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The Complete Poems of Tibullus An En Face Bilingual Edition

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Tibullus has left us just sixteen elegies. Their subjects are various: love (of the fickle girls Delia and Nemesis and of the equally fickle boy Marathus), hatred of war, praise of his friend and patron, Messalla Corvinus, the pleasures of rural simplicity, a celebration of Rome. His poems glide easily, some would say dreamily, from theme to theme, moving almost like a slide show through apparently random images and musings. The ancient critic Quintilian considered Tibullus "the most polished and elegant" of the Roman elegists. He is also the most artful. His randomness and dreaminess are carefully created illusions; the elegance and polish so admired by Quintilian are achieved with intention and consummate skill. Tibullus's artistry is more subtle than that of the other elegists-we could almost call it clandestine. Propertius, notoriously difficult, displays his learning and emotional complexity with allusions to Callimachus, jumps in thought, and elaborate mythological exempla. Ovid is smooth and ostentatiously clever-a witty master of language who is self-consciously playful both in and out of season. Tibullus, by contrast, never advertises. He is as learned and witty as either of his fellow elegists, and with emotional depths of his own, but his is the art that conceals, rather than reveals, its powers. He is a poet in whom everything seems accessible, on the surface-and in whom there is always more to discover.

We know almost nothing about Tibullus's life. His family name was probably Albius. His first name is unknown. He perhaps had a villa near the old town of Pedum, not far from Rome. He was probably born between 55 and 48 B.C.E., and according to the verses of the Augustan epigrammatist Domitius Marsus, he died not long after Virgil, sometime after September of 19:

You were still a young man, Tibullus, but unjust Mors

Sent you to the Elysian Fields as Virgil's companion,

That none should be left to weep soft loves in elegies

Or to sing battles of kings in powerful measures.

Ovid provides a longer epitaph; his lament in Amores 3.9, both witty and moving, is translated below in the appendix. Tibullus claims to be poor ("Let my poverty direct me through a lazy life," he says in Elegy 1.1.5); but he was by no means indigent. Horace calls him handsome and rich: "The gods have given you good looks; the gods have given you wealth and the art of enjoyment," he reminds Tibullus in Epistle 1.4.6-7. An ancient life of the poet identifies him as a Roman eques or knight, a rank of very high social standing and requiring a minimum property qualification of 400,000 sesterces. Perhaps Tibullus's property was less than that of his ancestors, as he asserts in Elegy 1.1, and it may well have suffered in the land confiscations of the 40s and 30s, although he does not say so; but then as now it was a convention for poets to be poor: in the previous generation, for example, the wealthy Catullus claimed a "purse full of cobwebs" (Carm. 13.8). Like most young men of his class, Tibullus would have been expected to undertake a public career, the first step of which would have been serving on the staff of a general or provincial governor. In Tibullus's case the general turned out to be Valerius Messalla Corvinus, under whom he served on at least one campaign, as he tells us in Elegies 1.3 and 1.7. He found the military life uncongenial (see especially Elegies 1.1 and 1.10), but in his poetry he celebrates Messalla as both a great man and a friend.

The World of the Roman Elegists

Tibullus lived in what the old Chinese curse would call "interesting times." He was just a child when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44, but he would have been old enough to be well aware of (and no doubt affected by) the terrible violence and upheavals that ravaged Italy for many years while the warring triumvirate of Octavian, Lepidus, and Antony battled first the assassins and then each other as they struggled for supremacy. He grew up surrounded by civil war, proscriptions, confiscations of land, and countless acts of random and intentional violence. As a young man he would have seen the end of the struggle and the beginning of the new order that would be called the Augustan age. Octavian finally defeated Antony in the battle of Actium in 31; he inaugurated his regime with the celebration of a triple triumph in 29 and took the title Augustus in 27.

Whatever else it was, the Augustan era was an age of brilliant poets. Virgil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid all produced masterpieces in the first decade or so of the new regime. The short period from 31 to 19 saw Virgil's Georgics and Aeneid, Horace's Epodes, three books of his Odes, and the first book of his Epistles, Tibullus's elegies, three books of Propertius's elegies, and the first edition of Ovid's Amores. All these poets were influenced by the struggles of the 40s and 30s and the final concentration of absolute power in Augustus.

Virgil (b. 70) and Horace (b. 65) lived through the whole period as adults, and both the trauma and their complex responses to it are reflected in their poetry of the 40s and 30s. Virgil grieves for the land confiscations in his poignant Eclogues 1 and 9 but also treats Octavian as a god in Eclogue 1 and Georgics 1 and 3. Horace despairs of a society torn by civil war in Epodes 7 and 16 but celebrates the battle of Actium in Epodes 1 and 9. At some point in the 30s both poets came to the notice of Maecenas, who was Octavian's partisan and agent but also a highly cultivated student of poetry. They enjoyed Maecenas's friendship and support for the rest of their lives (he gave Horace his famous Sabine farm), but the extent of his direct influence on their work is unclear. Maecenas undoubtedly talked to them about Octavian's (later Augustus's) political and cultural aspirations, but he did not dictate the way they approached the themes of their poetry. The poems of Virgil and Horace in the 20s praise the new imperial Rome and its princeps Augustus, and do so in nuanced ways that evoke different and often completely opposing interpretations from modern readers. The Aeneid and the Odes are sometimes seen as triumphalist (some would say sycophantic) glorifications of Augustus's achievements, sometimes-and this is particularly the case with the Aeneid-as dark appraisals of them. In fact, these works of Horace and Virgil are indissoluble compounds of praise, sadness, hope, and loss-just as we might expect from poets of their genius and sensibility who had lived through dark days of violence and disorder to see the imposition of a stable, productive, and absolutist peace.

Tibullus and Propertius came of age only with the beginning of the new era. Ovid, born in 43 (the only one of the Augustan poets to be born after Caesar's assassination), was not yet a teenager at the time of Actium. All three began their literary careers in the 20s, and all in the genre of elegy. To put it another way, we could say that elegy was the genre of the poets who started their careers under the new regime.

Elegy is a very broad category: regardless of subject, any poem in elegiac couplets longer than eighteen or twenty lines or so is ipso facto an elegy. The genre was used by Greek poets of both the archaic and Hellenistic periods, as well as by Catullus in the 50s B.C.E. The particular form found in the Augustan elegists is different from both its Greek and its Catullan antecedents but has elements of both in its DNA. We would be in a better position to understand its origins and development if we had the work of its earliest practitioner, the fourth Augustan elegist, Gaius Cornelius Gallus (d. 27/6). Gallus (b. 70 or 69), a contemporary of Virgil, began writing in the 30s and perhaps as early as the late 40s, producing four books of elegies to a woman he called Lycoris (an actress named Volumnia Cytheris, who had also been the mistress of Antony). Gallus was an important and influential poet (Virgil honors him in Eclogues 6 and 10, for example); but unfortunately only ten verses of his poetry survive-too little to give more than a few hints of his contributions to the genre.

