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Fresco from Herculaneum, presumably showing a couple.
For persons with a cognomen "Catulus", see Lutatius
Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84 BC – ca. 54 BC) was a Roman poet of the 1st century BC. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art. Catullus invented the "angry love poem."


Catullus came from a leading equestrian family of Veronamarker, and according to St. Jerome he was born in the town. The family was prominent enough for his father to entertain Caesar, then governor of Gaul. In one of his poems Catullus describes his happy return to the family villa at Sirmio on Lake Gardamarker near Verona. The poet also owned a villa near the fashionable resort of Tibur (modern Tivolimarker); his complaints about his poverty must be taken with a pinch of salt.

The poet appears to have spent most of his years as a young adult in Romemarker. His friends there included the poets Licinius Calvus, and Helvius Cinna, Quintus Hortensius (son of the orator and rival of Cicero) and the biographer Cornelius Nepos, to whom Catullus dedicated the extant libellus which is the basis of his fame. He appears to have been acquainted with the poet Marcus Furius Bibaculus. A number of prominent contemporaries appear in his poetry, including Cicero, Caesar and Pompey. According to an anecdote preserved by Suetonius, Caesar did not deny that Catullus's lampoons left an indelible stain on his reputation, but when Catullus apologized, he invited the poet for dinner the very same day .

It was probably in Rome that Catullus fell deeply in love with the "Lesbia" of his poems, who is usually identified with Clodia Metelli, sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, a sophisticated woman from the aristocratic house of patrician Claudii Pulchri. In his poems Catullus describes several stages of their relationship: initial euphoria, doubts, separation, and his wrenching feelings of loss. Many questions must remain unanswered - most importantly, it is not clear why the couple split up - but Catullus' poems about the relationship display striking depth and psychological insight. One such poem with insight to the reasons of his parting with "Lesbia" is poem 11, which is addressed to his friends Furius and Aurelius and requests them simply to pass a farewell insult to Lesbia. [563]

He spent the provincial command year summer 57 to summer 56 BC in Bithynia on the staff of the commander C. Memmius. While in the East, he traveled to the Troad to perform rites at his brother's tomb, an event recorded in a moving poem.

There survives no ancient biography of Catullus: his life has to be pieced together from scattered references to him in other ancient authors and from his poems. Thus it is uncertain when he was born and when he died. St. Jerome says that he died in his 30th year, and was born in 87 BC. But the poems include references to events of 55 and 54 BC. Since the Roman consular fasti make it somewhat easy to confuse 87 – 57 BC with 84 – 54 BC, many scholars accept the dates 84 BC – 54 BC, supposing that his latest poems and the publication of his libellus coincided with the year of his death, a most unlikely proposition.

Catullus' poems were widely appreciated by other poets, but Cicero despised them for their supposed amorality. Catullus was never considered one of the canonical school authors. Nevertheless, he greatly influenced poets such as Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. After his rediscovery in the late Middle Ages, Catullus again found admirers. His explicit writing style has shocked many readers, both ancient and modern.


Sources and organization

Catullus' poems have been preserved in an anthology of 116 carmina (three of which are now considered spurious — 18, 19 and 20 — although the numbering has been retained), which can be divided into three formal parts: sixty short poems in varying metres, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

There is no scholarly consensus on whether or not Catullus himself arranged the order of the poems. The longer poems differ from the polymetra and the epigrams not only in length but also in their subjects: There are seven hymns and one mini-epic, or epillion, the most highly-prized form for the "new poets".

The polymetra and the epigrams can be divided into four major thematic groups (ignoring a rather large number of poems eluding such categorization):

  • poems to and about his friends (e.g., an invitation like poem 13).
  • erotic poems: some of them indicate homosexual penchants (50 and 99), but most are about women, especially about one he calls "Lesbia" (in honour of the poetess Sappho of Lesbosmarker, source and inspiration of many of his poems).
  • invectives: often rude and sometimes downright obscene poems targeted at friends-turned-traitors (e.g., poem 30), other lovers of Lesbia, well known poets, politicians (e.g., Julius Caesar) and rhetors, including Cicero.
  • condolences: some poems of Catullus are solemn in nature. 96 comforts a friend in the death of a loved one; several others, most famously 101, lament the death of his brother.

All these poems describe the Epicurean lifestyle of Catullus and his friends, who, despite Catullus' temporary political post in Bithynia, lived their lives withdrawn from politics. They were interested mainly in poetry and love. Above all other qualities, Catullus seems to have sought venustas, or charm, in his acquaintances, a theme which he explores in a number of his poems. The ancient Roman concept of virtus (i.e. of virtue that had to be proved by a political or military career), which Cicero suggested as the solution to the societal problems of the late Republic, meant little to them.

