c. 84 - c. 54 BC
Catullus was still alive in 55-54 BC on the evidence of four of his poems and died young, according to the poet Ovid at the age of 30. He was born at Verona in northern Italy and owned an estate at Sirmio, the modern Sirmione, on Lake Garda, though he preferred to live in Rome and owned a villa near the Roman suburb of Tibur, in an unfashionable neighbourhood.
Catullus’ poetry reports two emotional crises, the death of a brother whose grave he visited in the Troad, in Asia Minor, and an intense and unhappy love affair, portrayed variously in 25 poems, with a woman who was married and whom he names Lesbia, a pseudonym for Clodia, one of the three Clodia sisters of Cicero's enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher, all three the subject of scandalous rumour. If so, she was most probably the one who married the aristocrat Metellus Celer (consul 60 BC, died 59 BC), who in 62 BC was governor of Cisalpine Gaul. It may have been at that time that the youthful poet first met her and possibly fell under her spell.
Knowledge of Catullus’ poems depends on a single manuscript discovered about 1300, copied twice, and then lost. Of the two copies, one in turn was copied twice, and then it was lost. Ancient citations indicate the existence of at least five more poems. In his longer poems Catullus produced studies that deeply influenced the writers and poets of the Augustan Age. Virgil imitates Catullus without naming him, even going so far, in the Aeneid, as to borrow whole lines from him as many as three times. Catullus' 116 extant poems were mostly written between 61 and 54 BC but cannot be dated exactly.
In his lifetime, Catullus was a poet's poet, addressing himself to fellow craftsmen (docti, or scholarly poets), especially to his friend Licinius Calvus. He belonged to a group of poets called the poetae novi or "Neoterics" (new poets), who preferred the works of the Alexandrian poets to the grander but archaic fashion of Roman poetry. To the degree that Catullus shared such conceptions of what might be called poetic scholarship, he is to be numbered in the company of Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound rather than with the Romantics. The 25 Lesbia poems are likely to remain the most memorable, recording as they do a love that could register ecstacy and despair and all the divided emotions that intervene. Two of them recall Sappho, the poetess of the Aegean island of Lesbos, as also does his use of the pseudonym Lesbia. As read today, these two seem to evoke the first moment of adoring love.
Sobre Catulo e outros poetas latinos do séc. I. a.C., ler:
Carlos Ascenso André, Caminhos do Amor em Roma: Sexo, amor e paixão na poesia latina do séc. I. a.C., Livros Cotovia, Lisboa, 2006, ISBN 972-795-155-4
Biografia de Catulo
Sobre Clodia Metelli
by Anthony Day
March 19, 2006
THE Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, who lived his short life in the tumultuous last years of the Roman republic, wrote some of the loveliest lyric poetry in the Latin language. Some of it was sweet and joyful, the rest moving and sad, singing to us of the poet's ancestral homeland; the love of a mistress; the death of a dear brother; the goddess Diana, revered by the Romans as the embodiment of hunting and healing.
And some of Catullus' verse is a raspy and highly personal form of satire — the other word that aptly characterizes it is "bitchy," explains Peter Green, translator of "The Poems of Catullus" and a respected classicist whose books include "Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age." Countless British and American translators through the centuries considered much of the sex talk obscene, but Green argues most plausibly that the obscenity charge comes from our mouths, not from the Romans' — their notions of sexuality had not yet been influenced by Christian mores when Catullus was writing.
Most of the supposedly obscene erotic poems, Green asserts, are just high-spirited playing around in the style of your regular Mediterranean man, whose attitudes are on display to this day. Perhaps this is so. The sharp-edged satire and the frank eroticism of some of Catullus' verses are not without interest, but today erotic candor and corrosive personal commentary are not novelties. Over this long distance of 2,000 years, it is Catullus' singing voice — his lyric tone and notes — that resonates the most in our ears.
The singing is what we wish to hear, but Green's approach limits this. He does not attempt to write English poetry in these translations; instead, he puts the Latin into English words strung together like beads with a beat that's Latin, not English. Thus, he argues, the modern reader can get a taste of the underlying force of the Latin poetic line. It is meant to be an intellectually defensible approach — Green is not the first to tackle translations from Latin into English in this way — but to this reader it doesn't work as intended.
Take, for example, the last two lines of Catullus' famously poignant farewell to his dead brother, to whose burial place Catullus has brought tokens of love: "accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu, / atque in perpetuum, frater, aue atque uale." The poet and artist Aubrey Beardsley turned those lines into passable English poetry this way: "Take them, all drenched with a brother's tears, / And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell." Here is Green's version, which is certainly not without poetic merit in English, but it does not sing: "Accept them, soaked as they are with a brother's weeping, / And, brother, forever now hail and farewell."
Green's version has the virtue of a closer word-for-word translation that can help those readers who know some Latin as they try to work out their own versions. But, as Green freely admits, his method of translation is not memorable poetry in English — the modern reader struggling to grasp just what it is about Catullus that makes him worth reading today may well be left wondering.
If it is true that no translation can ever do perfect justice to the original — and it is — if you have a little of the home language and a translation at hand to help, your own discoveries can be a delight. So in Green's pages we encounter this marvelously balanced epigram: "Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? / nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior." Green renders this as: "I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I'd do that? / I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified."
And here is one of the most marvelously passionate, erotic poems around, which builds to "a perfect frenzy of kisses":
Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus …
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
Green's version captures its sense while enabling us to discover it for ourselves:
live, Lesbia mine, and love …
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then a thousand more, a second hundred,
then yet another thousand then a hundred —
Green has gone at this work with great energy and obvious love for a sometimes intractable poet, and if his version manages to engage more readers in the work of Catullus, so much the better. He has supplied many helpful notes and a thorough glossary of Roman people, gods and places to help us get our bearings. Any fan of the Latin language, any student of the Roman Empire, which is so like and so unlike our own, must be grateful to Green and his publishers for such a useful and handsome book.
Anthony Day, former editor of The Times' editorial pages, is a contributing writer to Book Review.