Roman Elegy

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Roman Elegy

by Tibullus and Propertius


Poems set in the city of Rome or the Italian countryside in the late first century bce; first published in Latin between 28 and 16 bce


Written in a prescribed meter, the Roman elegy Is usually about a male speaker’s tempestuous love for an unattainable and unfaithful woman. She is a woman of dubious social standing, to whom he figuratively enslaves himself.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The Poems in Focus

For More Information

Albius Tibullus was born sometime between 55 and 48 bce in the town of Gabii or Pedum (20 miles east of Rome) in the area of Latium near the Tiber River. Members of the equestrian or ancient Roman business class, his family suffered in the land confiscations of 41-40 bce, which were conducted to reward war veterans. Possibly while acquiring an education at Rome, Tibullus met the older poet Horace, who may have introduced him to the statesman and seasoned military man Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (c. 32 bce). As a trusted advisor to the Roman emperor Augustus, Messalla wielded great influence. He was also a devotee of Roman literature. He quickly recognized Tibullus’ poetic talents, and the two forged an enduring friendship. They forged a professional relationship too—a literary circle developed under Messalla’s patronage, one centered on the reportedly handsome young poet. Tibullus proceeded to accompany Messalla on a military campaign to Aquitania, part of Gaul (today’s France), and wrote a poem (27 bce) in honor of his patron’s triumph there. Around this time Tibullus also published his first book of elegiac love poems, which is dominated by his affair with a fickle, luxury-loving lady called Delia (whose real name—if indeed she existed—may have been Plania). After the campaign in Gaul, Tibullus ventured to the East with Messalla, only to fall ill along the way and be left behind. A recovered Tibullus retired to his country estate on the Italian peninsula. Horace says that at this point Tibullus grew withdrawn and melancholy. He released a second book of poems (c. 19 bce) about a greedy courtesan referred to as Nemesis (“Avenging Goddess”), who again may be based on a real woman or may be a female construct. According to an epigram by Domitius Marsus, Tibullus died in 19 bce.

Sextus Propertius was born between 54 and 47 bce to an aristocratic family in Asisium (modern-day Assisi) in the Italian region of Umbria. Like Tibullus’ family, Propertius lost land in the confiscations carried out to compensate war veterans. The poet had a sad boyhood. His father died shortly after the Perusine War of 41-40 bce (an unsuccessful revolt against the land confiscations). His mother proceeded to raise him for a public career. To this end, she had him educated in law at Rome, but Propertius, supposedly of a pale complexion and frail constitution, discovered he had poetic talents and turned instead to literary pursuits. He moved to Esquiline Hill (one of Rome’s seven hills, on its eastern side), where he remained, only rarely leaving the city thereafter. In contrast to Tibullus’ withdrawal, Propertius filled his days with urban social pleasures. He seems to have had an unhappy, passing fancy for a lady known as Lycinna before meeting Cynthia, on whom much of his poetry centers. It was Cynthia who inspired his debut book of poetry, Cynthia Monobiblos (29 or 28 bce;


What makes a poem an elegy is its meter or rhythm. The elegiac meter consists of couplets (pairs of lines) made up of one six-beat line known as a hexameter followed by one five-beat line known as a pentameter. The five beats, more properly known as “feet,” consist of two two-and-a half-foot measures. Each foot is a dactyl (long syllable followed by two short syllables) or sometimes a spondee (two long syllables).

Cynthia, the Single Volume). The book met with an overwhelmingly positive response, bringing Propertius to the attention of Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, a great literary patron and the chief cultural advisor to Emperor Augustus. There are no references in Propertius’ poetry to any event after 16 bce. The scope of his poetry is more diverse than that of Tibullus; his later books (3 and 4) include elegies on the current events of his day as well as on ancient or mythological matters. But along with Tibullus, Propertius is best remembered for developing a new form of poetry, one that features love as the sole experience that gives life meaning.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

