The elegiac couplet is a poetic form used by Greek lyric poets for a variety of themes usually of smaller scale than the epic. Roman poets, particularly Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, adopted the same form in Latin many years later. As with the English heroic, each couplet usually makes sense on its own, while forming part of a larger work.
At the end of the 7th century BCE, Mimnermus of Colophon struck on the innovation of using the verse for erotic poetry. He composed several elegies celebrating his love for the flute girl Nanno, and though fragmentary today his poetry was clearly influential in the later Roman development of the form. Propertius, to cite one example, notes Plus in amore valet Mimnermi versus Homero—"The verse of Mimnermus is stronger in love than Homer".
The form continued to be popular throughout the Greek period and treated a number of different themes. Tyrtaeus composed elegies on a war theme, apparently for a Spartan audience. Theognis of Megara vented himself in couplets as an embittered aristocrat in a time of social change. Popular leaders were writers of elegy—Solon the lawgiver of Athens composed on political and ethical subjects—and even Plato and Aristotle dabbled with the meter.
By the Hellenistic period, the Alexandrian school made elegy its favorite and most highly developed form. They preferred the briefer style associated with elegy in contrast to the lengthier epic forms, and made it the singular medium for short epigrams. The founder of this school was Philitas of Cos. He was eclipsed only by the school's most admired exponent, Callimachus; their learned character and intricate art would have a heavy influence on the Romans.
Like many Greek forms, elegy was adapted by the Romans for their own literature. The fragments of Ennius contain a few couplets, and scattered verses attributed to Roman public figures like Cicero and Julius Caesar also survive.
The form reached its zenith with the collections of Tibullus and Propertius and several collections of Ovid (the Amores, Heroides, Tristia, and Epistulae ex Ponto). The vogue of elegy during this time is seen in the so-called 3rd and 4th books of Tibullus. Many poems in these books were clearly not written by Tibullus but by others, perhaps part of a circle under Tibullus' patron Mesalla. Notable in this collection are the poems of Sulpicia, among the few surviving works by Classical Latin female poets.
Although no classical poet wrote collections of love elegies after Ovid, the verse retained its popularity as a vehicle for popular occasional poetry. Elegiac verses appear, for example, in Petronius' Satyricon, and Martial's Epigrams uses it for many witty stand-alone couplets and for longer pieces. The trend continues through the remainder of the empire; short elegies appear in Apuleius's story Psyche and Cupid and the minor writings of Ausonius.
After the fall of the empire, one writer who produced elegiac verse was Maximianus. Various Christian writers also adopted the form; Venantius Fortunatus wrote some of his hymns in the meter, while later Alcuin and the Venerable Bede dabbled in the verse. The form also remained popular among the educated classes for gravestone epitaphs; many such epitaphs can be found in European cathedrals.
De tribus puellis is an example of a Latin fabliau, a genre of comedy which employed elegiac couplets in imitation of Ovid. The medieval theorist John of Garland wrote that "all comedy is elegy, but the reverse is not true." Medieval Latin had a developed comedic genre known as elegiac comedy. Sometimes narrative, sometimes dramatic, it deviated from ancient practice because, as Ian Thompson writes, "no ancient drama would ever have been written in elegiacs.
With the Renaissance, more skilled writers interested in the revival of Roman culture took on the form in a way which attempted to recapture the spirit of the Augustan writers. The Dutch Latinist Johannes Secundus, for example, included Catullus-inspired love elegies in his Liber Basiorum, while the English poet John Milton wrote several lengthy elegies throughout his career. This trend continued down through the Recent Latin writers, whose close study of their Augustan counterparts reflects their general attempts to apply the cultural and literary forms of the ancient world to contemporary themes.