Catullus c. 84 B.C. - c. 54 B.C.
(Full name Gaius Valerius Catullus.) Latin poet.
Catullus is best known for his love poetry, in which eloquent expression of emotion is combined with a technical agility. Seeking inspiration from the Greek Alexandrian poetry tradition, Catullus experimented with new themes and forms in poetry and became the founder of a new school of Latin poetry that favored brief, witty compositions. Technically, Catullus is praised for his virtuistic use of a range of poetic meters, including the lyric, the elegiac, and iambic. Many critics regard the influential group of poems inspired by his tumultuous relationship with a woman to whom he referred as "Lesbia" as his greatest achievement.
Catullus was born in about 84 B.C. in Verona into a well-known local family. He does not directly mention his family in his poetry, except to express sorrow over his brother's untimely death. The circumstances of Catullus's education are unknown, but the characteristics of his work indicate that he was most likely tutored in Greek and Latin literature. Some critics have suggested that Catullus may have studied under the grammarian Valerius Cato, who at that time lived in Verona. From 62 B.C. onward Catullus lived primarily in Rome, returning to Verona only occasionally. In Rome Catullus traveled in exclusive but decadent literary circles and became enamored with a married woman whom he called Lesbia in his poetry. Scholars believe that Lesbia was probably Clodia, the wife of Q. Metellus Celer and the sister of P. Clodius Pulcher, infamous enemy of Cicero. Catullus became a leader of a loose-knit literary group called the New Poets (neoterici), which included Helvius Cinna and Licinius Calvus, and who were influenced by the ideals of the Greek Alexandrians. Catullus greatly admired the Greek poet Callimachus and translated at least one of his poems. In 57 B.C. Catullus travelled to Asia with the Roman governor Gaius Memmius, possibly to visit his brother's grave, or as a lucrative business venture; whatever the reason for the trip, it did not make Catullus wealthy. The date of his death is uncertain, but it is known that he died young, probably in about 54 B.C.
Scholars are certain that at least some of Catullus's poems circulated before his death; there is evidence, for example, that Caesar was acquainted with some poems directed at him. Some literary historians believe that a small collection of poems might have been published privately by Catullus himself. Other than fragments quoted by fellow writers, the first poem of Catullus preserved in a manuscript was Poem 62, in the Codex Thuanneus, a ninth-century anthology of Latin poetry. The rest of his known texts were preserved in the Codex Veronensis, which surfaced in Verona in the 1200s, was copied twice, and disappeared in the fourteenth century. Only one of these copies, the Codex Oxoniensis, survived and is housed at Oxford University. Two copies were made from the second, lost copy. All modern Catullus editions are based on these three surviving codexes. Manuscripts based on the codexes number Catullus's poems from I to 116, but most critics agree that this is not necessarily the order in which they were written. The poems are organized into three distinct groups: 1-60 are polymetric poems (mostly short pieces written in a variety of meters, including some fragments); 61-68 are long poems; and 69-116 are elegiac fragments (shorter elegies and epigrams, and couplets). Kenneth Quinn has argued that it is possible that the first 60 were published by Catullus and the rest arranged by someone else, an editor or a literary friend of Catullus's in Rome. The careful arrangement still leaves scholars puzzled and many theories have been advanced to explain it. The three extant manuscripts contain many trivial errors and are inexact as scholars have added and deleted alternative readings of their predecessors' work. Though there have been numerous modern translations and editions of Catullus's work, those by Quinn and Thomson are regarded as among the best.
Deemed a doctus poeta ("learned craftsman") by his contemporaries, Catullus was able to tightly organize his poems to maximize the effectiveness of his ideas. Although they are highly structured, Catullus's poems create the illusion of spontaneous, conversational Latin, and he uses common language and verbal irony, especially in his shorter pieces, to great effect. The most successful of his poems seem sincere and light, full of heartfelt sentiment, but it is the combination of elaborate structure and well-chosen language that produces this response. Catullus's subject matter belies his technical brilliance and the scholarly drive to perfection which imbue all his work. The most important theme in Catullus's work concerns his obsession with Lesbia—their doomed attachment, love, hate, frustration, and betrayal—and he returned to this relationship repeatedly in his poetry until his death. In allowing the ruling passion of his life to be fully expounded on in his work, Catullus gave Latin poetry a new direction: this honest, personalized vision, rooted in Greek tradition, opened up new possibilities in Latin poetry and gave rise to a new school of poets that profoundly influenced Vergil, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, and Horace.
