Catullus: the most loved of love poets

Before the poet Catullus took up his stylus and poured his heart out onto wax and papyrus, men and women of the world fell in love with one another just as they do now and just as they will do until there cease to be men and women. But Catullus’ choice – for whatever reason – to write poetry and to write it as he did – proved to be a revolutionary event: this young man, writing in his twenties, effectively invented love poetry in Roman literature and thereby left his indelible mark on the poetry of his contemporaries and successors, not only in Ancient Rome but throughout the course of western – and even global – literature up to the present day. A single person can scarcely have a greater effect upon the world of poetry.

It is therefore both tantalising and infuriating that we know almost nothing about Catullus himself. Yes, we have his full name – Gaius Valerius Catullus, we have a birthplace – Verona, in Cisalpine Gaul (North-East Italy), and we have a rough birth date – 84 B.C., which makes him some twenty years younger than Cicero, fifteen years younger than Julius Caesar, and almost fifteen years older than his great poetic successor Virgil. We also know that his father was sufficiently well-to-do in society (an equestrian, or ‘knight’, of the lower aristocracy) that he was on sociable terms with Caesar himself; Catullus was clearly sufficiently well-off to maintain the poorly-paid career of a poet at Rome, the fast-beating heart of the ever-expanding Empire. It is supposed by most scholars that Catullus died at a relatively young age, being perhaps no more than 30, but even this is regularly disputed! Since no biography of Catullus survives (as it does for Virgil, Horace and a handful of other ancient poets), to learn anything more about his life and career we have to turn to his poetry.

Catullus is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. His poems are frank, direct and arrestingly emotional. In his passionate verses we find much said about himself, his loves, his hates, his friends, his travels and his poetic activity. This all seems like ideal ground to learn more about the man. But we are on dangerous ground: Catullus may well not be showing the real Catullus to the world. To put it another way, the ‘Catullus’ of the poems may be a much more exciting, more confident and more sexy character than the man behind that mask. Given this doubt about the real poetic ‘voice’ that speaks to us through the collection, i.e. whether Catullus speaks for himself or instead creates a persona, the scholar hunting for facts about (the real) Catullus and his life must be very wary of taking everything found in his poetry at face value.

Taking the optimistic approach, let us imagine that the collection of 116 poems that has survived into the modern day (although Catullus certainly wrote more pieces that do not survive) does give us a window into the heart and mind of the real man. We can thus observe someone fully engaged in the social scene at Rome in the late 60s and early 50s B.C., interacting with a broad spread of friends and enemies among the Roman élite, and habitually involved in minor sexual dalliances – with men as well as women – alongside his major relationship with the alluring but notorious ‘Lesbia’.

Lesbia is the woman for whom Catullus fell, nothing short of head over heels. The course of their rollercoaster relationship – from first sighting to its romantic heyday to its dying days and to his bitter resentment about her fickle and callous behaviour – is charted through many colourful episodes amidst his poetic collection. Most famously, Catullus’ pained confusion about this turbulent relationship is succinctly displayed in poem 85, a sudden burst of emotion over two lines, or one single elegiac couplet:

odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior

I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do this. I don’t know, but I feel it happening and I am utterly tortured.

Yet ‘Lesbia’, ‘the woman from Lesbos’ (the Greek island on which the ancient world’s most famous poetess, Sappho, lived), is itself a codename, another mask that disguises reality. For all of the force and fervour of Catullus’ emotions towards this woman throughout his poetry, clues about Lesbia’s real identity are few and far between. It is unclear whether the claim of an ancient writer (from two centuries later) that Lesbia was actually the infamous femme fatale Clodia Metelli, an aristocrat and philanderer married to Metellus Celer until 59 B.C., is based upon fact or is instead mere fiction. Various more grubby theories about the name have circulated: a marginal note of a mediaeval reader puzzlingly suggested that Lesbia was so called since she ‘drank to her ruin’ (damnose bibens). We are therefore hardly faced with the most upmarket of pseudonyms!

But to wonder and to worry about the identity of Lesbia is largely to miss the point. Catullus’ heartfelt lyrics extend beyond the case of one woman, real or unreal: they are universal in their relevance, detailing with exquisite clarity and sensitivity all of the highs and lows, the pleasures and pains, of falling in and out of love. Countless readers over the centuries have replaced Lesbia’s name with others, male or female, that apply to their own lives and loves. It is no surprise, then, that Catullus’ poetry retains real power in the present day, and that, over two thousand years after his death, his voice can still move readers profoundly.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Catullus’ depiction of Lesbia and his emotions towards her is that the ordering of the ‘Lesbia poems’ seems both haphazard and disorientating: they are neither placed together as a group nor do they tell the story of their relationship in a linear, chronological narrative. The 22 poems of the Lesbia cycle range from number 2 of the collection right through to 107, with all sorts of apparently irrelevant pieces interspersing their course. As a result, Lesbia often crops up out-of-the-blue, with no advance clue about whether the poem will sing her praises to the skies or reject her as a deceitful slut – both extremes are common enough! Did Catullus so arrange these poems to show how surprising and bewildering the world of love affairs can be?

