Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84 BCE - c.54 BCE) was one of the most influential Roman poets of the 1st century BCE.
Of Catullus' life little is known for sure. He was born on the Palatine hill of Rome. He was an offspring of a leading family from Verona, but lived in Rome most of his life. In 57 BCE, he accompanied his friend Memmius to Bithynia, where Memmius had received a propraetor's post. Catullus himself, however, never held a political office.
His poetry was greatly influenced by the Greek neoteroi, especially by Callimachus, who propagated a new style of poetry, deliberately turning away from the classical epic poetry in the tradition of Homer. Their poems no longer described the feats of ancient heroes and gods but concentrated on small-scale personal themes. Although these poems sometimes seem quite superficial and their subject often are mere everyday concerns, they nevertheless are accomplished works of art.
The work of Catullus was handed down as an anthology of 116 carmina (presumably not arranged by the author), which can be divided into three formal parts: 60 short poems in varying metres, called polymetra, 8 longer poems and 48 epigrams.
The longer poems differ from the polymetra and the epigrams not only in length but also in their subjects: They are hymns and one mini-epic.
The polymetra and the epigrams can be divided into three major thematical groups (ignoring a rather large number of poems eluding such categorization):
- poems to and about his friends (e.g. invitations)
- erotic poems: some of them imply homosexual penchants, but most are about women, especially about one he calls "Lesbia" (in honor of the poetess Sappho of Lesbos, source and inspiration of many of his poems); philologists have taken considerable efforts to discover her real identity, and many concluded that Lesbia was Clodia, sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, a woman known for her generous sexuality, but this identification rests on some rather fragile assumptions
- invectives: some of these often quite rude or downrightly obscene poems are targeted towards ex-friends, but many well known poets, politicians (e.g. Julius Caesar) and rhetors get their thrashing, too
All these poems describe the rather Epicurean lifestyle of Catullus and his friends, who lived withdrawn from (though not oblivious to) politics. They were mainly interested in poetry and love, and the ancient Roman concept of virtus (i.e. of virtue that had to be proved either by a political career or by military valor), which Cicero propagated as the solution to the societal problems of the late Republic, meant nothing to them.
But it is not actually the traditional notions Catullus rejects, but merely their monopolized 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 relationship. For example, he applies the word fides, which traditionally meant faithfulness towards one's political allies, to his relationship to Lesbia and reinterprets it as unconditional faithfulness in love. So, despite his seemingly frivolous lifestyle Catullus measured himself and his friends by quite ambitious standards.
Catullus was an admirer of Sappho, and is the source for much of what we know or infer about that almost legendary poetess of the 7th century BCE. Catullus 51 is a direct verse translation of Sappho 31, and Catullus 61 and 62 are certainly inspired by and perhaps translated directly from lost works of Sappho. 61 and 62 are Epithalamia, a form of laudatory or erotic wedding-poem that Sappho had been famous for but that had gone out of fashion in the intervening centuries. In fact, Catullus may have brought about a substantial revival of the form in Rome.
It isn't known for sure when Catullus died; some antique sources tell he died from exhaustion at the age of 30. Subsequently, his poems were appreciated by other poets and intellectuals, but politicians like Cicero despised them because of their amorality, and Catullus was not considered one of the canonical school authors. Nevertheless, he greatly influenced later poets like Ovid, Horace and even Virgil and after his rediscovery in the Middle Ages, he again found admirers. Still his sometimes quite explicit writing style was shocking to many readers, antique and modern ones, and until recently it was not easy to find an equally explicit translation of some of his poems. Jacob Rabinowitz has since remedied this.
- Catullus' work in Latin and over 25 other languages at Catullus Translations: http://www.negenborn.net/catullus/
- Find other Catullus-minded people and discuss his works with them at the Catullus Forum: http://www.negenborn.net/catullus/forum/
- The complete poems of Catullus at The Latin Library: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/catullus.html
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