Gaius Valerius Catullus Biography | Poet
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CATULLUS, GAIUS VALERIUS (?84-54 b.c.), the greatest lyric poet of Rome. As regards his names and the dates of his birth and death, the most important external witness is that of Jerome, in the continuation of the Eusebian Chronicle, under the year 87 b.c., “Gaius Valerius Catullus, scriptor lyricus Veronae nascitur,” and under 57 b.c., “Catullus xxx. aetatis anno Romae moritur.” There is no controversy as to the gentile name,Valerius. Suetonius, in his Life of Julius Caesar (ch. 73), mentions the poet by the names “Valerium Catullum.” Other persons who had the cognomenCatullus belonged to the Valerian gens, e.g. M. Valerius Catullus Messalinus, a delator in the reign of Domitian, mentioned in the fourth satire of Juvenal (l. 113):—
“Et cum mortifero prudens Veiento Catullo.”
Inscriptions show, further, that Valerius was a common name in the native province of Catullus, and belonged to other inhabitants of Verona besides the poet and his family (Schwabe, Quaestiones Catullianae, p. 27). Scholars have been divided in opinion as to whether his praenomen wasGaius or Quintus, and in the best MSS. the volume is called simply Catulli Veronensis liber. For Gaius we have the undoubted testimony, not only of Jerome, which rests on the much earlier authority of Suetonius, but also that of Apuleius. In support of Quintus a passage was quoted from theNatural History of Pliny (xxxvii. 6, 81). But the praenomen Q. is omitted in the best MSS., and in other passages of the same author the poet is spoken of as “Catullus Veronensis.” The mistake may have arisen from confusion with Q. Catulus, the colleague of Marius in the Cimbric War, himself also the author of lyrical poems. Allusions in the poems show that the date of his death given by Jerome (57 b.c.) is wrong, and that Catullus survived the second consulship of Pompey (55 b.c.) (cf. lv. 6, cxiii. 2), and was present in August of the 543following year at the prosecution of Vatinius by Licinius Calvus (cf. liii.). The allusion in lii. 3—
“Per consulatum peierat Vatinius,”
does not prove that Catullus must have lived to see the consulship bestowed on Vatinius in the end of 47 b.c. but only that Vatinius, after being praetor in 55 b.c., was in the habit of boasting of the certainty of his attaining the consulship, as Cleopatra was in the habit of confirming her most solemn declarations by appealing to her hope of one day administering justice in the Capitol (cf. Haupt, “Quaestiones Catullianae,” Opuscula, vol. i. 1875). There is then nothing to prove that Catullus lived beyond the month of August 54 b.c. Some of the poems (as xxxvii. and lii.) may have been written during his last illness. If he died in 54 b.c. or early in 53 b.c., Catullus must either have been born later than 87 b.c., or have lived to a greater age than thirty. Catullus is described by Ovid as “hedera iuvenalia cinctus Tempora” (Amor. iii. 9. 61),—a description somewhat more suitable to a man who dies in his thirtieth year than to one who dies three or four years later. Further, the age at which a man dies is more likely to be accurately remembered than the particular date either of his death or of his birth, and the common practice of recording the age of the deceased in sepulchral inscriptions must have rendered a mistake about this less likely to occur. It seems, therefore, on the whole, most likely that Jerome’s words “xxx. aetatis anno” are correct, and that Catullus was born in 84 b.c.
The statement that he was born at Verona is confirmed by passages in Ovid and Martial. Pliny the elder, who was born at Como, speaks of Catullus in the preface to his Natural History, as his “countryman” (conterraneus), and the poet speaks of Verona as his home, or at least his temporary residence, in more than one place. His occasional residence in his native place is further attested by the statement of Suetonius (Julius Caesar, 73), that “Julius Caesar accepted the poet’s apology for his scurrilous verses upon him, invited him to dine with him on the same day, and continued his intimacy with his father as before.” As this incident could only have happened during the time that Julius Caesar was pro-consul, the scene of it must have been in the Cisalpine province, and at the house of the poet’s father, in or near Verona. The verses apologized for were those contained in poems xxix. and lvii., the former of which must have been written after Caesar’s invasion of Britain, so that this interview probably took place in the winter of 55-54 b.c. The fact that his father was the host of the great pro-consul, and lived on terms of intimacy with him, justifies the inference, that he was, in wealth and rank, one of the principal men of the province. The only other important statement concerning the poet’s life which rests on external authority is that of Apuleius, that the real name of the Lesbia of the poems was Clodia. Another, which concerns the reputation which he enjoyed after his death, is given in the Life of Atticus by Cornelius Nepos (12. 4). It is to the effect that he regarded Lucretius and Catullus as the two greatest poets of his own time.
