Last updated

Modern bust of Catullus on the Piazza Carducci in Sirmione. Catull Sirmione.jpg
Modern bust of Catullus on the Piazza Carducci in Sirmione.

Gaius Valerius Catullus ( Classical Latin:  [ˈɡaːiʊs waˈɫɛriʊs kaˈtʊlːʊs] ; c. 84 - c. 54 BCE), often referred to simply as Catullus ( Classical Latin:  [kaˈtʊlːʊs] , kə-TUL-əs), was a Latin poet of the late Roman Republic who wrote chiefly in the neoteric style of poetry, focusing on personal life rather than classical heroes. His surviving works are still read widely and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art.


Catullus's poems were widely appreciated by contemporary poets, significantly influencing Ovid and Virgil, among others. After his rediscovery in the Late Middle Ages, Catullus again found admirers such as Petrarch. The explicit sexual imagery which he uses in some of his poems has shocked many readers. Yet, at many instruction levels, Catullus is considered a resource for teachers of Latin. [2]

Catullus's style is highly personal, humorous, and emotional; he frequently uses hyperbole, anaphora, alliteration, and diminutives. In 25 of his poems he mentions his devotion to a woman he refers to as "Lesbia", who is widely believed to have been the Roman aristocrat Clodia Metelli. One of the most famous of his poems is his 5th, which is often recognized for its passionate language and opening line: "Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus" ("Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love").


Gāius Valerius Catullus was born to a leading equestrian family of Verona, in Cisalpine Gaul. The social prominence of the Catullus family allowed the father of Gaius Valerius to entertain Julius Caesar when he was the Promagistrate (proconsul) of both Gallic provinces. [3] In a poem, Catullus describes his happy homecoming to the family villa at Sirmio, on Lake Garda, near Verona; he also owned a villa near the resort of Tibur (modern Tivoli). [3]

Catullus appears to have spent most of his young adult years in Rome. His friends there included the poets Licinius Calvus, and Helvius Cinna, Quintus Hortensius (son of the orator and rival of Cicero) and the biographer Cornelius Nepos, to whom Catullus dedicated a libellus of poems, [3] the relation of which to the extant collection remains a matter of debate. [4] He appears to have been acquainted with the poet Marcus Furius Bibaculus. A number of prominent contemporaries appear in his poetry, including Cicero, Caesar and Pompey. According to an anecdote preserved by Suetonius, Caesar did not deny that Catullus's lampoons left an indelible stain on his reputation, but when Catullus apologized, he invited the poet for dinner the very same day. [5]

Catullus at Lesbia's by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema Catullus-at-Lesbia's-large.jpg
Catullus at Lesbia's by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

It was probably in Rome that Catullus fell deeply in love with the "Lesbia" of his poems, who is usually identified with Clodia Metelli, a sophisticated woman from the aristocratic house of patrician family Claudii Pulchri, sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, and wife to proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. In his poems Catullus describes several stages of their relationship: initial euphoria, doubts, separation, and his wrenching feelings of loss. Clodia had several other partners; "From the poems one can adduce no fewer than five lovers in addition to Catullus: Egnatius (poem 37), Gellius (poem 91), Quintius (poem 82), Rufus (poem 77), and Lesbius (poem 79)." There is also some question surrounding her husband's mysterious death in 59 BCE, with some critics believing he was domestically poisoned. However, a sensitive and passionate Catullus could not relinquish his flame for Clodia, regardless of her obvious indifference to his desire for a deep and permanent relationship. In his poems, Catullus wavers between devout, sweltering love and bitter, scornful insults that he directs at her blatant infidelity (as demonstrated in poems 11 and 58). His passion for her is unrelenting—yet it is unclear when exactly the couple split up for good. Catullus's poems about the relationship display striking depth and psychological insight. [6]

He spent the provincial command year summer 57 to summer 56 BCE in Bithynia on the staff of the commander Gaius Memmius. While in the East, he traveled to the Troad to perform rites at his brother's tomb, an event recorded in a moving poem. [3]

Bithynia within the Roman Empire Roman Empire - Bythinia et Pontus (125 AD).svg
Bithynia within the Roman Empire

