(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Textual History

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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

James Davies (essay date 1877)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Arthur Leslie Wheeler (essay date 1934)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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, elegiaGraecos provocamus, "in elegy we challenge the Greeks." It is a verdict from which the modern critic, after...

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E. A. Havelock (essay date 1939)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7299 words.)

Kenneth Quinn (essay date 1959)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.]

(The entire section is 7989 words.)

Peter Whigham (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth Quinn (essay date 1972)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Charles Martin (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4660 words.)

R. O. A. M. Lyne (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Catullus," in The Latin Love Poets: From Catullus to Horace, Oxford at the University Press, 1980, pp. 19-61.

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G. P. Goold (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

Stuart G. P. Small (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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....

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John Ferguson (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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."']

The Lesbia-Poems

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...

(The entire section is 6427 words.)

Guy Lee (essay date 1990)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

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William Fitzgerald (essay date 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7535 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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 &...

(The entire section is 477 words.)