Catullus and Lesbia

Catullus and Lesbia

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Lesbia and Catullus' Love Story Mix Tape

For my Latin Exam Project, I chose to create a mix tape about Catullus and Lesbia’s relationship. I used music from numerous girl bands from the ‘60s and Amy Winehouse (who was greatly influenced by the other artists I incorporated). In a blog, I wrote posts analyzing each song and how it related to Catullus and Lesbia’s relationship. I analyzed the songs to specific poems. Through analyzing these songs, I made a few revelations about what certain poems really mean or other possible meanings. For example, in poem seven the basiare, “kisses” might actually be a metaphor for love.

While writing these posts, I realized that not all of the songs that I originally wanted to incorporate would have textual evidence. As I was analyzing songs, I made sure that there was textual evidence to back up my analysis.

In class, we had discussed how Catullus had characteristic female emotions regarding Lesbia. In most relationships, the woman is deeply emotionally attached to the man. In Catullus and Lesbia’s relationship, the gender norms are switched Catullus is the one who is obsessed with Lesbia and deeply mourns the loss of their relationship. Women sang all of the songs included in my mixtape, and the love/ lover/ “baby” were all men. The Beatles changed the antecedent of the relationship in their version of “To Know Him is to Love Him”. They changed the pronoun “him” with “her”. Because of this, I started to wonder what would The Ronettes or Lesley Gore think of Catullus. Would they be shocked at his emotions and poems, or would they be proud of him for having these feelings? Relating Catullus back to modern times has been an interesting experience for me. I have more questions about what Catullus would have been like and what people today would think of him.

Catullus and Lesbia’s Sparrow | History Today

No sparrow has provoked as much affection or controversy as that commemorated by the Roman poet Catullus (c.84-54 BC). The pet of an unnamed puella – presumably his beloved ‘Lesbia’ – the bird in question appears in two short verses, each written in charming hendecasyllables. In the first, Catullus addresses the sparrow (passer) itself, as a means of discreetly declaring his affection for Lesbia. He recounts how tenderly she would hold it to her breast (in sinu) whenever she felt the need to play a silly game, or to find relief from her sorrows, and notes that she received a sharp nip when she gave it a finger to peck. His only wish is that he could play with the sparrow like she does for then, he sighs, it might lighten the heavy cares weighing on his heart – most likely because of Lesbia’s indifference. The second poem is more sombre in tone. A lament on the sparrow’s death, it begins with Catullus calling on all the ‘Venuses and Cupids’ – as well as on a number of ‘the more graceful men’ – to mourn the bird’s passing. Echoing the previous verse, he recalls how it used to hop about contentedly in her lap (a gremio) and chirped only for her. Then, moved by the memory, he curses the ‘evil shadows of Death’ for having taken from him ‘such a beautiful sparrow’ and for making the ‘eyes of [his] lady red’ and ‘swollen with weeping’.

So vivid is Catullus’ portrait of Lesbia’s sparrow that his early readers could have been forgiven for thinking it was taken from life and that its realism was intended to heighten the emotional intensity of his declaration. But the poems left room for doubt. Although sparrows were sometimes kept as pets in Roman Italy, his contemporaries would have known that they are not the most obvious of companions. With their dun-coloured feathers, dark bills and unremarkable song, they are hardly endearing and, while they seem to enjoy being close to humans, they are almost impossible to train. It may therefore have seemed unlikely that a well-bred Roman woman like Lesbia would have chosen a sparrow as a pet, let alone loved it ‘more than her own eyes’. And if Catullus’ passer was not modelled after a real bird, it was only reasonable to wonder if it might not have been intended as a metaphor for something else, perhaps something more vulgar.

Partly because of their familiarity, sparrows had long been linked with lewdness. As Richard Hooper has recently pointed out, ‘in Egyptian hieroglyphics the determinative for “little, evil, bad” was … śerau, the sparrow’. In Sappho’s poems, sparrows are shown pulling Aphrodite’s chariot in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, passeres follow in the goddess’ train and in Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis, they are described as being as salacious as doves (columbes). The grammarian Festus developed this further. In his epitome of Verrius Flaccus’ De verborum significatione, he linked them with the ‘obscene part of a man’. For Martial, such associations were the key to understanding Catullus’ poems. In a characteristically racy (if ambiguous) epigram, he insinuated that, when Catullus had spoken about Lesbia’s sparrow, he had actually been talking about his own membrum virile. When coupled with Catullus’ assertion elsewhere that poetry should be titillating, even if the poet was chaste, this suggested that the first poem should be read as a comment on the inferiority of masturbation to sex and the second as a lament on impotence.

Despite (or perhaps because of) such teasing ambiguities, Catullus’ poetry was hugely popular during his lifetime. His verses were widely admired, even by Ovid and Virgil and his sparrow poems inspired a whole subgenre of animal-themed verse. But in the decades after his death, he was eclipsed by poets like Martial, whose poems, often written in imitation of his own, were easier and more entertaining to read. By the reign of Hadrian, he had already begun to drift into obscurity. How and in what state his works survived in the centuries that followed is open to debate. At least some of his verses seem to have endured for a time. Jerome discussed him at length in his supplement to Eusebius’ Chronica and one of Catullus’ poems was included in a ninth-century florilegium (the Codex Thuaneus). But otherwise Catullus – and Lesbia’s sparrow – seem largely to have flown from view.

When Catullus’ verse resurfaced in a single, corrupt manuscript, possibly from France, in the late 13th or early 14th century, the excitement it aroused was matched only by the questions it raised. For Italian humanists the ambiguity of the sparrow poems was particularly challenging. Reading the two verses at a distance of more than a thousand years, often through the lens of their own vernacular culture, they struggled to decide what Lesbia’s passer ‘meant’, let alone how best to imitate Catullus’ depiction.

For the historian, however, these difficulties are a rare gift. Precisely because humanists had to make such an effort to ‘decipher’ Lesbia’s sparrow, the way in which they viewed that little bird tells us a great deal not just about the reception of Catullus’ works, but also about the shifting mores of humanistic culture and the role of vernacular literature in shaping attitudes towards classical texts.

New admirers

Within a few decades of his rediscovery, Catullus attracted an enthusiastic following. In Padua and his native Verona, Lovato de’ Lovati, Albertino Mussato and Guglielmo da Pastrengo all counted themselves among his admirers. Yet perhaps his most avid fan was Petrarch. Although we cannot be sure about exactly how much of Catullus’ works he had read, there is no doubt about the depth of his feeling. In the Triumphus cupidinis, Petrarch hailed Catullus as one of the three ‘great’ love poets, alongside Tibullus and Propertius and, while he quoted Catullus only sparingly, he was not averse to citing the Roman poet by name in his letters and verses. Petrarch does not, however, seem to have shown much interest in the sparrow poems. Apart from a brief allusion in a letter to Neri Morando, Lesbia’s passer left virtually no trace in his writings. Petrarch was more attracted to Catullus’ overtly mythological works. Even then, he made little effort to emulate his poetic techniques and appears to have valued him more for the sidelight he could cast on Virgil than for his own merits.

Lesbia and her Sparrow, by Edward John Poynter, British, 1907 © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

The most likely explanation for Petrarch’s indifference is that they were simply out of keeping with his understanding of both love and love poetry. Whereas Catullus conceived of love in sensual terms and saw poesia as an inherently erotic enterprise, Petrarch took almost precisely the opposite view. Grounded in a Christian Weltanschauung, Petrarch’s poetry was self-consciously chaste. His vernacular poetry – notably the Canzoniere – was devoted almost exclusively to unrequited longing, usually at a distance, the instability of temporal desires and the contrast between sacred and profane love. No matter how Catullus’ sparrow poems were interpreted, they were hence unsuitable for imitation, or even commentary. If they were ‘innocent’ (i.e., if the passer was just a bird), they were suggestive of much too intimate a setting between lover and beloved but if they were ‘obscene’ (i.e., if the passer was a membrum virile), they were simply beyond the pale.

By the mid-15th century, however, the fate of Lesbia’s sparrow had begun to change. Since Petrarch’s death, interest in Catullus’ poetry had exploded. Scores of manuscript copies had been made of his poems, albeit in a corrupt form Sicco Polenton had written a Vita of the poet, perhaps the first since antiquity and, in 1472, Vindelinus de Spira published the first printed edition of his works in a volume also containing Tibullus, Propertius and Statius’ Silvae. Although a proper critical edition would not appear until much later, a series of further printings appeared in quick succession over the following years.

As Catullus’ readership grew, his poetry found a particularly receptive audience in Naples. During the reign of Alfonso V (1396-1458), a more exuberant and permissive literary culture, far removed from the austere strictures of the previous century, began to emerge. Of the galaxy of humanists who flocked to the court, the guiding star was Giovanni Pontano. More than anyone else, he set Catullus’ works on a new footing.

Pontano wrote three collections of ‘Catulluan’ verse: Pruritus (1449), Parthenopeus sive Amores (1457) and Hendecasyllabi sive Baiae (1505). They were grounded in an entirely different conception both of Catullus and of love itself. As Julia Haig Gaisser has noted, Pontano ‘accepted the portrait of Catullus he found in Martial, read Catullus through Martial’s imitations (but with Renaissance eyes), and wrote Latin verse using Catullus’ themes and metres’. Unlike Petrarch, he also accepted that love could be sensual and saw no reason why love poetry should not include the erotic.

