Classics Tibullus
by
Paul Allen Miller
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0248

Introduction

Of the three major elegists—Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid—Tibullus is today probably the most difficult to approach. He is often less valued than the more modernist Propertius or the more witty and playful Ovid. This was not always the case. Quintilian famously writes, “mihi tersus atque elegans maxime uidetur auctor Tibullus. Sunt qui Propertium malint” [“In my opinion Tibullus is a very elegant and concise author. There are those who prefer Propertius”] (Inst. 10.1.93). Ovid terms Tibullus cultus or “polished” (Amores 3.9.66). The ancients held Tibullus in high regard and valued him above all for his smooth style. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, with the publication of Bright’s Haec mihi Fingebam: Tibullus and His World (1978) and Cairns’s Tibullus: A Hellenistic Poet at Rome (1979), Tibullus once again began receiving more attention. In recent years, his stock has risen further with the publication of several influential articles, chapters, and dissertations, including: Fineberg, “Configurations of Desire in the Elegies of Tibullus” (1991); Kennedy, The Arts of Love: Five Essays in the Discourse of Roman Love Elegy (1993); Miller, Subjecting Verses: Latin Love Elegy and the Emergence of the Real (2004); and Wray, “What Poets Do: Tibullus on ‘Easy’ Hands” (2003) et al., as well as a new commentary (Maltby, Tibullus: Elegies. Text, Introduction, and Commentary, 2002). One of the commonplaces of Tibullan criticism is the dream-like quality of his text. This view often goes hand in hand with the devaluation of his poetry as soft and lacking in formal integrity. Smith once characterized his poetry as “smooth” and “drifting.” More postively, it can be seen as nonlinear and working by association (Veyne, Roman Erotic Elegy: Love Poetry and the West, 1988, p. 36). In any case, his texts are less a series of rhetorical arguments or narratives, than complex tissues of interwoven and sometimes contradictory themes and images. Information on Tibullus’s life is scarce. He was born between 60 and 55 BCE and died in 19 BCE. Ancient testimony links him to the area near the village of Pedum in the Alban hills east of Rome. He was closely associated with the orator and general, M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus (64 BCE to 8 CE), whom he appears to have accompanied on his Acquitanian campaign and perhaps on others. He also seems to have known Horace. Tibullus’s poetry, unlike Propertius or Ovid’s, is all but free of references to Augustus and the nascent imperial regime. From a statement in poem 1.1, we can reasonably deduce that Tibullus’s family, like many others, suffered a reduction of fortune during the proscriptions carried out by the members of the second triumvirate after the defeat of the republican assassins of Caesar.

Texts

While there are a variety of texts available, including of course the Postgate 1924, there are three others that are important and influential. They are in chronological order, Ponchont 1967, Lenz and Galinsky 1971, and Luck 1988.

Translations

In general, Tibullus’s poetry does not read well in translation. Its aesthetic effect is very much dependent upon its verbal texture. Lee 1982 is the standard reference translation. Dennis and Putnam 2012 is one of the few successful literary translations.

Bibliographies

Although the Oxford Bibliographies in Classics do not aim at comprehensiveness, but at providing a conspectus of the most consequential work for today’s scholars, it is useful see the full scope of what is available as exemplified in Harrauer 1971 and Dettmer 1983.

  • Dettmer, Helena. 1983. The “Corpus Tibullianum” (1974–1980). In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. 2.30.3. Edited by Wolfgang Haase. Berlin: De Gruyter.

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    Dettmer updates Harrauer. She also provides a useful discussion of each entry, focusing on questions of structure and on Tibullus’s relations with his contemporaries. Also includes a useful discussion titled “Book 3 of the ‘Corpus Tibullianum.’”

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    • Harrauer, Herman. 1971. A bibliography to the Corpus Tibullianum. Hildesheim, Germany: Verlag Dr. H. A. Gerstenberg.

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      Provides a comprehensive bibliography back to 1900 and includes notable earlier works. Features a series of very thorough indexes.

