But the cost was great, and especially where the destructive drives were concerned. Even among the Greeks, with their strong tradition of balance and civilized behaviour, we find an enormous increase in destructive magical techniques in the centuries immediately before Christ. (68) In Rome, the position was perhaps worse. Although sadism had not yet reached the appalling excesses of Nero, the public games were taking on a steadily more degrading character. Sadism also appeared in personal relationships, as we can judge from poets such as Propertius. Knowing as much as we do of the frightful spectacles of savagery which were to be enacted, with every mark of public acclaim, in a century’s time, it is legitimate to see sinister elements in Propertius’ account of what happened when the prostitute whom he loved, Cynthia, returned and found him with two other girls.
I relished fighting with you in the lamplight
Last night and hearing all your furious oaths
Why throw the table down, when mad with liquor,
And wildly hurl the wineglasses at me?
Come, come, attack my hair in your savage temper
And scratch my features with your pretty nails!
Dearest, threaten to burn my eyes to ashes,
Split my robe wide open and bare my breast.
Surely all these are signs of a true passion:
May those who know me see the marks of biting
And bruises which betray a happy love!
In love I want to weep or see you weeping:
To agonize or hear your agony.
I hate a sleep never broken by sighing….
Cynthia seems to have been a woman of impetuous, even commanding character, of the sort whom Sacher Masoch, so much later, wished to serve: she was known for driving her own horses at full speed down the Appian way, and one may perhaps suspect elements of masochism in Propertius’ love.
It seems, in short, that the ancient world was in a state of increasingly great distress in the five centuries before the Christian era. That distress led in Palestine to a tightening up of the patriarchal morality, in Rome to the break-up of traditional morality. Greece, Egypt, Babylon were equally affected. A phenomenon so widespread cannot convincingly be attributed to economic factors or to changes of social structure: though these were present, one must see behind them some decisive change in the human psyche — the emergence of a conflict which could be palliated, perhaps, but not healed.