But it is not the traditional notions Catullus rejects, merely their monopolized application to the vita activa of politics and war. Indeed, he tries to reinvent these notions from a personal point of view and to introduce them into human relationships. For example, he applies the word fides, which traditionally meant faithfulness towards one's political allies, to his relationship with Lesbia and reinterprets it as unconditional faithfulness in love. So, despite seeming frivolity of his lifestyle, Catullus measured himself and his friends by quite ambitious standards.

Intellectual influences

Catullus' poetry was influenced by the innovative poetry of the Hellenistic Age, and especially by Callimachus and the Alexandrian school, which had propagated a new style of poetry that deliberately turned away from the classical epic poetry in the tradition of Homer. Cicero called these local innovators neoteroi (νεώτεροι) or 'moderns' (in Latin novi poetae or 'new poets'), in that they cast off the heroic model handed down from Ennius in order to strike new ground and ring a contemporary note. Catullus and Callimachus did not describe the feats of ancient heroes and gods (except perhaps in re-evaluating and predominantly artistic circumstances, e.g. poems 63 and 64), focusing instead on small-scale personal themes. Although these poems sometimes seem quite superficial and their subjects often are mere everyday concerns, they are accomplished works of art. Catullus described his work as expolitum, or polished, to show that the language he used was very carefully and artistically composed.

Catullus was also an admirer of Sappho, a female poet of the 7th century BC, and is the source for much of what we know or infer about her. Catullus 51 follows Sappho 31 so closely, that some believe the later poem to be, in part, a direct translation of the earlier poem, and 61 and 62 are certainly inspired by and perhaps translated directly from lost works of Sappho. Both of the latter are epithalamia, a form of laudatory or erotic wedding-poetry that Sappho had been famous for but that had gone out of fashion in the intervening centuries. Catullus sometimes used a meter that Sappho developed, called the Sapphic strophe. In fact, Catullus may have brought about a substantial revival of that form in Rome.


Catullus wrote in many different meters including hendecasyllabic and elegiac couplets (common in love poetry). All of his poetry shows strong and occasionally wild emotions especially in regard to Lesbia. He also demonstrates a great sense of humour such as in Catullus 13.

Many of the literary techniques he used are still common today, including hyperbaton: “plenus saculus est aranearum” (Catullus 13), which translates as “[my] purse is all full – of cobwebs.” He also uses litotes e.g. “Salve, nec minimo puella naso nec bello pede nec…” (Catullus 43) (“hello, girl with a not so small nose and a not so pretty foot and...”) as well as tricolon and alliteration. He is also very fond of diminutives such as in Catullus 50: “Hestero, Licini, die otiose/multum lusimus in meis tabellis” – “Yesterday, Licinius, was a day of leisure/ playing many games in my little notebooks”.

Catullus in modern high and popular culture

  • Catullus's character Aufilena has been used to denote an archetypal gold-digger .

  • Icelandic musician and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's 2002 album Englabörn ( track listing) includes the track "Odi Et Amo", setting Catullus's Poem 85 to music.

  • The new musical TULLY (In No Particular Order), which appeared in the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival, loosely adapts the poems of Catullus while retaining the non-linear structure of the published edition, exploring his relationships with both Clodia and Juventius, renamed Julie, and the timeless nature of memory and love.

  • The 20th-century English poet Louis MacNeice references Catullus in his poem "Epitaph for Liberal Poets," where he mentions Catullus as amongst the first liberal poets - "Catullus/ went down young," mentioning him in the context of the death of the individual and recognising his and the universal plight.

  • Archibald MacLeish wrote a poem entitled "You Also, Gaius Valerius Catullus," where he addresses the poet.

  • Catullus is discussed in John Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) as being one of the foremost poets of love, sexuality and desire.

  • The 16th-century Spanish poet Cristóbal de Castillejo plagiarized Catullus in his well-known work "Dame amor, besos sin cuento" (Seen side-by-side in [564]).

