The 116 carmina, or poems, of the corpus of Catullus do not appear in chronological order, nor do they separate mythic narrative from creatively recounted personal experience. Though their numberings differ in various editions, it is generally the case that the short lyric poems, which number about forty, appear first. Four longer poems often appear next, though in differing arrangements. Two of these poems are marriage hymns (epithalamia); another retells the story of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the father and mother of Achilles; and another retells the story of Attis, the self-castrated priest of the Moon goddess Cybele.
The last part of the collection comprises elegies, often introduced by the mythic tale of the lock of Berenice. The extraordinary variety of the collection paired with the merging of autobiographical and mythic elements as well as sophisticated use of meters make Catullus a singularity of the ancient world; they also account for the inspiration the poet provides for the modern world.
Catullus wrote in the age of Julius Caesar, an age of political corruption and decadence presaging the final years of the Republic. The period parallels the Alexandrine movement in Greek literature, though the learned sophistication of Alexandrian literature makes its appearance only in the cosmological poetry of Lucretius (c. 99-55 b.c.e.) or the philosophic works of Cicero (106-43 b.c.e.). The poems of Catullus represent something new for a Roman audience: a melding of personal history and fiction as well as a coherent love theme merging all the emotions that love inspires—happiness, anger, frustration, and melancholy.
The lyric poems tracing the narrator’s relationship to Lesbia likely are familiar to general readers. Lesbia is Catullus’s pseudonym for his mistress, Clodia Metelli, the wife of a patrician. Lesbia had been infamous for her scandalous behavior and numerous lovers. After a self-deprecating dedication of the collection to his patron Cornelius, Catullus turns to admiration of Lesbia’s sparrow because his mistress plays with it, feeds it, and holds it in her lap. The bird displaces the lover, and the lover marks the free access the bird enjoys. A mock elegy for the bird appears in the following poem. This poem also asks all Venuses and Cupids to mourn the sparrow that has just died, for it must make the journey to the realm of the dead.
A lyric poem often called “Phaselus” by readers of the Latin text records the swiftness of the narrator’s sailing ship and enumerates the exotic locales it visits. The poem represents Catullus’s bow to Alexandrian learned allusion; however, that his ship...
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