Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Latin poet of the Republican period. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art.
Catullus came from a leading equestrian family of Verona in Cisalpine Gaul, and according to St. Jerome, he was born in the town. The family was prominent enough for his father to entertain Caesar, then proconsul of both Gallic provinces. In one of his poems Catullus describes his happy return to the family villa at Sirmio on Lake Garda near Verona. The poet also owned a villa near the fashionable resort of Tibur (modern Tivoli); his complaints about his poverty must be taken with a grain of salt.
The poet appears to have spent most of his young adult years in Rome. His friends there included the poets Licinius Calvus, and Helvius Cinna, Quintus Hortensius (son of the orator and rival of Cicero) and the biographer Cornelius Nepos, to whom Catullus dedicated the extant libellus which is the basis of his fame. He appears to have been acquainted with the poet Marcus Furius Bibaculus. A number of prominent contemporaries appear in his poetry, including Cicero, Caesar and Pompey. According to an anecdote preserved by Suetonius, Caesar did not deny that Catullus's lampoons left an indelible stain on his reputation, but when Catullus apologized, he invited the poet for dinner the very same day.
It was probably in Rome that Catullus fell deeply in love with the "Lesbia" of his poems, who is usually identified with Clodia Metelli, a sophisticated woman from the aristocratic house of patrician family Claudii Pulchri and sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher. In his poems Catullus describes several stages of their relationship: initial euphoria, doubts, separation, and his wrenching feelings of loss. Many questions must remain unanswered—most importantly, it is not clear why the couple split up—but Catullus's poems about the relationship display striking depth and psychological insight. One such poem with insight to the reasons of his parting with "Lesbia" is poem 11, which is addressed to his companions Furius and Aurelius and requests them simply to pass a farewell insult to Lesbia.
He spent the provincial command year summer 57 to summer 56 BC in Bithynia on the staff of the commander Gaius Memmius. While in the East, he traveled to the Troad to perform rites at his brother's tomb, an event recorded in a moving poem.
There survives no ancient biography of Catullus: his life has to be pieced together from scattered references to him in other ancient authors and from his poems. Thus it is uncertain when he was born and when he died. St. Jerome says that he died in his 30th year, and was born in 87 BC. But the poems include references to events of 55 and 54 BC. Since the Roman consular fasti make it somewhat easy to confuse 87–57 BC with 84–54 BC, many scholars accept the dates 84 BC–54 BC, supposing that his latest poems and the publication of his libellus coincided with the year of his death, a most unlikely proposition.
Catullus's poems were widely appreciated by other poets, but Cicero despised them for their supposed amorality. He greatly influenced poets such as Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. After his rediscovery in the late Middle Ages, Catullus again found admirers. His explicit writing style has shocked many readers, both ancient and modern. Indeed, Catullus was never considered one of the canonical school authors, although his body of work is on the reading lists for American Ph.D. programs in the classics, and is still taught at secondary school level in the United Kingdom.
Sources and Organization
Catullus's poems have been preserved in an anthology of 116 carmina (the actual number of poems may slightly vary in various editions), which can be divided into three formal parts: sixty short poems in varying metres, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.
There is no scholarly consensus on whether or not Catullus himself arranged the order of the poems. The longer poems differ from the polymetra and the epigrams not only in length but also in their subjects: There are seven hymns and one mini-epic, or epyllion, the most highly-prized form for the "new poets".
The polymetra and the epigrams can be divided into four major thematic groups (ignoring a rather large number of poems eluding such categorization):
poems to and about his friends (e.g., an invitation like poem 13).
erotic poems: some of them indicate homosexual penchants (50 and 99), but most are about women, especially about one he calls "Lesbia" (which served as a false name for his married girlfriend, Clodia, source and inspiration of many of his poems).
invectives: often rude and sometimes downright obscene poems targeted at friends-turned-traitors (e.g., poem 30), other lovers of Lesbia, well known poets, politicians (e.g., Julius Caesar) and rhetors, including Cicero.
condolences: some poems of Catullus are solemn in nature. 96 comforts a friend in the death of a loved one; several others, most famously 101, lament the death of his brother.
All these poems describe the lifestyle of Catullus and his friends, who, despite Catullus's temporary political post in Bithynia, lived their lives withdrawn from politics. They were interested mainly in poetry and love. Above all other qualities, Catullus seems to have valued venustas, or charm, in his acquaintances, a theme which he explores in a number of his poems. The ancient Roman concept of virtus (i.e. of virtue that had to be proved by a political or military career), which Cicero suggested as the solution to the societal problems of the late Republic, meant little to them.
