Roman bedroom (cubiculum) from the villa of P. Fannius Synistor, 40-30 bc with frescoed walls and mosaic tile floor - For more info, go to www.metmuseum.org, and type Roman bedroom in the Search box.
The following biography and poems are taken from Charles Martin's translation, The Poems of Catullus (!979, 1999). Catullus' poems are NOT numbered chronologically, but rather arranged by the kinds of poetic meter in which they are written. Catullus probably published small collections of poems himself among his friends in Rome, but the collection that has come down to us was probably put together after his death at the age of 30. The poems survived the Middle Ages in one manuscript kept in Verona by a smart bishop in the 10th century.
Martin's biography of Catullus: In 84 b.c., Gaius Valerius Catullus was born at Verona, which was then the principal city of the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul, located on the Italian side of the Alps, north of the river Po. Inhabitants of the province were called Transpadanes. Catullus came from a wealthy family: in addition to a home in Verona, he mentions an apartment in Rome, a suburban hideaway outside the city, and a villa at Sirmio. His father was a friend of Julius Caesar...
The poet had a brother to whom he was deeply attached and by whom he was encouraged to write poetry. Catullus began writing at an early age, influenced by the work of the neoterics, a group of poets then beginning to get attention in Rome. Inspired by the earlier Greek poets of Alexandria, especially Callimachus, the neoterics produced poetry that was highly self-conscious, technically sophisticated, and radically innovative.....
At what point he began his relationship with the woman he called Lesbia,* we do not know, nor can we say with certainty that we know who Lesbia was. Over the years, however, a very good circumstantial case has been made for Clodia Metelli, sister of the notorious demagogue, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and wife of Quintus Metellus Celer, who was posted to Cisalpine Gaul as governor in 62. When Metellus died in 59, Clodia began an affair with Cicero's young protege, Marcus Caelius Rufus....
Around the year 58, Catullus' brother died and was buried in Asia Minor. In poem 68, he makes it clear that his relationship with Lesbia was another source of grief. From 57 to 56, Catullus served in the province of Bithynia with his friend, the poet Gaius Cinna, as part of the entourage of Gaius Memmius, who had been posted to the province as governor. At that time, he apparently visited the grave of his brother.
On his return to Italy, he seems to have gone first to Sirmio and then to Rome, where poem 11, among others, suggests that Lesbia attempted a reconciliation, which he spurned.
In 54 b.c. Catullus died at Rome.
*Using a pseudonym for a lover that had the same number of syllables as the woman's real name was common in the aristocratic circles in Rome in which Catullus moved. His Lesbia was a married woman, probably older than he, very attractive and witty, surrounded by admirers. Catullus fell for her hard and assumed she felt the same way. He was ecstatic in their love affair. Lesbia, however, did not share his passion, and later, her infidelity hurt him badly, though he loved her still. He said, "Odi et amo -- I hate and I love." There seems to have been a reconciliation between them, but he made a final break with her before he died.Poem 1
*Cornelius Nepos was a biographer and historian. The history referred to here didn't survive.
If any of you happen to be future
readers of these trivial indecencies
and find that you can touch us without bristling,
I'd be as pleased with that as Atalanta*
was, in the story, with the golden apple
that freed her of virginity's restrictions.
*Atalanta raced each of her suitors for her hand in marriage and killed each as she came up behind him. Her last suitor, Hippomenes, however, threw golden apples in her path, and as she stopped to pick them up, she lost the race, and hence her virginity!
Sparrow, you darling pet of my beloved,
which she caresses, presses to her body
or teases with the tip of one sly finger
until you peck at it in tiny outrage!
--for there are times when my desired, shining
lady is moved to turn to you for comfort,
to find ( as I imagine) ease for ardor,
solace, a little respite for her sorrow--
if I could only play with you as she does,
and be relieved of my tormenting passion!
Cry out lamenting, Venuses and Cupids,*
and mortal men endowed with Love's refinement:
the sparrow of my lady lives no longer!
Sparrow, the darling pet of my beloved,
that was more precious to her than her eyes were;
it was her little honey, and it knew her
as well as any girl knows her own mother;
it would not ever leave my lady's bosom
but leapt up, fluttering from yon to hither,
chirruping always only to its mistress.