The best way to understand why the Augustan elegists chose their genre is to see what they did with it. Although each elegist is different, the genre has certain defining characteristics.

Its principal theme is love of an unattainable or only rarely attained woman, always called a "girl" (puella), who has other lovers. The subject is a genetic inheritance from the Lesbia poetry of Catullus, but it is radically transformed in elegy. Catullus depicts an adulterous affair with an aristocratic Roman matron, Clodia, for whom he uses the metrically equivalent pseudonym Lesbia. Lesbia is named for Sappho, the great poet of Lesbos, and Catullus suggests that she shares the elegance and literary taste of her namesake. He presents himself as an emotionally engaged but painfully disillusioned lover, broken by her careless promiscuity but unable to break away. As he says in Carmen 85:

I hate, and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do this.

I do not know, but I feel it happening, and I am in torment.

Elegy takes place in a different world. Its girls are not slumming aristocrats like Lesbia but courtesans, stock characters derived by way of Gallus's Lycoris from the courtesans of comedy and mime. Like Lesbia, most have names with a literary flavor. The name Lycoris is derived from Lycoreus, a cult title of Apollo, the god of poetry. Propertius's Cynthia takes her name from a place associated with Apollo, as does Tibullus's Delia. (Apollo was born near Mount Cynthus, on the island of Delos.) Although Tibullus deviates from the pattern with the ominous name of Delia's successor, Nemesis, Ovid's girl is named for the Greek poet Corinna. Lesbia and Lycoris were pseudonyms of real women, but the girls of Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid are literary creations. Propertius's Cynthia is fiery and tempestuous, a force to be reckoned with; but the characters of the others are sketched very lightly. Delia is soft and perhaps a little timid, Nemesis ruinous, Corinna almost a blank. Although the elegists do not emphasize the point, the girl is not respectable: as Paul Veyne puts it, "she is one of those women one does not marry."

In addition to the all-important girl, the cast of erotic elegy includes two principal supporting characters that we can also trace back to comedy and mime: a rival, always richer than the poet, and a female go-between called a lena. The rival is often the girl's current protector, in which case he is called her "husband" (vir or coniunx). This is the situation Tibullus imagines in Elegy 1.2, in which he urges Delia to elude those watching over her and slip out of the house for a rendezvous. In Elegy 1.6 he urges her "husband" to be more alert; Delia is betraying both of them with a third party (Elegy 1.6.15-16):

But you, heedless husband of a deceiving girl,

Watch out for me, too, lest she stray.

The "husband's" position, like Tibullus's, is inherently shaky. In Elegy 1.5 Tibullus has been supplanted by a rich lover, but things may already be about to change (Elegy 1.5.69-76):

But you, who now feel so sure, be wary of my lot.

Fickle Fors turns on a nimble wheel.

Someone even now, and not in vain, stands in the doorway,

Eagerly looks here and there, makes to withdraw.

He pretends to be going home. Then before you know it

There he is at the very door, alone, clearing his throat.

Secret love ever plots. Be advised: take pleasure while you may.

Your skiff is swimming over calm water's sway.

The lena ("bawd") acts as the girl's agent, advisor, and go-between. She represents the girl's economic interests, usually promoting the claims of the rich rival at the poet's expense, as Tibullus complains in Elegy 1.5.47-48:

This has brought me harm: her rich lover is at home

And the crafty bawd has occasioned my ruin.

He goes on to load the lena with extravagant mouth-filling curses for another ten lines. In Elegy 1.6, however, he sees her in a different light-this time she is on his side. He does not call her a lena in this poem (the elegists reserve the word for pejorative use); but she plays the part just the same. This time the go-between is none other than Delia's own mother, and the lover reminds Delia of her kindly services (Elegy 1.6.57-64):

Your ancient mother's

Golden self touches me and soothes my wrath.

She leads you to me in the shadows and joins our two hands

In silent secrecy, quite terrified.

By night she waits for me, rooted outside in the doorway,

Knows the sound of my step as I approach from afar.

Live long, my sweet crone! I would like, were I able, to share

With you a few of my allotted years.

The girl, the lena, the rich rival-these are all stock figures from comedy. The lover, too, has a comic antecedent, the foolish youth smitten with the girl, yet too ineffectual to attain her without massive assistance from other characters. But the elegiac lover retains only a few traits of his comic prototype. He is not just part of an ensemble of stock characters, but the star. He is not so young and not nearly so foolish as the imbecilic youth in comedy, and there is no clever slave to help him. Unlike the comic lover, he has other interests-principally poetry and (especially in the case of Tibullus) choosing the best way to lead his life. We will explore these interests in more detail presently. For now it is enough to say that in spite of its comic elements, elegy is a radically different genre, and the complex character of the elegiac lover constitutes a major part of the difference.

The lover in elegy is besotted with his demanding and faithless girl, but the poetry is really about him-his preoccupations (including but not limited to love), his friends, his perspective on the age. We would make a mistake, however, if we believed that the elegiac lover exactly represents the thoughts and feelings of the elegist. No doubt he has some (perhaps many) points in common with his creator, but we can never know which ones. It is better to see him as a persona (or "mask"-the literal meaning of the word) of the poet than to try to match his character and experience with those of the real Tibullus or Propertius or Ovid. The world he lives in has even less relation to reality. It is almost an alternative universe. It is anchored in Augustan Rome and could exist in no other time or place, but its ties to historical reality are fairly loose. Although it touches on the contemporary world and sometimes refers to it directly, it is a separate space, the elegist's creation.

The elegiac world is a counterpart of another alternative landscape, the pastoral world that Virgil presented in the 40s and 30s in his Eclogues. Both worlds are imaginary; both set themselves apart from historical reality, and both are affected and defined by that reality. The two worlds and their genres differ in several ways. In pastoral there are many speakers with different and sometimes competing perspectives (there are roughly 16 singers in the ten Eclogues), whereas elegy is dominated by a single first-person speaker and a single ego, focused on himself and expressing just one perspective: his own. Both worlds are conventional, but each employs a different set of conventions. Virgil's pastoral world features sensitive shepherds, singing matches, and an isolated and sympathetic landscape. The elegiac world includes, in addition to a cast with comic antecedents, a set of attitudes that we might lump together under the rubric "elegiac morality." This morality challenges and sometimes even inverts traditional Roman values. It is based on three related tenets: rejection of the active life in favor of the lover's pursuits, love as a military campaign (militia amoris), and love as slavery (servitium amoris).

