BMCR 2004.02.01

Tibullus: Elegies. Text, Introduction and Commentary. ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs 41

, , Tibullus : elegies : text, introduction and commentary. ARCA, classical and medieval texts, papers, and monographs, 41. Cambridge: Francis Cairns, 2002. xii, 529 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0905205995. $135.00.

In his preface Robert Maltby (henceforth M.) remarks that he originally set out to write a “detailed commentary on the text and translation of Guy Lee,” the third edition of whose text, translation and notes was published by F. Cairns (Publications) in 1990. What he has produced, however, is a considerably more ambitious scholarly commentary on Tibullus’ elegies, a close relative to J.C. McKeown’s magisterial commentary on the three books of Ovid’s Amores (also published by F. Cairns), now dedicated to Guy Lee and Barrie Hall.1

Quintilian’s verdict on Roman elegy lauds Tibullus as its foremost practitioner: elegia quoque Graecos prouocamus, cuius mihi tersus atque elegans maxime uidetur auctor Tibullus ( Inst. Or. 10.1.93). Yet it may fairly be asked if we need another commentary on Tibullus, when annotated editions of the first and second books of the corpus by M. Putnam and P. Murgatroyd are still in print, to say nothing of the wide availability and long-lasting influence of the edition with commentary by K. Flower Smith, and G. Lee’s own more modest notes in his edition and translation — the sum of commentaries published in English alone in the last century.2 Happily in this case the answer must be a resounding yes, for M. shines new light on the subtle humour and literary sophistication of Tibullus’ elegiac poetry on almost every page of this monumental work of scholarship.

The volume opens with a lengthy Introduction surveying 1) the manuscript tradition of Tibullus and principal printed editions of and commentaries on the corpus; 2) twentieth-century Tibullan scholarship; 3) the life and work of Tibullus, including a list of the ancient testimonia and detailed discussion of the characters in the first two books of the corpus Tibullianum as well as analysis of the structure and themes of these books; and 4) style, including Tibullus’ relation to the literary tradition, his language, and metre. The introduction makes a substantial contribution to Tibullan studies in its survey of the status quaestionum and synthesis of earlier scholarship, but its most important contribution lies in M.’s analysis of the themes of paupertas (40) and other Augustan motives to Tibullan elegy (53-5), and of the recurrent dramatis personae. M. notes that paupertas is a conventional literary theme in Hellenistic epigram and Augustan literature and treats with great caution the biographical notices implying Tibullus’ impoverishment. Particularly persuasive also is his argument that Tibullus derived the name Delia and her association with Diana from Vergilian pastoral ( Buc. 3.67 notior ut iam sit canibus non Delia nostris, with Servius ad loc.: Deliam alii amicam priorem uolunt, alii Dianam). M. documents throughout his commentary a pervasive pattern of allusion to Vergilian pastoral in Tibullus’ first book of elegies and this intertextual nexus lends support to his suggestion of a literary debt in the very choice of the puella‘s name.

Indeed M.’s reading of Tibullan elegy is, perhaps not surprisingly, strikingly “Cairnsian” in its etymologico-literary and formalist orientation;3 in this regard, it must be admitted, his practice coheres closely with my own critical predilections. So M. accepts the etymological connection of Delia with brightness and light,4 and notes that the puella of the second book of elegies — Nemesis, daughter of Night — constitutes her perfect foil. He observes, moreover, “that the identity of a ‘real’ person behind Delia and Nemesis cannot be assumed as clearly as in the case of Catullus’ Lesbia” and accordingly argues for the priority of the literary tradition in Tibullus’ characterization of both puellae : “[w]hatever the case may be, in his depiction of [events in the puella‘s life] T. owes much to previous literary treatments” (44). M. derives his view of the Tibullan puella — both Delia and Nemesis — as a concubine from the pattern of her representation in the Tibullan corpus, and judges her social status “likely to be that of a libertina, freedwoman” (44), a view consonant with the position articulated most recently by Sharon James in her erudite and passionately-argued book, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy, that the elegiac puella is a courtesan.5 Positivists, however, may be surprised at the omission in this context of any reference to Gallus’ mistress Lycoris, whom Servius (ad Buc. 10.1) identified as the mime-actress Volumnia, freedwoman of P. Volumnius Eutrapelus, and whose stage-name was Cytheris. M.’s discussion of Marathus is equally literary and etymological in orientation, pointing to models in Hellenistic epigram (primarily in Callimachus and Meleager) and Catullus (the Juventius-cycle) for the pederastic theme. He accepts Gauly’s derivation of the name Marathus from Greek μαραίνομαι, “to die down” (of flames),6 but rejects his interpretation that Marathus causes his lover anguish when the flame (of love) dies down and relates it instead to the greater intensity of heat produced by the embers when the flames die down (citing Hom. Il. 9.212-13).