Catullus was well known among his generation of Romans and in later antiquity was commonly read and discussed. Cornelius Nepos found the quality of his poetry to be equal to that of Lucretius's. Literary critics like Quintilian admired Catullus as a poet in the iambic tradition, but made no mention of him as a lyricist. Discussing this unusual occurrence, E. A. Havelock has suggested that the problem may have been that Catullus was too intensely subjective for his contemporaries to appreciate fully. Other classical poets thought Catullus extravagant and did not respect his use of diminutives in poetry. Although he was highly influential, he was essentially forgotten from the late first century to the fourteenth. Catullus's influence can again be seen in such Elizabethans as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, and the nineteenth-century poets Lord Byron and Alfred Tennyson. Modern critics are divided on the merit of the poetry of Catullus: some find his work uneven in quality, while others find much to praise in every line.
Principal English Translations
Catullus, Tibullus, and Pervigilium Veneris (translated by Francis W. Cornish, John P. Postgate, and John W. Mackail) 1912
Odi et Amo: The Complete Poetry of Catullus (translated by Roy A. Swanson) 1959
The Poems of Catullus (translated by James Michie) 1969
The Poems of Catullus (translated by Peter Whigham) 1969
Catullus: The Poems (translated by Kenneth Quinn) 1970
Catullus: The Complete Poems for American Readers (translated by Reney Meyers and Robert J. Ormsby) 1972
Catullus: A Critical Edition (translated by D. F. S. Thomson) 1978
The Poems of Catullus (translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish) 1979
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SOURCE: "Hymen, O Hymenwe!" and "The Roman-Alexandrine and Longer Poems of Catullus," in Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1877, pp. 62-75, 76-92.
[In the following chapters from his Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, Davies offers a discursive reading of Catullus's most notable poems among the poet's epithalamia and alexandrines.]
[Catullus may be seen, at first glance] rather as the writer of passionate love-verses to Lesbia, or vers de societe to his friends, literary or light, as the case might be. There are yet two other and distinct aspects of his Muse. That which he borrowed from the Alexandrian school of poetry will [be considered later]; but in the present it will suffice to give some account of his famous epithalamia, the models of like composition for all time, and the loci classici of the ceremonial of Roman marriages, as well as exquisite pictures of the realisation of mutual affection. It [may be readily seen] how fully, notwithstanding his own blighted hopes, Catullus was able to conceive the life-bond between his friend Calvus and his helpmeet Quinctilia. A longer and more lively picture presents the ecstasy of Acme and Septimius in lines and words that seem to burn. The two doting lovers plight vows, and compare omens, and interchange embraces and kisses that inspire with passion the poet's hendecasyllables. The conclusion of the piece...
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SOURCE: "The Elegies," in Catullus and the Traditions of Ancient Poetry, University of California Press, 1934, pp. 153-82.
[In the essay below, Wheeler demonstrates that Catullus was a pioneer and signal influence in the genre of the classical elegy.]
In elegy the Romans achieved one of their greatest literary successes. Three quarters of a century after the death of Ovid, the last of the great Augustan elegists, Quintilian, a sober critic, comparing the Roman achievement with the Greek, briefly expresses his verdict in the words, elegia … Graecos provocamus, "in elegy we challenge the Greeks." It is a verdict from which the modern critic, after studying all the remains of Greek and Roman elegy—and the material is abundant—is not likely to dissent. Undoubtedly the Romans possessed a remarkable gift for this kind of poetry, and even if we had before us today the entire product of all the Greeks and Romans, it is probable that we should still regard the elegy of the Augustan Age, with its four great names—Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid—as on the whole the acme of the genre.
Like all other kinds of Roman poetry, Augustan elegy is compounded of both Greek and Roman elements. Among the Greeks the genre had a very long development and they had brought it to the highest degree of perfection of which they were capable some two centuries before the...
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SOURCE: "Lyric and Liberty," in The Lyric Genius of Catullus, 1939. Reprint by Russell & Russell, 1967, pp. 161-84.
[In the following essay, Havelock places Catullus within the context of his time, explaining the poetic tradition of which he was a part and his influence upon the Roman poetry of the classical age.]