Elite men were expected to be active in the service of Rome in politics or war or both; failure to engage in worthwhile endeavor (negotium) was decried as inactivity (otium), and devotees of such inactivity were seen as idle or useless. Catullus, himself inactive in public life, had already played with the contrast a generation earlier; but although he describes himself as idle (otiosus) in specific situations (Carm. 10.2, 50.1), he by no means glorifies idleness as a general condition (Carm. 51.13-16):

Idleness, Catullus, is your problem;

In idleness you are excited and restless.

Idleness before now has ruined kings

And rich cities.

The elegists, by contrast, choose idleness over activity as a way of life, but using different terms. For them the active life is specifically that of a soldier (militia); they describe themselves not with the Catullan adjective otiosus (a relatively neutral word that we can translate as both "idle" and "with time on one's hands") but as iners or segnis or desidiosus ("slothful," "worthless," "lazy"), more pejorative terms that can also suggest feebleness or passivity. They often bring this convention together with that of love as a military campaign (militia amoris), preferring arduous campaigning on the erotic front to traditional warfare. It is more congenial to their sensibility, but hardly idle, they claim, since it involves hardships of its own. Such hardships are particularly involved in their voluntary slavery (servitium) to their girl, whom they call domina. The word is correctly translated "mistress," but the elegists use it in a very specific sense: the mistress or owner of a slave. Significantly, Catullus never uses it in this way to refer to his Lesbia. He loves her dearly, but he is not her slave. No elite Roman before the elegists would so abase himself, but the topos is an essential hallmark of the genre.

The three elegists play with the conventions of elegiac morality in different ways. In Elegy 1.1 Tibullus touches on all three of its tenets. To the career of a soldier with its booty and glory he prefers both a quiet life in the country and devotion (and slavery) to his mistress (Elegy 1.1.5-6):

Let my poverty direct me through a lazy life [vita ... inerti]

As long as a steadfast flame gleams upon my hearth.

Messalla can adorn his house with the spoils of victory, but Tibullus is chained to his girl as her watchman or doorkeeper, a position reserved for slaves (Elegy 1.1.53-58):

Messalla, for you it is right to make war on land and sea

So that your house display the enemy's spoils.

But the bonds of a beautiful girl bind me fast,

And I sit, a watchman before unyielding doors.

I care nothing for fame: my Delia, as long as I am with you

Slacker [segnis] I want them to call me, and a shirk [iners].

Love has its own battles, he boasts (Elegy 1.1.75): "Here is where I am a good soldier in chief!" Propertius takes a similar position in his Elegy 1.6.29-30:

I was not born suited for glory, not suited for arms:

The Fates wanted me to enter this service [militiam].

Ovid devotes an entire elegy to the militia amoris, not contrasting but equating it with the life of a soldier (Amores 1.9.1-2, 46):

Every lover is a soldier, and Cupid has his own camp;

Believe me, Atticus: every lover is a soldier.

If a man refuses to be lazy [desidiosus], let him love!

But although love is its most conspicuous feature, elegiac morality also functions on two other levels: as a serious counter to the contemporary Augustan ethos and as an assertion of the elegists' identities and aspirations as poets. The essence of elegiac morality is its insistence on privileging private life over public concerns, and the elegists' rejection of the vita activa expected of men of their class is to some extent a political statement. But it is by no means a simple statement. Complex and nuanced, the stance varies from poet to poet and poem to poem, and even within individual elegies. By choosing to represent the active life by only one of its elements, warfare (militia), the elegists were able to use the convention militia amoris to pivot or move in the three dimensions of love, politics, and poetry-often simultaneously. Militia amoris makes a neat point of contrast between the lives of the lover and the soldier but also between two kinds of poetry: personal (generally with love as its subject) and public (on military or national themes). It makes a contrast, in other words, between elegy and epic. This contrast, too, has a political dimension, but the lines are not always clear. Both Tibullus and Propertius wrote elegies on national themes; Ovid's Amores avoids them. But the contrast is also important as a self-conscious literary statement, for it identifies the elegists as devotees of learned Alexandrian poetry, which traced its pedigree back to Callimachus, the great scholar-poet of third-century Alexandria, and was taken up in Rome by Catullus in the 50s B.C.E. and by Virgil in the 40s and 30s. The ideals of Alexandrian poetics are highly complex, but important among them are an insistence on polish and learned allusion and a preference for elegant small-scale poetry over long epic.

The elegists' most conspicuous use of militia amoris as a political or poetic statement (or both at the same time) is in what is called a recusatio, or refusal to write epic. Propertius and Ovid both play with it, each in his characteristic manner: Propertius with ostentatious Callimachean references and Ovid with self-conscious wit. In Elegy 2.1.39-46 Propertius refuses to turn from love elegies to celebration of Caesar (Augustus):

Neither would Callimachus thunder from his narrow chest

The Phlegraean struggles of Jupiter and Enceladus,

Nor is my heart suited to tracing Caesar's line back

To Phrygian ancestors in harsh verse.

The sailor tells of winds, the farmer of his bulls;

The soldier counts his wounds; the shepherd, sheep.

But we count battles turning on our narrow bed.

Let each waste time at what he's best.

Propertius's position is both political and literary, but Ovid makes a case (if we can call it that) that seems purely literary. In the first poem of the Amores he claims that he was actually writing a martial epic when Cupid intervened and turned his epic into an elegy (Amores 1.1.1-4):

I was getting ready to publish arms and savage wars

In high verse-the subject suited to the measures.

The second verse was as long as the first. Cupid laughed

And snatched away one of its feet.

Cupid's metrical theft makes Ovid's second line into a pentameter, changing his epic hexameters into elegiac couplets and turning the poet into an elegist. He complains that he has nothing to write about in his new meter (Amores 1.1.19-20):

I have no subject suited to lighter numbers,

Not a boy, not a girl with tresses done up in a knot.

Cupid remedies the omission with his arrow, and Ovid accepts his fate (Amores 1.1.27-30):

My work rises in six feet, falls back in five;

Farewell, iron wars, along with your measures.

Bind your blond hair with sea-born myrtle,

Muse counted out in eleven-foot lengths.

Tibullus, by contrast, presents no overt recusatio. He does not explain what he refuses to write but rather presents what he chooses to write. He uses the same tenets of elegiac morality as his fellow poets, but he keeps his poetics (both Callimachean and political) under the surface of his poems. We will look more closely at his Alexandrianism presently. As for the politics of his poetry, for now it is perhaps enough to say that he celebrates the public achievements of Messalla and his family and that he writes no epics. He leaves these facts and his use of the elegiac conventions to tell us why.

Elegy was useful to its poets on a number of levels. It was an ancient genre that had always allowed for a wide variety of subjects and attitudes, both personal and political. Although ostensibly modest in comparison with the loftier genres of epic and tragedy, it had valuable Alexandrian antecedents: it was the preferred mode of Callimachus. The Callimachean principles of learning, exquisite technique, and minute attention to style had dominated Roman poetry for a generation; elegy with its Alexandrian credentials was well placed to follow in the tradition, but as a fresh genre for a new group of young poets. Most important, however, elegy provided a new space for poetry in Rome after Actium. The world of elegy-private not public, insisting on its own modest position, and floating above political realities like a balloon tied just here and there to the ground-allowed the poets both to stand apart from the new dispensation and to respond to it selectively and on their own terms.


