Catullus: A Guide to Selected Sources
Correlate the sources mentioned in the guide to those listed in the margin using the mouse.
Gaius Valerius Catullus (‘Catullus’) was a Roman poet of the first century BC. His works have come down to us in a single collection of around a hundred poems, which has probably been drawn together from at least three separate books (Minyard 1988). The most striking feature of this collection is the variety of verse forms, subject matter, and tones represented: Catullus’ poems range from pointed two-line epigrams and obscene invective, through emotionally intense lyric soliloquies, to Alexandrian-style epyllia (‘miniature epics’) running to hundreds of lines. Catullus is the only largely extant representative of an avant-garde school of poetry known as the ‘neoterics’ (‘poets in the new style’) Cic. Att. 7.2.1. They rejected bombastic diction and epic subjects in favour of a Hellenistic-inspired appreciation of well-turned phrases, subjective emotion, and learned allusions (Quinn 1959; Lyne 1978).
The neoterics, Catullus foremost among them, had a profound influence on later literature. The nature of Catullus’ influence has varied widely from period to period, as each generation has seen its own tastes reflected in a different aspect of his multifarious corpus. These shifting perspectives on Catullus’ works have in turn influenced conceptions of his life and character. Readers and critics, ancient and modern, have tended to conflate Catullus the first-person poetic speaker with Catullus the real-life poet, reconstructing the incidents of his life and his personality around the content and tone of his poems. Given that Catullus’ own statement, in an aggressive response to critics of his amatory poems Catull. Carm. 16, that ‘it is right for an inspired poet to be chaste, but his verses need not be so’ has been among the most imitated passages of his corpus (Winter 1973: 258-9; cf. Ovid, Tristia 2.353-4, Pliny, Letter 4.14, Apuleius, Apology 11.3), it is ironic that the tendency towards ‘biographical’ interpretation has been even stronger in his case than in that of other ancient poets. It is, however, not surprising: such interpretation is practically encouraged by the ostensibly ‘sincere’ and personal nature of much of his poetry, combined with the fact that few details of his life have come down to us from other sources.
No ancient biography of Catullus survives. Jerome provides only birth and death dates, 87-58 BC Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 173.2 Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 180.3, which must be inaccurate, as Catullus makes reference to events dateable to after 58 BC. Beyond this, we have only isolated anecdotes, such as Suetonius’ claim Suet. Iul. 73 that Julius Caesar once took umbrage at political invective aimed at him by Catullus, and had to be placated by the poet’s father. Most other biographical details have evidently been extrapolated from Catullus’ works; this may include even allusions to Verona as his birthplace Ov. Am. 3.15.7 Mart. Ep. 1.61.1 Mart. Ep. 14.100 Mart. Ep. 14.152 Mart. Ep. 14.195, since Catullus refers to it as such himself Catull. Carm. 35.1-3 Catull. Carm. 67.34 Catull. Carm. 68.27-8. The most tantalising scrap of information, though, which has fuelled the most speculation, is Apuleius’ assertion Apul. Apol. 10 that the real woman behind Lesbia, the fictionalised mistress to whom Catullus addresses most of his love poems, was named Clodia. This irresistibly suggests Clodia Metelli, the sister of Clodius Pulcer and the object of Cicero’s rhetoric in his speech In Defence of Marcus Caelius, since his unflattering picture of Clodia chimes with Catullus’ caricatures of Lesbia’s worst excesses. The association between the two is strengthened by an apparent pun on Clodius’ name in one of Catullus’ poems Catull. Carm. 79, which begins Lesbius est pulcer (‘Lesbius is a pretty-boy’ / ‘Lesbius is Pulcer’) and hints at incest between Lesbia and her brother (cf. similar implications at Cicero, In Defence of Marcus Caelius 13). The identification of Lesbia with Clodia Metelli has been questioned by some scholars (Wiseman 1974, Hillard 1981; contra, see Skinner 2011: 131-44), and remains a matter for debate. It has, however, been taken as a given throughout most of history, so that Cicero’s devastating portrait of Clodia and Catullus’ account of his relationship with Lesbia have been knit together into a single story. Thornton Wilder’s depiction in his novel The Ides of March of a real-life relationship between Catullus and Clodia as the model for his relationship with Lesbia is one prominent fictionalised example.
Only a fraction of Catullus’ poems treat his relationship with Lesbia, but these have had disproportionate weight in later views of his life and works, in part because they represent one of his most influential poetic choices. Propertius and Ovid each mention Catullus by name Prop. El. 2.25.3-4 Prop. El. 2.34.87-8 Ov. Tr. 2.427-30, citing his love poetry as an important precedent for theirs; his innovative approach, of charting the ups and downs of his speaker’s difficult relationship with and inescapable love for one mistress, laid the foundation for love elegy as a genre, and thus for much Western love poetry since (Lyne 1978: 176-80; DeMaria and Brown 2007: 329-30). This influence is reflected in the title of Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, which refers in part to Catullus’ ‘invention’ of the love poem as we know it, and thus of the modern conception of love itself.
