Before there was Vergil, a generation of poets was testing the boundaries of Latin verse with exciting, powerful, and often downright scandalous poetry. We call them the “neoteric” poets today. It’s a name that has some authority to it: for one, it goes back to Cicero, who writes to his friend Atticus (Att. 7.2.1) about one of the neoteroi, or “newer” poets, whose work he obviously disliked. The word neoteroi is Greek, but this suits the poets: they were very much attempting to achieve something new in Latin verse, and to do so turned to the great writers of the Hellenistic Age—who themselves were (compared, say, to Homer or the classical tragedians) “newer” poets. The Latin neoteric poet whose works survive other than in scraps is none other than Catullus.
Catullus and his friends, however, were not the only poets of the day—roughly speaking, the 50s BC. There were others, too, with quite different tastes. The philosopher poet Lucretius most notably belongs in a category unto himself, but before we turn to his and Catullus’ poetry, it might be amusing to cast a glance at the poet who held center stage until he was surpassed by newer, greater talent: Cicero.
Perhaps you’re surprised. Yes, Cicero wrote not only speeches and treatises on rhetoric and philosophy (not to mention his letters); he also was a poet. According to Plutarch’s biography (Plutarch, Life of Cicero 2), Cicero was regarded not only as the best orator but also as the best poet—well, at least for a little while. Cicero wrote on mythological subjects in his youth, but he soon turned toward Roman subjects of personal interest to himself. He wrote a poem about the career of the famous general Marius, who came from his home town of Arpinum. In one passage, he has Marius observe an omen indicated by an eagle, like a Roman priest:
Marius, augur of the divine power, saw
This eagle, flying and gliding on propitious wings,
And observed felicitous signs of his glory and return.
The Father himself thundered on the left side of the sky;
Thus Jupiter confirmed the manifest omen of the eagle.
This passage is quoted by Cicero himself in his work On Divination (Cic. de Div. 1.106). In fact, most of what remains of Cicero’s poetry survives because Cicero quotes himself in other works! He certainly thought much more highly of his own poetry than most critics. The satirist Juvenal (Satires 10.122-4) quotes a terrible line from Cicero’s lost poem On my consulship:
“O lucky Rome, born when I was consul!”
He could indeed have scorned Antony’s swords,
If he had said everything like that!
Besides the tacky pomposity of the line (Seneca was right when he said, “Cicero praised his consulship not without reason, but without end”), it reads in Latin O fortunatam natam me consule Romam: the sound natam is said twice without anything in between and then rhymes with Romam. You won’t find anything like that in Vergil, but you would have found something similar in some of the older Republican poets. One line of Ennius, whose national epic poem The Annals was superseded by Vergil’s Aeneid (and is today lost), runs: O Tite tute Tati tibi tanta, turanne, tulisti. You might translate it loosely, “O Titus Tatius, you, you’ve brought such great troubles on yourself, tyrant!”—but try reading the Latin aloud five times fast!
Ennius was a serious poet. Born just after the First, he lived through the Second Punic War and died well into the 2nd century BC (239-169 BC), roughly contemporary with Cato the Elder. His great work, the Annales (The Annals), told the story of Rome in the first Latin epic written in the Greek epic meter, the dactylic hexameter that Vergil would perfect. Cicero loved Ennius, and even as harsh a critic as Horace saw the power in some of Ennius’ verses. One famous line goes: Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque (“On ancient ways and heroes stands the Roman State”). Cicero loved this verse because he wished it were true in his own age (Cicero, On the Republic 5.1).
If Cicero’s own poetry harkened back to that of the century before his own, he was not the last to draw inspiration from Ennius. The mysterious poet Lucretius culled the best of Ennius’ technique and refined it in a work of poetry paradoxically both modern and old-fashioned, the didactic poem On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura). A didactic poem is a poem that teaches something; in the case of Lucretius, the subject is Epicurean philosophy.
Epicureanism is famous—or notorious—for the belief that pleasure is the highest good in life: Epicureans are often accused of indulging the senses in food, drink, leisure and sex. But the Epicurean philosophy was rather more sophisticated than simple hedonism. Epicureans were accused of atheism because they posited that the gods lived far from the world in splendid isolation and took no interest in mankind whatsoever; and they further advocated an elaborate theory of atomism; in other words, they argued that the material world, including you and me, was made up of tiny atoms that came together for a time and then dispersed. Elaborate theories about the universe or “the nature of things” explained this system of thought, and it was this that Lucretius put into majestic Latin verse. Lucretius introduces the elements of the soul, for example, as follows (3.262-8):
The atoms of the elements permeate one another
In motion, so that nothing may be sundered apart,
Nor any force physically separated from the others;
But as many forces they exist virtually in one body.
As common in the flesh of any living thing,
There is a certain smell, colour, and taste, and yet from all
Of these there is the single, perfect mass of the body.
Even though Cicero personally despised Epicureanism, he readily admitted in a letter to his brother that Lucretius’ poetry was “full of flashes of genius and much artistry” (Cic. ad Q. 2.5). The invocation of Venus (Lucr. 1.1-9) with which Lucretius begins gives a good impression of his genius:
Mother of the descendants of Aeneas, delight of men and gods,
Nourishing Venus, you populate the ship-bearing sea
Beneath the drifting constellations of the sky, and you
Populate the fruitful earth; through you every kind of living thing
Is conceived and, once born, beholds the light of the sun.