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      Commentaries

      In recent years, a variety of commentaries have become available aimed at different audiences. Maltby 2002 is the most complete recent commentary. Miller 2002 and Miller 2013 are more student oriented but also more literary. Putnam 1973 remains a classic, while Smith 1964 still offers insight. The serious scholar needs to consult Murgatroyd 1991, Murgatroyd 1994, Perrelli 2002, and Wimmel 1976 as well.

      • Maltby, Robert. 2002. Tibullus: Elegies. Text, introduction, and commentary. Cambridge, UK: Francis Cairns.

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        The fullest up-to-date scholarly commentary.

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        • Miller, Paul Allen. 2002. Latin erotic elegy: An anthology and reader. London: Routledge.

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          Selected poems, with a commentary that emphasizes openness to poetic readings and includes the Sulpicia poems from the corpus. The intended audience is advanced students. Contains a brief compendium of relevant scholarship.

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          • Miller, Paul Allen. 2013. A Tibullus reader: Seven selected elegies. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci.

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            A selection of poems that shows the breadth of the collection, including the Marathus and Messalla poems not found in the previous entry, lots of help for the beginning reader.

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            • Murgatroyd, Paul. 1991. Tibullus 1. Bristol, UK: Bristol Classical Press.

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              A very complete commentary, with a focus on traditional philological issues in the first book of the Tibullan corpus. Originally published in 1980.

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              • Murgatroyd, Paul. 1994. Tibullus: Elegies II. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                Like its predecessor (Murgatroyd 1991), this too is a very complete commentary, with a focus on traditional philological issues in the second book of the Tibullan corpus.

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                • Perrelli, Raffaele. 2002. Commento a Tibullo: Elegie, Libro I. Soveria Mannelli, Italy: Rubbettino.

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                  Less well known, but offers some interesting variant readings and useful interpretations of individual passages.

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                  • Putnam, Michael C. J. 1973. Tibullus: A commentary. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

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                    Remains the standard student commentary, possessed of extraordinary literary sensitivity.

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                    • Smith, Kirby Flowers. 1964. The elegies of Albius Tibullus. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

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                      The first modern English commentary, should still be consulted by careful scholars. Originally published 1913.

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                      • Wimmel, Walter. 1976. Tibull und Delia: Erster Teil, Tibulls Elegie 1,1. Hermes: Zeitschrift für klassiche Philologie: Einzelschriften, Heft 37. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag.

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                        An extraordinarily thorough line-by-line reading of the poem, looking at all possible parallels and variants, close attention to the use of the subjunctive and what he terms “hypersubjunctives.”

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                        Monographs and Dissertations

                        Cairns 1979 and Bright 1978 inaugurated the modern reconsideration of Tibullus. In the Anglophone world, there had not been a significant book devoted to the author for the previous one hundred years. Fineberg 1991 is a landmark in applying a sophisticated psychoanalytic framework to the author, while Mutschler 1985 offers a detailed reading of the entire corpus and its underlying poetic assumptions. Lee-Stecum 1998 offers a more up-to-date political reading.

                        • Bright, David F. 1978. Haec mihi Fingebam: Tibullus and his world. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

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                          The most important single monograph on Tibullus, offering a very sensitive literary reading and a deep knowledge of the historical context.

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                          • Cairns, Francis. 1979. Tibullus: A Hellenistic poet at Rome. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                            As with all of Cairns’s work, a provocative, quirky, and influential reading of the poet in terms of Hellenistic precedent, with a strong emphasis on genre.

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                            • Fineberg, Brenda. 1991. Configurations of desire in the elegies of Tibullus. PhD diss., Univ. of Chicago.

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                              The first psychoanalytic treatment of a poet whose style has long been remarked for its dreamlike quality.

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                              • Lee-Stecum, Parshia. 1998. Powerplay in Tibullus: Reading Elegies Book One. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                Reads book one as a linear unity in which each poem builds directly upon the next. Focuses on questions of power and positionality.

