Tibullus:  Elegies


Albius Tibullus was born around 50 b.c. We do not know his place of birth. He apparently came from a family which was comfortably well off but not wealthy; his remarks about the diminution of his patrimony (T.I.1.19ff., 42ff) probably indicate that part of his family’s lands had been lost in the Civil Wars, when Augustus confiscated  the lands of private citizens and divided them among his demobilized troops. He early gained the friendship of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, one of Rome’s leading men and a close associate of Augustus. Tibullus took part in Messalla’s successful campaign in Gaul, and he later set out for Asia as one of Messalla’s aides-de-camp, but falling ill was left behind in Greece (as recorded in T.I.3). It is thus evident that Tibullus’s often expressed contempt for warfare did not result from inexperience of it. His civilian career as a poet was spent under Messalla’s patronage. Ancient tradition states that he “died young” and at the same time as Vergil, who we know died in 19 b.c. Tibullus’s small body of poetry (his entire work takes up less than fifty pages in modern editions) includes three different love stories. Two of these are with women:  one, Delia, is conventionally lovely, flighty, and shallow; the other, Nemesis, is just like Delia but greedier. The poet was also involved for a time with a fancy-boy named Marathus.

 The poetry of Tibullus is, on the surface, smooth, charming, and simple. Yet the simplicity is deceptive:  his apparently rambling poems turn out to be surprisingly well designed, once you unlock their secrets. Consider, for instance, T.I.3, which is worth discussing at some length  as a typical example of the genre. Tibullus is ill on the Greek island of Phaeacia, having been left there by Messalla, who must continue to his military campaign in the East. His thoughts naturally turn to home and loved ones, and this leads him to reflect on how good life must have been in the legendary Golden Age, when there was no greed or war to lure men to risky adventures. The thought of risk in turn leads to a vision of death and the afterlife. But if only I can recover, he ends, and see my sweet Delia once more!

 All this seems pleasant and natural enough, if rather loose and naive. Yet with study, we begin to perceive more elaborate designs. For example, the poem consists of diptychs. It progresses through a series of related but contrasting images: Messala leaves/Tibullus stays behind; Tibullus in Greece/family and Delia in Rome; Delia’s anxiety at Tibullus’s departure/Tibullus’s own anxiety at his departure; Delia’s past prayers to Isis/Delia’s future vigil to Isis, both contrasted with Tibullus’s future prayers to the good old Roman Lar; Golden Age/today’s wicked age; Paradise/Hell; Delia lonely and weary/Delia leaping with joy into Tibullus’s arms. These dichotomies all spring from the poet’s desperate wish that a brighter future may replace his gloomy present. They also reflect one of the oldest philosophical concepts of antiquity:  that human fortunes are mutable; that good luck and bad luck are the alternate steps by which human life walks forth; that, as the Greek poet Archilochus had said six centuries earlier, we must look beyond our individual and momentary situations and “learn to recognize the rhythmic pattern that  governs human life.” Tibullus’s poem portrays an individual human mind confronted with death trying to deal with that confrontation by placing it within this philosophical context of the universal mutability of human life.

 These philosophical and psychological considerations barely scratch the surface of this rich and complex poem. We might also note, for example, how the poet modulates between past, present, and future time by means of wishes and prayers. Thus the appeal to Death at lines 4-5 stands between the picture of Phaeacia in the present and Rome in the past, the prayer to Isis at line 27 stands between the past and the hoped-for future, and a similar pattern is maintained throughout the poem. Tibullus in this way seems to be saying something about the human will and its attempts to change the significance of the past and the possibilities of the future. Furthermore, Tibullus’s use of the Homeric name “Phaeacia” instead of “Corcyra,” the standard Latin name for the place, would remind any ancient reader that this island played a prominent role in the Odyssey. This suggests that Tibullus is envisioning himself as Odysseus: like Odysseus, he is far from home; in imagination he visits the land of the dead, just as Odysseus did in  Odyssey Book XI; and he hopes to have Odysseus’s good luck in finally returning to his dear home and faithful beloved. Much more could be said about this piece, but this partial analysis is perhaps enough to give a sample of the qualities which earned Tibullus’s poetry such a high reputation among the ancients, some of whom considered him the finest of the elegists.


Tibullus I.1


Let others toil to mass a pile of gleaming gold

   and own vast acreage of well-tilled land,

and strive in endless fear when the enemy closes in

   and the martial clarion routs them from repose;

for me, may poverty induce an idle life,

   if only my hearth glow with warmth secure!

And may I, countrified, with my own skillful hand,

   implant my young vine shoots and tall fruit trees,

and let not Hope desert us, but ever grant us heaps

   of crops and rich new wine in brimming vats.                 10

For I revere, when on some lonely rural tree

   or ancient roadside stone flowered garlands lie,

and all first-fruits the freshening year bestows, I pour

   in offering before the farmer god.

Blonde Ceres, from my farm may you receive a wreath

   of grain to hang before your temple door;

and in my fruitful garden may red Priapus stand

   with his fierce pruning-knife to fright the birds.

