Gaius Valerius Catullus was born in Verona into a fairly prominent equestrian family. Jerome records that he was born in 87 BCE and died in his thirtieth year (which, for the Romans’ inclusive counting, would have been 58 BCE), although this must be a mistake since he refers to events afterward. Conservative scholars wanting to keep the age have him born in 84 and dead by 54, the year of the last dated reference.
Catullus must have grown up in an environment of business transactions outside Rome. Timothy Wiseman points out certain tropes in his poetry, like abacus counting and a moderate stinginess that would have been absent among the higher classes. Still, the wealth accumulated by his family would ensure him a cozy life without the need for a patron in Rome. This sufficiency would grant him the ability to write scathing invective without fear of repercussion. Even Memmius, who brought Catullus along on his expedition to Bithynia in 57–56, was not spared sarcastic remarks, and Catullus’ dedication of his work to Cornelius Nepos contains ironic (albeit jocular) praise for the historian.
Catullus’ family also had a friendly relationship with Julius Caesar, who was a frequent target of insulting verses by Catullus. According to Suetonius, Caesar was a frequent guest in their house and lodged with them when he was in the area. Suetonius relates that Catullus was made to apologize for the attacks and invited him to dine with them to make amends.
At some point, Catullus’ brother had died while in Asia Minor. Accompanying Memmius to Bithynia, Catullus stopped in the Troad and paid wishes to his departed brother, memorialized in verses still very moving today (c. 101), though often boiled down to its final three words, ave atque vale (“hail thee and farewell”).
Catullus is best known for his love/hate (cf. c. 85), on-again (c. 5)/off-again (c. 8) relationship with the pseudonymous Lesbia, who is regularly identified with the historical Clodia, wife of Metellus Celer. The name was chosen in reference to Sappho of Lesbos; Lesbia simply means “a woman from Lesbos”. The identification of Lesbia with Clodia was first attested by Apuleius, although his information probably goes back to Suetonius (and maybe Hyginus). The best internal evidence for this identification lies in c. 79, in which Catullus calls a lover of Lesbia “Lesbius, pulc[h]er.” During a trial in 56 BCE in which Clodia alleged that her former lover, Marcus Caelius Rufus, had attempted to poison her, his defense, the infamous Cicero, in turn accused Clodia of, among many other scandalous things, being in an incestuous relationship with her brother, Publius Clodius Pulcher. Lesbius and Lesbia, sharing the same family name, would then be considered brother and sister. If lovers, as Catullus—bitter about their breakup—alleges, then the charge appears to refer back to Cicero’s accusation of incest. Incidentally, Catullus wrote a poem of thanks to Cicero (c. 49), which some have also tied back to this incident.
There apparently was another Catullus under the reign of Caligula who wrote mimes. It is doubtful that the two were actually the same (which would mean that there was a later production of an earlier play). One scholar noted that Martial mentions two different Catulli. That both Catulli were in fact one person is endorsed primarily by T. P. Wiseman, but there is no external reason to assume they were the same.
Catullus’ poetry is collected into a corpus of 113 poems, with some minor fragments typically appended to the end in modern editions (the most liberal give 16 fragments, the most conservative merely 3.) The collection is often divided into three parts. The first, poems 1–60, are in various meters, often referred to as polymetra. The most utilized of the metric is the hendecasyllabic, followed by iambic trimeter and sapphic stanzas. Also within these poems are Medieval insertions: 18–20, which the manuscripts do not support, yet because of tradition the numbering of the rest reflect their addition (thus, the corpus is comprised of 113 poems numbering 1 through 116). Poems 61-68 form a section of longer compositions, hymns to deities and even an epyllion, differing greatly with the rest of his work. Finally, poems 69-116 are his epigrams in elegiac meters.
One of the oldest ideas surrounding Catullus’ corpus is the “Catullan Question” (die Catullfrage or Katullfrage as it was first formulated by German scholars), which asks whether the corpus was organized by the author or by a later publisher. The inclusion of a dedicatee to the beginning of the work indicates that there is at least some authorial intention in place.
