Ancient Writers – Catullus

Champion whinger or sensitive, new-age guy? An introduction to Catullus, one of the first love poets of the Latin language.

Rome is in turmoil. Bitter rivalry between the senators has resulted in bribery, manipulation, and assassination. Thousands have died in the civil war, and then in the slave Spartacus’ revolt. This, one of the bloodiest periods in Roman history will see the betrayal of Caesar and the orator Cicero’s tongue nailed to the podium. It will see the end of the Roman republic, and the establishment of an autocracy.

Yet into this macho, Roman-eat-Roman world, there comes a poet whose fame, two thousand years later, rests on his femininity, his vulnerability, and his turbulent, ill-starred relationship with Lesbia, whose faithlessness and disinterest cause Catullus an endless catalogue of woes.

Who was Catullus?

Catullus, one of the earliest Latin love elegists, lived from approximately 84BC-54BC (dates uncertain). According to the ancient sources, he was born in Verona of a leading equestrian (upper middle-class) family, although he lived most of his life in Rome.

What did Catullus write?

Catullus was heavily influenced by the Novae Poetae (the ‘New Poets’) of Alexandria, a group dedicated to short, “slender”, and often playful poetry, as opposed to verbose and more masculine epic. As such, many of Catullus’ poems are under twenty lines long (compare this to the 24 booksof the Iliad). Indeed, his epigrams* are usually no more than two lines long, and it is in this form that one of his most famous poems is written:

“I hate and I love: perhaps you ask why I do this. I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and it tortures me.” (Cat. 85)

In the tradition of the Novae Poetae, Catullus’ poems are frequently about personal subjects: love, death, and friendship. Sometimes melancholy, often comic, Catullus perfected the art of the witty, “slice of life”.

Where did Catullus get his ideas from?

Both Catullus and the Novae Poetae were inspired by earlier Greek elegists, such as Sappho and Mimnermus: it was in honour of Sappho, who live on the Greek island Lesbos that Catullus gave his girlfriend the pseudonym ‘Lesbia’. Sappho, a Greek lyric poetess of the 6th century BC, was one of the earliest female poets known. One of Catullus’ poems (Cat. 51), about a rival for Lesbia’s affections, is an almost direct translation of Sappho’s “The Ode to Anactoria”.

Who was Lesbia?

IIf the traditionally accepted view is accepted, then Lesbia was one Clodia Pulchra, sister and possibly lover of the politician Clodius, notorious for her scandalous ways (she drank, gambled, and took lovers), and suspected by many of poisoning her second husband.

Whoever she was, Lesbia was not faithful to Catullus – he writes frequently of his own wretchedness at her infidelity. Yet their tumultuous relationship had, by definition, its high points as well as its low, as poem 5 amply demonstrates:

“Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love;

And let us count the rumours of severe old men

Worth but a single penny.

The suns, once they have set, may rise again,

But once our brief light has died,

We must sleep for one, eternal night.

So give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred,

Then another thousand and a second hundred,

And without pause a further thousand, then a hundred,

And then, when we have made many thousands of kisses

Let us jumble them up so that we may not know the number,

And so that no one may weave an evil spell upon us

Through knowing how many kisses there have been.”

*An epigram: a short, witty poem, expressing a single thought, and frequently paradoxical.

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