The winds flee before you, goddess, you! The clouds of the sky
Flee at your approach; for you the wonder-working earth
Produces flowers; for you the expanses of the sea smile,
And the becalmed sky glows with radiant light.
Venus is far more to Lucretius than the traditional Greco-Roman goddess of the poets; she is the vital force of nature itself. The invocation of the goddess is one of the ways in which Lucretius adapts poetic tradition to his teacherly purpose.
Cicero wrote about Lucretius in a letter from 54 BC; by that time Lucretius was already dead. The latest datable poems of the other great Republican poet whose works survive, Catullus, fall roughly in the same time.
Cicero does not mention Catullus, but Catullus does indeed mention Cicero. Poem 49 addresses Cicero directly:
Most elegant of the grandsons of Romulus,
Of all who are and all who were, Marcus Tullius,
And of all who will come in later years,
Catullus thanks you very much,
(Catullus,) the worst poet of all,
So much the worst poet of all,
As you are the best advocate of all.
The final joke, that Cicero could and would defend anybody, might certainly have been appreciated by the orator, who was famous for his sarcasm—at least in prose. Other works, however, would have been less likely to win the admiration of the conservative orator, but they have captivated readers for centuries. The most “neoteric” of Catullus’ poems is his longest, a mini-epic or epyllion. The neoteric epyllion was a relatively brief but extremely rich and complex work of epic poetry. The new model told stories within stories, made subtle and obscure allusions to mythology, and was written in a delicate, varied style. Catullus’ epyllion, Poem 64, begins with the voyage of the Argonauts, but then becomes the tale of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, while the story of Theseus and Ariadne is introduced as embroidered on a bedcover. The story, naturally for the neoterics, begins at the end, as Ariadne watches Theseus sailing away:
For gazing from the water-sounding shore of Dia,
Watching Theseus draw away with his swift fleet,
Ariadne bears wild fury in her heart,
Not yet does she believe she sees what she has seen,
As just then she was awakened from treacherous sleep
To behold herself, wretched, abandoned on the lonely sands.
Catullus then goes backwards to tell us of Theseus and the Minotaur, before he returns to allow Ariadne to lament her abandonment by Theseus afterwards. Eventually, we return to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. The effect is like an avant-garde film full of flashbacks and flash-forwards and evocative scenes—but Catullus achieves as much with words!
Catullus is most celebrated, however, for his occasional verse and above all for the poems about his affair with his aristocratic and decadent mistress, Lesbia. “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,” begins Poem 5,
And let us count the gossip of strict old men
As worth no more than a penny.
Suns can set and return,
But once our own brief light has set,
We sleep for an eternal night.
Give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred,
And then another thousand, then another hundred,
And still another thousand and a hundred.
Then, after we’ve made several thousand—
We will mix them up so we won’t know how many,
And no wicked person can envy us,
Knowing about so many kisses.
The twists and turns of Catullus’ and Lesbia’s affair, and the final breakup (e.g. Poem 8: “Wretched Catullus, stop your madness, and let go as lost what you see has been lost”), have fascinated readers for ages. Lesbia is not by far, however, the only subject of Catullus’ short poems. We meet a crowd of people: some friends, some enemies, and some about whom we’re just not sure! The very first poem, for example, is dedicated to the writer Cornelius Nepos, whose Latin biographies have survived in part. Referring to a lost history by Nepos, Catullus praises him as the only Italian who has dared write the history of the ages on three sheets of paper!
This poem, though, is quite polite compared to others in which Catullus’ language has more in common with modern rap music than Shakespeare. To take a mild example, in Poem 36 Catullus asks the Annals of Volusius, a historical poem that he describes as “shitty paper” (cacata charta, i.e. probably used as toilet paper), to fulfil a vow to Venus for him by burning themselves in sacrifice! Many more would require the “Parental Advisory” label if they were on sale in a music store today.
But Latin expletives and sexual vocabulary are by no means all that Catullus teaches us: also like modern rap music, the verses of Catullus bring us close to a kind of street reality. Both share the blunt, explicit language, the hyperbole, the swagger, and in their lyrics both give a reflection of life, sometimes more, sometimes less true. Rappers “keep it real,” and Catullus does something similar. It is important to remember, though, that in contrast to “the hood” or “ghetto” of modern rap artists, Catullus’ reality is strikingly privileged and aristocratic: he moves in the highest circles of Roman society. He is the lover of one of the noblest women in Rome. He visits what is today modern Turkey on the staff of a Roman provincial governor (e.g. Poem 28). And Caesar himself comes to dinner at his father’s villa (Suetonius, Life of Caesar 73) after he’s been offended by Catullus’ incendiary poems against him.
Catullus could find equal enthusiasm for words of love and passion, for ironic praise and raw abuse, and for delicate works like the epyllion Zmyrna (Poem 95), which his friend Cinna took nine years to write, a poem so learned and obscure that even ancient readers soon needed a commentary! It wasn’t exactly a “hard-knock life” for Catullus and his friends, but one full of variety and never, never dull.