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Jan/Feb 2013 Reviews & Interviews

I offer you first fruits from my ancestral fields...

Elegies: with Parallel Latin Texts (Oxford World's Classics) by Tibullus
Translated by A. M. Juster.
Oxford University Press. 2012. 176 pp.
ISBN 978-0199603312.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! Rome of the mid and late 1st century BCE was an enormously powerful republic in flux. It had achieved an empire stretching from Great Britain to Egypt, from North Africa to the Black Sea, at the cost of a continuing struggle for internal and external cohesion. Uprisings in its own immediate countryside were quelled at the price of Latin citizenship for all resident and natural born Italians, a category which included a wide range of ethnic groups. The need to maintain huge tracts of conquered land required the naturalization of key citizens from the subject countries.

These demands resulted in massive changes to the Roman culture, not altogether different from the changes to our own over the past 60 years. Foreign citizens brought foreign customs. The Romans themselves were deeply divided over whether to incorporate these customs into their lives. The young, in particular, often found the new eastern influence irresistibly attractive.

The changes were so complex and confusing that the citizens sought their familiar lives back by accepting a dictatorship under the most Roman of Romans Julius Caesar. The opposition understood that the one most important aspect of traditional Roman life, however, would be destroyed as the result: Rome would no longer be a republic. Caesar was famously assassinated and a great civil war ensued while the frontiers still needed to be defended and their goods brought to market. Huge ethnically mixed armies were required in order to accomplish all of this. The confusion only increased.

Among the vastly many changes all of this provoked, the heads of Rome's patrician families, and their sons and retainers, were constantly away from home conducting war and trade. They left behind them their wives to manage their estates. Those wives and their daughters were freed, as a result, to enjoy a kind of de facto women's liberation. The youngest often followed the new "cool" customs, worshipping Osiris and Isis instead of the Roman gods, donning rich robes and jewelry, and seizing the opportunity of their freedom to take lovers.

At this time, patrician husbands began to experience an unprecedented difficulty begetting heirs. Many wives had become adept at a wide range of methods of contraception and abortion in order to enjoy their lovers without detection. They preferred lovers, and the gifts and delicious intrigue that came with them, to being mothers.

Among the most desired lovers were the sons of wealthy families who had been left behind as too young or otherwise unfitted for war. As young men they had certainly been sent to school in Rome, and, almost as certainly, to finishing school in Athens or Alexandria, where many primarily studied Greek poetry. In short, they were highly polished and sometimes even possessed of access to considerable wealth.

Over the space of some dozen years, Julius Caesar's favorite nephew Octavius—who later would be known as Augustus Caesar—would craftily win the succession of civil wars that followed his assassination. It seems that young Albius Tibullus's family had initially sided with the faction around the assassins, and, perhaps as the result, the majority of their estates had been lost during the poet's youth. In order to get into Octavius's good graces, he followed his family's patron, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, on a victorious military campaign into Aquitaine, on behalf of the new Caesar, where he shared Messala's table and appears to have received commendations for valor.

For all the confusion and conflict, Rome grew vastly wealthier, over the same period, with war booty and colonial trade. In the words of A. M. Juster's particularly adept translation of Tibullus's Elegies:

Our iron age approves not love but, loot of war—
though loot has played a role in many evils...

A looter longs to occupy the boundless plains
so many acres feed his countless sheep.
He longs for foreign marble, and his column's hauled
through city street-life by uncounted oxen.

Traditional Roman virtue was rapidly disappearing. The traditional noble ideal was being replaced by the avarice of "mere" freemen. A nouveau riche was displacing the culture in which Tibullus had grown up.

However Tibullus came to be decorated for his service in Aquitaine, his Elegies make it clear that the campaign left him with one overwhelming desire:

I offer you first fruits from my ancestral fields,
from a full sty, a pig, a farmer's gift.
I'll follow in clean clothes and bear the basket bound
with myrtle leaves with myrtle on my head.
I'll please you all this way; let someone else well armed
and helped by Mars lay hostile leaders low
so as a soldier he can tell me deeds while drinking
and paint the camp with wine upon the table!

War was dirty, uncomfortable and dangerous. Upon his return he had become Delia's lover and only wanted to marry her and leave the run of the estate to her. Pleading fragile health, he managed to live out the rest of his days between his farm and visits to the poetry circles of Rome.

To support his aversion to business and war, Tibullus often cites a mythical prehistoric Rome much like modern American hippies romanticized pre-Columbian, native American lifestyles. In the olden days, when men lived on acorns, according to Tibullus's amusing mythology, there were no wars, no long dusty trips to be taken, and love was simple and unencumbered by coyness or exchange for expensive gifts.

Among the conservative factions to which almost all patrician families and their clients belonged, such sentiments were offensive. Among the liberal factions to which almost all poets and their patrons belonged, they were provocative, delightfully decadent. Tibullus was a pretty boy and he didn't care who knew it. He had his estate, his friends and his lovers and no worse complaint than a reduced fortune.

I do not miss my fathers' wealth or profits built
from yields that my old grandfather had saved.
A small crop is enough; it is enough to rest
in bed and loll upon familiar sheets.
How sweet it is while lying down to hear fierce winds
and hold a mistress with a tender grasp.

As for his friends, they had his sensual, beautifully fluent poetry, descended from the Greek of Callimachus and the Greek Anthology—probably gained by the finest liberal education a Roman could afford—and the gentle melancholy of his person, and that was enough.

The "familiar sheets," from the swatch of Juster's translation above, are something of an anachronism meant to invoke a comparable feeling in the modern reader's mind. He uses such tropes sparingly and with excellent judgment throughout. Elsewhere, in Juster, Tibullus imagines a "For Sale" sign in front of his house such as did not exist at the time. In the original Latin the sign is an auction notice. He imagines his lover picking a door lock with a hairpin while such locks at the time were much too large to pick. In the case of the "familiar sheets," they are part anachronism, part best guess. In the original, Tibullus is referring either to pillows or mattress ticking. Juster chooses ticking and lightens it up to give the modern reader a recognizable contemporary equivalent for the poet's sense of simple luxury. Bed sheets, as we presently know them, did not yet exist in the western world.

The allure of running a small estate, and being the subject of poems already highly appreciated by Rome's finest poets, was not enough for Delia, in the end. In time, she married another, probably wealthier, more ambitious man, who seems to have spent considerable time on the road. Tibullus briefly remained her secret lover and poet as opportunity presented itself.

For all that Tibullus's noble heritage and reduced circumstances had left him decrying the new wealth and the changes it was bringing, his love of young friends and lovers left him with a foot in both camps. While his older contemporary, the poet Virgil, sternly wrote country poems filled with details of crop rotation and manuring fallow fields and strictly Roman gods, Tibullus's Elegies are delightfully interwoven with allusions to Isis and Osiris (interlopers from the east) and flower-strewn local festivals. He cherished the Lares of his family home—much humbler spirits that protected the hearth—more than the huge gods that traveled the universe beyond. He found the slaves and servants on his estate, and his country neighbors, and their rustic celebrations, delightfully picturesque—much to be preferred to Mars, the god of war.

Poetry was not all Tibullus brought back from Greece. Even sturdy, supremely Roman Virgil was unable to resist an elegy reviving the Greek tradition of boy-love. In Virgil's case, the elegy is a dialogue between two purportedly fictional characters. Tibullus, on the other hand, was all about satisfying his own desire, a fact that suggests his elegies about his pursuit of the boy Marathus where genuinely personal. When the boy cheats on him, he is clear about what has been sullied between them:

And yet my lad has slept with him! I might believe
that he could couple with an untamed beast!
How dare you sell my fondling to other men?
Weren't you insane to offer them my kisses?

The Romans of that time, while not as disgusted as modern British and Americans, rejected boy-love as a vice (the "Greek vice," as the poet Horace called it). The new young sophisticated noble, on the other hand, found it daring to write about, even tempting to engage in.

Here, as in most of Juster's translation, the rendering is not only fine as poetry but literal. The poetic unit is the unrhymed couplet throughout. More than occasionally (as is the case in the first two lines above), the first line features one more iambic foot than the second, approximating the original elegiac couplet, utilized by Tibullus, which consisted of a dactylic hexameter followed by a dactylic pentameter. Juster allows his iambics to grow quite loose from time to time in order to get the same effects of concision or of a gentle falling-off in the second line, and even an occasional sense of the longer, quantitative (long-and-short, versus our English stressed-and-unstressed) Roman poetic foot. The frequency and selection of enjambment and run-on lines even approximates the original text.

His affair with Delia having ended, Tibullus, as might be expected, will seek out a more sophisticated dalliance. He will refer to her as "dominam" (mistress, domineer-ess) and stress her imperiousness, a trope that will dominate love poetry for centuries to come. For the sake of the elegies he will write for her, he will name her "Nemesis" (the Greek Goddess of humiliation). She is his irresistible torturer.

I swore so often not to go back to her door,
yet when I swore, my willful feet returned.
Cruel love, if only it were possible I'd see
your darts and arrows smashed and torches snuffed.

For these very reasons, she is his muse. He cannot write a lick of poetry without the luscious pain she brings him.

But, for all the second book of the Elegies belongs to Nemesis, she is less present than was Delia. Other subjects require her poet's attention: friends, festivals, his patron's son. And then there is the silence of an early grave. He died, in 19 BCE, in his mid-30s. According to the poet Ovid, his mother was with him when he died which probably means that he died on his farm. In Ovid's elegy, Delia and Nemesis were in attendance at his funeral pyre.

It is clear that an enormous amount of effort has gone into making A. M. Juster's translation seem as artfully simple as Tibullus's original Elegies. It is difficult to believe that they could possibly be better rendered into contemporary English.

 

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