Classics Tibullus
Paul Allen Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0248


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.


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.

  • Lenz, Fridericus Waltharius, and Godehardus Carolus Galinsky. 1971. Albius Tibullus: Aliorumque Carmina Tres Libri. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    A complete reworking of Lenz’s original text (1959), with a very thorough apparatus criticus.

  • Luck, Georg. 1988. Tibullus. Stuttgart: Teubner.

    The most influential modern critical text.

  • Ponchont, Max, ed. 1967. Tibulle et les auteurs du corpus tibullianum. Paris: Société d’édition Les Belles-Lettres.

    Some interesting variant readings with a very thorough introduction.

  • Postgate, John Percival. 1924. Tibulli Aliorumque Carminum Libri Tres. 2d ed. Oxford Classical Texts. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is the standard reference text in the Anglophone world.

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