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Gaius Valerius Catullus

(c. 84 - c. 54 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Contemporary bust of Catullus.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Gaius Valerius Catullus was born between 87 and 82 BCE in Verona in Pre-Alpine Gaul as Gaius Valerius Catullus. He was a late republican Roman poet, belonging to the neoteric group; their only representative, whose works have survived in greater numbers.

Neoteric (from the Greek hoi neoteroi poietai, literally “younger poets” – poetae novi) is a term meaning a group of young Roman poets active in the middle of the 1st century BCE

Neoterics broke with the Roman tradition of great historical epics. Following the example of Hellenistic poetry, especially Alexandrian poetry, they preferred small-size pieces (epigrams, epigrams, short scenes, wedding and mourning songs, epillia – small epic poems), but chiselled to perfection. It was significant to adopt the principle of constructing poetry on the model of Callimachus. Most often they wrote about personal experiences, especially love. They were characterized by scholarship – mythological, geographical and literary. In mythological epillions, they depicted little-known myths. The poems did not exceed 500 lines.

Origin

He came from a good family of the Ekwicki family. His father once hosted the proconsul of the two Gallic provinces, Julius Caesar, at his estate, as Suetonius mentions. His family owned a villa in Sirmio on Lake Garda, near Verona, which he treated as his own home, a villa in Tibur (now Tivola) and his family seat in Verona.
Catullus spent most of his adult life in Rome. He had many friends there, including: the poet Licinius Macer Calvus, Helwius Cynna, Quintus Hortensius (son of the speaker and rival Cicero) and the biographer of Cornelius Nepos to whom Catullus dedicated libellus of poems. He also seems to have had a relationship with Marcus Furius Bibaculus.

Probably Catullus fell in love with Lesbia, who was identified with Clodia Metelli, a woman belonging to the aristocratic family of Claudia Pulchri and the sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, leader of the plebeian movements.

In the summer of 57 or 56 BCE, he was at the headquarters of the commander of Gaius Memmius in Bithynia, to then go to Troas (a land in Asia Minor) and perform a ceremony over his brother’s grave – as he mentions in his poem.

Creativity

The work of Catullus was highly appreciated from the 1st BCE. until the 2nd century CE Then, with the decline of ancient culture, the poet fell into oblivion.
The collection at our disposal includes one hundred and a dozen (about 116) small pieces, ranging in volume from 2 to 408 verses. The subject matter is mixed and ranges from a virulent political invective, through more or less obscene trivia, to sophisticated erotica and sloppy pictures from the lives of lovers. The obscene vocabulary of some poems has been the reason that until recently they have been omitted from translation or considerably watered down.
A separate genus is epitalamia (i.e. wedding songs) and the so-called epylia, that is, longer works, covering up to several hundred verses on mythological themes (“Attis”, “Wedding of Peleus and Thetis”, translation of Callimach’s poem “Braid of Berenika” etc.).

Catullus’s collection of poems is characterized by polymetry, ie it contains works composed in various verse measures. Of these, the most numerous are: dystych elegijny and eleven syllable of Faleches. Besides, Catullus also wrote priapejem, cholijambem, iambic trimmer (plain and pure), iambic tetrameter, greater asclepiade, saphic stanza, aeolian stanza and date hexameter.

We also owe Catullus the only fully preserved work (no. 63) written with a galijamb (there are only a few verses of the works of other poets who use galijamb), as well as the only known poem (no. 55) composed in the isochronous form of the Phalecan 11 syllable.

The work of Catullus was widely respected and known among other artists of the time. His works and styles had a huge influence on Ovid, Horace and Virgil. After his poetry was discovered in the Middle Ages, Catullus was once again widely read.

Criticism

In many works, Catullus vented his hatred for especially the followers of Caesar and the chief himself. The poet sincerely hated Caesar, expressing it many times and in a not very picky way. The invectives against Caesar and his followers were simply intended to defame as much as possible with transparent allusions. An incident that was to happen at the court of King Bithynia Nikomedes IV, where Caesar, as a young military tribune, was sent on a diplomatic mission was a particularly eagerly used motive. There, he allegedly used his charms to finally receive the ruler’s consent to provide a sea fleet. In exploring this topic, they even went so far as to call Caesar the queen of Bithynia. Caesar himself reportedly disliked the dissemination of poems directed against himself by Catullus, and the fact that at one point he reached out to both poets in the agreement is for Suetonius one of the proofs of how gentle and unforgiving he was. Catullus agreed to this settlement, apologized to Caesar and treated him with respect afterwards.

Catullus also knew Cicero, but nothing specific is known about the nature of this relationship. The latter, in letters to his friend Attic, made a few bitter words about the avant-garde poets (the so-called neoterics) to which Catullus belonged, but never once did he mention any surnames. On the other hand, Catullus at some point in his life writes a short piece that is an evident apostrophe to Cicero. Whether it reveals respect to an outstanding orator who is at least 30 years older than this, or irony – scientists cannot agree. We do not know the circumstances of the poem’s writing, and it is impossible to guess them.

