Gallus: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Micah Young Myers

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C. Cornelius Gallus (‘Gallus’) was a Roman poet of the first century BCE, known for his elegiac love poetry. In the view of Ovid and Quintilian Ov. Tr. 4.10.53-4 Quint. Inst. 10.1.93, he is the first in a dynasty of four major Latin love elegists (Hollis 2007: 229). There is debate about whether Gallus also wrote hexameter poetry (Ross 1975: 39-46; Zetzel 1977: 250-3). Servius Serv. ad Ecl. 10.1 reports that Gallus wrote four books of elegies, perhaps entitled Amores (‘Loves’). One pentameter Gallus fr. 1 of Gallus’ poetry survives via the manuscript tradition; fragments of twelve elegiac verses Gallus fr. 2 were discovered in 1978 on a papyrus at Qasr Ibrîm in Lower Nubia.


No ancient biography of Gallus survives. According to Jerome Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 188.17, Gallus was born in 70 BCE and died in 27 BCE; Dio Dio Cass. 53.23 dates his death to 26 BCE. The evidence is insufficient for favouring one date over the other (Daly 1979: 292-4). Suetonius Suet. Aug. 66 reports that Gallus was from a modest background. Jerome Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 188.17 describes him as Foroiuliensis, i.e., from Forum Iulium, a place name that would have been anachronistic at the time of his birth, but later became the appellation of multiple towns. Gallus’ Forum Iulium is most often identified as Fréjus in Narbonese Gaul (Syme 1938: 39-40).

Political Career, Disgrace, and Death

In addition to writing poetry, Gallus had a military career that culminated in his appointment as the first equestrian prefect of Egypt in 30 BCE CIL 3.14147. By 27/6 BCE, however, he was disgraced and committed suicide Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 188.17Dio Cass. 53.23. Suetonius Suet. Aug. 66 and Dio Dio Cass. 53.23.6 represent Gallus as corrupted by his success and his connections to Octavian/Augustus, who eventually withdrew his friendship, leading to Gallus’ downfall. Dio links Gallus’ disgrace to prideful behavior while Egyptian prefect. Similarly, Ammianus Amm. Marc. 17.4.5, as part of a larger illustration of the corrupting power of Egyptian riches, depicts Gallus as a greedy provincial administrator whose plundering of Egyptian Thebes causes his downfall. Ammianus’ and especially Dio’s reports continue to be widely cited, although more chronologically proximate sources Prop. 2.34.91-2Ov. Am. 3.9.59-4 Ov. Tr. 2.445-6Suet. Aug. 66Suet. De Gramm. et Rhet. 16.1-2 are ambiguous about the causes of Gallus’ downfall, nor do they mention any misbehaviour in Egypt (for the stele at Philae bearing CIL 3.141475 CIL 3.141475, which has often been cited as confirmation of Dio’s narrative, see the recent reappraisal by Hoffmann, Minas-Nerpel, and Pfeiffer 2009).

Gallus in Antiquity

The earliest reference to Gallus may come in 45 BCE, when Cicero mentions cantores Euphorionis (‘singers of Euphorion’) Cic. Tusc. 3.45. Although Cicero does not specify to whom he refers, Gallus may be one of the cantores meant, given his association with Euphorion elsewhere Serv. ad Ecl. 6.72Serv. ad Ecl. 10.1 Ps.-Prob. ad Ecl. 10.50Diomedes, GL 1.484.21 (Lightfoot 1999: 57-64; Hollis 2007: 230-4). A letter from 43 BCE Cic. Ad Fam. 10.32.5 cf. Cic. Ad Fam. 10.31.6, in which Asinius Pollio tells Cicero to ask Gallus for a copy of a praetexta (‘Roman historical drama’), indicates that Gallus was part of the elite Roman social and literary milieu of the late republic, as does the fact that Parthenius dedicated his Erotika Pathemata (‘Sufferings in Love’) to him Parth. Amat. narr. praef..

The fragments of Gallus’ poetry offer little in the way of autobiographical representation other than suggesting that he depicts his poetic persona in the manner of the unhappy lover familiar from subsequent Latin love elegy Gallus fr. 2. Gallus also appears in the poetry of his contemporaries. In Ecl. 6 Verg. Ecl. 6.64-73 Virgil presents Gallus as a poet initiated by the muses, evoking a tradition that stretches back to Hesiod (see Hesiod: A Guide to Selected Sources). In Ecl. 10 Virgil describes Gallus as a close friend who is a victim of unhappy love: his beloved Lycoris has accompanied another man on campaign; Gallus wanders through an Arcadian landscape, pondering pastoral life and pastoral poetry as a remedy for his broken heart. Servius Serv. ad Ecl. 10.46 reports that parts of Ecl. 10 are based on Gallus’ own poetry. Yet the extent to which Virgil alludes to Gallus’ poetry is much debated (Coleman 1977 ad loc.; Clausen 1995 ad loc.). The intimate friendship between Gallus and Virgil is also reflected in Servius Serv. ad Ecl. 10.1; Ps.-Probus Ps.-Prob. ad Ecl. praef. even makes them schoolmates. Propertius addresses five poems in the Monobiblos to a Gallus or multiple Galluses (1.5, 10, 13, 20, 21). Whether any or all of Propertius’ “Gallus” elegies address his poetic predecessor Cornelius Gallus is also debated (e.g., Ross 1975: 82-4). If Propertius’ “Gallus” elegies do evoke Cornelius Gallus, he presents a multifaceted figure: a lover, friend, rival, and, most problematically, given that the Monobiblos’ publication was prior to Gallus’ suicide, a dying soldier.

