Poetry of Catullus  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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erotic fiction, erotic poetry, carmina

The poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus was written towards the end of the Roman Republic. It describes the Epicurean lifestyle of the poet and his friends, as well as, most famously, his love for the woman he calls Lesbia.

Collectively, the 116 poems are known as the Carmina[1].


Sources and organization

Catullus's poems have been preserved in three manuscripts that were copied from one (of two) copies made from a lost manuscript discovered around 1300. These three surviving copies are stored at the National Library in Paris, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the Vatican Library in Rome. These manuscripts recorded Catullus's 116 carmina (three of which are now considered spurious — 18, 19 and 20 — although the numbering has been retained), which can be divided into three formal parts: sixty short poems in varying metres, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

There is no scholarly consensus on whether or not Catullus himself arranged the order of the poems. The longer poems differ from the polymetra and the epigrams not only in length but also in their subjects: There are seven hymns and one mini-epic, or epyllion, the most highly-prized form for the "new poets".

The polymetra and the epigrams can be divided into four major thematic groups (ignoring a rather large number of poems eluding such categorization):

  • poems to and about his friends (e.g., an invitation like poem 13).
  • erotic poems: some of them indicate homosexual penchants (50 and 98), but most are about women, especially about one he calls "Lesbia" (in honour of the poetess Sappho of Lesbos, source and inspiration of many of his poems); philologists have taken considerable efforts to discover her real identity, and many concluded that Lesbia was Clodia, sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher and a woman known for her generous sexuality, but this identification rests on some rather fragile assumptions. In the 116 poems found of Catullus, the poet displays a wide range of highly emotional and seemingly contradictory responses to Lesbia, ranging from tender love poems, to sadness and disappointment, and bitter sarcasm.
  • invectives: some of these often rude and sometimes downright obscene poems are targeted at friends-turned-traitors (e.g., poem 30) and other lovers of Lesbia, but many well known poets, politicians (e.g., Julius Caesar) and orators, including Cicero, are thrashed as well. However, many of these poems are humorous and craftily veil the sting of the attack. For example, Catullus writes a poem mocking a pretentious descendant of a freedman who emphasizes the letter "h" in his speech because it makes him sound more like a learned Greek by adding unnecessary Hs to words like insidias (ambush).
  • condolences: some poems of Catullus are, in fact, serious in nature. One poem, 96, comforts a friend for the death of his wife, while several others, most famously 101, lament the death of his brother.

All these poems describe the Epicurean lifestyle of Catullus and his friends, who, despite Catullus's temporary political post in Bithynia, lived withdrawn from politics. They were interested mainly in poetry and love. Above all other qualities, Catullus seems to have sought venustas (attractiveness, beauty) and "lepus" (charm). The ancient Roman concept of virtus (i.e. of virtue that had to be proved by a political or military career), which Cicero suggested as the solution to the societal problems of the late Republic, are interrogated in Catullus.

But it is not the traditional notions Catullus rejects, merely their monopolized application to the vita activa of politics and war. Indeed, he tries to reinvent these notions from a personal point of view and to introduce them into human relationships. For example, he applies the word fides, which traditionally meant faithfulness towards one's political allies, to his relationship with Lesbia and reinterprets it as unconditional faithfulness in love. So, despite seeming frivolity of his lifestyle, Catullus measured himself and his friends by quite ambitious standards.


Catullus deeply admired Sappho and Callimachus - Catullus 51 is largely a translation of a poem of the former. He was also inspired by the corruption of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and the other aristocrats of his time. Template:Expand-section


Catullus was a popular poet in the Renaissance and a central model for the neo-Latin love elegy. By 1347 Petrarch was an admirer and imitator who read the ancient poet in the Verona codex (the "V" manuscript). Catullus also influenced other humanist poets, including Panormita, Pontano, and Marullus.

Catullus influenced many English poets, including Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick. Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe wrote imitations of his shorter poems, particularly Catullus 5, and John Milton wrote of the poet's "Satyirical sharpness, or naked plainness."

He has been praised as a lyricist and translated by writers including Thomas Campion, William Wordsworth, and Louis Zukofsky.


Catullus wrote in many different meters including hendecasyllabic and elegiac couplets (common in love poetry). All of his poetry shows strong and occasionally wild emotions especially in regard to Lesbia. He also demonstrates a great sense of humour such as in Catullus 13.

Many of the literary techniques he used are still common today, including hyperbaton: plenus saculus est aranearum (Catullus 13), which translates as ‘[my] purse is all full – of cobwebs.’ He also uses anaphora eg. Salve, nec minimo puella naso nec bello pede nec…(Catullus 43) as well as tricolon and alliteration. He is also very fond of diminutives such as in Catullus 50: Hestero, Licini, die otiose/multum lusimus in meis tabellis – Yesterday, Licinius, was a day of leisure/ playing many games in my little note books.