One of the favourite targets of Catullus’ invective, however, was not a politician, but a certain Mamurra, chief of engineering troops (praefectus fabrum) in Caesar’s army during the Gallic War, previously holding the same or similar position with Pompey during the war with King Pontus Mithridates (64-63 BCE), and then during the campaign that Caesar waged in 61 BCE in Lusitania as Propretor of the Province of Hispania Ulterior. Catullus attacked Mamurra as one of the most important Caesarians, thus wanting to indirectly touch the leader himself, who, according to Pliny the Elder, actually took these invectives personally. However, it seems that the main reason why Catullus attacked Mamurra was because of this officer’s multi-million dollar fortune, obviously from the spoils of the Romans in the three war campaigns mentioned, and his lavish lifestyle.

Thus, it can be easily noticed that Catullus, despite his great writing talent, was also characterized by envy and hatred. His works are filled with countless allusions to the drunkenness, gluttony and stupidity of people he sincerely hated.

Conservation issues

In the 12th century, there was only one copy of Catullus’ poems in the world (the so-called codex Veronensis marked with the letter V in the sigils, now lost), all the manuscripts known to us today, which were written in the 14th century and later, come from it..
The collection was donated by manuscripts in the form of one book and under the joint title Catulli Veronensis liber. The pieces are, as mentioned above, “about 116” because their numbering is not continuous. On the one hand, it shows gaps (e.g. poem 17 is followed by poem no. 21), on the other hand, as a result of philological research, it has been shown or attempted to show that some works that were previously considered as a whole constitute in fact two separate poems (e.g. works 58 and 58b), or vice versa. As a result, the number of poems varies from edition to edition and ranges from 114 to 116.

At the turn of the 20th century, it was noticed that the total volume of the collection – which amounts to 2,292 lines – significantly exceeds the capacity of the average papyrus scroll, which led to the thesis that what medieval manuscripts titled Catulli Veronensis liber in fact, the contents of the three volumes rewritten to the code in one string:
Volume I containing tracks 1-60 was probably titled Iambi or Passer (Latin for “sparrow”, from the origin of the first track of Passer deliciae meae puellae…).
Volume II, containing tracks 61-67, might have been titled Epithalamium.
Volume III with songs 68-116 was probably titled Epigrammata.

An additional argument, apart from the volume itself, for the division into such parts is their compositional diversity:

  • part one – small pieces composed in various measures of poems and with mixed themes;
  • part two – longer pieces, metrically differentiated, but with a common theme, which is the permanent relationship of a woman and a man;
  • part three – small pieces on various topics, all written in one-time signature (elegiac distress).

The details of the breakdown, especially the question of where exactly the line between Parts Two and Three is, are debatable. Whether these volumes were three parts of a kind of anthology of Catullus’s works, or rather three books published independently of each other, is not certain.
There is a suspicion bordering on certainty that in antiquity there was still at least one volume of other works of Catullus written in priapean verse, but not preserved. The dedication of this volume along with the author’s name is quoted by Terentianus Maurus.

Catullus at Lesbia’s, Lawrence Alma -Tadema
Lesbia is the literary name of the great love of Catullus. She could be an independent poet, or she supported Catullus in writing his works.

Death

He died no earlier than 54 BCE. and no later than 32 BCE

The problem of birth and death dates

The birth and death of the poet date differently. Saint Jerome reports that Catullus died in 57 BCE at the age of 30. Unfortunately, the date of death given here is certainly wrong, because in the works of Catullus there are, for example, allusions to the second consulate of Pompey and the portico of Pompey, a building commissioned during that consulate, in 55 BCE. The trouble is that, given by St. Jerome’s date of death is incorrect, that is, either of the other two numbers – the resulting date of the poet’s birth or the age at which he died – is also incorrect; it is not known which one.

It is generally assumed that Jerome must have confused the consuls of 87 BCE (Lucius Cornelius Cynna and Gnaeus Octavius) with some other pair of consuls; the most frequently mentioned pair are Lucius Cornelius Cynna and Gnaeus Papirius Carbo (84 BCE) or Gaius Marius and Gnaeus Papirius Carbo (82 BCE). According to these hypotheses, Catullus died at the age of 30 in 54 or 52 BCE.

Based on an analysis of his works, some scholars believe that the poet was still alive in 47 BCE. At any rate, Cornelius Nepos, written in 32 BCE Attica’s life lists Catullus and Lucretius as dead.

Sources
  • Kokoszkiewicz M. Konrad, Katulus - życie i ciemne sprawki, "Mówią Wieki", 1.12.2008
  • Kumaniecki Kazimierz, Literatura rzymska. Okres cyceroński, Warszawa 1977

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