See also


Further reading

  • Munro, H A J: Criticisms and Elucidations of Catullus (London, 1878)
  • Ellis, R: A Commentary on Catullus, 2nd edition (Oxford, 1889)
  • Wilamowitz-Möllendorf, Ulrich von: Sappho und Simonides (Berlin, 1913)
  • Rothstein, Max: "Catull und Lesbia", Philologus 78 (1923), 1-34
(first statement of the Lesbia = Clodia Luculli thesis)
  • Kroll, W: Catull (Stuttgart, 1929)
  • Wheeler, A L: Catullus and the Traditions of Ancient Poetry (Sather Classical Lectures, vol.9, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1934)
  • Havelock, E A: The Lyric Genius of Catullus (Oxford, 1939)
  • Maas, Paul: "The Chronology of the Poems of Catullus", Classical Quarterly 36 (1942), 79-82
(restatement and refinement of the Rothstein Clodia Luculli thesis)
  • Ferrero, L: Interpretazione di Catullo (Turin, 1955)
  • Barwick, K: "Zyklen bei Martial und in den kleinen Gedichten des Catull", Philologus 102 (1958),284-318
  • Quinn, Kenneth: The Catullan Revolution (Melbourne, 1959)
  • Dorey, T A: "The Aurelii and the Furii", PACA 2 (1959), 9-10
  • Fordyce, C J: Catullus, A Commentary (Oxford, 1961)
  • Harrington, Karl Pomeroy: Catullus and his influence (New York, Cooper Square Publishers, 1963)
  • Ferguson, J:
- "Catullus and Martial", PACA 6 (1963), 3-15

- Catullus (G&R New Surveys in The Classics No.20, Oxford, 1988)
  • Fletcher, G B A:
- "Catulliana", Latomus 26 (1967), 104-6

- "Further Catulliana", Latomus 50 (1991), 92-3
  • Wiseman, T Peter:
- Catullan Questions (Leicester University Press, 1969)

- Cinna the Poet and other Roman Essays (Leicester University Press, 1974) ISBN 0-7185-1120-4

- Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal (Cambridge University Press, 1987)
  • Kidd, D A: "Some Problems in Catullus lxvi", Antichthon 4 (1970), 38-49
  • Duhigg, J: "The Elegiac Metre of Catullus", Antichthon 5 (1971), 57-67
  • Barrett, A A: "Catullus 52 and the Consulship of Vatinius", TAPA 103 (1972), 23-38
  • Townend, G B:
- "A Further Point in Catullus' attack on Volusius", G&R n.s.27 (1980), 134-36

- "The Unstated Climax of Catullus 64", G&R n.s.30 (1983), 21-30
  • Coleman, K M: "The persona of Catullus' Phaselus", G&R n.s.28 (1981), 68-72
  • Tuplin, C J: "Catullus 68" Classical Quarterly n.s. 31 (1981), 113-139
  • Newman, J K: Roman Catullus and the Modification of the Alexandrian Sensibility (Hildesheim, 1990)
  • Gaisser, Julia Haig: Catullus And His Renaissance Readers (Oxford, 1993)
  • Swann, Bruce W: Martial's Catullus. The Reception of an Epigrammatic Rival (Hildesheim, 1994)
  • Fitzgerald, W: Catullan Provocations; Lyric Poetry and the Drama of Position (Berkeley, 1995)
  • Thomson, Douglas Ferguson Scott: Catullus: edited with a Textual and Interpretative Commentary (Phoenix Supplementary volume 34, University of Toronto Press, 1997) ISBN 0-8020-0676-0
  • Dettmer, Helena: Love by the Numbers: Form and the Meaning in the poetry of Catullus (Peter Lang Publishing, 1997)
  • Balme, M and Morewood, J: Oxford Latin Reader (Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • Watson, Lindsay C: "Bassa's Borborysms: on Martial and Catullus", Antichthon 37 (2003), 1-12
  • Kokoszkiewicz, Konrad W: "Et futura panda sive de Catulli carmine sexto corrigendo", Hermes 32 (2004), 125-28
  • Johnson, Marguerite (ed.): Antichthon 40 (2006), Thematic Issue: Catullus in Contemporary Perspective
- Johnson, M: Introduction (i-v)

- Deuling, Judy: "Catullus 17 and 67, and the Catullan Construct", (1-9)

(discusses Dettmer thesis in relation to one pairing, 17 and 67)

- Tesoriero, Charles: "Hidden Kisses in Catullus: Poems 5, 6, 7 and 8", (10-18)

- Uden, James: "Embracing the Young Man in Love: Catullus 75 and the Comic Adulescens", (19-34)

- Watson, Lindsay C: "Catullus and the Poetics of Incest", (35-48)

- Greene, Ellen: "Catullus, Caesar and the Roman Masculine Identity", (49-64)

- Hallett, Judith: "Catullus and Horace on Roman Women Poets", (65-88)

- Clarke, Jacqueline: "Bridal Songs: Catullan Epithalamia and Prudentius Peristephanon 3", (89-103)

- Jackson, Anna: "Catullus in the Playground", (104-116)

External links

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