Lecture 8, Tuesday 13th February 2018

Nota bene: You have the option to write a poem in the style of Catullus (or Vergil) for extra credit [up to +3%]. Due May 1st. For more information on this and the other extra credit opportunity (MFA visit [up to +4%]), see: exams, assessment, policy.

Verona 89 BCE Roman colony.pngPleiades: Verona.

Gaius Valerius Catullus

  • Roman poet of the 1st century BCE, who died young and famous 
  • all externally datable references in the poems date to 57-54 BCE
  • came from an equestrian family from Verona (calls himself Transpadanuspoem 39) 
  • Catullus’ father regularly hosted Julius Caesar (Suetonius, Iul. 73), who was on military campaign in Gaul from 58-51 BCE 
  • Caesar complained of Catullus’ attacks against him
    • poem 29: Catullus insults Caesar + Pompey, and Caesar’s associate Mamurra (who had got rich in Gaul)
    • poem 57: Catullus insults Caesar + Mamurra 
  • 57 BCE: Catullus went to Bithynia as a member of entourage of proconsul Gaius Memmius (poem 10), where he visited the tomb of his brother who had died and been buried in the Troad (poems 65, 68a, 68b, 101)
  • Catullus’ poems introduce us to a private world of drinking, contests of masculinity (competitive homosociality), private spaces; casual interaction with political world, but a general lack of interest in traditional careers
  • themes of the poems are sex, (love), promiscuity, courtship, jealousy, betrayal; Catullus’ romantic/intimate relationships with women and men; male sodality, commensality, companionship, competition
  • strong interest in his own poetic circle (neoteric / poetae novi): C. Licinius Calvus, Q. Cornificius, Veranius, Asinius Pollio, Cornelius Nepos, C. Helvius Cinna. 
    • literary “equals” rather than patrons
  • many of Catullus’ poems seem to come out of an affair between the poet and a woman whom he gives the name “Lesbia”, after the 7th/6th century BCE poet Sappho (famously of the island, Lesbos)
    • Catullus’ contemporaries and subsequent readers seem to have believed that this Lesbia referred to a real woman
      • Ovid (Tristia 2.427-8): “yet wanton Catullus sang often of her who was falsely called Lesbia.”
      • later source (Apuleius, Apology 10) suggests that the real woman behind the poetry was a Clodia Metelli, older sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher (Cicero’s nemesis) + wife of Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer (cos. 60 BCE)
      • Clodia Metelli appears as a major character in a court case of 56 BCE (=Pro Caelio, “In Defense of Caelius”); Cicero defended Marcus Caelius Rufus against the charge of attempting to poison her, as well as a charge of assassinating an Egyptian delegate
    • Lesbia is a married woman: 83.
    • Poems declaring love for Lesbia: 2, 3, 5, 7, 13, 51, 85, 87, 107, 109.
    • Poems comparing her to other women: 43, 86.
    • Poems about their fights: 36, 83, 92, 104.
    • Poems criticizing her for cheating on him: 8, 68, 70, 72, 75, 76.
    • Poems of strong abuse against her: 11, 37, 58, 79.
    • Poems about her other lovers: 37 (Egnatius), 91 (Gellius), 79 (her own brother??)
  • Catullus’ poems also describe a love affair with a man named Juventius: 15, 21, 24, 48, 81, 99.

Structure of Catullus’ “libellus (‘little book’):

    • almost 2 300 verses in 1 book, divided into 3 sections on the basis of meter:
      • 1-60: brief, light poems of various meters
      • 61-68: “carmina docta” (“erudite poems”), longer and greater stylistic effort, more monumental; various meters
        • poem 64: a “miniature epic” in hexameters (400 lines long): Peleus + Thetis, Theseus + Ariadne
      • 69-116: short poems in elegiac couplets, so-called epigrams
    • edition by Catullus or posthumous?
      • too big for one papyrus roll? could probably fit on a “single outsize scroll” (see Peter Green notes p213) 
      • non-chronological order, ordered by meter = philologists?
      • poems probably circulated individually?

All Latin poetry was designed to be read aloud: you can hear modern recordings of Catullus’ poetry in Latin here.

Poem 1: Who should I give my book to?
[see also Peter Green’s notes: pp212-213]

1.1: “new” (novus), “witty” (lepidusλεπτός, “subtle”, “thin”, “refined”)
1.2: “fresh-polished” with pumex = ‘pumice-stone’
1.3: “you, Cornelius” = Cornelius Nepos (c. 110-c.25 BCE) writer of biography and history in Latin
1.5: “the lone Italian!”: like Catullus, Cornelius Nepos was from Cisalpine Gaul
1.7: “scholarly stuff, my god, and so exhaustive!“: Cornelius Nepos’ history (Chronica) was in 3 volumes
1.8: “take this little booklet, this mere trifle“: contrast (?) between historical writing + poetic composition; yet, they are friends and can exchange works
1.10: “let it outlast at least one generation!“: desire for immortality (and it’s always interesting when ancient texts wish for survival, since they have survived till now…)

Quinn 1996: 88: “Poem 1 dramatizes the act of dedication: Cornelius gets the presentation copy, but there will be other copies, of course, which will circulate in the normal way — a repetition on a larger scale of the process though which many of the individual poems, if not all, have already passed.”

Culpepper Stroup: 2010: 33: “…Catullus asks a deceptively simple question: To whom do I give this charming new work?… On closer inspection this simplest of inquiries becomes only more complex, more difficult to decipher, and more demonstrative of the anxieties of textual exchange and the author’s desire to remain a subject even as he becomes, through his text, an object. Who will understand what the gift of a text means? Who will make sure that the right people read it? Who will be able to read it as intended to be read and who will, perhaps, make a gift in kind? What, at last, does it mean to entrust one’s text — one’s persona — to the care of another, and how does one write about this meaning?’ 

Papyrus scroll and pen. Roman wallpainting from Pompeii. 1st c. CE. Inv. 4676.Close-up of a Roman wall painting from Pompeii (1st c. CE, Inv. 4676) showing a papyrus book scroll and pen. Image: eurasianmss.lib.uiowa.edu.

Top left: papyrus plants growing in Sicily. Top middle: Kalzang Dorjee Bhutia selecting the papyrus stalks for a workshop on papyrus making. Top right: results of that workshop. Top three images from eurasianmss.lib.uiowa.edu. Bottom left: writing implements and money in a Roman wall painting from House of Julia Felix, Pompeii 1st c. CE (Inv. 8598); note the book scroll in the bottom left corner. Image: materiaconference.net. Bottom middle: writing implements in a Roman wall painting from Pompeii, 1st c. CE (Inv. 4676). Image: materiaconference.net. Bottom right: a surviving papyrus fragment of Terence’s Andria, 4th c. CE (P. Oxy. 2401). Image: papyrology.ox.ac.uk/POxy.


Poem 2a: my lover’s plaything…
[see also Peter Green’s notes: p213]

2.1: “Sparrow“: a pet bird, or…? the sparrow was associated with Aphrodite by Sappho (1.9-12)
2.1: “precious darling“: Catullus watches a woman (note that she is unnamed) playing with a pet bird and the sight conjures up scenes of intimacy and eroticism in his imagination. The scene is internal, voyeuristic, psychological, playful.

Nightingale: House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii. 1st c. BCE or CE.Roman wall painting from the House of the Golden Bracelet (close-up on a nightingale). Pompeii, 1st c. BCE or CE. Image: mtholyoke.edu.


Poem 3: …is dead
[see also Peter Green’s notes pp213-214]

3.3: “Sparrow lies dead” — the ‘bird’ has died
3.8-9: “nor from her warm lap’s safety would he | ever venture far…
3.18: “all her weeping“: if the sparrow is not a ‘bird’ but something else, what do we learn here about the woman’s reaction?

Left: a tintinnabulum from Pompeii, 1st c. CE (Inv. 27839). Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen (CC-BY 2.5) via wikimedia. Right: phallic amulets from Roman Gaul. Image: wikimedia. We have from ancient Roman art a number of depictions of winged penises — these are a type of object called the fascinus or fascinum, the image of a phallus acting as a charm against evil, often worn on the body, especially as a protection for children, or appearing in other trinket forms (amulets, wind chimes, etc.), or in cult contexts (e.g. Vestal Virgins, triumphs). Pliny the Elder called this the medicus inuidiae (NH 28.31) — the “antidote for evil feeling.” Depictions of penises seem to have appeared in all sorts of places in the Roman world. On March 17 every year, a phallus was carried as part of the procession of Liber. Penises also appear as markers of boundaries — at crossroads, or the thresholds of private houses in Pompeii and Ostia.