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                                • Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner. 1985. Die Poetische Kunst Tibulls: Struktur und Bedeutung der Bücher 1 und 2 des Corpus Tibullianum. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

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                                  A careful reading of the corpus in terms of poetics and poetic language.

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                                  • Wimmel, Walter. 1968. Die Frühe Tibull. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.

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                                    Wimmel is a major Tibullus scholar. This book includes detailed readings of 1.3, 1.4, 1.8, 1.9, and 1.10. Unfortunately, Wimmel accepts the then common assumption that the pederastic poems were necessarily products of the poet’s immaturity, whereas the heterosexual poems were by definition not “early.”

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                                    General Treatments of Elegy and Erotic Literature

                                    Much of the most important and influential writing on Tibullus has been found in books devoted to the elegists at large, as opposed to works devoted to the poet alone. Early work on the elegists was often romantic and biographical in orientation (Luck 1960 and Lyne 1980). Veyne 1988 offered the first serious semiotic reading, while the intertextual speculations of Ross 1975 were both revolutionary and highly controversial. James 2003 is absolutely fundamental to anyone interested in the characters of Delia and Nemesis, Tibullus’s female beloveds. Kennedy 1993 definitively showed the impossibility of either a strictly formalist or a strictly historicist approach to elegy. Miller 2004 offers a fundamentally new reading of Tibullus’s dreamlike poetics, while Gardner 2013 presents a serious investigation of temporality in the Tibullan corpus.

                                    • Gardner, Hunter. 2013. Gendering time in Augustan love elegy. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

                                      DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199652396.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                      A sensitive reading of Tibullan inertia from the perspective of Kristeva’s concept of “women’s time” in contrast to the more traditional goal-directed temporality of Roman masculinity.

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                                      • James, Sharon. 2003. Learned girls and male persuasion: Gender and reading in Roman love elegy. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                        The standard reading of the elegiac puella in modern literature. While polemical, no previous treatment comes anywhere close in scope to its comprehensive detail. James argues that all elegiac puellae are to be understood as meretrices.

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                                        • Kennedy, Duncan. 1993. The arts of love: Five essays in the discourse of Roman love elegy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                          A landmark postmodern reading of elegy, deconstructing the opposition between literary and historical readings and dismantling the “rhetoric of reality.” Excellent readings of Tibullus 1.1 and 1.2.

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                                          • Luck, Georg. 1960. The Latin love elegy. New York: Barnes and Noble.

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                                            The first modern treatment of the genre as a whole. Its critical perspective and biographical basis are now largely out of date.

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                                            • Lyne, R. O. A. M. 1980. The Latin love poets: From Catullus to Ovid. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                              A serious treatment of the theme that is hampered by a strongly romantic bias.

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                                              • Miller, Paul Allen. 2004. Subjecting verses: Latin love elegy and the emergence of the real. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                                                A reading of the genre that fuses Lacanian psychoanalytic and historical perspectives. The Tibullus chapter reworks his 1999 article in TAPA, “The Tibullan Dream Text.” It argues that Tibullus’s poems are best read as complex multi-voiced dream texts.

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                                                • Ross, David O., Jr. 1975. Backgrounds to Augustan poetry: Gallus, elegy and Rome. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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                                                  Ross is extraordinarily alert to reading elegy’s intertextual echoes. The book’s reconstruction of Gallus is still highly controversial, but it remains one of the most thought-provoking treatments of Augustan poetry for the past one hundred years. The chapter on Horace and Tibullus reads the poet not as an outlier but as a typical Augustan poet.

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                                                  • Veyne, Paul. 1988. Roman erotic elegy: Love poetry and the West. Translated by David Pellauer. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                                    Veyne’s treatment of elegy as urban pastoral is important and persuasive, especially for Tibullus, although his sentimental reading of the Marathus poems is hard to explain.

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                                                    Articles

                                                    While there have not been any important new monographs on Tibullus since 2004, there have been a number of significant articles (Damer 2014, Drinkwater 2011–2012, Keith 2013–2014), on topics ranging from gender to imperialism. Likewise, Leach’s work from the late 1970s and early 1980s (Leach 1978, Leach 1980a, Leach 1980b), which has been fundamental to our understanding of the poet, is published only in article form, as are certain other classic articles for understanding Tibullus and the history of his modern reception (Musurillo 1967, Boyd 1984, Dettmer 1980, Gaisser 1983, and Wageningen 1913).