This opened the door to the ‘obscener’ interpretation of the sparrow. Following Martial, Pontano read passer as a sexual metaphor and was sufficiently taken with the idea to attempt his own version, albeit featuring another of Aphrodite’s birds. In Parthenopeus, he cheekily insisted that his ‘dove’ would give pleasure only to his beloved girl – and not to ‘male catamites’.

A few years later, the Tuscan humanist Angelo Poliziano developed this more fully. Reading the text through the same lens, he clarified that Catullus’ sparrow ‘conceals a more obscene reading’ and that, in offering to give a boy the passerem Catulli, Martial was using the same meaning. ‘What that is’, he added, ‘I leave to each reader to conjecture.’

Filthy versions

As Gaisser has pointed out, Pontano and Poliziano ‘set the terms’ for later ‘Renaissance imitators of Catullus’ and enshrined Lesbia’s sparrow as a dirty joke. They inspired a host of other poets, including Jacopo Sannazzaro and Janus Secundus, to attempt their own, equally filthy versions. But not everyone agreed with them. In England – where Catullus seems to have been read seriously only from the early 15th century onwards – those who imitated the sparrow poems often favoured a ‘chaste’ interpretation. Although this was, in some cases, simply a reaction against the vulgarity of continental ‘sparrow’ poems, it was more than just a rejection of Pontano and Martial. Rather, it seems to have been the result of English readers viewing Catullus through a ‘Petrarchan’ lens.

That Petrarch was regarded as the love poet par excellence at the Tudor court is well known. Writers like Thomas Wyatt and Philip Sidney sympathised greatly with his conception of love poetry as the virtuous celebration of an unrequited love. But whereas this poetic vision may have prevented Petrarch from paying much attention to the sparrow poems, Linda Grant has argued that the authority attached both to his vernacular poetry – and to his wider humanistic ‘project’ – paradoxically gave English poets a reason not only to look for a ‘chaste’ reading of Catullus’ sparrow verses, but also to integrate their ‘innocent’ Catullan birds into their own works of poetry and prose. Although John Leland, for example, decried Catullus as a ‘soft, degenerate little bugger of a poet’, he had no problem in believing that his ‘dove’ (sic) had been a bird, sincerely mourned and while John Skelton’s Boke of Phyllyp Sparrow has been much debated, Gaisser has demonstrated that it is bereft of erotic overtones.

The debate did not end there. Since the 16th century poets have argued endlessly over the meaning of Catullus’ passer and no end of verses have been produced based on the rival interpretations, or consciously playing on the ambiguity. In the early 18th century, for example, Noël Étienne Sanadon published In mortem passeris, using the sexual connotations of the bird to effect a triumph of innocence over lust Ezra Pound later teased his reader with the uncertainty of how to read the bird in his Three Cantos. Even today, classical scholars continue to argue.

It is doubtful whether any resolution will be achieved but, if the Renaissance fortunes of Lesbia’s sparrow illustrate anything, it is that a poem is never stable. How it is read, re-read, copied and imitated, reflects the reader’s relationship not just with the author’s culture, but with their own and even with the nature of poetry itself. This is, as we have seen, a treasure trove for historians, but it is also a gift to us. Each time we read Catullus’ sparrow poems – or any other verses – we are forced to look a little harder at ourselves.

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His latest book, Machiavelli: His Life and Times, is now available in paperback.

E. T. Merrill, Commentary on Catullus E. T. Merrill, Ed.

Hide browse bar Your current position in the text is marked in blue. Click anywhere in the line to jump to another position:

This text is part of:
View text chunked by:
Table of Contents:


17. Yet Catullus had no haunting fears concerning the genuineness of her love for him. He was so completely mastered by his own passion that he could not doubt hers. Their meetings, necessarily secret for the most part, on account of the lady's position, took place at the house of a friend ( c. 68.68 ). But not even the possibility of discovery restrained the ardor of the poet's soul. He poured forth his feelings most simply and unrestrainedly in a series of charming trifles. Mere childlike delight in multitudinous kisses ( cc. 5 , 7 ), daintiest pretence of lover's jealousy at the favors accorded Lesbia 's sparrow ( c. 2 ), gentle, half-smiling sympathy with her over the untimely death of her pet ( c. 3 ), flow from his pen with a perfect freedom of movement and yet with an exquisite grace and perfection in every part. And the mere thought that any proud damsel could once claim comparison with his Lesbia rouses him to hot scorn ( cc. 43 , 86 ).

18. The sight of this young poet at her feet may have been attractive to Lesbia , but it could not take the place of all other attractions. The exclusive demand his love made upon her grew irksome. He might be so wholly swallowed up in love for her as to disregard everything else, but she was not so in love with him. It flattered her vanity to hold him thus in thrall, but was tiresome if she also must have her freedom limited by the same shackles. And so she gradually turned away from him toward other pleasures. He finally met her coldness by an attempt to assert his own independence ( c. 8 ). But even in his self-exhortation to firmness in meeting indifference with indifference, he cannot forbear to dwell upon the happy days of the past, nor can he conceal his own hope for a reconciliation. Strangely enough, he seems not even to suspect infidelity on Lesbia 's part with other lovers. Though he himself had made her unfaithful to her husband, he is troubled by no fear that she may be entering upon fresh fields of conquest. Though he cannot explain her present action, he is so utterly blinded by his own passion, that he even warns her to consider the desolate lot that awaits her, if she persists in breaking with him ( c. 8.14 ff. ).

19. However misplaced was the confidence of Catullus in the force of his appeal to Lesbia , his independence of bearing was persevered in till it conquered, - at least to a certain extent. Lesbia saw that she had carried her coldness too far, and was likely to lose forever a lover whose talents and devotion were such that to be given up by him was a serious wound to her vanity. And with a shrewd calculation of the effect of such a course upon his wounded heart, she made her unexpected way into his presence, and prayed for reconciliation. As might be expected, the unsuspicious lover received her with a burst of rapture ( c. 107 ).

20. But the relations of the two lovers never could be restored to their old footing. Neither of them felt precisely as before. Lesbia had no intention of confining herself to Catullus alone, but only of numbering him as still one of her slaves. Catullus, too, had won knowledge in a hard school, and the trustful confidence he had felt in Lesbia 's full reciprocation of his love was gone. He does reproduce his former tone of joyous mirth in one poem celebrating the reconciliation ( c. 36 ), but when Lesbia appeals to the gods to bear witness to her pledge of eternal fidelity ( c. 109 ), though he joins in her prayer, it is clearly not with hearty faith, but only with a somewhat reserved desire. And with more experience, his heart is becoming a little hardened. However jesting the tone may be interpreted in which he answers Lesbia 's protestations ( c. 70 ), a strain of cynicism begins to make itself heard that is foreign to his former songs, though it has not yet become settled bitterness. But Catullus is fast learning to write epigram.

21. It was useless to suppose that he could long remain ignorant of the fact that Lesbia 's favors were not confined to him. No one but himself had ever been ignorant of the true state of the case. Rumor now began to penetrate even his fast-closed ears, and that which he perhaps had already begun to fear came with no less a shock when presenting itself in the garb of fact. The emotions it aroused apparently varied from time to time. At one moment his old passion is strong within him, and in dwelling upon the happiness of the past he deter-mines, with a pretence of philosophic carelessness that is supported by the broken staff of mythological precedent, to overlook the frailties of a mistress whose lapses from fidelity he believed were yet but occasional ( c. 68.135 ff. ). At another moment he appeals in remonstrance and grief to the friends who have become his rivals ( cc. 73 , 77 , 90 ).

22. And his perturbed soul was still further wrenched by another heavy blow that fell upon him at about the same time with these disclosures. His dearly loved brother was dead, and, to heighten the anguish of the moment, dead far away in the Troad , without a single relative near him to close his eyes, utter the last formal farewell, and place upon his tomb the customary funeral offerings. The news either reached Catullus when on a visit to his father's house at Verona , or summoned him suddenly thither from Rome . For a time this emotion dulled his sensibility to every other. He could think of nothing else. He foreswore the Muses forever, save to express the burden of his woe ( cc. 68.19 65.12 ). To the request of the influential orator Hortensius for verses, he could send only a translation from Callimachus, and the story of his tears. He must even deny ( c. 68a ) an appeal from his friend Manlius for consolation on the death of his wife, - perhaps the same Manlius for whose happy bridal he had but a short time before written an exquisite marriage-song ( c. 61 ). And even when Manlius sought to recall him to Rome by hints concerning the scandal aroused by Lesbia 's misdoings, the only answer was a sigh( c. 68.30 ).

23. Possibly other news also reached him concerning his faithless mistress. At all events when, shortly afterward, he did return to the capital, his eyes were fully opened. Not that he now ceased to love Lesbia , for that was beyond his power, and therein lay his extremest torture. He had lost all faith in her, he knew her now to be but an abandoned prostitute, and yet he could not break the chain of his old regard. 'I hate and love,' he cries, 'I know not how, but I feel the anguish of it' ( c. 85 ).

24. Though he was condemned still to love Lesbia , the former connection with her was now broken off, never to be renewed. Yet he has for her words of sorrow rather than of scorn. Even now, as formerly ( c. 104 ), he cannot malign her, although she has sunk so deep in degradation. In a simple, manly way he declares the fidelity of his love for her ( c. 87 ), and the condition to which he has now been brought by her fault and not his own ( c. 75 ). However difficult it be to associate the idea of pure affection with a passion like his, there is, nevertheless, an appeal of truth in his solemn asseveration at this moment of bitterest grief that his love for Lesbia was not merely the passion of any common man for his paid mistress, but was as the love of a father for his son ( c. 72 ). Not wholly evil, a heart that could feel such an impulse, even toward a mistaken object.

25. But however gentle his treatment of Lesbia , the rivals of Catullus found now no mercy at his hands. For them lie had but bitter scorn and anger, since he mistakenly regarded them, and not Lesbia herself, as responsible for her downfall. Egnatius and his set of companions ( cc. 37 , 39 ), Gellius ( cc. 74 , 80 , 88 , 89 , 90 , 116 ), perhaps also Aemilius ( c. 97 ), Victius ( c. 98 ), and Cominius ( c. 108 ), and other unnamed lovers ( cc. 71 , 78b ) suffer on this account from the stinging lash of his satire. Even Caelius Rufus, like Quintius an early friend of the poet ( c. 100 ), and like Quintius the subject of remonstrance a short time before ( cc. 77 , 82 ), now finds no such gentle treatment ( cc. 69 , 71 ? ). Possibly, also, the apparent fling at Hortensius in c. 95.3 , who was most kindly addressed in c. 65 , may have been prompted by personal rather than by professional jealousy. Most significant, too (cf. § 28), is the bolt aimed at a certain Lesbius (c. 79) .

26. The delights of vengeance were perhaps sweet, but they did not bring Catullus peace. The torment of his passion was still raging within him, and from that he longed to find freedom, not again in the arms of his mistress, but in victory over himself. For this he prayed most earnestly ( c. 76 ), and this he finally attained, aided partly, no doubt, by absence from the country (cf. § 29), but more by the persistency with which he kept up the struggle within himself. It may well be, however, that in these months of mental anguish are to be found the beginnings of that disease that caused his untimely death. But the conviction evidently grew upon him that Lesbia had not been led astray by his false friends, but had always been deceitful above all things, and with the clearer insight came not only a gentler feeling toward the men he had judged traitors to friendship (cf. e.g. c. 58 to Caelius Rufus), but a horror and contempt, now unmixed with pity, for Lesbia herself. And when she tried once more, in the day of his reconciliation with Caesar, and the hope of budding fortune (cf. § 41), to win him back to her, his reply was one of bitter scorn for her, though joined with a touch of sorrowful reminiscence of departed joys.

27. As part of the history of Catullus after the break with Lesbia has thus been anticipated in order to indicate the course of his struggle with himself, it may be well to pause here a few moments longer to ask who this Lesbia was. That we have in the poems of Catullus a real and not an imaginative sketch of a love-episode cannot be once doubted by him who reads. Lesbia is not a lay figure, a mere peg on which to hang fancies, like the shadowy heroines of Horace . That she was no libertina , but a woman of education and of social position, is equially clear from the passages already cited. The name Lesbia , therefore, is immediately suggestive of a pseudonym and not only the fashions of poetry, but the position of the lady herself, appear at once to justify this expedient on the part of her poet-lover. To this antecedent probability is added the direct testimony of Ovid, who says (Trist. II.427), “ sic sua lascivo cantata est saepe Catullo femina cui falsum Lesbia nomen erat ” . Apuleius carries us a step further, saying (Apol. 10), “ eadem igitur opera accusent C. Catullum quod Lesbiam pro Clodia nominarit ” . The name Lesbia is the proper metrical equivalent for Clodia, as the pseudonym of a mistress should be on the lips of a Roman lover (cf. Bentley on Hor. Carm. II.12.13 Acro on Hor. Sat. I.2.64 ). <--! Cicero 's letters, passim? - what's the n for that? -->

28. It was reserved, however, for the Italian scholars of the sixteenth century to identify this Clodia with the sister of P. Clodius Pulcher, Cicero 's foe, wife of Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer, who was praetor B.C. 63, then governor of Cisalpine Gaul, consul for the year 60 B.C., and died in 59, not without suspicion that his wife poisoned him (cf. Cic. Cael. 24.60 Quint. VIII. 6.53 ). Among almost all Catullian scholars of the present century this view has found acceptance, in spite of the express dissent of a few. The general character and course of life of this Clodia 'Quadrantaria' (cf. Cic. Cael. and Epp. passim Drumann II. p.376 ff. ) coincide with those of Lesbia , and many minor details of reference in the poems of Catullus are thus explicable. Especially it may be noted that M. Caelius Rufus (cf. cc. 100 , 77 , 69 , 58 ) was a lover of this Clodia (cf. Cic. Cael. passim ) about the year 58 B.C., and within two years became her bitter enemy. There was all the more likelihood, then, of the reconciliation between him and Catullus marked by c. 58 . And if Lesbia be this Clodia, then the Lesbius of c. 79 is her infamous brother, P. Clodius Pulcher, and the epigram becomes clear in the light of historic fact (cf. Commentary).

The National Endowment for the Humanities provided support for entering this text.

Some Queer Versions of Catullus

On Friday 26 February, the Classics Society was proud to welcome Prof. Jennifer Ingleheart, head of the Durham University Classics and Ancient History Department, to speak for LGBTQ+ History Month. Prof. Ingleheart began by talking about her experience of teaching the module ‘Language, Translation and Interpretation’ at Durham and how it had made her more aware of the relationship between classical translation and the history of sexuality, as translation of classical texts has been a way to engage with queer sexuality throughout history.

Catullus is most well-known for his poems about Lesbia and these are the poems which Prof. Ingleheart first encountered of Catullus’ work. Indeed, they had a significant influence upon her decision to become a Classicist. However, there are other objects of desire in Catullus’ work, including the figure of the boy Juventius. Catullus frequently blurs the boundaries between Lesbia and Juventius, often drawing comparisons between them, although scholars have often been reluctant to address this. In addition, while much scholarship has been dedicated to determining who the real Lesbia was and whether or not she was the infamous Clodia Metelli, little effort has been made to discover the identity of Juventius, whom many scholars have preferred to treat as literary fiction.

There is a lot of homoeroticism in Catullus, as well as intense relationships with other men. Catullus 63, in which Attis becomes a follower of Cybele, is particularly noteworthy for its exploration of gender identity. For the purpose of this talk, however, Prof. Ingleheart decided to focus on the first-person poetry, to argue that Catullus has appealed to queer translators throughout history. Most translators mentioned in this paper seem to have been queer.

Lord Byron, 1806

The first example was a poem published under the title ‘To Anna’ in the first edition and ‘To Ellen’ in the second edition of Lord Byron’s 1806 Fugitive Pieces. It is a version of Catullus 48, which was addressed to Juventius and consequently, many scholars have seen as Byron heterosexualising Catullus, a common technique of translators who dislike the homoerotic content. However, Prof. Ingleheart does not think this is the case, as the change in addressees from the first edition to the second encourages the reader to see the similarities between Lesbia and Juventius in Catullus’ work. In addition, line 10 refers to ‘The yellow harvest’s countless seed’, which is a common way of referring to semen, although there is no reference to this word in Catullus, as he refers to the Latin word for corn, aristis. Byron was rumoured to have had homosexual relationships himself, which would further support the hypothsis that he is acknowledging and even amplifying the homosexual aspects of Catullus.

Burton and Smithers, 1890

Prof. Ingleheart’s second example was Burton and Smithers’ 1890 translation and commentary of Catullus. The edition features the Latin text, followed by two translations, one each from Burton and Smithers, as well as comments, which are occasionally attributed one of them but often left anonymous.

Sir Richard Burton was an explorer, diplomat, and translator. He had become famous through his translation of Arabian Nights, with an introduction about pederasty, which became notorious and controversial because it provided one of the first discussions widely published in the UK about same-sex relations. It became a bestseller, proving to Burton that sex was popular in Victorian Britain. Burton was also rumoured to have had same-sex relations as a young man. Leonard Smithers began his career as a solicitor in Sheffield but also had an interest in rare books. He later entered the rare book trade, dealing mostly with pornographic publications. Oscar Wilde once described him as ‘the most learned erotomaniac in Europe’.

In part of the introduction to the edition, which Smithers wrote after Burton’s death, Smithers discusses how Burton ‘laid great stress on the necessity of thoroughly annotating each translation from an erotic (and especially a pederastic) point of view, but subsequent circumstances caused me to abandon that intention.’ (Smithers’ Introduction to Burton/ Smithers (1894), xv-xvi). Prof. Ingleheart published an article last year on his translation and commentary, which focuses on the erotic and pederastic in many of its notes.

In Catullus 61, the poet informs a young man that he can no longer enjoy the services of a concubinus once he is married. The masculine ending -us signifies clearly that this is a male slave and Burton emphasises this fact by translating the word as ‘He-concubine’, while Smithers’ translation, printed below it, uses ‘ingle’. The note on concubinus in line 61.123 in the commentary remarks, ‘By the shamelessness of this passage, it would seem to be quite a usual thing amongst the youthful Roman aristocracy to possess a bedfellow of their own sex.’ (Smithers’ note ad loc: 308). The openness of this passage about same-sex relations would have been extraordinary for the period, despite its ostensibly disapproving tone.

