Episode 49: The Strange Roots of Love

Catullus (c. 85-54 BCE) is Rome’s most famous early poet. Departing from epic tradition, Catullus wrote a canon of short works that have been famous since antiquity.

To download the episode, click the three dot icon on the right of the player, and then click Download.

The Poetry of Catullus

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 49: The Strange Roots of Love. This show is on the Roman poet Catullus, an extremely influential writer of principally shorter poems who lived from about 84-54 BCE.

Bakalovich catullus

Stepan Bakalovich’s Roman Poet Catullus Reading to His Friends (1885).

Long after Catullus passed away, there was a certain kind of plot that began to make its way into European literature. We who study nineteenth-century realism call it the “plot of intrusion.” It was plot in which an outsider – usually a hapless and wholesome outsider, for whatever reason moves, and makes his way into a new group of people. This new group of people initially seems friendly and candid. They welcome the outsider into their world. The outsider falls in love, and seems to have found a new home and social context. But as the plot thickens, we learn more and more that the new friends that the outsider has made are not so friendly, after all; that he has been used, and disparaged; that an intricate and sinister pre-history of events have preceded his arrival in his new social environment; and moreover, that he believed he was a butterfly, gliding through a friendly meadow, but finds that he is an ugly little beetle, stuck in a dark forest filled with cobwebs.

This is the story of Prince Mishkin in Doestoevsky’s The Idiot. It’s is the story of much of the early and middle period fiction by one of my favorite authors, Henry James – the story of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, Christopher Newman in The American. James took it from Balzac, whose novels Old Goriot and Lost Illusions told of young provincial intellectuals who drift into the glitter of Paris, fall in love with sophisticated and beautiful women there, vastly underestimate the complexity and ulterior motives of Parisian high society, and end up disgraced and lonely. Whatever era tells the story, the plot of intrusion reads the same way. An innocent young person – often a provincial – moves to a city, makes new friends, suffers betrayals and rude awakenings, and ends up losing his or her naivety in a tragic and poignant series of events. The lesson, if there is one, is that beneath the lacework of genteel society lies a labyrinth of predatory motivations – that behind the rococo tapestries of the aristocratic ballroom, the walls are all rotten.

The beginning of author Daisy Dunn’s recent, often speculative biography of the Roman poet Catullus reads something like this. A provincial from Cisalpine Gaul, in the north of modern day Italy, Catullus at some point moved to the capital city, and found Rome dazzling. Through his paternal connections, he made his way into the very heart of Roman splendor – a lavish house on the Palatine hill owned by a patrician named Metellus Celer. Metellus’ sister was married to Pompey Magnus, one of the greatest generals in Roman history. Metellus’ sister-in-law was married to the general and ex-consul Lucullus, a man nearly of Pompey’s stature. Metellus’ himself would enjoy a consulship in the years after Catullus met him. And Metellus’ wife, Clodia Metelli, was the acme of Roman high society – lovely, brilliantly witty, of impeccable stock – the rapture of a dinner party or holiday outing, whom one classical scholar once called “the most beautiful, powerful, and abandoned woman in Rome.”1 Catullus fell in love with her, and it changed the course of his life. And though his poetry suggests that the affections were for a time mutual, Clodia never had any intention of divorcing her husband for the sake of a provincial poet from the wrong side of the Apennines. Whatever happened between them left Catullus with a wide spectrum of emotional experiences, and many of his surviving 117 poems can be arranged into a long and diverse sequence capturing the infatuation, consummation, heartbreak, bitterness, and coping that he experienced in his relationship with his beloved Clodia, whom he calls “Lesbia,” throughout his poetry.

But Catullus was no bumbling Prince Mishkin. He was not a trusting Isabel Archer, nor a buffonishly confident Christopher Newman, and certainly not a wholesome country poet like Balzac’s handsome young Lucien Chardon, who gets eaten and spat back out by nineteenth-century Paris. Catullus was no helpless waif, doomed to lose his innocence amidst the glamour and vice of late Republican Rome. Catullus was something else. Exactly what this something else was, though, we’re still trying to figure out. [music]

What Catullus is Known For

One of Catullus’ more famous poems includes the lines, “[T]he true poet should be chaste / Himself, his verses need not be” (16.5-6).2 This evidently turned into something of a mantra – over a century after Catullus died, one of his poetic successors Martial wrote “My page is wanton. . .my life is good.”3 We don’t know exactly what kind of a life Catullus led. Even two thousand years of biographical speculation have produced little consensus about Catullus’ identity. Not everyone agrees that Clodia Pulcher was the Lesbia of Catullus’ poems, or the exact story of how he came to be at Rome. Nonetheless, his poetry has long been plundered for biographical details. And one detail – Catullus’ capacity for vulgarity – should be introduced sooner rather than later. The speakers of his poems, amidst many other things, are often foul mouthed, slanderous sexual buccaneers, voicing insults to his amorous and literary rivals that would have made Shakespeare blush and Jane Austen faint. So folks, the remainder of this show is for adults only. Catullus wrote a lot of different kinds of poems, and some of them are absolutely X-rated. There will be many four letter words, grotesque insults, and – uh – hauntingly disgusting images. It’s all rich and interesting poetry, and it’s important for our understanding of the literary, sexual, and political culture of late Republican Rome. But, again, if you have kids in the car or would rather not hear some of the filthiest stuff in literary history, with genuine respect for your preferences I advise you to shut this show off immediately.

That caveat aside, there is a lot more to the work of Catullus than erotica and obscenity. When you sit down for a day or two and work your way through Catullus’ 117 surviving poems, I think maybe the thing that stands out the most is their scope and diversity. They range from sweet love lyrics to pornographic yarns, from poems solemnly celebrating weddings to poems threatening to sodomize his poetic rivals and force his penis into their mouths. There are poems written in the high mythographic tradition, poems about legendary historical figures from bygone centuries. There are poems about universal human experiences – coming home after a long absence, enduring heartbreak, hoping for the future, and loving against one’s will. Thus, as a whole his surviving 117 poems are difficult to generalize about – perhaps what holds them together the most is their breadth and imaginative energy. And structurally, the poems of Catullus are as varied as their contents.

Catullus Sirmione

A statue of Catullus in Sirmione, a resort town on Lake Garda in Italy, the place where Catullus probably spent his early years. Photo by Schorle.

The shortest of his works are two line epigrams. The longest is a 408-line mini-epic in which, within a tale about the wedding of Achilles’ parents Peleus and Thetis, Catullus also tells the story of the legendary Athenian king Theseus abandoning Ariadne, the Cretan princess who helped him make his way through the labyrinth of King Minos. The meters of Catullus’ poems are also quite diverse. He uses a meter called the elegiac couplet most often, and also, very frequently, a meter that Catullus himself called Hendecasyllables – a poetic line with eleven syllables. Other poems use an exotic array of meters borrowed from Greek – dactylic hexameter, glyconics, sapphics, scazons, along with Latin meters like the senarius used by Plautus and Terence. We’ll be reading his poems in translation in this show, so we won’t be able to talk about Catullan meter too much. But from what I’ve said about the diverse contents of Catullus’ poems, and the formal experimentation of his poetry, it’s probably clear that Catullus was no one-trick pony. In his inexhaustible search for poetic topics high and low, and his endless tinkering with the structure of his poems, Catullus clearly had a restless, curious mind. Because his output was so diverse, I want to introduce the main idea of this episode, so that we’ll have an anchoring point as we move forward.

As we put Catullus’ poems on our desk for today’s show, we’re entering a field of ancient literature that scholars call Latin love poetry. The early writers who contributed to this genre – Catullus, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, and several others, did not restrict themselves exclusively to writing poems capturing their romantic sentiments. Operating primarily in the years between about 60 BCE and 20 CE, these poets had a wide range of interests, but what they had in common was a drive to write shorter poems – often episodic poems, that chronicled their passions toward people in the world around them. Now Catullus is today famous for a lot of reasons – most prominently his ribaldry, but also his occasionally dense and allusive poetic style. And while some of Catullus’ poems are memorably foul, and others are carefully crafted coffers of ancient myths, what proved most enduring about his work was that much of it consisted of apparently autobiographical accounts of his personal passions and emotions. The long and tortured series of poems that he wrote to an addressee called Lesbia lie near the beginning of one of the main traditions of European poetry – writing stylized autobiographical accounts of one’s affection toward a lover.

The main idea of this show is in its title – Episode 49: The Strange Roots of Love. In the thousands and thousands of pages we’ve covered in the literature of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan, Greece, and elsewhere, romantic love has only come up a few times. It came up in Episode 23, when we talked about the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, and this love poem’s relationship with the much older Egyptian Song of the Harper, from the 1200s BCE. Romantic love came up again in Episodes 38 and 39 on Jason and the Argonauts – in these shows we saw Jason’s romance with Hipsyple and much more importantly Medea. But through the vast bulk of Mesopotamian literature, the Homeric epics and poems of Hesiod, the Old Testament and the plays of 5th-century Athens, romantic love rarely makes an appearance.4 Even more so, autobiographical accounts of a poet’s romantic experiences with a specific lover don’t really begin to emerge en mass until the poetry of Catullus and the Latin love poets who followed him.

There’s just one, tremendously important exception. You may know it already if you know anything about Catullus – that he had a predecessor who unmistakably influenced his ardent autobiographical accounts of love and desire. Perhaps you remember this writer – a composer of short lyrics that chronicle love and adoration toward an often elusive addressee. Catullus liked this writer’s work so well that his own nickname for his lover Clodia, “Lesbia,” probably came from this earlier poet’s home island of Lesbos. Her name was Sappho, and Plato called her the tenth muse.

