previous next

Catullus, VALE'RIUS,

whose praenomen is altogether omitted in many MSS., while several, with Apuleius (Apolog.), designate him as Caius, and a few of the best with Pliny (Plin. Nat. 37.6) as Quintus, was a native of Verona or its immediate vicinity, as we learn from the testimony of many ancient writers (e. g. Ov. Am. 3.15. 17 ; Plin. l.c.; Martial, 1.62, 10.103, 14.195; Auson. Drep. &c.). According to Hieronymus in the Eusebian Chronicle, he was born in the consulship of Cinna and Octavius, B. C. 87, and died in his thirtieth year, B. C. 57. The second date is undoubtedly erroneous, for we have positive evidence from his own works that he survived not only the second consulship of Pompey, B. C. 55, and the expedition of Caesar into Britain, but that he was alive in the consulship of Vatinius, B. C. 47. (Carm. lii. and cxiii.) We have no reason, however, to conclude that the allusion to Mammurra, contained in a letter written by Cicero (Cic. Att. 13.52) in B. C. 45, refers to the lampoon of Catullus; we can attach no weight to the argument, deduced by Joseph Scaliger from an epigram of Martial (4.14), that he was in literary correspondence with Virgil after the reputation of the latter was fully established ; and still less can we admit that there is the slightest ground for the assertion, that the hymn to Diana was written for the secular games celebrated by Augustus in B. C. 17. He may have outlived the consulship of Vatinius, but our certain knowledge does not extend beyond that period.

Valerius, the father of Catullus, was a person of some consideration, for he was the friend and habitual entertainer of Julius Caesar (Suet. Jul. 73), and his son must have possessed at least a moderate independence, since in addition to his paternal residence on the beautiful promontory of Sirmio, he was the proprietor of a villa in the vicinity of Tibur, and performed a voyage from the Pontus in his own yacht. On the other hand, when we observe that he took up his abode at Rome and entered on his poetical career while still in the very spring of youth (68.15), that he mingled with the gayest society and indulged freely in the most expensive pleasures (ciii.) of the metropolis, we need feel no surprise that he should have become involved in pecuniary difficulties, nor doubt the sincerity of his frequent humorous lamentations over the empty purses of himself and his associates. These embarrassments may have induced him to make an attempt to better his fortunes, according to the approved fashion of the times, by proceeding to Bithynia in the train of the praetor Memmius, but it is clear from the bitter complaints which he pours forth against the exclusive cupidity of his chief, that the speculation was attended with little success.

The death of his brother in the Troad--a loss which he repeatedly deplores with every mark of heartfelt grief, more especially in the affecting clegy to Hortalus--is generally supposed to have happened during this expedition. But any evidence we possess leads to a different inference. When railing against the evil fortune which attended the journey to the East, he makes no allusion to any such misfortune as this; we find no notice of the event in the pieces written immediately before quitting Asia and immediately after his return to Italy, nor does the language of those passages in which he gives vent to his sorrow in any way confirm the conjecture.

That Catullus plunged into all the debauchery of his times is evident from the tone which pervades so many of his lighter productions, and that he enjoyed the friendship of the most celebrated literary characters, seems clear from the individuals to whom many of his pieces are addressed, along whom we find Cicero, Alphenus Varus, Licinius Calvus, the orator and poet, Cinna, author of the Smyrna, and several others. The lady-love who is the theme of the greater number of his amatory effusions is styled Lesbia, but her real name we are told by Apuleius was Clodia. This bare fact by no means entitles us to jump to the conclusion at which many have arrived, that she was the sister of the celebrated Clodius slain by Milo. Indeed the presumption is strong against such an inference. The tribute of highflown praise paid to Cicero would have been but a bad recommendation to the favour of one whom the orator makes the subject of scurrilous jests, and who is said to have cherished against him all the vindictive animosity of a woman first slighted and then openly insulted. Catullus was warm in his resentments as well as in his attachments. No prudential considerations interfered with the free expression of his wrath when provoked, for he attacks with the most bitter vehemence not only his rivals in love and poetry, but scruples not on two occasions to indulge in the most offensive imputations on Julius Caesar. This petulance was probably the result of some temporary cause of irritation, for elsewhere he seems fully disposed to treat this great personage with respect (111.10), and his rashness was productive of no unpleasant consequences to himself or to his family, for not only did Caesar continue upon terms of intimacy with the father of Catullus, but at once accepted the apology tendered by the son, and admitted him on the same day as a guest at his table. (Suet. Jul. 73.)


The works of Catullus which have come down to us consist of a series of 116 poems, thrown together apparently at random, with scarcely an attempt at arrangement. The first of these is an epistle dedicatory to a certain Cornelius, the author of some historical compendium. The grammarians decided that this must be Cornelius Nepos, and consequently entitled the collection Valerii Catulli ad Cornelium Nepotem Liber. The pieces are of different lengths, but most of them are very short. They refer to such a variety of topics, and are composed in so many different styles and different metres, that it is almost impossible to classify them systematically. A few, such as the hymn to Diana (xxxiv.), the translation from Sappho (li.), the address to Furius and Aurelius, and the two Hymenaeal lays (lxi. lxii.), especially the former, may be considered as strictly lyrical. The Nuptials of Peleus and Thetis, which extends to upwards of 400 Hexameter lines, is a legendary heroic poem; the four which are numbered lxiv.--lxvii., although bearing little resemblance to each other either in matter or manner, fall under the head of elegies; the Atys stands alone as a religious poem of a description quite peculiar, and the great mass of those which remain may be comprehended under the general title of epigrams, provided we employ that term in its widest acceptation, as including all short, occasional, fugitive compositions, suggested by some passing thought and by the ordinary occurrences of every-day social life. From the nature of the case it is probable that many such effusions would be lost, and accordingly Pliny (Plin. Nat. 28.2) makes mention of verses upon love-charms of which no trace remains, and Terentianus Maurus notices some Ithyphallica. On the other hand, the Ciris and the Pervigilium Veneris have been erroneously ascribed to our author.