(i) The Poetae Novi and their Significance
Though Catullus is best understood in detachment from the rest of the Latin poets, he is no isolated freak. His poetry occupies indeed a peculiar and ambiguous position, exercising a powerful influence on the young Virgil, remembered grudgingly by Horace but gratefully by the elegists, imitated by Martial, discussed by Quintilian—yet among these not one shows any signs of catching or understanding the direct inspiration of his lyrics. This fact reveals something of the fate of Latin poetry. Two things in the history of Latin literature it is difficult to understand. The first is its decline. Poetry had exhausted its vigour when Juvenal died, yet the imperial system still had several centuries to run out. To the glaring contrast between the political effectiveness of that system, and the paucity of imaginative literature produced within it, recorded history offers no parallel. The loss of political liberty can scarcely be the explanation, for the Caesars did not and could not exercise dictatorship over their peoples...
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SOURCE: "Characteristics of the New Poetry," in The Catullan Revolution, Melbourne University Press, 1959, pp. 44-69.
[Below, Quinn examines the features of what he terms "the Catullan movement" in classical Roman literature, focusing upon the poetry of youth and reaction, meter and structure, and the language of Catullus and the poetae novi.]
DID THE POETAE NOVI FORM A SCHOOL?
One piece of significant biographical information that emerges clearly from the Catullan poems is that their author was one of a group deeply interested in poetry. It is tantalizing to know so little of Catullus'...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Poems of Catullus, translated by Peter Whigham, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 9-46.
[In the following essay originally published in 1966, Whigham surveys what he deems the highlights of Catullus's poetic canon.]
The date of Catullus's introduction into Roman society is of interest in helping to assess how much of his younger, formative life was spent in what he refers to as 'the province'. It is, unfortunately, likely to remain an unsolved query. If Metellus Celer was responsible, Catullus would not be likely to have left home before the spring of 62. On the other hand, his father, who must have been a wealthy man, was probably just as capable of arranging the matter for himself. In which case, there is no knowing when he left. There is a third alternative—of no help from the point of view of dates, but worth considering for other reasons. It is not impossible that he was provided with introductions to Roman literary circles by Publius Valerius Cato, the Veronese teacher, poet and critic, known not only to Catullus but to at least three other of the 'new poets', Ticidas, Gaius Cinna and Furius Bibaculus, all Cisalpines and all, at one time or another, pupils of his. It is likely, but unprovable, that Catullus was another. Cato was the author of a work on grammar, now lost, and probably of a poem called Dirae, which is still extant. A line of Cinna's refers to...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Social Coment," in Catullus. An Interpretation, B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1972, pp. 204-82.
[In the following essay, Quinn explores Catullus's poems that focus upon political and social commentary: those poems which, in the main, "establish a norm (if one can speak of a norm in connexion with a segment of society whose habits are often so abnormal), set against which the Lesbia affair stands out in sharp contrast, without any more needing to be said."]
There are only something like twenty-five to thirty Lesbia poems in a collection which numbers in all one hundred and thirteen poems. Among the rest are old favourites such as 'Catullus' Yacht' ('Poem 4'), 'Sirmio' ('Poem 31') and 'Arrius and his Aitches' ('Poem 84'.) And then of course there are the 'Attis' ('Poem 63') and the 'Peleus and Thetis' ('Poem 64') and the two marriage hymns (Poems '61' and '62'). Anyone who knows his Catullus could easily list a score of poems, some equally well known, others poems which just happen to appeal to him personally. But one does this very much in the frame of mind of a man who is making up a supplementary list: it is the Lesbia poems, we feel, that matter; the rest are sometimes striking, not infrequently obscene, often poems we haven't read for years. No doubt it was all part of the urbane casualness with which Catullus presents his collection in Poem I to offer the reader a very mixed bag, in...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Poems of Catullus, translated by Charles Martin, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, pp. ix-xxv.
[In the following excerpt from his 1979 introduction to his edition of Catullus's poetry, Martin speaks of Catullus as one whose poetry was unique in its day and notably influential in modern times. Martin adds that Catullus's observations and concerns resonate readily within the contemporary mind]
Near the end of the seventeenth century, John Dryden could speak of translation, with offhanded assurance, as the act of bringing the thought of one author over into the language of another. In his day, poetic thought was social in nature, as were the rhymed couplets in which it was expressed. As a result, the poet was linked in thought and expression not only to the community of the living but to the fabulae Manes as well, the fabled dead of the literary tradition, whose collective wisdom he guarded and interpreted.
