Gaius Valerius Catullus was Roman poet that lived in the 1st century BC. His works are still popular among the readers due to their liberalism and in-depth perception of love. Catullus was also famous for his “angry love poem”. Catullus creative but short life (84-54 BC) was devoted to the ribald, romantic and lyric or even satirical poetry. His poems were also dedicated to his friends where he disclosed his fidelity and affection. Catullus spent most of life in the high Roman society so that the poet was in acquaintance with Caesar and Cicero. A great deal of poetical works relates to Lesbia, a woman he was in love. Lesbia, often indentified with Clodia Metelli, a fatal woman that poisoned his husband. This figure became one of the main subjects of his poetry. Catullus life was revealed through his poetry. It is little known about his family except he had a brother that died. He describes Rome as his home, although he traveled much. Anyway, his poetical works were rather sincere and captivating due to the fact that his poems were a mere reflection of his life.
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All his poetry was about love and death and presented the Epicurean lifestyle of Catullus. He tried to live beyond politics, irrespective a temporary political post he held In Bithynia. His innovative and original poetry shocked people’s traditional outlook on literature. As his poetical works reflected his life, they also reflected the four loves of his life: Lesbia, his brother, his friends, and his poetry.
Catullus often highlighted the theme of love in his poetry. In his love poetry, Catullus was extremely tender and serious. The emotions revealed in his poems are rather true too life so that there observed no exaggeration. He always lyrically conveys the ideas of the verse where emotions exclusively dominated. Catullus was confident that a real Latin men that was capable to make love. His lyrics were deprived of some excessiveness; instead, it is frivolous and extravagant. Therefore, his love verses were a kind of protest against smooth and conventional way of expression of feelings. Hence, the poet could be referred as to the founder of the new genre in poetry. Like other poems, his lyrics were sophisticated as the Catullus emotions were also hard to perceive. Catullus generated love in all his verses, no matter whether they focused on topic of family or state. Hence, the main emphasis was made on the emotional charge and extreme sentimentality of Catullus (McKendrick 205). Catullus’s emotional power and precise form of expression of the ideas as well as allusive style and radical approach made his creative work rather distinguishing. In particular, such a mood inspired him to write the love poetry so that his it was a part of his character. The poems of love were often reduced to love for a man but most of them are devoted to women, especially to the one he called “Lesbia”. Catullus disclosed his love through suffering and separation. This theme was also expressed by hatred. The love poems were both long and short and in form of epigrams. Hence, in epigram 5 and 6 Catullus depicts the relationships of Goddess Diana and Endymion when she visited him in the dark time (Catullus et al 1998 171). In his poems, Catullus often mentioned Manlius as his friend for whom he felt either affection or a friendly love. The poems showed that Catullus had some problems in love life, probably because of his brother’s death. Anyways, the raised questions are still on hand among the researchers (Catillus et al 1998, 173).
Especial consideration requires his poems devoted to Sappho from the island Lesbia. His poems 5, Lesbia’s Kisses Catullus revealed his passionate love for Lesbia with whom he was extremely obsessed. The poem is overwhelmed with danger and pain. Each line depicts the poet’s sufferings:
The sunset’s dying ray
Has its returning,
But fires of out of brief day
Shall end and their burning
In night where joy and pain
Are past recalling –
So kiss me, kiss again-
The night is falling (MacKendrick 206).
Through these lines, the author expressed his unique vision of female-male relationships. In particular, in the rest of verses, “love” words were always accompanied by the poet’s sufferings and “aching words”. Such combinations imply that Catullus had difficult relations with Lesbia. At the same time, the poet rendered his tender love thus comparing her beloved with “bird”. The Catullus “kissing” poems were sometimes misread by the people as they were not able to understand Catullus tortures. In that regard, his invective epigrams were the protest to cynicism and hypocrisy existed in the wealthy circles (Wiseman 122). Therefore, his love poetry was also devoted to a bitter sarcasm and irony.
In his poetry devoted to Clodia, or Lesbia, the Roman poet also expressed the topic of death as the only way to stop his tortures. Thus, his asks the question, “Must prettiness still feel death’s fatal sting?” The author identified passion and death, joy and pain, love and hate. Thus, comparisons conveyed the complexity of his life as well as relations with women. There are some assumptions that Lesbia was not a real figure in his life but imaginary. In other words, this character did not faithfully present the historical figure since there were no evidences to that (Catullus et al 1998 XX). On the other hand, Lesbia’s identification with Clodia Metelli was rather obvious due to some common features existed in both characters (Bender et al VIII). In that regard, Cluadia, who ten years older than Catullus, was the only inspiration for him. Catullus was inspired by the fact that his love to Claudia was unanswered; otherwise, the world would not finest the finest collection of poems devoted to this woman.
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The love poetry also revealed the hues of eroticism. His obsession with Lesbia was evident as the poems dedicated to that woman were saturate with passionate epithets and comparisons. Being the outright admirer of Sappho, he desperately strived to render the whole purity of his felling through confession and death.
