Roman Poet Catullus Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Catullus epitomized an innovative cultural movement in Rome that forsook traditional literary forms for livelier, intensely personal poetry, a movement that was politically at odds with traditionalist patricians.

Summary of Event

Little is known with certainty about the life of Catullus. He was born c. 84 b.c.e. (possibly 87 b.c.e.) into a wealthy family of Verona having the rank of eques (knight). From 57 to 56 b.c.e., he served in the retinue of the governor of Bithynia (now part of northern Turkey), where he visited the grave of his brother. Although he complains in his poetry about his poverty, he apparently was well enough off to own a yacht and a lakeside villa near Sirmio (Sirmione in northern Italy). Catullus probably died in 54 b.c.e. Catullus Clodia Cicero Caesar, Julius

Well-educated in Verona, Catullus apparently moved to Rome to continue his studies before the age of twenty and thereafter regarded it as his home. He made the acquaintance of leading literary and political figures and became involved in a loosely knit group of poets who constellated around the patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. 92-52 b.c.e.) and his sister Clodia. Although trained in traditional Roman literary forms, these poets borrowed from Greek lyric poets, such as Callimachus (c. 305-c. 240 b.c.e.) and Sappho (c. 630-c. 580 b.c.e.), to introduce a greater variety of rhythms into Latin verse. In their poems, often written as if they were letters to each other, they sometimes treated lofty philosophical and mythical themes but more often wrote about their own immediate affairs. They wrote love poetry, scurrilous lampoons of enemies, elegies, wedding hymns, and narratives. Word play, topical and literary allusions, and elegant turns of phrase characterized the style. Whether their diction was colloquial, even obscene, or formal, the guiding principle was its aptness and force; the phrasing was rhetorically calculated for balance and emphasis, qualities reinforced by the assonance of the words and the rhythm.

Cicero referred to this group, somewhat dismissively, as “the new poets,” and so they have become known to posterity (sometimes referred to as the neoterics). Catullus gained fame in his lifetime as one of them, and he is the only who remains widely read. In fact, he is held to be among the greatest lyric poets of antiquity.

Clodia and Catullus became lovers. She figures most often of all his contemporaries in his surviving 113 poems, in which he refers to her as Lesbia. She apparently had other lovers at the same time, and her fickleness tormented him. His poems range in tone from playful, delicate love poems to enraged denunciations of her faithlessness and despair at his helpless passion for her. However, more was involved than frustrated love. Clodia and her brother were central figures in a political faction that wanted to loosen some of the traditional patrician prerogatives of the Roman Republic. Bitterly opposed to this faction were such commanding figures as Cicero and Julius Caesar, the latter of whom was then nearing the height of his political power. During a trial instigated by Clodia against a friend of his, Cicero went out of his way to blacken her character by implying that she was guilty of abundant promiscuity, even incest.

Whatever his political convictions, Catullus wrote poems belittling the traditionalists, sometimes accusing them of outrageous sexual misbehavior and sometimes making fun of them as stupid or pompous, as is the case in a poem addressing Cicero. Romans placed great value on poetry as a cultural force. Invective and satirical verse were particularly popular (even some later emperors wrote such) and could have damaging effects on the person attacked. One of Catullus’s targets was Caesar, who felt his prestige endangered by Catullus’s poems. Catullus’s father was friendly toward Caesar, on one occasion acting as his host, and perhaps for that reason Caesar sought to make friends with Catullus. They reconciled not long before the poet’s death. However, Catullus had made other enemies with his “fierce iambs” who did not forgive him. How Catullus died is unknown, but he belonged to a time of vigorous intrigue when some of his own friends died at the hands of political enemies, and he himself could have been the victim of revenge.

Significance

Catullus’s poetry exerted an immediate, powerful influence on Roman literature. The generation that succeeded his included some of Rome’s greatest poets, such as Vergil (70-19 b.c.e.), Propertius (54/47-16 b.c.e.), Horace (65-8 b.c.e.), and Ovid (43 b.c.e.-17 c.e.), and each of them imitated Catullus’s style. In fact, judging from the number of times he quotes him, Catullus was Vergil’s favorite Latin poet.