History of the texts of Catullus poems

Far more than for major Classical poets such as Virgil and Horace, the text of Catullus' poems is in corrupt condition, with omissions and disputable word choices present in many of the poems, making textual analysis and even conjectural changes important in the study of his poems.<ref name=sh>[2]Harrison, Stephen J., Notes on the text and interpretation of Catullus, Google HTML version; for the original WordPad document available on the Web: [3], both versions accessed January 12, 2007</ref>

A single book of poems by Catullus barely survived the millennia, and the texts of a great many of the poems are considered corrupted to one extent or another from hand transmission of manuscript to manuscript. Even an early scribe lamented the poor condition of the poem and announced to readers that he was not to blame:<ref name=sh/>


Even in the twentieth century, not all the major manuscripts were known to all major scholars (or at least the importance of all of the major manuscripts was not recognized), and some important scholarly works on Catullus don't refer to them.<ref name=sh/>

Before the fourteenth century

In the Middle Ages, Catullus appears to have been barely known. In one of the few references to his poetry, Isadore of Seville quotes from the poet in the seventh century. In 966 Bishop Rather of Verona, the poet's hometown, discovered a manuscript of his poems "and reproached himself for spending day and night with Catullus' poetry." No more information on any Catullus manuscript is known again until about 1300.<ref name=usd/>

The major source manuscripts up to the fourteenth century

A small number of manuscripts were the main vehicles for preserving Catullus' poems, known by these capital-letter names. Other, minor source manuscripts are designated with lower-case letters.

In summary, these are the relationship of major Catullus manuscripts:

  • The V manuscript spawned A, which spawned O and X. The X manuscript then spawned G and R; and T is some kind of distant relative
  • O, G, R and T are known exactly, but V is lost, and we have no direct knowledge of A and X, which are deduced by scholars.

Descriptions and history of the major source manuscripts

  • T — ninth-century — contains only Catullus 62
  • V — As with the T manuscript, it was probably created in Carolingian times; it became known in the late 13th or early 14th century (late 1200s to early 1300s)<ref name=sh/> — a manuscript found in Verona and also known as the Verona Codex, is said to have been found under a bushel<ref name=usd/>, and "clearly available to various Paduan and Veronese humanists in the period 1290 – 1310".<ref name=sh/> Benvenuto de Campesanis "celebrated the discovery as the poet's resurrection from the dead".<ref name=usd/> This manuscript is now lost. V was the sole source of nearly all of the poet's surviving work. It was a "late and corrupt copy which was already the despair of its earliest scribes." Scholars had thought this manuscript spawned some of the following manuscipts, but many now think they may well have derived from an intermediate source, called A.<ref name=sh/>
  • A — late 13th to sometime in the 14th century — created from V soon after V was discovered in Verona, a scholar-deduced intermediate source of the O and X manuscripts. Its existence is deduced from the titles and divisions of the poems of the O, X, G and R manuscripts.<ref name=sh/>
  • X — probably sometime in the 14th century — scholars deduced the existence of this manuscript as a direct source of the later O manuscript. If X existed, it is lost.<ref name=sh/>
  • O — last third of the fourteenth century — now thought to be a source of the G and R manuscripts. Its importance was not presented to the public until R. Ellis brought out Catulli Veronensis Liber in 1867 (Oxford).<ref name=sh/>
  • G and R — last third of the fourteenth century — two manuscripts with close textual "proximity" that "make it clear that these two descend together" from some source. In about 1391, the X manuscript was copied for the humanist Coluccio Salutati, the chancellor of Florence. This copy is the R manuscript. Coluccio added some important marginal readings, now called "R2". Some of this material comes from the X manuscript because it is also present in G. The R manuscript, lost through an error in cataloging, was dramatically rediscovered in a dusty corner of the Vatican Library by the American scholar W.G. Hale in 1896. It helped form the basis of Ellis' Oxford Classical Text of Catullus in 1904, but didn't receive wide recognition until 1970, when it was printed in a facsimile edition by D.F.S. Thompson: The Codex Romanus of Catullus: A Collation of the Text (RhM 113: 97-110).<ref name=sh/>

In print

In 1472 the text was first really printed in Venice by printer Wendelin von Speyer. There were many manuscripts in circulation by this time. A second printed edition appeared the following year in Parma by Francesco Puteolano, who stated that he made extensive corrections of the previous edition.<ref name=sh/>

Over the next hundred years, Poliziano, Scaliger and other humanists worked on the text and "dramatically improved" it, according to Stephen J. Harrison: "the apparatus criticus of any modern edition bears eloquent witness to the activities of these fifteenth and sixteenth-century scholars."<ref name=sh/>

The divisions of poems gradually approached something very close to the modern divisions, especially with the 1577 edition of Joseph J. Scaliger, Catulli Properti Tibulli nova editio (Paris).<ref name=sh/>

"Sixteenth century Paris was an especially lively center of Catullan scholarship," one Catullus scholar has written. Scaliger's edition took a "novel approach to textual criticism. Scaliger argued that all Catullus manuscripts descended from a single, lost archetype. ... His attempt to reconstruct the characteristics of the lost archetype was also highly original. [...] [I]n the tradition of classical philology, there was no precedent for so detailed an effort at reconstruction of a lost witness."<ref name=usd/>

In 1876, Emil Baehrens brought out the first version of his edition, Catulli Veronensis Liber (two volumes; Leipzig), which basically constituted the text from G and O alone (with a number of emendations).<ref name=sh/>

In the twentieth century

The 1949 Oxford Classical Text by R.A.B. Mynors, partly because of its wide availability, has become the standard text, at least in the English-speaking world.<ref name=sh/>

One very influential article in Catullus scholarship, R.G.M. Nisbet's "Notes on the text and interpretation of Catullus" (available in Nisbet's Collected Papers on Latin Literature, Oxford, 1995), gave Nisbet's own conjectural solutions to more than 20 problematic passages of the poems. He also revived a number of older conjectures, going as far back as Renaissance scholarship, which editors had ignored.<ref name=sh/>

Another influential text of Catullus poems is that of George P. Goold, Catullus (London, 1983).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Poetry of Catullus" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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