Other Literary Forms
Catullus is remembered only for his poetry.
Catullus is one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. He lived in Rome when that city was the center of the world and when it was rocked to its foundations by political and social revolution. Catullus was in his early twenties when, in 62 b.c.e. under the consulship of Cicero, the Catiline Conspiracy occurred. The poet lived to see the coalition of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus form in 60 b.c.e. and Caesar’s subsequent rise to power. Catullus had been dead only about five years when civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey. Pompey’s death at the battle of Pharsalus occurred in 48 b.c.e., and Caesar was assassinated in 44 b.c.e. References to Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Cicero appear in various poems of Catullus. He wrote during the stormy period when the Roman Empire was established, immediately prior to the reign of Augustus (27 b.c.e.-c.e. 14). Catullus bitterly attacked Caesar and his favorites in early poems but eventually came to support the Caesarian party. His poetry precedes the somewhat later literary wave of Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 b.c.e.) and the Augustan poets.
Catullus was the leading representative of a revolution in poetry created by the neoteroi or “new men” in Rome. Rather than writing about battles, heroes, and the pagan gods, Catullus draws his subjects from everyday, intensely personal life. He writes about lovers’ quarrels, arguments, indecent behavior, and his love for his brother and for his Italian countryside. Whatever he writes is marked by a high level of passion, rather than by the Augustan ideal of calm detachment. His poetry is personal, intense, and excited. His language is that of the street: slang, profanity, dialect. His poems are frequently dramatic monologues in which an aggrieved suitor addresses his mistress or an injured party pours malediction on his enemy. The reader must envision many of Catullus’s poems as little one-act plays, with a persona speaking the lines, a dramatic audience listening to the speech, and a particular situation in which these words might be spoken appropriately.
Although the content, topics, and language of Catullus’s poems were drawn from the seamy streets of Rome, his poetic forms were not. Catullus studied and imitated the meters of late Greek literature of the Alexandrian school; probably for this reason, he was called in ancient times the “learned” Catullus. The late Greek poets developed complicated metrical patterns which Catullus translated into the Latin language. (This subject is discussed extensively in Merrill’s edition of Catullus.)
Catullus was a precursor of the Augustan age, a conveyor of the Alexandrian formal tradition into Latin poetry, with a genius for intense, passionate, personal poetry. Even in translation, he is funny and obscene, furious and touching.
Very little biographical information about Gaius Valerius Catullus is known with certainty. From references in his poetry and from legend, a series of traditional hypotheses about his life have evolved. Ancient sources indicate that he was born in what is now Verona. His family must have been wealthy and powerful, although he never mentions any family member except his brother. Catullus was probably a younger son who went at an early age to Rome to make his way. He owned a villa at Sirmio in the lake district of northern Italy and another in the Sabine Hills. It appears that he lived a life of ease and culture. The only documented fact about his career is that he traveled to the province of Bythinia on the staff of the Governor Gaius Memmius in about 57 to 56 b.c.e. The likely motive for such a trip would be to earn a fortune, but later unfavorable references in Catullus’s poems suggest that the undertaking was not completely successful.
The poems of Catullus are often dramatic, like the sonnets of William Shakespeare: A lover sings the praises of his beloved or heaps scorn on a rival. While it is not accurate to consider such poems as directly autobiographical, it has become customary to assume that they reflect to some degree real happenings in the life of the poet. If the reader considers the poems to be mainly nonfiction, an emotional tale emerges about love and hate in Rome long ago. The poet falls in love with Lesbia, a married woman. She toys with his affection and keeps him in torment. She is unfaithful to him with many men. The poet attacks his rivals viciously in words, but he is nevertheless enslaved by Lesbia’s charms, until he flees from Rome on his venture to Bythinia to escape her treacheries.
Modern scholars suggest that Lesbia is a pseudonym for a real woman, Clodia, the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher and the wife of Q. Caecillius Metellus Celer, who was consul in the year 60 b.c.e. This hypothesis seems to be supported by several references in the poems and suggests that Catullus really was involved in an affair that followed the outlines suggested in his poems. Sophisticated readers of poetry, however, will hesitate to accept such easy equations of art and reality. It is equally possible that Lesbia and her lover are both merely fictional inventions of a clever writer.
Whether Catullus left Rome to forget his cruel beloved or to get rich, he apparently was unhappy with his experience as a follower of the Governor Memmius, who became an object of attack in several of Catullus’s later poems. While in Bythinia, he wrote a tribute to his dead brother’s grave, and he celebrated in poetry his own return to Italy. In Rome once again, the poet celebrated a new beloved, the boy Juventius, who also proved unfaithful. Catullus viciously attacked a character whom he called “Mentula” (the word literally means “penis” in Latin) thought to be based on Caesar’s associate, Mamurra. Although critical of Caesar, Catullus eventually was reconciled with the Caesarian political group. He died in his thirtieth year.
