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Paul Monk on the history of a brilliant and obscene poet

“Cui dono lepidum novum libellum/arida modo pumice expolitum? (To whom should I dedicate my clever new book, fresh, sharp and polished as it is?)

-          Caius Valerius Catullus (c. 55 BCE)[i]

“Catullus was the leading figure of the new poets of the late Republic, breaking with the tradition of Rome’s past and finding his models in Greek poetry, both in the polished Alexandrian style and in the direct lyricism of Sappho. His style is immensely versatile and whatever he writes is his own, so that he is one of the greatest of all poets…”

- Betty Radice (1971)[ii]

“In the period immediately following his death, Catullus’s literary impact was enormous…Both Virgil and Horace show his influence again and again…Martial, whose ideal was to rank second after Catullus…especially fancied…the kiss and sparrow poems, thus setting a fashion that is still with us today.”

-          Peter Green (2005)[iii]

In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a single copy of the long lost treatise by Aristotle on comedy is found in the library of an obscure abbey - with dramatic consequences. One wonders why Eco did not, instead, have his monks stumble upon a codex of the long lost poems of Catullus - passionate, cheerfully obscene, kaleidoscopic in their variety of metre and subject matter, free spirited and brilliantly learned. Catullus? Heard of him? You should have. He wrote a single book of poems, no more, and died at the age of thirty in 54 BCE; but if you read his verse you open a door way into the history of the West.

Catullus was best known in antiquity for the brilliant variety of his metrics, but has been most famous, since the recovery of his poetry in the Italian Renaissance, for his passionate love poems to Lesbia:


Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus

Rumorseque senum severiorum

Omnes unius aestimemus assis!

Soles occidere et redire possunt:

Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux

Nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Da me basia mille, deinde centum,

Dein mille altera…


(Let’s live, Lesbia mine, and love - and as for

scandal, all the gossip, old men’s strictures,

value the lot at no more than a farthing!

Suns can rise and set ad infinitum -

For us, though, once our brief life’s quenched, there’s only

One unending night that’s left to sleep through.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

Then a thousand more…)[iv]


If you never studied Latin, or never discovered its power and beauty, due to poor tutoring or a dull wit, revel in these lines from two millennia ago - the passionate individualism and vigorous self-expression of the West in a nutshell. For myself, I was taught Latin badly for five years at a Catholic secondary school, then told that, despite my linguistic flair, it was not worth taking it any further. It would have been worth it - if only in order to have been able to drink deeply of Catullus (and Ovid) at a tenderer age.

Caius Valerius Catullus was a wealthy and witty wastrel of the last decades of the Roman Republic, a kind of Lord Byron of his time. His family owned a good deal of land in northern Italy. He was a gentleman of Verona, where he was born, in 84 BCE, and grew up. Rome, however, was a magnet to the likes of young Caius and he gravitated to it at the age of twenty, not to seek his fortune but to expend his wit and energy. It was the age of Catiline and Cicero, Caesar and Pompey, Crassus and Spartacus. The young poet rubbed shoulders with the wealthy and powerful, mastered the musical properties of Greek and Latin, wrote his verse and died, like Keats, of tuberculosis, when still young.

            The Lesbia, to whom the above poem, like many of his others, was addressed, was herself a wealthy woman who rubbed a good deal more than shoulders with the wealthy and powerful; as Cicero famously testified, in his oration Pro Caelio - defending in court one of her aggrieved lovers. She was Clodia Metelli, one of the sisters of a notoriously populist aristocrat, tribune of the people and rabble rouser, Publius Clodius. She married a powerful senator, her cousin Quintus Metellus Celer, cuckolded him all over Rome, then poisoned him to get him out of the way altogether. She had large, luminous eyes and a quickness of both mind and hand that made her one of the great femmes fatales of all time.

Ten years older than Catullus, Clodia dazzled him, became his muse, but infuriated him with her relentless promiscuity, occasioning first his most intimate and then some of his most vitriolic verse:


Passer, deliciae meae puellae

Quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,

Cui primum digitum dare appetenti

Et acris solit incitare morsus,

Cum desiderio meo nitenti

Carum nescio quid lubet iocari,

Et solaciolum sui dolores,

Credo ut tum gravis acquiescat ardor:

Tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem

Et tristis animi lavare curas!