We’ll talk more about the poetic traditions from which Catullus emerged later. The reason why I have called this show “The Strange Roots of Love” isn’t that we should think of Catullus as the inventor of autobiographical love poetry. Before him came Sappho, and her near contemporary Anacreon; the rustic courtships of Theocritus’ Idylls, the Biblical Song of Songs and the Late Bronze Age Song of the Harper. We can’t think of Catullus as the pioneer of autobiographical love poetry, but Catullus is definitely the moment when this tradition began to build momentum, and consolidate in a Latin language manuscript tradition that would endure until the Renaissance. Thirteen hundred years after Catullus and his successors passed away, the Italian scholar Petrarch was at the helm of the Renaissance effort to resurrect the knowledge and culture of the Greco-Roman world. Petrarch’s sonnets, modeled on Latin love poems, exploded throughout Europe during the late 1300s and 1400s, and in English, ever since, short autobiographical love lyrics have been a staple of the garden variety poet’s output. Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and others brought the love sonnet to new heights of perfection during the 1500s and 1600s, and these poets influenced John Donne and Andrew Marvell, whose innovations and edgier aspects made their way into the darker love poems of Victorian poets like Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Thomas Hardy. Now, these are a lot of names to hurl at you so early in the show, and in the event that you didn’t spend your twenties up to your eyeballs in English literature, let me zoom out and make a general statement about Catullus’ place in literary history.

It was not inevitable that poetry would concern itself so frequently with love, desire, and unrequited passion. Nor was it inevitable that poetry would become so heavily autobiographical. Poetry could have just as easily been directed toward philosophical aims, as we saw in the work of Lucretius. Poetry might have continued to be composed on epic themes, telling of Achilleses and Odysseuses and Jasons, and their interactions with troupes of mythological personages. Poetry might have predominantly served some communitarian or liturgical purpose, like the sports poems of Pindar, or the choral lyrics of the Psalms. Poetry might have primarily been directed toward the preservation of theological and national history, as we see in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Annals of Quintus Ennius. Perhaps even more broadly, it was not inevitable that romantic love would occupy such a prevalent part of modern consciousness. In many cultures we have studied, prearranged socially advantageous marriages for the purposes of offspring and the transmission of wealth were the norm. Falling in love and doting on one’s spouse, in the written record at least, appear to have been less important than one’s community and civic network beyond the household. But, in no small part due to the work of Catullus and the little handful of Latin love poets who followed him in the years between 60 BCE and 20 CE, shorter pieces telling compressed and intense stories about personal experiences with love eventually came to dominate European and Anglophone poetry. The popular music that we listen to today, with its first person speakers avowing their love, or bemoaning their broken heartedness, or swearing off their inconstant lovers – the symbolic world evoked by these modern love lyrics has deep, strange roots – roots that we can trace back to the late Republican world of our author for today, Gaius Valerius Catullus. [music]

Biographical Fragments on Catullus

Before we get into Catullus’ poetry, I want to talk a bit about his life. Catullus was a formative influence on a subsequent generation of writers which included Virgil and Ovid, but unfortunately these two writers in the subsequent generation had little to say about Catullus himself. In fact, we don’t have a lot of reliable biographical information about the life of Catullus. A lot of the information that scholars have traditionally used has come from his poems. Over the past century, however, literary criticism and classics have become wary of confidently extrapolating what seem to be biographical details from poetry, since poetry is an artistic creation that stylizes and distorts an author’s experiences, if it is even based on an author’s experiences to begin with.5 Catullus’ poems, then, chronicle the various stages of a speaker’s love for a woman he calls “Lesbia.” They disparage various artistic rivals, deprecate some contemporary politicians, and tell some stories in a highly allusive style. The mass of Catullus’ poems together give us the outlines of a man who almost certainly experienced a lot of pain from unrequited love. The poems undoubtedly show great learning, a small handful of them displaying a broad mythographic range of knowledge. They also display a man whose erudition and reverence toward romantic love did not set him above utterly crude slander – he describes one old man as deserving of being eaten alive (108), another as having lips spattered with semen (80), and another as having a mouth like the genitals of a mule, urinating on a hot day (97). While our sources on Catullus are sketchy at best, the poetry paints an indelible portrait – a portrait of a sort of X-rated Philip Sidney – a learned courtly sonneteer whose pervasive devotion to a capricious mistress did not at all preclude him from a fair number of sexual misadventures and stomach-turning aspersions.

John Reinhard Weguelin Lesbia catullus

John Reinhard Weguelin’s Lesbia (1878).

So, excepting that most of what we know about Catullus comes from his poems – and also that everything we know about Catullus is colored by the various personas of his poetry, let’s talk about his life a bit. A smattering of later writers recorded various details about Catullus, all at least a century after he passed away. The first century CE poet Martial mentions Catullus often in his writings, though only in a literary context.6 The biographer Suetonius, writing about 150 years after Catullus’ death, includes a brief account of the poet in his Life of Julius Caesar. The philosopher and novelist Apuleius, 200 years after Catullus’ death, saw the earlier poet as a model and identified the central addressee of many of Catullus’ love poems not as “Lesbia,” as Catullus calls her, but as Clodia Metelli, the diva of the Late Republic I mentioned earlier. From these three and a few others, and most of all from Catullus’ poems, we have evidence that Catullus came from a noble family in northern Italy – about ten miles northwest of modern day Verona, on the shore of a beautiful lake called Lake Garda. In one of his poems, Catullus describes coming home to Verona and seeing this lake after a provincial assignment in modern day Turkey that would have taken place between 57 and 56 BCE, being grateful to sleep at home and watch the waves in the lake (31). From this poem and several others, it’s fairly certain that Catullus loved his home province of Cisalpine Gaul.7 As we’ll see a bit later, political poetry that Catullus wrote defaming Caesar and Caesar’s chief engineer Mamurra may have been influenced by Catullus’ regional allegiances. Caesar, after all, spent the 50s BCE using Cisalpine Gaul as a staging area for his expeditions into modern day France, and Catullus didn’t like demagogues tramping around his home turf.

This wasn’t because Catullus thought of himself as a Gaul, though. The province of Cisalpine Gaul had been cleared of native Cimbri in 101 BCE – almost twenty years before Catullus’ birth, and afterward it was settled by ex-soldiers, formally made into Roman citizens at the end of the Social War in 90 BCE. Catullus, then, was not a colonized native. He and his family were wealthy Romans – their community was in the agriculturally fruitful Po valley, and the Po River connected the Verona region to the Adriatic shipping trade. But still, Catullus and his family were not Romans like Julius Caesar was, nor Catullus’ beloved Clodia Metelli, nor her husband Metellus Celer, who had been the provincial governor of Cisalpine Gaul in 62 BCE.8 Catullus was Roman, but he knew that some Romans – like Caesar, and Clodia, and her husband, were more Roman than others.

We don’t know exactly when Catullus came to Rome, or whether he spent periods of his youth there, perhaps taking the 300 or so mile journey south from modern day Verona and forming literary and intellectual friendships early on. But one memorable thing that survives from the details we have on the poet’s life is the path that he did not take – the cursus honorum we discussed so much in our three shows on Cicero. The Roman course of offices, which Cicero ascended due to a combination of political brilliance, rhetorical ability, and intense focus and ambition, was evidently of little interest to Catullus. Catullus was, like Cicero, an equestrian, or a lower aristocrat, and thus eligible for the same offices Cicero was. But Catullus had little interest in politics. The modern Catullus biographer Daisy Dunn, imagining Catullus at the glitzy mansion of his beloved Clodia and her politico husband, writes, “Without an acute interest in the minutiae of the law courts or small-scale political intrigues, there was very little to talk about.”9 Cicero inserted himself into political imbroglios with perceptiveness and enthusiasm. Catullus, however, seems to have found the cutthroat world of Roman politics less interesting than the private realm of his poems and personal affections. His ambitions were literary and amorous, and not economic or legislative. He wanted to sleep with Metellus’ wife, not to be Metellus.

While Catullus seems to have made little effort to cozy up to Roman power brokers in order to advance a political career, plenty of evidence exists that suggests that Catullus enjoyed networking in order to promote a literary career. Mentions of other poets and poetic rivalries are plentiful in his work, and the collection of Catullus that we possess today begins with a poem dedicated to a writer named Cornelius Nepos, who shared Catullus’ roots in Cisalpine Gaul and some of Catullus’ poetic convictions.10 Another poem happily recollects writing with a fellow poet called Licinius Calvus. Catullus writes, and this is the Guy Lee translation, “At leisure, Licinius, yesterday / We’d much fun with my writing-tablets / As we’d agreed to be frivolous. / Each of us writing light verses / Played now with this metre, now that, / Capping each other’s jokes and toasts” (50.1-6).11 Because we know so little about Catullus’ life, as opposed to the minutiae of Caesar’s and Cicero’s during the 60s and 50s BCE, I think it’s interesting to see Catullus as a point of contrast. The Roman Republic was falling apart. Caesar was swinging the sledgehammer and Cicero was trying to mortar the foundation stones back together. Catullus, meanwhile, was reading ancient poetry, fiddling with exotic meters, dallying with half a dozen lovers, and occasionally making fun of this or that puffed up Roman strongman in a poem. His impact on the military and political history of the late Republic was not significant. But the lifestyle depicted in Catullus’ poetry – the pursuit of culture and pleasure, the carefully cultivated world of artistic friendships, the dismissive attitude toward state power structures and those who controlled them – this overall aura of hedonistic, bohemian, iconoclastic intellectualism was an important part of Catullus’ poetry. From Marlowe to Byron, Pushkin to the French symbolists, the American Beats to the indie singer songwriter on the street corner today, the image of a poet or lyricist as a man or woman off the beaten thoroughfare, dark, sexy, dangerous and institutionally unaffiliated, has a history that goes back to Catullus and the poets who influenced him. [music]

The Straightforward Love Lyrics

Alright, so, we’ve talked a bit about Catullus’ poetry as a whole. We know that 117 of his poems survive, and that while these are diverse, what had the most influence in later Anglophone poetry was his short, autobiographical love lyrics. We’ve talked a bit about his life, how he was from the Po Valley in the north of modern day Italy, and how although he lived in the extremely eventful decades between about 84 and 54 BCE, he steered clear of the political and military events that dominated the world of the late Republic, pursuing sex, love, literary knowledge, and peopling his life with those who would put these things into it.