It was probably an admirer who collected Catullus’s poems in a book after his death and divided it into three parts according to the verse forms of the poems. The first group includes sixty poems on various themes, all in iambic or logaoedic rhythm. The middle group includes longer poems and begins with three epithalamia. The third group consists of shorter poems in elegiac meter. Gradually, the poems of Catullus fell out of favor, and he became an unknown figure until the fourteenth century when Benvenuto Campesino rediscovered the texts, probably in Verona. From that original, many copies were made, so that the works of Catullus were well-known to the great writers of the Italian Renaissance.
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a master of erotic poetry. Modern attitudes toward sexual love derive from conventions of courtship which can be traced back to Catullus. Some of his sexual poems seem wholesome and agreeable to the modern “liberated” reader; others may seem “unnatural” or obscene. In either case, Catullus was one of the first writers to codify a set of conventions for courtship: the blazon or praise of the beloved, the lover’s lament at his unfaithful love, the abasement of the lover captivated by his unworthy beloved, the vilification of the rival for the beloved’s affection, the antiblazon or enumeration of the beloved’s defects, the comparison of married to adulterous love. These topics or themes have become commonplace in Western literature, but Catullus was one of the first to invent and systematically explore them. The 116 poems of Catullus can be grouped into several categories: those celebrating sexual love, those that taunt and insult, travel and locodescriptive verse, and mythological material such as the stories of Theseus and Ariadne, Peleus and Thetis, and Attis. Although these themes overlap, almost all of his verse fits into one or more of these categories.
In Praise of Physical Love
Examples of his praise for sexual love include poems 5, 7, 8, 51, 70, 86, 87, 109, and others. Poem 5 is rightly famous as the prototype of the address of the lover to his beloved, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” It is a poem of seduction in which the lover reminds the beloved that life is short, and time is fleeting, and she had better not delay too long in consenting to their union. The lover reminds the beloved that soon they will die and sleep one long eternal night; he asks for a thousand or a hundred thousand kisses. Carried away by the passion of these lines, the reader may fail to notice how contrary this erotic sentiment is to conventional morality. Rather than directing his attention to loftier matters, the lover elevates sexual union to a position of supreme importance. Such an exaltation of love is basic to the courtly tradition which developed later in the Renaissance.
Poem 70 introduces the notion that the beloved is not to be trusted, for lovers’ promises are as fleeting as words written in dust or running water. Poem 109 expresses the lover’s fervent wish that his beloved speak the truth when she promises to love him. Poem 86 presents a comparison or combat between the beloved Lesbia and another woman called Quintia. The poem is in the form of a blazon and begins by enumerating all of Quintia’s outstanding physical features: her complexion, size, and shape. The lover grants that Quintia is physically well made but argues that she lacks personality. Only Lesbia has the inner spark, the charm that can truly be called beautiful. A cruder but nevertheless amusing version of this kind of love poem, sometimes called antiblazon, is poem 43. The lover’s rival is called Mentula; Mentula has a girl whom some might call pretty, but the lover systematically examines her nose, feet, eyes, fingers, lips, and tongue, concluding that only a country bumpkin would call such a girl pretty. In every way, Lesbia far surpasses his rival’s girl.
To elevate the significance of physical love to that of a religion and to make the beloved a goddess of love turns the lover into a helpless suppliant at the mercy of an unpredictable deity. Poem 8 is the lover’s lament. He knows that Lesbia is merely toying with him, and he resolves not to run after her, not to be a foolish slave to desire. The lover rages at his unfaithful mistress—for example, in poems 37 and 58 where he accuses her of becoming a common whore; in poem 38, however, he is begging her to take him back again. Strangely, the worse the beloved treats him, the more the lover desires her. Poem 72 explains that Lesbia’s behavior breaks the lover’s heart but inflames his lust for her. Catullus encapsulates the lover’s lament in a couplet, justly called the best two lines of psychological analysis ever written, poem 85. The lover says that he hates and he loves her. If you ask him why, he cannot explain. He simply feels that he is crucified. The final word, excrucior, literally “to be crucified,” is particularly well-chosen because the crossed feelings of love and hate catch the lover when they intersect and nail him, as it were, to a cross.
In addition to his passion for the woman Lesbia, Catullus also celebrates a homosexual love for the boy Juventius. The poet’s addresses to the boy follow conventions of romantic love similar to those which govern his speeches to Lesbia. Poem 48 celebrates the boy’s kisses much as poem 5 does the woman’s. Poem 99 tells how the once-sweet kisses of the boy turn bitter because he is unfaithful. Poem 81 mocks the boy for having a new boyfriend, a country hick unworthy of him. Poem 40 threatens a rival who has stolen the affection of the lover’s boy. In general, Catullus endorses wine, women (or boys), and song. Poem 27, for example, is a famous drinking song; but, there is always pain close beneath the revelry. Not only does he both love and hate Lesbia, but he is also crucified by conflicting feelings about Rome, about all of his acquaintances, about life in...