Burton’s translation of Catullus 48, addressed to Juventius, replicates the sibilance of the original Latin. His translation of basiare as ‘buss’ is striking as the words are probably etymologically linked, although the Oxford English Dictionary claims that the origins of ‘buss’ are unknown. In 1648, R. Herrick employed the word in his Hesperides: ‘Kissing and bussing differ both in this We busse our Wantons, but our Wives we kisse.’ This example demonstrates the meaning and particular connotations of the word.

In Catullus 99, also addressed to Juventius, which Prof. Ingleheart also discusses in her article published last year, Burton and Smithers note that ‘This poem shews beyond contradiction that Catullus himself was not free from the vice of paederasty, so universal among the Roman youth’ (Burton/ Smithers on 99: 1894, 313). This explicit discussion of Catullus’ relationship with Juventius, although it may seem to be condemnatory, was unusual as many scholars have claimed that Catullus only includes the figure of Juventius in his poems to imitate pederastic relationships in Greek poetry.

In Burton’s translation of Catullus 56, there is a gap in the text where a translation of trusantem should have been. Smithers claimed that he was not given Burton’s full translation after his death, as his wife censored the text by removing words which she felt were inappropriate. This censorship was, of course, ineffectual, as Smithers’ translation, which uses ‘a-thrusting’ for trusantem, is printed directly below, so that the reader would have been able to read the obscene content, despite Lady Burton’s efforts. Prof. Ingleheart argues that Smithers was trying to stir up a controversy around censorship in order to sell more copies of the book, as their translation of Catullus was less obscene than their translation of the Priapea, which had not sold well. Therefore, Smithers may have been attempting to replicate the controversy which surrounded Burton’s Arabian Nights to increase sales.

Edward Carpenter, 1902

The next example was from an early gay rights activist, Edward Carpenter, who compiled what was probably the first anthology of homosexual literature in the English language, entitled Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship. It has been referred to as the ‘buggers’ Bible’, which is extremely prejudiced and inaccurate, as it was not an anthology of erotica, but aimed to represent examples of ‘noble love’. Carpenter attributes some of the translations included in the anthology to a translator but his translation of Catullus 50 is anonymous, which may suggest that it was his own work. This poem is about two adult and equal lovers and the original Catullus is fairly physical in describing to how the poet cannot eat or sleep for longing to see his friend again. Carpenter suppresses the physical side of the poem and focuses instead on the depth of Catullus’ feelings, in order to be consistent with the high-minded tone of the volume.

Allen Ginsberg, 1995

The next example was Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo’, which alludes to Catullus 38. The poem is addressed to Jack Kerouac, announcing that he has found a new lover. Ginsberg demonstrates an intimate familiarity with complexities of the Catullan corpus in his work. Elsewhere, he deals with the theme of lovesickness, as well as other Catullus poems where he presents himself as mad, including Catullus 7, and Catullus 51, which itself is an interpretation of Sappho, fragment 31.

Harold Norse, 1955

Harold Norse’s ‘on translations of Catullus’, from his 1955 collection Rome, describes Catullus as being ‘fixed […] like a horny cat’ by translators and scholars. He also inventively plays with the words ‘pedagogue’ and ‘pederast’. In his translation of Catullus 16 in San Francisco, Summer 1976, entitled ‘pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo’, he does not translate the original Latin in its entirety but applies it to his own life in 1976. Norse does not retain the original threats of penetrative sexual actions but transforms it into a poem about pleasure. In his ‘Aureli, pater esuritionem’, a reference to Catullus 21, he prints fuck in italics, drawing attention to the word and showing that he is unafraid of using obscenity.

James Methven, 2009

James Methven produced a collection of translations of Catullus entitled Precious Asses. Methven was a Classics and English undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford. He seems to use only the most erotic of Catullus’ poems and sets them in his contemporary Oxford. He also changes the names of Lesbia and Juventius into Nel and Kyle.

In his translation of Catullus 48, which begins with the word mellitos, ‘sweet with honey’, he constantly makes reference to honey and honey-related words. This encourages the reader to count the number of times this diction is used and replicates the counting of kisses, which is the subject of the poem. The poem begins with a sweet tone and ends with a focus on the sexual and physical aspect of kisses. In his translation of Catullus 15, entitled ‘For your eyes only’, he changes the name Aurelius to Alan and makes references to features of contemporary Oxford, such as quads and specific roads, ‘the High, the Broad, Carfax, and the Turl’.

He addresses the translation of Catullus 7, entitled ‘Kiss-o-gram kiss-a-thon’, which was originally addressed to Lesbia, to Andy. This, again, opposes the attitude of scholars who are reluctant to connect the Lesbia kiss poems with those addressed to men. Whereas the name Juventius clearly indicates that he is younger than Catullus, the name Andrew is derived from the Greek aner, which suggests that this figure is older and perhaps of a similar age to the poet. The poem is extremely sexual and Methven mentions kissing Andy’s penis and anus allusively but transparently, in the lines, ‘I’d tongue you all the way round from where / Your — Birthday Boy — “shrine” stands tall as God’s to where / Your — Batty Boy — “sacred sepulchre” darkly sweats’. He ingeniously takes Catullus’ claim that the curiosi would not be able to count the kisses and translates it into the ‘bi-curious’.

Prof. Ingleheart led us through various ways in which queer translators from the nineteenth century to the present have brought out the queer aspects of Catullus into their own times and their own lives. Many of them take an opposing view to traditional scholarship which fails to connect Catullus’ depiction of his love affairs with men and women, as well as taking differing approaches to translating the obscene material which is prevalent in much of Catullus’ poetry.

Prof. Ingleheart’s article on Burton & Smithers:

Ingleheart, J. 2020. ‘Translation, Identity, and the History of Sexuality: Explorations in Burton and Smithers’ Catullus’, 395–423 in J. Henderson, R. Thomas (edd.), The Loeb Classical Library and Its Progeny (Cambridge, Mass.).

By Eleanor Cliffe, with suggested amendments by Prof. Jennifer Ingleheart.

Do you have a suggestion for a future topic? Do you have an idea to share with your friends? Send us a message and follow the Durham University Classics Society on Twitter (@DUClassSoc) and Facebook (@DUClassics Society) to keep up with this blog and our other adventures!


Gaius Valerius Catullus lived in interesting times. Born around 84 BCE and deceased sometime after 55 BCE (both dates as best as scholars can determine), those three decades witnessed the upheaval of the Republic in a political sense. For Catullus' childhood saw the dictatorship of Sulla and its proscriptions, and his death occurred at the height of the first Triumvirate. The groundwork had been lain for the subsequent civil wars that would end with empire and pseudo-monarchy. But Catullus was not especially a creature of war and politics - and this fact alone ushered in a new era of Roman culture. Catullus himself helped inaugurate the death and rebirth of old Roman culture under the auspices of increasing Hellenization.

Catullus was the son of a landed family from the provinces - in his case Verona in the Venetian lands of Cisalpine Gaul. Perhaps of Illyrian extraction, the Veneti lived a life of commerce and horse breeding on fertile plains. They resisted both Celts and Etruscans to become a staunch ally of Rome against Gaul and Carthage. By 89 BCE they likely had Latin rights and would receive full citizenship a generation later.

Catullus' father was apparently a wealthy enough local aristocrat to entertain Julius Caesar. But the young poet did not care to entreat the future dictator, whom he found arrogant and contemptuous. Catullus would take occasional snipes at Caesar and his henchmen:

They're a fine match, those shameless sods.
Those poofters, Caesar and Mamurra.
No wonder. Equivalent black marks,
One urban. The other Formian,
Are stamped indelibly on each.
Diseased alike, both didymous,
Two sciolists on one wee couch,
Peers on adultery and greed,
Rival mates among the nymphets,
They're a fine match, those shameless sods.

I am none too keen to wish to please you, Caesar,
Nor to know if you're a white man or a black.

But after Caesar extended the poet clemency, Catullus readily made amends, and the two were said to have dined together.

Not much of the poet's life is known, He was sent to Rome fairly early to finish his education, ostensibly for a political career. Catullus, like many young equestrians, served on the staff of a provincial governor. In the poet's case his duty was with propraetor C. Memmius in Bithynia In 57 BCE. Catullus would later record he did not enjoy his service there were little opportunities to enrich himself, and the propraetor was not well liked by his staff:

Once arrived there we got talking
On various topics, including
Bithynia - how were things there now
And had it made me any brass?
I answered straight - there was nothing now
For praetors themselves or their staff,
Why anyone would come back flusher,
Especially when a shit's your praetor,
Who doesn't give a toss for staff.
Poem X

No further public service is recorded for the young Veronian. Instead he turned his attentions to burgeoning cultural forces at work within the Republic.

While Rome had ties with the Hellenic world from the very beginning of its history, via the Greek colonies in the south of Italy, by the time of Catullus foreign conquests and increased commerce had brought a wave of Hellenization to those Romans educated enough to appreciate it. A kind of restless, avant-garde youth had developed with Hellenistic culture in mind at the expense of traditional Latin mores.

