Born into an important family in the northern Italian city of Verona, Gaius Valerius Catullus became one of Rome’s greatest poets. Known for his lyric* poetry, Catullus’s literary style broke with that of earlier Roman tradition. He derived many of his ideas from the Hellenistic* writers, especially Callimachus. His work influenced the later Roman poets Vergil and Ovid.
Before Catullus, Roman poetry was expected to serve some public purpose. Most poems were epics* that celebrated Rome, or dramas that were performed at religious festivals. Catullus, however, mocked the Roman ideal of public service, writing mostly short poems about his private emotions. His single book of 116 poems covers a wide range of subjects.
Behind the variety and intensity of the writing, Catullus’s poems display the workings of a clever and committed mind. The opening poem in his book describes the work as “thoroughly smoothed with dry pumice*.” Smoothing with pumice was how the pages of books were prepared in those days. But the opening poem also refers to the care the poet took in polishing his ideas and words.
Some of his poems written to friends and to public figures, like Caesar and Cicero, were warm with praise, while others were verbal attacks disguised in irony*. For instance, he called the orator Cicero “the best advocate of all, by as much as Catullus is the worst poet of all.” This appears to be praise, but may in fact be criticism, since Catullus probably believed himself far from the worst poet.
A subject that dominates Catullus’s poems is love and anguish. In 24 love poems, his subject is a married woman called Lesbia, modeled after a real woman named Clodia. Some of his most gentle poems concern Lesbia and her small pet sparrow. In one poem, Catullus expresses his envy for the way in which Lesbia teases the sparrow to peck at her. The poem is worded like a prayer to a god. Another poem mourns the sparrow’s death and expresses anger that the sparrow made Lesbia cry. Although it seems to express sorrow, the poem pictures the little bird hopping merrily through the underworld.
* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* pumice volcanic rock used to clean and polish materials
* irony use of words in such a way that they convey the opposite of the usual meaning
* parody work that imitates another for comic effect or ridicule
Both poems are parodies*, a literary device that the poet used to show that love could be powerful and ridiculous at the same time.
Catullus also wrote deeply emotional tributes to his dead brother, who had been buried in the region of Troy in Asia Minor. Troy was the setting of the Greek epic the Iliad. The poet addresses the city as “Troy, the bitter ash of all men and virtues, which brought wretched death even to my brother.”
Catullus’s masterpiece and longest poem (Poem 64) echoes the bitterness the poet associated with Troy. Written in the form of a short Greek epic, “The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis” is about the parents of Achilles, the Greek epic hero* of the Trojan War. Catullus broke with the epic tradition by telling the story not as a narrative but rather as a description of emotions— love, doubt, fear, and anger.
The core of Catullus’s work is sadness, best expressed in a short poem that begins Odi et amo, which means “I hate as well as love.” He viewed love as an illusion that never quite lived up to its promise. He held a similar opinion regarding the epic heroes praised by the Romans of his own day. Unlike Roman conservatives such as Cicero, Catullus thought Rome’s glory was largely an ideal—very appealing, but something that probably never actually existed. (See also Literature, Greek; Literature, Roman; Pindar; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic; Poetry, Roman; Sappho.)
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god