Learning From Tibullus

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The Augustan
poet Albius Tibullus was born sometime between 55 and 45 BC and
died young still a iuvenis ("youth") in 19 or 18 BC. 
He was a member of the equestrian class, which had a minimum property
qualification of 400,000 sesterces, but as elegy I.i makes clear,
his ancestral estates had suffered serious reduction.  This
was probably the result of Augustus’ land-confiscations for his
veteran soldiers after the battle of Philippi in 41–40 BC, confiscations
that also affected Horace and Propertius.  Although Tibullus
claims in his poetry to suffer from paupertas ("poverty"),
the term implied modest means, not outright penury, and carried
a positive moral connotation as one who did not live ostentatiously. 
Tibullus was a member of the literary circle centered on the aristocrat
M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, the second most important after that
of Maecenas.  Tibullus expressed strong allegiance to his patron,
which also included accompanying him on military campaigns as a
staff officer.

Tibullus only
lived to complete two books of elegiac poetry.  Ovid lists
the elegiac poets in the rough chronological order Gallus, Tibullus,
Propertius and Ovid himself.  An elegiac poet is one who writes
in the elegiac couplet (a dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter),
not one who writes elegies in our sense of the word.  The dominant
topic of the Roman elegiac poets was love, but the form was so flexible
it could accommodate virtually any topic.  Elegies I.1 and
I.x frame Tibullus’ first book at the beginning and end.  The
first, addressed ironically to the war-loving Messalla, is one of
the great hymns in western poetry to peace and the simple joys of
rustic life.  The second, addressed to C. Valgius Rufus, a
respected poet and consul in 12 BC, voices a strong and characteristically
unRoman rejection of military life.  Tibullus knew the full
spectrum of war all too well from battles fought next to his patron
and from the bloody civil wars that raged during most of his own
life.  Americans now live in a militaristic state that mindlessly
glorifies the martial life so long as conscription doesn’t sully
it.  We need to remember the positive value of peace enjoyed
on a modest scale, as Tibullus reminds us, if we are to make our
opposition to war fully effective and credible.

I.i Translated by Steven J. Willett

Let some other heap up his riches in yellow gold
and hold vast acres of cultivated land,
let constant fighting terrify him as enemies draw near,
the trumpets routing his sleep with battle calls:
but may my modest poverty lead me through a quiet life
so long as my hearth glows with a constant fire.
I myself would plant the tender vines in their due season
and, with a peasant’s ready hand, tall fruit trees,
and Hope would never fail me, but always pour out heaps
of grain and oily must to fill the wine vat:
for I worship garlands on the solitary stump in the field
or on an ancient stone amid the crossroads,
and from whatever fruit the new season ripens for me
an offering's laid before the farming god.
Golden Ceres, for you my farm presents a spiky wreath
of wheat to hang before your temple doors,
and in my fruit gardens the red guardian, Priapus, is set
to terrify the birds with his cruel sickle.
You too, my Lares, the guardians of a property
once happy, now poor, accept your gifts;
then a slain heifer purified innumerable bullocks,
now a lamb is sacrifice from meager lands:
a lamb shall fall for you, and round it the country youth
will cry, "Hurrah, give us crops and good wine!"
If only now, now at last, I can live content with little
and never be consigned to endless marches,
but escape the rising Dog-star beneath the shadow
of a tree beside a brook of sliding water.
I'd not be ashamed to take a hoe in hand sometimes
or snap the tardy oxen with a goad;
nor would I mind to carry home a lamb or baby goat
deserted by its own forgetful mother.
But spare my paltry little flock, you thieves and wolves:
you'll have to snatch your spoil from greater herds.
For here I'm always sure to purify my shepherd every year
and sprinkle milk upon our kindly Pales.
Stand by me, gods, and do not scorn the gifts that come
from humble table or clean earthenware:
earthenware the ancient countryman first made himself,
drinking cups he molded from the pliant clay.
I myself do not miss those ancestral riches and revenues
that garnered harvests brought my antique sire:
a little crop is quite enough, enough if I may sleep in a bed
and rest my limbs on their familiar couch.
How delightful, lying abed, to hear the boisterous wind
and fold my mistress in my tender arms
or, when the wintry South Wind scatters freezing sleet,
to pursue sleep in safety with a helping fire.
This be my fortune: let him be justly rich who can bear
the fury of the sea and desolate rains.
O sooner let the world's gold and emeralds perish
than any girl bewail my long campaigns.
It suits you, Messalla, to wage war by land and sea
so that your house may boast the enemy spoils.
But the chains of a beautiful girl hold me captive,
and I sit, a janitor, before her cruel doors.
I do not thirst for glory, my Delia; so long as I'm
with you, I seek renown as sluggish and inert.
May I look on you, when my final hour has come,
and hold you with my faltering hand as I die.
You will weep for me, Delia, laid on the bed of burning,
and give me kisses mixed with bitter tears.
You will weep: your breast is not encased in callous
iron, no flint sits in your tender heart.
From that funeral procession no youth will ever
carry, nor any maiden, dry-eyes home.
Do not wound my spirit, but spare your unbound
tresses and spare, Delia, your tender cheeks.
Meanwhile, so long as the Fates permit, let's join in love:
soon Death will come with shadow-shrouding head;
soon sluggish age will creep upon us, unfit to love,
to whisper blandishments with grizzled hair.
Now Venus' levity is our duty, when it's no shame
to shatter doors and a joy to intrude brawls.
Here I'm a brave leader and soldier: you, eagles and trumpets,
vanish away, bear wounds to ravenous men,
and bear them wealth: I, secure upon my heaped-up store,
look down on hunger and look down on fame.

