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C. Valerius Catullus
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


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Suggested Background Reading



Links in the following disscussion are to the Selections from Catullus in the collection of translations of Classical authors.

A WORD OF WARNING: some of Catullus' poems are "earthy" in the extreme. If you are easily offended by obscene or politically incorrect poetry, you might want to avoid the poems discussed in the sections on Catullus' Life and on Catullus as Eques.


The Collection. Catullus' 116 poems are preserved in a single collection that seems to be the work of an ancient editor. Poems 1-60 are shorter pieces, for the most part, written in a variety of meters, on a variety of topics (love poems, attacks against enemies, witty observations on contemporary mores, short hymns), and in a variety of tones. Poems 61-68 are longer pieces, again in a variety of meters and on a variety of topics (from wedding poems to a particularly elaborate example of an epyllion or "mini-epic" in the style of the Hellenistic poets [on which, see below]). Poems 69ff. are shorter pieces of varying length composed in elegiac couplets — a weightier, more reflective meter than those of poems 1-60. The subject matter of these poems parallels that of poems 1-60 for the most part, but often in a more somber or brooding tone. This is particularly true of the Lesbia poems in this part of the collection.


Life. We know little about Catullus beyond what he tells us in his poems. He was born in Verona (in northern Italy) and thus, like most of Rome's distinguished poets, was a provincial — an outsider. Although he frequently jokes about his poverty, it is clear that he came from a wealthy equestrian family. His father was prominent (and rich) enough to be on friendly terms with Julius Caesar. (We know this from the life of Caesar composed by the historian Suetonius, who records [Julius 73] that, although Catullus had deeply offended Caesar with his little piece about Mamurra [see poem 29], once the poet had apologized Caesar immediately resumed his habit of enjoying the hospitality of Catullus' father.) Moreover, the poems show that Catullus himself, his brother, and his friends (people like Veranius and Fabullus in poems 28 and 47) have foreign business interests and have served in the official retinues (the cohorts) of provincial governors in the east. Catullus is very much an equestrian in outlook. [FN 1] For all of his ribaldry and his flouting of authority, he is deeply conservative in his views, with an abiding concern for the bottom line. His easy familiarity with Greek culture and literature suggests that he has received the traditional education of a wealthy Roman of his day.

The only secure date that we have for Catullus is 57-56 B.C., during which time he was in Bithynia on the staff of the provincial governor *C. Memmius (a son-in-law of Sulla: see Appendix B in Latham/Godwin's Penguin translation of Lucretius). Given the normal course of the average equestrian's career, this would suggest that Catullus was born c. 82 B.C. All of his other datable poems also fall in the period, roughly, of the early- to mid-50s B.C. The absence of any references to events later than the mid-50s perhaps confirms the ancient biographical tradition that Catullus died young, at about the age of 30 (i.e., c. 54 B.C.).

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Catullus as Eques. Poems 29, 93, 10, 28, and 47 give a particularly vivid picture of Catullus' views of contemporary politics. Poem 29 presents a virulent attack on Mamurra, a highly successful and, Catullus maintains, corrupt provincial administrator under Caesar. Caesar himself appears, in an ironic and quite obscene oxymoron, as a "pathic Romulus" (lines 5 and 9), [FN 2] and his alliance with Pompey in the so-called First Triumvirate is mocked in the poem's concluding lines. Poems 10, 28, and 47 present equally obscene abuse of the provincial governors Memmius and Piso. Catullus does not seem to be indignant at any illegal activity on the part of these governors, however, but rather at the fact that neither he nor his friends were able to profit from their service as part of these governors' cohorts. (Reread 10.5-13 and 28.1ff.) Similarly, his indignation at Porcius and Socrates (poem 47) seems to be based solely on the fact that they got wealthy under Piso while Veranius and Fabullus did not. In the end, it is possible to conclude that Memmius' and Piso's only sins consisted of not seeing to it that Catullus and his friends could line their pockets — i.e., considered objectively, these two may have been able and honest governors. (In Memmius' case, however, we would probably have agreed with Catullus: again, see Appendix B in Latham/Godwin.) In the same way, Catullus' indignation at Mamurra may stem more from jealously (as in the case of Porcius and Socrates) than from an outraged sense of propriety. On the whole, these poems give a good indication both of the tensions between the senatorial and equestrian classes and of why there was such concern over the composition of juries charged with hearing cases of malfeasance in office on the part of provincial governors (de repetundis).