It now flits off on its way, goes, gloom-laden
down to where--word is--there is no returning.
Damn you, damned shades of Orcus* that devour
all mortal loveliness, for such a lovely
sparrow it was you've stolen from my keeping!
O hideous deed! O poor little sparrow!
It's your great fault that my lady goes weeping,
reddening, ruining her eyes from sorrow.
*Venuses and Cupids = plural of Venus, goddess of love, and Cupid, her son, whose arrows cause love.
*Orcus = Hades
Lesbia, let us live only for loving,
and let us value at a single penny
all the loose flap of senile busybodies!
Suns when they set are capable of rising,
but at the setting of our own brief light
night is one sleep from which we never waken.
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.
Flavius*, if your new infatuation
weren't some dull slut, you wouldn't keep silent--
you'd have to tell Catullus all about her.
I really can't imagine this hotblooded
whore you're so keen on--shame must have you tongue-tied!
You do not lie alone: even though speechless,
your little love nest is a revelation,
dripping with garlands and exotic odors,
not to mention the battered pillows scattered
around the couch gone prematurely feeble
from your incessant nighttime acrobatics!
There isn't any point to keeping quiet:
we know you're doing it--even your vanished
love-handles show how fiercely you've been fucking!
So whatever you have, whether nice or nasty,
tell us--for I would raise you and your passion
right up to heaven with my clever verses.
*We don't know who this Flavius is, but he is certainly a close enough friend of C's for C to have been in his house. Is C here doing what he says in Poem 5 he fears others will do to him and Lesbia?
My Lesbia, you ask how many kisses
would be enough to satisfy, to sate me!
--As many as the sandgrains in the desert
near Cyrene*, where silphium* is gathered,
between the shrine of Jupiter the sultry*
& the venerable sepulchre of Battus*!
--As many as the stars in the tacit night
that watch as furtive lovers lie embracing:
only to kiss you with that many kisses
would satisfy, could sate your mad Catullus!
A sum to thwart the reckoning of gossips
& baffle the spell-casting tongues of envy.
*Cyrene = a Libyan city where silphium, a medicinal herb, was gathered.
*shrine = temple of Ammon, the Egyptian Jupiter
*Battus = founding father of Cyrene
Wretched Catullus! You have to stop this nonsense,
admit that what you see has ended is over!
Once there were days which shone for you with rare brightness,
when you would follow wherever your lady led you,
the one we once loved as we will love no other;
there was no end in those days to our pleasures,
when what you wished for was what she also wanted.
Yes, there were days which shone for you with rare brightness.
Now she no longer wishes; you mustn't want it,
you've got to stop chasing her now--cut your losses,
harden your heart & hold out firmly against her.
Goodbye now, lady. Catullus' heart is hardened,
he will not look to you nor call against your wishes--
how you'll regret it when no one comes calling!
So much for you, bitch--your life is all behind you!
Now who will come to see you, thinking you lovely?
Whom will you love now, and whom will you belong to?
Whom will you kiss? And whose lips will you nibble?
But you, Catullus! You must hold out now, firmly!
Aurelius and Furius,* true comrades,
whether Catullus penetrates to where in
outermost India booms the eastern ocean's
whether he stops with Arabs or Hyrcani,
Parthian bowmen or nomadic Sagae;
or goes to Egypt, which the Nile so richly
even if he should scale the lofty Alps, or
summon to mind the mightiness of Caesar
viewing the Gallic Rhine, the dreadful Britons
at the world's far end--
you're both prepared to share in my adventures,
and any others which the gods may send me.
Back to my girl then, carry her this bitter
message, these spare words:
May she have joy and profit from her cocksmen,
go down embracing hundreds all together,
never with love, but without interruption
wringing their balls dry;
nor look to my affection as she used to,
for she has left it broken, like a flower
at the edge of a field after the plowshare
brushes it, passing.
*friends of C who have agreed to go anywhere in the Roman world with
You will dine well with me, my dear Fabullus,*
in a few days or so, the gods permitting.
--Provided you provide the many-splendored
feast, and invite your fair-complected lady,
your wine, your salt & all the entertainment!
Which is to say, my dear, if you bring dinner
you will dine well, for these days your Catullus
finds that his purse is only full of cobwebs.