Octavian becomes Augustus

In 43 bce, three key figures—Mark Antony, Octavian (the future emperor, who would be renamed Augustus), and Lepidus—formed the Second Triumvirate. This body of three rulers held absolute power for five years at a time (the first term would be renewed). All three had been supporters of Julius Caesar before he was assassinated by, among others, the statesmen Brutus and Cassius. After defeating them at the Battle of Philippi in 42 bce and forcing Lepidus to take an appointment in Africa, Antony and Octavian began to vie for sole power. Antony’s family fought Octavian unsuccessfully in a bloody siege at Perusia while Antony was away in Egypt. But direct confrontation between the two was delayed by the Pact of Bundisium (40 bce), which split the empire, giving Octavian the troubled west and Antony the rich east. To seal the bargain, Antony, whose first wife, Fulvia, had died, married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. There was a period of cooperation, during which the two rulers negotiated a treaty (at Misenum near Naples) with Sextus Pompeius, who controlled Sicily and Sardinia and was blocking the importation of grain to Rome. Although Octavian and Antony solved this pressing problem together, their cooperation was short lived. Each of the two leaders wanted to consolidate his own separate powers and become the sole ruler of Rome’s burgeoning empire.

Antony allied himself to the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. In so doing, he aimed to enlarge Rome’s empire to include Egypt and in this way match an achievement of the earlier imperial leader Alexander the Great. Becoming personally as well as politically attached to Cleopatra, Antony conceived children with her (while still married to his Roman wife Fulvia). Meanwhile, in Rome, Octavian became embroiled in a scandal of his own when he divorced his wife, Scribonia, and married Livia Drusilla, a dignified, intelligent, beautiful woman who was six months pregnant at the time. His able general Agrippa put down some rebellions in Gaul and, with Antony and Lepidus, defeated Sextus Pompeius for good in 36 bce. Making the most of his reputation as Julius Caesar’s heir and adopted son, Octavian presented himself as a deserving descendant and took credit for the military victories, gaining recognition as the savior of the west. At the same time he instigated a fierce propaganda campaign against Antony and Cleopatra, portraying the queen as a threat to the Roman state and Antony as her puppet. Octavian brought the rivalry to a head in Rome by disclosing the contents of what was probably a forged document: in this document, Antony, in case of his death, named Cleopatra’s son Caesarion the true heir of Julius Caesar. On the heels of this disclosure, Octavian stripped Antony of his right to command and declared war on Cleopatra. The Romans rallied behind Octavian—all Italy, he later glowed, volunteered their allegiance to him.

In 31 bce, at Actium in Greece, Antony and Cleopatra assembled a massive but in reality ill-prepared force to fight Octavian’s troops at sea. The battle was stunningly brief. A portion of Antony’s troops fought and finally surrendered to Octavian, while Cleopatra and Antony escaped. A year later, when Octavian defeated their forces in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. Their deaths left Octavian in control not only of Rome but also of Egypt with all its wealth.

Returning to Rome in 29 bce, Octavian celebrated a splendid triumph (honorary procession). Wisely he deferred any attempt to solidify his powers or define his true role in the government. Then, in 27 bce, Octavian made a dramatic and shrewdly planned gesture: he resigned his powers and formally returned them to the Senate and people. A shocked and grateful Senate reacted by voting to give him control of the major provinces and by gracing him with many honors; it was at this point that they renamed him Augustus, which means “revered one” or “deserving of reverence.” Twice more, in 23 and 19 bce, Octavian redefined his relationship to the government, each time expanding his powers and eventually taking on the title princeps (“first or chief citizen”) to mask what amounted to a monarchical role. After 500 years as a republic, Rome had shifted into one-man rule under an emperor, a type of regime that would endure in the West for almost 500 years.

The Augustan morality project

Once Octavian—renamed Augustus—had settled into his expanded powers in 19 bce, he inaugurated a return to traditional religious and social values. He aimed to promote morality and civic pride and to connect his regime with the venerable past. Augustus wished to be remembered not only as a great ruler, but also as a shaper of social values. This goal was in part self-serving. Only the maintenance of the highest moral standards could justify increased Roman imperialism; world domination could then be touted as the “duty” of the morally superior. Augustus’ moral-improvement project also justified his increasing personal control of government. To these ends, Augustus restored temples, revived rituals, and resurrected ancient religious offices. He also passed legislation to regulate marriage and promote families.

In large part, these laws were passed to combat a falling birth rate and an overall decline in morality. The absence of men, fighting for Rome in distant lands, may have encouraged unstable marriages and greater female independence. Divorce grew more common among the upper classes. Also upper-class women began to act in a more assertive and sexually liberated manner than ever before. By conventional standards, women were supposed to exhibit the virtues of pietas (loyalty to traditional religion), fides (faithfulness in marriage—which was to continue even after a husband’s death), and puditicia (modesty, especially irreproachable sexual conduct). The very fact that Roman women were being urged by the Augustan legislation to practice these virtues suggests that a considerable number had been violating them.

