The Life of Catullus

Gaius Valerius Catullus was born around 84 BC and died sometime near 54 BC. Both of these dates are mired in controversy, and are primarily based on events in his poetry, like Caesar's invasion of Britain, which we know to have taken place in 55 BC. The poet Ovid says he died young, which if Jerome's dates are correct would be around 30. Catullus was well known to Caesar, Pompey and Cicero as an equal statesman. Suetonius in Life of Julius Caesar, said that Catullus's father entertained Caesar, as an aristocrat of northern Gaul. Yet, Suetonius also notes that the younger Catullus lampooned not only Caesar, but also his son-in-law Pompey, which Caesar believed "left an indelible stigma upon himself."

Catullus's poems are many times the only way to gain insight about his own life, such as friends or his yacht. He talked about himself quite a lot, which is fortunate for us as this give us a better look at his life. In 25 of his poems, he mentions his love for Lesbia. Suetonius says that Lesbia is really a woman named Clodia. Suetonius apparently got this from Wiseman, who in turn got the information from Julius Hyginus, who was a librarian at the Palentine Library. Yet many wonder if all he says is true, some doubt that Lesbia existed at all.

The real question in determining the reality of Lesbia/Clodia is to figure out which Clodia she really is. We know of one Clodia who Cicero attacked in his speech Pro Caelio, who is accused of murdering her husband Metellus, a praetor, with poison. The problem is that Clodia had two other less famous sisters, also named Clodia. So which one is Catullus's Lesbia? She was obviously married, and Catullus mentions an adulterous affair with this Lesbia, so that lends creedence to it being the first one. According to the historical time, they could have know each other for five years, which would have been enough time, it is supposed, for Catullus to call this a "long love."

Yet the controversy on Lesbia is not the only thing to look at. Catullus obviously didn't want there to be a focus on his relationship with this mystery woman, otherwise he wouldn't have left her name a mystery. One of the interesting things to see in Catullus's writing is his closeness with the other poets, like Cinna and his good friend Calvus. He speaks very highly of these men, poets and friends.

The last paragraph of Guy Lee's book about Catullus on page xxiv closes things very nicely concerning his life.

"Catullus's work mirrors himself and in it we can clearly see that Lesbia, his brother, his friends, and poety were the four loves of his life. If he has a message, it can be summed up in that untranslateable word pietas, with it's overtones of duty, devotion, respect and even pity. ...But his pietas goes unrewarded. Lesbia spurns him; his friend betrays him; he loses his brother."

Guy then goes on to allude that perhaps Virgil had Catullus in mind when planning the great character of Aeneas. Many who remember Catullus will no doubt remember his Lesbia poems and his mention of the woman Saphho in two of them. Perhaps because this series of poems touches on the theme of love, which regardless of the time in which it takes place, needs no translation. It is something that people can either identify with or yearn to identify with. While these poems are perhaps the most popular of his currently, in his time he was also famous for writing other poetry. This poetry was largely political and often highly critical of Julius Caesar. They ended up being bitter enemies and Catullus became equally known for his love poetry as he did his hate poetry.

There is no mention of how Catullus died, except that he died young. There are many rumors of foul play involving his lack of love with Caesar. Catullus was a good poet who was tormented by the death of his brother, and the rejection of his love Clodia/Lesbia, and by the loss of his friends. His portrait of his life is a sad, yet complete one. He is responsible for most of the information on his life, and there is not all that much. Besides what is written here, not much else is known, though speculation abounds. This man was one of the finest poets in all of the Roman Republic, and his work lasts on to this day, which is a tremendous feat.

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Examples of Catullan poetry
The Life of Lesbia
The Life of Luxury
Power in Roman Relationships
A list of works cited