Gallus After Antiquity

The combination of the loss of Gallus’ poetry along with his presence in the work of other Augustan poets makes him an intriguing figure for post-antique sources as well. In his play The Poetaster (1601), Ben Jonson depicts a Gallus who finds redemption rather than disgrace. Gallus is one of the ringleaders at a dinner party in which the guests dress as gods, an event that leads Augustus to exile Ovid during the course of the play. Despite Gallus’ role in the same dinner party and references to his time in Egypt (5.1.7-10), Jonson’s Augustus grants him clemency. Gallus then becomes aligned with the virtuous poets in the play, Virgil and Horace. In another reflection of early modern interest in Gallus, in 1590 Aldus Manutius the Younger published supposed newly discovered elegiacs by Gallus, which Manutius apparently composed himself; Scaliger soon detected the fraud (Riese 1869 on Anth. Lat. 914; Navarro López 2000).

Gallus is also the subject of Wilhelm Becker’s 1838 historical fiction, Gallus, oder römische Scenen auf der Zeit Augusts: zur genaueren Kenntnis des römischen Privatlebens. Becker’s book, which was aimed at a popular audience and translated into English in 1844, presents Roman social life in a series of episodes organized around the fall of Gallus. For Becker, Gallus is a figure whose upward social mobility and talents in both the political and poetic spheres make him the ideal subject through which to depict the Augustan age, even if he feels obliged to admit that he may present Gallus’ character too positively (Becker 1866: xiv-xviii). But Becker’s Gallus is ultimately a tragic figure: the book is set after he returns to Rome from Egypt as disgrace looms. The final chapter depicts his funeral.

As Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love demonstrates, Gallus continues to represent a meaningful mix of poetic oblivion and poetic immortality in contemporary literature. Near the close of the play, Stoppard’s A. E. Housman remarks to his younger self that, although almost all of Gallus’ poetry is lost, thanks to his friend Virgil he is remembered even in twentieth century England (1997: 98):

Virgil wrote a poem for him: how much immortality does a man need? –his own poetry, all but a line, as if he had never been, but his memory alive in a garden of an empire that disappeared fifteen hundred years ago.


  • Becker, W. A. 1866. Gallus or Roman Scenes in the Time of Augustus (2nd edn). Trans. F. Metcalfe. New York.
  • Boucher, J.-P. 1966. Caius Cornélius Gallus. Paris.
  • Cairns, F. 1983. ‘Propertius 1.4 and 1.5 and the ‘Gallus’ of the Monobiblos.’ PLLS 4: 61-103.
  • Clausen, W. 1994. Virgil: Eclogues. Oxford.
  • Coleman, R. 1977. Vergil: Eclogues. Cambridge.
  • Daly, L. 1979. ‘The Gallus Affair and Augustus’ lex Iulia maiestatis: A Study in Historical Chronology and Causality.’ SLLRH 1: 289-311.
  • Faoro, D. 2007. ‘Sull’origo e sugli esordi politici di Cornelio Gallo.’ Forum Iulii 31: 27-38.
  • Hoffmann, F., Minas-Nerpal, M., and Pfeiffer, S. 2009. Die dreisprachige Stele des C. Cornelius Gallus. Berlin.
  • Hollis, A. 2007. Fragments of Roman Poetry c. 60 BC-AD 20. Oxford.
  • Janan, M. 2001. The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV. Berkeley.
  • Keefe, D. E. 1982. ‘Gallus and Euphorion.’ CQ 32: 237-8.
  • Lightfoot, J. L. 1999. Parthenius of Nicaea: Extant Works Edited with Introduction and Commentary. Oxford.
  • Manzoni, G. E. 1995. Foroiuliensis poeta: Vita e poesia de Cornelio Gallo. Milan.
  • Navarro López, J. 2000. ‘‘Anthologia Latina’ 914 Riese: Galo falsificado.’ CR 1: 247-58.
  • Pincus, M. 2004. ‘Propertius’s Gallus and the Erotics of Influence.’ Arethusa 37: 165-96.
  • Riese, A. 1869. Anthologia Latina siue Poesis Latinae Supplementum. Vol. 1. Leipzig.
  • Ross, D. 1975. Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry: Gallus, Elegy and Rome. Cambridge.
  • Syme, R. 1938. ‘The Origin of Cornelius Gallus.’ CQ 32: 39-44.
  • Zetzel, J. 1977. ‘Gallus, Elegy, and Ross.’ CP 72: 249-60.