Augustus may have proposed some moral legislation in the previous decade, perhaps as early as 27 bce. A poem by Propertius suggests that an earlier law compelling men and women to marry and have children had been passed but then rescinded. But probably Augustus was just testing the waters with these proposals, since no other ancient source mentions such a law. In any case, Propertius’ poetry makes his attitude toward such legislation very clear:

Cynthia delights, certainly, that the law has been lifted,

Those edicts we once cried so much over,

Afraid they’d separate us.

(Propertius, The Complete Elegies, book 2, poem 7, lines 1-3)

The subsequent “Julian” legislation concerning marriage and family was part of a cluster of laws put into effect the following decade, in 18 bce. The next year Rome held the Secular Games, a traditional festival of games and sacrifices to celebrate the passage of 100 years and, in this instance, the birth of a new age, a moral renaissance. Addressed mainly to the ruling classes (the aristocracy and equestrian or business class), the Julian laws sought to have women make the most of their childbearing years. The laws made marriage mandatory for men aged 25 to 60 and for women aged 20 to 50. Divorced or widowed women had to remarry within six to twelve months, and fathers could not obstruct their children’s marriages. Marriages between Romans and ex-slaves, otherwise known as freedmen or freed-women, became permissible for all but senators’ families, though prejudices no doubt continued to exist. Some laws tried to rein in extramarital affairs, while others encouraged women to raise a family—an endeavor that many doubtlessly saw as a civic duty. The government introduced incentives, such as tax relief for those with large families, while the unmarried and childless could not inherit or bequeath property. Interestingly, Horace, Virgil, and various other Roman writers, though unmarried and childless, were given some of the same privileges as a citizen with three children. The reasoning was that these writers’ works extolled the social and moral responsibility that the laws aimed to instill.

The Julian laws, like much else during Augustus’ reign, were experimental—they combined a return to the past with innovation. Augustus risked much in instituting them, for some actually went against revered traditions. Examples are the ideal of univira (that a woman should have only one husband and remain faithful to him even after his death) and the practice of patria potestas (that a father had complete control over his children, including the power to determine when and whom they married). The Julian laws therefore provoked a strong reaction. Only in 18 bce, after the legislators made some concessions, such as prolonging the time allowed for remarriage after a husband’s death, could these laws go into effect. And even then, they continued to meet with so much protest that further modifications had to be made in 9 ce.

Major conventions of the Roman love elegy

The history of the Latin elegy begins in the first century bce, when a set of innovative poets turned away from traditional Roman norms to embrace the Greek culture associated with Alexandria, Egypt. The Alexandrian school seemed to these poets—known as the neoterics, or “new poets”—to provide a superior model for life as well as art. While almost every standard feature of Latin love elegy can be traced back to Greek models, the neoterics modified the Greek elements to create their own independent form. Indeed, elegy became the one genre in which the Romans could challenge the Greeks.

Early Roman love elegy was built around certain poetic conventions and motifs. The central convention was the figurative enslavement of the lover to the beloved, who behaved as a dominating mistress, controlling her paramour and the relationship, even though she was the poet’s social inferior. Such a relationship reversed the normal pattern of male dominance and female submissiveness in Roman society and so implied a life of degradation and self-debasement on the part of the poet. In fact, nothing could have been more contrary to ancient ethics than a man enslaved by his passion for a women. Traditionally women were considered not only inferior to men but also in need of taming and teaching. The Romans as well as the Greeks depicted women stereotypically—as unruly, spiteful, and/or treacherous. Although other, more positive images of women existed as well, this damaging one endured.

The poet’s atypical kind of love affair was only one aspect of his resistance to established Roman values; he also rejected military duty and public service for a life of leisure (otium). Yet paradoxically, the poet employed the vocabulary and concepts of conventional Roman society to describe his unconventional relationship. He styled his liaison with his mistress a conjugal relationship, associating it with (or lamenting the absence of) traditional Roman ideals, such as modesty and fidelity. Similarly, while the poet repudiated military or civil service, Tibullus in particular often depicts the poet as “a soldier of love.” The perils and vagaries of the love affair are equated with those of war.