The Tibullan corpus as we have it is small: just two short books of Tibullus's own poetry, together with a group of poems by other authors that were added at some point in antiquity. Of this group only the elegies and epigrams of Lygdamus and Sulpicia are included in the present volume. The entire collection fills only 75 pages in the Oxford Classical Text (the elegies of Tibullus himself take up just 46). Propertius's four books, by contrast, fill around 190 pages; the three books of Ovid's Amores, 100. Tibullus's writing career was short, only about a decade or so at most, between Actium and his death around 19; but that fact alone cannot account for his slender production. The nature of his art was undoubtedly also a factor. Tibullus was an extraordinarily careful and fastidious poet who paid meticulous attention to the artistic nuance of every word-a point that emerges from close reading of the elegies and one abundantly demonstrated by the literary-critical studies of modern scholars. Minute care on the level shown by the elegies is inherently time-consuming-and in the best tradition of Roman Alexandrianism, which placed a high value on what we could call "slow poetry." Tibullus's own temperament and intentions must also have played a role, but here we have no hard biographical or stylistic evidence, only an impression (one can put it no more strongly than that) drawn from the elegies themselves. Tibullus presents himself (whether frankly or somewhat disingenuously we cannot be sure) as a poet writing to suit himself and a small (perhaps very small) group of friends rather than as one seeking to establish himself with a wide audience. Propertius and Ovid present themselves as looking for readers and fame and keep themselves in the public eye with dozens of poems. Tibullus, not claiming these ambitions, could afford a more leisurely timetable.

Ovid tells us that Tibullus is the earliest of the surviving Augustan elegists (Tristia 4.10.51-54):

Virgil I only saw, nor did the mean Fates grant

Tibullus time for my friendship.

He was your successor, Gallus; Propertius came next,

And after these I was the fourth in the series.

Most scholars have disagreed, awarding priority to Propertius, but the question has been reopened in an important recent article supporting Ovid's chronology. Debate will surely continue, but the important point for the present discussion is that both Tibullus and Propertius were writing elegies very soon after Actium-in both cases as early as 30/29. Individual elegies of both undoubtedly circulated soon after their composition, and we can be sure that the two poets read and responded to each other's work. The close correspondence in thought noted earlier between Tibullus's Elegy 1.1 and Propertius's Elegy 1.6 is a good example of such a response. (Scholars will disagree about which poet started the dialogue.)

At some point in the early 20s Tibullus gathered ten of his elegies and issued them as a book. A second book of six poems, perhaps cut short by his death, was issued around 19 or so. The two books treat similar subjects (love, Messalla, the joys of a quiet life in the country), but they differ in important details, and especially in tone. The second is much darker, as we will see presently. Tibullus's variety of subjects immediately distinguishes him from the other elegists, especially from the Propertius of Books 1 and 2, with his nearly single-minded focus on love. But love is only one of Tibullus's major themes-and not just one love, at that. In Book 1 he celebrates both Delia and the boy Marathus; in Book 2, a cruel girl called Nemesis. Propertius, by contrast, loves only his Cynthia. As he says at the end of Elegy 1.12 (verses 19-20):

It is not right for me to love another or to stop loving her.

Cynthia was the beginning; Cynthia will be the end.

In publishing his first book as a collection of ten Tibullus was following a model established by Horace's first book of Satires and Virgil's Eclogues in the previous decade: a carefully articulated collection so patterned that its whole would have greater meaning than the sum of its parts. Virgil is the closer model-framing his varied themes in a remote world both imaginary and yet somehow touched by historical reality, celebrating and lamenting both homosexual and heterosexual love, creating a symmetrical structure that is both unmistakable and yet resistant to diagram. Tibullus works in a similar way in Book 1. Elegies 1.1 and 1.10 are the frame, setting Tibullus's longing for life in the country and the pleasures of love against the claims and demands of war. But the symmetry is not absolute. In Elegy 1.1 Tibullus rejects war for life in the countryside; in 1.10 he is being dragged off to battle and prays to the Lares, his ancient household gods, to protect him. The elegy ends with an appeal to Peace (Pax), who is not just an abstract idea but a goddess (Elegy 1.10.67-68):

But, kindly Pax, come here to us. Grasp the corn stalk.

May your bright bosom brim with fruit, where'er you walk.

The book revolves around Tibullus's lovers Delia and Marathus, or it may be better to say that it moves from the one to the other: Delia figures in Elegies 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.5, and 1.6; Marathus interrupts the Delia sequence in 1.4 and reappears in 1.8 and 1.9. The two sequences suggest rather than tell stories, each moving from hope of attaining the lover (Elegies 1.1-4) to despair and disdain (Elegies 1.5, 1.6, 1.8, and 1.9). The Marathus sequence comes to a harsher end than the Delia. In Elegy 1.6 (the last Delia elegy) Tibullus reminds Delia of the pain and poverty awaiting an unfaithful woman in old age but withdraws the threat at the last minute (Elegy 1.6.83-86):

Aloft on high Olympus Venus observes her in tears,

And warns the fickle just how pitiless she is prone.

Let these curses fall elsewhere, Delia. Let us each be

A model of love as our hair grows white to see.

In the corresponding Marathus elegy (1.9), Tibullus gloats that Marathus is going to get his comeuppance and promises a thank offering to Venus (Elegy 1.9.81-84):

Then may your punishment delight me, and a golden palm affixed

To my saving Venus may mark my fate:

Tibullus, released from a false love, offers this, Goddess, to you.

He asks that your kindly thoughts toward him be true.

But it is Tibullus's friend Messalla who holds the book together. He is prominently and affectionately invoked in Elegies 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, and 1.7, and Tibullus uses him to represent not only the soldier's life he rejects for himself but also the glory and greatness of that life. Elegy 1.7, though numerically slightly off center, is the centerpiece of the book. It provides a break between Delia and Marathus. (Or perhaps we should say a break between the breakups with Delia and Marathus, since Marathus appears in 1.4.) But its quasi-central position has another and more important function: to evoke the public world of war and politics in a personal way at the heart of the book. A tribute to Messalla as both general and friend, the elegy celebrates his great public achievement, the triumph, in the context of his private birthday festivity. Here again Virgil was probably the model, for he too evoked historical reality near the center of his book. Eclogues 4 and 5 sing of the hopes and fears of the triumviral period, transforming real events into pastoral visions, just as Tibullus celebrates an Augustan victory (although he does not call it that) by bringing it into the private world of elegy.