Those who expressed such outlets in literary terms were scorned by Cicero as the neoteroi, the new poets. While not forming a definitive circle with a coherent agenda, the neoteroi were nonetheless a relatively small brood of mostly friendly acquaintances. The majority like Catullus came from Cisalpine Gaul, and were thus not completely Romanized, perhaps allowing for greater receptiveness to non-Roman modes of thought. The neoteroi looked to Hellenistic poetry for inspiration, particularly to the Alexandrian school as exemplified by Callimachus. Callimachus had railed against Homer, both in content and style. He preferred shorter and more light hearted constructions to large epics. So too did the neoteroi protest against the standard Latin works at the time.

But it was more than a revolt against style the neoteroi were seeking for themselves a new lifestyle as well. The mos maiorum held political and military service above all else. But the young new poets sought happiness in something besides duty to the community (civitas). They wanted a life of leisure (otium), to bask in private relationships and refined pleasures. In this they held something in common with the philosophy of Epicureanism. But while the Epicureans frowned on the excessive emotional attachment of passionate love, for some neoteroi romance was the driving force of their quest for personal fulfillment.

Catullus himself looked to inspiration from Sappho, the female poet from the isle of Lesbia who wrote famously of women's affections for each other. The centerpiece of Catullus' poetry would be his unquenched desire for a female figure he aptly names Lesbia. This Lesbia has been identified by a later writer as a Clodia, whom scholars usually equate as the sister of the infamous tribune P. Clodius Pulcher and the wife of a consul, Q. Caecillius Metellus Celer. But unlike Hellenistic poetry, which treats love as light affairs, Catullus's poetry reveals an unassailable desire for endless love with this women, and subsequent hurt as the latter's treachery:

Lesbia, my will has sunk to this through your frailty
And so destroyed itself by its own kindness.
That it could neither like you, even though you were perfect,
Nor cease to love you though it stopped at nothing.

I hate and love. Perhaps you're asking why I do that?
I don't know. But I feel it happening, and I am racked.

Clodia was not only physically attractive, but intelligent and sophisticated. She was also conniving and promiscuous. Cicero, though not exactly an unbiased source, paints a dark picture of her. She was not a typical Roman women. But Catullus, as we have seen, was not a typical Roman male. He is intrigued by her wiles even as he is devastated by her infidelity. Clodia presages the sexually liberated upper class Roman female that would become increasingly common in the empire, while Catullus presages the imperial social dandies whose chief occupation would be to indulge in ambivalent and adulterous love affairs with said women:

No woman can say truly she has been loved as much
As Lesbia mine has been loved by me.
No faith so great was ever found in any contract
As on my part in love of you.

Catullus writes in three main styles. He writes sixty short poems with lyrics or in iambic. There are then eight larger poems which vary in type of meter. Finally, he composed some epigrams. He combines elegant Latin with everyday speech, all the while inspired by Alexandrian poetry. In addition to his love for Lesbia and occasional political invectives against Caesarians, Catullus also writes on mythology and religion, and aims some rather humorous jibes at a variety of people:

If the curst arm-pit goat rightly harmed anyone
Or hobbling gout deservedly torments,
That rival of yours who works away at your shared love
Has caught both troubles wonderfully aptly.
Each time he f***s he punishes the pair of them -
Sickens her with stench and kills himself with gout.

Catullus' embrace of Hellenism to transform and transcend traditional Roman mores and styles would color the emerging Augustan age. Propertius and Ovid were, like Catullus, provincial equestrians who eschewed a public life in favor of lascivious otium their elegies are enormously indebted to the Veronian poet. Later Christian Rome had little use for Catullus' poetry, which all but disappeared in the Middle Ages. It was re-discovered and better appreciated with the Renaissance. Many moderns find his works easily accessible two millenia later.

Helen, Laodamia, Lesbia: dispelling men’s myths about women

What man today would wish to be married to Helen of Troy? According to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, millennia ago King Menelaus of Sparta was married to Helen. They had serious difficulties in their marriage. In brief, after marrying Menelaus, Helen eloped with the handsome Trojan prince Paris. That adultery prompted the Trojan War and its massive slaughter of men. Helen called herself a shameless whore. Nonetheless, Menelaus welcomed her back as his wife.

Menelaus’s servant-man Eteoneus seemed to appreciate the risk of Helen committing adultery again. When two king’s sons, Telemachus and Pisistratus, arrived in regal style at Menelaus’s palace, Eteoneus asked if he should send them away. Not offering hospitality to these young men would be a serious violation of ancient Greek ethics. However, given Helen’s past behavior and the terrible Trojan War, sending the young men away might be a prudent choice.

Menelaus called Eteoneus a fool for thinking of sending the young men away. Menelaus, who favored forgetfulness with respect to Helen, instead welcomed them to his table. When Helen arrived and saw these regal, handsome young men, she was amazed:

Do we know, Menelaus, favored by Zeus, who these
men declare themselves to be who have come to our house?
Shall I lie or speak the truth? My heart bids me speak.
For never yet, I declare, have I seen one so like another,
whether man or woman — amazement holds me, as I look —

< ἴδμεν δή, Μενέλαε διοτρεφές, οἵ τινες οἵδε
ἀνδρῶν εὐχετόωνται ἱκανέμεν ἡμέτερον δῶ
ψεύσομαι ἦ ἔτυμον ἐρέω κέλεται δέ με θυμός.
οὐ γάρ πώ τινά φημι ἐοικότα ὧδε ἰδέσθαι
οὔτ᾽ ἄνδρ᾽ οὔτε γυναῖκα, σέβας μ᾽ ἔχει εἰσορόωσαν >[1]

As an astute scholar has pointed out, Helen might be thought to be re-imagining Paris coming to meet her. But recognizing a different handsome young man, she continued:

as this man resembles the greathearted Odysseus’s son,
Telemachus, whom that warrior left in his home
a newborn child when for me, a shameless whore, you Achaeans
came to the walls of Troy, pondering in your hearts fierce war.

< ὡς ὅδ᾽ Ὀδυσσῆος μεγαλήτορος υἷι ἔοικε,
Τηλεμάχῳ, τὸν ἔλειπε νέον γεγαῶτ᾽ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
κεῖνος ἀνήρ, ὅτ᾽ ἐμεῖο κυνώπιδος εἵνεκ᾽ Ἀχαιοὶ
ἤλθεθ᾽ ὑπὸ Τροίην πόλεμον θρασὺν ὁρμαίνοντες. >

Helen acted like a shameless whore in committing adultery with Prince Paris of Troy. Moreover, Helen’s epithet for Menelaus, “favored by Zeus,” recalls that Helen’s father was Zeus. Having taken the form of a swan, Zeus cuckolded King Tyndareus of Sparta to engender Helen with Tyndareus’s wife Leda. Menelaus was thus in a royal line of cuckolds. He knew that Helen was not truly a goddess, nor even a faithfully loving, flesh-and-blood woman. Yet he remained married to her.

Before modern technologies of repression and censorship, men freely discussed the dangers of marriage. Late in sixteenth-century Europe, Ponticus questioned Cornelius’s interest in marrying:

Since, Cornelius, you wish to have a wife, I seek to know:
by what motive does marriage attract you?
You assume that you would live thereafter more happily. While
I may be wrong, you will not thus choose to be blessed.
Either your wife will be ugly (no lying, I implore:
if you’re joined to such a spouse, will you be blessed?),
or she’ll be average-looking. This moderate beauty, I admit,
is best, but this moderate beauty fades quickly.
If beautiful, she’ll have a thousand adulterous men,
and you could never say, “She’s wholly mine.”
Even if she’s faithful to you (if no other happens to ask),
she’ll bear a thousand births, and bear a thousand griefs.
If sterile, with you alone she’ll thus slowly spend years.
Out of many days, none would be without strife.
You may add she’ll be stubborn-headed, clinging to her opinion,
and other traits that you can learn from many husbands.
So cease to hope then for a blessed life
rather, let your bed be celibate and without strife.
If the narrow path of happiness actually exists,
it isn’t hidden between a woman’s buttocks.

< Cum velis uxorem, Corneli, ducere: quaero
Coniugium placeat qua ratione tibi?
Scilicet ut deinceps vivas foelicior: atqui
Fallor ego, aut non hac lege beatus eris.
Uxor enim aut deformis erit, (tune, obsecro, talis
Si tibi sit coniunx iuncta, beatus eris?)
Aut forma mediocris erit: modus iste, fatemur,
Optimus at subito deperit iste modus.
Aut formosa, ideoque viris obnoxia mille,
Et de qua nequeas dicere, tota mea est.
Ut sit casta tamen, (nemo si forte rogarit),
Mille feret natos, taedia mille feret.
Aut sterilis tecum tardos sic exiget annos,
Nullus ut e multis sit sine lite dies.
His addas caput indomitum, mentemque tenacem,
Caeteraque a multis quae didicisse potes.
Desine sic igitur vitam sperare beatam,
Sic potius celebs et sine lite torus
Hic etenim si qua est felicis semita vitae,
Femineas iuxta non latet illa nates. >[2]

If Thersites had convinced all the Greek men not to marry, the Trojan War and its massive slaughter of men wouldn’t have happened. Juvenal attempted to warn his friend Postumus against marriage. Valerius sought to dissuade his friend Rufinus from marrying. None succeeded.

