Catullus 49

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Catullus 49 is a poem by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 – c. 54 BC) sent to Marcus Tullius Cicero as a superficially laudatory poem. Like the majority of Catullus' poems, the meter of this poem is hendecasyllabic. This is also the only time Marcus Tullius Cicero is ever mentioned in any of Catullus' poems.

The Latin[edit]

The following Latin text is taken from D. F. S. Thomson.[1]

Poem 49
Line Latin Text
1 Disertissime Romuli nepotum,
2 quot sunt quotque fuere, Marce Tulli,
3 quotque post aliis erunt in annis,
4 gratias tibi maximas Catullus
5 agit pessimus omnium poeta,
6 tanto pessimus omnium poeta
7 quanto tu optimus omnium patronus.


The English[edit]

(Just the raw, unpoetic English, simply for comprehension)

O most learned of the descendants of Romulus,
as many there are and as many as there were, Marcus Tullius,
or as many as there will be later in years,
Catullus gives you great thanks,
the worst of all poets,
by as much the worst poet of all,
as you the best lawyer/patron of all.


Some Cultural Notes[edit]

  • The descendants of Romulus are the Romans, since it is believed that Remus and Romulus founded Rome.
  • A patronus was someone who gave assistance and protection to another person, including non-Romans. The people for whom the patron spoke for were the cliens and they, in return, would respect the patronus and offer little favors like political campaigning and household chores. One of the types of patronage was the slave-owner over his freedmen, where the slave-owner retained some power over them and inherited their property if they died heirless. [2] The betrayal of this bond or fides was a capital offense.

The Debate over the tone of the poem[edit]

It is a constant debate whether this poem is Catullus praising Cicero, who indeed was one of the best speakers of the time, or actually mocking him. He begins by praising him "as the most learned" of all the Romans ever. But as we keep reading, we keep seeing many more superlatives – maximas, pessimus, optimus – and even the omnium could be considered as exaggerated. Usually, the frequent use of exaggeration can be discerned as sarcasm, which might be the case here. The last line also reveals more of Catullus' real intent. If Catullus is indeed being sincere, then he just simply means that Cicero was the best "patronus" of all; however, he would also be calling himself the worst poet of all, "pessimus omnium poeta", which doesn't seem much like Catullus. On the other hand, if he is being sarcastic, not only does he not call himself the worst poet of all, the claim against Cicero makes more sense: it would be saying that Cicero is the best "patronus" of all the people, the good and the bad, for money, which isn't really much of a compliment.
A point made by D.E.W. Wormwell also brings some light to the subject: a sincere thanks or praise would sound much different. In lines 4 and 5, Catullus places himself in the third person, making it impersonal in a way and less natural. Yes, Catullus is fond of addressing himself by the third person, but it is usually Catullo, Catulle, and Catullum, rarely Catullus. The feeling of third person Catullus instead of first person is aloof, almost cold. Another instance where the third person "Catullus" is used is in poem 8, line 12 – "vale puella. iam Catullus obdurat..." – and this is clearly not a very warm and pleasing tone; rather Catullus is saying goodbye to his love and passion, Lesbia, very coldly. And this leads some people to conclude that Catullus wasn't really praising Cicero, but actually mocking him. [3]

The References[edit]

  1. ^ Thomson DFS (1997). Catullus: Edited with a Textual and Interpretative Commentary. University of Toronto Press. 
  2. ^ "patronus", The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Simon Hornblower, Anthony Spawforth, Oxford University Press
  3. ^ Wormwell, D.E.W., "Catullus 49" in Phoenix, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1963), pp. 59-60