Featured Review
Book Three of the Corpus Tibullianum"/>
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22nd February 2022

Featured Review
Book Three of the Corpus Tibullianum

Introduction, Text, Translation and Commentary

We were delighted to receive this very thoughtful and highly detailed review by Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, Professor of Latin Literature at the University of Lille. Professor Fabre-Serris concludes: I highly recommend Maltby’s book to everyone interested in Latin poetry as this first edition with English translation of Book Three of the Corpus Tibullianum offers a huge amount of very useful and interesting information and suggestions.” You can learn more about the book here.


With this volume of 701 pages, Robert Maltby provides the first complete text, translation and commentary in English on the third book of the Corpus Tibullianum. This book is edited four years after the Literary Commentary on the Elegies of the Appendix Tibulliana, published by Laurel Fulkerson (Oxford University Press, 2017). These two recent publications show the growing interest of English-speaking scholars in the third book of the Corpus Tibullianum, which has long been neglected in England.

The text is established by a new collation of all the manuscripts listed in the sigla. It differs in a few points from Lenz and Galinsky’s 1971 Brill text, generally used by Fulkerson, and from the previous editions: Maltby offers his own combination of choices made differently by other editors. To give an example of his interesting textual choices, in elegy 3.4.25-6, he adopts uidit (instead of illo): non uidit quicquam formosius ulla priorum/ aetas and humanum nec fuit illud opus, instead of humanum nec uidet illud opus (Fulkerson) or heroum nec tulit alta domus, (Ponchont), by taking up two choices also made by Luck and Navarro Antonin.

The translation is accurate and elegant, but, as any translation of a text depends on how this text is interpreted, Maltby’s translations reflect how he understands the different poems and the result may be discussed, especially in Sulpicia’s epigrams that are difficult to construe for reasons of style (very complex) and meaning (Sulpicia’s morally provocative positions).

In his preface, Maltby claims that, during ten years of work, his interpretation of the third book of the Corpus Tibullianum has changed. Starting from the idea that the book’s separate sections (Lygdamus 1-6, Praises of Messalla 7, Sulpicia Cycle 8-12, Sulpicia 13-18, and the two concluding poems 19-20) were written by five different authors (a poet named Lygdamus, an unnamed panegyrist, the amicus Sulpiciae, Sulpicia and another anonymous poet), Maltby is now convinced by the idea that a single author, having written to a date later than the period in which a Messalla’s circle seems to have existed, could be behind the whole composition. In the first part of the General Introduction, entitled “The Structure and Origins of [Tibullus] 3”, he defends this idea, previously argued by Holzberg in 1998-99 (CJ 94) who advocated for texts not written before the beginning of the reign of Tiberius and possibly not even before the Flavian period. Maltby bases his conviction on various reasons, by taking up some arguments advanced by Holzberg: for example, different structural and thematic correspondences between book 3 and the structure of Tibullus’ first book, that seem to me too general to be significant. Maltby also bases his assumption on the argument of “stylistic and metrical grounds”, while recognizing himself that, as noted by Fulkerson (p. 36), because of the vast quantity of Latin poetry that are lost to us, the grounds of lexical and metrical anomalies are “an uncertain science” (p. 85).