No ancient biography of Catullus has survived: his life has to be pieced together from scattered references to him in other ancient authors and from his poems. Thus it is uncertain when he was born and when he died. St. Jerome says that he died in his 30th year, and was born in 87 BCE. But the poems include references to events of 55 and 54 BCE. Since the Roman consular fasti make it somewhat easy to confuse 87–57 BCE with 84–54 BCE, many scholars accept the dates 84 BC–54 BCE, [3] supposing that his latest poems and the publication of his libellus coincided with the year of his death. Other authors suggest 52 or 51 BCE as the year of the poet's death. [7] Though upon his elder brother's death Catullus lamented that their "whole house was buried along" with the deceased, the existence (and prominence) of Valerii Catulli is attested in the following centuries. T.P. Wiseman argues that after the brother's death Catullus could have married, and that, in this case, the later Valerii Catulli may have been his descendants. [8]


Catullus et in eum commentarius (1554) Catullus et in eum commentarius.tif
Catullus et in eum commentarius (1554)

Sources and organization

Catullus's poems have been preserved in an anthology of 116 carmina (the actual number of poems may slightly vary in various editions), which can be divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra , eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

There is no scholarly consensus on whether 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 that elude such categorization):

All these poems describe the lifestyle of Catullus and his friends, who, despite Catullus's temporary political post in Bithynia, lived their lives withdrawn from politics. They were interested mainly in poetry and love. Above all other qualities, Catullus seems to have valued venustas, or charm, in his acquaintances, a theme which he explores in a number of his poems. 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, meant little to them.

However Catullus does not reject traditional notions, but rather their particular 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 the seeming frivolity of his lifestyle, Catullus measured himself and his friends by quite ambitious standards.

Intellectual influences

Lesbia, 1878 painting by John Reinhard Weguelin inspired by the poems of Catullus John Reinhard Weguelin Lesbia.jpg
Lesbia, 1878 painting by John Reinhard Weguelin inspired by the poems of Catullus

Catullus's poetry was influenced by the innovative poetry of the Hellenistic Age, and especially by Callimachus and the Alexandrian school, which had propagated a new style of poetry that deliberately turned away from the classical epic poetry in the tradition of Homer. Cicero called these local innovators neoteroi (νεώτεροι) or "moderns" (in Latin poetae novi or 'new poets'), in that they cast off the heroic model handed down from Ennius in order to strike new ground and ring a contemporary note. Catullus and Callimachus did not describe the feats of ancient heroes and gods (except perhaps in re-evaluating and predominantly artistic circumstances, e.g. poems 63 and 64), focusing instead on small-scale personal themes. Although these poems sometimes seem quite superficial and their subjects often are mere everyday concerns, they are accomplished works of art. Catullus described his work as expolitum, or polished, to show that the language he used was very carefully and artistically composed.

Catullus was also an admirer of Sappho, a female poet of the seventh century BCE. Catullus 51 partly translates, partly imitates, and transforms Sappho 31. Some hypothesize that 61 and 62 were perhaps inspired by lost works of Sappho but this is purely speculative. Both of the latter are epithalamia , a form of laudatory or erotic wedding-poetry that Sappho was famous for. Catullus twice used a meter that Sappho was known for, called the Sapphic stanza, in poems 11 and 51, perhaps prompting his successor Horace's interest in the form.

Catullus, as was common to his era, was greatly influenced by stories from Greek and Roman myth. His longer poems—such as 63, 64, 65, 66, and 68—allude to mythology in various ways. Some stories he refers to are the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the departure of the Argonauts, Theseus and the Minotaur, Ariadne's abandonment, Tereus and Procne, as well as Protesilaus and Laodamia.


Catullus wrote in many different meters including hendecasyllabic verse and elegiac couplets (common in love poetry). A great part of his poetry shows strong and occasionally wild emotions, especially in regard to Lesbia (e.g., poems 5 and 7). His love poems are very emotional and ardent, and we can relate to them even today. Catullus describes his Lesbia as having multiple suitors and often showing little affection towards him. He also demonstrates a great sense of humour such as in Catullus 13.

Musical settings

Catullus Dreams (2011) is a song cycle by David Glaser set to texts of Catullus. The cycle is scored for soprano and seven instruments. It was premiered at Symphony Space in New York by soprano Linda Larson and Sequitur Ensemble.

Catulli Carmina is a cantata by Carl Orff set to the texts of Catullus.

"Carmina Catulli" is a song cycle arranged from 17 of Catullus's poems by American composer Michael Linton. The cycle was recorded in December 2013 and premiered at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in March 2014 by French baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer and pianist Jason Paul Peterson. [9] [10] [11]

Dutch composer Bertha Tideman-Wijers used Catullus's text for her composition Variations on Valerius "Where that one already turns or turns." [12]

Catullus 5, the love poem "Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus", in the translation by Ben Jonson, was set to music [13] (lute accompanied song) by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger. Thomas Campion also wrote a lute-song using his own translation of the first six lines of Catullus 5 followed by two verses of his own. The translation by Richard Crashaw was set to music [14] in a four-part glee by Samuel Webbe Jr. It was also set to music [15] in a three-part glee by John Stafford Smith. The Hungarian born British composer Matyas Seiber set poem 31 for unaccompanied mixed chorus Sirmio in 1957. Finnish jazz singer Reine Rimón has recorded poems of Catullus set to standard jazz tunes.