Sir Edward John Poynter lesbia and her sparrow catullus

Edward Poynter’s Lesbia and Her Sparrow (1907)

What I want to do now is to read some of his poetry with you. As I said before, Catullus’ output was incredibly diverse. I think the best way for us to explore the work of Catullus in podcast form will be to break it into a few different categories, beginning with the love poetry to Lesbia. Now, the poems of Catullus may or may not have been arranged by the author himself – whether or not Catullus was responsible, or partially responsible for the collation of the poems that survive from him is an open question. As classicist Marilyn Skinner puts it, “After a full century and a half [of scholarship], the question of authorial design in the corpus of Catullus’ surviving poems – occasionally designated. . .‘the Catullan question,’ as though it were the only one – continues to prove intractable.”12 If Catullus experts can’t pin down whether there’s any authorial agenda behind the order of the poems, I know I certainly can’t, but I can tell you that the central arc of poems written to Catullus’ lover Lesbia is not presented in neat chronological order. In other words, Poem 7 exalts over the kisses of Lesbia, and in Poem 8 the speaker urges himself to “stand fast” (8.11) and move on from Lesbia’s inconstancy. Poem 11 berates Lesbia as an adulterous slut, but then far later in the collection, in Poem 109, the speaker again seems to be smitten and confident, telling his lover, “You give me hope this mutual love of ours, my life, / Will be delightful and forever” (109.1-2). If we as readers want to piece the long arc of poems to Lesbia into a coherent story, reading them in order is occasionally confusing, as Catullus seesaws between love, grief, and hatred even in poems that appear adjacent to one another. So, as I take you through the story of infatuation, consummation, betrayal, hatred, and coping that appears in Catullus’ poetry, I’m going to be jumping all over the place in the collection and piecing together the story with some help from scholarship on the subject. And unless otherwise noted, I’m quoting from the Guy Lee translation of Catullus’ poems, first published by Oxford University Press in 1990.

I opened this episode with an anecdote about the nineteenth-century plot of intrusion – that story of a provincial outsider who gets mired in the glamour of an urban capital. While Catullus is too intelligent, resourceful, and vindictive to really fit the model of a helpless peasant swain seduced by an urban coquette, nonetheless the Lesbia sequence does display an overall journey from hopeful innocence to cynical experience. Clodia, who was already married, was not interested in divorcing her decorated husband and entering into a monogamous relationship with a provincial poet. However – and this is maybe where the story gets a bit more interesting, and a bit more Roman. Clodia was no model of a chaste aristocratic wife, either. She seems to have enjoyed extramarital affairs, including one with Catullus himself. And thus the sequence of poems to Lesbia – again Catullus’ nickname for Clodia Metelli – the sequence of poems to Lesbia contain a special seed of bitterness. They contain the sadness and self-doubt of a man who loves a woman from a higher economic standing. But they also contain the fury of a person who has been used for fun in a short sexual relationship and then tossed aside, a man who, even if his bank account wasn’t bottomless, had plenty of culture and education.

Let’s begin with some of Catullus’ simpler love lyrics to Lesbia – ones that, compared to what we see later, depict an adoring, optimistic speaker experiencing a new love affair. A pair of early poems – 2 and 3, are about a beloved’s pet sparrow – a sparrow that nips at her fingers and reminds him that while he is in the throes of breathless passion, she is content to play with her pet bird. The little sparrow dies, however, and Catullus lashes out in a sort of mock-serious lament for the lost pet, telling the lord of the underworld, “Your fault it is that now my girl’s / Eyelids are swollen red with crying” (3.17-18). From hanging around his beloved and concerning himself with her pet sparrow, Catullus soon enough finds himself in a consummated relationship. Let’s hear poem 5 in its entirety, and this is again the Guy Lee translation.
We should live, my Lesbia, and love
And value all the talk of stricter
Old men at a single penny.
Suns can set and rise again;
For us, once our brief light has set,
There’s one unending night for sleeping.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand, then a second hundred
Then still another thousand, then a hundred;
Then, when we’ve made many thousands,
We’ll muddle them so as not to know
Or lest some villain overlook us
Knowing the total of our kisses. (5.1-13)

It’s a simple poem, and perhaps one chronicling the consummation of a relationship. The bouquets of kisses, the talk of loving one another in spite of social conventions, the indifference to the passing of time could have come from the pages of John Donne or one of half a dozen early modern English poets.13 The revelry of countless kisses continues in a neighboring poem – Catullus writes that he wants as many kisses as there are grains of sand in the deserts of Libya, and as many as there are stars in a calm night sky, and “To kiss you just so many kisses / Would more than satisfy the mad Catullus” (7.9-10). Late in the collection there are poems that reveal Catullus’ continued ardency even after some tumult has occurred – Catullus writes in Poem 107 that if Lesbia returned to him, “Who in the world [would live] happier than I? Or who can say / What’s more to be prayed for in life than this?” (107.7-8). And in Poem 109, the love remains as fresh and candid as in earlier poems – Catullus writes, “You give me hope this mutual love of ours, my life, / Will be delightful and for ever. . .That we may be allowed to keep lifelong / This lasting pact of sacred friendship” (109.1-2,5-6).

In reading these sunnier lines, again, we who grew up reading Anglophone poetry are reminded of dozens of later figures from literary history – the sonnets of Spenser and Shakespeare, the exultant lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the couplets and quartets of literally dozens of canonical love poems whose roots lie in Latin love poetry of the Late Republican and Augustan Ages. But Catullus himself, in these more roseate love lyrics, was not thinking of posterity. He was thinking of Sappho.

A while ago, when we looked at Sappho’s poetry, we read the poem that’s often just called Fragment 31. In this poem, the Sapphic love triangle poem, the speaker watches, we presume, a woman talking to a man, and addresses her poem to the woman. Sappho writes – and this is the Willis Barnstone translation,
To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and

can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears

pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
And feel my mind slip as I
Go close to death.14

That is the whole of one of Sappho’s most famous poems, a compressed story of one speaker looking at an addressee talking to man and feeling the intense physical sensations of desperate love, written some time in the decades around 600 BCE, five hundred years before the birth of Catullus. When we read that poem back in Episode 25, we noted that it was remarkable because it focuses, as Catullus’ poems often would, on a first person speaker’s experience of passionate love, rather than politics, or mythological narratives, or national history. We know that Catullus read this poem carefully, because Catullus’ 51st poem is a line-by-line translation of it into Latin, keeping Sappho’s meter, with a few additions and modifications to make it his own.

Sappho writes that her voice “can say nothing as my tongue / cracks and slender fire is quick / under my skin. My eyes are dead to light, my ears / pound.” Catullus translates this into “My tongue’s paralysed, invisible flame / Courses down through my limbs, with din of their own / My ears are ringing and twin darkness covers / The light of my eyes” (51.9-12). Looking for a literary model – one who had produced short lyrics that overflowed with seemingly spontaneous emotion, Catullus found Sappho a model to emulate. The earlier Greek poet had taken the private world of her emotional experience and cast it into vibrant, stylized autobiography. In Catullus’ sunnier poems to Lesbia, the influence of the most famous Lesbian native of the ancient world is unmistakable. In the next generation of Latin poets, Horace, too, would write an adaption of Sappho 31, ensuring that the love poetry of archaic Greece would continue to circulate in Latin for thousands of years to come.15 [music]

The Bitter Love Poems, and Poems of Coping

Godward-Lesbia with her Sparrow-1916 catullus

John William Godward’s Lesbia with Her Sparrow (1916).

So, we’ve heard some of Catullus’ happier love lyrics to Lesbia. But as I said before, the poems to this central addressee are frequently also characterized by scorn and resentment. What I want to do now is look at some of the poems in which Catullus first begins to express disconcertion and anger with Lesbia, and eventually levels a barrage of condemnation against her that runs the gamut between entertainingly vindictive and moderately disturbing.

These darker love poems begin gradually. In Poem 8, Catullus writes, “Wretched Catullus, you should stop fooling / And what you know you’ve lost admit losing” (8.1-2). A moment later, he continues, “Now she’s stopped wanting, you must stop, weakling. / Don’t chase what runs away nor live wretched / But with a mind made up be firm, stand fast. / Goodbye, girl. Catullus now stands fast” (8.9-11). There is a clear resolution in these lines – a sense that continuing to pursue his lover is useless, and that he must move on for his own health. Poem 60 is a variation on this theme – in it Catullus asks Lesbia if she were born from a lioness or sea monster, and whether these things “Produce[d] you with a mind so hard and horrid / That you could spurn in his extremest need / A suppliant’s prayer, ah too cruel-hearted?” (60.3-5). Poem 70 shows this cruelty in action. Catullus writes, “My woman says there’s no one she would rather wed / Than me, not even if asked by Jove himself. / Says – but what a woman says to an eager lover / One should write on the wind and the running water” (70.1-4). The sense that continuing to love is futile – the impression that his lover is callous in her rejections – these are also standard fare in later European poetry. Cruel mistresses, and lovers desiring naught but to kill desire abound in early modern literature, and thus it’s not too surprising to see Catullus bemoaning his unreciprocated love. However, Catullus was not content to be a spurned lover, weeping in the rain. Used and tossed aside, Catullus struck back with vicious and entertaining crudeness.

In Poem 11, he asks two of his friends to “Simply deliver to my girl a brief dis- / courteous message: / Farewell and long life with her adulterers, / Three hundred together, whom hugging she holds, / Loving none truly but again and again / Rupturing all’s groins” (11.15-20). The image of Lesbia sleeping with a wide range of men emerges in Poem 48, when Catullus writes, “The Lesbia whom alone Catullus / Loved more than self and all his kin, / At crossroads now and in back alleys / [Services] great-hearted Remus’ grandsons” (48.2-5), the “great-hearted Reumus’ grandsons” bit referring to the citizens of Rome. The accusations and harsh language only grow worse from there. Poem 42 tells of Catullus seeking to get his notebook back from Lesbia.
An ugly adulteress thinks I’m a joke [muses Catullus,]
And refuses to give me our notebook back. . .
Let’s chase her and demand it back.
You ask which she is? You see that one
With the ugly walk and the odious actress
Laugh and the face like a. . .puppy’s?
Surround her and demand it back. . .
She doesn’t care [at all], the filthy trollop
Or whatever’s more depraved than that.
But let’s not think that we’ve done enough.
If nothing else we ought to be able
To force a blush from that brazen bitch-face. (42.3-10,13-17)

The anger and defamation here could hardly be clearer, and other bitter love poems become so ferocious that they are almost difficult to follow. In Poem 37 Catullus imagines Clodia living in a whorehouse, outside of which are “One or two hundred strong” (37.7) men waiting to get inside, a mess of “shoddy backstreet adulterers” (37.16). Amidst these lovers is a man named Rufus, who replaced Catullus as Clodia Metelli’s lover and may have been a real person.16 Catullus makes fun of Rufus’ Spanish background, accuses him of washing his teeth in his own urine, and calls Rufus the “ace of the longhaired mob” (37.17) of men congregated outside of Clodia’s brothel.