In most men’s minds, all women are like Laodamia of Phylace. Unlike the Spartan mothers instructing their sons to achieve victory or death, Laodamia urged her husband Protesilaus to enjoy her love. Nonetheless, Protesilaus joined all the other Greek men leaving home to besiege Troy. Laodamia urged him to guard his life in that horrific Trojan War:

Against Hector, whoever he is, if you have care for me, be on guard.
Have this name inscribed in your mindful heart!
When you have avoided him, remember to avoid others,
and think that there are many Hectors there.
And make sure that you say, as often as you prepare to fight:
“Laodamia herself commanded me to hold back.”
If it’s fated that Troy should fall to the Greek army,
it will fall without you receiving any wound.
Let Menelaus fight and strive against the enemy.
Let the husband seek his wife among enemies.
Your case is different. You fight only to live,
and to be able to return to your lady’s loyal breasts.

< Hectora, quisquis is est, si sum tibi cura, caveto
Signatum memori pectore nomen habe!
Hunc ubi vitaris, alios vitare memento
Et multos illic Hectoras esse puta
Et facito dicas, quotiens pugnare parabis:
‘Parcere me iussit Laodamia sibi.’
Si cadere Argolico fas est sub milite Troiam,
Te quoque non ullum vulnus habente cadet.
Pugnet et adversos tendat Menelaus in hostis
Hostibus e mediis nupta petenda viro est.
Causa tua est dispar tu tantum vivere pugna,
Inque pios dominae posse redire sinus. >[3]

Laodamia truly cared about gender equality. She resisted the institutional sexism and deeply entrenched gender biases of war:

Mothers of Phylace gather and cry out to me:
“Put on your royal garments, Laodamia!”
No doubt I should wear cloth soaked in purple dye
while he wages war beneath the walls of Troy?
Should I comb my hair, while his head is pressed by a helmet?
Should I wear new clothes, while my husband bears harsh arms?
As I can, I imitate your labors in my rough attire,
so they say, and I go through these times of war in sadness.

< Conveniunt matres Phylaceides et mihi clamant:
“Indue regales, Laudamia, sinus!”
Scilicet ipsa geram saturatas murice lanas,
Bella sub Iliacis moenibus ille geret?
Ipsa comas pectar, galea caput ille premetur?
Ipsa novas vestes, dura vir arma feret?
Qua possum, squalore tuos imitata labores
Dicar, et haec belli tempora tristis agam. >

Some women are combative, savage, and eager to fight men. Some men aren’t. Associating men as a gender with war is wrong. Laodamia appreciated her husband Protesilaus as a lover:

He is not suited to engage with naked steel
and bear a savage breast against opposing men.
He is able with far greater strength to love than to fight.
Let others wage war let Protesilaus love!

< Non est quem deceat nudo concurrere ferro,
Saevaque in oppositos pectora ferre viros
Fortius ille potest multo, quam pugnat, amare.
Bella gerant alii Protesilaus amet! >

Great men like Roland’s peer Oliver have distinguished themselves in love. Many other men could be love-heroes, but lamentably they live by misleading myths.

The depth and passion of men’s love for women can hardly be understood. Probably sensing his love for her, Laodamia of Phylace ardently loved her husband:

No snow-white dove ever so rejoiced in her
partner, though it’s much said that she shamelessly,
always nipping with her beak, gathers kisses,
more so than a much-willing woman sex-worker.
But you alone overcame the great madness of these doves
as soon as you were first matched with your golden-haired man.

< nec tantum niveo gavisa est ulla columbo
compar, quae multo dicitur improbius
oscula mordenti semper decerpere rostro
quam quae praecipue multivola est mulier:
sed tu horum magnos vicisti sola furores,
ut semel es flavo conciliata viro. >[4]

Laodomia’s golden-haired husband Protesilaus didn’t go to Troy because he wanted Helen or was lacking a woman’s love at home. He suffered from a mythic understanding of what it means to be a hero:

His wife, her cheeks torn in wailing, was left in Phylace
and his house was but half completed when a Trojan warrior killed him
as he leapt from his ship, by far the first of the Achaeans to Trojan land.

< τοῦ δὲ καὶ ἀμφιδρυφὴς ἄλοχος Φυλάκῃ ἐλέλειπτο
καὶ δόμος ἡμιτελής· τὸν δ᾿ ἔκτανε Δάρδανος ἀνὴρ
νηὸς ἀποθρῴσκοντα πολὺ πρώτιστον Ἀχαιῶν. >[5]

Protesilaus was thus killed in violence against men at Troy, “hateful Troy, unhappy Troy ”:

Troy, the evil, a communal grave for Asia and Europe,
Troy the bitter ashes of men and all manliness,
have you not even brought pitiful death to our brother?
Oh, brother in misery taken from me,
you a delightful light taken from your miserable brother.

< Troia (nefas) commune sepulcrum Asiae Europaeque,
Troia virum et virtutum omnium acerba cinis:
quaene etiam nostro letum miserabile fratri
attulit. Hei misero frater adempte mihi,
hei misero fratri iucundum lumen ademptum >[6]

Love lost for many of our brothers. Men who are dead cannot entertain women with stories of their daring deeds. Men need not entertain women with stories of their daring deeds. Men’s very selves are more than sufficient for truly loving women.

Men and women must be realistic. To Catullus, a woman like Lesbia was “a shining-white divine woman .” Although adored with all-too-common gyno-idolatry, that woman like Lesbia didn’t love like Laodamia. Catullus explained:

I will bear the rare infidelities of my modest mistress
so as not to be too annoying in the manner of fools.

Nonetheless, not led to me by her father’s right hand,
she comes into the house smelling of Assyrian perfumes
and gives a stolen, sweet gift in a wonderful night,
taken from the very embrace of her husband himself.
That is enough, if that alone is given to me.

< quae tamen etsi uno non est contenta Catullo,
rara verecundae furta feremus erae,
ne nimium simus stultorum more molesti:

nec tamen illa mihi dextra deducta paterna
fragrantem Assyrio venit odore domum,
sed furtiva dedit mira munuscula nocte
ipsius ex ipso dempta viri gremio.
quare illud satis est, si nobis is datur unis >

Catullus dearly loved Lesbia, or another woman like Lesbia, even though she wasn’t faithful to him:

And far before all, she who is dearer to me than myself,
my light, who living, makes it sweet for me to live.

< et longe ante omnes mihi quae me carior ipso est,
lux mea, qua viva vivere dulce mihi est. >[7]

Medieval lyric, which developed across many more centuries than Catullus’s poetry, offered a way that suits many men better:

I say that it’s a great folly
to investigate or test
one’s wife or one’s lover
as long as one wants to love her,
since one should rightly keep
from investigating through jealousy
what one would not like to discover.

< Je di que c’est granz folie
d’encerchier ne d’esprover
ne sa moullier ne s’amie
tant com l’en la veut amer,
ainz s’en doit on bien garder
d’encerchier par jalousie
ce qu’en n’i voudroit trover. >[8]

Men’s love for women doesn’t actually arise from mythic ideals in men’s minds. It arises from men’s desire to love and be loved in the flesh, with all the weaknesses and conflicts of human desire born within the chain of merely human being.

Many women and men today understand their love to depend on a shared commitment to social justice. Biological parental knowledge has long been a stark gender inequality. Women know for certain who their biological children are. Without modern DNA testing, men don’t. Moreover, modern societies impose crushing financial obligations on men who suffer unplanned parenthood and even on men who are cuckolded. Women and men in love with social justice should join hands and walk side-by-side in the struggles for equal parental knowledge for men and reproductive choice for men.[9]

[1] Odyssey 4.138-42, archaic Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Murray (1919). The subsequent quote is similarly from Odyssey 4.143-6. A. S. Kline’s translation is freely available online.

Konstan (2015), pp. 304-6, identified the subtle wit in this incident. Konstan remarked:

Telemachus is no longer a boy he is later described as entering upon manhood, and now possessing beauty or κάλλος (18.219), a word associated with sexual attractiveness and applied in the Homeric epics particularly to Paris and Helen, as well as to Odysseus when he is rejuvenated by Athena and meant to look sexy (Nausicaa falls for him).

[2] Théodore de Bèze, Iuvenilia (first edition, 1548), Epigrams 91, “Ponticus to Cornelius, on not getting married ,” Latin text from Summers (2001) p. 304, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. p. 305. For a freely available Latin text, Machard (1879).

Like many medieval and early modern scholars, Bèze was well-versed in the classics. His reference to “moderate” beauty as being best alludes to an Aristotelian ethical precept. In v. 11, “if no other happens to ask ,” Bèze invokes Ovid, Amores 1.8.43, “The only chaste woman is one who hasn’t been propositioned .”

Bèze’s subsequent epigram presents Cornelius’s contrasting evaluation. It concludes:

The path of virtue is tight, so it’s truly said.
That’s what I’m seeking, Ponticus, the road that is tight.