The American composer Ned Rorem set Catullus 101 to music for voice and piano. The song, "Catallus: on the Burial of His Brother", was originally published in 1969.

The Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson set Catullus 85 to music. The poem is sung through a vocoder. The music is played by a string quartet and piano. Titled "Odi Et Amo", the song is found on Jóhannsson's album Englabörn .

Cultural depictions

See also

Related Research Articles

The elegiac couplet is a poetic form used by Greek lyric poets for a variety of themes usually of smaller scale than the epic. Roman poets, particularly Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, adopted the same form in Latin many years later. As with the English heroic couplet, each pair of lines usually makes sense on its own, while forming part of a larger work.

<i>Catulli Carmina</i> 1940 cantata by Carl Orff

Catulli Carmina is a cantata by Carl Orff dating from 1940–1943. He described it as ludi scaenici. The work mostly sets poems of the Latin poet Catullus to music, with some text by the composer. Catulli Carmina is part of Trionfi, the musical trilogy that also includes the Carmina Burana and Trionfo di Afrodite. It is scored for a full mixed choir, soprano and tenor soloists, and an entirely percussive orchestra – possibly inspired by Stravinsky's Les noces – consisting of four pianos, timpani, bass drum, 3 tambourines, triangle, castanets, maracas, suspended and crash cymbals, antique cymbal, tam-tam, lithophone, metallophone, 2 glockenspiels, wood block, xylophone, and tenor xylophone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clodia (wife of Metellus)</span> Roman aristocrat

Clodia, nicknamed Quadrantaria, Nola, Medea Palatina by Cicero, and occasionally referred to in scholarship as Clodia Metelli, was one of three known daughters of the ancient Roman patrician Appius Claudius Pulcher.

<i>Trionfo di Afrodite</i>

Trionfo di Afrodite is a cantata written in 1951 by the German composer Carl Orff. It is the third and final installment in the Trionfi musical trilogy, which also includes Carmina Burana (1937) and Catulli Carmina (1943).

<i>Pro Caelio</i>

Pro Caelio is a speech given on 4 April 56 BC, by the famed Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero in defence of Marcus Caelius Rufus, who had once been Cicero's student but more recently was a political rival. Cicero's reasons for defending Caelius are uncertain, but various theories have been postulated.

Marcus Caelius Rufus was an orator and politician in the late Roman Republic. He was born into a wealthy equestrian family from Interamnia Praetuttiorum (Teramo), on the central east coast of Italy. He is best known for his prosecution of Gaius Antonius Hybrida in 59 BC. He was also known for his trial for public violence in March 56 BC, when Cicero defended him in the extant speech Pro Caelio, and as both recipient and author of some of the best-written letters in the ad Familiares corpus of Cicero's extant correspondence. He may be the Rufus named in the poems of Catullus.

Gaius Helvius Cinna was an influential neoteric poet of the late Roman Republic, a little older than the generation of Catullus and Calvus. He was lynched at the funeral of Julius Caesar after being mistaken for an unrelated Cornelius Cinna who had spoken out in support of the dictator's assassins.

Catullus 49 is a poem by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus sent to Marcus Tullius Cicero as a superficially laudatory poem. Like the majority of Catullus' poems, the meter of this poem is hendecasyllabic. This is also the only time Cicero is ever mentioned in any of Catullus' poems.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lesbia</span> Lover of Catullus

Lesbia was the literary pseudonym used by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus to refer to his lover. Lesbia is traditionally identified with Clodia, the wife of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer and sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher; her conduct and motives are maligned in Cicero's extant speech Pro Caelio, delivered in 56 BC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catullus 64</span>

Catullus 64 is an epyllion or "little epic" poem written by Latin poet Catullus. Catullus' longest poem, it retains his famed linguistic witticisms while employing an appropriately epic tone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catullus 1</span>

Catullus 1 is traditionally arranged first among the poems of the Roman poet Catullus, though it was not necessarily the first poem that he wrote. It is dedicated to Cornelius Nepos, a historian and minor poet, though some consider Catullus's praise of Cornelius's history of the Italians to have been sarcastic.