In short, Catullus doesn’t exactly take a hit and gracefully bow out. His bitterer love poems go after Lesbia and her new lover or lovers with no holds barred rancor. From being a lover with whom he shares numberless kisses, she becomes a prostitute, a monster, a bitch, a fading seductress who will soon have trouble finding any lips to kiss at all.17 If Lesbia were really Clodia Metelli, and if Catullus did circulate some of his more acrimonious poems about her publicly, they must have had an equally nasty effect on the author and addressee, the former appearing horrendously vindictive and the latter both salacious and inconstant.

From what I’ve said so far, it may seem like the Lesbia sequence begins with boyish declarations of love and then devolves wholesale into brutal and jealous insults. While these two extremes are evident in the narrative of the Lesbia sequence, Catullus’ poetry also includes some deeper and more sophisticated meditations on the human experience of love. A number of poems that occur later in the collection are written on a theme that we might call the dark pathology or addictiveness of an unhealthy love, and issue that Virgil contemplates throughout the Eclogues and which became a central interest to Latin and later European love poetry. Let’s look at some of these.

In Poem 72, Catullus writes to Lesbia, “I know you now. So though my passion’s more intense, / Yet for me you’re much cheaper and lighter-weight. / ‘How can that be?’ you ask. It’s because such hurt compels / A lover to love more but to like less” (72.5-8). This odd sentiment – that he hardly likes Lesbia at all in spite of his love and passion for her, appears a few poems later, when Catullus says that his will “could neither like you, even were you perfect, / Nor cease to love you though you stopped at nothing” (75.3-4). The paradox of love and dislike appears in poem 102, when Catullus describes “forever praying / To be rid of [Lesbia], but I’m damned if I don’t love her” (102.3-4). Near the end of Catullus’ poetry the notion of love as a dangerous addiction appears in these memorable lines: “Do you believe,” Catullus asks, “I could have cursed my [Lesbia,] / Who’s dearer to me than both my eyes? / I could not. If I could I wouldn’t love so desperately” (104.1-3). Musing on the potency and volatility of his emotions for Lesbia, Catullus sums up their complex relationship in a famous two line epigram in Poem 85. “I hate and love,” he writes. “Perhaps you’re asking why I do this? / I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and am racked” (85.1-2).

To me, the Catullan love poems like these that display a convolution of emotional experience are richer than those that chirp forth juvenile declarations of love or rain down belligerent insults on Lesbia. In his more sophisticated and self-conscious love poems, Catullus’ speakers acknowledge their culpability in their own twisted love affairs, and rather than blaming a cruel or libertine mistress for their sadness, they simply seek to survive and move on. Let’s look at one of these in its entirety – this is Poem 76, one of my favorites, a poem written by an emotionally devastated speaker who seeks to move on after a painful and ugly affair. This particular translation is Tony Kline’s.
If recalling past good deeds is pleasant to a man,
when he thinks himself to have been virtuous,
not violating sacred ties, nor using the names of gods
in any contract in order to deceive men,
then there are many pleasures left to you, Catullus,
in the rest of life, due to this thankless passion.
Since whatever good a man can do or say
to anyone, has been said and done by you.
All, that entrusted to a thankless heart is lost.
Why torment yourself then any longer?
Why not harden your mind, and shrink from it,
and cease to be unhappy, since the gods are hostile?
It’s difficult, to suddenly let go of a former love,
it’s difficult, but it would gratify you to do it:
That’s your one salvation. That’s for you to prove,
for you to try, whether you can or not.
O gods, if mercy is yours, or if you ever brought help
to a man at the very moment of his death,
gaze at my pain and, if I’ve lived purely,
lift this plague, this destruction from me,
so that the torpor that creeps into my body’s depths
drives out every joy from my heart.
I no longer ask that she loves me to my face,
or, the impossible, that she be chaste:
I chose health, and to rid myself of this foul illness.
O gods, grant me this for all my kindness.18

There is perhaps no sadder, and no simultaneously more inspiring poem by Catullus. Without stooping to vilify his inconstant lover, the speaker of Poem 76 simply says that he hopes he has lived a good life, overall, and that the gods will see it fit to help him find health and stability in the wake of his long period of abjection and misery.

Bakalovich little luxery catullus

Stepan Bakalovich’s Little Luxury, showing a supplicating Catullus and an aloof Lesbia.

So, thus far, I hope I’ve offered you a sense of the scope and overall arc of Catullus’ love poems. He wrote a lot of different kinds of material, but it’s important that we understand the love poems up front, as these had an immediate influence on Virgil, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, and through them, the main traditions of European lyric poetry. We’ve seen Catullus write love poems that range from sweet and optimistic, to slanderous and filthy, to reflective and resolute, and I actually want to turn back to the subject of slanderous and filthy for a little while. We’ve witnessed a little bit of the ribald Catullus so far, and I’d like to consider this side of the poet a little bit further.

While Catullus could write about cherishing numberless sweet kisses with his lover Lesbia, he also wrote, with some degree of pride, about sodomizing her slave or servant boy, in Poem 56. I’m going to use the Tony Kline translation for this one, too. Catullus writes to another poet and critic named Publius Valerius Cato that he has “an amusing and ridiculous thing” to tell his fellow writer about. “I caught my girl’s little pupil thrusting away [meaning masturbating]: / if only to please [the mother of Venus], I sacrificed him / to my rigid. . .shaft” (56.1,5-7).19 Now, that sounds just like something you’d hear in an Elizabethan sonnet, doesn’t it? An unrequited lover, who catches an underclass boy masturbating and then sodomizes him. No, it doesn’t sound, under any circumstances, like anything that would ever show up in an English sonnet. Nor does Poem 32, a poem that confirms our sense that Catullus wasn’t exactly monogamous or chaste during his pursuit of Lesbia. Poem 32, written to a girl called Ipsitilla, begins with the lines, “Please, my sweet Ipsitilla, / My delight, my charmer: / tell me to come to you at siesta,” and later asks her to not “step out of doors, / but stay at home, and get ready / for nine fucks, in succession, with me. / Truly, if you should want it, let me know now: / because lying here, fed, and indolently full, / I’m making a hole in my tunic and cloak” (32.1-2,6-11). The Tony Kline translation there captures the raunchiness of the Catullus poem in question. Buggering a masturbating slave boy and copulating with a girl during the afternoon siesta are just two quick examples of the seedier side of Catullus’ poetry, and they give us a sense that although the poet could love his Lesbia and seek out a lasting relationship with her, in the meantime he felt that sexual misadventures were not at all inappropriate for him. We’ve encountered a bit of X-rated material in Literature and History thus far – a long sex scene in the Epic of Inanna and Dumuzi here, some smutty lines from Sappho’s near contemporary Archilochus there, some nasty verses in the book of Ezekiel here, some explicit sex in Aristophanes there.

We’ve never been a G-rated species, and certain periods of literature choose to discuss sex and make jokes about it with much greater frankness than others. What I want to do now is talk about some of Catullus’ racier poetry, and where this poetry may have come from in ancient literary history.[music]

Slander in Ancient Italian Literary Tradition

There are two genres of ancient literature that existed during Catullus’ lifetime on the Italian peninsula that, in spite of us having spent a fair amount of time on Roman literature thus far, we haven’t talked much about. One of these was a genre called Fescennine verses. These verses were likely named after the Etruscan town of Fescennium. Fescennine verses were associated with specific occasions – holidays, weddings, inaugurations – in other words any kind of public event at which someone could stand up and offer an assembly some improvised comedic poetry for fun. Historian George Duckworth writes, “The general character of the. . .Fescennine verses seems clear: they were jesting, abusive, and doubtless obscene, and were especially associated with weddings and harvest festivals. There can be little doubt that they were dramatic in a crude fashion, since they were improvised and responsive, and they were probably accompanied by dramatic gestures.”20

Carte Etrurie 298avJC

Etruria, with Fescennium (Faesulae) high in the central north of the region, along the Arnus River. Map by ColdEel and Ahenobarbus.

While Roman literature was gaining momentum, then, one of Latin poetry’s influences was a homegrown Italian tradition of humorous festival poetry. An aristocratic marriage might be capped off with some bawdy Fescennine verses, written by comically minded acquaintances of the bride or groom. A seasonal holiday procession might have as one of its performance entertainments a collection of comic short poems drafted just for the occasion, saucy quartets or octets that made audiences giggle. Poets and amateurs who wanted to try their hand at entertaining a crowd could squish lively and lewd images and stories into short works, and these works could in turn be expanded on and bounced around during subsequent public events. The genre of Fescennine verses was so ubiquitous that decades after Catullus died, the poet Horace mentioned Fescennine verses in a poetic letter to Augustus – Horace describes a “Fescennine licence that poured forth country insults in alternate verse.”21

Related to Fescennine verses was a genre we call the epigram. Epigrams, like Fescennine verses, were a short form of poetry, and considered very lowbrow on the literary ladder. In Greek, epigramma means “inscription,” and ancient Greek inscriptions on graves and ritual offerings exist that date back to the 700s and 600s BCE.22 Epigrams, like modern day tweets, have a concise structure that lends to easy circulation and memorability. A poet might write an epigram to his patron, a gift card between friends might include a kindly epigram, or an anonymous epigram might be written in public for satirical purposes. By the time of Suetonius, or say, around 100 CE, anonymous epigrams were widely used to deprecate and critique powerful emperors. As scholar William Fitzgerald puts it, by Catullus’ time, “Short, formally closed, and evoking, ideally, a smile of pleasure, delight, or admiration, the epigram was a form waiting to be commodified.”23

Catullus was an ideal commodifier. A man with amorous and poetic rivals, occasional but pronounced political opinions, and lavish quantities of literary energy, Catullus took the pornographic traditions of archaic Greek poets like Archilochus and the risqué political smears of Aristophanes and produced extremely short, epigrammatic poetry according to whatever he was experiencing at this or that juncture in his life. We’ve talked about his Lesbia sequence, and a pair of his short, scabrous poems about sex with a slave boy and the girl Ipsitilla. There are other poems related to love and sex in his oeuvre, including a sequence written to an aristocratic boy named Juventius.24 But what I want to do now is discuss some of Catullus’ slander poems. We’ve seen a few of these – the ones in which he says Lesbia lives in a whorehouse, that she “ruptures” the “groins” of three hundred lovers, and so on. Let’s look at some others.