(Sparrow, precious darling of my sweetheart,

Always her plaything, held fast in her bosom,

Whom she loves to provoke with outstretched finger

Tempting the little pecker to nip harder

When my incandescent longing fancies

Just a smidgin of fun and games and comfort

For the pain she’s feeling (I believe it!),

Something to lighten that too heavy ardour -

How I wish I could sport with you as she does,

Bring some relief to the spirit’s black depression).[v]


This poem, overflowing with tender wit and a teasing play on ‘sparrow’ - a bird sacred to Aphrodite and its name slang for the penis - has inspired endless variations and adaptations for more than five hundred years, since Catullus resurfaced after a thousand years of near oblivion. But its memorable counterpoint, for which Catullus is equally famous, are the bitter rebukes to his muse for spurning him and turning her life into a veritable ‘salax taberna’, a bordello, the front of which he declares he’ll cover with obscene graffiti:[vi]


            Caelius, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,

            Illa Lesbia, quam Catullus unam

Plus quam se atque suos amavit omnes,

Nunc in quadriviis et angriportis

Glubit magnanimos Remi nepotes.


(Caelius, Lesbia - our dear Lesbia, that one,

That Lesbia whom alone Catullus worshipped

More than himself, far more than all his kinsfolk -

Now on backstreet corners and down alleys

Jacks off Remus’s generous descendants.)[vii]


His affair with this Carmen of the late republic went through every variation in mood and each found expression in verse written some time between 62 and 54 BCE. Early, he longs to be able to cast in her path something like that “golden apple” which, “long ago”, thrown in front of “the maiden runner” (Atalanta), “freed, at last, a girdle too long knotted.”[viii] He is magnanimous himself, at first, about her other loves. It is only after falling thoroughly in love and being spurned that his mood becomes dark and his verse bitter.

            One late Lesbia poem is especially beautiful in this context and appears to suggest the poet had gotten over his bitterness, though not his sense of loss. Written in Sapphic mode, it is also Sapphic in mood, echoing the legendary poetess of Lesbos in singing the praises of Lesbia. Indeed, it seems to be an actual translation or appropriation of a poem by Sappho herself.[ix] It must be a very god, or one who eclipses godhead, who is able, uninterrupted, “spectat et audit”, to look at you and listen to you “dulce ridentem”, sweetly laughing. But the thought of this:


            …misero quod omnis

            eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,

Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super me

Vocis in ore.


Lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artis

Flamma demanat, sonitu suopte

Tintinant aures, gemina tenguntur

Lumina nocte.


            (…sunders unhappy me from

All my senses: the instant I catch sight of

You now, Lesbia, dumbness grips my voice

It dies on my vocal chords.


My tongue goes torpid, and through my body

Thin fire lances down, my ears are ringing

With their own thunder, while night curtains both my

Eyes into darkness).[x]


This is the poet who wrote the longish (408 hexameter lines) poem about Theseus’s abandonment of Ariadne on Naxos[xi], two thousand years before Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss laboured to turn that Grecian tale of erotic betrayal into their semi-burlesque of an opera. It is not difficult to appreciate, given much else in Catullus’s poetry, that he felt able to empathize with Ariadne, as with Sappho. He was no-one’s idea of a dour and soldierly Roman.


“Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio,” Horace famously wrote, in his epistle to the first emperor, Augustus, a generation after the death of Catullus.[xii] Conquered Greece led captive its own conqueror and introduced the arts into rustic Latium. Catullus embodied that introduction, imbibing the pre-classical lyric poets and the Hellenistic masters like Callimachus in his youth. There seems to be no clear account of how he received his ‘classical education’ in Verona, but he so absorbed it as to be able to make it his own. In one poem, he writes to a boyfriend, Licinius, of what fun they had had the previous day, writing impromptu light verse, “playing around with every kind of metre”.[xiii] Clearly, whoever his teachers were, they did not put him off his Latin, or his Greek - or poetry.