We can find Catullus (or simply his constructed persona – you decide!) thrilling with ecstasy at the joys of his new romance with Lesbia. Poem 5 opens with a jubilant declaration of love, hedonism and the good life: ‘Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love’ (uiuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus). The rest of the poem, which is justly among Catullus’ most celebrated, reads like a manifesto for how the couple should pass their lives together: the order – to Lesbia and to any reader – is not only carpe diem (‘seize the day’) but carpe amorem (‘seize love’), since the human lifespan is so brief and unique. Catullus’ excitement about this relationship becomes almost frenzied when he asks Lesbia for kisses a few lines later:

da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum. (5.7-9)

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand, then a second hundred, then yet another thousand, then a hundred.

The mathematician, of course, counts 3,300 kisses in these three verses; the lover, however, sees that Catullus’ request for physical love is at once infinite and insatiable.

But Catullus’ poetry is still as real and honest as it is ardent and hopeful, and the destruction of his hopes for their love are laid bare before the reader. Reconstructing the picture from the scattered poems, Lesbia’s desires moved elsewhere and, despite their pledge and trust (words of the utmost importance for Catullus), their mutual love is lost. Catullus’ dismay and depression at the collapse of their relationship is encapsulated in two famous lines:

dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
in uento et rapida scribere oportet aqua. (70.3-4)

She says this: but what a woman says to an eager lover should be written on the wind and running water.

This feeling of betrayal and rejection by a woman who cannot keep her words finds voice in much stronger forms elsewhere in the collection, some too offensive to quote here! Yet there is still hope for Catullus: in a famous poem he addresses himself forcibly by name – a device found here first in Roman literature – and with stern rebukes tries to pull himself together in the wake of Lesbia’s desertion.

miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod uides perisse perditum ducas. (8.1-2)

Poor Catullus, stop being foolish, and regard what you see is gone as lost.

Catullus, having pulled himself up by the bootstraps, then turns his wrath upon Lesbia directly, meanly and menacingly branding her as spoilt goods that will be of no interest to any man in future.

scelesta, uae te, quae tibi manet uita?
quis nunc te adibit? cui uideberis bella?
quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris?
quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis? (8.15-18)

Wretch, alas for you, what life remains for you? Who will now approach you? To whom will you seem beautiful? Whose will you be said to be? Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?

Yet alongside these currents of rage and revenge, there remains deep pathos and feeling in Catullus’ loss, feelings that resonate powerfully off the page and through the ages. We may consider the plaintive quatrain closing one poem:

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit uelut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
     tactus aratro est. (11.21-4)

And she should not look for my love as she did before, which through her fault has died, like a flower at the edge of the field, after it has been touched by the passing plough.

Catullus’ comparison of himself to a cropped flower carries with it a deeper message, not only hinting at the ‘deflowering’ that characterises the loss of virginity and innocence here and elsewhere in ancient literature but also developing an image strikingly employed by Sappho, which allies the suffering Catullus with the melancholic strains of Sappho (a true ‘woman of Lesbos’). That the poem is also composed in the rare metre of ‘Sapphic’ stanzas, an elegant medium for love poetry used by Sappho and Catullus elsewhere to celebrate the first sighting of their beloved, is pathetically incongruous when now used of the woman who betrayed his love. A broken heart does not harm the poet’s care in his craft.

Catullus was not the only love poet of his day. He was part of a fashionable new wave of Roman poets who were particularly influenced by Hellenistic or ‘Alexandrian’ Greek poetry rather than traditional Latin poetry. The five primary exponents of this so-called ‘Neoteric’ movement – almost like a new and fashionable genre of pop music – all share the same first letter: Catullus, Cinna, Calvus, Caecilius and Cato. Unfortunately, the works of the other four only survive in tiny fragments, which makes it particularly difficult to set Catullus in his context. For what it is worth, we do know that another ‘C’, the orator and statesman Cicero, thought very little of this avant garde development in Roman poetry!

We have focused here on Catullus’ love poetry, but his surviving compositions are extremely varied in their themes and character. The surviving collection can be divided into three sections: shorter poems of various metres (1-60), longer and more serious poems (61-8), and elegiac poems (69-116). The majority of the shorter pieces contain comic abuse or statements of love, lust or loss. Other common topics include the abuse of enemies (and sometimes even friends), attacks on rival poets and major politicians (even Caesar – whom he calls a ‘wicked pansy’!), grief over his brother’s death, and many tales, allusions and comparisons drawn from mythology. And yet, despite the often passionate and solemn elements of his poems, Catullus regularly sees the humorous side of life, and can make raucous fun of himself as much as of other notable contemporaries.

Even though Catullus tells his readers off (in poem 16) for confusing his poetry with the man himself, the apparent sincerity, earnestness and liveliness of his writings make it impossible not to see – and admire – the poet behind them. In the first poem of his collection, Catullus modestly hopes that his libellus (‘little book’) will last for more than one generation (saeclum). Well, in the modern day, over two thousand years on, his sensitive and seductive poetry shows no sign whatsoever of falling from favour. Viuant Catulli poemata!