Tibullus Essay - Critical Essays



Tibullus c. 55 B.C.-l9 B.C.

(Full name Albius Tibullus.) Roman poet.

Tibullus is famous as a poet of love; although he also wrote of the countryside, of war, and of his patron, Messalla, it is his passionate elegies to Delia and Nemesis for which he is best remembered. His direct and simple style, never too intrusive or challenging, made him a favorite with readers of his time. Along with Gallus, Propertius, and Ovid, Tibullus is considered a master of the elegy. Tibullus wrote two books comprised of a total of sixteen relatively lengthy elegies. His contribution to a third volume, referred to as the Corpus Tibullianum, is disputed by some scholars.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Tibullus's life and most of what is thought to be true is based on interences drawn from his poetry. Because the elegy of his time was not meant to be strictly autobiographical, it is incautious to accept too much of the information contained therein as factual. Scholars generally agree, however, that Tibullus's family was aristocratic and that he likely was born at his family's estate about twenty miles from Rome, in the district of Pedum, and that this is where he would have grown up. Although his family was wealthy, much of their property had been diminished, probably seized by the government to pay war veterans. His father died while Tibullus was very young and thus he was raised by his mother and his sister before being sent to Rome for his education. In Rome he found himself in the literary circle of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, who became his patron. Messalla and his circle were not particularly concerned with political eulogies and Tibullus, with his fondness for the elegy, fit well into the group. Messalla and Tibullus became friends and Tibullus traveled with and shared the tent of his patron during his Aquitanian campaign in Gaul about 30 B.C., serving with distinction. Around 27 B.C. Tibullus wrote a poem celebrating Messalla's victory. It was after Tibullus's return from the campaign that he met and fell in love with a woman, possibly named plania, called Delia in Book 1 (27 or 26 B.C.). A short letter published by Horace describes Tibullus as handsome and wealthy, walking in silence through the woods; this image of a brooding man walking near his country has predominates among Tibullus's biographers. Tibullus died soon after Vergil, in 19 B.C.

Major Works

In ancient Greece the elegy was not so limited as in modern times, being defined as any poem written in couplets of a dactylic line followed by a pentameter line; its subjects were many and various. By the time of Tibullus, however, the elegy was becoming the preferred means expressing intimate love, superseding the previous vehicles of choice such as the lyric and the epigram. Tibullus is credited with having perfected the form of the erotic elegy. Although Tibullus wrote poems concerning military victory and the winning of a job by Messalla's son, his most notable poems are those inspired by passion for two women he referred to as Delia and Nemesis. Fully half of the ten elegies that comprise his Book I are written to Delia, and three of the six elegies that form Book II are devoted to Nemesis; the poems reveal that Tibullus was fascinated with and dominated by beautiful women. The elegies to Delia (a married woman) indicate that Tibullus lost his desire for foreign service and for fame; all he wanted was to love Delia and tend his flocks in the country. His mood fluctuates quickly and wildly from joy to despair. Tibullus's second elegy laments that he and Delia are separated. His third elegy concerns a bout with a very dangerous illness that he developed on a campaign with Messalla and his longing to be back with Delia. His fifth elegy finds Tibullus back in Rome, but Delia has taken on a rich lover. Tibullus has tried to forget her, but in vain, by taking on another lover himself, a boy named Marathus. He prepares himself for death because he cannot have Delia's love, but dreams that one day they will reunite in the Elysian fields where lovers live eternally. The next elegy treats the return of Delia's husband and Tibullus's acceptance of reality. Although Tibullus is hurt by Delia's infidelity he does not scorn her or deny their past love. Some years may have passed before he wrote the elegies of Book II; they appear to be the work of his last years and at least one may be unfinished. The book may have been published after his death. The focus of Book II is a woman Tibullus calls Nemesis, a woman apparently sought as an act of revenge against Diana. Nemesis is a tough, wretched, and greedy prostitute with insatiable desires. Tibullus is tortured by her and her faithlessness. He cares nothing for fame or wealth, except as far as this wealth can be used in buying Nemesis's affection, for all he desires is her love. For that he will do anything, even sell his country estates, even die for her if she will but grant him one kind look. Tibullus thoroughly degrades himself but cannot get out from under her spell. The elegies to Nemesis are imbued with intense, reckless despair. His other poems, if indeed he wrote them at all, are found in a third book and are concerned with Messalla and his circle. The majority of the poems in this third book are definitely not by Tibullus, but there is still critical debate surrounding attributing some of them to Tibullus. The third book itself is sometimes divided into two books, an arrangement first made in the fifteenth century.