Today, nearly three hundred years after Dryden, we speak of a poet's voice rather than a poet's thought, and we require that voice to be a reflection of the poet's sensibility rather than an expression of the tradition from which it emerges: our poet must deliver original, subjective truths in idiosyncratic utterances. We no longer share Dryden's sense of the wholeness of the past or of its continuity with the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Poems of Catullus, translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, David R. Godine, Publishers, 1979, pp. 9-24.
[In the essay below, Raphael and McLeish provide a portrait in miniature of Catullus's life and enduring accomplishment, piecing together a likely outline of the poet's life and that of Lesbia using such sources as are available.]
Tennyson called him tender; Harold Nicolson was unable to understand why. Gaius Valerius Catullus, the greatest Roman lyric poet, who was said by St Jerome to have died at the age of thirty, has always excited contradictory judgments. He is prized by some for the sincerity and deprecated by others for the crudeness of his feelings; romantics credit him with spontaneity, classics with erudition; his eroticism gives him a dubious reputation among the austere; the sentimental see in his delicacy the very instance of the sensibility which proves too fine for this world: those whom the Muses love, they say, die young.
Of the specific nature of his death nothing is known, and of his life very little. Did the cruelties of his mistress indeed bring on despair and death? He may as well have died of malaria or in a street accident. (Juvenal, a century and a half later, reminds us that such things were commonplace.) Perhaps like Cinna, his friend and the unluckiest of poets, he was killed in some brawl which did not concern...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Catullus, edited and translated by G. P. Goold, Duckworth, 1983, pp. 1-18.
[In the following excerpt, Goold emphasizes Catullus's role as a pioneer in the crafting of effective poetic diction in classical poetry.]
[Poets] from Ennius onwards had successfully clothed Greek literary forms in a Latin dress but had conspicuously failed to match their originals in elegance and beauty of language. This failure the neoterics sought to redeem, taking as their models the poetry of Ptolemaic Alexandria and of Callimachus in particular. l hey imitated not only formal features like artistic word-order and prosodical precision but also the poetic ideology of their models, who discarded the major genres of drama and epic in favour of compositions on a smaller and even miniature scale, for in these every line and every word could be carefully crafted and the proportions of the whole meticulously calculated. No less did the neoterics cultivate the recondite learning characteristic of the Hellenistic poets and especially the subjective and personal manner in which they recounted abstruse and often novel versions of mythological stories.
Catullus' technical skill is especially noticeable in his handling of the native Roman artifice of matching sound to sense: this abounds in his work and is the more effective for being mostly unobtrusive, like the mono-syllables of 'III' 11...
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SOURCE: "The Miniature Epic, No. 64" and "Some Conclusions," in Catullus: A Reader's Guide to the Poems, University Press of America, 1983, pp. 135-52, 153-61.
[Below, Small examines Catullus's most ambitious work, "Poem 64," and draws critical conclusions about the poet and his view of the role of poetry as a vehicle of self-expression, self-understanding, artistic immortality, and power "to celebrate whatever may merit praise …, to punish the wicked, to expose the inept, to defend the helpless and to retaliate upon the ungrateful."]
No. "64" is Catullus' longest poem, perhaps his latest, certainly his most ambitious. It is an epyllion or short mythological epic. The epyllion was one of the more important literary innovations of the Hellenistic age. The genre was taken up and naturalized at Rome by the New Poets as part of their reaction against historical epic in the Ennian manner. We have already had occasion to mention in Chapter Two Cinna's epyllion, the Zmyrna, which is praised in no. "95." From other sources we know of an Io by Calvus, a Glaucus by Cornificius, and a few others. Of these works only a handful of tantalizing fragments survive. Catullus' 64th poem is the earliest Latin epyllion which has come down to us entire. In this masterwork the poet incorporates much of what is most characteristic in his previous writings. As Putnam says, it contains "reflections of...
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SOURCE: "The Poems (1)" and "The Poems (2)," in Catullus, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1988, pp. 24-31, 32-9.
[Below, Ferguson provides an overview of the Lesbia poems, the elegies, and four long poems; two marriage-hymns ("Poem 61" and "Poem 62'), "Attis" ("Poem 63,"), and "Poem 64."']
