Peter Green’s splendid new translation of Catullus makes quite a substantial volume: more than three hundred pages in all, with an introduction, parallel text in Latin and English, notes, glossary and index. Such treatment doesn’t feel quite right for this ‘new witty booklet, all fresh-polished with abrasive’, as Catullus describes the book he dedicates to Cornelius Nepos in poem 1. The standard Latin text of Catullus’ works (which may or may not include this ‘witty booklet’) is one of the slimmest volumes in the Oxford Classical Texts series, and yet this diminutive collection of ‘trifles’, as Catullus calls them, has generated enough commentary to fill a small library. But for all his deprecation of the ‘booklet’, Catullus ends his dedication by praying that it may ‘outlast at least one generation’. Two thousand years later we are opening yet another translation to see how Catullus’ uniquely elusive and enticing voice survives. The news is good. This is a translation that sounds like Catullus, ‘all fresh-polished’ but abrasive too.
Catullus was not just being modest when he called his poems trifles. Their nugatory quality is deliberately provoking, intriguing and puzzling. What, they seem to say, makes this note to Cicero a poem?
Sweetest-spoken of Romulus’ descendants,
past or present, Marcus Tullius, and all who
may yet follow in the distant future –
warmest thanks to you herewith from Catullus,
who’s the worst of all poets, by as much the
worst of all living poets, as yourself are
best of all courtroom lawyers for your clients.
Green is remarkably successful at catching the rhythm of Catullus’ 11-syllable metre, though he can’t resist the temptation to make this a ‘better’ poem by expanding the vocabulary and varying the constructions. In Catullus’ Latin, awkward jingles, bare symmetries and a restricted and repetitive vocabulary all lend a dutiful sound to the string of superlatives (most eloquent, best, worst, warmest). The poem seems to compose an awkward silence that falls on its completion. Even Cicero, who was not a modest man, must have suspected that there was more to this than meets the eye. Was Catullus parodying his self-importance and the orotund symmetries of his prose? Would he be immortalised as the sort of person who would swallow something this bald? Or were these just paranoid imaginings? Modern readers are in much the same situation, not sure whether we are in on the joke or not. Unlike Cicero, we don’t know what occasioned the poem. Green’s excellent notes lay out some of the possibilities, including the speculation that Catullus is thanking Cicero for sending him some of his (wretched) poetry. But the point of this poem lies in the teasing deadpan itself, which challenges us to imagine the verse as speech, to give it a tone of voice and supply the missing context, while not actually confirming any of our speculations.
Catullus’ poetry has its roots in the world of social intercourse, which in first-century BCE Rome was changing, as the elite found new arenas for the competitive display of their pre-eminence. The ability to write an elegant letter, whisper a malicious witticism, turn a compliment or snub a boor had become an essential part of being a Roman. Traditional values of fides (‘trustworthiness’), constantia (‘steadfastness’) and gravitas (‘weightiness’) were no longer enough; they needed to be tempered with humanitas and urbanitas, qualities that encompassed an appreciation of Greek culture, social sophistication, wit and an ability not to take oneself too seriously. Catullus’ poetry introduces a circle of friends who insist on standards of urbanity and wit in their social relations. They share literary tastes and principles, engage in savage polemics, swap enthusiasms and tease each other (to the extent that it’s often difficult to tell friend from foe). Their watchwords span the aesthetic, social and erotic spheres – ‘charm’ is about as close as one can get to this concatenation in English – and many of Catullus’ poems concern who does or doesn’t qualify as ‘urbane’ or ‘charming’.
Cicero referred to the poets of Catullus’ circle, disparagingly, as the Neoterics (‘The Young Ones’) or the New Poets, but their novelty was firmly rooted in the past, since they drew inspiration from the poetry of Hellenistic Alexandria of the mid third century BCE, especially that of Callimachus. Hellenistic culture, imported or looted, in the form of poets, intellectuals, books, works of art and ideas, was one of the spoils of Rome’s conquest of the Greek world, completed in the middle of the second century BCE. From the Greek Alexandrians, the New Poets took their distaste for long poems and their preference for technical perfection and learning over weightiness and volume. C. Helvius Cinna spent nine years writing a short narrative poem called Zmyrna, about the eponymous mythical heroine who committed incest with her father. It acquired a commentary within a generation or two. Riddling, learned allusion to Callimachus crops up even in Catullus’ love poems to Lesbia, and it is the most difficult aspect of his poetry to translate. Fortunately, it is not the most interesting. More compelling is the way that the oxymoron of an immortal trifle ramifies through his work into a full-blown exploration of the ironic relations between strength and weakness, and Catullus’ suspiciously self-deprecating thank you to Cicero is only one of the forms this takes.
