fleet to Misenum, and the construction of the portus Iulius on the lacus Lucrinus adjacent to Baiae. It is these last two Augustan modifications that make an appearance in the poems of Propertius who wrote under Augustus in the circle of literary patron Maecenas.

Propertius wrote two elegies featuring Baiae: 1.11, an entreaty to his Cynthia to avoid the temptations of the resort and return to him still a casta puella; and 3.18, the epicedium for Augustus’ heir Marcellus who died near the resort in 23 B.C. Though the subject matter is dramatically different in the two poems, the language used to establish the geographical setting is similar, and accomplishes a link between the legendary origins of the region and the changes made by Augustus in the time period prior to their composition. Following are the opening lines of 1.11:

Ecquid te mediis cessantem, Cynthia, Baiis,

qua iacet Herculeis semita litoribus,

et modo Thesproti mirantem subdita regno

proxima Misenis aequora nobilibus,

nostri cura subit memores adducere noctes?

In these lines, Propertius focuses on two important geographic features of the Baian landscape: the semita that connected Baiae to Puteoli, supposedly the handwork of Hercules, and the connection of lake Avernus (Thesproti...regno) and the waters adjacent to Misenum, an undisputed reference to the construction of the portus Iulius by Agrippa in 37 B.C. which necessitated a system of channels cut between the lakes to provide safe harbor for the fleet (Saylor; Richardson). Thus, Propertius announces that his Cynthia is not visiting and marveling at the Baiae of Republican era, but that of the new Augustan age.

Likewise does Propertius incorporate these same geographic features into poem 3.18 in establishing the context for Marcellus’ wandering spirit. The poem opens:

Clausus ab umbroso qua tundit pontus Averno

fumida Baiarum stagna tepentis aquae,

qua iacet et Troiae tubicen Misenus harena,

et sonat Herculeo structa labore via

References to the enclosed Lake Avernus and the Herculean road in lines 1 and 4 echo those in 1.11 and seem to carry the same references to the military program of Augustus. Additionally, the legendary Trojan origins of the promontory of Misenum are emphasized in the third line. The prominent mention of Misenum in both poems, and especially in this later one, seem to resonate with the renewed, Roman importance of Misenum with the arrival of the classis Misenensis, established by Augustus in 27 B.C. (Webster and Elton).

These examples provide the foundation for my paper, which proposes to examine these poems more closely, as well as other related contemporary sources, for the literary echoes of Augustan changes to the Campanian culture and landscape. In summary, I will attempt to state that what once belonged to Campania (i.e. Baiae and its culture) now is indelibly Roman and, more particularly, Augustan.