Maltby agrees with Fulkerson that “even when two passages from different poets seem to be clearly related to one another, it is often difficult to ascertain which came first” (p. 85). Since all Roman poets use intertextuality in the form of allusive writing, answering the two-fold issue, “who refers to whom and why?”, is indeed crucial and requires a very accurate examination that takes into account both the meaning of the passages in both poets, without excluding the possibility that they are drawing on a third. In my opinion, this is not the case in this book because Maltby uses the intertextuality in too broad a way, by listing wide common topics rather verbal similarities and above all without precisely contextualizing these verbal similarities. For example, in the section 1.3 “A unifying intertext: Ovid Metamorphoses 7.661-862”, Maltby argues that this story has “a plethora of correspondences with all parts of [Tib.] 3” (p. 91). However, after having given a summary of the story of Cephalus and Procris, by reducing it to the theme of the jealousy ruining a happy marriage, Maltby speaks of “a number of detailed verbal echoes between Ovid’s narrative and various sections of [Tib.] 3” (p. 92), for example, between Met. 7 and the opening poem and the closing two poems 19 and 20. First, it may be objected that the ‘marriage’ of Lygdamus and Neaera is not ruined by jealousy, and that the motif is not present either in poems 19 and 20. Secondly, all the echoes listed between Ovid and [Tib.] 3 are too general (mostly thematic and not verbal) and also too frequent in elegiac poetry to be relevant. In the following section “The Author’s Masks and the Book’s section”, to support his hypothesis, Maltby interprets the comparison of Sulpicia with Vertumnus in poem 8 (talis in aeterno felix Vertumnus Olympo, 13) as alluding to the theme of change and especially to “the adoption of what can best described as different ‘masks’ in the different sections”, by the unitary author of the whole book (p. 94). Maltby was maybe inspired by a remark of Fulkerson, who suggests that Vertumnus “potentially reflects the status of the amicus of Sulpicia of 3.9 and 3.11, clothing himself in a female identity” (p. 231).

Regardless of the fact that I disagree with the attribution of elegies 9 and 11 to the amicus, the idea of a male author adopting a female persona and writing epigrams 13-18 appears particularly problematic since Sulpicia’s style is recognized as very special and especially complex. Aware of such a difficulty, in the subsection focused on Sulpicia Cycle, Maltby claims that this (male) author “was attempting to write in the style of letters composed by a woman” (p. 103). As an example of female style, he refers to “the lesson of Ovid. Ars 3.479-482, where girls were taught how to write letters using a polite conversational style avoiding unusual words and expressions” (p. 127), but Ovid’s description does not reflect the complex syntax used in epigrams 13-8, as brilliantly analysed by Lowe in his seminal article on Sulpicia’s syntax (1988). To conclude and without discussing the different arguments put forward in detail in the following subsection, entitled “The Book’s sections”: beside the fact that such a project would have been strange in conception (why write elegiac poems using three different personas and a eulogy, all texts so different in metre, length and genre?), and very complicated to achieve and for this reason seems unlikely, the assumption for a single author, adopting various masks and writing in a post-Ovidian and probably Flavian period, for the whole work, in my opinion, is not based in a well-argued and persuasive manner. Section 3, entitled “The Characters of Book 3: Significant Names and Their Past” is divided into 5 subsections on Lygdamus, Neaera, Valerius Messalla Corvinus, Cerinthus and Sulpicia. In these sections Maltby provides very valuable information, but biased by his general interpretation of the whole book. He writes, for example: “Lygdamus was chosen by our author as a pseudonym” (p. 111), while Fulkerson asked: “is he truly unknown to us, or might the name be a pseudonym of some better-known individual?”, and concluded her investigation thus: “It is also possible that the name is not a pseudonym at all, but the actual name of an educated freeman (perhaps Tibullus’ of Messalla’s), or even of Cynthia’s slave” (p. 42).

The passage on the etymologies possibly explaining the name Lygdamus is very useful. Maltby adds to the usual etymology λύγδος ‘white marble’, that could link Lygdamus with ‘Albius’ Tibullus, a second Greek derivation: the adverb λύγδην (‘with sobs’), that could refer to the motif of dolor, present in Lygdamus’ epitaph in elegy 3 (“the word dolor … occurs mid-verse, between the two names Lygdamus and Neaera”, p. 112). Maltby is a renowned specialist in this field; he supports this very interesting suggestion by recalling that “The ancients did not believe in a single etymology for each name, but saw multiple etymological explanations as elucidating the multiple characteristics of the object named” (p. 112). I would like to mention another subtle suggestion about the presence of the name Lygdamus in Propertius. “Prop.’s use of Lygdamus as a messenger to effect a reconciliation with his mistress exactly mirrors Lygdamus’ use of the Muses in this role in poem 1. (15-28)” (p. 115). In my opinion, it is difficult to ascertain who refers to whom. Regardless of the thesis supported by Maltby about a unitary author, the passage on the similarities between Lygdamus and Propertius 3.6, 4.7 and 4.8 is very useful and well-documented. I also find interesting Maltby’s suggestion that “Our Cerinthus is not to be identified either with the Horatian Cerinthus or with the Tibullan Cornutus, but these poems clearly contribute to the construction of his character, and its inconsistencies” (p. 126).

