Ennius introduced the elegiac couplet (see metre, greek, 3, 4) into Latin. The careers of Catullus and Ovid bound the elegiac genre's most concentrated and distinctive period of Roman development. In particular, by early Augustan times elegy emerges as the medium for cycles of first‐person (‘subjective’) poems describing the tribulations, mostly erotic, of a male poet who figuratively enslaves himself to a single (pseudonymous) mistress, distances himself from the duties associated with public life, and varies his urban mise en scène with escapist appeals to other worlds, mythological (Propertius, Ovid) or rural (Tibullus). ‘Love‐elegy’, though the term is widely used by modern critics, was not for the Romans a formal poetic category. However, a canonical sequence of Cornelius Gallus (as originator), Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid is explicitly offered by Ovid; and Quintilian's later adoption of this same canon to represent Latin elegy at large may well reflect the central role of Augustan ‘love‐elegy’ in defining the genre.
Even in the heyday of ‘love‐elegy’, the associations of the genre were never exclusively amatory. ‘Verses unequally joined framed lamentation first, then votive epigram’: Horace's interest in defining the genre in terms of its traditional origins finds some reflection in the practice of his own elegiac contemporaries. With its stress upon separation and loss, and its morbid flights of fancy (esp. in Propertius), Roman elegiac love may be implicated from the outset in funereal lament. As in Greek, the elegiac couplet is a multi‐purpose metre, but its sphere of operation can often be defined negatively as ‘not epic’. The paired contrasts between public and private, martial and peaceful, hard and soft, weighty and slight which dominate the vocabulary of late republican and early imperial poetry are associated above all with an opposition between epic and elegy. Epic is constantly the term against which elegy defines itself—even in those long narrative elegies which come near to closing the gap between the two genres. Ovid's career as an elegist, from ‘subjective’ Amores to epistolary Heroides, didactic Ars Amatoria, aetiological Fasti, funereal Tristia, and vituperative Ibis, is the pre‐eminent demonstration of the ability of a classical Roman genre to expand its range without losing its identity.
After Ovid the metre was used chiefly for epigrams and short occasional poems. The use of elegy for epigram reached a peak in the work of Martial, whose couplets can excel Ovid's in wit and technical virtuosity.
The disyllabic ending to the pentameter (see greek metre, 4(b)) became the rule in Proper‐tius' later poems and in Ovid. The strict Ovidian form of the couplet is ideally suited to pointed expression, conveyed through variation and antithesis: half‐line responding to half‐line, pentameter to hexameter, couplet to couplet. See hellenistic poetry at rome.
Subjects: Classical Studies.