      The late republic was a profligate time, the close study of which is endlessly illuminating in our own time; and Catullus captured its spirit in much the same way as, say, Karl Kraus, captured the somewhat different spirit of late imperial Vienna. I have always associated his brief and incandescent life with that of his contemporary, the extravagant and brilliant political entrepreneur, Caius Scribonius Curio, who died in Africa in the civil war, in 49 BCE, serving Julius Caesar. Of Curio, the great historian Theodor Mommsen wrote, “We may regret that this exuberant nature was not permitted to work off its follies and to preserve itself for the following generation…”.[xiv] 

            When a talented individual is cut off in the prime of life or when on the verge of possibly outstanding achievements, it lends a kind of romantic aura to his or her life. The trio of English Romantic poets, Byron, Shelley and Keats, is famous in this respect; Keats not least, since he died at just 23. The death of Franz Schubert at 31, or of Mozart at 37, are other famous cases; though the enormous and extraordinary creative achievement of both of those composers makes it difficult to imagine what they might have left undone. In the case of Catullus, it seems possible that he would have gone on to write works of the calibre achieved by his successors, Virgil and Horace. Instead, he left behind only a single book of poetry.

            That book of poetry marked him out, in the opinion of the finest Latin poets of the following generation, as a master to emulate. Yet, while their work survived the downfall of the ancient world, six centuries later, the book of Catullus’s poetry almost did not. The history of that little book, over the two millennia since its author died, takes us through a virtual history of books, as such, of education and of the art of poetry. The hazards of copying and editing, censorship and emulation through which it has passed remind us just how precarious was the life of books before the invention of printing and how powerfully that technology has reinforced our collective capacity to preserve and propagate our cultural inheritance.

Given its impact and reputation for two hundred years after Catullus’s untimely death, it is plain that the book must have been copied and kept in the great public libraries of Rome during that time. The first such library was, in fact, built in the 30s BCE, a generation after the poet died, by Asinius Pollio, an author himself and a friend of poets. A decade later, Augustus himself erected the Library of the Temple of Apollo, on the Palatine Hill, some fragmentary ruins of which still remain.[xv] These libraries had separate Greek and Latin sections and Catullus’s book will have lodged in the Latin sections of them, in all probability, for as long as the libraries endured.

            However, it was not, as Peter Green observes, the kind of book that conservative school masters or the censors of the empire would have looked upon with favour. Two generations after Catullus’s death, the great erotic poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea coast by Augustus, because his book of poems, The Art of Love, was believed to be contributing to the degeneration of public morality. This was roughly the equivalent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover causing a scandal and a tussle over freedom of expression, in the early 1960s. Catullus is unlikely to have enjoyed greater favour, even under the Empire, and so copies of his work, if they were not removed from libraries, are not likely to have multiplied, save in a few private collections.

            The rise of the Catholic Church and the downfall of the Empire, between them, nearly saw the end of Catullus’s little book. It is easy to overlook how very much, in general, was lost at that time and, given the enormous superfluity of our current holdings, not to feel the loss. It is also easy to overlook the significance of those unusual books, like Catullus’s poetry, that only just survived - representative of a good deal that did not. Peter Green puts Petronius’s Satyricon and “the puzzling extracanonical plays of Euripides” in this category. “What unites all these,” he comments, “is their oddness, their unpredictability, their deviation from the norm - which suggests that, if our literary heritage from the ancient world were more complete, our view of it might be radically different.”[xvi]

Lost for centuries, seemingly beyond recall, the Catullan corpus was rediscovered in the form of a single copy, by the Bishop of Verona itself, in 965.  That copy, the so-called Codex Veronensis, then vanished for another 300 years, only to be found again in 1290, still in Verona - being used as a bung in a wine barrel. Nothing at all is known of its fate in the interim. The Codex Veronensis was then lost, apparently for good, but not before a copy had been made. That copy, too, was lost, but not before it had itself been copied twice. One of those copies belonged to the great Italian sonneteer Petrarch, but has since been lost.

Another, made in 1370, resides still in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and is known as the Codex Oxoniensis. Petrarch’s copy was itself copied and, after immense labor by Renaissance scholars in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was printed for the first time, in 1472 - along with the poetry of Tibullus, Propertius and Statius. This was the high Renaissance and “Graecia capta” and fallen Rome alike were surging back into European life and letters so vigorously that, within half a century, Christian ‘Wahhabists’ like Martin Luther would denounce the Catholic Church itself as pagan and repudiate its magisterial tradition, in order to concentrate theological authority in the Bible alone.

