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Catullus n : Roman lyric poet remembered for his love poems to an aristocratic Roman woman (84-54 BC) [syn: Gaius Valerius Catullus]

Extensive Definition

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 work remains widely studied, and continues to influence poetry and other forms of art.


Little is known about Catullus' life. Most ancient sources, including Suetonius and Ovid (Amores III.XV), claim Verona as his birthplace. He came from a leading equestrian family of Verona, but lived in Rome for most of his life.
Catullus' family owned a villa at Sirmio on Lake Garda. His father entertained Caesar, then governor of Gaul. At some point, the poet parodied Caesar and an associate (Mamurra), but later apologized and was forgiven.
Catullus' friends included the poets C. Licinius Macer Calvus, Marcus Furius Bibaculus, and C. Helvius Cinna, the orator Q. Hortensius (a rival of Cicero in the law courts) and the biographer Cornelius Nepos, to whom Catullus' book of poems is dedicated.
In 61 BC Catullus went to Rome and fell in love with the "Lesbia" of his poems, generally believed to be Clodia Metelli, sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher. This sophisticated woman, 10 years older than Catullus, was a member of the aristocratic Claudian family. Their brief affair ended when Clodia spurned him for Caelius Rufus, a member of Catullus' social circle and an associate of Cicero. In 57 BC he accompanied his friend Memmius to Bithynia, where Memmius served as propraetor. Catullus served on the staff of the governor of Bithynia, his only political office. While in the East, Catullus traveled to the Troad to perform rites at his brother's tomb, an event recorded in a moving poem.
After his year in Bithynia, Catullus returned to Italy, probably settling in Rome and spending the last few years of his life there. Although his poems contain complaints about poverty, he owned a villa near Tibur (modern Tivoli).
It is uncertain when Catullus died. Some ancient sources claim he died from exhaustion at the age of thirty. St. Jerome gives his birth year as 87 BC and wrote that the poet lived 30 years, but some of the poems refer to events in 55 BC Since no poem can be dated later than 54BC, scholars traditionally accept the dates 84 BC54 BC.
His 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 Lesbos, 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 greatly influenced by the Greek neoteroi, Latin poetae novi or "new poets". Callimachus influenced Catullus especially, having propagated a new style of poetry which deliberately turned away from the classical epic poetry in the tradition of Homer. 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 anaphora 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 popular culture

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' poems and the closing section by Suetonius are the only documents in the novel which are not imagined.
Catulli Carmina is a cantata by Carl Orff to the texts of Catullus.
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.
Catullus was mentioned in an early Achewood strip.
Archiblad MacLeish wrote a poem entitled "You Also, Gaius Valerius Catullus," where he addresses the poet.


Further reading

  • Harrington, Karl Pomeroy. Catullus and his influence. New York, Cooper Square Publishers, 1963.
  • Ferguson, J. Catullus.(G&R New Surveys in The Classics No.20). Oxford, 1988.
  • Gaisser, Julia Haig. Catullus And His Renaissance Readers. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993.
  • Balme, M and Morewood, J. Oxford Latin Reader Oxford, University Press, 1997.

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