Catullus’ Slander Poems

Scholar Guy Lee, whose translations I’ve been relying on for the most part, takes a moment in the Oxford collection of Catullus’ poetry to consider the statistical extent to which Catullus’ work contains obscenity and slander. After careful consideration, Lee writes, “It must. . .be admitted that at least two-thirds of Catullus’ epigrams. . .exemplify personal abuse or are at the same time obscene and abusive.”25 The obscenity in Catullus, which you’ve seen a bit of so far, is so thoroughgoing that in an introduction to Catullus’ poems published in 1961, scholar C.J. Fordyce famously recorded purposely excluding some of them. “[A] few poems,” Fordyce wrote, “which do not lend themselves to comment in English have been omitted.”26 A couple of generations earlier, in 1893, gawking at the profanity that litters the pages of Catullus, a scholar named E.T. Merrill had tried to make sense of the Latin poet’s output. Merrill wrote that “Amid the rough farmer-populace of the turf-walled village by the Tiber [meaning Rome, of course]. . .The mimetic passion and rude wit of the Roman led him also into boisterous personal satire and into epigram more pungent than polished.”27 Catullus would not have been pleased, as in the second line of the first poem of the collection, he describes his poems as expolitum, or “polished.” Obscenity, as far as Catullus was concerned, could be polished to perfection.

Gallia cisalpina - catullus home

The province of Galia Cisalpina, or “Gaul on this side of the Alps,” where Catullus grew up and Mamurra held sway during Caesar’s conquests in modern day France.

In as much as Catullus’ lewd satirical poems were a source of anxiety for critics up until very recently, to many of us today they are one of his great strengths. We might wince at Catullus’ poems that vilify Lesbia as a harlot, and occasionally the frequent references to anuses, excrement, raunchy sex acts and other staples of his slander do seem a bit ill natured. However, Catullan slander, nasty as it sometimes is, is evidence of the culture of free speech that existed in the Late Republic. The most famous work of Roman literature is of course the Aeneid, commissioned by the emperor Augustus, a spectacular full scale epic that is at the same time a piece of propaganda undergirding the return to hereditary monarchy that Augustus inaugurated. The poet we will cover next time, Horace, also found himself serving the political agenda of the new regime. Catullus, on the other hand, like his predecessor Aristophanes, considered nothing to be exempt from disparagement. The works of Catullan slander that we’ll look at now, filthy as they are, are also some of the last echoes of a culture of free speech that had long coexisted with the Roman republic, a culture of free speech that symbolically ended in the last months of 43 BCE, with the death and mutilation of Cicero.

Let’s look at a poem that Catullus wrote against Julius Caesar, and more specifically, Caesar’s chief engineer, Mamurra. At some point in the 50s BCE, likely late 55 BCE, while Caesar was campaigning in the north of modern day France and trying to cross the English channel, he left his lieutenant Mamurra to oversee Catullus’ home province of Cisalpine Gaul.28 Mamurra’s tenure there was evidently characterized by excess and vice. To Catullus, the delegate ruler of Cisalpine Gaul was an ugly minion of the First Triumvirate, and all of them deserved censure. So, here’s Catullus, disparaging Mamurra’s work as the temporary overlord of Cisalpine Gaul – some of Guy Lee’s translation of Catullus 29.
Who can watch this, who suffer it, unless
He’s shameless and a glutton and a gambler –
Mamurra having all the fat that long-haired
Gaul and remotest Britain used to have?. . .(1-3,4)
That supercilious and superfluous figure
Prancing about in everybody’s bedroom (6-7)
Was it for this, O [Julius Caesar],
You’ve been in that far island of the west [meaning Britain]
So that your pal, that multifucking tool,
Could eat his way through twenty or thirty million? (11-14)
. . .Surely he’s leched and gormandized enough (16)
Was it for this, you most devoted Romans,
[Caesar] and [Pompey], you’ve ruined all? (23-4)

Now that poem, under many of Rome’s later emperors, would have been a death sentence to its author. Catullus clearly disparages a key military lieutenant, along with two of the Republic’s triumvirs. Caesar and Pompey, Catullus says, are ruinous to the Republic – Caesar’s appointee ruler is a lecherous wastrel, and Caesar is campaigning on the ends of the earth so that his corrupt lieutenants can grow fat and greedy back at home. Poem 29 is a furious indictment of Rome’s most powerful men, and it’s not unique within Catullus’ corpus of works. Poem 57 is also a censure of Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurra, and one so foul that I have to explain a couple of terms up front.

Translating Catullus’ profanity is challenging. Profanity and colloquialisms associated with it tend to evolve between generations more quickly than other parts of language, and even within different Anglophone cultures our slang expressions for sex and private parts can vary. Thus, the opening lines of Catullus 57, in Latin, are Pulcre conuenit improbis cinaedis, / Mamurrae pathicoque Caesarique. Guy Lee, a British scholar who spent most of his career at Cambridge, translates these lines as “They’re a fine match, the shameless sods, / These poofters Caesar and Mamurra” (37.1-2). To a modern American ear, “sods” doesn’t quite have a punch, and “poofters” is unintelligible. The nouns cinaedus and pathicus refer to younger men who were on the receiving end of sexual encounters with often older men, and so none of our nasty names for homosexuals really work as translations – the original Latin refers to a specific social and sexual class that existed in Catullus’ Rome. Going back to the original Latin again – Pulcre conuenit improbis cinaedis, / Mamurrae pathicoque Caesarique, Tony Kline translates these two lines as, “Beautifully matched the perverse buggers, / Mamurra the catamite and Caesar.” This derogatory couplet has a bit more sting, but in translating the word pathicoque Kline chooses “catamite,” perhaps an excellent literal translation but also an esoteric noun – “catamite,” by the way, means a young boy kept as a slave for sexual use by a master. It’s not a bad thing that that word has fallen out of use in modern English. Now, I don’t want to get us caught up in translation, but one of the challenges of reading and teaching Catullus is that we can imagine in the 50s BCE, Catullus’ slander poems would have been immediately comprehensible, ribald, and gleefully offensive, written as they were with all the beauty and ugliness the Latin language had to offer. This is, I think, where Latinists really get to have all the fun, and those of us who read in translation have to trust the scholarly experience of others and read their footnotes carefully.
Anyway, back to Poem 57 – let’s hear Tony Kline’s translation of this vicious takedown of Caesar and his viceroy Mamurra.

Beautifully matched the perverse buggers,
Mamurra the catamite and Caesar.
No wonder: both equally [pocked with disease],
one from Formia, the other the City [of Rome],
marks that remain, not to be lessened,
diseased the same, both of these twins,
both somewhat skilled in the selfsame couch,
this one no greedier an adulterer than that,
rivals in shared little girls
Beautifully matched the perverse buggers.29

Now, this is a very different Julius Caesar than Shakespeare’s! Catullus’ Caesar, as we’ve seen, was a greedy adventurer, guilty of woeful domestic mismanagement, a diseased pervert who kept his chief engineer as a concubine, both of them fond of all manner of illicit sex. That Catullus could get away with aspersions against such a powerful person is surprising enough – what’s even more surprising is that Caesar seems to have been a family friend of Catullus. According to the historian Suetonius, writing about 150 years after Catullus’ death, Catullus and his father were “in the habit of intimacy with Julius Caesar.”30 And, Suetonius writes, “Much has been said of this poet’s invective against Caesar, which produced no other effect than an invitation to sup at the dictator’s house.”31 Now, this may or may not have actually taken place – Caesar was notoriously mild with his many rivals and political enemies, and Suetonius may have been inventing a yarn about the benevolent dictator’s tolerance of the salty provincial poet to add to the mythos of the clement dictator. For our purposes, it’s safe to say that Catullus immortalized an ugly, reprobate vision of Caesar, and he got away with it. It would not be safe to do something like this in Rome for much longer.

Other prominent political figures were smeared by Catullus’ pen. Pompey, Caesar, and Mamurra were frequent targets, along with a number of other contemporary writers, politicians, and men and women whose names only survive in Catullus’ defamations ofthem. Now, I want to look at another example of Catullan slander – this time an extreme example. I went through all of Catullus’ poems while researching this program, and Poem 97 was the first thing that I’ve read in years that made my jaw drop with the sheer extent of its foulness and harsh language. And one last warning – as this is about as x-rated as it is possible to get – in addition to some uniquely grotesque imagery, this translation uses the c-word, so loathed by Americans. So, very sorry if your ears get burnt here – this is Catullus 97, written to a historically unidentified man named Aemillius – and one last translation by Guy Lee.
I thought (so help me Gods!) it made no difference
      Whether I smelt Aemilius’ mouth or arsehole,
One being no cleaner, the other no filthier.
      But in fact the arsehole’s cleaner and kinder.
It has no teeth. The mouth has teeth half-a-yard long
      And gums like an ancient wagon-chassis.
Moreover when it opens up it’s like the cunt
      Of a pissing mule dehiscent in a heat wave.
And he fucks many girls and fancies himself a charmer. . .
Wouldn’t one think that any woman who touched him
      Could lick the arsehole of a sick hangman? (97.1-9,11-12)

I wanted to read you that poem, not to shock or offend you, but really to give you a sense of the full extent to which ancient literature can dredge up mud and foulness. In today’s English department we sometimes have a sense that our modern poets since the Victorian period have waged a long campaign against propriety and conventionality – that an army of renegade D.H. Lawrences and Allen Ginsbergs fought over the course of the twentieth century and before to bring sex and profanity into the purview of canonical literature. There’s some truth to this, but it’s also important to remember that before Christianity, even when the traditions of Judaism were still coming together, an Archilochus, or an Aristophanes, or a Catullus could weave odious, scatological vulgarity into their literary works, and it was all fair game provided that it was interesting and entertaining. For Catullus, who grew up with these two predecessors and surely others that have been lost, who came of age in a civilization in which raunchy Fescennine verses and vulgar epigrams were in wide public circulation, nothing was off the table.