< Semita virtutis stricta est, si vera loquuntur.
Haec quoque quam quaero, Pontice, stricta via est. >

Epigrams 92, “Cornelius to Ponticus, on getting married ” vv. 17-8, sourced as previously. Cf. Matthew 7:14. Within this apparent double-entendre is Cornelius’s desire for a virgin’s tight vagina. Summers (2001) p. 432, note to v. 18. The contrast between semita and via similarly plays across chastity and promiscuity in women.

Théodore de Bèze became the Geneva-based spiritual leader of the Calvinists late in the sixteenth century. Today’s hate-guardians scrutinize years of social-media posts to denounce persons who have uttered offensive words. These commissars are far more doctrinaire and intolerant than Bèze and other sixteenth-century Calvinists ever were.

[3] Ovid, Heroines <Heroides>, “Laodamia to Protesilaus ,” vv. 65-78, Latin text from Ehwald (1907) Teubner edition via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of James M. Hunter (2013), A. S. Kline (2001), and the Showerman (1931) Loeb edition. The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Heroides, vv. 35-42 (Mothers of Phylace…) and 81-4 (He is not suited to engage…).

Laodamia’s love for Protesilaus is nearly incomprehensible in modern literary criticism. Underscoring the need for meninist literary criticism, Manwell (2007) includes the following section titles: “Studying Masculinity, or Why Should we care about men?” and “Studying Roman Masculinity or Why Should We Care about Dead White Men?”

Pliny the Elder observed about doves :

These possess the greatest modesty, and adultery is unknown to either sex: they do not violate the faith of marriage. They maintain house together. Unless unmated or widowed, a dove doesn’t leave its nest.

Pliny, Natural History 10.104, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Rackham (1940). Propertius 2.15.27-8 similarly suggests doves’ fidelity.

Laodamia, along with the female dove, are best interpreted as figuring Catullus:

One thing is made clear by the end of the dove simile: that Laodamia has stood for Catullus all the time. He is the extravagant kisser, and he has expressed feelings of almost fatherly love toward Lesbia.

Theodorakopoulos (2007) p. 327. Put less starkly, Laodamia refers to both Lesbia and Catullus, with Catullus more like Laodamia than Lesbia is. de Villiers (2008).

For good scholarly companions to reading Catullus 68, Theodorakopoulous (2007) and Leigh (2015). Some scholars have divided Catullus 68 into two or three poems. Leigh (2015) convincingly argues that it is one poem.

[6] Catullus, Carmina 68.89-96, sourced as previously. Troia obscena, Troia infelice is from id. v. 99. The subsequent three quotes are from vv. 70 (shining-white divine woman), 135-7, 143-7 (I will bear the rare infidelities…), and 159-60 (And far before all…). A woman being led by her father’s right hand signifies a marriage ceremony.

Brotherhood among men potentially threatens gynocentrism. Scholars working in support of the dominant ideology strive to make brotherhood among men suspect, e.g. by pitting it against men’s love for women:

But this idea of brotherhood, absorbed from the Catullan corpus, takes its place in a certain emotional geography in which brotherhood has as its concomitant, or even its motivation, a rejection of the woman.

Fitzgerald (1995) p. 213. As Walahfrid Strabo so poignantly illustrated, men are fully capable of loving men and women, both of whom are commonly their neighbors.

Literary studies of Catullus have generally lacked adequate appreciation for men within critical understanding of men’s social position. For example:

In this article, I argue that Catullus, having found the masculine vocabulary of grief inadequate, turns to the more expansive emotions and prolonged focus on the deceased offered by mythological examples of feminine mourning.

Seider (2016) p. 280. The gendered disposal of men in war, with resulting massive slaughter of men represented in epics such as the Iliad, socially constrains possibilities for men’s grief. To be adequately understood, gendered distinctions in mourning must be considered within the context of social devaluation of men’s lives. Similarly, Catullus’s wide-ranging and often outrageous performance of masculinity is best understood with respect to the constraints of dominant gynocentrism. Cf. Wray (2001).

[7] For contrasting views on Lesbia’s relation to Catullus’s beloved woman in Catullus 68, Öhrman (2009) and Rawson (2016).

According to Lowrie, aspects of the third section of Catullus 68 suggest movement to “a verbal artifact that exists outside the realm of physicality,” and it also emphasizes “blessing and life.” Lowrie (2006) pp. 129, 130. That section seems to me to embrace a mundane, embodied appreciation for women and men’s love for each other — love that’s entrenched and rooted in the realm of physicality.

Under regimes of paternity attribution by marriage, a man having sex with a married woman not his wife doesn’t face the risk of forced financial fatherhood. In a twelfth-century pseudo-Ovidian poem, Ovid recognized this advantage of having sex with married women:

If furtive sexual intercourse, as often happens, produces
a birth, her spouse will always raise it for you, because
the wife’s son is always presumed to be the husband’s.

< … si coitum furtivum ut saepe, sequatur
fetus, semper eum tibi sponsus alet, quia semper
filius uxoris praesumitur esse mariti. >

About the Old Woman <De vetula> 2.397, Latin text from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 146-8, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. On the other hand, men committing adultery have throughout history been subject to being punished with castration.

[8] Jean Renart, The Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole <Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole> vv. 3625-31, Old French text from Lecoy (1962), English translation (modified slightly) from Psaki (1995). The French trouvère Gace Brulé composed this lyric that Renart inserted into Le roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole.

In a thirteenth-century Galician-Portuguese song, the main trobairitz complained that a noble husband ignored being cuckolded:

Never have I seen such wrong
as what this nobleman does to me,
and everybody in these parts
knows exactly what I mean:
the nobleman, whenever he likes,
goes to bed with his lovely wife
and doesn’t pay me the slightest heed!

He doesn’t fear me in the least
but holds me in disdain instead,
for his wife, whom he adores,
will give him sons until she’s dead:
what nerve he has to give his name
to the three children that I made
without giving me a shred of credit!

I feel such pain I’m sure it must
be worse than any other kind:
he takes my lady off to bed,
says she’s his and spends the night
in peace without a second thought,
and when she bears a son or daughter,
he doesn’t recognize it’s mine!

< Nunca [a]tan gran torto vi
com’ eu prendo dun infançon
e quantos ena terra son,
todo-lo tẽẽ por assi:
o infançon, cada que quer,
vai-se deitar con sa molher
e nulha ren non dá por mi!

E já me nunca temerá,
ca sempre me tev’en desden
des i ar quer sa molher ben
e já sempr’ i filhos fará
si quer três filhos que fiz i,
filha-os todos pera si:
o Demo lev’ o que m’en dá!

En tan gran coita viv’ oj’ eu,
que non poderia maior:
vai-se deitar con mia senhor,
e diz do leito que é seu
e deita-s’ a dormir en paz
des i, se filh’ ou filha faz,
nono quer outorgar por meu! >

Joam Garcia de Guilhade, song of scorn , manscript B 1498, V 1108, Galician-Portuguese text and English translation from Zenith (1995) pp. 70-1. Also freely available online at Cantigas Medievais Galego-Portuguesas.

[9] Men have long struggled to understand themselves, not as instances of “man,” but as distinctively gendered human beings. Consider an academic vignette from the beginning of the twenty-first century:

the implied reader of this monograph has just staggered into my office to turn in his seminar paper after pulling an all-nighter.

He slumps into the nearest chair, then leans forward, frowning and steepling his fingers. “Remember back in the introduction, where you say ‘Catullus, c’est nous’? In reader-response terms, you mean the mental picture you get of the author is an essential part of the reading process. The reader imagines him, in the flesh, speaking to her as she reads, right? OK, according to Iser, she draws on her own knowledge and experience to fill in the gaps and naturally, if she’s a classicist, she’s going to give the author she imagines a background and life story, based on the immediate historical context, any biographical data, and so on. So what do you think happened to your Catullus, the one you imagined when you were reading the poems?”

He looks over at me expectantly. The kid has absorbed all the theory, and he can talk it even when brain-dead. He should go far in this profession.

Skinner (2003) pp. 181-2. This man graduate student in the humanities suffers from learned gender abstraction. In the U.S. today, about twice as many women as men are now earning advanced degrees in literary and humanistic fields. For data, see note [8] in my obituary for Peter Dronke. Even as this man graduate student speaks as a reader of Catullus, he imagines a woman reading Catullus. For men students’ personal well-being and the intellectual development of all students, meninist literary criticism must be welcomed and included in university literary courses.

[images] (1) Neoptolemus killing King Priam of Troy. Painting on an Attic black-figure amphora, made c. 520-510 BGC in Vulci, a Etruscan city on the west coast of central Italy. Preserved as accession # F 222 in the Louvre Museum (Paris, France). Credit: Canino Collection, 1837. Source image thanks to Jastrow / Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Catullus’s beloved Lesbia holding a sparrow. Painting by Edward John Poytner in 1907. Generously made available by flickr user eoskins under CC BY 2.0.

Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Konstan, David. 2015. “Wit and irony in the Epic Cycle.” Ch. 9 (pp. 303-327) in Fantuzzi, Marco, and Christos Tsagalis, eds. The Greek Epic Cycle and Its Ancient Reception: A Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lecoy, Félix. ed. 1962. Jean Renart. Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole. Paris: Champion. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de français médiéval, dernière révision le 30-12-2010.