Catullus thus represents a social as well as a literary phenomenon, providing us with a glimpse of the life and concerns of a wealthy and talented member of the equestrian class in the midst of the turmoil of the Late Republic. In this sense Catullus' poetry serves as a useful corrective to the gloomy picture conveyed by the violent and chaotic politics of this period: it is clear that, despite the uncertainties of the times, for many people life went along its usual course.

The above-cited poems are also useful for revealing something of the Romans' attitude toward sexuality. (Note how Catullus repeatedly demeans his opponents by threatening to subjugate them sexually, reducing them to a passive, "feminine" status — or by suggesting that such a status is habitual for them.) Although Catullus writes some of the most moving, deeply introspective love poetry ever produced in antiquity, he remains a Roman and not, e.g., a Romantic poet. For differences between the Roman outlook and that of most 21st-century Western societies, see the first chapter of Wiseman's book on Catullus.

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Catullus the Neoteric Poet. Catullus' poems reveal how far educated Romans had come since the time of Plautus and Terence in developing an aesthetic sense of poetry as literature. Early Roman poetry was based on an essentially utilitarian ideal and was predominately didactic in nature. Thus Roman epic celebrated nationalistic themes, presenting useful models of behavior and focusing on the glory of the fatherland and its leaders. As we have seen, New Comedy also tended to reinforce traditional morality and the status quo. Catullus, by contrast, celebrates very un-Roman values: parties, love affairs, extravagance, and, in general, private pleasure rather than the public good. Frequently, in fact, Catullus seems to cast himself in the role of the young lover of New Comedy. The setting of poem 10, for example, recalls the behavior of Plautus' Menaechmus and of Ctesipho in Terence's Brothers: Varus invites Catullus over to have a drink in the middle of the day with his newest "love." This woman is clearly a meretrix (prostitute: see lines 3 and 24) and shows her true colors in the way she immediately attempts to beguile Catullus into lending her his litter (although we suspect that she has seen through his rather feeble pretense). In the same way, poem 5 could be taken as the credo of the young men of New Comedy, who always set love above all else and scorn the attempts of their elders to restrain them (compare lines 2-3). Again and again Catullus' poems (particularly those in the first part of the collection) seem consciously to celebrate a life of frivolity and excess, deliberately mocking the stance of moralists such as Sallust.

This change in the subject, tone, and purpose of poetry is matched by a change in genre. Catullus turns for his inspiration, not to the traditional, "respectable" genres such as epic, but to the Greek poets of 3rd/2nd-century Alexandria (the so-called *Hellenistic poets [FN 3]). These poets are noted for an extremely sophisticated, bookish, often artificial type of poetry. They lived in turbulent, often dangerous times and in an essentially rootless society. Greek culture had been transplanted to foreign soil and become the province of a privileged aristocracy ruling over a foreign populace. Thus art turned in on itself: emphasis came to be placed on art for art's sake — elegant, carefully crafted poems composed for a sophisticated, well-read audience who would be trained to look for clever turns of phrase, cunning plays upon tradition, and oblique allusions to earlier literature and myth. The leading figure of the period was *Callimachus, who was a far-ranging scholar as well as a poet. Callimachus argued that poets should attempt short, finely crafted pieces rather than clinging to the grand genres of the past, such as epic or tragedy.