Roman elegiac love poetry also had a didactic or instructive strain. The poet often assumed the role of a teacher of love, a praeceptor amoris, whose numerous, often failed experiences as a lover could help others. Thus the narrator of the love elegy, which is always written in the first person, has a dual role: the teacher is distinct from the naive lover. While the teacher has acquired knowledge which benefits others, the lover continues to suffer and is even comic in his lack of know-how.

In love elegies, the poet’s love affair is his whole life: love is his very reason for being. Also the beloved and poetry are typically identified with each other. Insofar as the poet’s mistress is his inspiring Muse, and hence a construct as much as a real person, she is interchangeable with the body of his writings and represents his poetics as a whole.

Finally, a standard feature of the Roman erotic elegy is the construction of an ideal world along-side the real world of first-century bce Rome. Tibullus uses the Italian countryside, in which he imagines living a peaceful, rustic existence with the beloved of his first book (Delia). Propertius, by contrast, brings into his poetry the world of mythology, in which he finds ideal parallel situations and characters.

The Poems in Focus

Contents summary—Tibullus

The two books of Tibullus’ elegies contain 16 poems. An example taken from the first book, its second poem, is a mixture of conventional love elegy motifs and themes and images unique to the poet; it is also part of the cycle of poems that focuses on Delia. Cast in the form of a lament by the locked-out lover (called a paraclausithyron), the poem is set at a drinking party and shifts its focus several times before returning to the party. Included are some standard postures of the Roman love elegy; the elegy also expresses the poet’s characteristic dream of love in the countryside.

The lament begins in line seven with a direct address, in the form of a curse, to the door that denies the poet access to his Delia: “Damn you, door!” (Tibullus in Raynor, book 1, poem 2, line 7). This lament may derive from a stock scene of Greek comedy in which, late at night, a drunken lover serenades his beloved through her bolted door. Many traditional elements of the Greek form are present here: the lover carries garlands, appeals to the weather, and tries to persuade the door or threatens it with violence. He also fears his beloved has been unfaithful but meets with nothing but the door’s obstinate silence and cruel obstruction. A distinctly Roman feature is the treatment of the door as a divinity: here the poet-lover offers his door-deity not just standard prayers, but prayers combined with curses that he turns back upon his miserable self: “If I just said / Harsh things, may curses light on my own head” (Tibullus in Raynor, 1.2.11-12).

The poem moves from the convention of the lament to the standard elegiac posture of the pracceptor amoris, or teacher of love. Here, instead of taking on this role directly, the poet-lover sets up Venus, the goddess of love, as the teacher of amorous skills. In the guise of receiving his own lessons in the art of love, the poet-lover is able to turn his pitiful experiences into a handbook on illicit love affairs for his readers’ benefit:

Venus teaches sorties [love strategies] out of bed,
Teaches our footsteps soundlessly to pad,
Or lovers to communicate by sighs.
               (Tibullus in Raynor, 1.2.19-22)

The poet-lover can count on instruction in love from the goddess; he can also count on her protection even on the dark and dangerous streets of nighttime Rome. He will be the conventional sacred and protected lover; thanks to Venus, not even the elements can harm him:

But Love protects me from the switch blade knife …
No frosty winter might can do me harm;
Rain falls in torrents, but I’m safe and warm.
               (Tibullus in Raynor, 1.2.25-28; 29-30)

From the reality of city life and the convention of the protected lover, follows a standard appeal to the supernatural. With the help of magic, the poet hopes to deceive his rival (a creation of the poem, not necessarily real). But a slave to his mistress, a soldier in the service of love, he does not ask to be freed from Delia’s bondage or for the power to live without her. To him, life and love are inseparable:

The sorceress claimed that she could cure me too;
Her charms and herbs could set me free—of you …
But what I prayed for was a love to share;
Life without you would be bleak and bare.
               (Tibullus in Raynor, 1.2.59-64)

From the realm of magic, Tibullus moves now to developing a contrast that recurs often in his poetry: the wealthy warrior versus the simple lover. Who would pursue war instead of love? Who would ravage the countryside rather than revel in its pastoral bliss? Only an iron-headed fool would choose war. A lover’s service is to Amor (love), not Roma (Rome). (This infamous pun— Amor is Roma spelled backwards—was nothing short of a revolutionary assertion.) The typical warmonger is greedy; he plunders for material possessions, but the countryside lover needs little to be comfortable and content: “When we are intertwined in one embrace, / Sweet sleep on the bare ground is no disgrace” (Tibullus in Raynor, 1.2.73-74). Peace, not war, and the country, not the city, are Tibullus’ distinctive refrains. While they betray nostalgia for the days before civil wars and land confiscations, the theme of peace also fits with the later Augustan times of the poet. In these later times, however, peace had become part of the machinery of political propaganda and was a condition that, in a burgeoning empire like Rome, required constant military surveillance.