And you, protective Lares of fields once fortunate,

   now poor, you also have your rightful gifts!                 20

A slain calf sanctified abundant livestock then,

   a lamb, poor offering for my small plot now.

A lamb shall die for you, and round it country youths

   shall cry, “Ah!  send us harvest and good wine!”

Now be it mine to live content with low estate,

   nor always wandering on far campaign;

to shun the dog-star’s summery rising, in the shade

   beneath a tree beside some passing stream;

yet sometimes I would wield the hoe, an honest task,

   or chide the tardy oxen with the goad,                       30

or, no unpleasant chore, bear homeward in my arms

   some lamb or kid its mother has forgot.

But you, ye wolves and thieves, forgo my meager flock,

   and seek your booty from some larger herd!

From mine, I purify my herdsman every year

   and sprinkle Pales with her soothing milk.

Be here with me, ye gods, nor scorn these offerings

   from a humble table and clean earthenware:

from earthenware the olden peasant made his cups,

   the first to fashion them of ductile clay.                   40

I do not miss my forebears’ riches, nor the yield

   the garnered harvest brought my antique sires:

a small crop is enough, it is enough to lie

   relaxed, secure in my familiar bed.

What gladness, lying at ease, to hear the cruel wind

   and hold my mistress in my soft embrace,

or, when the chill sou’wester pours his frozen streams,

   to drowse off happily, lulled by the storm!

This be my lot; let wealth be justly his, who dares

   the ocean’s fury and the tempest’s gloom.                    50

Let perish all the gold and jewels on earth, ere I

   make any girl bewail my long campaigns!

For you, Messalla, war by land and sea is fit,

   so that your house may show the enemy’s spoils;

but I am held enchained by the bonds of a lovely girl

   and stand ignoble watch at her cruel door.

I do not seek renown, my Delia; as long

   as I am yours, let reputation die!

When my last hour draws nigh, may I gaze on you then,

   and, dying, clutch you with my failing hand;                 60

and you shall weep when I am laid on the smoldering pyre

   and give me kisses mixed with sorrowing tears;

shall weep:  the heart in your soft bosom is not bound

   with iron chains nor made of flinty stone,

and from those obsequies no youth shall travel home,

   nor any maiden, with unweeping eyes.

Yet do not pain my ghost, but spare your loosened hair,

   my Delia, and spare your gentle cheeks.

Till then, while fate allows, let us unite our loves,

   for soon comes death, with shadows hovering round;          70

soon creeps on slow old age, which is not fit for love,

   nor, white-haired, fit for murmuring soft delights.

Now we should seize soft Venus, when brawling is no crime,

   and breaking down the house-door is no shame.

This be my field of battle; away, ye pennants and horns,

   hold far, far off; bring wounds to greedy men,

and bring them riches!  Safe upon my gathered heap

   may I look down on wealth and want alike!



Notes to Tibullus I.1


This first poem is programmatic, setting forth the most prominent themes of Tibullus’s poetry: rejection of war for peace; praise for the simple life rather than wealth; and exhortation to his mistress to enjoy love before age and death overtake us. The address to Messalla in lines 53ff. has the effect of formally dedicating this whole first book to him. 


12  The garlands left by country people mark these places as rustic shrines.

14  The farmer god = “the gods of agriculture;” no specific deity is meant.

19-20  See introduction to Tibullus, above. 

35-36  The poet refers here to the Parilia (also called the Palilia), an annual country festival at which sacrifices purified the flocks and herdsmen and the rustic deity Pales was propitiated with milk-offerings. 

67-68  Common expressions of mourning among Roman women were loosening the hair and scarifying the cheeks. 

73-74  By the etiquette of elegy, brawling and door-breaking are proper deportment for young bravos gathered in the street outside some beauty’s house. 



Tibullus I.3


Without me you will sail, Messalla, the Grecian waves;

   may you and all our friends remember me!

Phaeacia holds me here, sick in a foreign land,

   but hold far off, dark Death, your greedy hands!

Hold off, black Death, I pray:  I have no mother here

   to gather my burnt bones in grieving arms;

no sister, to pour Syrian incense on my pyre

   and weep with streaming hair before my tomb;

nor Delia either, who, when sending me from Rome,

   sought omens first (they say) from every god.                10

Three times she drew the boy’s prophetic lots, and thrice

   he answered her that all would yet be well.

All promised my return, yet she was not deterred

   from shedding anxious tears for my campaign;

and I, although I gave her solace and farewell,

   still fearfully kept seeking long delays.

I either pled fell omens from the flight of birds,

   or claimed that Saturn’s-day kept me at home.

How many times I said, when starting on the road,

   I stumbled at the gate, an adverse sign.                     20

Let no man dare depart against the will of Love,

   or let him know his voyage defies a god!

What good now is your Isis, Delia, what good

   the bronze so often rattled by your hand?

What good, to faithfully keep the rites, the sacred bath,

   and (I remember!) chastely sleep alone?