The second book also shows signs of artful arrangement, whether by Tibullus himself or by a sensitive editor after his death. Its six elegies fall into two groups that are different in genre, subject, and tone. Elegies 2.1, 2.2, and 2.5 are what we might call ceremonial narratives, in which Tibullus officiates almost like a priest, both directing and describing ritual or festive events. The poems treat a cluster of closely associated themes: the land, Messalla and his family and associates, early Rome. Their tone is one of affectionate reverence to land, friends, and ritual alike. Elegies 2.3, 2.4, and 2.6 are dramatic monologues on Tibullus's affair with Nemesis. Their tone is dark-much darker than the tone in the elegies to Delia and Marathus in Book 1-and the mood becomes increasingly bleak in the course of the sequence. Nemesis is cruel and unattainable. She cares only for gifts, and Tibullus is so obsessed with her that he is willing not only to undergo the usual servitium amoris, but even to suffer the degradation of losing his ancestral lands to satisfy her greed (Elegy 2.4.52-54):

Our Amor must be worshipped according to her rules.

Even if her order says sell the ancestral estate,

Lares, submit to her will and her command.

Tibullus bridges the gap between his two disparate groups by placing their elegies in an interlocking order: the sequence of ceremonial narratives is interrupted by Elegies 2.3 and 2.4 on Nemesis and resumes with Elegy 2.5; the book ends with a final Nemesis poem, Elegy 2.6. He also places small connectors between the groups within individual poems. Elegy 2.2 is a ceremonial narrative, Elegy 2.3 a dramatic monologue on Nemesis; Tibullus addresses both to Cornutus. Near the end of the ceremonial elegy 2.5 Nemesis makes a cameo appearance (2.5.109-18) that leads into the erotic elegy 2.6.

Tibullus's lovers come and go: in Book 1 Delia and Marathus; in Book 2, Nemesis. But Messalla is the essential constant throughout, although he seems more remote in Book 2-now less the subject of direct address than of oblique and respectful reference. He is invoked only in the ceremonial narratives. In Elegy 2.1 Tibullus addresses him as if he were a god, toasting him in his absence and looking to him for inspiration for his hymn of thanksgiving to the rural gods (Elegy 2.1.31-36):

But Here's to Messalla! may each and every one say to his cups.

Let every word reecho the name of him away.

Messalla, famed for your triumph over the Aquitani,

Conqueror, glory of your unshorn forebears,

Be present here, and lend me your spirit while we render

Thanks to the farmers' deities with our song.

In Elegy 2.2 Messalla is evoked only indirectly, through the celebration of the birthday and marriage of his friend (and perhaps kinsman) Cornutus. In Elegy 2.5 Tibullus celebrates the induction of Messalla's son Messallinus into the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books in 21 B.C.E. Messalla himself is named only at the end of the elegy, when Tibullus, predicting a future triumph for the young Messallinus, imagines Messalla proudly witnessing the event (Elegy 2.5.119-20):

Then let my Messalla sponsor entertainment for the crowd,

And, as father, applaud when the chariot passes by.

Both books of the Elegies show Tibullus as a consummate craftsman deeply steeped in both the subjects and the techniques of Greek and Roman Alexandrian poetry. Unlike his Alexandrian predecessors and contemporaries, however, he displays no interest in what we might almost consider the distinguishing feature of Alexandrian poetics: claiming a place in the poetic tradition. All the other Alexandrians, from Callimachus on through Catullus, Virgil, Horace, and the other Augustan elegists, present themselves in an artistic continuum-sometimes praising or blaming fellow poets, sometimes claiming artistic descent from great predecessors. Propertius calls himself the Roman Callimachus (Elegy 4.1.64); Ovid lists his place in the succession of elegists (Tristia 4.10.51-54). Tibullus alone never mentions the name of another poet.

The boy Marathus is Tibullus's most obvious Alexandrian subject; coy and venal, he has numerous antecedents in Hellenistic epigrams and especially in the Iambi of Callimachus. The themes associated with Marathus also have Alexandrian parallels. In Elegy 1.4 Tibullus receives instruction about how to win him from a speaking statue of Priapus (an Alexandrian motif). In Elegy 1.8 Tibullus poses as the instructor and urges the girl Pholoe to accommodate Marathus. The scene is worthy of Hellenistic iambus or mime, as is that in Elegy 1.9, where Tibullus complains that his boy has defected to a disgusting old man for the sake of gifts.

Tibullus's poetic techniques are Alexandrian at almost every level. Here we can consider only a few examples. In Elegy 1.7 he enhances his celebration of Messalla's birthday and triumph with echoes from Callimachus, Ennius, and Catullus, placing them in the text almost like birthday surprises to add to Messalla's enjoyment of the poem. Messalla was a highly cultivated man with a connoisseur's knowledge of Greek and Latin poetry. Spotting the allusions would have amused him, but that would have been only part of the game; when he identified the source and context of each one, he would see a witty compliment, for each celebrates a great athletic, military, or mythological hero. The quotations from Callimachus come from poems celebrating the athletic victories of Sosibius, the minister of Ptolemy IV; the echo of Ennius, from a passage leading up to the military victory of the Roman admiral L. Aemilius Regillus; and the echo of Catullus, from the song of the Parcae predicting the feats of Achilles in Catullus's Carmen 64.

Tibullus can also use allusion to shape an entire poem. In Elegy 1.3.3-4 he is alone and sick far from home on the island of Corcyra, which he calls by the Homeric name Phaeacia-a learned identification seemingly also made by Callimachus:

Sick, in the clasp of Phaeacia's unknown land, I pray:

Black Mors, unclasp your grasping hands.

With the single word Phaeacia Tibullus brings us into an elegiac Odyssey with himself as the stranded Odysseus and Delia as a most improbable Penelope. Odysseus paid a visit to Hades (Odyssey 11). Tibullus pictures himself in an elegiac Underworld where Elysium is populated by lovers and Tartarus by those guilty of crimes against love, including his rivals for Delia (Elegy 1.3.57-82). The poem ends with a prayer to Delia to be faithful until his safe return (Elegy 1.3.83-94):

But, I beseech you, keep chaste, and may your attentive nurse

Stay by you always to guard your modesty.

Let her tell you stories, and when the lamp is lit,

Let her guide down long strands from full distaff,

While bit by bit the servant girl, intent upon her weighty work,

Grows drowsy, then slips slowly off to sleep.

Then may I suddenly arrive, with no warning ahead.

May my presence seem to you sent from heaven above.

And, just as you are, Delia, long hair all tangled

And feet bare, hurry and run to me.

May Aurora then bring us this Lucifer-this I pray-

Brilliant with roseate steeds, on that bright day.

The picture of Delia spinning identifies her as chaste, for spinning was seen as a typical activity of virtuous women, whether they were honorable Roman matrons ("she made wool" is a frequent phrase in epitaphs) or faithful mistresses in comedy and elegy. But the scene also evokes Penelope's famous weaving and her joyous recognition of the returned Odysseus. With Aurora and her "roseate steeds" (Elegy 1.3.93-94), which recall the famous Homeric phrase "rosy-fingered Dawn," Tibullus brings his Odyssey to a close.

Tibullus's learned care is also evident on a smaller scale, in individual words and phrases. It appears in his sound patterning and word order, but above all in his extensive use of etymological wordplay, which has been defined as "explicit reference or implicit allusion to the etymology of one of the words a poet is using." These etymologies, often shown by modern scholars to be incorrect, had a high intellectual standing in antiquity. Wordplay of this kind is as old as Homer, but it was brought to a new level by the Greek Alexandrians, scholars as well as poets, who used it especially in their aetiologies linking past myths and events with present cults and institutions. Tibullus's most famous use of it is in Elegy 2.5, his longest and most ambitious poem. The elegy celebrates Messallinus's induction as one of the priests in charge of the Sibylline Books, which were kept in the new Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill. Messallinus appears at the beginning and the end of the poem, but the long central portion treats the foundation and destiny of Rome. Framing this central portion are the passages in which Tibullus has concentrated his etymological wordplay: two accounts of the rustic festival of the Parilia, feast of the shepherds' goddess Pales, which was celebrated on April 21, the anniversary of the city's founding. The first celebration (not explicitly identified as the Parilia) occurs on the Palatine in the remote past before Romulus's foundation of the city (Elegy 2.5.23-38). The second takes place in the countryside in the present, as an indication of peace restored after the evil days of civil strife (Elegy 2.5.83-104). Both passages play on the root pa-, as in "pasture" and "pastor" (shepherd).

The first Parilia, on the early Palatine (Elegy 2.5.25-30):

At that time cows cropped [pascebant] the grassy Palatium

And lowly huts stood on Jove's citadel.

Pan, dripping with milk, took shade there under an oak,

And a wooden Pales was fashioned with rustic hook,

And the chattering pipe, sacred to the sylvan god, was hanging

On a tree, a wandering shepherd's [pastoris] offering.

The second Parilia, in the countryside (Elegy 2.5.87-88):

And the shepherd [pastor], steeped in Bacchus, will sing the festive


The second description of the Parilia, which emphasizes the fertility of crops and women, implies (but does not explicitly refer to) another important pa- etymology: parere, "produce," "give birth."

These etymologies are not mere wordplay, although they were no doubt meant to be savored and enjoyed by the reader. They underline a serious point that Tibullus makes over and over again in his poetry: the value of rustic simplicity and the worship of the old country gods. By framing the central section on the Roman destiny with the highly charged visions of fertility, piety, and a simple life underlined in the etymological complex Palatium, pascebant, Pan, Pales, pastor, Parilia (and the implied parere), he brings past and present together and suggests that the ancient values are fundamental to Rome itself.

Many of the themes of Elegy 2.5 were current in the late 20s-in the poetry of Tibullus's contemporaries, in art, and in Augustan ideology. Tibullus opens the elegy with a prayer to Apollo in his temple on the Palatine (Elegy 2.5.1-10):

Phoebus, bless us. A new priest enters your temple.

Come to us, here and now, with lyre and song.

Now strike the melodious strings with your thumb, I pray:

Now turn my words to the tunes of praise.

And with your brow bound with a triumph's laurel,

While they heap your altars, come, yourself, to your rites.

But come, shimmering and beautiful. Don, now, this raiment

Long set aside. Now comb well your streaming locks,

As in that time when, after King Saturn's rout,

They recall you sang out the glory of conquering Jove.

Apollo was Octavian's patron deity. The temple itself, which Octavian had vowed after his defeat of Sextus Pompey in 36, was built next to his house on the Palatine and dedicated in 28. It contained two statues of Apollo with his lyre. Tibullus's description of the god probably alludes to the statue of Apollo Citharoedus by the fourth-century sculptor Scopas, for it was under the pedestal of this statue that the Sibylline Books were kept. The temple is mentioned by both Horace and Propertius (Horace Odes 1.31; Propertius Elegies 2.31, 4.6).

The picture of primeval Rome at Tibullus's Elegy 2.5.23-38 has parallels in both Virgil and Propertius. In these cases, as in Tibullus, an essential point of the description is to contrast the primitive site of the city with its present aspect. Here is Tibullus in Elegy 2.5.55-56 (the speaker is the prophesying Sibyl):

Now while you may, bulls, feed on the grass of the Seven Hills.

Presently a great city will arise here.

Descriptions of early Rome were nothing new; they had been a favorite topic of Roman antiquarians in the previous generation. But they came to prominence in the 20s, largely as a consequence of Augustus's ambitious building program, which dramatically changed the aspect of the city and invited comparison with its simpler past.

The Sibyl's prophecy about the foundation of Rome (Elegy 2.5.39-64) is reminiscent of similar prophecies in the Aeneid, but it is unnecessary to claim direct influence, since the general outlines of the Aeneas legend were well established. The more important point is that the story was of current interest in the 20s and that poets could handle it in different ways. The closest parallel to the prophecy in Elegy 2.5, which the Sibyl gives directly to Aeneas himself, is Jupiter's prophecy to Venus in Aeneid 1.257-96. Both prophecies guarantee Aeneas and the Trojans a home in Latium and victory over the Rutulians. Both prophesy Aeneas's divinity, Ascanius's foundation of Alba Longa, and the birth of Romulus and Remus; and both include a grand vision of empire. In the Aeneid Jupiter says of Romulus's Romans (Aeneid 1.278-79):

I place no boundary of space or time on their achievement.

I have given them empire without end.

Here is Tibullus's Sibyl (Elegy 2.5.57-60):

Rome, your name strikes awe in the countries you will rule,

Where Ceres gazes down from heaven upon her fields,

Where Sol's risings open, and where the Ocean stream washes

His breathless horses in its rushing waves.

In Virgil the link between the Julian line and that of Aeneas and Ascanius (Iulus) is explicit (Aeneid 1.286-88):

A Trojan Caesar will be born of glorious pedigree,

Who will bound his empire with Ocean, his glory with the stars,

Iulius, a name handed down from great Iulus.

Tibullus draws the connection more obliquely-not in a prophecy of Julian glory but with a list of the awful omens after Caesar's assassination (Elegy 2.5.71-78).