Catullus chooses to introduce his readers to the woman central to his life in the two poems about her pet sparrow. She is not there identified even by the pseudonym Lesbia, but, whatever other women there may have been in the poet's life, there is no serious doubt that all the six love-poems in the first eleven refer to the same woman. We have come to appreciate that the first of these ('2') is a hymn, the sparrow who drew Aphrodite's carriage taking on her divinity, that it stands within Hellenistic traditions, and that the language is highly erotic in its details. There is one potent ambiguity: strouthos in Greek and its Latin equivalents, turtur and the like, are used of the male sex-organ. This gives a strong ambiguity to the second poem ('3'), where G. Giangrande has argued that the death of the sparrow has an underlying meaning of sexual impotence. Not everyone accepts this, but there is no doubt about the ambiguities of passer, pipiare, mouere, gremium, and mors. The point is not that the poem is about sexual impotence, but that it must be read...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Poems of Catullus, edited and translated by Guy Lee, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. ix-xxvi.
[In the excerpt below, Lee examines Catullus's epigrams, citing the epigrammatist Martial for clarification and comparison.]
Catullus the Epigrammatist
Because he writes short and intense poems about his own feelings, modern readers tend to think of Catullus as a lyric poet, and indeed Jerome in his Chronica (late fourth century A.D.) actually describes him as 'the lyric writer' (scriptor Iyricus). But Jerome's reason for this label is likely to have been the purely formal one that Catullus used lyric metres (hendecasyllables, sapphics, asclepiads, glyconics, etc.) in Poems 'I-LX', 'LXI', and 'LXIII'. Earlier in antiquity, however, he was classed not as a lyric poet but as an epigrammatist.
Martial, epigrammatist par excellence, regards him as the originator of the genre in Latin (see the prose preface prefixed to Book I of his Epigrams) despite the fact that Ennius and Lucilius had written epigrams in the second century B.C., and that Calvus and Cinna are known from their Fragments to have written epigrams in the same metres as Catullus. Martial also regards him as the greatest Latin exponent of the genre and his own highest ambition is to be placed second on the list of epigrammatists after Catullus....
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SOURCE: "Catullus and the Reader: The Erotics of Poetry," in Arethusa, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 419-43.
[In the following essay, Fitzgerald develops "an erotics of Catullus's poetry, and especially the polymetrics, because of the fact that these poems are performances that take place in the context of a still self-conscious and developing conception of sophisticated, urban social behavior."]
When Lucretius says that the purpose of his poetry is to sweeten the bitter draught of a difficult but beneficial philosophy we tend to take him at his word, and have often set ourselves and others the task of showing how Lucretius goes about his purpose. Catullus' statement that his verses are successful (have sal and lepor) only if they can sexually arouse hairy men has not generated much in the way of research. Of the various possible reasons for this, one that we can eliminate is that the poem from which this statement comes has not been taken seriously as Catullan poetics. On the contrary, this poem ("16") has been used (I think wrongly) to show that Catullus distinguishes between his life and his poems, and that though the latter are molliculi ac parum pudici (8), he himself is not. Even if we do take Catullus to be making a distinction between what is proper (decet, 5) for the poet and what is proper for his versiculi, we should give some attention to the substance, as...
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Harrauer, Herman. A Bibliography to Catullus. Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1979, 206 p.
Complex bibliography covering translations, commentary, background, and other Catullus-related publications from 1500 to 1978.
Copely, Frank Olin. "Emotional Conflict and Its Significance in the Lesbia-Poems of Catullus." American Journal of Philology LXX, No. 277 (1949): 22-40.
Discusses Catullus's struggle with language in the experession of his emotions and of the exact nature of his love for Lesbia.
Goold, G. P. Interpreting Catullus. London: H. K. Lewis & Co., 1974, 50 p.
Discusses a number of controversial and still unsettled points in criticism of Catullus.
Hutchinson, G. 0. Hellenistic Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, 374 p.
Presents a literary picture of third-century B.C. poets, including Catullus and highlighting his "uneasy conjunction of diverging emotions."
Jenkyns, Richard. "Catullus and the Idea of a Masterpiece." In Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus, and Juvenal, pp. 85-150. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Discusses Catullus's Poem 64, arguing that there are similarities between Catullus's shorter pieces and his longer work.
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