Catullus and his friends Cinna (poem 10.30) and Licinius Calvus (poem 50) belong to a set of poets in Rome who, beginning c. 100 B.C., consciously turn to the Alexandrians for inspiration and, in the case of Catullus and his friends, incorporate this (for Romans) untraditional form of poetry into the rakish lifestyle of the young man-about-town. (Here you might compare poems 13 and 50 with poem 10.) These poets came to be known as the *Neoteric Poets. The term "neoteric" is Greek for "new" or "modern" (actually, in Greek it is a comparative adjective — "newer," "rather new" — employed in a colloquial sense, much like "chic" in English). The term is used mockingly by Cicero, who thinks little of Catullus and his crew, but it nicely captures the witty urbanity and lack of conformity of these writers.

While Catullus often strives for an air of unrehearsed casualness, his poems display the very qualities prized by Callimachus. Poem 51, for example, cunningly plays upon a famous poem by the Greek poetess Sappho, while poem 50 toys cleverly with the conceit of the tormented lover. Often it is when Catullus seems to be at his simplest that he is most challenging: what, for example, are poems 2 and 3 about?

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Catullus and Lesbia. A large number of Catullus' poems are dedicated to a woman named *Lesbia. The name is clearly a pseudonym: the Roman love poets routinely employed such pseudonyms, cunningly selecting them so that the beloved could substitute her real name in place of the false one. (For example, the poet Propertius addressed his beloved, Hostia, under the name of Cynthia.) Catullus' Lesbia was, by general agreement, named *Clodia in real life, a sister of the infamous P. Clodius Pulcher. (See poem 79 and note the reference there to a certain "Lesbius" — given the conventions of the Roman name, clearly imagined as Lesbia's brother — and the emphatic assertion that this Lesbius is "pretty [pulcher].)

[Clodius was a henchman of Crassus and Caesar. Elected tribune of the plebs in 58, he and his gang of thugs used violence and intimidation to protect Caesar's interests during the latter's absence in Gaul. Clodius was involved in repeated attacks against Pompey in particular, who in turn employed the services of an equally thuggish gang under the leadership of a man named Milo. (Clashes between these two groups, and the repeated attacks on Pompey, helped necessitate the conference between Pompey and Caesar at *Luca in 56.) In 52 a brawl broke out when the two gangs met, perhaps by accident, and Clodius was killed.

We hear a good deal about Clodius from the orator/politician Cicero, who (as an optimas) opposed both Caesar and Clodius while supporting Pompey as the senate's only hope of regaining its former power. Cicero and Clodius had personal reasons for disliking one another as well. In December of 62 Clodius was accused of violating the sacred rites of the Bona Dea (the "Good Goddess"). The latter was a women's festival concerned with fertility. It was held in mid-winter in the house of the pontifex maximus (at that time, Caesar) and was conducted by the Vestal Virgins, aided by the wife of the pontifex maximus and other prominent women. Clodius was accused of infiltrating the ceremony disguised as a woman. He was able to provide an alibi, but Cicero presented damning evidence at the trial that the alibi was fraudulent. In the end, Crassus was able to effect Clodius' acquittal by means of bribery. (Caesar used the scandal as the occasion for divorcing his wife Pompeia, uttering his famous saying that the wife of Caesar must be above even the suspicion of impurity.) Clodius got his revenge against Cicero in 58, when, as tribune, he had Cicero banished from Rome for having put Roman citizens to death without a trial during his consulship in 63 B.C. (the conspiracy of Catiline).]