Poem 5: forget those old dudes, let’s have fun
[see also Peter Green’s notes p214]

5.1: “Lesbia mine” — the first occurrence of this pseudonym, Catullus derived it from the famous poet, Sappho (7th/6th c. BCE), a woman from Lesbos who wrote in Greek erotic and intimate poetry about other women; Catullus’ poem 51 is a translation of one of her poems
5.1-2: “and as for scandal…old men” — rumours and gossip about the pair are not to deter them from their love and fun. Catullus tells Lesbia not to worry about what the older generation thinks, suggesting a) a divide between the youthful Catullus and the seniores/patres but also b) that their gossip might actually be a cause for concern. Since Lesbia is married (we learn this from poem 83), the eyes of judgemental spectators could be a problem.
5.3: “value the lot no more than a farthing” — Catullus tells Lesbia not to place any value in the gossip of old men. The metaphor is an economic one (“don’t pay even a penny for that trash”).
5.7: “Give me a thousand kisses…” — Catullus playfully numbers their erotic fun, finally throwing up all the numbers, putting them in disarray. The counting game, and the “long night” of line 6, suggest an eternal bliss and calm (that will soon violently end).
5.12: “so no maleficent enemy can hex us” — someone else knowing the details of your life gave them the ability to work symbolically against you. Rome’s legal code (The Twelve Tables) contained a provision against hexes like this (either magical or verbal abuse*). The Latin here (5.12) is inuidere means to “look at”, in a negative way (along the lines of “evil eye”).

*see Habinek 2005: 76-77.

Cicero, Pro Caelio 33-34 (trans. Berry): But I should like to ask her first whether she would prefer me to deal with her in a stern, solemn, old-fashioned way or in a relaxed, easy-going, modern way. If she chooses the severe mode of address, then I must call up from the underworld one of those bearded ancients — not with the modern type of goatee beard that she takes such pleasure in, but the rough type such as we see on antique statues and masks — to castigate the woman and speak in my place (for otherwise she might become angry with me!). Let me therefore summon up a member of her own family — and who better than the famous Caecus [=Appius Claudius Caecus, censor 312 BCE]? He, at any rate, will be the least shocked at her, since he will not be able to see her! [34] If he appears, this is, I am sure, how he will treat her, this is what he will say: “Woman! What do you think you are doing with Caelius, a man much younger than yourself, with someone from outside your own family? Why have you been either such a friend to him that you lent him gold or such an enemy that you were afraid of poison? Did you not notice that your father, or hear that your uncle, your grandfather, your great-grandfather, your great-great-grandfather and your great-great-great-grandfather were all consuls? And were you not aware that you were recently the wife of Quintus Metellus, that illustrious and valiant lover of his country, who only had to step out of his front door to surpass virtually every one of his fellow citizens in excellence, fame, and standing? Coming from such a distinguished family yourself, and marrying into one so illustrious, what reason did you have for lining yourself so closely to Caelius? Was he a blood-relation, a relation by marriage, a friend of your husband? He was none of these. What, then, was the reason — unless it was some reckless infatuation? And if you were not influenced by the masks of the men in our family, did my own descendant, the famous Quinta Claudia [204 BCE], not inspire you to rival our family’s glory in the splendid achievements of its women? Or were you not inspired by the famous Vestal virgin, Claudia, who at her father’s triumph [143 BCE], held him in her arms and so prevented him from being pulled down from his chariot by the hostile tribune of the plebs? Why was it your brother’s vices that influenced you, rather than the virtues of your father and ancestors, virtues that have been repeated down the generations from my own time not only in the men but particularly in the women of our family? Did I destroy the peace treaty with Pyrrhus [280 BCE] so you could strike the most disgraceful sexual bargains on a daily basis? Did I bring water to the city [Aqua Appia, Rome’s first aqueduct] for you to foul with your incestuous practices? Did I build a road [Via Appia, road from Rome to Brundisium] so that you could parade up and down it in the company of other women’s husbands?