Now, goddess, now sustain me (since within your shrine

   so many painted plaques show you can heal),

so Delia may pay her promised vows, and sit

   in linen gown before your sacred door,                       30

and chant your praises twice a day, with loosened hair,

   pre-eminent among the Pharian throng.

But be it mine to visit my ancestral gods

   and give my old Lar incense every month.

How fine was human life in Saturn’s reign, before

   the earth was opened up to far campaigns!

No mast had then yet dared to tempt the azure waves

   nor spread its billowing canvas to the winds;

no trader, wandering alien lands in search of gain,

   had yet weighed down his ship with foreign wares.            40

No burly oxen then submitted to the yoke;

   no broken horses tamely champed the bit.

No house had doors, no stones were fixed among the fields

   to mark off acreage in rigid bounds.

The oaks themselves dripped honey, and of themselves the ewes

   brought swollen udders to the carefree folk.

There were no battle-lines, no wrath, no wars, nor had

   the harsh smith’s ruthless cunning forged the blade.

Now, Jupiter’s age is rife with slaughter and with blood:

   the land, the sea now teem with sudden death.                50

Have mercy, Father!  No false oaths weigh down my mind,

   no impious words against the holy gods.

But if I have indeed fulfilled my fated span,

   let this inscription stand above my bones:



But since I ever have been apt for tender love,

   Venus shall lead me to the Elysian plains.

Here dance and singing flourish, and wandering everywhere

   the birds trill sweetly from their slender throats;           60

the untilled meads bear cassia, and all throughout the fields

   the kindly earth blooms forth the fragrant rose;

and ranks of youths, with tender girls mingled among,

   here play and join love’s never-ending wars.

All lovers overcome by ravening Death are there,

   pre-eminent with crowns of myrtle boughs.

But the home appointed for the damned in deepest night

   lies hid, and round it wail the gloomy streams.

Tisiphone, with savage matted snakes for hair

   rages, and drives the wavering impious throng;               70

then at the gates black Cerberus with snaky mouth

   shrieks, and stands watch at the brazen doors.

Ixion’s guilty limbs are turned on the swift wheel

   because he dared assault the wife of Jove;

and Tityos lies stretched across nine acres’ ground,

   and vultures pasture on his dark entrails.

There Tantalus thirsts fiercely ‘midst the pools, but now

   just as he stoops to drink, the wave recedes;

and Danaus’s girls, who slighted the majesty of Love,

   must carry Lethe’s stream to leaking urns.                   80

May he be there, whoever has sinned against my love,

   by wishing me a long drawn out campaign!

But you, I pray, keep chaste; may your old chaperone

   be ever near as sacred honor’s guard,

diverting you with stories, and, when the lamp is lit,

   from the full distaff to draw a long thread down:

while round about the girls, intent on their heavy wool,

   yield bit by bit to sleep, and drop their tasks.

Then suddenly may I come, no warning given before,

   but may I seem to you dropped from the sky.                  90

Then run to meet me, Delia, all unprepared,

   barefoot, with your long tresses streaming down.

This is my prayer:  to us may pale Aurora bring

   that day’s bright Dawnstar on her rosy steeds.



Notes to Tibullus I.3


For introductory remarks on this poem, see introduction to Tibullus, above. 


11  It was a common practice to predict the future from lots drawn by children.  

18  This is our first extant reference to Saturday, which was believed an inauspicious day for traveling.  

23-26  The bronze rattle, the ritual bath, and the periodic abstinence from sex are all part of Isis’s cult.  

27-28  Those who had been healed by praying to Isis would dedicate a commemorative plaque in her temple.  

51-52  That is, he has committed no crime deserving the divinely inflicted punishment of death by sickness.  

66  The myrtle was sacred to Venus.

83  chaperone:  I.e., her nurse or duenna. 

85-88  For the Romans, spinning and weaving were the emblems of respectable womanhood.



Tibullus I.4


“So may the shady leafage, Priapus, shelter you,

   lest either snow or sun’s heat do you harm,

tell me:  what schemes of yours snare lovely boys?  For sure,

   it’s not your splendid beard or well-groomed hair:

all naked you endure the stormy winter’s chill

   and the parched season of the sweltering Dog.”

I asked, and then the rural scion of Bacchus, armed

   with pruning-hook, delivered this homily:

“O shun to trust yourself to the gentle throng of boys,

   for they all offer ample grounds for love!                   10

One youth delights, whose hand can firmly rein his steed,

   another, whose white breast cleaves the placid wave;

one lures you by his charming impudence, another

   because chaste modesty guards his gentle cheeks.

But if perchance your suit at first should come to naught,

   press on, and he will slowly take the yoke.

Give time enough, and lions will learn to fawn on men;

   in time, mild water eats a stone away.

The year’s course ripens grapes along the sunny hills

   and rules the ordered changes of the stars.                  20

Be not afraid to swear:  the perjuries of love

   the wind bears, null and void, over land and sea,

by Jove’s great grace:  the Sire himself forbids the vows

   of foolish love to obligate respect.

