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1. In the broad sense Latin Elegy may be said to include everything in Latin written in the elegiac distich, which was a popular metrical form from the days of the Roman republic down to the later medieval epoch. But Roman elegy, in the more restricted and commonly accepted use of the term, refers to the elegiac verse of a noteworthy group of poets whose literary activity belongs chiefly to that most interesting half century of Rome preceding the Christian era, when the Republic fell and the Empire was built upon its ruins. The works of at least two or three of these elegiac poets have almost entirely disappeared. Posterity, however, has been more kind to four of them, Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovidius (Ovid). The first and last of these did not confine their literary composition to the elegiac distich, as in all probability the second and third of the group did; but it is with elegy only that we are now concerned.
Pre-Roman Elegy 2. Like most other forms of Roman literature, elegy is deeply indebted to Greece for both its form and its content, though the origin of this type of poetry is beyond the reach of the literary historian, and most of its Greek masterpieces during the centuries succeeding such origin have long since vanished. Horace (A. P. 75-78) wrote:
versibus impariter iunctis querimonia primum,
This case is still on the calendar, and doubtless many courts will adjourn sine die before an ultimate decision is rendered. Perhaps of barbarian origin, the rhythm of the pentameter was certainly used in early Ionian Asia in dirges or other songs of mournful remembrance, before the advent of the earliest writers of the elegy as a literary type. The regular accompaniment to these early songs was the flute. Possibly two parts of the verse were sung responsively by a double chorus.' The original names for this mournful pentameter, έλεγείον (έπος), έλεγεία (έπη), have been variously explained as derived fromě déye ě léye č 'Woe! Woel cry woe!' (Suidas) or é è déy' è è déye (Wilamowitz); but from the beginning it was probably associated with the hexameter, either as an occasional verse after a group of hexameters, or in the form of a couplet, and the terms were in early times used also to designate this couplet, or distich. The form édeyeía (noinois or wan) was favored later, and the Hellenistic Greeks and the Romans preferred the words čleyou and elegi for poems in this measure. (The form elogium, which appeared quite early in Latin, was reserved more especially for the sepulchral inscription or the epigram.)
3. The elegiac distich, apparently the first epodic Greek measure, became the vehicle of expression for a wide variety of poetic sentiments, varying from funeral song to erotic ecstasy. As compared with the hexameter the pentameter was considered weak (mollis was the Latin epithet), and the combination of the two seemed to lend itself more easily to the various emotions of the human heart, leading as an intermediate step to the more highly developed forms of lyric poetry. Archilochus (floruit c. 650 B.c.), to whom is attributed the invention of other poetic forms, used elegiac verse not only for funeral songs, but also to treat of warlike themes, of travel, and of the philosophy of life. The Ephesian Callinus, an older contemporary of Archilochus, employed the same metrical form for patriotic war songs. He was long credited with having invented the measure itself.
1Cf. P. W. 5, 2260 sqq.