Critical Reception

Tibullus's poems were very popular while he was alive and continued to be read for many years after his death. Eventually his popularity diminished with more attention being paid to Ovid. During the Renaissance Tibullus was rediscovered and numerous editions of his elegies were published. The earliest surviving manuscript of Tibullus is of medieval origin, a collection of three volumes with Tibullus's name on the top. It is apparent that some of the poems are not in Tibullus's style and thus there has always been controversy as to exactly what poems were written by Tibullus himself and which were the product of others in his literary circle imitating him. Scholars now generally accept that the first two books are Tibullus's own, but that at best no more than three of the poems in the third volume are his. J. Wight Duff writes that the "charm of Tibullus lies in the winning simplicity, lucidity, and smoothness of verse which he weds to the warm outpourings of his passion and to his joy in the country." Julia Haig Gaisser asserts that, to many, Tibullus's poetry seems atypical of Latin and Augustan poetry, but that actually Tibullus does not ignore conventional elements as much as he assimilates them and expresses them in literary allusion. Most modern criticism of Tibullus concerns itself with analyzing his style and identifying subtleties and nuances in his work.

Principal English Translations

The Erotic Elegies of Albius Tibullus (translated by Hubert Creekmore) 1966

The Poems of Tibullus with the Tibullan Collection (translated by Philip Dunlop) 1972

Tibullus: Elegies (translated by Guy Lee) 1990


W. Y. Sellar (essay date 1899)

SOURCE: "Gallus, Tibullus, Lygdamus, Sulpicia" in The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Horace and the Elegiac Poets, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899, pp. 223-51.

[In the following excerpt, Sellar provides an overview of Tibullus, dismisses questions about his identity, discusses his love affairs, and compares and contrasts his contributions to the elegy with those of Horace and other poets.]

Albius Tibullus, the next to Gallus in order of time, was a considerably younger man, although the exact date of his birth is uncertain. The evidence of his epitaph by Domitius Marsus—

Te quoque Vergilio comitem non aequa

(The entire section is 9306 words.)

Arthur Leslie Wheeler (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: "Erotic Teaching in Roman Elegy and the Greek Sources. Part I," Classical Philology, Vol. V, No. 4, October, 1910, pp. 440-50.

[In the following excerpt, Wheeler outlines the Greek influence on the Roman elegists in their erotic poetry.]

The erotic teaching which pervades much of the work of Tibullus and Propertius and culminates in the Ars amatoria of Ovid is one of the most striking and characteristic features of Roman elegy. All three elegists assume the rôle of erotic expert and all three give utterance to numerous erotic precepts. Erotic teaching is, therefore, of importance to all who would understand the nature of Roman elegy. But it possesses...

(The entire section is 4484 words.)

B. L. Ullman (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: "Horace and Tibullus," The American Journal of Philology, Vol. XXXIII, 1912, pp. 149-67.

[In the following essay, Ullman analyzes two poems written by Horace to Albius and discusses the arguments against and for identifying Albius as Tibullus.]

I. Carm. I. 33 and Epist. I. 4.

Albi, ne doleas plus nimio memor
immitis Glycerae, neu miserabiles
decantes elegos, cur tibi iunior
laesa praeniteat fide.

Albi, nostrorum sermonum candide iudex,
quid nunc te dicam facere in regione Pedana?
Scribere quod Cassi Parmensis...