M.’s treatment of the role of the historical Messalla in Tibullus’ elegies (41-2), by contrast, eschews etymological discussion7 to offer a judicious blend of literary analysis and historical reconstruction. His discussion of the evidence for Messalla’s literary interests illuminates the stylistic connections between Tibullus’ poetry and his patron’s rhetorical prowess, while his careful review of Messalla’s career documents both his aristocratic class allegiances and his long-standing support of Augustus. M.’s assessment of Messalla’s Augustan career undergirds his account of the complex exposition of Augustan themes in Tibullan elegy.

The thorough and even-handed survey of Tibullan style M. provides has two great strengths: first his rich documentation of Tibullus’ debts to earlier Latin literature, most conspicuously his elder contemporaries Vergil and Horace; and second his careful illumination not only of Tibullus’ stylistic convergences with but also, no less importantly, of his divergences from his elegiac contemporaries Propertius and Ovid. Particularly interesting in the latter discussion is his demonstration not so much of Tibullus’ many divergences from Propertius but of his anticipation of many of the stylistic traits we think of as hallmarks of Ovidian elegy: sparing deployment of Greek loan-words, pioneering use of the so-called uersus echoici, avoidance of elision, and high proportion of disyllabic words at pentameter ending. M. argues that such features, commonly associated with Ovidian elegy, originate in Tibullus, though he modestly concludes that the evidence he collects shows his poet’s importance “in the progress of Latin elegiacs towards their ultimate development in Ovid” (72). Yet M.’s demonstration of significant divergences from Ovidian elegiac style in Tibullus’ poetry — his marked avoidance of compound adjectives, for example, or his relatively high proportion of “weak” caesura in the third foot of the hexameter — is also illuminating and might be fruitfully brought into contact with the classic study of Ovidian homage to Tibullan style in Am. 3.9 by G. McClennan,8 who demonstrates Ovid’s uncharacteristically frequent deployment of the third-foot weak caesura in hexameters throughout this epicedion.

M. prints a text of Tibullus which differs in several places from Lee’s, and he lists these changes at the head of his text (74). He discusses these divergences at some length in the commentary and is always sensitive to the textual and contextual issues raised by the different readings.

M.’s discussion of individual poems in Tibullus’ two books of elegies is as richly detailed and philologically focused as his introduction and text would lead one to expect. Like Smith, Putnam, and Murgatroyd, and indeed like Lee himself, M. includes a headnote for each poem with important bibliography and a summary of its progression of thought and historical context (when relevant). The commentary itself is more detailed than are those of Smith or Putnam, and is most comparable in length and detail of discussion to Murgatroyd (1980) on Tibullus 1 (though M. offers comment at only half the length of Murgatroyd (1994) on Tibullus 2). The notes are particularly good on etymological learning; Callimachean resonances; georgic and bucolic patterns of imagery in the poems and their relationship to Vergil’s poetry; Tibullus’ interest in Propertian elegy; and relations both between consecutive poems and among all the poems in a Tibullan poetry book. M. is also excellent on the reception of Tibullan elegy in later Latin poetry, particularly in Ovid, and what this reception-history can tell us about Tibullus’ own poetry.