Catullus is best known for his much imitated love poetry. In what has become his signature poem, appropriately only two lines long, love reduces him to struggling with conflicting emotions: ‘I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?/I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.’ Green’s ‘I am crucified’ brings with it anachronistic associations, but it has the merit of combining confession with pride, which is appropriate to this little epigram that refuses to resolve the opening paradox with a neat punch line. Hate and love between them account for a good swathe of Catullus’ work, in which violently sexual or scatological invective rubs shoulders with poetry that inspired Tennyson to describe him as ‘the tenderest of poets’. But the simultaneous combination of the two seems to have been reserved for the woman whom Catullus calls Lesbia. Lesbia appears throughout the collection, and her presence is one of its main unifying factors. The name is a pseudonym, alluding to the most famous female poet of antiquity, Sappho of Lesbos, or (and?) to the Greek verb lesbiazein, ‘to fellate’. The woman in question was almost certainly Clodia, the wife of Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer, consul in 60-59 BCE. If the identification is correct, Catullus was moving in exalted circles, since Clodia belonged to the ancient patrician family of the Claudii. She is known to us as the lover of M. Caelius Rufus, whom Cicero defended against Clodia’s accusations of attempted murder in his speech ‘On Behalf of Caelius’. Cicero’s portrait of this powerful and strong-willed woman is a masterpiece of invective, and this ‘Medea of the Palatine’ or ‘two-bit Clytemnestra’ seems to have been as fascinating to him as she was to Catullus.
Catullus might have met Clodia when her husband was governor of Cisalpine Gaul (i.e. Italy north of the Po) in 62-61 BCE. He would have been about 23, ten years younger than her. Like most of the great Roman writers, Catullus did not come from Rome. He was a provincial from Sirmio, near Verona, and it’s possible that the ruins now known as the Grotto di Catullo on Lake Garda occupy the site of his family home. Catullus was proud of his transpadane (beyond the Po) origins, which he shared with a number of writers who had made a name for themselves in Rome, notably the dedicatee of his ‘booklet’, Cornelius Nepos, an eminent historian of the older generation. But once in Rome, Catullus became more urbane than the Romans, and took pleasure in mocking others for their provincial connections. Lesbia, though, could reduce him to a clod, and the carefully staged struggle between the urbane Catullus and his besotted, humourless alter ego is a feature of his work.
Almost as famous as ‘I hate and love’ is the first line of Catullus’ invitation to love:
Let’s live, Lesbia mine, and love – and as for
scandal, all the gossip, old men’s strictures,
value the lot at no more than a farthing!
suns can rise and set ad infinitum –
for us, though, once our brief life’s quenched, there’s only
one unending night that’s left to sleep through.
But the person who wrote that also wrote this:
No woman can say she’s truly been loved as much as
my Lesbia has been loved by me: there’s no
guarantee so strong figured in any contract
as that found, on my part, in my love for you.
This poem (which I have quoted complete) comes from a section of the Catullan collection in which all the poems are in elegiac couplets. The love poems here tend to be solemn and self-righteous, exploiting the couplet’s capacity for symmetry, contrast and balance. The hendecasyllables of the poems earlier in the collection, on the other hand, tend to be more conversational. Green catches the solemn, self-righteous tone but plays down the crude structural balances: there’s no enjambment between the couplets in Catullus’ Latin. Compared to the deadpan opacity achieved by very similar means in the poem to Cicero, this protestation has an almost embarrassing straightforwardness that is anything but urbane. Catullus takes himself very seriously here, and calls on some very serious concepts, deeply engrained in Roman tradition. As with the note to Cicero, though, the poem’s crucial moment is the silence that follows its ending, and the way we hear this changes with every reading. Does an embarrassed silence descend on this over-earnest and self-righteous claim, or does the silence resonate with an emotion that overflows the desperate attempt to contain it?
Other imposing figures appear in Catullus’ work, but, unlike Lesbia, under their own names. Catullus’ father counted Julius Caesar among his friends. That did not prevent Catullus from writing some virulent invective against the great man and his entourage, especially his chief engineer, Mamurra. Mamurra appears under the pseudonym Mentula (‘Prick’) in several of Catullus’ poems, but more transparently in one which begins: ‘They’re well matched, that pair of shameless buggers,/Bitch-queens both of them, Caesar and Mamurra.’ Caesar, apparently, did not take it well. Opinions differ as to whether Catullus had anything to say about the political changes that were sweeping the Roman world in his lifetime, laying the groundwork for the great shift from republic to principate (virtually monarchy) in the next generation. Certainly he never addresses these changes explicitly, and his polemic against Caesar may be more about personalities than politics. The elegiac Lesbia poems, with their language of contract and betrayal, are a more poignant reflection of the fragility of relations among the Roman elite as it moved towards civil war.
