Alone among the ancient classical verse forms the elegy endures as a modern one. In Augustan Rome – the world of Caesar and Cicero, but also of the elegists Catullus, Propertius and Ovid – the public uses of poetry included epic history, theology, scientific reports and political theory. To write such things in verse now would look clownish, but the spirit of Roman elegy lives on and is, indeed, at the heart of what we call poetry.
Against the tenor of very confident times, the elegists of the first century bc were wry, satirical, funny, but also doubtful, depressed and conflicted. ‘I love, and I hate’, Catullus wrote of Lesbia, the woman who obsessed him. Catullus, like his fellow elegists, was fascinated by the chastened reflections and secret desires of his own mind, the paradox and irony of self-knowledge, the operation of memory, the dread of loss. The modernity of his work lies not in its strict ‘elegiac’ metre, but in its self-examination and tone: erotic, lyrical, scabrous, black; sick with love, laughing at fate, longing for home, trembling at death. This makes the poems so adaptable to translation that they closely resemble the poetry of our own times.
All this is by way of introducing Quintilius, a rather less renowned and much later Roman elegist, whose work I first discovered in the 1970s in versions by the poet Peter Russell. They seemed an intriguing link between modernism and the Augustan sensibility; but also, from a personal point of view, to one puzzled by love and by the whereabouts of happiness, sharply piquant. His full name is Cittinus Aurelianus Quintilius Stultus (the last meaning ‘fool’) and he was born, we are told, the son of a freed Berber slave in the North African town of Sfax, in (modern) Tunisia. This was in ad 390, when the empire had long been declining into, as Edward Gibbon put it, a ‘frail and mouldering edifice’, corroded by luxury and deceit, and beset at almost every frontier by barbarian in
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