The poems of Catullus consist of 116 pieces, varying in length from 2 to 408 lines, the great mass of them being, however, short pieces, written in lyric, iambic or elegiac metre. The arrangement cannot be the poet’s; it is neither chronological nor in accordance with the character of the topics. The shorter poems, lyric or iambic, are placed first, next the longer epithalamia, (most being written in hexameters) amongst which the Attis is inserted and then those written in the elegiac metre. But, though no chronological order is observed, yet internal evidence enables us to determine the occasions on which many of the poems were written, and the order in which they followed one another. They give a very vivid image of various phases of the poet’s life, and of the strong feelings with which persons and things affected him. They throw much light also on the social life of Rome and of the provincial towns of Italy in the years preceding the outbreak of the second civil war. In this respect they may be compared with the letters of Cicero.
The poems extend over a period of seven or eight years, from 61 or 62 till 54 b.c. Among the earliest are those which record the various stages of the author’s passion for Lesbia. It is in connexion with this passion that he is generally mentioned, or alluded to, by the later Roman poets, such as Propertius, Ovid, Juvenal and Martial. Her real name, as we learn from Apuleius, was Clodia. The admiration of Catullus for Sappho, the Lesbian poetess, which is clearly indicated by the imitation of her language in his fifty-first and sixty-second poems, affords an obvious explanation of the Greek name which he gave to his Roman mistress. Clodia was the notorious sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher, and in the year 56 she charged M. Caelius Rufus, after tiring of him, as she had of Catullus, with an attempt to poison her. It was in defence of Rufus that Cicero described the spell she exercised over young men, in language which might have been applied to her previous relations with the youthful poet, as well as those with the youthful orator and politician.
Poems concerning Lesbia occur among both the earliest and the latest of those contained in the series. They record the various stages of passion through which Catullus passed, from absolute devotion and a secure sense of returned affection, through the various conditions of distrust and jealousy, attempts at renunciation, and short-lived “amoris integrationes,” through the “odi et amo” state, and the later state of savage indignation against both Lesbia and his rivals, and especially against Caelius Rufus, till he finally attains, not without much suffering and loss, the last state of scornful indifference. Among the earliest of the poems connected with Lesbia, and among those written in the happiest vein, are ii. and iii., and v. and vii. The 8th, “Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,” perhaps the most beautiful of them all, expresses the first awakening of the poet to a sense of her unworthiness, before the gentler have given place to the fiercer feelings of his nature. His final renunciation is sent in a poem written after his return from the East, with a union of imaginative and scornful power, to his two butts, Furius and Aurelius (xi., “Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli”), who, to judge by the way Catullus writes of them, appear to have been hangers-on upon him, who repaid the pecuniary and other favours they received by giving him grounds for jealousy, and making imputations on his character (cf. xv., xvi., xviii., xxiii.).
The intrigue of Caelius Rufus with Lesbia began in 59 or 58 b.c. It was probably in the earlier stages of this liaison that the 68th poem was written, from which it appears that Catullus, at the time living at Verona, and grieving for the recent death of his brother in the Troad, had heard of Lesbia’s infidelity, and, in consideration of her previous faithlessness in his favour, was not inclined to resent it very warmly. Two other poems in the series express the grief which Catullus felt for the death of his brother,—one, the 65th, addressed to the orator Hortensius, who is there, as in some of Cicero’s letters, called Hortalus or Ortalus, and sent to him along with the Coma Berenices (lxvi.), a translation of a famous elegy of Callimachus. The other poem referring to this event (ci.) must have been composed some years later, probably in 56 b.c., when Catullus visited his brother’s tomb in the Troad, on his return from Bithynia. Between 59 and 57 b.c. most of the lampoons on Lesbia and her numerous lovers must have been written (e.g. xxxvii., xxxix., &c.). Some, too, of the poems expressive of his more tender feelings to her, such as viii. and lxxvi. belong also to these years; and among the poems written either during this period or perhaps in the early and happier years of his liaison, some of the most charming of his shorter pieces, expressing the affection for his young friends Verannius and Fabullus (ix., xii., xiii.), may be included.