That poems 69–116 are all in elegiac couplets has the feel of post-authorial categorization, a common scholarly practice in antiquity. It is possible that Catullus was influenced by the practice and published his own set, although were that true, we might expect additional prologues.
Some scholars point to Catullus’ use of libellus (little book) to argue that the lengthy poems (61–68) would not have been included in the original arrangement. Moreover, the size of the complete collection is too large to fit on one papyrus role and would stretch the meaning of libellus greatly. The modern conjecture is that what we have are three individual collections corresponding to the tripartite division. At the very least, poems 1–60 form a unity, and the rest could have been tacked on afterward.
Regardless of who published them originally, many of them were likely performed publicly or at some dinner party.
The use of libellus in c. 1 also points to the literary movement to which Catullus belonged known as the neoteroi (νεότεροι, “the new poets”), derided by Cicero as poetae novi (“new poets”). Others in Catullus’ circle included Licinius Calvus, Helvius Cinna (the very same one in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who was torn to death after being mistaken for Caesar’s assassin, also named Cinna), and Valerius Cato, the latter of whom had introduced to Rome the poetry of Euphorion.
Neoteric poetry followed in the footsteps first of Alexandrianism. This type of poetry, modeled on Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony, preferred erudite learning and/or light, personal poetry over the grandiose (and bombastic) epic poetry. Even Alexandrian epics, such as Apollonius’ Argonautica, eschewed many of the epic motifs perfected by Homer and appeared in his imitators. The epic is only four books long (compared to the twenty-four of the Iliad or Odyssey) and love rather than adventure is the dominant theme.
The connection between the Alexandrian poets and Catullus is most clearly seen in Catullus’ longer poems (although influence is absolute throughout his poems). Catullus c. 66 is essentially a reworked Lock of Berenice by Callimachus (Aitia 4), although exact comparisons between the two are lacking due to the mutilated state we have received the latter. Since it immediately follows c. 65, in which Catullus promises his friend Quintus Hortensius Hortalus a translation, many scholars presume this poem to be it. It would have then been sent to his friend along with the original poem of Callimachus.
The complex, allusive, and layered relationship poems 64–68 have with Alexandrian literature have led some commentators to label them as carmina docta (learned poems), after the appellation Tibullus, Ovid, and Martial frequently apply to Catullus. His poems are not mere expressions of feelings, but finely crafted allusions mining a rich tradition. It is no coincidence that Propertius applies it also to the Licinius Calvus, and Catullus himself even uses it to describe Nepos (certainly part of the aforementioned joke) and Sappho.
The Roman neoterics took the Alexandrian program and added lyric poetry to the mix. Poets such as Archilochus and Sappho (whose most famous poem Catullus translated, c. 51) gave the poets new meters and models on which they could work. Catullus indeed is the first Latin poet of which we know who utilized Sapphic stanzas and other non-hexameter Greek meters, though who among the neoterics actually came first is impossible to tell.
The archaic lyric poetry has more than just meters. Archilochus breathed to the world iambic invective, and Catullus made good use of it. His enemies—or at least poetical enemies—receive plenty of thrashing, some for stealing napkins (c. 25), others for stealing boyfriends (c. 81). Two who show up quite frequently, Furius and Aurelius, were particularly attacked for their connection with Lesbia after she rejected him. In one particularly graphic poem, Catullus threatens the pair with sodomy and irrumation for them having made fun of his love poetry.
Poetry of Archilochus and Sappho is also very personal. If Archilochus is the paradigmatic invective poet, Sappho was that of love. Catullus was the first poet to really focus on love, and it was his poems which paved the way for Gallus and the other elegiac poets. Incidentally, his Lesbia is also the first Roman pseudonymous beloved, and Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid will all follow suit. And like the later love elegists, Catullus appears to much prefer love to war. The name Lesbia for any beloved of Catullus is supremely appropriate, for it was she who sang that not armies, navies, or the cavalry is most beautiful, but whomever one loves.