I.x Translated by Steven J. Willett

Who was it,
who first invented the terrifying sword?
How savage and truly iron-tempered he was.
Then butchery for the race of men, then battles were born,
then a shorter road to cursed death was opened.
Or was that wretch quite blameless, but to our own evil we
turn what he gave us against the savage beasts?
This is the crime of opulent gold, and wars did not exist
when beechwood goblets stood beside the meal.
There were no citadels, no palisades, and securely the flock’s
commander sought his sleep with dappled sheep.
I would, Valgius, have lived then and never known cruel
warfare or heard with quaking heart the trumpet.
Now I’m dragged to war, and some enemy may already
carry the blade to burrow in my side.
Yet save me, Lares of my ancestors: you also raised me
when, as a child, I scampered about your feet.
Nor be ashamed that you are carved from an antique stump:
so shaped you dwelt in my grandsire's house of old.
They kept their faith better then, when the wooden god
stood simply tended in a scanty shrine.
He was pleased if anyone offered grapes as first fruits
or placed a spiky wreath of grain on holy hair.
Yes, and one who'd gained his prayer brought cakes in hand,
his little daughter trailing with pure honeycomb.
Drive off, O Lares, the bronze-tipped arms from me,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . .
the rustic offering of a hog from a full sty.
I'll follow it in dress of purest white bearing the basket
bound with myrtle, my head bound with myrtle.
Thus may I please you: let another be valiant in arms,
scattering the enemy captains with Mars' help,
that he may tell me, while I drink, tales of his military
feats and trace the camp in wine on tabletops.
What madness makes us summon somber Death by war?
It looms behind and comes unknown on silent feet.
No grainfields lie below, no trim vineyards, but fearless
Cerberus and the foul mariner of Stygian waters.
There, with blows to their cheeks and pyre-scorched hair,
an ashen crowd wanders by shadowy waters.
No, let us praise that hero whom, his offspring begotten,
sluggish old age surprises in a humble cottage.
He follows closely after his sheep, his son the lambs,
and his wife heats water for exhausted limbs.
So may I live, and let my head grow glitteringly white
and tell, an old man then, deeds of days gone by.
For now let Peace tend the fields. Shining Peace first
led oxen beneath the curving yoke to plow.
Peace nurtured the vines and stored the juice of grapes
so the father's jar might pour wine for the son.
In Peace the hoe and ploughshare shine, but in the dark
  rust conquers the grim arms of cruel soldiers.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . .
The farmer
drives back from the grove, far from sober,
taking his wife and offspring home in a cart.
But then the wars of love flame up, and the mistress
laments her ravaged hair and shattered doors.
She weeps for bruises to her tender cheeks, but the victor
weeps too for frenzied hands that were so strong.
Provoking Love stokes the quarrel with angry words,
then sits indifferent between the raging pair.
Oh he is stone, he is iron, who would strike his own
mistress: he drags the gods down from the sky.
It is enough to tear the tenuous gown from her limbs,
enough to rumple her ornate coiffure,
enough to make tears flow; thrice happy is he whose
anger can cause a tender girl to weep.
But he who's savage in hand should carry shield and stake
to war — let him live far from gentle Venus.
Then come to us, bountiful Peace, take the spike of grain,
and pour fruit lavishly before your shining lap.

(The dotted
lines indicate missing lines in the manuscript.)

29, 2006

Steven J.
Willett [send him mail]
is a permanent resident of Japan and professor at the Shizuoka University
of Art and Culture in Hamamatsu City. He publishes widely in Classical
poetics, metrics and translation theory.

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