Catullus, greatest of the Latin lyric poets, was born in Verona in northern Italy, only a few years after it had been taken from the Celts. Some scholars believe him to have been Celtic, not only because of his name but also because of his use of such Celtic words as basium (kiss) instead of the Latin osculum.
Catullus was one of the so-called New Poets, whose leader was Valerius Cato. Beginning about 90 b.c.e., these writers revolted against the conservative poets who treated only wars, history, and mythology. Instead, they experimented with Greek meters and Greek words, and their work reveals the inspiration of Sappho, Archilochus, and especially the Alexandrians. It is not known how radical Catullus’ fellow poets were, for most of their work has been lost. Indeed, the poetry of Catullus survived only by chance.
Catullus probably published a number of books—libelli, the Latins called them—made by pasting together sheets of parchment or papyrus into a long strip and rolling it on a stick. About a thousand lines constituted a book. All 116 of Catullus’ poems were on one roll, arranged by length rather than by subject or chronology. It could not have been the poet himself who arranged them thus, because the dedication provided was hardly suitable for such a volume. This roll of poems was disregarded for fourteen centuries, for Catullus was not considered an important classical poet like Ovid, Martial, or his friend Vergil. Yet Vergil’s indebtedness to Catullus is evident both in Vergil’s earlier poetry and in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), and Ovid and Martial both praised him highly.
The roll of Catullus’ poems came to light briefly in his native city in the fourteenth century, when two admirers made complete copies of the works before the roll was lost forever. It is from the two copies that later ages learned to admire the lyric genius of Catullus. Petrarch owned and used one copy.
Once the poems, the Carmina, appeared in print, the cult of Catullus began to spread. The pious François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon, overlooking Catullus’ occasional obscenities, accounted with two words for his greatness: simplicité passionée. The critical judgment of the poet ever since has been that he was one of the supreme poets of love and a singer of ardent and sincere passion, a passion that he expressed with fiery earnestness but also with simplicity.
The date of Catullus’ first poems cannot be determined. It is known that he went to Rome when he was about twenty. There he met the object of an overpowering love, a woman whom he addressed in his verses as Lesbia, a name suggested by the homeland of Sappho, whose meter he used in several of the poems. Scholars later identified her as Clodia, wife of the praetor Quintus Caecilius Metellus, a talented, cruel beauty described as ox-eyed (a compliment: oxen have beautiful, large eyes) even by her enemies. She was married when Catullus, meeting her, was so struck that he could not speak. He thereupon wrote for her one of the most famous of all love poems, in which he declared that a man becomes godlike “who sits and constantly in your presence watches and hears you laugh.” Possibly about this same time he courted her in the charming and well-known lyric addressed to her pet sparrow, who could be happy although its mistress and the poet were miserable and thwarted.
Before he had progressed very far in his courtship, his older brother, a diplomat in the east, suddenly died. Perhaps it was he who had financed Catullus’ literary career in Rome. Certainly the poet never mentioned assistance from his father. At any rate, Catullus returned home in 60 b.c.e. Once back in Verona, the poet, finding no kindred spirits, was frankly bored. In one rhyme to a friend he complained that he...
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