Catullus’ formative role in the development of love poetry, though, was for centuries destined to be an indirect one, carried forward only via the later poets he had influenced. Catullus’ own works had waned in popularity by the end of the second century AD, and soon disappeared almost without trace. Martial, a prolific epigrammatist of the first century AD, in citing Catullus as a model, had depicted him as a writer of cleverly crafted epigrams, rather than as a subjective love poet; it is possible that this view, which misrepresented the scope of his works, contributed to their decline (Gaisser 1993: 7-15; Swann 1994: 32-81; Lorenz 2007). Catullus’ corpus was not rediscovered until the late fourteenth century; unlike Virgil, Horace, or Ovid, then, whose presence loomed large in medieval literature, Catullus ‘landed in the Renaissance virtually out of nowhere . . . with no baggage of late antique or medieval imitation, interpretation, or scholarship’ (Gaisser 2007: 441). Due to the popularity of epigram as a genre in the Italian Renaissance, and to the prominence of Martial as the acknowledged master of that genre, it was his image of Catullus as a wry epigrammatist that was to dominate for the first two hundred years after the rediscovery of his works (Gaisser 1993, 2007; Swann 1994).
But, as literary fashions changed, so did the focus of each era’s appreciation of Catullus. As subjective love poetry became fashionable again, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that aspect of Catullus’ works came to the fore, and he began to be translated and imitated in that vein. This resurgence of Catullus as love poet formed the basis for the image of him that crystallised in the nineteenth century, and that has dominated literary and scholarly conceptions of him ever since. Poets of the Romantic period and, later, of the Modernist movement, identified with Catullus’ combination of self-conscious artistry with intense and ‘genuine’ feeling, and used him as a symbol of passion, fierce individuality, and emotional truth. Coleridge, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and others have translated or adapted his works and acknowledged his influence (Arkins 2007). Swinburne, for example, in his To Catullus, feels such kinship with the ancient poet that he hails and laments him as a ‘brother’, echoing Catullus’ own epitaph for his dead brother (101). W. B. Yeats, in his The Scholars, reflects sarcastically on the contrast between the Classical scholars who ‘shuffle’ and ‘cough in ink’, and ‘their Catullus’, one of the ‘young men, tossing on their beds’ whose feverish love poems they annotate. Perhaps most strikingly, Louis MacNeice, in his Epitaph for Liberal Poets, depicts Catullus as the type of the free-thinker quashed by convention, lamenting that
The Individual has died before; Catullus
Went down young, gave place to those who were born old
And more adaptable and were not even jealous
Of his wild life and lyrics.
In short, each generation of scholars and artists has seen something of itself in Catullus, or at least in the picture of himself that he presents in and through his works. Given the endlessly multifaceted nature of that picture, it is likely that the currently dominant picture will not remain dominant forever, and that Catullus will continue to produce new and different reflections for as long as his works are read and reinterpreted by new audiences.
- Arkins, B. 2007. ‘The Modern Reception of Catullus.’ In M. B. Skinner (ed.): 461-78.
- DeMaria, R. Jr. and Brown, R. D. (eds.) 2007. Classical Literature and Its Reception. Oxford.
- Gaisser, J. H. 1993. Catullus and his Renaissance Readers. Oxford.
- 2007. ‘Catullus in the Renaissance.’ In M. B. Skinner (ed.): 439-60.
- Hillard, T. W. 1981. ‘In triclinio Coam, in cubiculo Nolam: Lesbia and the Other Clodia.’ LCM 6.6: 149-54.
- Lorenz, S. 2007. ‘Catullus and Martial.’ In M. B. Skinner (ed.): 418-38.
- Lyne, R. O. A. M. 1978. ‘The Neoteric Poets.’ CQ 28.1: 167-87.
- Minyard, J. D. 1988. ‘The Source of the Catulli Veronensis Liber.’ CW 81.5: 343-53.
- Quinn, K. 1959. The Catullan Revolution. Melbourne.
- Skinner, M. B. (ed.) 2007. A Companion to Catullus. Oxford.
- 2011. Clodia Metelli: The Tribune’s Sister. Oxford.
- Swann, B. W. 1994. Martial’s Catullus: The Reception of an Epigrammatic Rival. Hildesheim.
- Winter, T. N. 1973. ‘Catullus Purified: A Brief History of Carmen 16.’ Arethusa 6: 257-65.
- Wiseman, T. P. 1974. Cinna the Poet and Other Roman Essays. London.