(The entire section is 7999 words.)

R. S. Radford (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "Tibullus and Ovid: The Authorship of the Sulpicia and Cornutus Elegies in the Tibullan Corpus. Part I," American Journal of Philology, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, Whole No. 173, 1923, pp. 1-26.

[In the following excerpt, Radford presents evidence that Tibullus's Book 11 and the second elegy of Book IV were actually written by Ovid.]

I. Introduction.

In two articles published in the Transactions of the American Philological Association,1 I have sought to show that the whole Tibullan Appendix—including also the second, third and fifth elegies of Book 1I—as well as the whole Vergilian Appendix, including the great...

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Eli Edward Burriss (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "The Religious Life of Tibullus as Reflected in His Elegies," The Classical Weekly, Vol. XXII, No. 16, Whole No. 600 February 25, 1929, pp. 121-26.

[In the following essay, Burriss outlines Tibullus's religious beliefs and describes them as practical in nature and unsophisticated.]

Tibullus was a poet, and so his attitude toward the gods is colored by the fancy of the poet.1 Against this we must set the fact that he was a farmer who knew at first hand the ritual of the country festival, and that he was reverent toward the gods of his country.

That he was an unsophisticated believer in the gods is evident; this is strange in view of...

(The entire section is 5962 words.)

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "Tibullus" in Romance in the Latin Elegiac Poets, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1932, pp. 52-80.

[In the following excerpt, Haight provides an overview of Tibullus, describing his life, background, poems, including those written to Marathus and to Sulpicia, and his role in the development of the Latin erotic elegy.]

The Poet1

Thou too, companion to Vergil,
By death most unjust was remanded
In youth to the valley Elysian,
Tibullus, that no one thereafter
Should tearfully sing elegiacs
Of love or chant wars...

(The entire section is 8767 words.)

Archibald A. Day (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: "Pastoral Elements in Latin Elegy" in The Origins of Latin Love-Elegy, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1938, pp. 76-84.

[In the following excerpt, Day examines the pastoral elements in Tibullus's elegies and the influence of other poets on their composition.]

In an earlier chapter it was noticed that in the elegies of Philetas there appears to have been a marked bucolic element, so far as can be judged from the few surviving fragments, and that the first book of the Leontium of Hermesianax was probably concerned with the tragic loves of shepherds. So that the Latin elegists, whatever they may have owed to their Greek predecessors, were at least justified by...

(The entire section is 3054 words.)

C. R. Harte (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Tibullus, Lover of Nature," The Classical Bulletin, Vol. 28, No. 6, April, 1952, pp. 67-8.

[In the following essay, Harte contends that Tibullus portrays nature as a gentle refuge from unrest, and that Nature is his real lover, not Delia or Nemesis.]

If Vergil's preeminence as a poet of Nature is undisputed, there may be a similar accord in granting second place to Tibullus, Vergil's short-lived younger contemporary. By what qualities does the gentle elegiac poet merit this by no means inconsiderable honor?

There is little in Tibullus of that reference to a particular tree, flower, or bird which contributes much to the charm of Homer,...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)

A. G. Lee (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "On [Tibullus] III, 19 (IV, 13)," in Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, No. 189, 1963, pp. 4-10.

[In the following essay, Lee explains why he considers Tibullus 1II, 19 to be the work of a skillful forger.]

In considering whether or not this poem is genuine Tibullus we have only internal evidence to go on. Internal evidence is often not conclusive enough. It is difficult to assess, and the assessment usually involves a subjective element. The ideal is to reduce this subjective element to a minimum, to appeal to logic in the way a textual critic does when he chooses one MS reading rather than another or decides to admit an emendation of the text....

(The entire section is 3375 words.)

Edward N. O'Neil (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Tibullus 2.6: A New Interpretation," Classical Philology, Vol. LXII, No. 3, July, 1967, pp. 163-68.

[In the following essay, O 'Neil considers the question of Macer's identity in Tibullus 2.6 and contends that the poem refers not to a journey, but to a literary plan.]