Notwithstanding his remarkable versatility, it may be affirmed with absolute truth, that Catullus adorned all he touched. We admire by turns, in the lighter efforts of his muse, his unaffected ease, playful grace, vigorous simplicity, pungent wit, and slashing invective, while every lively conception is developed with such matchless felicity of expression, that we may almost pronounce them perfect in their kind. The lament for his brother's death is a most touching outburst of genuine grief, while the elegy which immediately follows, on the transformation of Berenice's hair into a constellation, being avowedly a translation or close imitation of Callimachus, is a curious and valuable specimen of the learned stiffness and ingenious affectation of the Alexandrian school. It is impossible not to admire the lofty tone and stately energy which pervade the Peleus and Thetis; and the sudden transition from the desolation and despair of Ariadne to the tumultuous merriment of Bacchus and his revellers is one of the finest examples of contrast to be found in any language. Comparison is almost impossible between a number of objects differing essentially from each other, but perhaps the greatest of all our poet's works is the Atys, one of the most remarkable poems in the whole range of Latin literature. Rolling impetuously along in a flood of wild passion, bodied forth in the grandest imagery and the noblest diction, it breathes in every line the frantic spirit of orgiastic worship, the fiery vehemence of the Greek dithyramb. Many of his poems, however, are defiled by gross coarseness and sensuality; and we shall not attempt to urge his own plea (cxvi.) in extenuation, although approved by the solemn inanity of the younger Pliny, for the defence in reality aggravates the crime, since it indicates a secret though suppressed consciousness of guilt. At the same time they were the vices of the age rather than of the individual. The filth of Catullus seldom springs from a prurient imagination revelling in voluptuous images, it rather proceeds from habitual impurity of expression, and probably gives a fair representation of the manners and conversation of the gay society of Rome at that period.

The epithet doctus applied to our poet by Tibullus, Ovid, Martial, and others, has given rise to considerable discussion. It was bestowed, in all probability, in consequence of the intimate acquaintance with Greek literature and mythology displayed in the Atys, the Peleus, and many other pieces, which bear the strongest internal marks of being formed upon Greek models. Catullus also, it must be remembered, was the first who naturalized many of the more beautiful species of Greek verse, and Horace can only claim the merit of having extended the number. At the same time, most of the shorter poems hear deep impress of original invention, are strikingly national, and have a strong flavour of the old republican roughness. Nay more, as a German critic has well remarked, even when he employs foreign materials he works them up in such a manner as to give them a Roman air and character, and thus approaches much more nearly to Lucretius and the ancients than to the highly polished and artificial school of Virgil and the Augustans. Hence arose the great popularity he enjoyed among his countrymen, as proved by the long catalogue of testimonies from the pens of poets, historians, philosophers, men of science, and grammarians. Horace alone speaks in a somewhat contemptuous strain, but this is in a passage where he is professedly depreciating the older bards, towards whom he so often displays jealousy.

Textual Transmission

The poems of Catullus were first discovered about the beginning of the 14th century, at Verona, by a poet named Benvenuto Campesani. None of the MSS. at present known ascend higher than the 15th century, and all of them appear to have been derived from the same archetype. Hence, as might be expected, the text is very corrupt, and has been repeatedly interpolated.


The Editio Princeps bears the date 1472, without the name of place or printer; a second appeared at Parma in 1472, and two at Venice in 1475 and 1485 respectively. In the sixteenth century Muretus and Achilles Statius, and in the seventeenth Passeratius and Isaac Vossius, published elaborate and valuable commentaries, but their attempts to improve the text were attended with little success. The most complete of the more recent editions is that of Volpi (Patav. 1710), the most useful for ordinary purposes is that of F. W. Doering. (Ed. sec. Altona, 1834.) Lachmann (Berol. 1829) has exhibited the genuine text, so far as it can be ascertained, cleared in great measure of conjectural emendations.


An English metrical translation of the whole works of Catullus, accompanied by the Latin text and short notes, was published by Doctor Nott, Lond. 1795, 2 vols. 8vo.; but by far the best which has appeared in our language is that of the Hon. George Lamb, Lond. 1821, 2 vols. 12mo. There are also numerous translations into French, Italian, and German of the collected poems and of detached pieces.


hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
87 BC (1)
57 BC (1)
55 BC (1)
47 BC (1)
45 BC (1)
17 BC (1)
hide References (9 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (9):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 13.52
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 73
    • Ovid, Amores, 3.15
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 37.6
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 28.2
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 10.103
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.195
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 1.62
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 4.14
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: