Gaius Valerius Catullus


Gaius Valerius Catullus was born at Verona in Cisalpine Gaul. St. Jerome gives the dates of his birth and death as 87 and 57 BC and adds that he died in his thirtieth year. The second date cannot be true: that Catullus was alive in 55 is proved by his references to Pompey's second consulship (113.2), to the Porticus Pompeii (55.6), and to Caesar's invasion of Britain (11.12, 29.4), but he makes no references to any event after 55. It is a reasonable hypothesis that he was born in 84 and died in 54. His family was of some standing in the province; his father was in a position to entertain Julius Caesar when he was governor (Suet. Jul 73). He came to Rome young and for the rest of his life it was his home (68.34-5), but he remained a northerner (39.13) and did not lose touch with his province: he was back in Verona after the death of his brother in Asia (65.68.19ff), and it was to a villa at Sirmnio on Lake Garda, presumably a family property, that he returned from foreign travel (31). At Rome he moved in fashionable society and there he fell under the spell of the women whom he calls Lesbia. Her real name was Clodia (Apul. Apol. 10) and she was a married women of some social position: if, as there are grounds for supposing (though the identification cannot be proved), she was the sister of P. Clodius Pulcher, Cicero's enemy, and the wife of Q. Metellus Celer, governor of Cisalpine Gaul from 64 to 62, she was some ten years Catullus' senior and the connection must have begun by 59, when Metellus died. Catullus' last message to her (11) was probably written in 55 or 54. Between these years lay the story of happiness and disillusion which is contained in the twenty-five Lesbia poems: during that time he spent a year, 57-56, in Asia Minor, probably with his friend C. Helvius Cinna, in the entourage of the governor of Bithynia, C. Memmius (10, 46).

The epithet doctus which is given to Catullus by his successors is itself a recognition of his acceptance of the literary ideals of Alexandrianism. The scholarly concern for technical perfection which he learned from the Alexandrians lies behind all that he wrote and he does not leave his literary creed and standards in doubt: he admires the extreme Alexandrianism of his friend Cinna's Zmyrna (95) and he makes fun of the unadventurous representative of the older tradition of poetry. But though the influence of Alexandrian poetry on him is strong, it does not dominate his work. He translated Callimarchus, but he also translated Sappho. The Peleus and Thetis is a deliberate essay in a characteristically Alexandrian genre: the romantic handling of the story and the disproportionate digression are Alexandrian and he indulges again and again in Alexandrian mannerisms - the learned allusion to gratify the scholarly reader, the devices of apostrophe and exclamation, tricks of style (anaphora and symmetry) and preciosities of rhythm (e.g. the 'spondaic" hexameter): but much of its technique is inherited from earlier Latin poetry and conventions of vocabulary and forms of phrase are derived from the tradition of Ennius and shared with Lucretius and Cicero. In the elegiac 68, in which verbal pattern is at its most intricate and allusion verges on pedantry, the native Latin ornament of alliteration is put to greatest use. While the conception of the Attis (63) must be drawn from a Hellenistic original, the power of its language and the skill with which Latin words are fitted to an exotic rhythm are Catullus' own. In the lyrics and epigrams too Catullus is doctus, but uses doctrina in his own way. The phalaecian meter was itself an Alexandrian invention, but Catullus makes it the vehicle for the brisk raciness or the pathetic simplicity of everyday Latin speech. The lament for the pet bird (3), the invitation to dinner (13), the lines of an old ship (4), all have their prototypes in self-conscious Hellenistic epigram, but Catullus' imagination has used these to produce something new, personal, and immediate.

In the short poems Catullus conveys his own feelings with simple and passionate sincerity. Some convey deep emotion, rapture or despair over Lesbia, sympathy for a friend, sorrow for his brother; others reflect the uninhibited vitality of a young privileged intelligentsia, its conventions, its enthusiasms, and its dislikes. His views of persons and evens are the reactions of an individualist: when he attacks Caesar and Pompey his attacks are not political but personal, inspired by fastidious indignation at the rise of upstarts under their patronage.

On the side of technique the importance of Catullus' work lies in the refinement of standards which reached its full development his Augustan successors. His influence is to be seen in Horace's lyrics and much more in his fellow countryman Virgil, whose admiration for him shows itself in many verbal echoes: his elegiacs point the way to the art of Propertius. In the next century it was his epigrams that were remembered and Martial acknowledged him as his master.