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.