Like love and as defined by the Alexandrian school, poetry should be leptos (“delicate”, “refined”), or lepidus in Latin, the adjective Catullus uses to describe his libellum in his dedicatory poem (c. 1); not only a slim, little booklet, but also nugae (“trifles”) in contrast to the historical tome of his dedicatee.
Even political figures do not escape Catullus’ lashing pen. Memmius, whom Catullus accompanied on his trip to Bithynia, is described gruesomely for his treatment of Catullus (whimpering rape is implied). Caesar and Pompey, two of the most important political figures of the day, received scathing attack not just of their person, but of their powerful grasp on the nation. Cicero castigates the whole neoteric movement as political dissidents who do not respect authority. In Catullus’ case, the antipathy must have been limited. Suetonius records that the young poet invited Caesar to dinner at his father’s house, at which the general was accustomed to dine while campaigning in Gaul. Calvus too attacked Caesar in pen, and though Caesar wrote him a letter of reconciliation, it is unknown how that turned out.
Catullus’ works come down to us primarily in three medieval manuscripts – codex Ochoniensis (O), codex Sangermanensis (G), and codex Romanus (R), from oldest to more recent, all around 1375, and all descending from a single now lost manuscript codex Veronensis (V), assumed to be created around the 13th century. The only other tradition we have apart from V is poem 62 found in an anthology of poetry in the florilegium Thuaneum (T), which was copied from a now lost eighth century manuscript.
Selections of Catullus’ Poetry
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us value the rumors of the rather strict
old men equal one penny.
Suns can fall and return;
for us, once the brief light passes
There is one eternal night for sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then a thousand more, then a hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them up, lest anyone know [the number],
or that noe one will be able to give us the evil eye
when he learns how many kisses there are.
Carmen 76 lines 1–16
If there is any pleasure for a man in recalling
past good deeds, when he thinks himself pious,
neither has he violated holy trust, nor in any contract
has he abused the divine will of the gods to deceive men,
many joys, prepared in long life, Catullus
remain for you out of this ungrateful love.
For whatever things men can either say or do well
for anyone, these are said and done by you:
everything entrusted to an ungrateful mind has perished.
Why therefore do you now torture yourself more?
Why not strengthen your soul and lead yourself back thence,
and stop being miserable before unwilling gods?
It is difficult to suddenly toss aside a long love;
it is difficult, but you must at all cost do accomplish this.
There is but one salvation, and you must overcome.
May you do this, whether it is possible or not.
My woman says that she prefers nobody more
than me, not if Jupiter himself asks to wed her.
She says. But what a woman “says” to a desirous lover
ought to be written on the wind and rushing water.
Carried through many nations and over many seas,
I arrive, brother, for these wretched funeral rites,
so that I might present to you the last tribute of death
and to address silent ash to no avail
since Fortuna has taken your very self away from me.
Alas, poor brother, unworthingly taken from me,
now, nevertheless, in the meantime accept these things which the ancient custom
of our forefathers have handed down as a mournful tribute for
funeral rites, drenched much with brotherly weeping.
And brother, forever, hail and farewell.
Lesbius is a pretty boy [pulcer]; why not? Him Lesbia prefers
more than you with your whole clan, Catullus
Yet nevertheless this pretty boy would sell Catullus with his people
If he could find three kisses from his acquaintances.
Most eloquent of the descendants of Romulus,
however many there are and however many there were,
Marcus Tullius, and however many there will be in future years,
Catullus to you gives his greatest thanks,
he the worst poet of all;
as much as he is the worst poet of all,
that much are you the best patron of all.
I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask?
I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and it’s torture.
Rudy Negenborn’s Catullus site: translations in dozens of languages, including the original Latin
VRoma Latin–English site
- John Godwin 2008. Reading Catullus. Bristol Phoenix.
- Kenneth Quinn 1972. Catullus: An Interpretation. London: Batsford.
- T. P. Wiseman 1985. Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal. Cambridge University Press.