Cornelius Gallus

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Gaius Cornelius Gallus (ca. 70 BC – 26 BC), Roman poet, orator and politician, was born of humble parents at Forum Livii (Forlì)[1] in Italy.

At an early age he moved to Rome, where he was taught by the same master as Virgil and Varius Rufus. Virgil, who was in great measure indebted to the influence of Gallus for the restoration of his estate, dedicated one of his eclogues (X) to him. The Erotica Pathemata of Parthenius of Nicaea was also dedicated to Gallus.

In political life Gallus espoused the cause of Octavian, and as a reward for his services was made prefect of Egypt (Suetonius, Augustus, 66). In 29 BC, Cornelius Gallus led a campaign to subdue a revolt in Thebes. He erected a monument in Philae to glorify his accomplishments. Gallus' conduct brought him into disgrace with the emperor, and a new prefect was appointed. After his recall, Gallus put an end to his life (Cassius Dio, liii 23).

Gallus enjoyed a high reputation among his contemporaries as a man of intellect, and Ovid (Tristia, IV) considered him the first of the elegiac poets of Rome. He wrote four books of elegies chiefly on his mistress Lycoris (a poetical name for Cytheris, a notorious actress), in which he took for his model Euphorion of Chalcis; he also translated some of this author's works into Latin. He is often thought of as a key figure in the establishment of the genre of Latin love-elegy, and an inspiration for Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid. Almost nothing by him has survived; until recently, one pentameter ("uno tellures diuidit amne duas") was all that had been handed down. Then, in 1978 a papyrus was found at Qasr Ibrim, in Egyptian Nubia, containing nine lines by Gallus, arguably the oldest surviving MS of Latin poetry.[2] The fragments of four poems attributed to him, first published by Aldus Manutius in 1590 and printed in Alexander Riese's Anthologia Latina (1869), are generally regarded as a forgery; and Pomponius Gauricus's ascription to him of the elegiac verses of Maximianus is no longer accepted.

The surviving poetry of Gallus[edit]

Scholars used to believe, in the absence of any surviving poetry by Gallus and on the basis of his high reputation among his contemporaries, that his poetical gifts were little short of those of Virgil. The classicist Frank Terney famously declared in 1922: 'What would we not barter of all the sesquipedalian epics of empire for a few pages of Cornelius Gallus, a thousand for each!'[3] The discoveries at Qasr Ibrim have now given us nine lines of Gallus. Coincidentally, one of them mentions Lycoris, ('saddened, Lycoris, by your wanton behaviour'), confirming their authorship. Possibly atypical, these surviving lines are of disappointing quality. They are written in a Latin more Lucretian and Catullan than Virgilian, and a certain roughness in the composition recalls Quintilian's judgement that Gallus's style was durior (rather harsh). Their sentiments are conventional, and show little trace of originality.

Four lines which probably once stood at the beginning of a poem pay homage to Julius Caesar shortly before his assassination, on the eve of his projected campaign against the Parthians:

Fata mihi, Caesar, tum erunt mea dulcia, quom tu / maxima Romanae pars eris historiae / postque tuum reditum multorum templa deorum / fixa legam spolieis deivitiora tueis.

'I will count myself blessed by fortune, Caesar, when you become the greatest part of Roman history; and when, after your return, I admire the temples of many gods adorned and enriched with your spoils.'

This obsequious compliment is scarcely to be taken seriously. The Augustan poets tended to distance themselves from the world of high politics, and often drew a humorous contrast between the martial ambition of their rulers and their own ignoble love affairs. The next, missing, stanza probably subverted the sense. 'As it is, while you're off winning renown by conquering Parthia, I'm stuck here in Rome, with nothing to do but make love to Lycoris.'

A second, incomplete, block of four lines appears to be addressed to Lycoris. So long as she likes his verses, Gallus seems to be saying (the verb in the third line was probably placeatur, to please), he will ignore the hostile comments they are likely to attract from famously conservative critics such as Cato:

. . . tandem fecerunt carmina Musae /quae possim domina deicere digna mea. / . . . atur idem tibi, non ego, Visce / . . . Kato, iudice te vereor.

'At last the Muses have made songs fit for me to lay at the feet of my mistress. So long as . . . [they are pleasing] to you, I am not afraid to be judged by you, Viscus, . . . nor by you, Cato.'

Preceded by
Office created
de facto by Cleopatra VII as Queen of Egypt
Prefect of Egypt
30 BC – 26 BC
Succeeded by
Aelius Gallus


  1. ^ "Cornelio Gallo grande oratore ed insigne poeta fu forlivese: ed, oltrecché esso stesso pare lo affermi, dicendo essere delle vicinanze de' monti di Toscana, Eusebio De Temporibus lo dimostra chiaro; siccome P. Crinito Lib. 3 Cap. 42. de' Poeti, l'Eremitano nelle Cronache del mondo, Vincenzo Belvacense, Gio. R. Testore, il Biondo, il Mancinelli nel Comentario di Virgilio, il Leandro, l'Astolfi nell'Aggiunta a Laerzio, Ambrogio Calepino, Fanusio Campani, ed universalmente tutti gli altri scrittori". P. Bonoli, Storia di Forlì, Bordandini, Forlì 1826, vol. I, p. 46.
  2. ^ R.D. Anderson, P.J. Parsons, & R.G.M. Nisbet, "Elegiacs by Gallus from Qasr Ibrim", Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979) 128
  3. ^ F. Terney, Vergil: A Biography (1922)