BMCR 2019.08.06

A Short Companion to Tibullus and the Corpus Tibullianum. Studia Classica et Mediaevalia 22

, A Short Companion to Tibullus and the Corpus Tibullianum. Studia Classica et Mediaevalia 22. Nordhausen: Verlag Traugott Bautz, 2018. 172. ISBN 9783959483773. €35.00.

By now, the Companion represents a genre of its own within classical scholarship, and the title alone is enough to evoke a long list of expectations: chapters on historical context; on influences and models (primarily from Greece and Rome); on stylistics; on later reception, both within the classical period and beyond; and perhaps on theoretical and interpretive approaches to the text(s). This book, whose self-identifying declaration of “Companion” has been qualified by the preceding “Short,” indicating that it deviates from the typical generic form, nevertheless manages to address almost all of the standard elements of the genre.

This slim volume comprises just three chapters, of varying length, by three leading scholars in the field of Latin poetry: (1) “The Interpretation of Tibullus” by Kevin Newman (pp. 9-109); (2) “The Language, Style and Metre of Tibullus” by Robert Maltby (pp. 111-34); and (3) “The Corpus Tibullianum” by Peter E. Knox (pp. 135-60). A bibliography (pp. 160-66) is followed by an Index nominum (167-70) and a partial Index locorum (171-172).

In a brief preface, the editor gives the motivation for the volume: to fill the companion gap for Tibullus, “a chronically under-researched author,” especially in comparison to his contemporaries Vergil, Horace, Propertius, and Ovid (all of whom have their own companions). Even though Tibullus earns his own chapter in both Blackwell’s A Companion to Roman Love Elegy (2012) and The Cambridge Companion to Latin Love Elegy (2013), it remains true that he still holds third place among the elegists in the scholarship department (and he falls much lower in the rankings when all of the Augustan poets are considered). The arrival of this volume among the ranks of Companions is therefore welcome.

Chapter 1, “The Interpretation of Tibullus” by Kevin Newman, which makes up two-thirds of the volume, is a sprawling reading of the Tibullan corpus that often delves into illuminating detail. It falls into three broad sections: (1) an Introduction (pp. 9-41), which discusses Tibullus’ poetic and cultural context and some matters of style; (2) a “commentary” on all three books of the corpus (pp. 41-87), which aims to “briefly highlight salient points … [and is] not of course meant to challenge standard commentaries, merely to document the reactions of one particular reader in one particular context” (p. 41); and (3) a discussion of Tibullus’ relation to Hellenistic and Roman poetry (pp. 87-109). The chapter strongly reflects the interests of that one particular reader. Throughout, Newman is especially attuned to structural elements of the poems, sound and musicality, “Maecenatian” versus “Messallan” poetics, and humor, and he not infrequently brings into the discussion his knowledge of other literatures, notably Russian and Spanish. His interpretation of Tibullus is at bottom political: the poems are the products of an artist confronted with socio-political turmoil and despotism but constrained in the ways he could respond to those circumstances. Though of course not a direct representation of “fact,” Tibullus’ poetry for Newman cannot be understood except as an expression of (a protest against) its Augustan context.

The chapter presents a remarkable breadth of knowledge and insight, although the presentation is not always designed for the “ideal” Companion reader (a non-expert on the topic), for whom fuller explication would be necessary. Overall, this chapter is more provocative than definitive. Open questions are a standard feature of the author’s analytical style, which, if potentially unsatisfying, do offer many avenues for future scholarly work, as a good Companion should do.