The themes that we have looked at in Elegy 2.5 are generally described as Augustan, as are various ideas that Tibullus uses throughout his poetry: the virtues of simple country life, celebration of traditional festivals, family life, and the continuity of the generations. All these ideas were important in Augustan ideology. But scholars have often suggested that Tibullus was somehow opposed or resistant to the Augustan regime. The argument is usually based on two points: the fact that Tibullus never mentions the name of Augustus, and the idea that he was deferring to the political views of Messalla, who has often been characterized as either anti-Augustan or at least independent in his ideas. But the perception about Messalla's position is incorrect. Both Messalla and his sons were well placed in the Augustan establishment. Messalla was consul with Octavian in 31. After Actium he was awarded joint possession with Agrippa of Antony's house on the Palatine. He was given a triumph in 27, and he enjoyed other honors in the 20s, including election to the ancient and highly prestigious priesthood of the Arval Brethren, recently revived by Augustus. Messallinus was chosen as one of the priests in charge of the Sibylline Books and went on to celebrate a triumph of his own in 11 C.E. In omitting the name of Augustus, then, Tibullus was not deferring to the political stance of Messalla, but perhaps he was still respecting his wishes. Great aristocrats like Messalla befriended poets not in order to have them celebrate others (not even Augustus) but to publicize themselves and secure their own place in history. In employing Augustan themes Tibullus was able to celebrate Messalla by association, since he was so well placed in the regime. At the same time he was able to draw on a complex of ideas that was rich in artistic possibilities for every poet of his generation.

Lygdamus and Sulpicia

Tibullus's elegies have come down to us together with a number of poems by other authors. The Tibullan corpus contains Books 1 and 2 of Tibullus, six elegies by Lygdamus, the Panegyric of Messalla (a long poem in hexameters praising Messalla), the Garland of Sulpicia (a group of five epigrams on the love affair of Sulpicia and Cerinthus), six epigrams by Sulpicia herself, and an elegy and epigram falsely purporting to be by Tibullus. The collection was put together at an unknown date, but almost certainly by around 350 C.E. Originally it consisted of three books (the two by Tibullus and a third with the work of the other poets), but at some point in the fifteenth century, scribes divided the third book into two, beginning a fourth book with the Panegyric of Messalla. Since some editors follow the original division into three books and others the later division into four, it is conventional to supply both sets of numbers for the poems of the fourth book. Thus, Sulpicia's poems are numbered 3.13-18 (= 4.7-12).

At least five or six different poets seem to be represented in the Tibullan corpus. Of these, three are associated with Messalla: Tibullus, Sulpicia (Messalla's niece and ward), and the anonymous poet of the Panegyric of Messalla. Tibullus and Sulpicia were members of the circle of Messalla; the personal relation, if any, between Messalla and the poet of the Panegyric is unknown. The connection of these poets with Messalla has led scholars to believe that the collection as a whole is to be associated with him and that all the poets were members of his circle. From this idea it is only a small step to the suggestion that an ancient editor found the various poems in the family archives of Messalla and assembled them into our present collection. The idea, as attractive as it is, has been disputed by recent scholars, some of whom would date both Lygdamus and even the Panegyric of Messalla to the end of the first century C.E. The jury on the question is still out.


The identity of Lygdamus is unknown. His name appears only once in his elegies-in the epitaph he imagines for his tomb (Lygdamus 2.29-30):

Here Lygdamus lies. His cause of death was grief,

Of his wife, Neaera, painfully bereft.

His poems contain only one clue about his life. In his fifth elegy Lygdamus describes himself as a young man (Lygdamus 5.15-16) and goes on to give the year of his birth (5.17-18):

My parents first beheld my hour of birth the day

When each consul fell by one and the same fate.

At first sight the couplet suggests that Lygdamus was born in 43, the year in which the consuls Hirtius and Pansa both fell at the battle of Mutina. But the clue creates more problems than it solves, for Ovid gives his own date of birth in exactly the same words (Tristia 4.10.6). It is possible that both poets were born in 43 B.C.E., but it is very unlikely that they would have chosen the same words to say so unless one was imitating the other. If Lygdamus is the imitator, we would have to date his poem after the publication of the Tristia (that is, after 11 or 12 C.E.); if he was born in 43, that would make him fifty-five or fifty-six years old when he wrote the elegy, hardly the young man he claims to be in lines 15-16. There are only two answers to the conundrum that would square with both Lygdamus's claim of youth and a birth year in which two consuls fell. The first possible answer is that Ovid is the imitator and that both poets were born in 43. The second is that Lygdamus is the imitator but he is dating his birth not to 43 but rather to another year when two consuls perished: 69 C.E., when the consuls Servius Sulpicius Galba and Titus Vinnius were assassinated. To put it another way, Lygdamus is to be dated either to the Augustan period or to that of the Flavians, over a century later. There is as yet no scholarly consensus on the matter.

Lygdamus has a major point in common with the other elegists: his preoccupation with love. He celebrates Neaera, a cruel and faithless mistress cut from the same piece of cloth as Tibullus's Delia and Nemesis, Propertius's Cynthia, and Ovid's Corinna. Neaera is the subject of five of his six elegies; in the remaining poem, he treats another favorite elegiac subject, his sickness and dread of death (Lygdamus 5).

But Lygdamus's differences from the other elegists are as conspicuous as his similarities to them. Like the rest, Lygdamus uses a pseudonym for his mistress, but, unlike the rest, he also uses one for himself-a striking departure. He has chosen a name that identifies him as a slave (Propertius's Cynthia had a slave called Lygdamus, and the name is attested in inscriptions); but of course he is not a real slave, only a slave of love in the usual servitium amoris. The pseudonym was perhaps intended to invite speculation about his real identity; and modern scholars have accepted the invitation, trying (in vain) to identify him with everyone from Tibullus and the young Ovid to Ovid's brother, one of Messalla's sons, and even Cynthia's slave Lygdamus. But the important point is simply the pseudonym itself: Lygdamus, whoever he was, differed from his fellow elegists (and other Roman poets) in seeking anonymity rather than fame.

His elegies do not sketch the usual elegiac story that moves from happiness to disillusionment, despair, and ultimate separation. There are no happy moments in Lygdamus: he is separated from Neaera from first to last. The familiar elegiac conventions are missing. Apart from a brief reference to the servitium amoris in Lygdamus 4.65-74, there is no hint of elegiac morality: no militia amoris, no justification of the lover's avoidance of the vita activa, no argument for writing on love rather than war. Even the usual elegiac cast of characters is strangely reduced: there is no lena, and even the rival is barely in evidence. He appears only indirectly, when Apollo appears to Lygdamus in a dream to announce that Neaera is unfaithful (4.57-58):

Neaera the beautiful, extolled through your songs,

Prefers to be the girl of another man.

In the lines quoted above Lygdamus uses the usual elegiac terminology in which the poet calls his mistress puella ("girl") and her protector vir ("man" or "husband"). But elsewhere he deviates from the standard pattern, using the language of marriage for himself and Neaera. He calls their relationship "marriage"(coniugium), himself "husband" (vir), and Neaera "wife" (coniunx)-terms never used in this sense by the other elegists of themselves and their mistresses. In the other elegists the terminology of marriage is used for the girl and her protector, not for the girl and the poet.

