A short biography of one of ancient Rome’s lost poets
1. The poetry of Gallus inspired a whole raft of famous Roman poets, but none of his work survives. Author of the Metamorphoses, Ovid (pictured below right), praised Gallus alongside the Greek writers Homer and Sophocles (the author of the classic play Oedipus the King), and the celebrated Roman author Virgil. Virgil himself includes Gallus in two of his pastoral poems known as the Eclogues. Indeed, the tenth Eclogue is dedicated to Gallus. Propertius called him one of Rome’s first great love poets. Yet none of Gallus’ work survived antiquity.
2. Only one line of Gallus’ work has endured, but it isn’t particularly inspiring. In a book on geography, the writer Vibius Sequester quotes Gallus’ line ‘uno tellures dividit amne duas’. This line translates as nothing more poetic than ‘it is divided by one river into two lands’. Not exactly Ovid’s Amores, is it?
3. Gallus was once a favourite of the Emperor Augustus, but he fell from favour and ended up taking his own life. In 26 BC, Gallus killed himself after he had been effectively ostracised from Augustus’ court, for unknown reasons. It is speculated that Augustus may have ordered the destruction of Gallus’ work, which would certainly help to explain why none of the work of such a celebrated and influential poet has survived. The truth, though, is that we don’t know what happened.
4. But what did Gallus actually write? His compositions supposedly included four books of love elegies for the mistress of Mark Antony. An actress named Cytheris (whose stage name was Lycoris), thought to have been one of Mark Antony’s lovers, was elegised in one of the works by Gallus which Servius – a commentator on Virgil’s work – mentions.
5. Gallus belonged to a group of poets known as the neoteroi, or ‘new poets’. These poets were inspired by the finely polished, and often allusive, poetry written by the Alexandrians. They were a sort of neoclassical group (as well as being, chronologically speaking, just classical), though Stuart Kelly, in his fascinating Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read, likens the neoteroi to the modernists. Gallus may well have been the T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound of ancient Rome. But all we can do is speculate: without any of his work to read, we can but wonder.
If you enjoyed these facts about the forgotten Roman poet Gallus, you might also enjoy our facts about Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses.