Sex Games: Power and the Birth of a Genre in Rome

Verona, Northern Italy, 84BCE saw the birth of the poet who was to give life to one of the most controversial genres of Latin poetry, erotic elegy, the genre more standardly associated with Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid. Catullus was born into a wealthy provincial family with connections to the aristocratic circles of Rome, not least to Julius Caesar himself. The family had enough money for this young Roman not to have to worry about petty things like earn a living and to be able to devote himself to poetry: passionate, provocative, derisive, sad, angry, political, and erotic in equal measure.

Catullus lived in times of major political and social turmoil that marked his life and character (or, at least, poetic voice) irrevocably. He may have had wealth, but wealth did not bring peace. His generation witnessed the long, protracted and painful end of the Republic. This prolonged demise went beyond the political; society and its values changed beyond recognition and personal life and expectations could not but follow suit. If things came to a head in March 44BCE, with the assassination of Julius Caesar, long before that the fabric of Roman society, its social myths and truths and the morals which depended on those certainties, were under threat. As the Roman Republic grew increasingly dominant in Europe and the Mediterranean, the bedrock of Roman society, the values ( and the livelihoods) of the honourable and traditional farmer-soldiers that sustained the Republic for centuries came to be seen as a thing of the past in an increasingly metropolitan, urbane and wealthy imperial city. Rome’s military success brought considerable wealth to the city, but that wealth was not distributed to all in Roman society and Rome itself grew from being a city state in the centre of Italy to being a world political power with its citizens and subjects located across its vast empire. Rome may have triumphed, but dissatisfaction and alienation were bubbling under the surface.

The consequences of this turmoil for the men of Catullus’s social class cannot be overestimated. For such men, a stint as an officer in the provinces was a norm, preparing them for their real vocation: political life in the Roman forum or in the smaller towns and cities of Italy. Catullus did as was expected of him; he spent almost a year (57-56BCE) in Bithynia in the East as member of staff of Governor Memmius. But, as we learn from his poetry, with the help of Guy Lee’s timeless translations for Oxford World’s Classics, rather than being proud to be Roman, his appointment left him disappointed and embittered. Corrupt patrons, eager sycophants, and the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of ‘great men’, such as Julius Caesar, spread ripples of discontent, bordering on anarchy across the entire military and political machine, undermining Roman social values.

In Poem 28 Catullus vents his wrath at the sycophants surrounding Piso, usually identified with Caesar’s father-in-law, Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus:

Piso’s lieutenants, needy staff
With baggage packed and portable,
Best Veranius and my Fabullus,
How are you doing? With that creep
You’ve had your fill of cold and hunger?
Do your accounts show any profit,
As mine do costs? In service with
my praetor I enter debt as my profit.

Veranius and Fabullus had featured at Poem 12.14-16, as like-minded friends of the poet. Their small and elegant coterie has now been broken apart, and Veranius and Fabullus have been attached to Piso, eager to elicit favours with flattery and similar servile methods that cause Catullus’ fury. Catullus’ resentment has many targets in this poem. Lamenting the broken friendship (another victim of these needy times) he is also frustrated by the political impotence of the pair. But there lurks a deeper distress that power was concentrated in the hands of small elite, who excluded all others from power (including the son of provincial town) but demanded the subservience. Catullus’s exclusion is abundantly clear to him as he recalls his own profitless career in Bithynia under Memmius. And we have not seen it all: a rather unexpected twist awaits us in the second half of the poem:

O Memmius, you’ve laid me, good and long –
Stuffed me with all that yard of yours.
You two, as far as I can see,
Have fared the same – stuffed by no less
A prick. Find noble friends, they say!
Heaven bring the plagues upon that pair
of slurs on Romulus and Remus.

The licentiousness and aggressive sexuality of the verses has taken critics by surprise – and caused some embarrassment. And if we were to think that this outburst is a one-off, a further look into the collection quickly disabuses us of such an idea. Let us turn to Poem 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?
Poof Romulus, you’ll watch this and allow it?
That supercilious and superfluous figure
Prancing about in everybody’s bedroom.

Was it for this, o Generalissimo,
You’ve been in that far island of the west,
So that your pal, that multi-fucking tool,
Could eat his way through twenty or thirty million?

Why patronize him, damn it? What’s he good for
Except to gobble up fat private fortunes?
Was it for this, you most devoted Romans,
Father and son-in-law, you’ve ruined all?

Poem 29 is perhaps the most powerful of all the bitter poems in the Catullan corpus. It is a vicious attack on Mamurra, who had fought alongside Pompey during the war against Mithridates in the mid-sixties and then became Caesar’s right hand during the wars in Spain, Britain, and Gaul. According to Catullus, Mamurra, a useless parasite, is taking Caesar (the Generalissimo of our poem) for a ride. Interestingly, Mamurra is the predator, taking the sexually active part, and Romulus (who for many critics is Pompey himself), becomes the effeminate, emasculated in his political sluggishness. The poem is a vicious attack on Mamurra, Pompey and Caesar that vents pent up frustration over the decaying of moral and political system, but also over Catullus’s own exclusion from front-line action in the political arena.

Catullus is violently shaken out of any idealization of Rome by the reality of a world that denies him involvement and recognition and robs him of self-esteem. Yet, this does not automatically explain Catullus’ obsessions with sex, sexual violence and sexual humiliation. ‘Was he not having enough of it?’, a reader coming afresh to this poetry might feel tempted to ask, cheek in tongue.

In the Graeco-Roman times gender, sexuality and power were tightly interconnected. Sexual relations were largely thought about according to a pattern of dominance and submission, control and passivity, superiority and inferiority that dictated the relationship between lover and beloved (in Greek: erastes and eromenos). In many ways this was a predominantly Classical Greek model that slipped into Roman literature and thought. According to this pattern, male was the dominant, female the passive and inferior part in the equation. I do not mean to suggest that such judgments are totally irrelevant to modern psyche, especially in some cultures; and yet, on the whole, sexual equality and symmetry makes much more sense in many modern societies, but was largely absent from the sexual understanding and the sexual representations of Graeco-Roman antiquity (with the possible exceptions in late Hellenistic period, such as, e.g. love in the ancient novel).

But if masculinity was heavily dependent on control and dominion, then social standing becomes as important for the retention or loss of this masculinity as sexual conduct. Political power is equated with sexual thrust, as we saw in Poems 28 and 29 of the Catullan corpus. Conversely, Catullus and the other disenchanted Roman citizens of the turbulent late Republic need not be passive in sexual behaviour to feel their manliness threatened; loss of political influence, inability for serious engagement in the political and social arena would also be equally threatening to their male dominant status.

In fact, this link between social disadvantage and threat to masculinity explains to a large extent the startlingly different facets of the Catullan poetry. Because, if we continue our search into the corpus of the poet from Verona, we will find that the predatory images of sexual conquest that seem to fill Catullus with angst and repulse, come hand-in-hand with poems that play with the possibility of a feminised ego for the poet.

The lure of female subjectivity is especially poignant in the wedding hymn we are offered in Poem 62. The poem starts with comparing the bride to vine that grows infertile, until she is joined by a husband elm at which point the bride-vine begins to be tended by many farmers and many oxen and starts bearing fruits. At this point, the poet warns the maiden against resistance: ‘ and you’re not to fight with a husband, maiden …’ (l. 59). The clear implication here is the girl’s aversion at the prospect of sex with her older, sturdy husband. But what is only implied here is crystal clear in an earlier image (ll.39-48) in the same poem:

Just as a flower that grows in a garden close, apart,
Unbeknown to sheep, not torn up by the plough,
Which breezes fondle, the sun strengthens, showers feed,
Many boys have longed for it and many girls:
But when its blossom has gone, nipped off by a fingernail,
Never boy has longed for it and never girl:
A maid too while untouched is dear the while to kin,
But when with body smirched she loses her chaste bloom
She’s neither pleasing then to boys nor dear to girls.

Vivid images of yearning, beauty, loss, and withdrawal from social exchanges are here woven together with a great deal of sensitivity and, one feels, empathy by the poet. We’re now in the right frame of mind to look at Poem 11, where the poet reluctantly prepares to set off to war, sending a goodbye to his heartless girlfriend, whose brazen and promiscuous sexuality in fact likens her to the corrupt, disagreeable males of the bitter political poems we read above. What, in particular, interests us is the gender reversal and Catullus’ feminised ego, as it emerges in the instructions he issues to for his comrades Furius and Aurelius, who are supposed to pass the farewell on to the girl:

And let her not as before expect my love,
Which by her fault has fallen like a flower
On the meadow’s margin after a passing
Ploughshare has touched it.

Disheartened Catullus here views his pushy girl as the plough – a symbol of penetration bringing fertility to the (feminine) earth, but also - more importantly for us here - a tool also traditionally associated with the founding or eradication of cities (in poets such as Horace and Virgil). Lesbia thus becomes a tool in the civilising, or pseudo-civilising expedition for the expansion of the empire, which a reluctant Catullus is about to join.

Read alongside the girl-as-flower image of Poem 62, Catullus-as-flower that falls at the road curb in Poem 11, appropriates a feminine voice to present a conscious choice. The feminine sensibility that Catullus usurps longs for independence and treasures isolation and a withdrawal from the ugly politics of the plough, and an ambitious, expanding Rome. The hard, antagonistic and dominating puella and her (over)sensitive, side-lined lover wallowing, but secretly content, in the grief of rejection, as he treasures his unconventional status, are the key markers of a new poety of love, Latin love elegy: the new genre presents unconventional men making a new way in a world of a dying Republic and the collapse of social values that comes with that death. After the end of the world, there will be new men, and elegy invents them.