Catullus 4

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A poem about an aging ship.

Catullus 4 is a poem by the ancient Roman writer Catullus. The poem concerns the retirement of a well-traveled ship (referred to as a "phaselus", also sometimes cited as "phasellus", a variant spelling). Catullus draws a strong analogy with human aging, rendering the boat as a person that flies and speaks, with palms (the oars) and purpose.

The poem is complex, with numerous geographic references and elaborate litotic double negatives in a list-like manner. It borrows heavily from Ancient Greek vocabulary, and also uses Greek grammar in several sections. The meter of the poem is unusual — iambic trimeter, which was perhaps chosen to convey a sense of speed over the waves.

Scholars remain uncertain whether the story of the construction and voyages of this phasellus (ship, yacht, or pinnace), as described or implied in the poem, can be taken literally. Professor A. D. Hope in his posthumous book of translations from Catullus[1] is one translator who takes it so. His introduction calls the phasellus “his yacht, in which he [Catullus] must have made the return voyage [from Bithynia]” and the translation ends Until she made landfall in this limpid lake. / But that was aforetime and she is laid up now . . . However Hope also left, in his final collection of poetry Aubade, a much freer translation, adaptation, or erotic parody,[2] in which the phasellus seems to be, in effect, a phallus. This version says that the phasellus claims that in his hey-day with mainsail and spanker / He outsailed all vessels; and the ending becomes: At his last landfall now, beyond all resurgence, / View him careened upon a final lee-shore; / . . . Sing for the captain who will put to sea no more!

Among a number of other interpretations, Catullus 4 has also been interpreted as a parody of epic poetry, or the boat as a metaphor for the Ship of state.

Latin text and translation[edit]

Line Latin text English Translation
1 phaselus ille, quem videtis, hospites That light ship, which you see, guests,
2 ait fuisse navium celerrimus says that she was the most swift of vessels
3 neque ullius natantis impetum trabis and the speed any floating timber
4 nequisse praeterire, sive palmulis she was not unable to surpass, whether oars
5 opus foret volare sive linteo. she needed or a sail in order to fly.
6 et hoc negat minacis Hadriatici And she denies that of the threatening Adriatic, this fact,
7 negare litus insulasve Cycladas the shore denies, or the islands, Cyclades
8 Rhodumque nobilem horridamque Thraciam and noble Rhodus and the rugged Thracian
9 Propontida trucemve Ponticum sinum,[1] Propontis, or the Pontic gulf
10 ubi iste post phaselus antea fuit where she was a light ship after, before
11 comata silva; nam Cytorio[2] in iugo a leafy forest; for when on the ridge of mount Cytorus
12 loquente saepe sibilum edidit coma. she speaks, often the foliage begets a hissing sound.
13 Amastri Pontica et Cytore buxifer Pontic Amastris and box-tree-bearing Cytorus,
14 tibi haec fuisse et esse cognitissima that to you these things were and are most known
15 ait phaselus: ultima ex origine says the light ship: that out of your earliest birth,
16 tuo stetisse dicit in cacumine she says, the master stood at your peak,
17 tuo imbuisse palmulas in aequore wetted your palms [or oars] in the flat sea,
18 et inde tot per impotentia freta and then across so many impotent straits
19 erum tulisse, laeva sive dextera bore [you], whether summoned the left or right
20 vocaret aura, sive utrumque Iuppiter breeze summoned [you], or each favorable one of Jupiter
21 simul secundus incidisset in pedem; fell on the foot at once;
22 neque ulla vota litoralibus deis [And she says] that neither were any prayers to the shore gods
23 sibi esse facta, cum veniret a mari made by her, when she came by sea
24 novissime hunc ad usque limpidum lacum. very recently to this continuously clear lake.
25 sed haec prius fuere: nunc recondita But these things were previously: now that secluded one
26 senet quiete seque dedicat tibi is old, and in repose she dedicates herself to you,
27 gemelle Castor et gemelle Castoris[3] O twin Castor and twin of Castor.


  1. ^ Propontis ("in front of Pontus") was the ancient name for the Sea of Marmora, and Ponticum sinum ("Pontic sea") was the name for the Black Sea.
  2. ^ Mt. Cytorus was a mountain on the southern coast of the Black Sea, between the port cities of Amastris and Cytorus. Cytorus was famous as a source of boxwood.
  3. ^ The gemelle Castoris ("twin of Castor") refers to Pollux, the other twin in the Castor and Pollux pair, who were also known as the Gemini ("twins"). The two twins were often referred to by only a single name, most commonly Castor, as though they were one, hence the tibi in line 26.


  • Griffith, JG (1983). "Catullus Poem 4: A Neglected Interpretation Revived". Phoenix. Phoenix, Vol. 37, No. 2. 37 (2): 123–128. doi:10.2307/1087452. JSTOR 1087452. 
  • Coleman, KM (1981). "The Persona of Catullus' Phaselus". Greece and Rome. 28: 68–72. doi:10.1017/S0017383500033507. 
  • Putnam, MCJ (1962). "Catullus' Journey (Carm. 4)". Classical Philology. 57: 10–19. doi:10.1086/364642. 
  • Copley, FO (1958). "Catullus 4: The World of the Poem". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 89. 89: 9–13. doi:10.2307/283659. JSTOR 283659. 


  1. ^ The shorter poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus : a new translation; translated by A.D. Hope, Blackheath, N.S.W., Brandl & Schlesinger, 2007
  2. ^ The drafting of this version is discussed in Hope’s Notebooks, since transcribed and edited by Ann McCulloch as Dance of the Nomad: a study of the selected notebooks of A.D. Hope, Canberra, ANU Press, 2005 p. 323.

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