So, thus far, we’ve seen two sides of Catullus. We’ve seen Catullus the lover go through a spectrum of different emotional experiences. And we’ve seen Catullus the satirist in full color, laying into powerful leaders and obscurer Romans alike. We’ve talked a bit about the backgrounds of these two sides of Catullus – that Catullus’ love lyrics were inspired by the poetry of Sappho, and that his satire was inspired by contemporary, informal styles of short verse that existed in the Late Republic. What we need to do is talk about one more side – a very important side – of this remarkable writer. Catullus, in addition to being famous in classics as a pioneering love poet and a grandmaster of obscenity, is also famous for preserving and passing on another great poetic tradition. This third poetic tradition is something very different, and a bit more complex. In a sentence, in addition to everything you’ve heard so far, following the work of a third-century BCE Alexandrian poet called Callimachus, the Roman poet Catullus wrote a number of short to mid-length poems that are highly allusive and steeped in the traditions of Greco-Roman mythology. I want to tell you about this third aspect of Catullus’ poetry now. [music]

Catullus and Callimachus

Let’s talk about allusions for a minute. English 101 definition first, but an allusion – with an “a,” not to be confused with “illusion” with an “i” – an allusion is an indirect reference to something that calls it to mind without explicitly mentioning it. After cracking open some eggs and putting them into a bowl, I might say, “Hmm, to beat, or not to beat?” making a stupid joke, and also an allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I might remark during a rainstorm that if it rained any harder, we’d need to get out and build an ark, making an allusion to the Book of Genesis. Now, I imagine this is old news to you – allusions are little head nods to shared cultural heritage, and when offered in casual conversations they can let us have a laugh as we compare our mundane everyday lives with the great traditions that have come before us. Scrambling eggs doesn’t really have anything to do with the great story of Hamlet, and a rainy squall is hardly a biblical flood, but by implying such comparisons through allusions we can place ourselves in a sort of mock-heroic dialogue with the past.


John Milton (1608-74) was a proponent of the dense, allusive poetic style pioneered by Callimachus, and Catullus, and after them Virgil.

As the adjective form would imply, “allusive” poetry is poetry heavily built on allusions. So, rather than saying, “The sun came up,” I might say, “And behold Phoebus’ chariot, pulled by Olympian steeds.” Rather than saying, “She was attractive,” I might say, “The blinding allure of Medusa, before she was blighted by the offspring of Kronos, could not compare to her beauty.” Rather than saying, “That guy looks strong,” I might say, “He surpasses even Zeus’ son, the slayer of the Nemean lion.” These kinds of allusions, unless you’re at some kind of a very strange party with a bunch of classicists, are probably not going to come up in modern dialogue. However, they come up all over the place in European poetry. If, for instance, you snipped all of the allusions out of Milton’s Paradise Lost, you’d probably have about two dozen lines left, and none of them would make sense. If you subtracted allusions from Dante’s Divine Comedy, you’d have a vastly reduced and totally different poem. Allusions in poetry are often a way for a poet to weave his or her work together with the extant literary tradition. In the work of a Dante, or Milton, or Alexander Pope, allusions are a needle embroidering the legacies of the august past onto the freshly woven fabric of a new poet.

All of this talk of allusions should serve to introduce a writer who was very important to Catullus, an ancient Greek writer named Callimachus. Callimachus was a contemporary, and a rival of Apollonius of Rhodes, and both poets lived and worked in the Greek-ruled city of Alexandria, Egypt in the middle part of the 200s BCE. Now, we know Apollonius of Rhodes because we read the entirety of his long epic Jason and the Argonauts together. Apollonius of Rhodes was obviously an accomplished poet by the twilight of his career – one with a formidable education and a lot of great work under his belt, and yet Callimachus loathed him. So why would Catullus, who lived from about 84-54, be interested in a feud between two Greek writers – Callimachus and Apollonius – who’d lived two hundred years before him on the other side of the Mediterranean?

The discord between these two earlier Greek writers centered on what literature ought to do. To Apollonius, as we saw, the heyday of the multivolume epic was still alive and well. In other words, following the traditions of Homer, Apollonius thought that great literary works should tell sagas of heroic adventures, that these adventures should in some way be stitched together with the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey and – this is the most important part – that those great stories could fill rolls and rolls of papyrus, expanding into as many books as necessary. The third century Alexandrian poet Callimachus, however, believed that the 500-or-so-year-old legacy of the Homeric epic was out of gas, and that it was time for literature to take some new directions.

P.Oxy. XI 1362 catullus fragment src=

A fragment of Callimachus’ poetry in The Oxyrhycnhus Papyri. Catullus loved this 3rd-century BCE Greco-Egyptian Hellenistic writer, as did other neoteric poets.

In the prologue to one of Callimachus’ poems, which Catullus probably read, Callimachus writes, “I hate the cyclic poem, nor do I take pleasure in the road which carries many to and fro. . .I drink not from every well; I loathe all common things.”32 This personal and literary elitism typified Callimachus’ style, and Catullus seems to have admired it. According to scholar A.W. Mair, “In the view of Callimachus the day of the Homeric epic was past. That spacious type of poetry must now give place to a poetry more expressive of the genius of the age, the short and highly polished poem, in which the recondite learning of the time should find expression.”33 And “recondite learning” is an important phrase there. A number of episodes ago we talked about Ptolemy III and the library of Alexandria. Apollonius of Rhodes was the head librarian there, but Callimachus was also involved, working on the curation and indexing of the 500,000 scrolls held by the library. Callimachus’ work, even in the little bits that survive from it, demonstrates that he practiced what he preached. Short, highly allusive, and intensely difficult, his epigrams and hymns are spangled with references to Ancient Greek literature and theology. While Callimachus, for his difficulty and the relative dearth of his work, isn’t a fixture of the modern classics lecture hall, he was nonetheless a formative influence on Catullus and some of his poetic acquaintances from whom we have little surviving work – Helvius Cinna, Licinius Calvus, and Varro Atacinus, a group that enjoyed the production of shorter works, and often densely allusive works. These four Roman poets were the vanguard of a movement influenced by the brevity and simultaneously the erudition of Callimachus. In opting for Callimachus, rather than Apollonius and the storied form of the Homeric epic, Catullus and his little group self-consciously chose the road less taken.

Catullus, like Callimachus, shuns long poetry. In Poem 36, he briefly describes a historical epic called the Annals, likely a giant work of history, produced by one of his Roman contemporaries- a man named Volusius. In typical Catullan fashion, his satire is punchy and crude. “Volusius’ Annals,” writes Catullus, “paper crap. . .You load of rural crudities, / Volusius’ Annals, paper crap” (36.1,19-20). Epics, sagas, great fusions of Greek myth with Roman history – to Catullus, it all seemed outdated and sycophantic. Historian David Ross sums up Callimachus’ influence on Catullus by saying that what united Catullus and his contemporaries was a desire to be more than servants to an old Homeric tradition – each writer sought to be “no longer a faceless producer of endless imitative lines, [instead,] he became the initiated priest of Apollo, proud of his own personality, fully in control of his own work, a small craftsman rather than a laborer in a machine shop.”34

There are some names for the movement Catullus was a part of – this return to the dense brevity of the earlier Greek poet Callimachus. One of these names is simply “Callimacheanism.”35 Another is the label poetae novi, or “new poets,” and another still the cantors Euphorionis, or “Euphorion singers,” a title Cicero gives them due to their fondness for prolixity and challenging diction, which they shared with Callimachus’ contemporary Euphorion.36 The name usually given to Catullus’ group today, though, is the neoterics. Neoteric poetry, generally shorter, allusive poetry, was a reaction to the epic saga form of Homer, and later Apollonius.

The influence of Callimachus seems to have driven Catullus to write some of his most ambitious poems. The Lesbia sequence demonstrates Catullus’ capacity to excel within the intensely personal style of Sappho. Other, perhaps native Italian traditions steered him toward his satirical verses. But Callimachus influenced Catullus to write a small handful of mid-length poems that I want to tell you a bit about now. We don’t quite have the space here to look at all these poems in detail, but by giving you some summaries of Catullus’ mid-length poems I hope I can at least give you some idea of the full range of his poetic output – an output that could be romantic, broken hearted, politically indignant, utterly foul mouthed – but also quite intellectual and cultivated, as well.

Catullus’ more scholarly output begins with Poem 61, a wedding ode for a man named Manlius Torquatus and his wife Junia Aurunculeia. The poem, from end to end, is filled with references to Greek history and mythology – Mt. Helicon, the deity Urania, the judgment of Paris, Penelope – these figures and more are referenced in Catullus’ celebratory wedding poem. The subsequent poem, another epithalamium, or wedding poem, may have been a translation of a lost piece by Sappho. In it, Catullus’ speaker reverently heralds choirs of boys and girls to come together at a wedding feast. If you read Catullus’ poems from the beginning, these two wedding pieces come as something of a surprise. For one they are quite a bit longer than anything that has appeared in the collection up to that point. Additionally, their reverent attitude toward the sacred institution of marriage is an odd thing to discover in a collection that has already included a wide gamut of coarseness and obscenity.