Catullus was never again, however, in danger of extinction - thanks to the printing press. His influence on English poetry and letters has been enormous, from Wyatt to William Carlos Williams, from Herrick to Tennyson, from Jonson and Pope to Yeats and Pound - and the Lesbia poems always being especially loved. It was Montaigne’s tutor, Marc-Antoine de Muret, who, in 1552, is said to have identified Catullus’s Lesbia as the wanton Clodia, but most of what we know of Catullus’s life and the way in which it is reflected in his poetry was not pieced together until, in 1862, Ludwig Schwabe painstakingly reconstructed the great love affair between the poet and his muse.

A great labor of archaeology, such scholarship has excavated the long dead and given us back one of the treasures of antiquity. Peter Green’s newly published master work, The Poems of Catullus, brings both his own life’s work as a classicist and the collective work of many other scholars, over half a millennium, to a burnished completion. The richness of his commentary, the passionate care expended in working Catullus’s metrics into a form of English that does not jar on the ear, the great gift of a bilingual edition, so that we can enjoy the originals alongside the faithful translator’s renditions of them, make this a book to be prized.

Truly, it invites the reader, as Green remarks in his Preface, “to study and enjoy an ancient poet who can be, by turns, passionate and hilariously obscene, as buoyantly witty as W. S. Gilbert in a Savoy opera libretto, as melancholy as Matthew Arnold in ‘Dover Beach’, as mean as Wyndham Lewis in The Apes of God, and as eruditely allusive as T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land.[xvii] Yet it is to an earlier translator, Peter Wigham, that I turn for a piece of verse which tells the extraordinary story of Catullus and his recovery, in a manner Catullus himself might have enjoyed:


Wine stains the verse;

The curse of time obliterates the arrogant line.


Then, in Verona, Campesani knows

The ‘Roman hand’:

‘One woman could command this song.’


He sang

And fourteen hundred years

Later, it reappears -

In the barrel’s bung

(the hand that Campesani knows)

codex from wine-bung springing,

as from the dung

-          the rose.[xviii]



By-line: Paul Monk is co-founder and managing director of Austhink Consulting. His book, Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty: A Homage to the Western Canon, has just been published in a deluxe, illustrated edition, by Barrallier Books ( A footnoted version of this essay can be found at





[i] These are the opening lines to the first poem in the Catullan corpus. The translation is my own. Peter Green, in his new edition of the poems, renders them “Who’s the dedicatee of my witty new booklet, all fresh-polished with abrasive?” Peter Wigham, forty years ago, translated them “To whom should I present this little book so carefully polished?”

[ii]  Betty Radice Who’s Who in the Ancient World, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1971, pp. 85-6.

[iii] Peter Green The Poems of Catullus, University of California Press, 2005, p. 45. Poem #1,.

[iv] Ibid., pp. 48-49. Poem #5.

[v] Ibid. p. 45 Poem #2A.

[vi] ibid. p. 85. Poem #37.

[vii] Ibid. p. 105. Poem #58A.

[viii] ibid. p. 45. Poem #2B (a fragment).

[ix] Ibid. p. 37. In his notes on Catullus’s use of the Sapphic strophe, Green remarks that, in the labor of rendering this Greek and Latin metric into passable English verse, he owes much to Swinburne, “a poet not much in favour these days, but he was a master metrist, and I am glad to acknowledge what I have learned from him.” Pp. 37-38.

[x] Ibid. p. 99. Poem #51.

[xi] Ibid. pp. 133-157. Poem #64.

[xii] David Ferry (transl.) The Epistles of Horace: A Bilingual Edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001, p. 122. Ferry renders the lines “Captive Greece took its Roman captor captive; invading uncouth Latium with its arts.”

[xiii] Green op. cit. pp. 96-98. Poem #50.

[xiv] Theodor Mommsen The History of Rome, Vol. 4, p. 370. J. M. Dent and Sons, London, 1911.

[xv] Lionel Casson Libraries in the Ancient World, Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 80-82.

[xvi] Green op. cit. p. 19.

[xvii] Ibid. p. xiii.

[xviii] Peter Wigham The Poems of Catullus, Penguin, 1966, p. 11.