Lygdamus's elegiac world is different from that of the other elegists: in its lack of the standard conventions, in its reduced cast of characters, and in its terminology for the lovers. But it differs in another major respect as well: it contains no reference to historical reality. Its only characters are Lygdamus and Neaera and a few unnamed friends. Everything in it is a fiction, including the name of the poet himself. But reality was essential to the other elegists: the world of their poetry was a space anchored, however loosely, to contemporary Rome and providing both an alternative and a response to it. Lygdamus's world, by contrast, is neither affected nor defined by anything outside itself.


The Tibullan corpus contains two groups of poems associated with Sulpicia. The poems of the first group, often called the Garland of Sulpicia, are the work of an anonymous poet of uncertain date who writes about the love affair of Sulpicia and Cerinthus, sometimes as a friendly observer and sometimes in the voice of Sulpicia (3.2-12 = 4.2-6). The poems of the second group, translated in this volume, are the work of Sulpicia herself (3.13-18 = 4.7-12).

Sulpicia is a remarkable figure in Roman literary history, for she is the only woman of the classical period writing in Latin whose works have survived. We are fortunate in knowing something about her, although not nearly enough to give a full portrait. Apart from Tibullus himself, she is the only poet in the Tibullan corpus who can be identified. Like Lygdamus, she mentions her name only once, but unlike Lygdamus, she is very specific. She is "Servius's daughter, Sulpicia" (Sulpicia 4.4). In Sulpicia 2.5 she calls Messalla "kinsman." The two references tell us exactly who she is: the daughter of Servius Sulpicius Rufus, who was married to Messalla's sister Valeria. Her pedigree on both sides is socially and intellectually impeccable. The importance of her connection with Messalla is obvious, but her father's family were also highly cultivated Roman aristocrats. Her father was a distinguished orator; her grandfather, another Servius Sulpicius Rufus (consul in 51), had been a famous legal scholar.

Sulpicia's extant work consists of six epigrams totaling just forty lines in all. Like the elegists, she writes about love, and like them she uses a pseudonym for her lover. She calls him Cerinthus but tells us almost nothing about him. His character and identity remain as shadowy as those of any elegiac puella, and he is named only twice in the epigrams (Sulpicia 2.2, 5.1). The epigrams are very artfully ordered, whether by Sulpicia herself or by a later editor. They are arranged not to tell a story but to move from public to private revelation. In the first epigram Sulpicia proclaims to the world that she and her lover have consummated their love. The poem is programmatic, announcing not only that the speaker is a woman but that everything that follows will be colored by the fact of the sexual relationship proclaimed at the beginning. In the last epigram she addresses only her lover, confessing that she had left him the night before in order to avoid confessing the extent of her passion (Sulpicia 6.5-6):

... last night I left you all alone

In my desire to mask my burning flame.

Epigrams 2 and 3 are a pair: in 2 Sulpicia complains that Messalla is taking her to the country so that she cannot spend her birthday with Cerinthus; in 3 she will be able to stay in the city after all. In epigram 4 she scornfully castigates her lover for unfaithfulness, and in 5 she worries that he is not concerned enough that she is sick.

Sulpicia's epigrams are short (the longest has ten lines), but they are anything but simple. She packs a lot of ideas into a small space, often articulating the complicated connections between them in an equally complicated syntax. Here is the first couplet of her opening poem (Sulpicia 1.1-2):

At last a love has come such that repute of having hid it

Would shame me more than had I laid it bare.

There is a great deal going on in these lines: not just that Sulpicia has experienced love and wants to tell about it, but the importance of "repute"-what people will say about her hiding or telling it, and how the "repute" will be more shameful to her if she hides it than if she tells it. The convoluted and rather unpoetic language slows us down, forcing us to think through and try to grasp the meaning behind it. For a similarly complex combination of thought and syntax, see the translation of Sulpicia 6, below.

Sulpicia's work is generally dated to the late 20s B.C.E.-that is, to the heyday of Roman elegy-and it certainly contains familiar elegiac elements, particularly the centrality of the lover's emotions, the celebration of a beloved under a pseudonym, the presentation of both happiness and betrayal. But the combination of her gender and her social class makes it impossible to place her comfortably in the elegiac cast of characters. Sulpicia calls herself puella in three of the epigrams (2.3, 3.1, 5.1), but her pedigree makes her far closer to Catullus's Lesbia (so often called puella) than to the working girls of elegy.Since she is the poet, it is better to think of her in the role of the elegiac lover, with Cerinthus cast as the pseudonymous puella. But Sulpicia has not simply given us an elegiac affair with the sexes reversed. Almost every line in the epigrams demonstrates the impossibility of such a simple substitution and reveals the great distance between the agency and choices of an aristocratic young woman like Sulpicia and her male counterparts. A female elegiac lover must do things differently.

The world sketched for us in the epigrams is one of both privilege and constraint, each dependent on the other. Sulpicia comes from a great family-a position that both fortifies and limits her. She shows the inbred haughtiness of the aristocrat in reminding the unfaithful Cerinthus just who she is (Sulpicia 4.3-4):

The toga and a whore, weighted with wool's creel, may be your

Greater concern than Servius's daughter, Sulpicia.

Her position notwithstanding, however, the self-determination so important to the male elegists is unavailable to Sulpicia. As we see in her second epigram, she cannot choose even where to spend her birthday; that is a decision for Messalla. When he accedes to her pleas in the end, she rejoices to be permitted to do what she wants (Sulpicia 3.2):

I am allowed to spend my birthday now at Rome.

The self-determination of her male counterparts largely consists in their espousing elegiac morality-choosing private over public in life as in poetry. Sulpicia, a young woman sheltered and watched over in her uncle's care, can have nothing but a private life that she has no part in choosing. Nonetheless, we may still see her as following the elegists but invoking a different kind of self-determination, the only one open to her. If the active life was de rigueur for men of Sulpicia's class, modesty and care of reputation were the appropriate life for women. As we have seen, the male elegists reject or at least play with society's expectations, substituting their own choices, which are also choices about poetry. Sulpicia may be doing something similar in her own realm when she plays on the idea of reputation in her program poem. Let us look again at the opening couplet (Sulpicia 1.1-2):

At last a love has come such that repute of having hid it

Would shame me more than had I laid it bare.

Society would expect a young woman like Sulpicia either not to be spoken of at all or else to be spoken of but little and in the highest possible terms; but Sulpicia rejects that expectation. She wants the "repute" not only of having consummated her love but also of having bared the fact to the world. Like the elegists, she is expressing a choice that is about poetry as well as life; the "repute" that she has in mind is not only what will be said about her but also the fame that will be won by her poetry.