But in return, you'll have from me Love's Essence,
--or what (if anything) is more delicious:
I'll let you sniff a certain charming fragrance
which Venuses and Cupids gave my lady;
one whiff of it, Fabullus, and you'll beg the
gods to transform you into nose, completely!
*another friend of C
Waiter, Falernian!* That fine old wine, boy:
pour me another bowl & make it stronger.
--Postumia, the mistress of these revels,*
loaded as the vines are, she's laid the law down:
go elsewhere, water. Go to where you're wanted,
spoiler of wine, go--pass your sober days with
sober people. Up Bacchus,* undiluted.
*Falernian = a very popular Italian wine
*At parties, a Master of Revels was chosen by a throw of dice to indicate the strength of the drinks and to preside over the making of toasts. Romans usually diluted their wine with more than an equal amount of water, so the undiluted wine and a Mistress of Revels would have been unusual, if not somewhat scandalous.
*The wine is called after the god of wine, Bacchus.
None of the other islands & peninsulas
which Neptune* floats on sheets of untroubled water
or on the desolate face of the vast ocean
please me, delight me, dear Sirmio,* as you do!
I still can't believe I've gotten back here safely
from Thynia, Bithynia*--and stand before you!
What could be better? Every care dissolving,
shedding the burden of an exhausting journey,
back home among the gods of our own household
we find at last the couch, the rest we desired!
This alone repays us for our long labors.
How are you, sexy Sirmio! Rejoice with your master,
and you too, bubbling lake of Lydian waters--
loose every last chortle of your locked-up laughter!
*Neptune = Roman god of the sea
*Sirmio = a long, narrow peninsula running out into Lake Garda in northern Italy, where C had a villa
*C has just returned from his post in Bithynia in Asia Minor after a year's absence.
Greetings to you, girl of the nose not tiny,
the feet not pretty, eyes not darkly-shadowed,
stubby fat fingers, mouth forever spraying
language that shows us your lack of refinement,
whore of that bankrupt wastrel from Formiae!*
Is it your beauty they praise in the province?
Do they compare you to our Lesbia?
Mindless, this age. And insensitive, really.
*The bankrupt lover is Mamurra, who got rich through the connivance of Caesar and Pompey and then spent the fortune. Formiae was in southern Italy.
To me that man seems like a god in heaven,
seems--may I say it?--greater than all gods are,
who sits by you & without interruption
watches you, listens
to your light laughter, which casts such confusion
onto my senses, Lesbia, that when I
gaze at you merely, all of my well-chosen
words are forgotten
as my tongue thickens & a subtle fire
runs through my body while my ears are deafened
by their own ringing & at once my eyes are
covered in darkness!
Leisure, Catullus. More than just a nuisance,
leisure: you riot, overmuch enthusing.
Fabulous cities & their sometime kings have
died of such leisure.
*This is C's version of Sappho's poem 39, "He is more than a hero."
(In this poem, C gives a merciless picture of Lesbia as a degraded street whore.)
Lesbia, Caelius*--yes, our darling,
yes, Lesbia, the Lesbia Catullus
once loved uniquely, more than any other!
--now on streetcorners & in wretched alleys
she shucks* the offspring of greathearted Remus.*
*Caelius is probably another of Clodia Metelli's lovers.
*The Latin word meant "peels" and later came to mean "robs." C imagines Lesbia as a street whore.
*Remus is one of the legendary founders of Rome.
Either a lioness from Libya's mountains
or Scylla* barking from her terrible bitch-womb
gave birth to you, so foul & so hard your heart is:
the great contempt you show as I lie here dying
with not a word from you! Such a beastly coldness.
*Scylla = a monster with six dog heads who devours sailors
My woman says there is no one whom she'd rather marry
than me, not even Jupiter,* if he came courting.
That's what she says--but what a woman says to a passionate lover
ought to be scribbled on wind, on running water.
*Jupiter = chief Roman god, equivalent to Zeus
You used to say that you wished to know only Catullus,
Lesbia, and wouldn't take even Jove* before me!
I didn't regard you just as my mistress then: I cherished you
as a father does his sons or his daughters' husbands.
Now that I know you, I burn for you even more fiercely,
though I regard you as almost utterly worthless.