In the year 57 the routine of his life was for a short time broken by his accompanying the propraetor C. Memmius, the friend to whom Lucretius dedicates his great poem, as one of his staff, to the province of Bithynia. His object was probably to better his fortunes by this absence from Rome, as humorous complaints of poverty and debt (xiii., xxvi.) show that his ordinary means were insufficient for his mode of life. He frankly acknowledges the disappointment of these hopes, and still more frankly his disgust with his chief (x., xxviii.). Some of the most charming and perfect among the shorter poems express the delight with which the poet changed the dulness and sultry climate of the 544province for the freedom and keen enjoyment of his voyage home in his yacht, built for him at Amastris on the Euxine, and for the beauty and peace of his villa on the shores of Lake Benacus, which welcomed him home “wearied with foreign travel.” To this period and to his first return to Rome after his visit to his native district belong the poems xlvi., ci., iv., xxxi. and x., all showing by their freshness of feeling and vivid truth of expression the gain which the poet’s nature derived from his temporary escape from the passions, distractions and animosities of Roman society. Two poems, written in a very genial and joyous spirit, and addressed to his younger friend Licinius Calvus (xiv. and l.), who is ranked as second only to himself among the lyrical poets of the age, and whose youthful promise pointed him out as likely to become one of the greatest of Roman orators, may, indeed, with most probability be assigned to these later years (xiv.). From the expression “Odissem te odio Vatiniano,” in the third line of xiv., it may be inferred that the poem was written not earlier than December (the “Saturnalia”) of the year 56 b.c., as it was early in that year, as we learn from a letter of Cicero to his brother Quintus (ii. 4. 1), that Calvus first announced his intention of prosecuting Vatinius. The short poem numbered liii. would be written in August 54 b.c. The poems which have left the greatest stain on the fame of Catullus—those “referta contumeliis Caesaris,” the licentious abuse of Mamurra, and probably some of those personal scurrilities addressed to women as well as men, or too frank confessions, which posterity would willingly have let die, may well have been written in the last years of his life, under the influence of the bitterness and recklessness induced by his experience. It cannot be determined with certainty whether the longer and more artistic pieces, which occupy the middle of the volume—the Epithalamium in celebration of the marriage of Manlius Torquatus, the 62nd poem, written in imitation of the Epithalamia of Sappho, “Vesper adest: iuvenes, consurgite”; the Attis, and the Epic Idyll representing the marriage festival of Peleus and Thetis—belong to the earlier or the later period of the poet’s career. If the person addressed in the first part of the 68th is the Manlius of the Epithalamium, and the lines from 3 to 8—
“Naufragum ut eiectum ... pervigilat,”
refer to the death of Vinia, it would follow that the first Epithalamium was written some time before that poem, and thus belongs to the earlier time. While the translations of Sappho,—
“Ille mi par esse deo videtur,”
and of Callimachus (lxvi.),—
“Omnia qui magni dispexit lumina mundi,”
belong to the earlier period, the Attis and the Peleus and Thetis; although perhaps suggested by the treatment of the same or similar subjects in Greek authors, are executed with such power and originality as declare them to be products of the most vigorous stage in the development of the poet’s genius. That his genius came soon to maturity is a reason for hesitation in assigning any particular time between 62 and 54 b.c. for the composition of the Attis and of that part of the Epithalamium (“Peliaco quondam prognatae vertice pinus”) which deals with the main subject of the poem. But the criticism of Munro in his edition of Lucretius, which shows similarities of expression that cannot be mere casual coincidences, between the Ariadne-episode in the Epithalamium of Catullus (from line 52 to 266) and the poem of Lucretius, leaves little doubt that that portion at least of the poem was written after the publication of the De rerum natura, in the winter of 55-54 b.c.