                                                    • Boyd, Barbara Weiden. 1984. Parva seges satis est: The landscape of Tibullan elegy in 1.1 and 1.10. Transactions of the American Philological Association 114:273–280.

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                                                      Excellent discussion of the tension between Tibullus’s rural ideal and the urban setting of elegiac love.

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                                                      • Damer, Erika Zimmerman. 2014. Gender reversals and intertextuality in Tibullus. Classical World 107:493–514.

                                                        DOI: 10.1353/clw.2014.0040Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                        A thorough examination of Tibullus’s deliberate inversion of the gender of the figures cited in his intertextual allusions with specific focus on 1.8 and 2.6.

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                                                        • Dettmer, Helena. 1980. The arrangement of Tibullus Books 1 and 2. Philologus 124:68–82.

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                                                          Argues for ring composition in Tibullus, as she has for Horace and Catullus.

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                                                          • Drinkwater, Megan. 2011–2012. “His turn to cry”: Tibullus’s Marathus Cycle (1.4, 1.8, and 1.9) and Roman elegy. Classical Journal 107:423–448.

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                                                            Contends that while the Marathus cycle is a unique homoerotic sequence in Latin elegy, it nonetheless instantiates the expected roles typical of the genre while freeing them from their normally highly gendered associations. The slavery of love is revealed as both inherent to the genre and not specifically heteroerotic.

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                                                            • Gaisser, Julia Haig. 1983. Amor, rura and militia in three elegies of Tibullus: 1.1, 1.5, 1.10. Latomus 42:58–72.

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                                                              Argues for the interrelation between these three terms, which are normally seen as mutually exclusive.

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                                                              • Keith, Alisson. 2013–2014. Imperial geographies in Tibullus. Classical World 107:477–492.

                                                                DOI: 10.1353/clw.2014.0036Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                Examination of how Roman imperialism becomes the foundation for the poet’s Callimachean poetics, with special emphasis on the relationship between conquest and luxury goods.

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                                                                • Leach, Eleanor Winsor. 1978. Vergil, Horace, Tibullus: Three collections of ten. Ramus 7:79–105.

                                                                  DOI: 10.1017/S0048671X00004045Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                  Persuasively argues for common patterns of poetic arrangement across the Eclogues, Sermones 1, and Tibullus 1.

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                                                                  • Leach, Eleanor Winsor. 1980a. Poetics and poetic design in Tibullus’ First Elegiac Book. Arethusa 13:79–96.

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                                                                    Demonstrates that the ordering of poems in the first book makes a response to Gallus’s Amores. This article follows on Leach 1978 and Ross’s Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry (Ross 1975, cited under General Treatments of Elegy and Erotic Literature).

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                                                                    • Leach, Eleanor Winsor. 1980b. Sacral-idyllic landscape painting and the poems of Tibullus’ First Book. Latomus 39:47–69.

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                                                                      Shows that Tibullus’s evocation of the rural landscape recalls the style of depiction found in Roman painting of the period.

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                                                                      • Musurillo, Herbert. 1967. The theme of time as a poetic device in the elegies of Tibullus. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 98:253–268.

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                                                                        This is the first investigation of temporality in Tibullus, examining the ways in which an urgent present and a foreboding future contrast with an often idealized past. Musurillo paves the way for future examinations of time in Tibullus such as Gardner 2013 (cited under General Treatments of Elegy and Erotic Literature).

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                                                                        • Wageningen, J. van. 1913. Tibulls sogennante Traumereien. Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische Altertum 31:350–355.

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                                                                          A famous or infamous article that attributes the dreamlike quality of Tibullan poetry to organic brain dysfunction.

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                                                                          • Wray, David. 2003. What poets do: Tibullus on “easy” hands. Classical Philology 98:217–250.