How can that be, you ask? It's because such cruelty forces
lust to assume the shrunken place of affection.
*Jove = another name for Jupiter
To such a state have I been brought by your mischief, my Lesbia,
and so completely ruined by my devotion,
that I couldn't think kindly of you if you did the best only,
nor cease to love, even if you should do--everything.
*Like poem 72, C here expresses a paradox: He must still love Lesbia despite her sins, yet he cannot respect her even if she becomes a saint.
If any pleasure can come to a man through recalling
decent behavior in his relations with others,
not breaking his word, and never, in any agreement,
deceiving men by abusing vows sworn to heaven,
then countless joys will await you in old age, Catullus,
as a reward for this unrequited passion!
For all of those things which a man could possibly say or
do have all been said & done by you already,
and none of them counted for anything, thanks to her vileness!
Then why endure your self-torment any longer?
Why not abandon this wretched affair altogether,
spare yourself pain the gods don't intend you to suffer!
It's hard to break off with someone you've loved such a long time:
it's hard, but you have to do it, somehow or other.
Your only chance is to get out from under this sickness,
no matter whether or not you think you're able.
O gods, if pity is yours, or if ever to any
who lay near death you offered the gift of your mercy,
look on my suffering: if my life seems to you decent,
then tear from within me this devouring cancer,
this heavy dullness wasting the joints of my body,
completely driving every joy from my spirit!
Now I no longer ask that she love me as I love her,
or--even less likely--that she give up the others:
all that I ask for is health, an end to this foul sickness!
O gods, grant me this in exchange for my worship.
Lesbia hurls abuse at me in front of her husband:
that fatuous person finds it highly amusing!
Nothing gets through to you, jackass--for silence would signal
that she'd been cured of me, but her barking & bitching
show that not only haven't I not been forgotten,
but that this burns her: and so she rants & rages.
I hate & I love. And if you should ask how I can do both,
I couldn't say; but I feel it, and it shivers me.
Many find Quintia stunning. I find her attractive:
tall, "regal," fair in complexion--these points are granted.
But stunning? No, I deny it: the woman is scarcely venerious,*
there's no spice at all in all the length of her body!
Now Lesbia is stunning, for Lesbia's beauty is total:
and by that sum all other women are diminished.
*venerious = an odd English word made from Venus and meaning given to sexual pleasures, sexy.
No other woman can truthfully say she was cherished
as much as Lesbia was when I was her lover.
Never, in any such bond, was fidelity greater
than mine, in my love for you, ever discovered.
Lesbia never avoids a good chance to abuse me
in public, yet I'll be damned if she doesn't love me!
How can I tell? Because I'm exactly the same: I malign her
always--yet I'll be damned if I don't really love her!
(This is an elegy in honor of C's beloved older brother, who died in Asia Minor in 58 b.c. When C went to Bithynia in 57 b.c., he stopped at his brother's tomb and made traditional offerings there.)
Driven across many nations, across many oceans,
I am here, my brother, for this final parting,
to offer at last those gifts which the dead are given
and to speak in vain to your unspeaking ashes,
since bitter fortune forbids you to hear me or answer,
O my wretched brother, so abruptly taken!
But now I must celebrate grief with funeral tributes
offered the dead in the ancient way of the fathers;
accept these presents, wet with my brotherly tears, and
now & forever, my brother, hail & farewell.
She is my life. Do you think that I could ever abuse her,
the woman dearer to me than my own eyes are?
I couldn't. But love her, if I weren't forced to? I wouldn't.
Ah, you & Tappo* blow things out of proportion!
*We don't know who is meant by this nickname here, but it's obviously someone who has criticized
C for his harsh words about Lesbia, assuming that they mean a change of heart.
If ever something which someone with no expectation
desired should happen, we are rightly delighted!
And so this news is delightful--it's dearer than gold is:
you have returned to me, Lesbia, my desired!
Desired, yet never expected--but you have come back
to me! A holiday, a day of celebration!
What living man is luckier than I am? Or able
to say that anything could possibly be better?
Darling, we'll both have equal shares in the sweet love you offer,
and it will endure forever--you assure me.
O heaven, see to it that she can truly keep this promise,
that it came from her heart and was sincerely given,
so that we may spend the rest of our days in this lifelong
union, this undying compact of holy friendship.