Poem 63 continues the trend of expanded mythological and topical horizons. It is a poem addressed to Attis, an ancient Anatolian god of vegetation who, like Dionysus, Horus, Dumuzi, Christ, and several others in the ancinet Greco-Roman world, is mutilated and then subsequently reborn. The poem is written in a very unusual meter associated with the cult worship of the Anatolian goddess Cybele, a meter called galliambics, of which Catullus’ poem is the most important example.

John Lavery - nude

John Lavery’s Ariadne. Catullus’ longest poem features an extended scene of Ariadne abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos.

The next poem – Poem 64 – is Catullus’ longest and perhaps the one he considered his masterpiece. Poem 64’s genre is often described as “epyllion,” or “epic short poem.” Poem 64 is about the wedding of Achilles’ parents Peleus and Thetis, a wedding so sacred and divinely consecrated that as it took place, in Catullus’ poem, at least, the earth stood still. Catullus writes that as the wedding assembly gathered, “None tills the soil; the necks of oxen become soft. / No low-grown vine is cleared of weeds by bent-pronged rake. . .No pruner’s hook thins out the shade of leafy trees. / Slovenly rust attacks the solitary ploughs” (64.38-9,41-2). Within the story of this wedding is another story – the central episode in the myth of Theseus and the minotaur, which Catullus ends with Theseus abandoning Ariadne on the beach of an Aegean island. Poor Ariadne, who helped Theseus get through the labyrinth, as Catullus writes, “in frenzy, with her mind on fire, / She poured out shrill-edged cries from the depth of her heart, / And sometimes in her sorrow she clambered up steep cliffs / From whence to extend her view of the ocean’s empty swell” (64.125-7). Catullus’ Ariadne voices a 70-line monologue, condemning Theseus for abandoning her, and then in the story-within-a-story Catullus jumps back in time to provide a 30-line monologue from Theseus’ father Aegeus, bidding the young hero farewell, and then Ariadne’s speech ends with her praying to Zeus to punish Theseus for leaving her behind. The wedding of Peleus and Thetis then proceeds with a special benediction from the Greek fates, who offer a 60-line blessing that dwells rather disturbingly on the violent glory that their son Achilles will win, and when this blessing is complete, the speaker offers a meditation on how times have changed since the heroic centuries of Peleus and Thetis. “Long ago,” Catullus writes, “Heaven’s Dwellers in person used to visit / The chaste homes of heroes and show themselves at mortal / Meetings, while religion was not yet held in scorn. . . But after Earth was stained with crime unspeakable / And all evicted Justice from their greedy thoughts, / Brothers poured the blood of brothers on their hands. . .Our evil madness by confounding fair with foul / Has turned away from us the Gods’ forgiving thoughts. / Wherefore they neither deign to visit such meetings / Nor let themselves be touched by light of day or eye” (64.384-6,397-8,405-9). We’ve seen this sort of thing before – Hesiod writes about the ages of man in Works and Days, and the Aramaic portions of the Book of Daniel do something nearly identical – there has been a golden age in the past during which humans and deities convened, but alas, mankind has transgressed and now we are fallen on darker and more iniquitous times.

So, Catullus longest poem – again, 64, is often breathtakingly beautiful, but it is also a particularly odd stylistic mishmash – a wedding celebration that pauses for a huge duration to retell the story of a broken love affair and ends up lamenting the wayward course of modernity, spiked from end to end with allusions to some of the far flung corners of Greek mythology. While it is a favorite amidst Latinists who are up to the task of understanding its tight latticework of allusions, Catullus 64 also suggests that if the poet had lived into his thirties and forties, he might have continued experimenting with longer works.

Callimachus, Coma Berenices, papyrus catullus idol

A fragment of Callimachus’ poem on Berenice, which Catullus read and emulated.

Poem 66 is also a longer piece, probably a translation from Catullus’ Alexandrian Greek predecessor Callimachus, whom we talked about earlier. King Ptolemy III, the great patron of the library of Alexandria, had married a second cousin named Berenice. When Ptolemy III headed off to Syria to fight a war, Berenice had dedicated a lock of her hair to a temple in Alexandria, offering it for her king and husband’s return. However, the lock of hair disappeared. The disappearance was no catastrophe, however, because the court astronomer declared that he had found the missing lock of hair in the stars – just between Ursa Major and Virgo – as a new constellation. Catullus’ poem 66, a translation of an older work by Callimachus, is written from the perspective of this missing lock of hair, which is first lost and then forlorn, and eventually becomes the recipient of many votive offerings and shines brightly amidst other constellations.

Following the Berenice hair poem, Catullus’ sequence of poems begins to grow shorter again. A pair of related poems, 68 A and B, spend 200 lines first telling Catullus’ friend Manlius that he has no gift for him and then offering instead the gift of an extensive poetic blessing. But following this small, important handful of mid-length poems, the collection as it stands today returns to Catullus’ characteristic concision.

Reading these longer poems as part of the main collection, Catullus’ output seems from time to time almost schizophrenic. His wedding poems’ speakers urge female chastity and loyalty in marriage; his Lesbia poems are directed toward trying to get a woman to leave her husband for him. His longest poem – the epyllion – ends by grousing about how people have become impious and irreverent; his slanders and stories of sexcapades are bushels of obscenity and iconoclasm. His Berenice poem writes of a woman’s lock of hair with almost religious devotion; numerous other references suggest sex with women as a solely carnal activity. Anyone who reads the full output of Catullus encounters these paradoxes – we meet the licentious Catullus, the heartbroken Catullus, the smitten Catullus, the foul-mouthed Catullus, the intellectually dense Catullus, the almost unbearably disgusting Catullus, and the unassailably allusive Catullus, spinning webs of references to Greek mythology in his remarkable longer poems. While for the modern reader or student, the multitudinous quality of Catullus’ work presents a distinct challenge, in antiquity, the diversity of his output, and his efforts to bridge modern Latin poetry with Archaic and Hellenistic Greek poetry, made him influential across many different poetic traditions. What I want to do now is consider this influence as a whole.[music]

Catullus in Retrospect

The historian Suetonius, again writing about 150 years after Catullus’ death, offers a rather withering general assessment of Catullus’ output. Here’s Suetonius, with some general remarks about Catullus’ contributions to literary history.

The principal merit of Catullus. . .consists in a simplicity of thought and expression. The thoughts, however, are often frivolous, and, what is yet more reprehensible, the author gives way to gross obscenity. [Suetonius adds that Catullus was a great practitioner of sarcasm, and that] the sarcasm is indebted for its force, not so much to ingenuity of sentiment, as to the indelicate nature of the subject, or coarseness of expression. . .Catullus’ epigrams are entitled to little praise, with regard either to sentiment or point; and on the whole, his merit, as a poet, appears to have been magnified beyond its real extent. He is said to have died about the thirtieth year of his age.37

Francesco Petrarca00

Through Petrarch, the Augustan Age love poetry which Catullus helped inaugurate would come to dominate the literature of the Renaissance.

We don’t have any information on how Catullus died, by the way, or why he passed on so young. But in Suetonius’ general assessment, Catullus is a minor figure, who merits appreciation for his small contributions to literature, but ultimately lacks the characteristics of a great Roman poet. Half a century or so later, the Roman writer Apuleius found himself bringing up Catullus in order to defend himself against the charges of lascivious and offensive poetry. Apuleius writes in his Apologia, “other persons have done the same. . .Have you not read Catullus, where he thus replies to the malevolent? ‘Tis fit the worthy poet should be chaste – / There’s no need that his verses should be so.”38 There’s no particular sense here that Catullus was a great poet, or an important poet – merely that Catullus wrote some saucy stuff, and that one’s art needn’t necessarily mirror his life.

The Roman poet Marital, who lived from about 38-102 CE, provides a longer assessment. Martial was an epigrammist – an author of short and frequently ribald verses – and Martial was influenced by an entirely different side of Catullus’ poetry than Horace, Virgil and Ovid. In one of his early epigrams, directed to one of Rome’s consuls, Martial writes this invocation: “Lend thy leisure to my Muse, and read with a smooth, not frowning brow, poems steeped in wanton quips. . .[s]o belike tender Catullus.”39 Elsewhere Martial describes his predecessor with a variety of adjectives that suggest he understood the full scope of Catullus’ output – Martial writes of the earlier poet as “learned Catullus,” “elegant Catullus,” and “witty Catullus.”40 While Suetonius understood the crude satirical heft of Catullus’ poems, while Apuleius brings up Catullus as an example of how an upright poet can still write obscene stuff, and while Martial appreciates Catullus’ astonishing diversity, I don’t think any of these Roman writers could have understood how important Catullus would eventually be to literary history. In order to explain just how important Catullus is, and return to the main theme of this episode, “The Strange Roots of Love,” I want to tell you a story.

When teaching poetry in the past, I have often given weekly reading quizzes. When these weekly reading quizzes are on poetry, I have noticed a fascinating tendency in my students. Let’s say I’m asking a multiple choice question on a poem – uh – Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I might ask, for instance,

Question 1: Which of the following sentences best describes the contents of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?”
  1. A grizzled seafarer tells a wedding guest a strange story about a crime he committed. (That’s the correct answer, by the way.)
  2. A sea captain sings a ballad about his lost son at a country fair.
  3. A pirate warmly reflects on his decades of adventures and pillaging.
  4. An aging mariner attempts to court his mistress by lavishing praises on her.

Now all of these, if you imagine that you’re a student who didn’t bother to do the reading, sound fairly plausible – the mariner and strange crime, the lost son, the pirate, and the seafarer going courting. But folks, with a truly bizarre statistical prominence, if the word “poem” is in the question, and one of the options involve the words “speaker, court, love,” or “mistress,” the students who are trying to guess their way to success on my literature multiple choice quizzes will guess that any given poem is about a speaker trying to court a mistress. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?” A speaker courting a mistress. Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey?” A speaker courting a mistress. Rossetti’s “Goblin Market?” Speaker courting a mistress. Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall?” Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazurus?” Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz?” Speaker courting a mistress. Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress?” Well – that one is actually about a speaker courting a mistress – so I’d give them that one. Anyway, in the small world of my teaching literature courses at American universities, I have noticed an amusingly widespread supposition that all poetry features some sort of an impassioned speaker lavishing romantic and persuasive praises on an addressee.

