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Love in the Empire, Tibullus

Updated on February 28, 2012

Albius Tibullus, 55-19 BCE, is another of the Augustan poets. The empire brought forth Rome's artists, perhaps because empire had a need for advertisement, for justification, for instructors in the proper way to love it, and these things had not been required of the Republic. Apart from his poetry, we know little of Tibullus. Horace wrote him a playful letter which has survived, and a eulogy. Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus was his patron, and he was a good client, mixing in his patron's achievements and virtues into his elegies, which otherwise dwelt on love affairs from a position of country retreat. If Virgil was the great imperial poet, and Horace the voice of the common man hiding in the country, then Tibullus is the harried voice of the imperial officer, the functionary of empire who does not create the administration, but does make it work. His is a voice one might hear centuries later in the pages of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter .

World Poetry introduces Tibullus with a selection from his elegies Delia , published in 26 BCE, translated by Humphrey Clucas. The sense of space, of distance within the empire, is strong in this poem:

Cross the Aegean without me, then, Messalla--

But think of me, you and your foreign staff. I'm stuck here

In Phaecia, sick, in a foreign land. Death,

Keep your grasping, black hands to yourself

And let me be. I've no mother here

To clutch my charred bones to a sad heart,

Nor sister to spread perfume over my ashes

Or weep with streaming hair beside my grave.

And no Delia either…

It has been noted by scholars who make the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries their study that no colony was considered settled until the women were there. Colonies in which the imperial power was represented by men alone were still savage gardens. It was the presence of the English (French, Portuguese, or Spanish) woman that made a colony an extension of the motherland, imbued with the powers of civilization. While it was a project of men alone, a colony was not settled, but dangerous, a region of risk for the civilized man who left his culture behind him and might lose his restraint and his honor in a descent into the surrounding primeval chaos and primitive social order surrounding him--like Mr. Kurtz in Conrad's oft cited tale, The Heart of Darkness . Here, Tibullus feels a similar dislocation and distance while yet within the Roman empire, abandoned by his patron in a land not his own, without women to mourn him should he die.

Tibullus speaks of taking Delia's leave, of her worry over him and his own hesitations.

…With my foot

Poised on the high road, I claimed my stumbling

Warned of disaster! Let no man leave home

When Love forbids him. Let him look to the gods.

Far preferable to modern times and their opportunity for travel, is the home and hearth of ancient days, the stability at the center of the world: Rome. This hearkening to simplicity, to a lost age of virtue associated with the smaller world of the city when it had not yet risen to full power, was seen in Roman politics as well as Roman verse; Cato was famous for it and Cicero could summon it when needed.

Better to have lived in the old days

When Saturn ruled, before the world was made

So free fro travel. Pines had not learnt

To mock the ocean then, or hang sails

For the wind to billow, nor did mariners

Fill their holds with foreign goods….

The Saturn age of peace and prosperity, when man and nature lived in a harmony that necessitated no murder, no war. But neither we nor Tibullus lived in Saturn's age:

But Jupiter rules now: wounds, killings,

Deaths by water--thousands of ways to go.

The peace available to man in this age, separated from his friends and his loves, lies on the other side of death, in the Elysian fields, which Tibullus presents in very much the same terms as the earth of Saturn's age. There, fruit comes without labor, and man is again happy, young, and beloved. Of course, there is an alternative to paradise: hell. In the afterlife of Tibullus there is a place of punishment for the great sinners, but this is a place for those who interfere with the love that exists between Delia and himself. He and she are destined for the other place and joy.

What does Tibullus worry about, separated from his love? He worries that he will receive the Roman equivalent of a "Dear John" letter:

Be chaste, Delia. Keep your old nurse

Always beside you. Let her guard your honour.

He desires that Delia stay true and think of him until he returns. The empire and its duties demand absences that destroy the unity of lovers, that threaten the fragile bond that forms in the presence of one another, and it is the dissolution of that bond, the movement of Delia from chaste devotion to one absent to the living presence of an alternative lover that Tibullus fears.

World Poetry continues the story of Tibullus and Delia with a selection translated by Rachel Hadas. Here we learn that Delia, whose chastity was of such concern to Tibullus, is a married woman, and their love a secret, illicit passion. Marriages were not about love. They were about property, patronage, political connections and class solidarity. Concluded with the bodies of men and girls, they expressed the interests of the patriarchs of the Roman house more than they did the expectations and desires of the married partners. This was certainly true of aristocratic marriages and the marriages of striving young men who hoped to make something of themselves in the Roman state. Love was a passion that existed for the poets largely outside of the confines of the business transaction that was a Roman marriage.

Tibullus begins speaking to a door, a locked door which is closed to him now, but has been open to him before. It bars him from Delia, who is on the other side. The door is a party to their infidelity, barring him at this moment at another it will open.

You, Delia, must be bold and cunning too;

Venus helps those who help themselves, you know.

Venus teaches the lovers the skills that bring them together, the silent footstep and the ways through the night, perilous on Roman streets with thieves, muggers, and watchmen bearing torches, threatening to reveal the identities of those who must remain hidden.

Whoever sees us, please pretend you didn't;

Venus prefers her lovers snugly hidden.

Don't make a racket, do not ask my name

Or blind me with an outthrust torch's flame.

If you were fool enough to see us, then

Pray to the gods that you'll forget again

The final resort of the illicit lover is magic, and Tibullus in this elegy does not disdain its use, but claims he has a spell given him by a wise witch that will protect them both by blinding Delia's husband to the fact of her adultery.

He'll be unable to believe his eyes.

But keep away from other men! He'll be

Suspicious of every man but me.

This is the chastity the adulturer demands of his beloved: that he be the only "other" man. That a wife must please her husband is a given, it is the understood exclusion from the desired monogamy. But this exclusion does not in the lover's eyes make the body of his lover free to all, or to those whom she chooses in addition to her husband. The husband is an unfortunate fact; all other men would be willful betrayals. Tibullus's witch's charm is given power over the husband and the lover, the first to blind and the other to bind.

Tibullus then gives us a glance into the life of an imperial citizen who would rather be somewhere else. He is ambitious enough to tie himself to men whose careers will carry him with them away from home, and yet he desires to be home. He loves, but his love brings him to sneak through the dangerous dark streets of Rome, hiding his face and his identity from a betrayed husband, unsure of the fidelity of his beloved. There are gods and magic enough, of course, but what remains true, what we connect with through the changes time has wrought between the Augustan age and our own, is the small man with his simple desires navigating a world of problems far beyond him, guided only by his self-interest and his lust for ease.


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    • TL Boehm profile image

      TL Boehm 6 years ago from Bernalillo, New Mexico

      Ah. Nice. A poet for the common man. Its good to read and reread the masters. Thank you for the reminder. Wonderful write.