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                                                                            Wray’s postmodern response to Miller’s modernism. Seeks to demonstrate that the difficult depths evoked by the psychoanalytic reading of Miller 2004 (cited under General Treatments of Elegy and Erotic Literature) are really just the reflection of contemporary poetics. A revised version of Miller’s original 1999 article, including his response to Wray can be found in his 2004 book cited above.

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                                                                            Chapters

                                                                            There have also been several collections of essays published in the last twenty years featuring chapters that have contributed importantly to our understanding of Tibullan intertextuality (Fabre-Serris 2005), narrative (Lee 2008), poetic language (Maltby 1999), textual criticism (Miller 2012), and the affective world of patronage in Tibullus (Oliensis 2008).

                                                                            • Fabre-Serris, Jacqueline. 2005. L’élégie et les images romaines des origines: Les choix de Tibulle. In La représentation du temps dans la poésie augustéenne/Zur Poetik der Zeit in augusteischer Dichtung. Edited by Jürgen Paul Schwindt, 141–157. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter.

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                                                                              A careful reading of poems 1.7, 2.1, 2.3, and 2.5 as responses to Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, with particular interest focused on the question of pietas and the form of the catalog.

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                                                                              • Lee, Benjamin Todd. 2008. The potentials of narrative: The rhetoric of the subjective in Tibullus. In Latin elegy and narratology: Fragments of story. Edited by Geneviève Lively and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell, 196–220. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

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                                                                                Using concepts derived from Genette, Lee examines Tibullus’s use of the subjunctive as a framework for understanding his “withdrawal into subjectivity.”

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                                                                                • Maltby, Robert. 1999. Tibullus and the language of Latin elegy. In Aspects of the language of Latin poetry. Edited by J. N. Adams and R. G. Mayer, 377–398. Proceedings of British Academy 93. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                                                                  A thorough examination of Tibullus’s poetic diction, with very useful statistical tables comparing his use of Greek loan words, compound adjectives, and diminutives to that of Propertius and Ovid. Features an extensive bibliography.

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                                                                                  • Miller, Paul Allen. 2012. Tibullus. In The Blackwell companion to Latin love elegy. Edited by Barbara K. Gold, 53–69. Oxford: Blackwell.

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                                                                                    This chapter argues that rather than read elegy through the prism of Propertius, as the modernists urged, we should rather follow Quintilian and take Tibullus as the norm.

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                                                                                    • Oliensis, Ellie. 2008. The erotics of Amicitia: Readings in Tibullus, Propertius, and Horace. In Roman sexualities. Edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, 151–171. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                                                                                      An excellent account of the power relations inherent in masculine amicitia, including patronage, and their dramatization and inversion in elegiac love. Originally published in 1997.

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                                                                                      1.1

                                                                                      Tibullus’s programmatic elegy has long been considered fundamental to understanding his poetry. Two landmark readings of the poem are Jacoby 1909 and Lee 1974.

                                                                                      • Jacoby, Felix. 1909. Tibulls erste Elegie. Rheinische Museum 64:601–666.

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                                                                                        This landmark article signaled the shift from Tibullus to Propertius being considered the preeminent elegist. Continued in Rheinische Museum 65:22–87.

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                                                                                        • Lee, A. Guy. 1974. Otium cum indignitate: Tibullus 1.1. In Quality and pleasure in Latin poetry. Edited by Tony Woodman and David West, 94–114. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                                                          Tibullus outlines the opposite of the ideal Cicero puts forward in De Officiis.

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                                                                                          1.4

                                                                                          Long ignored owing to its pederastic content, in the final years of the 20th century 1.4’s speech by Priapus began to receive serious attention from works such as Fineberg 1999 and Nikoloutsos 2007.

                                                                                          • Fineberg, B. 1999. Repetition and the poetics of desire in Tibullus 1.4. Classical World 92.5: 419–428.

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                                                                                            Reads Tibullan anaphora from the perspective of Kristevan psychoanalytic theory.

