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Slumming in Ancient Rome: World Poetry Project

Updated on February 5, 2012
Great game!!!
Great game!!!
Catallus reading, Stepan Bakalovich, 1885
Catallus reading, Stepan Bakalovich, 1885
Verona in northern Italy
Verona in northern Italy
Verona today
Verona today
ruins of the Verona arena, a popular tourist site
ruins of the Verona arena, a popular tourist site
Catallus by Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1865
Catallus by Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1865
Roman grave marker
Roman grave marker
Where was Bithynia?
Where was Bithynia?
Older maps are wonderful things.  Bithynia again.
Older maps are wonderful things. Bithynia again.
Clodia weeping, Lawrence Alma Tadema
Clodia weeping, Lawrence Alma Tadema

Before we begin looking at Catullus, a quick thank you and congratulations to the New York Giants. What a game! There have been a number of Super Bowls in my lifetime that were worth watching only for the commercials, and a few of those even had my team in them, but this was something special.

Catullus would not have played football. I imagine Cicero would be a coach, one of those who cries while peeking through his fingers to see if you are exhibiting the proper response, and when you are not, throws something instead. Julius Caesar, definitely another coach, while Augustus is more of an owner, much like Jerry Jones. Gaius Marius would be a player turned coach, threatening to resign but heartbroken and wrathful when taken up on it. Sulla is Bill Belichick all over, tending the honored ways of tradition by any means necessary, supernaturally fortunate. Catullus would be with us, at home with a beer, hot wings, and nachos, only his nachos would be served on a silver tray and he would be overly conscious of the fact that he was participating in a plebian festivity.

Catullus is an aristocrat, Gaius Valerius Catullus of Verona. His father is friend to Julius Caesar. He serves his political internship on the staff of Gaius Memmius, governor of Bithynia. Catallus should be found with the other worthy young men of his generation, striving and battling for recognition and honors, but he is not. He prefers to devote himself to poetry, to writing verses on his troubled relationship with a famous, insatiable woman--Clodia Metella, the "Lesbia" of his songs--, to private satisfactions and private risks, sharing them all with a circle of other young men who also wrote. His verses are one-half of a dialogue, and we are fortunate to have even his half to hear. The whole of Catullus comes to us through a single manuscript, a feat of transcription over centuries, delivered to Verona in the early 14th century.

For a moment recall the serious visage of the Roman man, the political creature whose center of life lay in the Forum, who feasted on reputations and gathered clients to both create and display his own power and importance. Now, follow Catullus into the arms of Clodia Metella, a married woman known for her decadence and evil influence on young men, living a high, fast life in a villa far from the Forum and all overtly political concerns. Everything around Clodia is dangerous--her vicious family, the decadence of her court, the undermining of vitality her lifestyle and entertainments represent to traditional Romans of traditional virtue. For an idea of how vicious the circle surrounding Clodia could be, I suggest you read Rubicon by Tom Holland. There are things moving in the dark of Rome that it is best not to speak of, means of winning the perpetual contest among the elite that do not fit the grave, somber mask of restraint the patricians wear, and periodically the darkness breaks out in the light both in private murders and public disorders. Of course, the Romans decry and mourn the immorality of the present age, but the darkness remains, thickens, and overwhelms this veneer of condemnation. Clodia herself is roundly and publicly proclaimed a whore by no less than Cicero when she brings suit, now a widow, against one of her lovers, Caelius, and Cicero is hired to defend him. Caelius is accused of trying to poison her, and Cicero makes it seem that, even though he did not do so, it would not be such a bad thing if he had poisoned her, even better if he had succeeded. It was not only Christians who could cast women as temptresses bringing men into evil ways against their better natures.

Catullus wrote of Clodia in 26 separate poems out of a catalogue of 116. He proclaims his love for her, his desire for her, assaults her for duplicity and infidelity. He also had an affair with a young man, Juventus, but there are only 6 poems devoted to this figure. It is the woman, powerful and malign, grantor of ecstasy and pain, that serves as the image of the carnal of which Catullus sings so well, and so frequently. There are other dalliances, other women, but Clodia remains, the spider at the center of the web. As to the remainder, they are largely made up of insults and pleas that would circulate among friends to either amuse or infuriate them. Catullus may have lived his brief life outside of politics, but not so far from it that the contest and the barbs did not influence him, only he transferred the fight from the Forum into the parlor; he did not play for power, but for reputation, for recognition within a select circle, for the smiles and applause of insiders who got the joke against the sour outsiders who did not.

The first poem by Catullus in World Poetry 's selection is neither a barb nor an erotic lyric, but a elegy for his brother who died at Troy. Catullus visited his grave during his service under Memmius. It is interesting to see both in this, "By strangers' coasts and waters" and in Carmen: 11 how the geography of empire impacts the citizens, how the geographical distance from the metropole to the provinces alienates even the powerful from their possession. His brother has died far from home, far from any land that is his own and his family, whose duty it is to see to the rites and his well-being in the next world.

