At the very dawn of imperial Rome, an age of often pretentious cultural circles, arid encomiastic poetry, depraved customs and clientele-oriented writings Albius Tibullus outstands with his anchoretic lifestyle and a sincerely uninterested to fame and power attitude. Scarce information have survived about his background and life – even his praenomen is unidentified, nevertheless his poetry, harvested in Corpus Tibullianum (3 books of elegies whose last one is more likely ascribable to his patron Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus’ literary circle, as well as a Panegyricus Messallae), can assist us in portraying the main features of this romantic, melancholic and ascetic author. With Tibullus compositions elegies, which technically just identify verses written by following a precise metric (one hexameter followed by one pentameter) have almost become a sort of synonym of tenderly melancholic poetry and thus a genre.
Tibullus’ is a world of small things, sweet and reliable. He cherishes the stability and the benefits of a quiet countryside life based on being contented of what he has and not demanding for more. Resting under a tree or by a little river, far away from the city mob, leading amiably his herds and finally having a nice rest at night are his life’s pleasures, and if the Gods will assist and protect him he cannot ask for more:
Iam modo iam possim contentus vivere parvo
Nec semper longae deditus esse viae,
Sed Canis aestivos ortus vitare sub umbra
Arboris ad rivos praetereuntis aquae.
Nec tamen interdum pudeat tenuisse bidentem
Aut stimulo tardos increpuisse boves,
Non agnamve sinu pigeat fetumve capellae
Desertum oblita matre referre domum.
At vos exiguo pecori, furesque lupique,
Parcite: de magno est praeda petenda grege.
Hic ego pastoremque meum lustrare quotannis
Et placidam soleo spargere lacte Palem.
Adsitis, divi, neu vos e paupere mensa
Dona nec e puris spernite fictilibus.
Fictilia antiquus primum sibi fecit agrestis
Pocula, de facili conposuitque luto.
Non ego divitias patrum fructusque requiro,
Quos tulit antiquo condita messis avo:
Parva seges satis est, satis requiescere lecto
Si licet et solito membra levare toro.
Nonetheless Tibullus is not simply an ascetic poet praising country life (or rather a refugee from the morally decadent Roman society), he is truly shy and reserved, a naturally susceptible soul but capable of tenderness even for his herds:
Non agnamve sinu pigeat fetumve capellae
Desertum oblita matre referre domum
Tibullus, so sensitive, is clearly also an adoring lover, emotional and sweet as when he romantically treasures the moments spent under the blankets with his sweetheart while the storm outside is tapping on the roof:
…and the storm
That pelts my thatch breaks not my rest,
While to my heart I clasp the beauteous form
Of her it loves the best.
Tibullus melancholic mood pervades his verses, especially those referred to his misfortunate love stories. Delia (according to Apuleius probably the Hellenistic transliteration of Plania – Δήλος=planos) is his principal – albeit not the only one with Nemesi (Revenge – obviously a pseudonym) – inspirer and the protagonist of his first book of elegies. His inclination to sorrow, drama and melancholy are portrayed in sublime verses as those when he dreams of being mourned by his beloved when he will be dead:
With thine own arms my lifeless body lay
On that cold couch so soon on fire!
Give thy last kisses to my grateful clay,
And weep beside my pyre!
And weep! Ah, me! Thy heart will wear no steel
Nor be stone-cold that rueful day:
Thy faithful grief may all true lovers feel
Nor tearless turn away!
Yet ask I not that thou shouldst vex my shade
With cheek all wan and blighted brow:
But, O, to-day be love’s full tribute paid,
While the swift Fates allow.
Soon Death, with shadow-mantled head, will come,
Soon palsied age will creep our way,
Bidding love’s flatteries at last be dumb,
Unfit for old and gray.
Tibullus praise of a search for a protected, cosy retreat in the countryside where he can be quietly happy with his darling might have been disdained by many – if not all – of his contemporaries, and probably even moderns may label him with mediocrity and cowardice. Contrarily it is admirable his courage in refusing consistently the affected literary fashions, his poetry lacking of redundant mythological references and Alexandrine erudite allusions.
His is steadily scornful of the ethical dissolution of Roman ancient values and prefers unashamedly the aurea mediocritas:
My small, sure crop contents me…
Furthermore Tibullus shows no interest or greed at all for any political assignment or position and its consequent easy riches:
Non ego divitias patrum fructusque require
How many people would actually have been – and even nowadays be – bold enough do formulate these choices and endure them without any sincere regret?