The Companion “reception requirement” is met within the first section of Chapter 1 (pp. 37-41), which considers the reception of Tibullus in the poetry of Fray Luis Ponce de León. The inspiration for this choice is political: Newman sees an opening for analysis in the similarity of Fray Luis’ situation to Tibullus’ Augustan context. Coming from a Jewish family, Fray Luis was an outsider and intellectual who experienced firsthand the repressiveness of the reign of Philip II of Spain. The two poets also share a response of withdrawal and mysticism. The brevity of this section precludes a full and definitive argument but nevertheless marks an important scholarly endeavor. The study of the reception of Tibullus’ poetry, especially beyond the classical period, is an area where there is work left to be done, and Newman’s here highlights what may be gained from this kind of analysis, including a better understanding of the enigmatic Tibullus himself.1

Turning from interpretation to mechanics and stylistics, Chapter 2, “The Language, Style and Metre of Tibullus” by Robert Maltby, exhibits the deep knowledge and meticulous detail that users of the author’s excellent commentary are familiar with.2 The chapter is divided into three section: (1) Background and earlier scholarship; (2) Characteristic features of Tibullus’ style; and (3) Tibullan metre. Section (1) synthesizes parts of the introduction of Maltby (2002), Maltby (1999), and Maltby (2010).3 Section (2) draws our attention to key aspects of Tibullus’ style: anaphora and other repetition; use of adjectives in an active sense that are normally passive; T.’s preference for lines that contain balanced pairs of nouns and adjectives; the use of archaic forms, such as the third-person perfect ending –ere; and the extended use of the perfect infinitive. The discussion at times goes into detail likely to appeal more to the specialized scholar, but the systematization of these persistent stylistic features will certainly be helpful for first-time readers as well, who may scratch their heads at such phrases as mixtaque securo est sobria lympha mero (Tib. 2.1.46). Maltby also offers extensive comparanda, which invite further analysis. The chapter also includes a list of words and phrases that occur for the first time ever in Tibullus’ poetry. First on the list is the reference to Rome as the “eternal city” ( aeterna urbs, Tib. 2.5.23)—a reminder of Tibullus’ significance in the history of Latin literature and the concept of Rome.

Chapter 3, “The Corpus Tibullianum” by Peter E. Knox, is dedicated to Book 3 of the Corpus, providing a full and crystal-clear overview of the collection. Knox tackles each sub-collection of poems (delineated at the start) in the order they appear in the manuscripts, discussing them in detail with extensive quotations. There is ample discussion of transmission and editorial considerations, as well as the perennial question of authorship. This chapter will provide an excellent introduction to anyone making a first foray into the so-called Appendix Tibulliana.

This volume would have benefitted from a stronger editorial hand. There are numerous errors of formatting and occasionally of spelling, including of the Latin (a few apparently due to pesky autocorrect).4 Both indexes are skimpy: the Index locorum only includes references from Chapters 2 and 3 (though not all), with no entries for (e.g.) Catullus or Propertius (though one can consult the Index nominum and find the pages in (only) Chapter 1 where they are mentioned). The two were clearly not composed in conjunction with one another and little effort has been made to reconcile them.

Overall, this short companion manages to cover a lot of ground in not a lot of space, providing all of the expected elements of a “Companion”: historical and literary context, transmission history, stylistics, metrics, models, nearer and further reception. In places, the material is presented more for a specialist reader than as a general introduction to Tibullus and the Corpus Tibullianum. That said, it does much to point us toward areas for further study of this understudied poetry, and this volume, however slim, offers a large amount of material for the next generations of Tibullan scholars.


1. Cf. the implied reading of Tibullus in the statement (p. 38): “Fray Luis’ exalted voice is evidently that of a poet who has not yielded to the sometimes dreadful pressures applied to him, threatening his whole life and personhood.”

2. R. Maltby, Tibullus: Elegies. Text, Introduction, and Commentary (Cambridge, 2002).

3. Maltby (2002), see above, n. 2; R. Maltby, “Technical language in Tibullus,” Emerita 67 (1999) 231-49; R. Maltby, “The unity of Corpus Tibullianum Book 3: some stylistic and metrical considerations,” PLLS 14 (2010) 319-40.

4. Latin: occellus for ocellus (114); consult for consul (138); discords for discordes (146); English: “provided [by] Veremans” (116); “a higher proportion of [not on] ‘weak’ caesura” (132).