The sixth and concluding elegy of Tibullus' second book opens with the words:2

Castra Macer sequitur: tenero quid fiet Amori?
sit comes et collo fortiter arma gerat?
et seu longa virum terrae via seu vaga ducent
aequora, cum telis ad latus ire volet?
ure, puer, quaeso, tua qui ferus otia liquit

(The entire section is 3395 words.)

J. K. Newman (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Augustan Elegists: Ovid: Manilius," Collection Latomus, Vol. LXXXVIII, 1967, pp. 365-420.

[In the following excerpt, Newman contends that Tibullus's popularity among ancient readers stemmed from reworking cliches, not in being sincere or autobiographical.]

…Tibullus is a striking proof of Tronsky's thesis about the folly of trying to make elegy autobiographical. We know from Horace1 that Tibullus was handsome, wealthy, with a taste for luxury and country life and mild philosophical speculation (tacitum silvas inter reptare salubres/Curantem quidquid dignum sapiente bonoque est—4-5). Tibullus's first book begins—


(The entire section is 3661 words.)

Herbert Musurillo (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Theme of Time as a Poetic Device in the Elegies of Tibullus," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 98, 1967, pp. 253-68.

[In the following essay, Musurillo describes Tibullus's portrayal of time as subtle, subjective, and blurred but notes that the poet shows much ability to control distinctions between past, present, and future.]

The early Greek poets had no strict concept of time, nor should we expect them to. Homer, however, beautifully portrays the poignancy of passing youth and the young warrior's strength that diminishes with age, and he loves to dwell on old men's reminiscences of their past deeds of...

(The entire section is 6188 words.)

Edward M. Michael (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: An Introduction to The Poems of Tibullus, translated by Constance Carrier, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 7-31.

[In the following essay, Michael provides an overview of Tibullus and his work, including analysis of his themes and the nature of his amorous love.]

Tibullus wrote elegies, but not in the modern sense of the word. For us an "elegy" implies a sad and meditative poem written in a country church-yard. The mood defines the poetic form. But in ancient Greece and Rome "elegy" was defined only by its metrical form—a series of alternating dactylic hexameters and pentameters. Its themes and moods could vary. It is hardly necessary to...

(The entire section is 8278 words.)

R. J. Littlewood (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Symbolic Structure of Tibullus Book I," Latomus, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, July-September, 1970, pp. 661-69.

[In the following essay, Littlewood examines the structure of Tibullus's Book 1, describing it as harmonious and logical.]

The last twenty-five years of Classical scholarship have seen such great advances in the study of structural symmetry and its significance in the works of the Augustan poets that now there is no longer any doubt that this aspect of artistic ingenuity was a recognised concept of Augustan art1. It is here of considerable importance to note that the structural harmonies involved are always subtly devised not only to produce a...

(The entire section is 3491 words.)

Michael Putnam (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Simple Tibullus, or the Ruse of Style," Yale French Studies, No. 45, 1970, pp. 21-32.

[In the following essay, Putnam asserts that Tibullus's simplicity is purposefully deceiving and that his understated stance disguises a "poetics of action."]

Of the three surviving elegists of the Roman Augustan age, Tibullus is little read, less appreciated. Propertius fascinates by his intensity, his gnarled propulsion of idea which forces careful attention to the process as well as the wholeness of a poem. Ovid's facile warmth and smooth irony win ready admirers. With Tibullus praise was not always so faint. A younger contemporary of Virgil (he died the same year, 19 B....

(The entire section is 4247 words.)

Julia H. Gaisser (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Tibullus 1.7: A Tribute to Messalla," Classical Philology, Vol. LXVI, No. 4, October, 1971, pp. 221-29.

[In the following essay, Gaisser discusses Messalla, a Famous Roman general and patron of Tibullus, and contends that Tibullus 1.7 is best read as a tribute in which Messalla is equated with Osiris.]