M.’s treatment of Tib. 1.1 is a good example of the philological and literary-historical focus of the commentary and its resulting strengths. In his notes on the poem, M. documents a pattern of continuing allusion to Georgics 2.458-540 and offers detailed discussion of the verbal reminiscences of and thematic links to the Vergilian passage. In this regard he differs from Murgatroyd (1980: 49), who privileges Tibullus’ relationship to Hor. Epode 2 in the poem. M. also offers sustained reflection on Tibullus’ reception of early Propertian elegy in the poem, making excellent use of R.O.A.M. Lyne’s important recent paper on early exchanges between Propertius and Tibullus,9 and building on it to suggest that Tib. 1.1.59-68 is “close in thought to Prop. 1.17.19-24” (143, supplementing Lyne 526-30) and that Prop. 2.1.41 may echo Tibullus’ use of praecordia at 1.1.63. He provides excellent notes on the literary-critical resonances of labor (119 on 1.1.3) and ignis (122 on 1.1.6), and shows how carefully Tibullus anticipates the erotic themes of the second half of the poem already in the opening lines (117 on 1.1.1-2, 122 on 1.1.6, and 123 on 1.1.7-8). Throughout M. offers learned and thought-provoking comment on Tibullan etymologizing; no one (with the possible exception of Francis Cairns himself)10 is in a better position to illuminate this facet of Tibullus’ art.

In discussing Tib. 1.1, M. situates his poet in a learned Greco-Roman literary tradition of military and erotic poetry. He is less interested in Tibullus’ relationship to the classical rhetorical tradition, although he duly records the rhetorical commonplaces on which Tibullus draws throughout the poem, such as the conventional “denunciation of wealth and luxury” (140) implied by Tibullus’ curse on gold and emeralds at 1.1.51. He also notes the verbal debt to Cicero, Amic. 20 diuitias alii praeponunt, in the opening words of the poem ( diuitias alius, 1.1.1), testimony both to the literary dissemination of Cicero’s philosophical dialogues and to Tibullus’ rhetorical education. But I wonder if the Ciceronian theme of friendship is not itself also of relevance throughout Tibullus’ two books of elegiac poetry, and so is programmatically set out in this opening poem of the first book where there is a neat parallel between the Ciceronian pair of friends — a senior politician (Scipio) and a cultivated eques (Laelius) — and the Tibullan addressee and speaker — the senior politician Messalla and cultivated eques Albius Tibullus.

Of course it only occurs to me to wonder about the possible links between Tibullus’ elegiac poetry and Cicero’s dialogue on friendship because of M.’s extensive documentation of parallels for his author. It is perhaps the mark of the most successful commentaries that they encourage their readers to ask new questions of their authors and start us on the way to some of the answers. In this respect, too, we can be grateful that M. has produced a commentary that will spur further scholarly interest in this sophisticated and still enigmatic poet.


1. G. Lee, Tibullus: Elegies 3 (Leeds 1990); J.C. McKeown, ed., Ovid: Amores, Text, Prolegomena and commentary in four volumes (Leeds 1987, 1989, 1994, forthcoming).

2. M.C.J. Putnam, ed., Tibullus, A Commentary (Norman OK 1973); P. Murgatroyd, ed., Tibullus I, Edited with Introduction, Notes & Vocabulary (Pietermaritzburg 1980); id. Tibullus, Elegies II (Oxford1994); K.F. Smith (ed.), The Elegies of Albius Tibullus (New York 1913).

3. F. Cairns, Tibullus: A Hellenistic poet at Rome (Cambridge 1979).

4. Proposed by D.F. Bright, Haec mihi fingebam. Tibullus in his world (Leiden 1978), 118.

5. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2003; reviewed by Alison Sharrock in BMCR 2003.09.29.

6. B.M. Gauly, “Lentus amor: zu einer Metapher bei Tibull und Horaz und zum elegischen Pseudonym Marathus,” Hermes 123 (1995) 91-105.

7. Predictably I find myself fascinated by the evidence of Paul. Fest. P.379M for the existence of an adjective messalis, apparently derived from messis and the adjectival suffix -alis, which tempts me to remark the happy coincidence of Messalla’s name with the characteristic Tibullan theme of messis.

8. “Arte allusive and Ovidian Metrics,” Hermes 100 (1972) 495-6.

9. R.O.A.M. Lyne, “Propertius and Tibullus: Early Exchanges,” CQ 48 (1998) 519-44.

10. F. Cairns, “Ancient ‘etymology’ and Tibullus: on the classification of ‘etymologies’ and on ‘etymological markers’,” PCPS 42 (1996) 24-59.