Tibullus, Albius

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tibullus, Albius

Tibullus, Albius (ca. 55-ca. 19 B.c.) Roman poet

With serene elegies, Albius Tibullus, an ambassador and literary lion of Rome’s golden age of literature (83 B.C.-A.D. 17), repudiated imperial power-mongering by the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Like HORACE, JUVENAL, PROPERTIUS, and VIRGIL, Tibullus witnessed the vulgarity of prefermentseeking among Rome’s post-republican nouveau riche. Born southeast of Rome in the Sabine hills outside Praeneste (present-day Lazio, Italy) to old- fashioned parents of the knight class, he developed character and refinement, both treasured by his wealth of friends. He was 10 years old when Julius Caesar’s assassination ended the Roman Republic and initiated 17 years of civil war. He was 13 when, like others favoring the losing side, he suffered the confiscation of the Tibullus family’s estate outside Tivoli, which he mourned in verse.

A colleague of Horace and OVID and a protege of the orator Messalla Corvinus, Tibullus survived ruin and swore off striving for court distinction and affluence. At age 20, he set out with Messalla on a military mission to the Middle East, but he halted at Corcyra (Corfu) to recover from illness. He used the respite as an opportunity to write his third elegy, which mocks augury for assuring him of a successful expedition. The fiasco caused him to avoid future involvement with the army; he asserted, “Hence flags and trumpets! me you’ll never have; / Bear wounds and wealth to warriors bent on gain” (Tibullus 1872, 10). He spurned temple building and imperial sloganeering about the aeternae urbis (eternal city) and ignored Augustus’s rationale for dismantling the republic in 27 B.C. in favor of an empire. Tibullus’s death at age 36 stirred the public with sorrow and regret for lost talent. Ovid mourned him in his “Lament for Tibullus’s Death” (15 B.c.)

Tibullus’s Carmina (Elegies, 19 B.c.), a collection of pastoral dirges, declarations of love, and occasional verse, mourns the upheaval in Rome through Nemisis, a personification of fate. He reveals a languor and nostalgia nourished by withdrawal into quiet contemplation free of the contention of the empire’s climbers. He declares himself free of grudges: “The wealth and harvest-stores my sires possessed / I covet not” (9). “The Simple Life,” which opens the first book of his poems, disclaims the silk couches of the vainglorious Augustan Age and advocates a return to the lares (household gods), the domestic protectors clustered at the individual homeowner’s hearth shrine. A companion piece, the tenth elegy, repudiates bloodshed for the sake of military titles and loot. Of the victims of Rome’s disastrous civil war, Tibullus views them as pigs drawn from the sty to the sacrificial altar.


Lee-Stecum, Parshia. Powerplay in Tibullus: Reading

Elegies Book One. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tibullus, Albius. Elegies. Translated by James Cranstoun. Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1872.