Clodius had three sisters. The most (in)famous was a person of some prominence herself. She was married to Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer (consul in 60), who died in 59. Her behavior, both before and after her husband's death, was notorious throughout Rome. It became particularly so in April of 56, when she accused a former lover, M. Caelius Rufus, of attempting to poison her. It is fairly clear that Caelius had gotten entangled in the political machinations of the period and that Clodia, in prosecuting Caelius, was acting on behalf of her brother Clodius. Caelius was a young friend of Cicero, however, and the famous orator wrote a speech for the defense that still survives. In it, Cicero ignores the particular charges and instead spends his time attacking Clodia, presenting her as a promiscuous and utterly decadent femme fatale who preys on younger men only to toss them aside or (should they come to their senses and reject her, as did Caelius) devise their ruin. The speech is a masterpiece of rhetorical slander and a useful source book for anyone interested in Roman misogyny. Both here and elsewhere Cicero repeatedly throws in hints that Clodia and her notorious brother engaged in incestuous relations with one another.

Scholars have been persuaded by Cicero's damning portrayal of Clodia that this must be the charming, seductive, but heartless woman whom Catullus describes. They note, e.g., the poems in which Catullus addresses a certain Caelius with sympathy (see poem 58); the possible hint of incest (as per Cicero's slanders) in poem 79; the reference to Lesbia's husband in poem 83 (which proves that Lesbia is not a meretrix); and the frequent allegations of promiscuity. T. P. Wiseman has challenged this identification of Lesbia, however, pointing out that the Clodia in question was engaged to her husband Metellus in c. 82 and so must have been born in c. 97, thus making her some fifteen years Catullus' senior. (This particular objection can be met: Clodia was clearly sweeping men such as Caelius — who was probably younger than Catullus — off their feet in the mid-50s.) Other scholars have suggested that Lesbia is merely a literary construct that allows the poet to pursue certain themes.

The name Lesbia ("woman from the island of Lesbos") not only provides a useful metrical equivalent for Clodia's real name, but directly recalls the most famous woman of Lesbos, the Greek poetess Sappho (c. 620-c. 550). [See Course Notes for CLAS 110: The Greek Lyric Poets.] Sappho was renowned for her charming, graceful yet passionate love poetry (addressed, as it happens, to women: hence our modern term "lesbian"). Moreover, Lesbos itself was associated with beautiful women and cultured refinement. In addressing Clodia as Lesbia, then, Catullus suggests a woman of beauty, grace, culture, and refinement, but also a woman of strong passions. It has often been thought that poem 51 (a translation of Sappho frg. 2, composed, like the original, in Sapphic stanzas) was the first poem addressed to Clodia by Catullus, used to highlight his choice of Lesbia as Clodia's pseudonym. (By the same logic, some scholars regard poem 11 — the only other poem in the collection in Sapphic stanzas — as the last poem to Clodia, a bitter and sardonic farewell.) Many have found irony in the contrast between the charming Lesbia of the early poems and the rather hard-bitten femme fatale described by Cicero. In any case, it is interesting that Catullus, the Roman eques and author of such deeply passionate and introspective verse, should choose Sappho as his model.

In fact, it is easy for modern readers to overlook Catullus for the very reason that he seems so familiar. Modern readers tend to expect poets to speak strongly in the first person and to explore intimately personal themes. This was not the case in antiquity, however, and certainly not in Rome. For all of his witty playfulness and learning, what most impresses about Catullus is his ability to portray so vividly and convincingly both the rapturous delight of one caught up in a new affair and the tormented emotions of love gone sour. In this regard, Catullus' poems to and about Lesbia transcend both the traditions of Roman poetry and Catullus' Hellenistic models.


[FN 1] On this and other points see T. P. Wiseman, Catullus and his World. [Return to text]

[FN 2] The term "pathic" refers to someone who takes the passive role in homosexual intercourse. It is a term of abuse, and not one that the Romans associated with grand Roman heroes such as Romulus. [Return to text]

[FN 3] The term Hellenistic means "Greek-like" and is used to distinguish Greek culture in the 3rd-2nd centuries (the age following Alexander's conquests, when Greek culture was spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean and when Alexandria, Pergamum, and Rhodes became the major cultural centers) from the "Hellenic" culture of mainland Greece in the 8th to 4th centuries B.C. [Return to text]


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