Ancient History & Civilisation

Catullus the Poet:
Doomed love was catnip for the X-rated poet

Gaius Valerius Catullus came from a well-to-do family in Verona, Italy, and owned a villa himself near fashionable Tivoli, but as a young man soon settled into a decadent life in Rome. As a poet in training, he idled with other ink-stained scriveners and lowlifes, striving to integrate a scruffy, streetwise vibe into his work.

He succeeded. His small book, preserved within an anthology of 116 carmina, is still around today, thrilling new generations of college kids with its smutty verses. The amazing thing is how much loftier salacious porn sounds in Latin. Reading Catullus increases the reader’s vocabulary, especially useful for conjugating difficult verb forms for unmentionable activities. Bonus points: Latin porn allows the reader to feel studious, even virtuous, reading it in a dead language.

Catallus got a great deal of his raw material (and I mean raw) from his gut-wrenching affair with Clodia Pulchra, which probably began when she was still the wife of Quintus Metellus Celer. Clodia was about thirty-five, Catallus perhaps twenty-five. He called her Lesbia in his poems.

She was bright and rebellious, an unabashed woman who liked mixing it up politically, socially, and erotically, preferably at the same time. Very much a free spirit—which was part of her attraction—Clodia refused to be confined to one husband, one lover, or even her own social rank. She insistently scandalized Rome, openly choosing cosy intimacy with her brother at times. Her husband Quintus wasn’t the compliant sort, either; they had sordid screaming matches in public. Clodia abused wine and got addicted to gambling to ease her sorrows. In short, a real handful.

Although Catullus fell hopelessly in love with her, she may not have felt as deeply. At times, Clodia preferred to be his muse, or his intellectual sparring partner.

In 59 B.C. her husband died in what were described as odd circumstances. There were nasty rumors she’d poisoned him, but Clodia was never formally accused. Once she became a new widow, she promoted Catullus to full-time lover! But his joy quickly vanished. She put him through the wringer by aardvarking his best friend Marcus Caelius Rufus at the same time. Fidelity? It clearly did not suit her. She wasn’t adverse to dallying with lower-ranking men, either. It was rumored that even slaves had known her intimately.

Catullus channeled his grief about his faithless woman into his poetry. His verse 70, for instance, says: “The woman I love says that there is no one whom she would rather marry than me, not if Jupiter himself were to woo her. Says; but what a woman says to her ardent lover should be written in wind and running water.”

Doomed love aside, the bittersweet fact remains that Catullus himself took other lovers, including a boy of tender years named Juventius, to whom he also wrote passionate, anguished poems: “I stole a kiss from you, honey-sweet Juventius, while you were playing, a kiss sweeter than sweet ambrosia.” Today he’d be likely to be hit with a child abuse charge.

In addition to his short poems, Catullus wrote a long, very loving epic to his dead brother Manius, and some traditional hymenaios marriage verses. He insulted Julius Caesar in another verse—and had to apologize. He admired Sappho, who by her era was out of fashion, immensely. In three of his poems he emulated her, perhaps translating directly from her (now-lost) works. In one poem to his Lesbia, he attempted to rewrite in Latin one of Sappho’s most famous Greek poems. In this, he may have come away the victor. Red-Letter Days &

But the unsavory fact remains that Catullus lamented his loss of love as thievery, as something valuable stolen from him. His invective or sexual verses are extremely coarse. Like the god Priapus, whose giant phallus guarded the grounds and gardens of Rome, he threatens thieves of love with rape, or worse. His morose opinion of women, including Lesbia, swung between two extremes: beloved creature or sluttish pig.

As befits a poet of what was then the modern school, Catullus died tragically young, around the age of thirty.

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