Catullus 51 is a poem by Roman love poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. It is an adaptation of one of Sappho's fragmentary lyric poems, Sappho 31. Catullus replaces Sappho's beloved with his own beloved Lesbia. Unlike the majority of Catullus' poems, the meter of this poem is the sapphic meter. This meter is more musical, seeing as Sappho mainly sang her poetry.

Catullus 85 is a poem by the Roman poet Catullus for his lover Lesbia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catullus 2</span> Poem by 1st-century BC Roman poet Catullus

Catullus 2 is a poem by Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus that describes the affectionate relationship between an unnamed "puella", and her pet sparrow. As scholar and poet John Swinnerton Phillimore has noted, "The charm of this poem, blurred as it is by a corrupt manuscript tradition, has made it one of the most famous in Catullus' book." The meter of this poem is hendecasyllabic, a common form in Catullus' poetry.

Catullus 101 is an elegiac poem written by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. It is addressed to Catullus' dead brother or, strictly speaking, to the "mute ashes" which are the only remaining evidence of his brother's body.

Catullus 7 is a poem by Catullus addressed to his mistress Lesbia. Similar to Catullus 5, this poem revels in counting kisses, with a touch of stellar voyeurism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Poetry of Catullus</span> Poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus was written towards the end of the Roman Republic

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

Catullus 16 or Carmen 16 is a poem in the collected poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus. The poem, written in a hendecasyllabic (11-syllable) meter, was considered so explicit that a full English translation was not published until the twentieth century. The first line, Pēdīcābo ego vōs et irrumābō, sometimes used as a title, has been called "one of the filthiest expressions ever written in Latin—or in any other language, for that matter."

Sappho 31 is an archaic Greek lyric poem by the ancient Greek poet Sappho of the island of Lesbos. The poem is also known as phainetai moi after the opening words of its first line. It is one of Sappho's most famous poems, describing her love for a young woman.


  1. The bust was commissioned in 1935 by Sirmione's mayor, Luigi Trojani, and produced by the Milanese foundry Clodoveo Barzaghi with the assistance of the sculptor Villarubbia Norri (N. Criniti & M. Arduino (eds.), Catullo e Sirmione. Società e cultura della Cisalpina alle soglie dell'impero (Brescia: Grafo, 1994), p. 4).
  2. Skinner, Marilyn B. (2010). A Companion to Catullus. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 481. ISBN   9781444339253 . Retrieved July 13, 2019.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Gaius Valerius Catullus. Retrieved September 13, 2014.
  4. M. Skinner, "Authorial Arrangement of the Collection", pp. 46–48, in: A Companion to Catullus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.
  5. Suetonius Divus Iulius 73".
  6. Howe, Quincy Jr. (1970). Introduction to Catullus, The Complete Poems for American Readers. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. pp. vii to xvii.
  7. M. Skinner, "Introduction", p.3, in: A Companion to Catullus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
  8. T.P. Wiseman, "The Valerii Catulli of Verona", in: M. Skinner, ed., A Companion to Catullus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
  9. McMurtry, Chris (August 19, 2014). "New Release: Linton: Carmina Catulli". RefinersFire. Archived from the original on October 8, 2014. Retrieved October 8, 2014.
  10. "LINTON: Carmina Catulli".
  11. "Priape, Lesbie, Diane et caetera - Forum Opéra".
  12. "ccm :: Tideman Wijers, Bertha Tideman Wijers". Retrieved July 12, 2021.
  13. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 5, 2011. Retrieved August 20, 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. "Come and let us live : Samuel Webbe Jr. (c. 1770–1843) : Music score" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on October 10, 2022. Retrieved March 16, 2019.
  15. "Let us, my Lesbia, live and love : John Stafford Smith (1750-1836) : Music score" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on October 10, 2022. Retrieved March 16, 2019.
  16. "Our Play-Box: Lesbia". The Theatre. November 1, 1888. pp. 256–257.
  17. "Amusements: Lesbia". The New York Times. October 9, 1890. p. 4 via
  18. Dixon, Pierson (1954). Farewell, Catullus via
  19. Reine Rimón and her Hot Papas jazz band; Gregg Stafford; Tuomo Pekkanen; Gaius Valerius Catullus, Variationes iazzicae Catullianae (in Latin), retrieved October 7, 2013
  20. "The City of Libertines by W. G. Hardy". Winnipeg Free Press. Winnipeg, Manitoba. December 7, 1957. p. 38. Lock-green.svg

Further reading