Swear by Dictynna’s very bow, she will not mind,

   nor Minerva, if you vow by her own hair.

Your worst mistake would be to hesitate.  How soon

   youth vanishes!  Time stays not, nor delays.

How soon is earth forlorn of all her gaudy hues,

   the flourishing poplar of its lovely mane!                   30

How unrevered the steed that ran the Olympic course,

   now overtaken by weak old age’s doom!

And I myself have seen a youth, now past his prime,

   bewail his foolish waste of days gone by.

Cruel gods!  The serpent sheds his years and is renewed;

   to beauty Fate has granted no reprieve.

For Bacchus and Apollo alone youth never dies:

   unshorn locks are the glory of both gods.

But you, whatever your darling takes a mind to try,

   agree:  where love yields, there it most prevails.           40

Companion him, however far a journey waits,

   although the Dog-Star parch the fields with drought,

or though the blustery south-Wind send the breaking storm,

   fringing the sky about with sullen gloom;

or, if he takes the helm to cross the azure waves,

   then row yourself the light craft over the sea.

Nor shirk to undergo harsh labors, nor to set

   your weary hand to unaccustomed chores:

if he lays traps along the game-runs in deep glens,

   indulge him: bear the nets upon your back;                   50

if he would fence, then bring a light hand to the sport

   and give him your bare flank, so he can take you.

Then you will find him yielding, and you may steal from him

   sweet kisses, stolen, but given just the same;

given at first to steal, then he himself will bring them

   whenever you ask and fall into your arms.

But ah!  our wicked age now deals in vicious schemes;

   now gentle youths have learned to seek for gain.

Whoever you were that first taught love to sell itself,

   may earth lie heavy on your unquiet grave!                   60

Love the Pierian Maids, O youths, and love their bards;

   let golden gain not conquer the Pierian maids!

The purple lock of Nisus survives in song; in song

   the ivory still gleams from Pelops’s shoulder.

Whose tale the Muses tell, shall live, while earth bears trees,

   while rivers flow, while stars are in the sky.

But may whoever scorns the Muses, and sells his love,

   follow the chariot of Idaean Ops;

may he stray all through Asia’s manycitied land

   and sever his misprised parts to Phrygian strains!           70

Sweet murmurings have their place by Venus’s will; she smiles

   on piteous tears and supplicating sighs.”

Thus spake the god, for me to sing to Titius,

   but Titius’s wife forbids him pay it heed.

Let him obey her.  Throng about me, lovers all,

   that cunning youths make suffer by their schemes!

Each has his glory; mine is giving sage advice

   to lovers scorned:  my door is open to all.

I see a time when, aged, I shall hold forth on love,

   escorted by an attentive band of boys --                     80

Ah!  how Marathus tortures me with lingering love!

   My guile and scheming all are quite in vain.

Have pity, lad, I pray, lest I become a joke,

   when everyone derides my futile lore!



Notes to Tibullus I.4



Tibullus, in love with a boy named Marathus, is given a lecture on the art of seduction by Priapus, a fertility god who according to some accounts was the son of Bacchus. Roman gardens often included a rough, red-painted statue of this god, who was portrayed as an ugly little man with a huge phallus. This statue served both as a guardian deity for the garden and as a scarecrow. A considerable part of the poem’s humor comes from the image of this rustic, ithyphallic garden god solemnly discoursing on the elegant subject of love. For remarks on pederasty in the elegists, see Introduction section IV.


63-64   That is, these figures from myth would have been forgotten if not for poets.   

67-70  The Roman goddess Ops was identified with the Phrygian Cybele, the fiercest incarnation of the Great Mother Goddess worshipped throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Cybele was usually portrayed as wearing a crown of towers and riding in a chariot drawn by lions. Her rites included self-castration and other self-mutilation. Her eunuch priests, the Galli, would go begging from town to town with an image of the goddess.   

73-75   Tibullus claims that he has sought the god’s erotic wisdom in order to convey it to his friend Titius, but since Titius is married, he ought no longer to engage in pederastic affairs. See Introduction section IV.



Tibullus I.5


I was harsh with her, and said that I would gladly part,

   but my proud boasting now abandons me.

I am driven, like a top lashed across the floor,

   spun by some swift boy with practiced skill.

Then burn this beast, torment him:  hereafter let him learn

   to shun disdainful speech; tame his wild words!

Yet mercy!  by the union of our furtive bed

   I beg, by Venus, and your head laid near mine!

It was I (they say), when you lay dying of fell disease,

   that snatched your life back by my offered vows.             10

It was I that sprinkled purging sulphur all around,

   while the crone preceded me with mystic chants;

it was I that exorcised your baneful nightmares, thrice

   conjuring them away with sacred meal;

it was I that, tunic loosened, wool fillet on my head,

   made Trivia nine vows in the dead of night.

I paid them all, but now another reaps your love

   and gladly gains the profit of my prayers.

My life will be a joy, I dreamed, when you are saved,

   -- mad dream the gods were never to fulfill!                 20

I will live in the country; Delia will tend the crops,

   while the threshing floor winnows the grain in the warm sun;

or she will oversee the grapes in brimming vats

   when nimble feet tread out the gleaming must.

She’ll learn to count the herd; the servant babes will learn

   to play and babble in their mistress’s lap.

She’ll know to give the country gods grapes for the vines,

   sheaves for the grain, food-offerings for the flock.

Let her rule all; may she take charge of everything:

   I would be a mere nothing in the house.                      30

When my Messalla visits, Delia would draw down

   for him sweet fruits from off our choicest trees;

and she would tend with perfect care so great a man,

   and serve him banquets she herself prepared.

This was my dream; but now the Eastwind and the South

   scatter my prayers to scented Araby.

I often tried to quell my sorrowing with wine,

   but grief had turned the vintage all to tears;

I often held another, but just on pleasure’s verge

   Love haunts me with my mistress’s face, and dies;             40

and so the woman, leaving me, called me bewitched,

   and -- shame! -- spread tales of Delia’s sorcery.

Yet not with spells, but by her face and tender arms

   and tawny hair my girl entrances me,

like Thetis, Nereus’s daughter, her eyes green as the waves

   she crossed on dolphin-mount to Peleus’s arms.

This ruins me. And now she has a wealthy lover;

   some cunning bawd devised this for my doom.

May that bawd gorge on bloody feasts, with reddened mouth

   drink bitter goblets, brimming full with bile!               50

May ghosts dart ever round her, wailing of their ends,

   and from her roof the raging screech-owl shriek;

and, mad with furious hunger, may she seek out the grass

   on graves and bones that wild wolves leave behind;

and run with naked belly howling through the towns,

   chased from the crossroads by fierce packs of dogs!

So be it; heaven approves; we lovers have our gods,

   and Venus scorned is harsh with faithlessness.

But you, abandon now the teachings of that witch

   so grasping:  gifts can conquer any love.                    60

The poor lover will always be at hand; the poor

   comes first to you and clings to your soft side;

the poor lover will guide you through the thick-pressed mob,

   and clear the way for you with his own hands;

the poor lover will take you to discreet soirees,

   and loose himself the shoes from your white feet.

I sing in vain.  No words will coax her door to open:

   the hand that knocks upon it must be full.

But you, who now prevail, take warning from my fate:

   light Fortune turns swift on her rolling wheel.              70

Even now somebody, not for nothing, ever stands

   in her doorway, peers all around, and flees,

pretending to go home, but soon again returns

   alone, and coughs before her very door.

Stealthy Love prepares I know not what:  enjoy

   while you still can; for now, your sailing is clear.



Notes to Tibullus I.5


Delia has left Tibullus for a rich lover, and the poet at first blames himself. He reminds her of past favors, especially of how he recently resorted to magic in order to heal her of a serious illness, and he recalls how happy he thought they would be together when she recovered. He then decides that some bawd (for this character see Introduction section IV.) must have corrupted Delia, and he lays a terrible curse on her. At line 67, we realize that the poem is taking place before Delia’s door, and that the poet is the conventional excluded lover (see Introduction section IV.). Tibullus ends, as often, with a prophecy: the happiness of his successful rival will be short-lived.   


36   Tibullus actually wrote, “through scented Armenia;” the idea is, “to the far ends of the earth.”   

45-46   The hero Peleus fell in love with the sea-goddess Thetis. He won her by lying in wait for her at a beach to which she often rode on a dolphin. When Thetis lay down there to rest, Peleus embraced her and continued to hold on to her while she changed herself into many different shapes, this being the only way to capture the goddess. Their son was Achilles.   

52   Considered to be the worst possible portent by the Romans.   

63-66   Clearing a lady’s way through the street-crowds and taking off her sandals were ordinarily the duties of slaves.   

74   The secret lover coughs at her doorway to attract her attention.



Tibullus I.6


For my beguiling always you show me a blithe face,

   but then I find you harsh and glowering, Love.

Am I your business, monster?  Is it a god’s proud boast

   to lay ambushes for a mortal man?

I see the snares lie spread:  sly Delia secretly

   loves some new flame now in the dead of night.

She swears she does not, of course, but it is hard to believe:

   she swears the same about me to her man.

I taught her myself, poor fool, how to delude her guards;

   alas!  now my own skill has proved my ruin!                  10

From me she learned excuses to sleep alone, and how

   to ease open her door without a sound.

I gave her herbal ointments to soothe away the marks

   left by the love-bites of shared ecstasy.

But you, unwary husband of a faithless girl,

   regard me also, that she may not sin.

Prohibit her from constant chattering with youths

   or reclining so her loose gown bares her breast.

Let her not trick you by winking, nor with her finger trace

   a love-note on the table in spilled wine.                    20

Suspect her errands, even the hours she claims to spend

   at Bona Dea’s rites, where men are barred.

Trust me, and none but I will take her to that altar:

   then I would not be frightened for my eyes.