No ancient author has left a more vivid impression of himself on his writings than Catullus. Coming to Rome in early youth from a distant province, not at that time included within the limits of Italy, he lived as an equal with the men of his time of most intellectual activity and refinement, as well as of highest social and political eminence. Among those to whom his poems are addressed, or who are mentioned in them, we find the names of Hortensius, Cicero, Cornelius Nepos, Licinius Calvus, Helvius Cinna and Asinius Pollio, then only a youth (xii. 8). Catullus brought into this circle the genius of a great poet, the social vivacity of a vigorous nature, the simplicity and sincerity of an unambitious, and the warmth of an affectionate disposition. He betrays all the sensitiveness of the poetic temperament, but it is never the sensitiveness of vanity, for he is characterized by the modesty rather than the self-confidence which accompanies genius, but the sensitiveness of a heart which gives and expects more sympathy and loyalty in friendship than the world either wants or cares to give in return. He shows also in some of his lighter pieces the fastidiousness of a refined taste, intolerant of all boorishness, pedantry, affectation and sordid ways of life. The passionate intensity of his temperament displays itself with similar strength in the outpourings of his animosity as of his love and affection. It was, unfortunately, the fashion of the time to employ in the expression of these animosities a licence of speech and of imputation which it is difficult for men living under different social conditions to understand, still more difficult to tolerate. Munro has examined the 29th poem—
“Quis hoc potest videre, quis potest pati,”
the longest and most important of the lampoons on Caesar and Mamurra, and shown with much learning and acuteness the motives and intention of Catullus in writing them. Had Julius Caesar really believed, as Suetonius, writing two hundred years afterwards, says he did, that “an eternal stigma had been cast upon him by the verses concerning Mamurra,” we should scarcely apply the word magnanimity to his condonation of the offence. But these verses survive as a memorial not of any scandal affecting Julius Caesar which could possibly have been believed by his contemporaries, but of the licence of speech which was then indulged in, of the jealousy with which the younger members of the Roman aristocracy, who a little later fought on the side of Pompey, at that time regarded the ascendancy both of the “father-in-law and the son-in-law,” and the social elevation of some of their instruments, and also, to a certain extent, of the deterioration which the frank and generous nature of Catullus underwent from the passions which wasted, and the faithlessness which marred his life.
The great age of Latin poetry extends from about the year 60 b.c. till the death of Ovid in 17 a.d. There are three marked divisions in this period, each with a distinct character of its own: the first represented by Lucretius and Catullus, the second by Virgil and Horace, the last by Ovid. Force and sincerity are the great characteristics of the first period, maturity of art of the second, facility of the last. The educating influence of Greek art on the Roman mind was first fully experienced in the Ciceronian age, and none of his contemporaries was so susceptible of that influence as Catullus. With the susceptibility to art he combined a large share of the vigorous and genial qualities of the Italian race. Like most of his younger contemporaries, he studied in the school of the Alexandrine poets, with whom the favourite subjects of art were the passion of love, and stories from the Greek mythology, which admitted of being treated in a spirit similar to that in which they celebrated their own experiences. It was under this influence that Catullus wrote the Coma Berenices, the 68th poem, which, after the manner of the Alexandrines, interweaves the old tale of Protesilaus and Laodamia with the personal experiences of the poet himself, and the Epithalamium of Peleus and Thetis, which combines two pictures from the Greek mythology, one of the secure happiness of marriage, the other of the passionate despair of love betrayed. In this last poem Catullus displays a power of creative pictorial imagination far transcending that displayed in any of the extant poetry of Alexandria. We have no means of determining what suggested the subject of the Attis to Catullus, whether the previous treatment of the subject by some Greek writer, some survival of the myth which he found still existing during his residence among the “Phrygii Campi,” or the growth of various forms of Eastern superstition and fanaticism, at Rome, in the last age of the Republic. Whatever may have been its origin, it is the finest specimen we possess, in either Greek or Latin literature, of that kind of short poem more common in modern than ancient times, in which some situation or passion entirely alien to the writer, and to his own age, is realized with dramatic intensity. 