Latin Authors: Propertius and Tibullus. Amanda Garrick. Elegiac Poetry.
Popular in the time of Propertius and Tibullus, Elegiac meter consisted of one line of hexameter followed by a line of pentameter. Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid were the major elegiac poets in the time of Augustus. Although Ovid would branch out into epic poetry, Propertius and Tibullus constrained their poetry to the topic of love, and they wrote in a decidedly erudite style, as they believed love poetry ought to be “private” and less accessible to the masses than poetry traditionally had been.
Genres: Propertius generally wrote love poetry, although he also composed his share of verses in praise of his patron, Maecenas, and of course Augustus. In his later poetry, after the conclusion of his affair with Cynthia, he attempted to deal with “grander” topics like Roman history but died before he could finish his entire fourth book. His style is described as vastly different from Tibullus, although both wrote love elegies.
Sextus Propertius was an elegiac poet who lived between 50 BC and 15 BC. His father died when he was young but his mother, determined that he should have a successful public career, made sure that he received a good education and associated with politically powerful friends. Around 30 BC he met Cynthia, the older woman who would inspire his early poetry, and in 25 BC he published Cynthia Monobiblos, his first book of love poems. He wrote three more books of poetry over the next ten years, gradually branching out into topics of Roman history and praises of Augustus but overall staying true to his original topic. Based on the poems in his third book, his affair with Cynthia appears to have all but ended by that time. Propertius is thought to have died midway through work on his fourth book, which may have been published posthumously.
During his time Propertius described himself as popular. Although his fellow poets seemed sometimes to disagree, his influence was clearly substantial. Quotes from several of his poems were even found as graffiti at Pompei.
Like Propertius, Tibullus wrote love elegies. His centered around three separate love affairs; one with Delia, one with Nemesis, and one with Marathus. Other themes of his work include a contempt and rejection of war and a favoring of country life to the city. Compared to Propertius his style is smoother, lengthier, and in terms of grammar and word choice, simpler.
Less is known of Albius Tibullus than of Propertius. He was born in 55 BC, probably into a wealthy family, although he lost most of his estate in 41. He was probably a Roman knight, and may have accompanied his friend and patron Marcus Convinus on a campaign in Gaul. He was said to have “died young” in 19 BC, the same year as Virgil and supposedly was greatly missed in Rome.
Although apparently not as widely read as Propertius, Tibullus was sorely missed in Rome after his death in 19 BC, suggesting respect among his contemporaries. Domitius Marsus makes clear the gravity of the loss, and Ovid even included Tibullus in a poem in the Amores.
The love poetry of Propertius and Tibullus has been widely influential to other authors since the Augustan age. The poems not only have been emanated in style and subject matter in everything from Shakespeare’s versus (sonnet 55) to Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius. The themes grappled with in their work are still dealt with by poets today, and scholars suggest that their legacies have shaped not only poetry, but traditional conceptions of love, sexuality, and romance.
Of the two poets, Propertius is the more popular in the modern literary world, and his passionate, tense, controlled style continues to be influential to poets and writers.