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Catullus (84 BC-54 BC)

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Quintus Valerius Catullus was born around 84 BC. We know for a fact that his cognomen was Catullus. Several biographers have suggested the nomen to be Valerius. Of his praenomen, less is known. Many think it to have been Quintus but biographers Jerome and Apulius suggest it to have been Gaius.

His family resided in Verona, a city in northern Italy, and belonged to the upper middle class. We know from the historian Suetonius that Julius Caesar once visited Catullus's father. However, with the exception of his brother, Catullus makes no reference to his family. In 62 BC, Catullus moved to Rome to seek fame and fortune. There is no reference to employment except for a short term of service with the military, so we assume his family had wealth and provided him with financial support.

In Rome, Catullus associated himself with a small, high-class group of poets. Catullus and his associates came to be known as the Novi Poetae, the new poets. The Novi Poetae rebelled against their ancestors in life and in poetry. In life, the Novi Poetae drank heavily and carried on numerous love affairs. In poetry, they did not compose long epic poems with heroic themes as Hesiod and Homer had done and as Vergil would soon do. Instead, the Novi Poetae pursued lyric poetry.

Originally, lyric poetry expressed personal thoughts and feelings accompanied by the lyre. The Novi Poetae did not use the lyre, but they did write poems concerning the things closest to their heart (i.e. love, desire, anger). The Novi Poetae were heavily influenced by Callimachus. Callimachus, a third century BC Greek poet from Alexandria, called a big book or epic poems a "great evil." He insisted on the refinement and artistic achievement in shorter poems. From the Greek lyric poets, Sappho and Alcaeus, the Novi Poetae drew upon the idea of blunt, honest, and open discourse concerning their feelings.

Although only a few of Catullus's poems have survived, he was a prolific writer. We have 116 complete poems and some additional poem fragments. Scholars generally divide Catullus"s poetry into three categories: Poems 1-60 ((written as short epigrams in various meter), Poems 61-64 (the longer poems), and Poems 65-116 (all written in elegiac couplets).

The subject matter of Catullus' poems differs quite a bit from earlier Roman poetry, which was largely philosophical and educational in nature, professing patriotism and the virtue of the Roman people and leaders. Catullus dealt with more tawdry affairs, such as scandalous love affairs, arrogance, and his own Hedonistic endeavors. The content of his poetry embodies the eccentricity of his life.

Catullus' poems didn't only concern pleasure, however. In his epigrams he voiced his political opinions and lampooned political figures (Catullus lived during the end of the Republic) such as Gaius Julius Caesar, of whom he was a contemporary. He also knew Marcus Tullius Cicero personally.

In many of his poems, Catullus expresses positive and negative feelings towards his love affair with a woman he calls Lesbia. Scholars believe the real identity of this woman is Clodia, the sister of Publius Clodius (an enemy of Cicero) and the wife of Metellus Celer (a consul in 60 BC). Clodia would have been quite older and wealthier than Catullus. She apparently ended the affair, leaving Catullus feeling deserted and angry.

In 57 BC, Catullus traveled to the neighboring province of Bithynia in order to serve his time in the military and gain some wealth. This is the only time we ever hear of Catullus having a job. It is unclear how Catullus financially supported himself during his life. There never seemed to be a shortage of funds yet the only time he seems employed is during his short stint in the military.

Shortly after returning to Rome from Bithynia, around 54 BC, Catullus died at the young age of thirty. His death is denoted by what year his poems stopped. Some scholars conclude that the death of his brother at Troad may have been too much for him to endure. In Troad Catullus visited his brother's gravesite at Troy, whereupon he was inspired to write one of his most famous odes with the line Frater ave atque vale (Brother, hail and farewell). Others say the affair and break-up with Clodia might have tormented him. The true cause of his death are unknown. Edith Hamilton, author of The Roman Way, commented that he died of a broken heart.

Joan Jahnige 1999


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