Maltby provides a good review of the uses of the name Neaera in literature, by pointing out that, in Latin poetry, “the name always has associations of infidelity” and by listing different critical studies on the subject (p. 119). He sees in the name Neaera “a bilingual pun on Greek nea ‘new’ and Latin era ‘mistress’”, “Neaera will be a new kind of elegiac mistress” (p. 119-20). The subsection on Cerinthus (etymology, social status, identification with Cornutus) is also well-documented. In the subsection on Sulpicia, Maltby rejects her identification with the daughter of Messalla’s sister, Valeria, and Servius Rufus Sulpicius, the son of the great jurist, by referring to Holzberg and Hubbard. He does not mention, neither in this subsection nor in the subsection: the Sulpician Cycle poems 3.18-18, the names of critics who defend another position and consider Sulpicia as the author of epigrams 13-18 (Breguet, Keith, Flaschenriem, Milnor, Merriam, Lyne, Batstone, or Fulkerson, for example) or (also) of elegies 9 and 11 (such as Parker, Hallett, Dronke, or Fabre-Serris). In his detailed comment on the poems 9 and 13-18, he refers to some of these critics, but very partially, which creates an imbalance with the (two) papers of Holzberg and Hubbard, regularly cited. The General Introduction ends with a review of the manuscript tradition and “Concluding Remarks” in which Maltby again summarizes his assumption of a single author of Book 3, who would have changed perspectives and adopted different masks, by emphasizing the theme of change and of a multiplicity of view-points. However, it may be objected that this so-called ‘unifying theme’ is mainly based on Maltby’s assumption that a single author could have adopted different masks.

In the detailed comment of each poem of Book 3, Maltby provides various and valuable information about the lessons chosen, the vocabulary, the syntax and the themes. He lists verbal and thematic similarities with various texts, refers to some critics on precise points, and quotes useful studies on different literary topics. The book ends up with a list of “important intertexts for the understanding of [Tibullus] 3, grouped by characters: Lygdamus, Neaera, Messalla, Cerinthus and Sulpicia, followed by an important bibliography (Works referred to by abbreviations only, Texts and commentaries, Alphabetical list of work cited), and by three Indices, a General Index, an Index of Latin and Greek words, and an Index locorum”. I highly recommend Maltby’s book to everyone interested in Latin poetry as this first edition with English translation of Book Three of the Corpus Tibullianum offers a huge amount of very useful and interesting information and suggestions.


Jacqueline Fabre-Serris is Professor of Latin Literature at the University of Lille. She is co-director of the electronic reviews Dictynna, Eugesta, and Polymnia, and a series on mythography published by Les Presses universitaires du Septentrion. She has published on Classical Latin literature, especially on Ovid, Gallus and elegiac poetry, on mythology and mythography, she has special interests in gender, intertextuality, and reception of the Antiquity Monographs include Mythe et poésie dans les Métamorphoses d’Ovide (1995), Mythologie et littérature à Rome (1998), Rome, l’Arcadie et la mer des origins. Essai sur la naissance d’une mythologie des origines en Occident (2008). She is co-editor of Women and War in Antiquity (2015), and Identities, Ethnicities and Gender in Antiquity (2021). She is currently writing a book on Ovid and Sulpicia.


Book Three of the Corpus Tibullianum: Introduction, Text, Translation and Commentary is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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This book is part of a series. View the full series, "Pierides", here.