The central problem in the interpretation of Tibullus 1. 7 is to determine the meaning of the hymn to Osiris and its relation to the rest of the poem.1 A secondary, problem is to account for the exceptionally large number of literary allusions and echoes from other poets.2

The solution that I should like to propose is that...

(The entire section is 5228 words.)

C. Campbell (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Tibullus: Elegy 1.3," Yale Classical Studies, Vol. XXIII, 1973, pp. 147-57.

[In the following essay, Campbell argues that Tibullus has been incorrectly interpreted by many critics due to the use of faulty criteria in their evaluations.]

One of the most frequent errors made by critics who would defend Tibullus' poetry is the acceptance of the very standards of judgement which led earlier critics to attack it. Because they continue to ask the same, wrong questions about a poem, they should not be surprised to arrive at the same, wrong answers. The resulting conflict between an intuitive admiration for Tibullus and a negative judgement based upon the observation...

(The entire section is 3699 words.)

Michael C. J. Putnam (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: An introduction to Tibullus: A Commentary, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 3-13.

[In the following essay, Putnam provides an overview of Tibullus, considering his life and his poems' subjects, order, style, and meter.]

Documentation for the life of Albius Tibullus is meager.1 If we may trust Ovid's list of elegists—Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, and himself—as chronological, then Tibullus' birthdate would logically rest somewhere between 60 and 55 B.C.2 An epigram, attached to the manuscripts and ascribed to Domitius Marsus, points to contemporary death dates for Vergil and Tibullus. This would place his demise not long...

(The entire section is 3898 words.)

Robert B. Palmer (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Is There a Religion of Love in Tibullus?," The Classical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 1, October-November, 1977, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Palmer contends that the strength of Tibullus's poetry results from his use of antitheses and syntheses.]

Ever since 1905 when F. Jacoby's article on origins appeared, numerous attempts have been made to reduce the Latin love elegy to a limited series of motifs and topoi which were then referred back to their apparent sources in Hellenistic poetry or before.1 Behind this search often lay the unspoken assumption that the identification of these motifs and their sources would eventually produce the...

(The entire section is 5549 words.)

Francis Cairns (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Informing," in his Tibullus: A Hellenistic Poet at Rome, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 144-65.

[In the following essay, Cairns explains how Tibullus conveys information in his poems.]

[The conveyance of information] is a vital part of exposition, since without knowing the situation the audience cannot understand the poem. This chapter will examine how Tibullus gives such information.… In a narrative poem the reader must follow the story-line to understand the poem, including any elaborations, descriptions, similes and digressions. But the whole story is not told at the beginning: new facts and incidents are introduced regularly...

(The entire section is 10458 words.)

Guy Lee (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: An introduction to Tibullus: Elegies, third edition, translated by Guy Lee, revised in collaboration with Robert Maltby, Leeds: Francis Cairns (Publications) Ltd, 1990, pp. ix-xxii.

[In the following essay, Lee describes some of the chief merits of Tibullus's poems.]

The reader who comes to Tibullus from the love poetry of Ovid will be surprised to discover in parts of his work a distinctly Ovidian tone. The Consultation with Priapus (1.4) in which the grotesque fertility god treats the poet to a brief lecture on the art of pederasty in elegantly balanced couplets is evidently intended to shock and to amuse and its unexpected conclusion to raise a laugh...

(The entire section is 5517 words.)

Further Reading


Harrauer, Hermann. A Bibliography to the Corpus Tibullianum. Hildesheim, Germany: Verlag Dr. H. A Gerstenberg, 1971, 90p.

Aims to "offer a complete list of the literature on the Corpus Tibullianum since the year 1900." Also suggests sources on motifs, style, language, and meter.


Bulloch, A. W. "Tibullus and the Alexandrians." Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, No. 199 (1973): 71-89.

Attempts to demonstrate that Tibullus's "superficially uncomplicated style is thoroughly informed … by the writings of his Hellenistic predecessors."


(The entire section is 667 words.)