Monday, June 23, 2008

Who was Catullus, anyway?

Catullus was born in 84 B.C. in Verona, said to have moved to Rome around 62 B.C. and probably died around 54 B.C. The manuscript that I translated, known now as The Complete Poems of Catullus was rediscovered in Catullus’ hometown around the 14th century. There is even a myth that the manuscript was found in an empty wine cask—after centuries of soaking up the spirits. In just three decades, Catullus fondled Venus herself, licked the sweat off the upper lip of Bacchus, and gave birth to a blues lyric that has battled time.

Catullus was a young, brash, salacious, and semi-famous celebrity at a time when most poetry was probably performed. Think Shelley mixed with Eminem (at his most vulgar moments) as well as political and mythological and sometimes absurd. In a great little prefatory description, Rabinowitz asks us to imagine Catullus as a “playboy in the midst of a collapsing republic—roughly the Roman equivalent of a rockstar. He could terrify a general or win a woman (or boy) just by inviting him to be the hero of a poem. Caesar begged for his friendship, and, what’s even more remarkable, Cicero shut up when he spoke.”

Catullus wrote many love poems, and he wrote many hate poems. He wrote mythology. He translated Greek poets like Sappho and Callimachus. He has a short, absurd play with two characters, one of which is the front door to a house, who tells us that the father-in-law knocked up his son’s wife in a famous political family because his son is impotent. He writes heart-wrenching poems about his brother’s death, and people that have died at war. He belittles men (mostly ex-friends and politicians) for the small size of their—well, manhood. He has poems about waking up with prostitutes and many more poems about the tumultuous relationship with his lover, or his main lover, who he names Lesbia, but is known to be the historical character Clodia, who just so happens to be the wife of a conservative consul.

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