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Catullus. Modern bronze bust of Catullus, Sirmione. Catullus’ Life. Warning! -total absence of reliable biographical data! Gaius Valerius Catullus born 85 or 84 BC Jerome who relies on Suetonius, puts it in 87

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Modern bronze bust of Catullus, Sirmione

catullus life
Catullus’ Life
  • Warning! -total absence of reliable biographical data!
  • Gaius Valerius Catullus born 85 or 84 BC
  • Jerome who relies on Suetonius, puts it in 87
  • Father wealthy and prominent citizen of Verona, then part of Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul
  • Part of Gaul located in Italy between the Alpine foothills and the river Po
  • Inhabitants called Transpadanes
  • Father had friendly relations with Julius Caesar
  • Villa at Sirmione at Lake Garda - half-excavated ruins
catullus life4
Catullus’ Life
  • Catullus moved to Rome in 60’s returned to Verona perhaps more than once
  • Love affair with Lesbia, thought to be a pseudonym for Clodia Metelli, from 62-57 BC
  • emancipated and profligate sister of Cicero’s enemy Publius Clodius and the wife of Metellus Celer, consul in 60 BC, died in 59
  • Catullus’ brother died in 58 BC, buried near Troy
catullus life6
Catullus’ Life
  • Catullus spent year on staff of Memmius, governor of Bithynia, (Roman province on NW coast of Asia Minor) in 57-56 (the one precise date we have!)
  • Lucretius dedicated De Rerum Natura to Memmius
  • may have gone to leave Clodia and visit brother’s tomb (see poem 101 “A Final Offering at a Distant Grave”), also to acquire money
  • Caesar’s conquests on Rhine in 55 and plans to invade Britain events mentioned in poems 11 and 45
  • no poem can be dated later than 54 BC, may be year of death
traditions of poetry before catullus

Homer, Ennius

Long-winded epic

Dactylic hexameter meter

Patriotic, heroic, impersonal

Public audience

Rough-hewn narrative

Poetry should teach about world


-Callimachus, Theocritus

-small scale: lyric, elegy, epyllion (mini epic)

-lyric or elegiac meters

-private, romantic, personal

-coterie poetry, written for set

-display of wit, polish, erudition

-art for art’s sake; wit; poetry should exist in its own world

Traditions of Poetry before Catullus
catullus and the new poets novi poetae
Catullus and the New Poets “novi poetae”
  • Social and political upheaval may have influenced circle
  • Poetae novae and in Greek hoi neoteroi “the modernists”
  • Followed in footsteps of Greek Alexandrian poets of third century BC, Callimachus and Theocritus
  • his poetic circle included Calvus, Cinna, and Cornelius Nepos
catullus oeuvre
Catullus’ oeuvre
  • We have just 116 poems of Catullus, varying in length from two to 480 lines, and a few fragments; this probably represents the whole of his published work.
  • Poems 1-60 are shorter pieces, for the most part, written in a variety of meters, on a variety of topics (love poems, attacks against enemies, witty observations on contemporary mores, short hymns), and in a variety of tones.
  • Are known as the polymetric poems
oeuvre continued
Oeuvre continued
  • 25 Lesbia poems convey happiness and disallusion
  • wrote lyric poems, besides amatory, some satiric, occasional poems, epigrams
  • cameos of friends and enemies, and of chance meetings and sexual encounters
  • Coarse and amusing
  • Poems 61-68 are longer pieces, again in a variety of meters and on a variety of topics (from wedding poems to a particularly elaborate example of an epyllion or "mini-epic“)
  • Known as carmina docta
oeuvre continued12
Oeuvre continued
  • Others, including his longest (Poem 64), an account in hexameters of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, have mythological themes, but still show depth of poetic emotion.
  • Poems 69ff. are shorter pieces of varying length composed in elegiac couplets — a weightier, more reflective meter than those of poems 1-60. The subject matter of these poems parallels that of poems 1-60 for the most part, but often in a more somber or brooding tone. This is particularly true of the Lesbia poems in this part of the collection
  • These poems referred to as the epigrams
textual tradition
Textual Tradition
  • Poems of Catullus might have suffered same fate as those of Archilochus and Sappho but for a single manuscript which made its way to Verona early in 14th century
  • Text we use today based on copies of copies of copies of that text which no longer survives
textual tradition continued
Textual Tradition continued
  • Rude and obscene poetry routinely left untranslated or left out of collections all together in many editions so not to offend