Paul Allen Miller |
In poem 1.7, Tibullus celebrates the accomplishments of Messalla as an incarnation of Osiris. The occasion of the poem is the birthday of the triumphant general (1.7.1-2), and the mythic evocation of the god that occupies its center, as in a Pindaric ode, is meant to reflect the glory of the laudandus. It functions so as to equate the prominent Roman general and literary patron, with the extent of the empire—its global reach under the reign of Octavian and its mapping of a new cosmopolitan world of conquest and exchange stretching from Aquitaine in the west to the Nile in the east. Nonetheless, the identification of Messalla, a Roman patrician, with the eastern, castrated consort of Isis presents a paradox that reflects in turn on the contradictions of the poet’s vocation.
First, the poet seems to dissociate Tibullus' earlier erotic preoccupations from the concerns of this poem, and in fact Delia is never mentioned again after 1.6 (Lee-Stecum 1998: 210-11). While Leach has argued that this gesture represents a move “in the direction of reality” and represents the view of the “historical Tibullus,” such a reading involves at minimum a very strange conception of history and reality as normally understood (1980: 90). Nonetheless, the poem is sufficiently different in tone from its predecessors that Leach’s desire to mark that difference is understandable. Second, the poet frequently contrasts the life of love in other poems throughout the corpus with the life of the soldier, who is its antithesis and is associated with violence, greed, and foreign travel in search of gain (Boyd 1984: 273-74; Kennedy 1993: 14-15). The soldier in Tibullus represents the end of the Golden Age and thus also of the ideal of amorous plentitude and rural simplicity with which the age is often associated (Bright 1978: 24, 199; Lyne 1980: 153). Finally, Osiris, in his function as the bringer of agriculture, is linked with Bacchus later in the poem, and is thereby said to be the father of poetry and song as well.
By the same token, one of Messalla’s accomplishments, for which he is identified with Osiris in his guise as culture hero, is his repair of the via Latina (1.7.57-60). But roads are not necessarily good. Tibullus tells us, on the one hand, that viae are signs of the end of the Golden Age (1.1.25-26, 1.3.36-37) and, on the other, that his going on the road with Messalla caused a near fatal separation from his beloved (1.3.1-10). The world of conquest, trade, and exchange, which depends on roads, is foundational for Roman civilization, for Tibullus’s relation with Messalla, and, as we find out later, for exclusive sexual possession itself. The Golden Age was, in fact, a time not only before roads, but also before doors, when fur-clad primitives made love in the open air (2.3.67-76). Messalla as the road building Osiris is, then, both the necessary condition for Tibullus’ vocation as a poet of exclusive love and the symbol of all divides him from that vocation.
Messalla, as the poet’s patron and avatar of Osiris, is identified with the very origins of Tibullus’ art. Yet, as the previous points make clear, he is also the symbol of all that opposes the idyllic life of love, which constitutes the subject of that art (Bright 1978: 41; Johnson 1990: 96-109). Messalla, thus, as Osiris is the very figure of the elegist’s aporetical relation to Roman culture: his simultaneous dependence on and separation from its Symbolic norms. Within poem 1.7, then, Messalla is figured as both a castrated eastern god and the symbol of Roman military dominance, and in that guise he makes possible a poetry that posits itself as both symbolically opposed to that military dominance (1.1.1-10) and thus to all that Messalla as triumphing general seems to represent.