But it is not the traditional notions Catullus rejects, bur rather their particular application to the vita activa of politics and war. Indeed, he tries to reinvent these notions from a personal point of view and to introduce them into human relationships. For example, he applies the word fides, which traditionally meant faithfulness towards one's political allies, to his relationship with Lesbia and reinterprets it as unconditional faithfulness in love. So, despite seeming frivolity of his lifestyle, Catullus measured himself and his friends by quite ambitious standards.
Catullus's poetry was influenced by the innovative poetry of the Hellenistic Age, and especially by Callimachus and the Alexandrian school, which had propagated a new style of poetry that deliberately turned away from the classical epic poetry in the tradition of Homer. Cicero called these local innovators neoteroi (νεώτεροι) or 'moderns' (in Latin poetae novi or 'new poets'), in that they cast off the heroic model handed down from Ennius in order to strike new ground and ring a contemporary note. Catullus and Callimachus did not describe the feats of ancient heroes and gods (except perhaps in re-evaluating and predominantly artistic circumstances, e.g. poems 63 and 64), focusing instead on small-scale personal themes. Although these poems sometimes seem quite superficial and their subjects often are mere everyday concerns, they are accomplished works of art. Catullus described his work as expolitum, or polished, to show that the language he used was very carefully and artistically composed.
Catullus was also an admirer of Sappho, a female poet of the 7th century BC, and is the source for much of what we know or infer about her. Catullus 51 follows Sappho 31 so closely that some believe the later poem to be, in part, a direct translation of the earlier poem, and 61 and 62 are certainly inspired by and perhaps translated directly from lost works of Sappho. Both of the latter are epithalamia, a form of laudatory or erotic wedding-poetry that Sappho had been famous for but that had gone out of fashion in the intervening centuries. Catullus twice used a meter that Sappho developed, called the Sapphic strophe in poems 11 and 51. In fact, Catullus may have brought about a substantial revival of that form in Rome.
Catullus wrote in many different meters including hendecasyllabic and elegiac couplets (common in love poetry). All of his poetry shows strong and occasionally wild emotions especially in regard to Lesbia. He also demonstrates a great sense of humour such as in Catullus 13.
Catulli Carmina is a cantata by Carl Orff to the texts of Catullus. Catullus' love poem "Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus" in the translation by Ben Jonson was set to music (lute accompanied song) by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger. The translation by Richard Crashaw was set to music in a four part glee by Samuel Webbe Jr. It was also set to music in a three part glee by John Stafford Smith.
The epistolary novel Ides of March by Thornton Wilder centers on Julius Caesar, but prominently features Catullus, his poetry, his relationship (and correspondence) with Clodia, correspondence from his family and a description of his death. Catullus's poems and the closing section by Suetonius are the only documents in the novel which are not imagined.
The new musical TULLY (In No Particular Order), which appeared in the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival, loosely adapts the poems of Catullus while retaining the non-linear structure of the published edition, exploring his relationships with both Clodia and Juventius, renamed Julie, and the timeless nature of memory and love.
The 20th-century Irish poet Louis Macneice references Catullus in his poem "Epitaph for Liberal Poets," where he mentions Catullus as amongst the first liberal poets - "Catullus/ went down young," mentioning him in the context of the death of the individual and recognising his and the universal plight.
Archibald Macleish wrote a poem entitled "You Also, Gaius Valerius Catullus," where he addresses the poet.
Catullus is discussed in John Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) as being one of the foremost poets of love, sexuality and desire.
The 16th-century Spanish poet Cristóbal de Castillejo plagiarized Catullus in his well-known work "Dame amor, besos sin cuento".
W. B. Yeats references Catullus in his poem The Scholars.
Ned Rorem has a song entitled, "Catullus: On the burial of his brother."
The poem "Be Angry at the Sun" by Robinson Jeffers includes the line "You are not Catullus, you know, To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar."
The 2011 radio play A Thousand Kisses was based on his life.
Catullus features in Steven Saylor's historical mystery The Venus Throw (1995).
The webcomic Achewood refers to Catullus as "the first poet who ever got his Bone on."
John Fuller is an English poet and author, and Fellow Emeritus at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Fuller was born in Ashford, Kent, England, the son of poet and Oxford Professor Roy Fuller, and educated at St Paul's School and New College, Oxford. He began teaching in 1962 at the State University...
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