Leigh, Matthew. 2015. “Illa domus illa mihi sedes: On the Interpretation of Catullus 68.” Ch. 10 (pp. 194-224) in Hunter, Richard, and S. P. Oakley, eds. Latin Literature and its Transmission: Papers in Honour of Michael Reeve. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lowrie, Michele. 2006. “Hic and Absence in Catullus 68.” Classical Philology. 101 (2): 115-132.

Manwell, Elizabeth. 2007. “Gender and Masculinity.” Ch. 7 (pp. 111-128) in Skinner (2007).

Murray, A. T., trans., revised by George E. Dimock. 1919. Homer. Odyssey. Volume I: Books 1-12. Loeb Classical Library 104. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Öhrman, Magdalena. 2009. “The Potential of Passion: The Laodamia Myth in Catullus 68b.” Ch. 3 (pp. 45-58) in Nilsson, Ingela, and Emmanuel C. Bourbouhakis, eds. Plotting with Eros: essays on the poetics of love and the erotics of reading. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum.

Psaki, Regina, ed. and trans. 1995. The Romance of the Rose or of Guillaume de Dole (Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole). New York: Garland Publishing.

Rackham, Harris, ed. and trans. 1940. Pliny. Natural History. Volume III: Books 8-11. Loeb Classical Library 353. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rawson, Andrew. 2016. “Goddess in the House? The Identification of the domina in Catullus 68.” Paper presented at the 112th meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (US). Williamsburgh, VA. March 16-16, 2016.

Skinner, Marilyn B. 2003. Catullus in Verona: a reading of the Elegiac libellus, poems 65-116. Columbus: Ohio State University Press

Skinner, Marilyn B., ed. 2007. A Companion to Catullus. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Summers, Kirk M., ed. and trans. 2001. A View from the Palatine: the Iuvenilia of Théodore de Bèze. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, v. 237. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Theodorakopoulous, Elena. 2007. “Poem 68: Love and Death, and the Gifts of the Muses.” Ch. 18 (pp. 314-332) in Skinner (2007).

Wray, David. 2001. Catullus and the Poetics of Roman Manhood. Cambrdige, UK: Cambridge University Press. (review by Marilyn Skinner)

Zenith, Richard, trans. 1995. 113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, in association with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Instituto Camões.

Catullus: a passionate poetic voice from ancient Rome

Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal, by T. P. Wiseman. New York: Cambridge University Press. 287 pp. $39.50. The famous image of the girl holding, in one hand, an iron stylus against her lip and in the other a diptych, or pair of hinged wax tablets, comes from a wall in Pompeii. In her eyes, we see the universal gaze of thought on the verge of expression in her writing equipment, the particular technique common to her time and place.

The disaster that struck Pompeii in AD 79 when Vesuvius erupted turned that wall into rubble. The image is a reconstruction. But it has the nostalgic appeal of a fragment: We supply half the meaning. We give it power.

The danger is obvious: Perhaps we give fragments of the past the wrong meaning.

In his reappraisal of the poet known to us as Gaius Valerius Catullus, a poet of the late Roman Republic (the age of Caesar and Pompey and Cicero), T. P. Wiseman has retrieved Catullus for us by showing how different he was from us.

Paradoxically, showing how different he was only makes him seem more familiar.

Catullus lived in a culture where public torture was common. Public violence extended into sadistic forms of sex. The first part of Wiseman's book discusses these and other aspects of Roman life, thus setting the scene for his reappraisal of the poems of Catullus.

Catullus's most famous poem is only two lines long. It tells us something about Catullus's view of his own complex emotional life. And it expresses the conflicts of romantic passion with memorable concision. Here it is in J. V. Cunningham's translation: ``I hate and love her. If you ask me why/ I don't know. But I feel it and am torn.''

Odi et amo, as it is called (quoting the first sentence), is one of the tamer poems. Many of Catullus's short poems are rude in a way modern taste can't accept. But, as Wiseman shows, the anger, sometimes expressed in obscene gibes, was directed at what would still be considered intolerable behavior. The gibes may be addressed to contemporary figures otherwise unknown, or they may be addressed to one Lesbia, whom Catullus loved with a passion of medieval intensity, but who had little capacity for returning the favor.

We do not know who Lesbia really was. From evidence outside the poems, Wiseman reconstructs the type of woman she must have been. Whereas Catullus was from a successful farming family, Lesbia was part of the ruling party of Rome.

Catullus's point of view was that of the ancient traditions of the Roman countryside, which stressed fidelity and loyalty, piety and marriage and family, while Lesbia belonged to a set in which the sophistication of the senses was an end in itself, a set enamored of corrupt forms of pleasure that the traditional Roman rejected as foreign, Eastern. And yet, as scholars have shown, Latin literature of the late Republic and Empire owes much to Hellenistic standards of refinement and sophistication.

The love poems of Catullus grow out of the shock of conflicting cultures. His anger, his indignation, was directed at a world Catullus didn't belong in, but that, in the form of Lesbia, he was attracted to.

He was attracted to a refinement of sensibility that, as an artist, he reconceived in artistic terms. As a poet, Catullus is a docta poeta -- a learned poet. Recent scholarship such as Wiseman's uncovers the Hellenistic heritage of the Roman poets. (The same refinement can be seen in the painting from Pompeii.)

It's Wiseman's contribution to show us the conflict between this sophistication and Catullus's moral intentions.

The conflict led to some great poetry, none so great perhaps as the so-called Attis poem. Earlier scholars and editors thought it must be a translation of a Greek original.

Wiseman helps us see how much of Catullus's personal experience went into this often terrifying, highly compressed, elliptical poem about the cult of the Great Mother, which invaded Italy from the East in the 3rd century BC.

From his humiliating experience with Lesbia, Catullus knew the madness and slavery that was the lot of the devotee of the goddess.

As Wiseman remarks, Lesbia and the Great Mother inhabited ``a moral wilderness, where the values he had been brought up with did not apply: fides and pietas were treated with contempt, and the responsibilities of marriage and the family were corrupted into incest and perversion.''

Catullus was not all outrage. Piety and fidelity come through in his marvelous poems to friends and family. Refined perceptions make his so-called sparrow poems favorites with readers who know nothing about Lesbia. Many poems reflect what Wiseman calls ``the beauty of innocence'' and its vulnerability, an innocence nicely translated in the rhythms of Richard Lovelace's 17th-century version of one of the short poems:

That me alone you lov'd, you once did say,

Nor should I to the King of gods give way,

Then I lov'd thee not as a common dear,

But as a Father doth his children chear

Now thee I know, more bitterly I smart,

Yet thou to me more light and cheaper art.

What pow'r is this? that such a wrong should

Me to love more, yet wish thee well much lesse.

In a way, that poem says it all: Catullus may compare his love for Lesbia to that of a father for his children, but her indifference to his refined moral attitude only gives him access to the bitter knowledge of the ``cheapness'' of her behavior.

Sometimes the ``innocence'' of Catullus bears a striking resemblance to the refinement of that face from the wall in Pompeii. We are grateful to Wiseman for recovering it for us in his elegant (and expensive) reappraisal of the poet we call Gaius Valerius Catullus.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.


Nearly lost forever in the Middle Ages, his work has survived thanks to a single manuscript, an anthology that may or may not have been arranged by Catullus himself. Catullus’ poems have been preserved in an anthology of 116 “carmina” (verses), although three of these (numbers 18, 19 and 20) are now considered spurious. The poems are often divided into three formal parts: sixty short poems in varying metres (or “polymetra”), eight longer poems (seven hymns and one mini-epic) and forty-eight epigrams.

Catullus’ poetry was influenced by the innovative poetry of the Hellenistic Age, especially that of Callimachus and the Alexandrian school, which propagated a new style of poetry, known as “neoteric”, which deliberately turned away from the classical epic poetry in the tradition of Homer, focusing instead on small-scale personal themes using very careful and artistically composed language. Catullus was also an admirer of the lyric poetry of Sappho and sometimes used a metre called the Sapphic strophe which she had developed. However, he wrote in many different metres, including hendecasyllabic and elegiac couplets, which were commonly used in love poetry.

Almost all of his poetry shows strong (occasionally wild) emotions, especially in regard to Lesbia, who appears in 26 of his 116 surviving poems, although he could also demonstrate a sense of humour. Some of his poems are rude (sometimes downright obscene), often targeted at friends-turned-traitors, other lovers of Lesbia, rival poets and politicians.

He developed many literary techniques still in common use today, including hyperbaton (where words that naturally belong together are separated from each other for emphasis or effect), anaphora (emphasizing words by repeating them at the beginnings of neighbouring clauses), tricolon (a sentence with three clearly defined parts of equal length and of increasing power) and alliteration (the repeated occurrence of a consonant sound at the beginning of several words in the same phrase).

Watch the video: To Lesbia Gaius Valerius Catullus Full AudioBook (May 2022).


  1. Math

    Also that we would do without your magnificent idea

  2. Negasi

    the Incomparable topic, it is very interesting to me :)

  3. Faran

    as you would read carefully, but you have not understood

  4. Elgine

    I join told all above. We can communicate on this theme.

  5. Micage

    I think you are not right. We will discuss it. Write in PM, we will communicate.

  6. Falken

    he is absolutely right

Write a message