Often, I recall, pretending admiration

   of her jeweled rings, I used to touch her hand.

Often I made you sleepy with strong wine, while I drank

   sober water instead, and gained my prize.

My crime was unintended; forgive me, since I confess;

   Love willed it:  who would war against the gods?             30

It was I (nor will it shame me now to tell the truth)

   your watchdog used to threaten all night long.

What good does a young wife do you?  If you do not know how

   to guard your goods, why bother to lock the door?

Embracing you, she sighs for another, absent love,

   and feigns a sudden headache as an excuse.

But put her in my charge, and I will not shirk savage

   blows, nor shrink from chains around my feet.

Then stand away, ye gallants with skillfully tended hair,

   whose loose-worn togas fall in billowed folds;               40

and let whoever we meet shun any hint of crime

   by standing aside, or taking another road.

Thus bids the god himself, and thus the mighty priestess

   foretold to me in her inspired song.

Crazed by Bellona’s frenzy, neither blazing fire

   nor twisted lash, mad creature, give her fear.

She slashes her own arms, raging, with the axe

   and safely stains the goddess with human blood.

She stands with wounded breast, a lance fixed in her side,

   and chants what the great goddess warns will come:           50

“Let none defile a girl whose guardian is Love,

   lest later he learn better, to his great pain.

Lay hands on her, your wealth shall scatter like the blood

   from these my wounds, like this wind-driven ash.”

For you too, Delia, she decreed a punishment,

   but if you err, I pray that she be mild.

Not for yourself, but your old mother’s golden heart

   stirs pity, and has conquered all my wrath.

She leads me to you through the dark, and fearfully

   unites our hands in secret, without a word.                  60

She awaits me in the evenings, posted at the door,

   and knows my nearing step from far away.

Live long, dear aged lady!  I would, if heaven allowed,

   assign my life’s allotted span to yours!

I will always cherish you, and, for your sake, your child:

   whatever she does, she still remains your blood.

Yet teach her to be chaste, although no fillet binds

   her hair up, no long gown falls to her feet.

And may I serve on hard conditions:  not to praise

   another, or else she will fly at my eyes.                    70

If she even thinks I sin, I’ll be hauled by the hair,

   all innocent, and flung into the streets.

I would not wish to strike her, but if that madness ever

   came, then I would wish I had no hands!

Be chaste, not from harsh fear, but from a loyal heart:

   when parted, our shared love should keep you mine.

But the faithless woman, at last overcome by age, and poor,

   draws out the twisted yarn with trembling hands,

and fastens her steady threads onto a rented loom,

   and cleans the wool-flocks pulled from the snowy fleece;     80

while bands of youths look on exultant, saying how just

   it is that so much woe attends her age,

and, high on lofty Olympus, Venus marks her tears

   and warns she is severe with faithlessness.

May this curse fall on others; but, Delia, may we two

   be love’s own model when our hair is grey.



Notes to Tibullus I.6


Delia is living with her “husband” (see Introduction section V), and Tibullus crassly boasts of how easily he can dupe this fool. He then reports a prophecy which he claims that the priestess of the goddess Bellona delivered to him in an ecstatic trance: if Delia does not return to him, both she and her “husband” will regret it.   


6   some new flame The reader should keep in mind that this poem concerns Delia’s relationships with three different men: 1) Delia’s “husband;” 2) the poet, with whom Delia, unknown to the “husband,” has been maintaining a relationship; 3) the “new flame,” a second surreptitious affair which the poet knows about, but the “husband” does not.   

8   man The “husband.”   

18   reclining I.e., at dinner. The Romans, like the Greeks, dined reclining.   

19   winking Tibullus actually says “by a nod,” a conventional secret sign between lovers.   

23-24   A male who invaded the sanctuary of Bona Dea would be committing a great sacrilege, for which one traditional punishment was divinely-inflicted blindness. The meaning of line 24 is explained by some as: “I would take her to the temple of Bona Dea, but I myself would not go beyond the altar at the edge of the sacred precinct, lest I should be struck blind for sacrilege;” by others as, “I would follow her right into Bona Dea’s temple, even at the risk of being struck blind for sacrilege.”   

40   An extra-large toga, worn loosely, was the last word in foppishness.   

42   As it appears in the manuscripts, this line does not make sense, but the meaning of what the poet originally wrote was probably as given here.   

48   safely Ordinarily, staining a god’s image with human blood would be the worst possible sacrilege, provoking awesome divine vengeance. Bellona, however, approves such an act in her own rites, which were characterized by the ritual bloodshed and ecstatic trance described here by Tibullus.   

57-66   These lines will strike modern readers as very strange: Tibullus seems to be praising Delia’s mother for aiding her daughter’s seduction or prostitution. Yet the passage clearly is not meant to be shocking. It would no doubt seem less puzzling to us if we had a better understanding of the social context in which these poems were written.   

67-68   These lines establish two important points: 1) The fillet and long gown referred to here were worn only by  matronae, the wives of freeborn Roman citizens. Thus Delia is not a  matrona. The fact that she openly takes lovers indicates that she is not an  ingenua, or legitimate daughter of a free Roman citizen. Since she is clearly not a slave, she must then be of free but inferior status. (For more on this topic, see Introduction section V.   2) The word “although” implies that women of Delia’s class often became prostitutes.



Tibullus II.3


The country and its farms, Cornutus, hold my girl;

   hard-hearted, whoever now would stay in town.

Venus herself has migrated to spacious fields;

   Love learns the rustic diction of the plowman.

If I could glimpse my mistress there, with what a will

   I’d wield the hoe, breaking the rich sod,

and trudge behind the curving plowshare, peasantwise,

   while barren oxen turned the soil for sowing.

I’d not complain, if sunburn scorched my slender limbs,

   or broken blisters hurt my tender hands.                     10

Beautiful Apollo once grazed Admetus’s bulls;

   his lyre and unshorn locks were no use then,

nor could he remedy his care with healing herbs:

   Love had conquered all of physic’s art.

The god himself would drive the cattle from their stalls        14a

     .          .          .          .          .

and taught men how to mix the rennet with fresh milk,           14b

   and the milky fluid curdled when they were mixed.            14c

The basket then was woven from supple withes of reeds,          15

   with interspacings wide-spaced for the whey.

How often his sister blushed (they say) encountering him

   as he bore some young calf across the fields!

How often, when he made the valleys ring with song,

   the cows’ rude mooing spoiled his learned strain!            20

In many crises chiefs sought oracles, but the throng

   went home in disappointment from his shrines.

Latona often grieved for his unkempt sacred locks,

   which even his stepmother used to marvel at.

Had anyone seen him wreathless, tresses flowing free,

   he would have wondered, “Where is Phoebus’s hair?”

Where now your Delos, Phoebus, where your Delphian Pytho?

   Really, Love has lodged you in a hut!

Glad age, when deathless gods (they say) were not ashamed

   of servitude to Venus, let know who may!                     30

He became a laughing-stock, but a lover would rather be

   a laughing-stock than a god without his love.

But you, whoever you are, whom Cupid, with his stern gaze,

   bids pitch your camp within my very home,

     .          .          .          .         .

Our iron age approves, not Love, but only Loot,

   yet Loot brings in its train a host of ills:

Loot girds the savage battle line with warring arms,

   whence bloodshed, slaughter, death are multiplied.

Loot makes redoubled risks upon the churning sea

   by fitting fragile barques with ramming-prows.               40

From lust for Loot men strive to conquer boundless plains,

   so their vast acreage can graze huge herds.

They demand exotic stone, and through the City’s mobs

   have columns hauled by a thousand burly teams;

they pen the wild ocean in a lagoon, wherein

   the tranquil fish may scorn the threatening storm.

For me, may Samian-ware serve forth my pleasant feasts,

   and crockery thrown from ductile Cumaean clay.

But ah! I see that riches are woman’s only joy:

   then let Loot reign, if Venus longs for wealth,              50

so my Nemesis may wallow in luxury, and progress

   the city through, made dazzling by my gifts.

Let her be clad in silk some woman of Cos has woven,

   diaphanous, shot through with golden rays.

Let swarthy slaves attend her, seared by India’s heat,

   stained by the fires of the Sun’s low-flying steeds.

Let Earth’s far reaches vie to give her splendid hues:

   Afric crimson, royal-blue of Tyre.

I speak truth:  now he rules, who often before was forced

   to climb the barbarian block with whitened feet.             60

For you, cruel fields that keep my Nemesis from town,

   may Earth repay no plighted yield of grain;

and you, soft Bacchus, planter of the merry vine,

   abandon those accursed vats of must.

Do not permit that dismal fields should hide the fair:

   your vintages are not so precious, Sire!

O perish the harvests, if only girls remain in town:

   let acorns and water feed us, as of old.

Our forbears lived on acorns, but always, everywhere,

   they loved:  what need have we to sow plowed fields?         70

To all those Love inspired then, soft Venus gave

   in shady groves enjoyment unconcealed.

There were no guards, no doors to bar a grieving lover;

   I pray (if it be right) those ways return.

     .          .          .          .          .

   and rugged limbs be clothed in shaggy pelts.

If she is under lock and key, kept from my view,

   then ah! what good is my wide flowing gown?

Then take me as a thrall to plow my mistress’s fields:

   I will not shirk from bondage or the lash!                   80



Notes to Tibullus II.3


We do not know the circumstances under which Tibullus parted from Delia, the love of his first book of elegies.  In his second book she has been replaced in his affections by Nemesis, a remarkably mercenary courtesan for whom the poet feels a sexual obsession uncolored by any trace of the tenderness which marked his feelings towards Delia.  In this poem, Nemesis has gone on a country holiday with another lover (lines 59-60). We may infer from the situation, and from Tibullus’s tirade against wealth (lines 35ff) that this man was a typical “rich lover” who was taking Nemesis to his country villa.  


