- Not to be confused with Romans named "Catulus", see Catulus.
Gaius Valerius Catullus (//; c. 84 – 54 BC) was a Latin poet of the late Roman Republic who wrote in the neoteric style of poetry. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art.
Catullus's poems were widely appreciated by other poets. 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. Indeed, Catullus was never considered one of the canonical school authors, although his body of work is still frequently read from secondary school to graduate programs across the world.
Gaius Valerius Catullus was born to a leading equestrian family of Verona, in Cisalpine Gaul. The social prominence of the Catullus family allowed the father of Gaius Valerius to entertain Julius Caesar when he was the Promagistrate (proconsul) of both Gallic provinces. In a poem, Catullus describes his happy homecoming to the family villa at Sirmio, on Lake Garda, near Verona; he also owned a villa near the resort of Tibur (Tivoli).
Catullus appears to have spent most of his young adult years in Rome. 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 a libellus of poems, the relation of which to the extant collection remains a matter of debate. 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, a sophisticated woman from the aristocratic house of patrician family Claudii Pulchri, sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, and wife to proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. In his poems Catullus describes several stages of their relationship: initial euphoria, doubts, separation, and his wrenching feelings of loss. Clodia was a woman with a ravenous sexual appetite; “From the poems one can adduce no less than five lovers in addition to Catullus: Egnatius (poem 37), Gellius (poem 91), Quintius (poem 82), Rufus (poem 77), and Lesbius (poem 79).” There is also some question surrounding her husband’s mysterious death in 59 B.C., some critics believing he was domestically poisoned. Yet, a sensitive and passionate Catullus could not relinquish his flame for Clodia, regardless of her obvious indifference to his desire for a deep and permanent relationship. In his poems, Catullus wavers between devout, sweltering love and bitter, scornful insults that he directs at her blatant infidelity (as demonstrated in poems 11 and 58). His passion for her is unrelenting— yet it is unclear when exactly the couple split up for good. Catullus's poems about the relationship display striking depth and psychological insight.
He spent the provincial command year summer 57 to summer 56 BC in Bithynia on the staff of the commander Gaius 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. Other authors suggest 52 or 51 BC as the year of the poet's death. Though upon his elder brother's death Catullus lamented that their “whole house was buried along” with the deceased, the existence (and prominence) of Valerii Catulli is attested in the following centuries. T.P. Wiseman argues that after the brother's death Catullus could have married, and that, in this case, the later Valerii Catulli may have been his descendants.
Sources and organization
Catullus's poems have been preserved in an anthology of 116 carmina (the actual number of poems may slightly vary in various editions), which can be divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.
There is no scholarly consensus on whether 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 epyllion, 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 that elude such categorization):
- poems to and about his friends (e.g., an invitation like poem 13).
- erotic poems: some of them (50 and 99) indicate homosexual penchants, but most are about women, especially about one he calls "Lesbia" (which served as a false name for his married girlfriend, Clodia, source and inspiration of many of his poems).
- invectives: often rude and sometimes downright obscene poems targeted at friends-turned-traitors (e.g., poem 16), 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 lifestyle of Catullus and his friends, who, despite Catullus's 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 valued 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.
However Catullus does not reject traditional notions, but rather their particular 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.
Catullus's 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 poetae novi 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 seventh 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 twice used a meter that Sappho developed, called the Sapphic strophe in poems 11 and 51. In fact, Catullus may have brought about a substantial revival of that form in Rome.
Catullus, as was common to his era, was greatly influenced by stories from Greek and Roman myth. His longer poems—such as 63, 64, 65, 66, and 68—allude to mythology in various ways. Some stories he refers to are the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the departure of the Argonauts, Theseus and the Minotaur, Ariadne's abandonment, Tereus and Procne, as well as Protesilaus and Laodamia.
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.
17 poems of Catullus, including Vivamus mea Lesbia and Pedicabo Ego Uos, were made into a new song cycle, composed by Michael Linton and performed by French baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer. Carmina Catulli was recorded in December 2013 and premiered at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in March 2014.
Catullus 5, the love poem "Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus", in the translation by Ben Jonson was set to music (lute accompanied song) by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger. The translation by Richard Crashaw was set to music in a four-part glee by Samuel Webbe Jr. It was also set to music in a three-part glee by John Stafford Smith.
Finnish jazz singer Reine Rimón has recorded poems of Catullus set to standard jazz tunes.
- Alexander Hamilton took the pseudonym Catullus in his newspaper debates with Republican opponents during the early 1790s while acting as Treasury Secretary.
- The epistolary novel Ides of March by Thornton Wilder centers on Julius Caesar, but prominently features Catullus, his poetry, his relationship (and correspondence) with Clodia, correspondence from his family and a description of his death. Catullus's poems and the closing section by Suetonius are the only documents in the novel which are not imagined.
- 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 Irish 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.
- H.P. Lovecraft mentions Catullus in his short story "The Rats in the Walls".
- 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".
- W. B. Yeats references Catullus in his poem The Scholars.
- Ned Rorem has a song entitled, "Catullus: On the burial of his brother."
- The poem "Be Angry at the Sun" by Robinson Jeffers includes the line "You are not Catullus, you know, To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar."
- The 2011 radio play A Thousand Kisses by Frederic Raphael was based on his life.
- Catullus features in Steven Saylor's historical mystery The Venus Throw (1995).
- The webcomic Achewood refers to Catullus as "the first poet who ever got his Bone on."
- A quotation of Catullus appears at the beginning of the 2001 film, The Believer.
- In the third season of the TV series The Borgias (2013), prince Frederigo of Naples uses Catullus's Carmina to decipher an encoded letter.
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Muse", the alien Onaya (Meg Foster) tells Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) that she helped Catullus "unlock his potential." His early death is attributed to Onaya draining his mental energy. The same fate is revealed to have befallen John Keats.
- Detective Cormoran Strike quotes Catullus in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith a/k/a J.K. Rowling.
- The bust was commissioned in 1935 by Sirmione's mayor, Luigi Trojani, and produced by the Milanese foundry Clodoveo Barzaghi with the assistance of the sculptor Villarubbia Norri (N. Criniti & M. Arduino (eds.), Catullo e Sirmione. Società e cultura della Cisalpina alle soglie dell'impero (Brescia: Grafo, 1994), p. 4).
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- M. Skinner, Introduction, p.3, in: A Companion to Catullus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
- T.P. Wiseman, The Valerii Catulli of Verona, in: M. Skinner, ed., A Companion to Catullus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
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- Reine Rimón and her Hot Papas jazz band; Gregg Stafford; Tuomo Pekkanen; Gaius Valerius Catullus, Variationes iazzicae Catullianae (in Latin), retrieved 2013-10-07
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