Catullus is also mentioned by Roman historians and commentators, such as Suetonius (70-after 122 c.e.), Apuleius (c. 125-after 170 c.e.), and Saint Jerome (331/347-c. 420 c.e.). However, in late Imperial Rome, he had apparently ceased to be popular among the literati. His was very seldom mentioned after the beginning of the second century. One poem appears in a ninth century anthology, but Catullus is otherwise only an obscure name in classical literature until the early Renaissance. About 1290, a manuscript, whose origin is unknown, was found in a wine cask. It was subsequently lost again, but not before two copies were made that are the source of all modern texts. The manuscript apparently combined three separate collections of Catullus’s poems, which are collectively known as the Carmina Catulli (The Adventures of Catullus, and the History of His Amours with Lesbia, 1707).

The poet Catullus recites his works before a group of listeners.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The influence of the rediscovered poems was swift and lasting, even though some poems were left out of editions and translations because of their sexual content. Petrarch (1304-1374) read them and clearly borrowed from Catullus. Specifically, as Catullus spoke to his literary lover, Lesbia, in a series of poems, so did Petrarch in addressing sonnets to Laura, although she is an idealized figure. Likewise, the dark lady of the Sonnets (1609) of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) belongs to this same literary tradition of serial love poems. The same may be said of works by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), Thomas Campion (1567-1620), John Donne (1572-1631), Edmund Waller (1606-1687), and many other European poets, for along with Sappho, Catullus was the most imitated love poet from classical literature.

The style of Catullus’s epistolary poems also found early imitators, particularly in Ben Jonson (1573-1637). A proponent of the “plain style,” Jonson used ordinary diction, rather than elevated literary language, in addressing short, often nakedly emotional poems to family and friends. As was true of Catullus, Jonson’s wording may sound conversational, even vulgar, yet it appears in verse that is carefully contrived to carry home the complex emotional overtone of the message. For both Catullus and Jonson, such techniques as word play, parallelism, metaphor, innuendo, and natural symbolism are artistic representations of personal self-searching that arises directly from experience. The plain style stands in sharp contrast to that of the heroic, philosophical, or religious poetry that treated overarching communal themes, such as war, the relation of humankind to God, or social problems.

Catullus continued to inspire writers through the twentieth century, not only as a love poet but also in his use of the epistolary poem and, especially, plainspoken diction. Poets who represented a wide variety of stylistic schools paid homage to him directly, such as the free verse poet Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978) and the dramatic poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982). However, those proponents of the plain style who also wrote in traditional verse forms imitated Catullus most overtly, particularly J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Catullus. The Complete Poetry of Catullus. Edited and translated by David Mulroy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. A translation of Catullus’s poems with invaluable commentary and a concise, readable introduction concerning the poet’s life, textual problems, and basic Latin prosody. Short bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ferguson, John. Catullus. New York: Clarendon Press, 1988. A booklet discussing the overarching themes in Catullus’s poetry and twentieth century scholarly criticism. Bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Fitzgerald, William. Catullan Provocations: Lyric Poetry and the Drama of Position. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Examines Catullus’s poetry within its cultural context and assesses its prestige among modern writers. Bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Janan, Michael. “When the Lamp Is Shattered”: Desire and Narrative in Catullus. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Argues that in his poems about Lesbia, Catullus is examining gender roles in his society. Bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Jaro, Benita Kane. The Key. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1988. A novel. Not to be taken as factual, although based loosely upon the facts, this fictional treatment is a vividly entertaining conjecture about Catullus and the intellectual and political milieu of ancient Rome.
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    xlink:type="simple">Petrini, Mark. The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Arguing that Catullus was Vergil’s favorite writer, Petrini traces Vergil’s use of Catullan themes, a study that elucidates Roman literary styles. Bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Wiseman, T. P. Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Following chapters sketching the lives of Marcus Caelus Rufus, Catullus’s rival, and Clodia, Wiseman combs Catullus’s verse for biographical and cultural information. Bibliography.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Julius Caesar; Callimachus; Catullus; Cicero; Clodia; Saint Jerome; Ovid; Propertius; Sappho; Vergil. Catullus

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