14a-14b   There is a gap in the text, from which the god emerges just as he is in the process of teaching men how to make cheese by curdling milk with rennet and pouring the mixture into a basket of reeds, loosely woven so that the whey drips down through the interstices, leaving behind the solid curds.  

17  Apollo’s sister is the goddess Diana.

24   The stepmother is Juno, legitimate wife of Apollo’s father Jupiter. Her admiration is all the more remarkable because stepmothers were proverbial for their hostility towards their stepchildren.  

25-26   Apollo was famous for his beautiful hair, which was always portrayed as bound up with a fillet and adorned with a garland; thus the rustic plainness of his hair renders him all but unrecognizable.  

34-35  At least two lines are missing here. 

45-46   Building a private salt-water fishpond was a prime example of conspicuous consumption.  

47-48  Pottery from Samos and Cumae was attractive but inexpensive.

55-56   One theory among the ancients held that the tropics were hot because the sun was closer to the earth in those regions.  

59-60   Evidently Nemesis’s rich lover, like a number of Rome’s wealthy men, was a non-Roman ex-slave. The poet’s taunt refers to the practice of exhibiting slaves naked on the auction-block; if the slave was of foreign origin (“barbarian”), this was indicated by whitening his feet with chalk. But the conventions of ancient rhetoric allowed one to make the most outrageous slanders on one’s opponents, so we need not take Tibullus’s accusation here at face value.  

68   Acorns and water were the proverbial nourishment of primitive humanity.  

75  At least one line is missing here.

78  See T.I.6.40n.



Tibullus II.4


Now slavery and my mistress are readied for me here;

   farewell then, old ancestral liberty!

Stern slavery is my fate, and I am fettered fast,

   nor does Love ever loose my dismal chains.

Whether I deserve it or keep from sin, he burns me.

   I burn, ah! take the torch away, cruel girl!

O not to feel such torment, I would rather be

   a stone set in some frigid mountain range,

or some high crag that stands bare to the raging winds,

   pounded by the shipwrecking surge of the bleak sea!          10

Bitter now my days, night’s gloom more bitter still,

   for every hour is steeped in mournful gall.

Useless my elegies and Apollo, source of my song:

   with outstretched palm her one demand is money!

Then hence, ye Muses, if you cannot aid a lover:

   I do not worship you to sing of war,

nor do I tell the Sun’s career, nor how the Moon

   turns back her horses when her course is run.

My incantations seek quick access to my mistress:

   hence, Muses, if your songs cannot prevail!                  20

But I by murderous crime must strive to get her gifts

   or sprawl despised and sobbing at her door.

I’ll steal the offerings that hang in the holy shrines,

   but Venus I will outrage first of all.

She prompts my crimes by giving me a greedy mistress:

   so let her suffer my defiling hands!

O curse whoever gathers verdant emeralds

   or stains with Tyrian purple snowy fleece!

The avarice of girls is fed on Coan silks

   and softly lustrous pearls from the Persian sea.             30

By these they are corrupted; these put locks on doors

   and post the dogs as sentinels at the gates.

But come weighed down with cash, and all the barriers fall,

   the keys turn for you, even the dog keeps still.

Whatever deity gave such beauty to greedy girls

   bestowed at once a blessing and a bane!

From this, laments and brawls ring out, this is the cause

   that Love now roams the world, a god disgraced.

But, you that spurn the lovers who cannot meet your price,

   may wind and fire despoil your ready wealth;                 40

and more:  may youths rejoice to see your fiery ruin

   and none of them bring water to quench the flames;

nor, if your death shall come, will there be any to mourn

   or make an offering at your sad last rites.

But the true and generous girl, though she live a hundred years,

   will be lamented on her blazing pyre,

and some old lover, cherishing the love gone by,

   will lay a wreath each year on her high tomb,

and say as he departs, “Fair quiet and peace!  May Earth

   rest lightly over your untroubled grave!”                    50

Indeed, I speak the truth, but what good does truth do?

   She makes the laws that rule how I must love.

If she should bid me put my family home for sale,

   then go, my Lares, mount the auction block!

Whatever potions Circe or Medea brews,

   whatever herbs the land of Thessaly bears,

even the fluid that drips from the loins of lusting mares

   when Venus inspires the untamed herds with love:

let Nemesis but look upon me with a smile,

   I'll drink them all, and a thousand drugs beside.



Notes to Tibullus II.4


Tibullus again inveighs against his mistress’s greed and despairs over his obsession with her.


16-18   That is, he writes love poetry, not epic or didactic poetry.  

54:   Literally, “Go, Lares, under authority and the placard.” The exact meaning of this line is disputed, but this is clearly the general sense. Lares here symbolizes “all my family property.”   

57-58   The reference is to hippomanes, a fluid supposedly secreted by the genitals of mares in heat. This supremely repulsive aphrodisiac is mentioned by Aristotle and other authorities as one of the most potent of love-philtres. No modern scholar has been so committed to the search for Truth as to test the validity of these statements by experiment.

All material on this web site copyright © 2014 by Jon Corelis