The dream of a rustic, peaceful life in the country with Delia is not possible, for Delia is no country girl; rather she belongs strictly to the world of the city. The poet-lover must face this along with the fact that she has other lovers, even as he faces her unyielding door.

The poem comes full circle to its starting point and the ongoing drinking party. Now the poet-lover undercuts the seriousness of his plight with self-mockery. Let his amused drinking companion be warned: his time to suffer may come. The poet-speaker wishes his own lovesickness on his companion by using the image of the aged lover overwhelmed by Venus’ powers. Like the lament, this is a stock image from comedy that helps to counter the gloomy strain of the lover’s complaints: “But soon his wrinkled neck is in the yoke / He whistles senile ditties to the air” (Tibullus in Raynor, 1.2.90-91).

With a final prayer to the unpredictable goddess of love, Tibullus closes the elegy using a metaphor from country life: “Venus, I’ve always served you faithfully / Don’t burn your harvest [i.e. do not deny me love] in your rage at me!” (Tibullus in Raynor 1.2.97-98).

Contents summary—Propertius

In his four books of elegiac poetry, Propertius reveals himself as intensely introspective. The initial poem of his first book begins with the name Cynthia: Cynthia the lover, the woman, the book; Cynthia the inspiration and the essence of his poetry and poetics. Next the poet plunges into the standard Latin elegiac motifs of being debased and dominated by a mistress, whether that mistress is a real woman, his poetry, or a combination of the two. Either way the poet-lover is dedicated to Cynthia and to poetry and the devotion is the equivalent of enslavement. The life this fixation breeds is at odds with a Roman value system based on military service, civic duty, and male dominance. Inner turmoil has resulted too: the lover has suffered madness as well as debasement since his heart was captured by Cynthia a year ago.

The poem is addressed to Propertius’ friend and figurative counterpart, Tullus; he represents the outside world of politics and service, the world the poet himself has renounced for the private world of poetry and love. As in poetry by the earlier Alexandrian poet Callimachus, mythic examples and lessons follow. The myth here concerns the huntress Atalanta, who places seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her suitor’s path. The most common version of the myth features a footrace in which the hero wins Atalanta by dropping golden apples in her path, which she stops to pick up. Propertius draws on a darker version of the myth, in which the suitor is more aggressive. In pursuing Atalanta, he must endure many trials and slay Hylaeus the centaur, a creature with the legs and body of a horse but the chest, arms, and head of a man:

Milanion [the suitor], Tullus, by refusing no trial,
Beat down harsh Atalanta’s cruelty.
Crazed, he would wander Parthenian caves,
Head-on face hairy beasts …
So prayers and feats prevail in love.
               (Propertius in Raynor, 1.1.9-12; 16)

The exact opposite of such a suitor, the poet-lover is the artless, dull victim of a sluggish love. He “forgets” even to plod down old paths, such as the well-worn ones of traditional epic poetry; these he cannot follow because they do not allow him to express what he feels in his mad and enslaved condition.

Propertius now turns to the conventional appeal to magic and witches. Here, as in the poem by Tibullus, a sorceress has the ability to bring down heavenly bodies from the sky. This time the heavenly body is the moon, connected with the Italian huntress-goddess, Diana, who is associated with the mythical huntress Atalanta and with her real-world counterpart Cynthia. The poet-lover seeks magic to affect the woman he loves, which is no easy undertaking. The power to change her mind is tantamount to being able to rule rivers and move stars with a song from Colchis, the homeland of the legendary enchantress Medea.

But the poet’s love, it turns out, is a disease and a form of helplessness that not even magic can cure. Ultimately he can find no relief from his passion for Cynthia, no satisfactory end to his obsession with her. Not even the magical powers of poetry can save his heart, for there is no respite from the slavery of love:

Friends, you call me back too late—I’ve fallen:
Seek help for an unsound heart …
Against me our Venus wields sleepless nights
And untiring Love never rests.
         (Propertius in Raynor 1.1.25-26; 34-5)

Propertius’s poet-lover, like Tibullus’, closes with a warning for those who think they may escape the shackles of passion. Better to remain with a comfortable sweetheart then fall victim to a frenzied love. One who fails to do so will surely suffer the same incurable pain, a torment that the poet’s words have the (magical) power to elicit: “But, oh, the one my warnings touch too late—repeating my words will make him ache” (Propertius in Raynor, 1.1.37-38).

The beloved—fact or fiction?

Roman elegiac love poetry was a contrivance, more a statement of ethics and poetics than a slice of life. While the poetry seems confessional, it is only artificially so, unlike the earlier elegies of Catullus, which contain more historical elements (see Carmina , also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Although Tibullus or Propertius may have drawn on personal experience, the woman and the situations presented are typical rather than individual. This is also true of the settings. The poet creates an urbane, “realistic” world (which he then counters with a purely dream or mythic world). This realistic world is derived from the lower strata of Roman society, the strata of freedmen and women, foreigners, and various colorful and marginal characters. While the higher-class poet may have had a mistress who came from these lower strata, he sings not about his personal beloved but about the amorous life in general. He is a poet first and a lover second; the characters and scenes he creates are mostly fictional. Poetry and its conventions are what shape the love affair, not vice versa.

In the case of Delia, Tibullus says that she has a man or vir (poem 1.2). The term frequently meant “husband,” but could mean “boyfriend,” although the poet also claims that Delia is an adulteress. He further informs us (poem 1.6) that she wore neither a headband nor the flowing stola, the traditional dress of the freeborn Roman matron (married women, widows, or divorcees were matrons and wore a long dress or stola to show that they were “untouchable”). Therefore, if Delia truly did exist and was married, she was in all likelihood a woman from the lower class.

About Cynthia we are told that she changes lovers every night. Descriptions of her appearance vary from poem to poem: in one poem (2.2) she is blonde, in another (2.12) she has dark eyes, while in still another poem (2.18), the poet tells her it is wrong to dye her hair. All that remains the same is that Cynthia possesses every attraction and causes her lover excessive suffering. The many changes in her physical appearance support the notion that Cynthia should be viewed not as a real woman (though she may have been based on one) but as a composite, a type, the convenient cause of the poet’s wretched state. She serves as a poetic device; she is a literary fiction.

We do not have to look far, however, to find real women in first-century bce Rome who resembled the given type—cultivated, beguiling, and sexually liberated. The Roman historian Sallust (86-35 bce) writes about Sempronia, a noblewoman and the wife of Decimus Junius Brutus (consul 77 bce), who had many affairs and supported Lucius Sergius Catilina, the notoriously depraved aristocratic politician, in his grand conspiracy against the Roman government in 64-62 bce. Like Cynthia, Sempronia was a docta puclla (learned girl); erudite, talented, charming, and daring as well as independent, Sallust describes her as seducing and dominating all her partners.

The non-love poems

Not all elegies were love poems. In a few of his poems, Tibullus repudiates war and denounces the wealth it brings. For example, his opening elegy takes a firm stand against the traditional Roman value system, which celebrates battle and its spoils. This same antiwar sentiment is even more vehemently expressed in the closing poem of his first book:

Whoever first invented swords was more
Than merely fierce, but feral [savage] to the core!
First battles and then warfare, genocide—
A whole new way to death he opened wide.
               (Tibullus in Raynor, 1.10.1-4)


Found in Tibullus’ collection of manuscripts are six short few poems by a woman named Sulpicia, Sometimes called the “Little Love Letters of a Roman Woman,” these are the only complete poems by a Roman poetess that have survived to the present day. Perhaps it is because the ancients considered female writings less worthy of preservation that only these poems and scattered fragments of works by other Roman women still exist Sulpicia’s cycle of six poems, one of which is translated into prose below, seems to describe a waning love affair.

At fast a love has come of such a kind that my shame, Gossip, would be greater if I kept it covered than if I laid it bare. Cythera [my muse], implored by my verses, brought that man to me and gave him into my embrace … my sin is a joy, though it’s tire-some to keep a straight face for gossip’s sake. Let it be said that I was a worthy woman, with a worthy man.