Invective and insult thrived in the ‘badmouthing city’, as Cicero called it. They were forms in which a culturally approved manliness was vindicated and displayed, and no public figure was immune from the obligatory accusation that he had allowed himself to be buggered, or worse. Even the young Octavian wrote and circulated at least one obscene poem as part of the propaganda war between himself and Mark Antony. It is quoted by Martial, and is quite a creditable effort. The swaggering phallicism of Catullus’ abundant threats are performances of masculinity characteristic of a macho culture in which even the proceedings of the senate were not free from threats of oral rape – an effective way to render someone speechless, after all. The Romans had a word for it (irrumatio), and it features prominently in Catullus’ poetry, causing headaches for the translator. Poem 16 notoriously begins with a line that threatens both anal and oral rape: ‘Up yours both, and sucks to the pair of you,’ as Green has it, neatly supplying colloquial expressions for the two more naked Latin verbs, ‘I’ll bugger you and’ – what?
But what are we to make of the fact that Catullus very deliberately affects effeminacy as well as machismo? In the introductory poem the pumice that has smoothed the edges of the book-roll (‘all fresh-polished with abrasive’) alludes not only to Alexandrian principles of technical perfection achieved by frequent use of the pumice as an eraser, but also to the fact that pumice was used as a depilatory. The double association is a good example of the way Catullus takes Greek literary ideals into a more complex area of social provocation that is distinctly Roman. This is a sexy book, and not entirely manly. Catullus’ poetry is full of diminutives and other affectations and there is an element of aggression, or at least showing off, in the way he flaunts such an unacceptable self-presentation. He is above the rules. Whether he is flexing his masculinity or waggling his tail the performance is intended, as David Wray has put it, to make us gasp.
Poem 16 is an attack on two of Catullus’ bêtes noires, Furius and Aurelius. The phallic threats turn out to be to Catullus’ response to accusations of effeminacy made by this pair on the basis of his kiss poems (‘Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred’). Kisses and nothing more? Catullus’ explosive response to their suspicions settles down to a highly influential distinction between the person and the poet:
Up yours both, and sucks to the pair of you,
Queen Aurelius, Furius the faggot,
who dared judge me on the basis of my verses –
they mayn’t be manly: does that make me indecent?
Catullus is being disingenuous here, since, like other Romans, he is only too happy to link personal qualities with literary style. This ‘manifesto’ is really part of a game of push and pull with the reader. We are invited to share in some intimacy or vulnerable moment only to have the tables turned on us. ‘You think you’ve got me,’ Catullus says. ‘Well, you haven’t. I’ve got you. Up yours.’ Reading his kiss poems we may, like Furius and Aurelius, think that we catch Catullus with(out) his pants down, but it’s just as plausible that we are manoeuvred into taking on the effeminate subjectivity of the poem we are reading.
Not all of Catullus’ poems are short or ‘trivial’. In the middle of the collection is a series of eight longer poems, including two epithalamia: a virtuoso display in the very difficult galliambic metre (almost entirely short syllables), which Green matches brilliantly; and a mythological poem on the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, more than four hundred lines long. The bulk of this poem is taken up by a description of the coverlet of the marriage bed, which depicts Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the beach at Naxos and about to be rescued by Bacchus. Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne takes its cue from Catullus’ extravagant profusion of sights, sounds and sensations. This poem about a longed-for Golden Age when gods mingled with men ends with a wedding song that anticipates its dissolution (the child of Peleus and Thetis will be Achilles). It is the figure of Ariadne, though, that stays in the memory:
Him from afar, there on the wrack-strewn beach, eyes
agonised, Minos’ daughter, a stony bacchant, watches,
ah, watches, in breaking waves of grief unbounded,
lost the fine-woven net from her golden tresses,
lost the light garment veiling her torso,
lost the rounded breast-band that gathered her milk-white bosom –
all of them, slipped from her body every which way, now
at her feet become the salty ripples’ playthings.
The paradoxical combination of the deserted Ariadne’s longing gaze after the departing Theseus and the reader’s voyeuristic gaze at Ariadne’s déshabillé is beautifully caught in Green’s translation of these luxurious lines. Ariadne is both a figure of the belatedness of the Roman poet inspired by Greek literature and a sample of the available pleasures of Greek culture laid out for the Roman conqueror to feast his eyes on. Here Catullus’ ironies of weakness and strength are played out on a geopolitical scale.
Catullus died at the age of 30, which is part of the reason his body of work is so small. But it exerted a huge influence on Latin poetry for the next two centuries, from Virgil, Horace and the elegiac love poets of the Augustan age through to Martial in the late first century CE. His enduring popularity in the second century is attested by Apuleius. But this popularity was not to last, and Catullus’ rediscovery in the Renaissance depended on the survival of a single manuscript. The chances, like the book itself, were slight.