Roman poets, similar to other Roman artists of that period, employed an inimitable skill in acquiring exterior influences from outside cultures, effectively assimilating them and then re-engineering a Roman equivalent (Cunningham & Reich, 2010, p. 87). In poems 5, 58, 75 and 87 from the Roman poet Catullus, we see this skill exemplified.
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Catullus belonged to a generation of poets who dubbed themselves the neoterics, normally translated as “the modems,” a moniker derived from the Greek term “neoterikos,” who borrowed heavily from the school of poetry that originated in Alexandria (Burckhardt 2005 p. 122). The “new poets” like Catullus incorporated the principles and structure of Alexandrian poetry, which included “short and sharp epyllion, lyric, epigram and elegiac” (Burckhardt 2005 p. 122).
Catullus started writing poetry in mid first century B.C.E.. At that time, a poet deemed typically was Greek, and what was classed as the suitable poem was the “aristocratic epic” that catered to needs of familial honor and social status (Batstone 1999 p. 2). Contemporaries of Catullus included Q.
Lutatius Catullus, the Roman consul in the year 102 B.C., and the young Cicero, both of whom wrote Latin verse and lyric poetry designed to attend to the social needs of the moneyed class of conservative Romans, men who had achieved social status through war or statesmanship.
However in the era when Catullus began producing his works, at the time of the emperor Augustus, a poetic transformation was afoot. Roman poets began to expand their style and subject matter to include “personal lyric and erotic elegy” (Batstone 1999 p. 2). Some of the works other than Catullus’ which survive from this period include the works of Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid and a large body of work from Virgil.
In essence poetry began to be seen more as an art form, and less as an exclusive mechanism of social leverage for the small percentage of elite, powerful and well connected families. The generation of new poets from which Catullus came from combined Roman literary customs in epigram, satire, and comedy with the epic “learned and elitist aesthetic standards and values of third-century Alexandria” (Batstone 1999 p. 2).
The effect became the poetry itself grew to develop an wider, more international scope, and the subject matter itself became more personal, more connected to everyday matters such as art, sex, the state of Rome, individual and erotic passion, education, and life (Batstone 1999 p. 2).
In this way Catullus came to personify a generation of Roman poets that had started “to think and write in new and complex ways” (Batstone 1999 p. 2). In Catullus’ hands, the principles of the Alexandrian poets came to be used as lyric barbs to criticize other poets, as well as political leaders, who perpetuated the “utilitarian and patriotic old guard with their moralising epic-bashing endless stanzas” (Burckhardt 2005 p. 122).
Catullus dealt with a myriad of themes in his works, and as a rule his poetry can be construed as a union of opposites: “learning and passion; seriousness and frivolity; conservative values and revolutionary attitudes; ethical “piety” and vulgar obscenity; accounting and kissing” (Batstone 1999, p. 2). The poet wrote about everything that was important to him at that time, or that he saw reflected in his own life and the lives of his poet friends.
Therefore everything became fair game in his poems – from the larger, grander themes indicative of the Roman state, such as love, betrayal, war, sabotage and death, to somewhat less significant themes such as “napkin stealing, urine, buggery, and bad breath” (Batstone 1999, p. 2). As an example, in poems 5, 58, 75 and 87 we traverse the affair Catullus pursued with a married Roman noble woman named Clodia, the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher (Cunningham & Reich, 2010, p. 331).
Poem 5 begins with a passionate expression of love, “my darling, let us live and love for ever,” and urges Clodia to ignore the judgment of her peers: “They with no love to give, Who feel no fever, Who have no tale to tell, But one of warning – The pack of them might sell for half a farthing” (Cunningham & Reich 2010, p. 331). Poem 5 includes such lines as “kiss me, kiss again – The night is falling. Kiss me and kiss again. Nor spare thy kisses. Let thousand kisses rain, A thousand blisses” (Cunningham & Reich 2010, p. 332).
We can see from poem 5 that while the affair is passionate, within the intricate social network of Roman decorum, Clodia peers frown upon her involvement with Catullus. The instability of the relationship then becomes the subject matter of the poem. As such, Catullus ranks as one of the earliest poets to write about personal subjects that related directly to his own life.
By poem 58, we see that the affair is beginning to sour, and Catullus unleashes his venom on his former lover: “See her where throngs parade, Th’ imperial route. Plying her skill unpaid –, Rome’s prostitute” (Cunningham & Reich 2010, p. 332).
In poem 75, Catullus shows that even though the affair has ostensibly finished, he is having trouble letting go of Clodia: “The office of my heart is still to love, When I would hate” (Cunningham & Reich 2010, p. 332). Finally, in poem 87, we see the poet admit his regret in a poignantly honest confession: “I can never think again, Well of you: I try in vain; But – be false – do what you will – Lesbia! I must love you still” (Cunningham & Reich 2010, p. 332).
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Catullus played an integral role in the establishment of Augustan poetry, and his personal style displayed the deft art of “incorporating Roman cultural values into the private world of the lover (Greene, 1995, p. 86). Catullus laid the foundation for later poets to begin to write more directly and emotionally about themes that affected their real lives.
Batstone, W. W. (1999) Catullus. Ancient Roman Writers. Ed. Ward W. Briggs. Detroit: Gale Group.
Burckhardt, O. (2005) Catullus, today and always. Quadrant Jan-Feb: 122-125.
Cunningham, L. and Reich, J. (2010). Culture and values: A survey of the humanities, Vol. I, with readings (7th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth/Cengage.
Greene, E. (1995) The Catullan ego: fragmentation and the erotic self. American Journal of Philology [online], 116, (1), 77-94. Web.