An ode to the Immortal Catullus
He was the most vitriolic and the most virulent of the Latin poets of antiquity. But his poems are still read with profound pleasure. There was nothing of the softness or effeminacy in his writings. He has used the ‘f’ word quite frequently with near lethal effect. Come to think of it, the ‘f’ word and its sister germane ‘buggery’ is integral to his poems. The hallowed institutes of Classics learning, Oxford and Cambridge, still teach his poems; the entire lot in Latin. An English translation of his work somehow robs the reader of its sense of humour and subtle irony that every page is pregnant with.
Very little is known about Catullus’s life. He died young, pretty young, aged only thirty years. He was born in 84 BCE and died in 54 BCE during the heyday of the Roman Republic. A contemporary of Julius Caesar, many of his poems heaped scorn and ridicule on the most famous Roman of the day. He had a passionate love affair with a married woman, Clodia, whom he calls Lesbia and his poems on Lesbia are a study on the fickleness of emotion. Lesbia one may recall is derivative of the word Lesbos, an island of Greece, which during the Golden Age of Hellas was famed for a poetess Sappho. Very little of Sapphic poetry survives but she was reputed for her Epithalamia or wedding poems. Catullus had also written a couple of Epithalamia containing a modicum of ribaldry. He also loved a young boy Juventius and was not shy to speak about it.
It was his contention that a writer’s life ought to be chaste but his pen need not be. To understand his poems one must realize that in pre-Christian Rome, eroticism was in full vigour. Adultery, pederasty, phallus display and other orgies were routine, specially during the Festival of Saturnalia.
Let us start with the Lesbia poems. In ‘Tears for Lesbia’s Sparrow’, he writes about the pet sparrow which is Lesbia’s delight and she holds it fast to her breasts. When the sparrow is hungry he bites her fingers. He wishes to toy with the sparrow when he is lovelorn. In the next poem the sparrow is dead and Lesbia’s eyes are swollen with tears. Her pet will no longer play with her, nor dance on her laps, nor chirp to her ears. In another love poem he asks Lesbia for a thousand kisses and a hundred more and to confuse them so that no enemy can cast an evil eye. Shortly after, he mentions of the rupture of his relationship with Lesbia and exhorts himself to be firm and unwilling to chase what is fleeing from him. He wonders who will now pay homage to her beauty, who will love her and whose lips she will bite. Meanwhile Lesbia is in love with a pretty boy named Lesbius and the poet wishes to know if three men could be found to vouch for Lesbius’s parentage. In another poem Lesbia vilifies the poet to her husband who is pleased to hear it. The poet calls the husband a stupid mule as he fails to notice that Lesbia has a lingering emotion for the poet: anger. If she had remained silent that would have been the end of the story. In one of his last poems, Catullus makes a painful entreaty desiring Lesbia to come back to him and satiate his love for her.
His caustic poems, poems bursting with invectives, are a delight to read. He lampoons Asinius Marrucinus for stealing the poet’s table napkins. Not that the napkins are worth a lot but his friends had earlier gifted them to the poet and he had cherished their possessions. Later in another poem he warns his friend Aurelius, to whom he gives a boy, possibly Juventius, for keeping safe during his absence, not to indulge in immodest passion. Catullus has nothing to fear from the people on the street on their daily chores but from Aurelius’s penis, which is dangerous to both good and bad boys. He advises Aurelius to shake his penis with as much force as he wishes and if he debauches the young boy then an evil fate will be his. In the next poem he rebukes Aurelius and one Furius and tells them that he will fuck them and bugger them for their misdeeds.
Catullus poem ‘Siesta: to Ipsithilla’, has all the ingredients of a secret rendezvous of lovers. He asks Ipsithilla to stay alone in her house at siesta and keep the doors open and be ready for nine fucks in succession by Catullus as he had had a plentiful meal and his erect penis was making a hole in his tunic. In his ‘Suggestion to Vibenius’ he asks the father and son duo to migrate to a vile place as the father’s right hand is dirty with filthy deeds and the son’s arse is all consuming. His poem ‘the Writing Tablets’ is surely a masterpiece of satire. In this poem a loathsome adulteress has taken the poet’s manuscript and refuses to give them back. He exhorts his friends to accompany him and accost the strumpet on the street with foul words and call for the papers in question. If she still refuses to part with them then to shout from the rooftops that she is a whore and implore her to return the same. If to no avail, then they ought to change tactics to make her blush by calling her the most virtuous woman in Rome “honest and chaste one, give back my letters”.
To the poet Calvus he vents his spleen when Calvus had sent a complimentary copy of his poems to Catullus. Catullus’s sarcastic comment was ‘Great gods, an amazing, immortal book. That you sent to your Catullus, so he might immediately die, on the optimum day, in the Saturnalia’. Thallus was another individual who had invited the poet’s wrath by not returning the poet’s cloak. Catullus loudly calls him a sodomite, softer than a rabbit’s fur or goose grease or the tip of the ear or an old man’s flaccid penis mouldy with spider webs. In his confessional poem ‘Threesome: to Cato’, he tells of the amusing instance of catching a young pupil in flagrante delicto with the poet’s lover and immediately plunges his erect penis into the youth’s arse.
Catullus is in his elements in his Mammura poems. Mammura, also known as Mentula in some of the poems, was, according to the prevalent gossip, a wealthy man who was the lover of Julius Caesar. Catullus calls him a Cock, an allusion to penis, and sometimes calls him a sodomite and sometimes a catamite. That Julius Caesar was a pederast was well known and Catullus castigates him for wasting his spoils of war and the booties from Spain by lavishing expensive gifts on Mammura. According to Catullus they were beautifully matched, these perverse buggers. Caesar was initially incensed by these scurrilous writings and a discreet word was sent to Catullus to apologise to Caesar, which the poet eventually did. Caesar, being Caesar, forgave the poet and invited him to dinner at his palace and the two antagonists shared a wonderful evening.
Catullus lives in his poems, which have withstood the test of time. Nothing insipid and nothing dull came flowing from his stylus. He had enjoyed life to the full or whatever that can be enjoyed in three decades of existence. He had grieved the death of his brother in Troy and had visited his tomb to pay his respects to his soul. His poems on Lesbia characterize the periodic swing of his mood; the ecstasy of love initially, followed by the pangs of separation and later on his pining for his beloved. His invectives form a genre on their own and stand head and shoulders above anything else available. They are a landmark in poetry.