Poets of Latin Love Elegy

"Playing Cupids" - wall painting (60-79 AD) from Herculaneum, House of the Deer
Carlo Raso/Flickr/Public Domain Mark 1.0

The Roman form of love elegy may be traced back to Catullus who was among a group of poets who had emerged from the patriotic epic and dramatic tradition to write poetry on topics of personal significance. Catullus was one of the neoteric poets -- a group of young people whom Cicero criticized. Typically, of independent means, they avoided the customary political career and, instead, spent their time devoted to poetry.

Other names mentioned by later writers in the formation of the elegy tradition are Calvus and Varro of Atax, but it's Catullus' work that survives (Latin Love Elegy, by Robert Maltby).

The Lovers

Don't expect to read only maudlin sentiments from love-struck would-be lovers. There are some vicious attacks and other shocking surprises in store for you. You can learn a lot about Roman customs from the Roman love elegy poets. Much biographical information about the poets comes from these personal poems, although there is a constant danger of assuming the persona of the poem is the same as the poet.

Douglas Galbi's "understanding Ovid's satirical Roman love elegy" mentions that the elegy writers have been described as "beta" males -- vs. alpha males, who are "whiny, submissive, sexually desperate." The woman the poet seeks is a dura puella 'hard (-hearted) girl' whom the poet wants to see share his torment. (See: "Her Turn to Cry: The Politics of Weeping in Roman Love Elegy," by Sharon L. James; TAPhA [Spring, 2003], pp. 99-122.)

Catullus

Bust of Gaius Valerius Catullus in Sirmione

Elliott Brown/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

 

Catullus' main love interest is Lesbia, assumed to be a pseudonym for Clodia, one of the sisters of the notorious Clodius the Beautiful.

Cornelius Gallus

Portrait of C. Cornelius Gallus

Sam Howzit/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

 

Quintilian lists Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid -- only, as writers of Latin love elegy. Only a few lines of Gallus' material have been found. Gallus didn't just write poetry, but after involvement in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, he served as prefect of Egypt. He committed politically motivated suicide in 27/26 BCE. and his works were burned.

Propertius

Propertius and Tibullus were contemporaries. Propertius was probably born around 57 BCE, in or around the Umbrian area of Assisi. His education was the normal one for an equestrian, but instead of following a political career, Propertius turned to poetry. Propertius joined the circle of Maecenas, along with Virgil and Horace. Propertius died by CE 2.

Propertius' main love interest is Cynthia, a name thought to be a pseudonym for Hostia (Latin Love Elegy, by Robert Maltby).

Tibullus

Tibullus died around the same time as Virgil (19 BCE). Suetonius, Horace, and the poems themselves provide biographical detail. M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus was his patron. Tibullus' elegies are not just about love, but also about a golden age. His love interests include Marathus, a boy, as well as females Nemesis and Delia (thought to be a real woman named Plania). Quintilian considered Tibullus the most refined of the brood, but the poems he attributed to Tibullus might have been authored by Sulpicia.

Sulpicia

Sulpicia, probably a niece of Messalla, is a rare Roman woman poet whose works have survived. We have 6 of her poems. Her lover is Cerinthus (who may really be Cornutus). Her poems were included in the corpus of Tibullus.

Ovid

statue of Ovid the poet

bdmundo.com/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Ovid is the master of the Roman love elegy, although he also makes fun of it.