By strangers' coasts and waters, many days at sea,

I come here for the rites of your unworlding,

Bringing for you, the dead, these last gifts of the living

And my words--vain sounds for the man of dust.

What does Catullus bring his dead brother? food, words, and tears. The food he brings by tradition; this ceremony is old, "appointed/Long ago for the starvelings under the earth". The tears and the words are his own. His brother has been unworlded twice, once by Rome which sent him so far from his proper soil, his customs and his lands, and once by death, which makes of him a starveling on the other side of the border.

Before we move on into the erotic lyrics at which Catullus excelled, let us pause a moment over "What for?" translated by Charles Martin, which applies directly to Rome's political life and the contest for honors he has rejected. May we detect in these lines a reason for rejecting them?

Catullus, what keeps you from killing yourself? No good reason.

That tumor Nonius sits in the chair of a magistrate,

and lying Vatinius swears by his imminent consulship.

Catullus, what keeps you from killing yourself? No good reason.

"No good reason": a poetic shrug of the shoulders and refusal to declare. Does this betray a lack of interest in politics themselves, as dull or without value? Does this suggest that the field is taken through dishonesty, bribery, and cronyism, and that rather Catullus thinks too much of the true value of politics to participate in its corruption? Is a partial explanation for Catullus's flight into decadence also contained in "No good reason"--that there is nothing of value in the Forum, and the parlor, though it also has no value, is therefore its equal, and far less fatal.

Let us move on to hate and love: odi et amo. Catullus does both, and often at the same time, with the same partner--"I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even/wants the fly while writhing", as he confesses (translated by Frank Bidart). Carmen 11 finds Catullus preparing to leave Rome accompanied by two loyal riends, Furius and Aurelius. The introductory lines provide a sketch of male companionship and fidelity, friendship, that does not end at any border, but would follow him to the end of the world, to India, the Nile, the German Rhine, Gaul, and even to the land of the far Britons. But this was only preface, for it is in the second half of the poem that we reach its intent--to decry the sexual infidelity of his (former) lover.

…Tell her to live and rut

to her heart's content with the studs she grips so tight

hundreds at once between her legs each night,

not loving a single one in honesty

but draining them dry as bone impartially.

Friends are friends, but lovers such as this are murderous.

Robert Mezey translates "He seems to me almost a god", another lyric to a woman, but this one far more tender in tone. The poet watches another man sitting in beautiful Lesbia's presence and is in wonder--for this man is not rendered senseless by her, he does not know the intoxication and disorder that strike the poet when Lesbia speaks.

But my tongue thickens, a white flame travels

Like brandy through my blood, with a mute thunder

My ears pound, and my clouded eyes are quenched by

Breakers of darkness.

This is a woman so beautiful, so intoxicating in her person, her scent, and her sound, that a poet, whose only virtue is his tongue, his power to speak, is rendered mute. The poet, trapped in the subjectivity of his own reaction, cannot imagine at that moment that a man, mortal and contingent, is capable of such resistance and self-mastery, and so this man, immune to Lesbia's effect, seems divine, or supradivine. However, the poem closes on a different note that defuses the intensity of the previous lines, that finds an excuse for Lesbia's power that does not lie in her, but in himself, and in changing the source of the problem, the cause of the intoxication, he strips his rival of divinity as well.

Idleness, Catullus, idleness injures you:

In idleness you take too wild a pleasure,

Idleness that has broken the power of princes

And prosperous kingdoms.

The closing poem from Catullus in World Poetry is "Lesbia, let us live only for loving". I suggest that you read this, and then immediately read "Corinna's Going A-Maying" by Robert Herrick. Catullus's poem as translated by Charles Martin marries lust and commerce in a metaphor that he holds from beginning to end. It is a paean to a banker's passion, illicit love in the tone of a bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth century European novel.

Lesbia, let us live only for loving,

and let us value at a single penny

all the loose flap of senile busybodies!

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

another thousand next, another hundred,

a thousand without pause & then a hundred,

until when we have run up our thousands

we will cry bankrupt, hiding our assets

from ourselves & any who would harm us,

knowing the volume of our trade in kisses.

A strange, not entirely successful poem. Herrick's, in my opinion, is far better, but I suspect this bourgeoisie hardness and commercial acumen, this greed and valuation of all things, is key to the growth and maintenance, and also to the slow fall, of the empire. Roman men knew the importance of trade, of money, of land, and the power of holding it. Catullus took into the parlor where boys played at love and suffering, sometimes very seriously, an education, understanding, and wit shaped by the more ferocious world of the Forum.


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    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      wow this is history and so much knowledge on poetry. everyone needs to read this.

      I am sharing