I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s because we encounter poetry first in popular music, and one of popular music’s cornerstone topics is love, infatuation, loss and moving on – that same spectrum we see in Catullus. Maybe we also encounter short verses in greeting cards and expect all poetry to exude some similarly warm, simple and loving sentiment. Whatever the reason, I have been surprised to encounter an overweening presupposition that all poetry involves a first person speaker using florid and impassioned language to declare his or her love to an addressee.

Somewhere, back before the popular music of the twentieth century, before the love poetry of the Victorians, before the neat couplets of the eighteenth century, and the sonnet laden desks of early modern Europe, lie Ovid, Virgil, Catullus, and several others, Catullus being, to our knowledge, a bridge between Sapphic love poetry and later Latin love lyrics. And yet when we plumb the writings of Catullus for autobiographical love poems, we find that the roots of romance in poetry are strange indeed. A torrid declaration of love for Lesbia is followed by political slander, which is followed by a spiteful condemnation of Catullus’ love, which is in turn followed by a learned mini-epic on some figures from Greek mythology, which is afterward followed by a declaration of romantic longing for a seductive boy. Posterity may have principally taken heterosexual autobiographical love lyrics from Catullus and his successors, but the work of this extraordinary Roman poet was so diverse that he helped pass on a second, and almost equally important tradition to posterity.

Catullus’ work as a neoteric poet – his devotion to the dense and allusive style of his Greek predecessor Callimachus – was nearly as influential as his short love lyrics. When we meet some of the great scholar poets of literary history – perhaps most prominently John Milton, but also Dante, William Blake, and Samuel Johnson, we encounter a very different literary tradition than that of the Catullan love lyric. Catullus could whisper sweet nothings into Lesbia’s ear, and he could bitterly swear her off; he could scorn Julius Caesar and tell a poor anonymous Roman that his mouth looked like the back end of a mule. But Catullus could also sift through literary history and engrave his longer poems with references to great works that had come before him. The intensely allusive poetic style that seems to have arisen in Alexandria in the mid 200s BCE found powerful proponents in Catullus and his contemporaries, and through them, generations of major authors.

As if these contributions to literature proper aren’t fascinating enough, Catullus’ life, insofar as we know anything about it, deserves one more mention. While Catullus disparaged Cicero in one of his poems, he shared with his provincial contemporary a desire to use the Republican right to free speech to fight against the recrudescence of monarchy. Thus, while Catullus used his poetry to bridge backward toward the learned poets of the past, Catullus never forgot the present, using his art to critique politicians whom he saw as dangerous to the republican way of life. Of the many things that make Catullus unique, he is both an antiquarian and simultaneously a contemporary man of the crowd. He loved his learned predecessor Callimachus. But Callimachus lived in the generation after Alexander the Great, when it seemed that everything that could have been done in literature and history had already been done. To Catullus, the fresh stuff of his own life and experiences on the Roman street were as good a fodder for poetic subjects as the exalted mythos of the past, and history, and literature, were only just beginning. [music]

Moving on to Horace

I want to take a minute to thank Professor Aven McMaster at Thorneloe University for reading drafts of this and the subsequent two shows. Aven’s specialty is Latin poetry, and she not only teaches and publishes on the subject, but also co-hosts an educational podcast called The Endless Knot. I think that if you enjoy Literature and History you’ll have a lot of fun listening to The Endless Knot, and I thought I’d bring her on for a second to tell you about her show, along with her co-host, Mark Sundaram.

[Endless Knot Podcast interlude: http://www.alliterative.net/podcast/]

Thank you, Mark! And thanks again, Aven, for not only editing these show transcriptions but also helping me get a sense of the field of scholarship on Latin poetry at the end of the republican period. Aven encouraged me to do a program on Catullus in the first place, rather than just hurrying forward to the Augustan age, and considering how much we’ve learned in this program, I’m very grateful that she did!

Next time, we’re going to meet Catullus’ poetic successor, Horace, and move forward into the bloody civil wars of the late 40s and 30s, the Second Triumvirate, and the beginning of Augustus’ tenure as the first emperor of Rome. From Ennius to Plautus, Terence, Lucretius, Cicero and Catullus, we’ve learned a lot about the earlier literature of Rome so far. But as we get to Horace, we’re entering the main phase of Roman literature – an incredible fifty year span that includes Horace himself, Virgil, Ovid, and the poets Propertius and Tibullus. So next time, we’ll learn about Horace’s early life, his participation in the civil wars of the 40s and 30s, and how Horace adapted to changing political and economic structures as Rome’s nearly 500-year-old republic suddenly became an empire. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, try a quiz on this episode on the website and see how much you remember about what you heard, and if you want to hear a song about Catullus, I’ve got one coming up. If not, see you next time!

Still here? Alright, well, I had a lot of ideas about how to memorialize Catullus with a comedy song, and eventually I decided that it would advisable to write a love song. A love song like Catullus might have written to Lesbia, if we took his entire span of love poems to Lesbia and squashed them into a single, semi-coherent statement. So this one’s called “Catullus’ Love Song.” Hope it’s entertaining, and Horace and I will see you soon in Episode 50: Our Brutal Age.


1.^ Cornish, F.W. “Introduction.” In Catullus. The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921, p. vii.

2.^ Quoted in Catullus: The Complete Poems. Translated and with an introduction by Guy Lee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 19.

3.^ Ker, Walter C.A. “Introduction to Martial.” Quoted in Martial, Marcus Valerius Martialis. Delphi Complete Works of Martial. Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition, locations 26691-8.

4.^ The Epic of Inanna and Dumuzi, or Ishtar and Tammuz, is an important exception, as much of this story chronicles the romance and sexual consummation of these two divine figures.

5.^ Guy Lee, in the Oxford edition of Catullus’ poems, amusingly calls Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) a “pathetic modern academic belief which takes for granted the perfection of the text one happens to be reading.” Lee, Guy. “Introduction.” In Catullus: The Complete Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 p. xi.

6.^ See, for instance, Epigrams XIIV, XLIV, LXXIII, XCIX.

7.^ Francis Cairns writes that “We can well believe – although we cannot know – that Catullus felt warmly towards his home in Sirmio.” Cairns, Francis. Roman Lyric: Collected Papers on Catullus and Horace. De Gruyter, 2012, p. 19.

8.^ For a longer discussion of Catullus’ roots and the history of Cisalpine Gaul during his lifetime, see Wiseman, T.P. “The Valerii Catulli of Verona,” In A Companion to Catullus. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 57-71.

9.^ Dunn, Daisy. Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet. HarperCollins, 2016, p. 26.

10.^ Guy Lee points out the subtle references to Alexandrian poetry in the opening of (1). See Lee (2008) p. 149.

11.^ The poem is also a declaration of affection for Calvus, as Licinius’ “charm” (50.8) left Catullus “wildly excited. . .longing for daylight / That I might be with you and talk” (50.11,12-13).

12.^ Skinner, Marilyn B. “Authorial Arrangement of the Collection: Debate Past and Present.” Quoted in A Companion to Catullus. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, p. 35.

13.^ Donne’s “The Good-Morrow” and “The Sun Rising” seem uncannily close in theme and metaphor.

14.^ Sappho. Fragment 31. Quoted in Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets. Translated by Willis Barnstone and with an Introduction by William E. McCulloh. New York: Schocken Books, 1988, pp. 67-8.

15.^ See Horace’s Ode I.14.

16.^ Catullus’ Rufus may have been Marcus Caelius Rufus, but the biographical details in the poetry don’t quite line up.

17.^ For the last of these, see, for instance, 8.14-18, a poem with the iterative structure as Wyatt’s “My Lute, Awake!”

18.^ Kline, Tony. “Past Kindness: to the Gods.” Poetry in Translation. 15 October, 2017.

19.^ Ibid.

20.^ Duckworth, George E. Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952, p. 8.

21.^ Epistle 2.1.145-6.Quoted in Horace. Satires and Epistles. Translated by John Davie. Oxford: OUP, 2011, p. 97.

22.^ See Fitzgerald, William. Martial: The World of Epigram. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 39.

23.^ Ibid, p. 46.

24.^ These include 40, 81, 87, 99 and relatedly 15 and 21.

25.^ Lee, Guy. “Introduction.” In Catullus: The Complete Poems. Translated and with an introduction by Guy Lee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. xvi.

26.^ Fordyce, C.J. Catullus: A Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, p. v.

27.^ Merrill, Elmer Truesdell. Catullus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1893, p. xi.

28.^ For the dating see Lee (2008) p. 156.

29.^ Kline, Tony. “You Two!: to Caius Julius Caesar.” Poetry in Translation. 15 October, 2017.

30.^ Suetonius. Life of Julius Caesar. In Seutonius. Complete Works. Delphi Classics, 2012., Kindle Edition, Location 1047.

31.^ Ibid, Location 1058.

32.^ Callimachus and Lycophron. Translated by A.W. Mair. London: William Heinemann. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921, p. 157.

33.^ Ibid, p. 3.

34.^ Ross, David O. Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry: Gallus Elegy and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 6.

35.^ For recent scholarship on Catullus’ translation and adaptations of Callimachus, as in LXVI, see Acosta-Hughes and Stephens, pp. 212-15, 227-39 in Callimachus in Context: From Plato to the Augustan Poets. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

36.^ Cantors Euphorionis is from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (3.45).

37.^ Suetonius. Life of Julius Caesar. In Seutonius, Complete Works. Delphi Classics, 2012. Kindle Edition, Locations 1051, 1070, 1076.

38.^ Apuleius. Apologia. In Apuleius. Delphi Complete Works of Apuleius with the Golden Ass. Delphi Classics, 2015. Kindle Edition, Locations 11095, 11984.

39.^ Martial, Marcus Valerius Martialis. Epigram 14. Delphi Complete Works of Martial. Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition, location 1512.

40.^ Ibid, epigrams 73, 99, 44, locations 3304, 2969, 4793.