Poem 7: no amount of lovin’ is enough
[see also Peter Green’s notes p215]

7.1: “You’d like to know how many of your kisses…?” — picking up on the counting from poem 5. A verbal game of excess.
7.3: “Libyan sand“: Libya = north Africa, west of Egypt
7.4: “silphium-rich Cyrene“: Cyrene, a town in Cyrenaica in north Africa (west of Libya). Annexed by Rome in the 70s BCE. Famous for its silphium, a plant that is now extinct (the image below is of its relative, ferula). Silphium represents the city’s material wealth (and hence Rome’s imperialistic interest in it) but also refers to the plant’s medicinal qualities. Silphium was used as an abortifacient/contraceptive by the Romans (see Riddle below).
7.6: “sepulchre of old Battus” — Battus was the founder of Cyrene, and supposedly the ancestor of the Greek poet Callimachus, whose style Catullus invokes.

Riddle 1997: 44-45: “On the basis of ancient descriptions and pictures, modern botanists identify silphium as a species of giant fennel (genus ferula), because of the shape of its leaves. The pungent sap from its stems and roots was used as cough syrup, and it gave food a richer, distinctive taste. Its true value was not as a medicine or a condiment, however. When women took silphium by mouth, they supposed that they would not get pregnant….The famous poet Catullus asks how many kisses he and Lesbia may share. Why, he answers, as many times as there are grains of sand on Cyrene’s silphium shores. That is, Catullus told his lover that they could make love for as long as they had the plant.”

Quinn 1996: 111: “The mathematics of Poem 5 drew perhaps the response from Lesbia, ‘Just how many kisses do you want?’ Catullus’ answer is, ‘no limit.’ To express the concept ‘no limit’ he has recourse to two traditional images of infinity, one (the sands of the desert) hot and exotic, the other (the stars in the sky) serene and cool. Infinity is safer too.”

Cyrene silphium.jpgCyrene was so famous for silphium that the plant became its emblem, see the right hand image of the above coin of Magas of Cyrene (c. 300-282/275 BCE). Image: wikimedia.

Left: a modern plant (ferula) related to silphium, which is now extinct. Image: Ruben0568 (CC BY-SA 4.0) via wikimedia. Right: screenshot from Assassin’s Creed: Origins (Ubisoft), tweeted by me (@opietasanimi, 18 Nov. 2017) “standing” in a silphium field in 49-47 BCE Cyrenaica.


Poem 10: I actually didn’t make that much money
[Peter Green’s notes p216]

10.1: “lounging in the Forum” — a nice setting of the scene in Rome. A casual moment. The Latin word which Green translates into English as “lounging” is otiosusthis has a very specific meaning = the kind of leisure that aristocrats have.
10.2-4: “his girlfriend…not unsmart, though, not entirely witless” — an unnamed woman. Pay close attention to how Catullus characterizes her in what follows…
10.8-9: “how were things in Bithynia, what was happening | had my posting brought me in a windfall?” Catullus had served Memmius in Bithynia (recently annexed by Rome), where he was expected to make a lot of money (as many Romans governing provinces did). According to Catullus in this poem, his superior was ungenerous with his largesse and he came back not so rich after all. But he wants to boast.
10.27: “Whoa” — Catullus, having lied about his resources, tries to get out of it. The woman, wanting to use his litter, that he lied about having, asks to borrow them so she can visit the temple of the god, Serapis (Osiris + Apis). This was a cult brought from Egypt.
10.34: “slight exaggerations” — Catullus, caught in the lie, lashes out at the unnamed woman.


Poem 15: keep your penis away from my boyfriend
[see also Peter Green’s notes p218]

15.1: “Let me commend me and my boyfriend to you“: a convention of commendatio (“recommendation”) in Roman life sets the poem up as though a formal request.
15.2-9: “keep the boy safe for meyour great whanger” — Catullus sets up the convention: please keep this boy from danger, but the danger turns out to be the recipient of the poem’s penis.
15.17-19: “my dire retaliationradishes and mullets” — if the recipient of the poem touches Catullus’ boyfriend, Catullus will have his revenge with sexual violence — rhaphanidosis.

Left: radishes. Image, wikimediaRight: a mullet. Image, wikimedia.


 Poem 58: descendants of Remus
[see also Peter Green’s notes p231]

58.1: “Caelius” — the same man whom Cicero defended against the crime of poisoning Clodia in 56 BCE.
58.4: “on backstreet corners and down alleysjacks off Remus’ generous descendants” — sex outside is an index of prostitution. The Latin word which Green translates as “jacks off” is glubit, used by Cato the Elder of stripping bark off a tree (On Agriculture 33).

Poem 85: I hate and I love
[see also Peter Green’s notes p261]

I hate and I love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?
I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.


Further reading: