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Journey to Bithynia.

29. But the first date in the life of Catullus that can be definitely fixed by the aid of his own poems is that of his absence from Italy after the final rupture with Lesbia (cf. § 24). He went to Bithynia (cc. 10.7; 31.5; 46.4) on the staff of the governor, Memmius (c. 28.9). Such expeditions on the part of young Romans of that day are so familiar that it is needless to cite other instances than those (cc. 9, etc., 28) of Veranius and Fabullus, the poet's friends. The ordinary motive was not only a love of adventure, but the desire for acquiring wealth at the expense of the provincials in one of the dozen ways possible under a friendly and not too conscientious official patron. Catullus apparently had not been poverty-stricken, however jestingly he claimed that common distinction of the society-man at the capital, though an increase of income may not have been without attractions for him. He had up to this time, too, apparently loved Rome above all other cities, and had not cared to leave it for any considerable period of time, even that he might visit Greece. But now there were two motives that might lead him to look with desire upon a journey to Bithynia. In the first place, it offered him an opportunity to visit the Troad and to pay the final offerings of love at the grave of his brother (cf. § 22). In the second place, he had been passing through a terrible mental struggle that was perhaps not yet over, and Rome had become painful to him. In the distraction of travel and residence in a foreign clime he might find that absence from himself for which he sighed.

30. How he obtained the appointment we do not know, for there is no earlier reference to Memmius in his poems, and none but uncomplimentary references to him later. But it is not strange that with all his circle of literary friends at Rome he should command influence enough to secure such a post; nor is it strange that C. Memmius, himself a learned man and a verse-writer (Cic. Brut. 70.247; Ov. Trist. II.433; Plin. Ep. V.3.5; Gell. XIX. 9.7), was pleased to have the company in his province of such men as Catullus and his poet-friend, C. Helvius Cinna (c. 10. 31).

31. Memmius was praetor in 58 B.C., and therefore in all probability ruled over Bithynia in 57-56 B.C., though this fact cannot be substantiated from other sources. Of the journey of Catullus to Bithynia and of his stay there we have no record up to the period of his approaching return to Italy, save in the one poem (c. 101) in which he commemorates the funeral-offerings at the grave of his brother in the Troad, and speaks the last farewell,-- a farewell of infinite sadness because spoken with no hope of a future reunion. To make these offerings of pious affection was one of the motives of Catullus in coming to this distant land, and doubtless the sad duty was not long postponed after his arrival there. What were the other occupations of his life in Bithynia we cannot tell. No poems remain, at any rate, to mark the pleasures of social intercourse, no squibs of raillery, no brilliant bits of fancy, such as distinguish the Roman days of the poet. The year is a long silence. Perhaps he was too sad to write; perhaps the irksomeness and dulness of his official life wore hard upon his Muse; perhaps, however, he was gathering inspiration from their native scenery and legend for those poems of his matured genius, cc. 63 and 64, and had even then begun to block them out. When they were published cannot be determined.

32. Life in Bithynia was surely unsatisfactory from a financial point of view. The cobwebs in the poet's pockets were not displaced by gold. Perhaps the shrewder men on the staff learned better how to make hay while their brief sun was shining. Catullus, however, came back home poor, and blamed Memmius for it. But whether Memmius really deserved the exceedingly opprobrious epithets heaped upon him (cf. cc. 10, 28) may well be doubted. Virulence of language in invective, especially in the use of terms applied to sexual impurity, was by no means accompanied among the ancients by corresponding intensity of feeling, and is often to be understood as formal and not literal.

33. Yet some pleasures in his Bithynian life Catullus must have experienced; for when on the approach of spring (56 B.C.) he bids his companions adieu, it is with a tribute to the delight he has taken in their company ( c. 46.9dulces comitum coetus” ), and a reference perhaps to the expected pleasure of a reunion with them in Italy (c. 46. 10-11).

34. But the pain of parting was very insignificant in comparison with the overwhelming joy of home-coming. The exquisite grace of the two sparrow-songs of Catullus (cc. 2, 3) is matched by the most perfect delight that breathes through the pair of poems (cc. 46, 31) that mark the beginning and the end of his homeward voyage. They stand supreme among the poems of home that have come down to us from antiquity, thrilling and quivering with purest and most childlike passion. With this pair of poems probably belongs a third (c. 4), which followed speedily upon the two others.

35. The third of the triad (c. 4) indicates that Catullus made this return voyage in a small vessel of Amastriac build purchased by him for this purpose. It almost seems from his account as if it were built to his order, and that he embarked in it at Amastris rather than at the seaport of Nicaea. And all this, indeed, may be true, in spite of the fact that c. 46 apparently speaks of Nicaea as the point of his immediate departure home-ward; for various reasons might be suggested to account for a journey to the eastern part of the province after bidding Nicaea a final farewell.

36. In c. 46.6 the poet speaks of a plan of visiting “claras Asiae urbes” on his return voyage. He seems also to feel some joy at the prospect; but this is the only passage in his writings that shows any susceptibility to the charm of historic associations connected with the ancient Greek cities. The course of the homeward voyage is but vaguely sketched in c. 4, and the only city actually mentioned there as visited on the journey is Rhodes (c. 4.8), though we may infer from c. 46 that other famous sites between the Hellespont and Rhodes were not neglected by him. He may even have visited Athens, for his little ship probably was drawn across the Corinthian isthmus by the famous ship-railway instead of braving the dangers of the longer and rougher passage around the Malean cape. Yet no such mention of Athens exists in his writings as would suggest that he had ever visited, or cared to visit, that city. A similar doubt besets the question of his point of debarkation in Italy. If the expressions of c. 4 were to be taken literally, we must understand that the “phasellus” carried its master actually up the Po and the little Mincius into the Garda-lake, even to the shores of Sirmio itself. But this is well-nigh impossible; and even if possible, is it likely that the poet, so eager to reach home, would have submitted to the tedium of a tow-boat's voyage (for surely the “phasellus” could not sail up the Mincius), when a few hours by post from the mouth of the Po would have brought him to his desired haven? Apparently both the begin-fling and the end of the voyage of the “phasellus” as recounted in c. 4 are not to be interpreted with strict literalness. But the rapturous joy with which Sirmio is saluted in c. 31 forbids us to suppose that the poet first visited Rome, and later made his way northward. Even the gaiety with which the dedicatory inscription of the model of the “phasellus” (c. 4) is struck off; -a poem after an entirely new style, - shows that at the time of its composition the first enthusiasm of delight had not yet evaporated.

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  • Cross-references from this page (13):
    • Catullus, Poems, 10
    • Catullus, Poems, 101
    • Catullus, Poems, 2
    • Catullus, Poems, 28
    • Catullus, Poems, 3
    • Catullus, Poems, 31
    • Catullus, Poems, 4
    • Catullus, Poems, 46
    • Catullus, Poems, 63
    • Catullus, Poems, 64
    • Catullus, Poems, 9
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 5.3.5
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 19.9.7
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