545But the genius of Catullus is, perhaps, even happier in the direct expression of personal feeling than in artistic creation, or the reproduction of tales and situations from mythology. The warmth, intensity and sincerity of his own nature are the sources of the inspiration in these poems. The most elaborate and one of the finest of them is the Epithalamium in honour of the marriage of a member of the old house of Manlius Torquatus with Vinia Aurunculeia, written in the glyconic in combination with the pherecratean metre. To this metre Catullus imparts a peculiar lightness and grace by making the trochee, instead of the spondee as in Horace’s glyconics and pherecrateans, the first foot in the line. His elegiac metre is constructed with less smoothness and regularity than that of Ovid and Tibullus or even of Propertius, but as employed by him it gives a true echo to the serious and plaintive feelings of some of his poems, while it adapts itself, as it did later in the hands of Martial, to the epigrammatic terseness of his invective. But the perfection of the art of Catullus is seen in his employment of those metres which he adapted to the Latin tongue from the earlier poets of Greece, the pure iambic trimeter, as in iv.—
“Phaselus ille quem videtis hospites,”
the scazon iambic, employed in viii. and xxxi.—
“Paeninsularum, Sirmio, insularumque,”
and the phalecian hendecasyllabic, a slight modification of the Sapphic line, which is his favourite metre for the expression of his more joyful moods, and of his lighter satiric vein. The Latin language never flowed with such ease, freshness and purity as in these poems. Their perfection consists in the entire absence of all appearance of effort or reflection, and in the fulness of life and feeling, which gives a lasting interest and charm to the most trivial incident of the passing hour. In reference to these poems Munro has said with truth and force: “A generation had yet to pass before the heroic attained to its perfection; while he (Catullus) had already produced glyconics, phalecians and iambics, each ‘one entire and perfect chrysolite,’ ‘cunningest patterns’ of excellence, such as Latium never saw before or after,—Alcaeus, Sappho, and the rest then and only then having met their match.”
The work of Catullus has not come down to us intact, as is shown by lacunae and quotations in ancient writers which cannot now be found in his poems. Out of the MSS. only three have claims to intrinsic importance. The oldest and best appears to be the Bodleian (Canon. 30). But little inferior is the Sangermanensis (Par. 14137). Of the third, the Romanus, we shall be better able to judge when its discoverer, Prof. W.G. Hale, has published his collation. None of these MSS. are older than the 14th century. One poem, 62, is, however, preserved in a MS. of the 9th century (theThuaneus, Par. 8071). Prof. R. Ellis’s discovery of the Bodleian MS. and E. Baehrens’s recognition of its value opened a new chapter in the history of the text. Ellis’s contributions comprise an indispensable commentary (ed. 2, 1889), an elaborate critical edition (ed. 2, 1878) and an English translation (1871) in the metres of the original. The text in the Oxford series, published in 1905, is inferior to those specified below. Baehrens’s edition, 2 volumes (text 1876, the second edition by K.P. Schulze is a misnomer; and Latin commentary 1885) is still of value. Amongst other editions with critical or explanatory notes or both may be mentioned those of A. Riese (1884), L. Schwabe (1886, with index verborum), B. Schmidt (1887), J.P. Postgate (1889, text differing little from that in the new Corpus Poetarunt), E. Benoist and E. Thomas, with French translation by Rostand (2 vols., 1882-1890), S.G. Owen (1893, an édition de luxe), W.T. Merrill (1893, Boston, U.S.A., with succinct English notes), A. Palmer (1896, one of the best of this scholar’s works); M. Haupt’s text of the three poets Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius, edited by J. Vahlen, reached its sixth edition in 1904. Of the numerous contributions to the textual and literary criticism of the poems may be named the papers in M. Haupt’sOpuscula, L. Schwabe’s Quaestiones Catullianae (1862), B. Schmidt’s Prolegomena, H.A.J. Munro’s Criticisms and Elucidations of Catullus(1878; second edition by J.D. Duff, 1905). Translations into English verse by J. Cranstoun (1867), Sir T. Martin (1861, 1876), R. Ellis (above); a recent version in prose with the Latin text by F.W. Cornish (1904). For further information see Teuffel’s History of Roman Literature (tr. by Warre), § 214, or the more recent accounts by M. Schanz, Geschichte der romischen Litteratur, i. §§ 102-106, and Frédéric Plessis, La Poésie latine (1909), pp. 143-173.