In his poetical works, Catullus often portrayed himself as the poor although he was born to a wealth and noble family. Catullus came from the influential family and had connection to high society in Rome. His poetry was a means to create the desirable social status thus representing the generation of poets with independent social and economical position. This protest was caused by the disappointment with the political ideas and government. That generation of poets preferred to escape from the privileges granted by a respectable society. Instead, they reduce to social extremes and even to asceticism. The borrowing the miserable life was a kind of challenge for him that awoke curiosity of the surroundings. As Catullus was a man of poetry, he despised those people who consider literature as the method of gaining the materials benefits. Due to his rich origin, he felt no necessity in earning money by means of pen. Therefore, in his poems, he felt no necessity to mention his social status (Wiseman 126). For the poet, the poem was the only way to create his own social world thus eliminating the importance of material values. The depiction of false poverty also means the moral bankruptcy. He was confident that a love poet should a poor one as it is not typical to suffer for a wealthy lover. He considered it absurd to render the pain of love of a poet from the high society because “The dutiful poet has to be clean himself, his verses don’t at all; And it’s then and only then, if there nice and soft, A little indecent” (Wiseman 122). The radicalism and new outlook on the social world dictated the emergence of innovated poetical works. He despised the cynicism of the high circles and tried to avoid them.
Catullus’ respectable economic and social status allowed him to make a successful political career but, fortunately, he had little interest in that. Therefore, the poet could afford to write about such outstanding people as Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus (Callutus et al 1998 XVII). As Catullus family was closer to Caesar a great number of poetical words were dedicated to Caesar. As Catullus was against the political system and ideas that were manifested by Roman government, Catullus wrote invectives where he condemn Caesar for his unjust policy against the society. For instance, in poem 29, the poet transfers his accusation from men who control Rome, including Julius Caesar:
Who can see it, who can endure it ,
Unless a shameless, greedy gambler,
That Mamurra owns the wealth that once belonged to long-haired Gaul
And Britain at the end of the world? (Dillon et al 615).
The Roman governor realized the danger of poem 29 and 57 that could spoil his reputation completely (Wiseman 133). Catullus called for the Roman to be brave enough to protect Rome. He despises the weakness of his peoples to resist the Britain invasion:
You shameless, greedy gambler?
Surely this isn’t why, O egregious one,
You went to the furthest island in the west,
So this worn-out prick owned by you two
Could squander two or three hundred timers its worth (Dillon 615).
Hence, Catullus resented Caesar’s personal attitude and did not share his opinion concerning the governing the Roman Empire. His attacks on Julius Caesar were also politically based. Such assaulting poetry referred to a powerful tradition of poetical slandering. For Catullus, who was free from political influence, Caesar one of only one of the beneficial companions of Mamurra. Even the apology dinner did not have a necessary impact on the adversary relations between the military leader and the poet. In his turn, Caesar complained that Catullus’s lampoons greatly inflicted his reputation. After their dinner, Catullus made some amends to his poem that in translation sounds as follows: “or whether he [Catullus] shall traverse the lofty Alps to view great Caesar’s monuments, the Gallic Rhine, the rough strait, the utmost Britons.. ” (Kenney 179).
Poem 57 is also an offending lampoon against Caesar, where Catullus blames the Roman governor for his friendship with Mamurra, the possessor of Spain and Roman:
It’s well and good for the wicked buggers,
Mamurra and Caesar- they suck.
No wonder: they both have the same defect,
One got in Rome and the other in Formiae (Jones 52).
In general, the offensive poems that criticized the politicians and the government were typical for that time due to the manifestation of democracy. Owing to the fact that Valerius Catullus was from the wealthy family, he felt free to express his thoughts and ideas. Catullus indifferent attitude to politics gave him more space in expressing his thoughts and lampoon against the political system. The freedom of speech and democratic stream let more possibility for the development of poetry.
In conclusion, Catullus poems deal with love and hate, with insertions of self-sacrifice and devotedness to his creative work. The poetical work of this author, opened the new era in the poetry of ancient Rome. The poet was also the inventor of the new style. Hence, his short poems manifest his great skillfulness in lyrics; his long poems, Catullus managed to render the romantic themes and legends; in his epigrams, he brilliantly unmasked the politicians and the Roman government. In addition, the poet founded the new group of poets who did not depend on their social status in society. Catullus despised those poets who used poetry as a means to earn money, as he was confident that poetry should serve for a moral satisfaction. Catullus origin did hamper his revolutionary vision of the essence of life. His love for poetry was more important for him than love for his social status.
Bender, Henry V, Catullus Gaius Valerius, Forsyth Phyllis Young. Catullus US: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2005.
Catullus, Gaius Valerius and Whigham, Peter. Poems of Catullus. US: Penguin Classics, 1966.
Catullus, Gaius Valerius and Lee, Guy. Poems of Catullus. NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Dillon, Matthew and Garland, Lynda. Ancient Rome: from the early Republic to the assassination of Julius Caesar. US: Taylor & Fransis.
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Jones, Prudence J. Cleopatra: a source book. US: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
Kenny, E. J. Latin Literature UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
MacKendrick, Paul Lachlan. Classics in Translation. US: Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1952.
Wiseman, T. P. Catullus and his world: a reappraisal. London: Cambridge University Press, 1987.