Tibullus

Tibullus

Life

Albius Tibullus entered the Roman literary scene under the patronage of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. He, like Horace and Vergil, had his lands confiscated by Augustus, though he did end up somewhat well off under Messalla’s patronage. His life is abbreviated in a short Vita, which likely came from Suetonius’ collection of Vitae.

Albius Tibullus, a royal eques, distinguished in form and remarkable in his personal care, loved before all others Messalla Corvinus [who was his literary] genesis; as his contubernalis in the Aquitanian War, he was awarded military prizes. He is given first place among the elegists in the judgment of many. His amatory epistles are also very useful, however brief. He died a young man as the epigram written above indicates.

The epigram referred to in the Vita is a surviving poem from a contemporary poet, Domitius Marsus:

An unfair death has also sent you, Tibullus, friend
of Vergil, to the Elysian fields,
So there shan’t be any to weep for soft loves in elegy
nor sing the royal wars with a strong foot.

Works

Tibullus poetical rhetoric is actually quite mild, yet elegant. He was not fond of the ornamental myths typical to Hellenistic and elegiac poetry, nor the pretension found in Propertius, Ovid, and Horace; he neither gives himself pompous titles nor heaps excessive and insincere praise on his patron, preferring simple “idyllic happiness”, shunning the complexities of life, whether it is political veneration (opposed to actual reverence) or military venturing.

The authors of the third book are actually Tibullus’ younger contemporaries: Sulpicia, otherwise unknown, and a pseudonymous author going by the nom de plume Lygdamis (though some have argued that Lygdamis is actually either Ovid or someone who is purposefully casting himself as Ovid).

Legacy

Tibullus was held in high repute, as shown not only from Marsus’ epigram, but also from remarks by Ovid and Horace. Quintilian places Tibullus as the best of the elegiac writers:

We also challenge the Greeks in elegy, of whom it seems to me the author Tibullus is most polished and elegant; there are those who prefer Propertius. Ovid is more playful than both, just as Gallus is harsher.

Horace and Ovid both also recognize Tibullus’ poetry. Horace dedicated a whole poem to him (Ep. 1.4), Ovid, like Domitius Marsus, wrote an elegy mourning his death (Amores 3.9).

Texts Online

Latin: PHI Latin Texts
English: Poetry in Translation

Further Reading

  1. Cairns, Francis 1979. Tibullus: A Hellenistic Poet at Rome. Cambridge: University Press.
  2. Miller, Paul Allen 2002. Latin Erotic Elegy: An Anthology and Reader. London & New York: Routledge.