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                                                                                            • Nikoloutsos, Konstantinos P. 2007. Beyond sex: The poetics and politics of pederasty in Tibullus 1.4. Phoenix 67:55–82.

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                                                                                              Argues against using 1.4 as a source for understanding pederastic practices in Rome and reads it instead as programmatic for the collection as a whole, picking up on themes articulated in 1.1.

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                                                                                              1.7

                                                                                              In many ways, 1.7’s celebration of Messalla’s birthday (Johnson 1990, Van Nortwick 1990) is uncharacteristic of Tibullan elegy. The comparison of the poet’s patron to Osiris, however, has produced a series of important articles reflecting on the poet’s knowledge of Egypt (Koenen 1976), on Roman imperialism (Bowditch 2011), and on the conflicts between the poet’s dream of pastoral ease and his patron’s military and political commitments (Moore 1989).

                                                                                              • Bowditch, Phebe Lowell. 2011. Tibullus and Egypt: A postcolonial reading of Elegy 1.7. Arethusa 44:89–122.

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                                                                                                A powerful reading of the poem in terms of the pageantry of Roman imperialism and its role in creating an “imperial subject,” both among the colonizers and the colonized. The article makes good use of Said’s concept of “orientalism.”

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                                                                                                • Johnson, W. R. 1990. Messalla’s birthday: The politics of pastoral. Arethusa 23:93–113.

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                                                                                                  A subtle and eloquent reading that explores the role of Messalla as a metonym for empire and a virtual father figure for Tibullus.

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                                                                                                  • Koenen, Ludwig. 1976. Egyptian influence in Tibullus. Illinois Classical Studies 1:125–159.

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                                                                                                    A careful investigation of the figure of Osiris in 1.7 from the perspective of Egyptian religion.

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                                                                                                    • Moore, Timothy J. 1989. Tibullus 1.7: Reconciliation through conflict. Classical World 82:423–431.

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                                                                                                      Reads 1.7 in light of other Messalla poems in the corpus (2.1 and 2.5) to argue that the poet identifies his project with that of Messalla through a synthesis or sublimation of contradictory elements. Moore shows how apparent tensions between the life of the elegiac lover and that of the triumphing general are revealed in fact to complement one another, with Osiris serving as mediator.

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                                                                                                      • Van Nortwick, Thomas. 1990. Huc Veniet Messalla Meus: Commentary on Johnson. Arethusa 23:115–123.

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                                                                                                        In response to Johnson’s groundbreaking article, Van Nortwick argues that Tibullus is aware of the fragile and contradictory nature of his elegiac dream, which is embodied in the figures of Messalla and Osiris.

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                                                                                                        1.8 and 1.9

                                                                                                        Poems 1.8 and 1.9, like the earlier Marathus poem (1.4), had to wait till the end of the 20th century before they began to receive serious treatment, most notably in Booth 1996.

                                                                                                        • Booth, Joan. 1996. Tibullus 1.8 and 1.9. Museum Helveticum 53.3: 232–247.

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                                                                                                          A brilliant revisionist reading of the last two Marathus poems showing the poet’s ironic failure as a lover, while he is bested both by Pholoe, his heterosexual rival for Marathus’s affections, and by her canus amator as well.

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                                                                                                          2.5

                                                                                                          An unusual poem in the Tibullan corpus, dedicated to the son of the poet’s patron, Messalla, it engages directly with Rome’s foundation myth and features extensive intertextual relations with Virgil and Propertius (Maltby 2002).

                                                                                                          • Maltby, Robert. 2002. Tibullus 2.5 and the early history of Rome (A comparison of Tibullus 2.5, Virgil’s Aeneid and Propertius 3.9 and 4.1. Kleos: estemporaneo di studi e testi sulla fortuna dell’antico 7:291–304.

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                                                                                                            A thorough and scholarly walk-through of all possible intertextual resonances between Tibullus’s celebration of Messalinus’s election to the quindecimviri and Virgil’s Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues, as well as two Propertian poems, the first of which appears to have served as a challenge and inspiration and the second of which as a response to Tibullus.

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