(Sulpicia in lefkowitz and Fant, 3.13.1-4)

More than Tibullus, however, Propertius is known for bypassing the subject of love in order to treat current events or ancient or mythological matters. His poems encompass a far broader span of subjects than Tibullus’ collection and some of them also convey antiwar sentiments. Two such poems (1.21 and 1.22) treat the Battle of Perusia; understanding them requires some knowledge of the infamous land confiscations and their historical context.

Even before the Battle of Philippi (42 bce), at which Mark Antony and Octavian defeated the assassins of Julius Caesar, 18 Italian cities were designated for land confiscations. The confiscated lands would be redistributed to veterans as compensation for military service. Octavian was in charge of resettling not only his own veterans but also those of Mark Antony. The victims, who had their names posted on lists and their estates confiscated to provide the needed land, were not paid in any way. It was during this same period that Sextus Pompeius, in control of the large islands of Sicily and Sardinia, blocked grain importation, leaving the countryside ravaged by famine. Thus impoverished and oppressed, the region was ripe for rebellion, and the slow pace of the veterans’ resettlement only exacerbated matters. Mark Antony’s brother, Lucius Antonius, a chief official in 41 bce, became a rallying point for the disaffected and dispossessed in Etruria and Umbria, north of Rome. Lucius and Antony’s wife Fulvia took advantage of the confiscations and Antony’s absence in Egypt to maneuver against Octavian. Fulvia and Lucius urged the victims to resist the land redistribution in the name of liberty and established law.

Antony’s brother occupied Rome with an army and marched north toward Etruria, hoping to link up with troops led by Antony’s other supporters, but uncertain of Antony’s wishes, these supporters hesitated to intervene. Meanwhile, in Egypt, Antony may have thought it best not to respond to the situation in Perusia so he could manipulate the outcome (whatever it might be) to his advantage. The siege wore on until the winter of 41/40 bce, when Antony’s soldiers and the Perusians were finally starved out. With horrific bloodshed, the city fell in the spring of 40 bce and was handed over to Octavian’s troops to pillage and bum. Octavian executed the Perusian senate and had all but one of the town councilors killed. But Antony’s brother, Lucius, was spared along with his veterans, and Fulvia was allowed to escape to Athens. For his own part, Octavian had the satisfaction of controlling Italy. A few years later, Propertius, whose relative had apparently died in the siege, would conclude his first book with two short but disturbing poems (21 and 22) on the suffering in Perusia:

You allowed my relative’s limbs to go abandoned,
You cover the poor man’s bones with no earth
Neighboring Umbria, below Perusia on the plain bore me,
Fertile Umbria, productive land.
       (Propertius, The Complete Elegies, 1.22.7-10)

Sources and literary context

Like most Latin genres, the Roman love elegy derives from Greek precursors and is defined by and intimately connected with its poetic meter. The roots of elegy may reach back into the eighth-century bce, where in Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minor, short poems in the elegiac meter (sometimes of an erotic nature) were sung over wine to the accompaniment of a flute. An elegos was properly a song of lament, but most of the earliest elegies we have are not laments; the elegiac couplet was instead an all-purpose meter, and an elegy was any poem written in elegiacs.

Our earliest extant elegies are from the middle of the seventh century bce; the poets Archilochus of Paros and Callinus of Ephesus are both held to be the inventor of the form. Elegy of the erotic type, however, seems properly to have begun with another archaic Greek poet named Mimnermus, who wrote poems in the elegiac meter to express both his passion for a flute-playing girl, Nanno, and his grief at youth’s passing. The resulting book of poetry, which he called Nanno, became the prototype for subsequent collections of both Greek and Latin love poetry named after the woman on whom they focus.

It was Antimachus of Colophon on the western coast of modern-day Turkey who set an important precedent when, around 400 bce, he composed an elaborate elegy to console himself on the death of his beloved wife or mistress, Lyde, by relating the sorrowful love affairs of the heroes and gods from mythology. His innovation paved the way for the writers of elegy in Alexandria, the poet-scholars who combined romantic subjects with mythological learning.

Later writers of elegy include Callimachus (305-240 bce) and Philetas (both of whom Propertius recognizes several times in his poetry). Callimachus from Cyrene was by far the most celebrated. The most well-known of his works was the Aetia (dealing with the origins of cities, games, religious forms), whose elegies, Propertius says, furnished the pattern for his own poems. Callimachus embodied the doctus poeta or “learned poet” of Alexandria, whose art was bound up with a command of obscure knowledge. Future poets, including the love elegists, would emulate his preference for the shorter poem over the traditionally lengthy epic. In his poetry, he adopts the stance of a teacher of love that future poets would assume.

