The Roman poet Catullus (Vallus Galerius Catullus, 84bc-54bc) lived for such a short time and in such a glorified period of Roman power, dominance, conquest and empire building, that two things are remarkable. He is often considered in many ways, so atypical of Roman poetry or Roman writing, that it is remarkable that he has been so influential a poet and personality in Roman letters.
Such important names as Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Cinna, Cicero and Livy, will tower above his in conventional Classical scholarship and reputation because they are better known than he is, and perhaps, more ‘Roman’. Yet to those who know him, he sits in the same company as those hallowed craftsmen, and according to the Academy of American Poets, was a major influence upon other Roman poets of his time and after, such as love poets Horace, Virgil and Ovid. He is popular because of his language, his great wit, and his topics.
Classical scholar Andrew Feldherr very neatly sums up Catullus’ place and reputation. During the time when he was writing, the Roman Empire was being conquered and Julius Caesar was at the height of his campaigns; Gaul was overcome, and Caesar led the first of two Roman expeditions to Britain. Yet, Feldherr points out “the centre of Catullus’ poetry lies emphatically and pointedly elsewhere; it celebrates the poet’s love affairs, sexual encounters, friendships, bereavements, and – with particular delight – his hatreds.” Further, “The orator Cicero, an elder statesman of the Catullan period and also an accomplished poet, describes all who write in a style typical of Catullus with the Greek adjective ‘neoteroi’, the ‘new’ ones”. However, to Rome and to later periods, “this new classic helped validate the poetry of sensuality and wit as a serious literary undertaking. For the Romantics Catullus was new because his poetry expressed ‘real’ feelings and emotions and gave access to the thoughts and experiences of the man himself”.
Catullus stands in the canon of Latin poets, yet he deviates from what may be regarded as what Romans stand for: “empire and authority, decorum in manners and the arts.”
A very good example is in a poem where two friends offer to accompany the poet on great expeditions to “remotest India”, to Arabia, the Nile, the Alpine passes or “to view the trophy sites of mighty Caesar, The Rhine in Gaul, or the outlandish Britons”. But the poet sets all that aside and instead, asks them to “please take this message to my girl, a few short words to express my hate”. He chooses the personal, the sentiments of love (turned to hate in this case because she has forsaken him) over stately missions of war and glory.
Gaius Valerius Catullus belonged to a wealthy Patrician family who were close to Julius Caesar and other high ranking personalities, and the poet himself did some service for the state. He was very learned, and this is reflected in his verse, never mind his preference for a persona who seems to care little for the public political life and learning. One of the main preoccupations of the poet’s persona is his love for Lesbia his legendary mistress in the poems.
It is said that the fictional “Lesbia” immortalized in the verses did exist. She was said to be aristocratic, a beautiful, sophisticated member of a Patrician family and the wife of a proconsul. Her name was Clodia Metelli who had a prolonged affair with Catullus, but was also known to have had other lovers. The poet makes mention of that in poems in which he expressed his bitterness.
While the passionate love for her he writes about immortalises her as Lesbia, there are many times when he “expresses his hate” because of her betrayal of him. He refers to her other lovers in typical fashion of wit and eroticism.
Good luck to her, let her enjoy her lovers,
The whole three hundred that she hugs together,
Loving none truly, by grim repetition
Wringing them sperm-dry.
The poem reproduced above finds the poet in a similar mood after being spurned by his mistress. He chastises himself for “whining” and complaining about her treatment, advising himself to give her up as lost. He recalls the good times they enjoyed but now describes them as “lovers’ games and laughter”, pulling himself up – “stop whimpering”. Note that this is not the image of the strong, resolute, military Roman, but note also that the poet is telling himself that he ought to be more like that ‒ “be stoically resigned” he commands himself. The stoics were a philosophical school of Romans who did not believe in expressions of emotion; stoicism taught mental toughness and was opposed to public shows of sentiment or deep feeling. The poet is now resolving to stop mourning over a lost love, and “becoming stone” like a stoic.
Catullus, however, is always enjoying himself with his wit and his unconventional plainness of expression. He enjoys expressions of hatred. He regales the girl as “you damned bitch” hurling vengeful words at her. “You’ll feel the cold . . . when men leave you alone”. She will suffer the same punishment she now inflicts on others since she revels in loving men and casting them aside.
These poems were lost after the decline of Rome, but survived the “dark middle ages” until they were rediscovered in the thirteenth century. But there are poetic movements that are very reminiscent of this type of poetry by Catullus, although in some cases one can only speculate about direct influence.
In the mediaeval period there emerged a long series of poems written in Latin by monks, priests and high ranking members of the clergy. Surprisingly, some might say shockingly, they resembled the verses of Catullus in his witty, sensual mood. These sometimes playful love lyrics by the clergy were in praise of women in sexual terms, and above all, in celebration of drink. The proverbial “wine, women and song” dominated those love poems which are very reminiscent of the Latin love poet.
Then, later on, there was the courtly love poetry first put out by Petrarch of Italy. These were verses full of complaint by a rejected lover moaning over the ill treatment suffered at the hands of his mistress. It was a complex collection of texts, but simply put, they were normally in praise of the women placed on pedestals and worshipped. The poets showered them with adoration and undying love but the women were fickle – here today and gone tomorrow; loving tonight but flying off tomorrow to seek other new men who then became their dumped conquests. The poets were left complaining in verses known as Petrarchan or courtly love poems.
One famous courtly love poet was Sir Thomas Wyatt, an English courtier in the court of King Henry the VIII in the sixteenth century. It was Wyatt who introduced the poetry of Petrarch into England. Very much like Catullus is doing in this poem, Wyatt would swear that he has given up on chasing the elusive, fickle women who are out to tease. Some of his poems remember the delicious moments he had with the women and remark on the way they have now forsaken him. He introduces an element of eroticism in the poems, but also the same note of bitterness (“hatred”) found in the Latin poet. In different poems Wyatt asks since I am so unkindly served, “what hath she deserved?” The lady deserves to be paid back for ill-treating him: Perchance “you lie withered and old, in winter nights that are so cold”. Then she will “know beauty but lent”, and will be lonely just like Lesbia in Catullus’ poem.
Catullus was not taught in Latin classes for obvious reasons, but he is an important Roman poet. He represents Latin writing in similar class to Horace, Ovid, and Virgil, great writers who, as mentioned earlier, it is said he influenced. It is also remarkable how the mediaeval Latin poetry and other movements of poetry after the Renaissance bear such striking resemblance to Catullus. These similarities may even be found in highly original and witty poets like John Donne, similarly known for his playful verses, and William Shakespeare, revered for his wit and innovation.