The Roman neoteric poet Catullus (c. 84-54 bce) stands out as the first ancient poet to describe in detail the progress of one deeply felt love affair, a practice imitated by his successors—Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. Catullus, who instigated a literary revolution and a moral rebellion, wrote a long poem (number 68) that is considered the model Augustan love elegy. His successor, Cornelius Gallus (69-26 bce)—only


The Late-first-century ce teacher of oratory and literary critic Quintilian said he counted four among the canon of love poets—Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. The poet Cornelius Gallus established most of the conventions of the love elegy, Tibullus and Propertius developed and refined them, and Ovid exploited them to create a new, erotic poetry. First, Gallus transformed the beloved woman from an aristocrat who was the poet’s social superior to a courtesan who was, by definition, his inferior. With this shift, the nature of the love affair changed from an adulterous liaison to a permissible, if not socially approved, relationship. Gallus’ own beloved, whom he called Lycoris, was an ex-slave, a stage actress, and a formidable courtesan—the former mistress of both Brutus and Mark Antony. In Gallus’ poetry can be found the beginnings of the standard elements of elegy: self-debasement, enslavement to a mistress who dominates both the lover and the relationship, defiance of Roman values, and the equation of poetry and love with life. By the time of Propertius and Tibullus, the beloved was becoming more symbolic and the creation of such poetry took on a game-like quality. Ovid continued to push the bounds of the convention, creating a persona who no longer styled himself as a slave to his beloved or contented himself with a single lover. Instead of adoring one lady, he vows devotion to the experience of love itself. In creating this persona, Ovid merges the knowing poet-narrator and the naїve poet-lover featured in the writings of Tibullus and Propertius into a savvy poet-narrator-lover.

a tiny fraction of whose work survives—seems to have given the Latin love elegy its distinctive character. Next came the poems of Tibullus and Propertius, followed by Ovid (43 bce-17 ce), in whose hands the love elegy would undergo a major transformation.


Tibullus was apparently quite popular in antiquity, especially among his contemporaries, as evidenced by the comments of Ho-race, Domitius Marsus, and Ovid. A bit later, the critic Quintilian is straightforward in his praise of the poet’s elegant and smooth style and in his preference for it over the writing of Propertius. In later antiquity, Ovid seems to have overshad-owed Tibullus, while in the Middle Ages he was neglected for Propertius. In the 1300s, Petrarch brought a Tibullan manuscript found in France to Italy. While the poet’s work was not immediately popular, in the early to mid-1400s the existing manuscripts were copied and Tibullus found fame again. His favor lasted into the nineteenth century when the German poet Goethe wrote his Roman Elegies, in part loosely based on Tibullus’ poetry.

Like Tibullus, Propertius enjoyed immediate success with his Cynthia Monobiblos—a success that endured for a century. The popularity of the volume is attested by the discovery of verses inscribed on the walls at Pompeii, and it was still a favorite gift in the second half of the first century ce. From the end of antiquity (c. 400 bce) until the middle of the twelfth century, Propertius seems to have gone underground; only a few, indirect allusions to his texts survive from this time. In the very early Renaissance, Petrarch was responsible for bringing a manuscript of Propertius from France to Italy; his poetry became increasingly popular thereafter. Goethe’s Roman Elegies (1795) was influenced by the poems of both Propertius and Tibullus, and in the early twentieth century, the American poet Ezra Pound wrote his famous “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (1919) Since then, Propertius has enjoyed the greater popularity.

—Christine M. Maisto

For More Information

Cairns, Francis. Tibullus: A Hellenistic Poet at Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Galinsky, Karl. Augustan Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Harrington, Karl Pomeroy, ed. The Roman Elegiac Poets. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. Women’s Life in Greece & Rome: A Source Book in Translation. 2d ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Lyne, R. O. A. M. The Latin Love Poets from Catullus to Horace. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

Ovid. The Love Poems. Trans. A. D. Melville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Propertius, Sextus. The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius. Trans. Vincent Katz. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Raynor, Diane J., and William W. Batstone, eds. Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry. New York: Garland, 1995.

Tibullus. Tibullus: Poems with the Tibullan Collection. Trans. Philip Dunlop. Harmonds worth, England: Penguin, 1972.

Wyke, Maria. The Roman Mistress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.