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20th-century bust of Catullus on the Piazza Carducci in Sirmione.[1]
20th-century bust of Catullus on the Piazza Carducci in Sirmione.[1]
BornGaius Valerius Catullus
c. 84 BC
Verona, Italy, Roman Republic
Diedc. 54 BC (age 29–30)
GenreLyric poetry

Gaius Valerius Catullus (Classical Latin: [ˈɡaːiʊs waˈɫɛriʊs kaˈtʊːlʊs]; c. 84 - c. 54 BCE), called Catullus (kə-TUL-əs), was a Latin neoteric poet of the late Roman Republic. His surviving works remain widely read due to their popularity as teaching tools and more personal or sexually explicit themes.[2]

Catullus potentially influenced later Latin poets writing both under the Republic and the Empire. After his rediscovery in the Late Middle Ages, Catullus influenced Neo-Latin poets such as Petrarch.


Gāius Valerius Catullus was born to a leading equestrian family of Verona, in Cisalpine Gaul. The social prominence of the Catullus family allowed the father of Gaius Valerius to entertain Julius Caesar when he was the Promagistrate (proconsul) of both Gallic provinces.[3] In a poem, Catullus describes his happy homecoming to the family villa at Sirmio, on Lake Garda, near Verona; he also owned a villa near the resort of Tibur (modern Tivoli).[3]

Catullus appears to have spent most of his young adult years in Rome. His friends there included the poets Licinius Calvus, and Helvius Cinna, Quintus Hortensius (son of the orator and rival of Cicero) and the biographer Cornelius Nepos, to whom Catullus dedicated a libellus of poems,[3] the relation of which to the extant collection remains a matter of debate.[4] He appears to have been acquainted with the poet Marcus Furius Bibaculus. A number of prominent contemporaries appear in his poetry, including Cicero, Caesar and Pompey. According to an anecdote preserved by Suetonius, Caesar did not deny that Catullus's lampoons left an indelible stain on his reputation, but when Catullus apologized, he invited the poet for dinner the very same day.[5]

Catullus at Lesbia's by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

It was probably in Rome that Catullus fell deeply in love with the "Lesbia" of his poems, who is usually identified with Clodia Metelli, a sophisticated woman from the aristocratic house of patrician family Claudii Pulchri, sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, and wife to proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. In his poems Catullus describes several stages of their relationship: initial euphoria, doubts, separation, and his wrenching feelings of loss. Clodia had several other partners; "From the poems one can adduce no fewer than five lovers in addition to Catullus: Egnatius (poem 37), Gellius (poem 91), Quintius (poem 82), Rufus (poem 77), and Lesbius (poem 79)." There is also some question surrounding her husband's mysterious death in 59 BC, with some critics believing he was domestically poisoned. However, a sensitive and passionate Catullus could not relinquish his flame for Clodia, regardless of her obvious indifference to his desire for a deep and permanent relationship. In his poems, Catullus wavers between devout, sweltering love and bitter, scornful insults that he directs at her blatant infidelity (as demonstrated in poems 11 and 58). His passion for her is unrelenting—yet it is unclear when exactly the couple split up for good. Catullus's poems about the relationship display striking depth and psychological insight.[6]

He spent the provincial command year from summer 57 to summer 56 BC in Bithynia on the staff of the commander Gaius Memmius. While in the East, he traveled to the Troad to perform rites at his brother's tomb, an event recorded in a moving poem.[3]

Bithynia within the Roman Empire

No ancient biography of Catullus has survived. His life has to be pieced together from scattered references to him in other ancient authors and from his poems. Thus it is uncertain when he was born and when he died. Jerome stated that he was born in 87 BC and died in Rome on his 30th year.[7] However, Catullus’ poems include references to events of 55 and 54 BC. Since the Roman consular fasti make it somewhat easy to confuse 87–57 BC with 84–54 BC, many scholars accept the dates 84 BC–54 BC,[3] supposing that his latest poems and the publication of his libellus coincided with the year of his death. Other authors suggest 52 or 51 BC as the year of the poet's death.[8] Though upon his elder brother's death Catullus lamented that their "whole house was buried along" with the deceased, the existence (and prominence) of Valerii Catulli is attested in the following centuries. T.P. Wiseman argues that after the brother's death Catullus could have married, and that, in this case, the later Valerii Catulli may have been his descendants.[9]


Main article: Poetry of Catullus

See also: List of poems by Catullus

Catullus et in eum commentarius (1554)
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Sources and organization

Catullus's poems have been preserved in an anthology of 116 carmina (the actual number of poems may slightly vary in various editions), which can be divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

There is no scholarly consensus on whether Catullus himself arranged the order of the poems. The longer poems differ from the polymetra and the epigrams not only in length but also in their subjects: There are seven hymns and one mini-epic, or epyllion, the most highly prized form for the "new poets".

The polymetra and the epigrams can be divided into four major thematic groups (ignoring a rather large number of poems that elude such categorization):

All these poems describe the lifestyle of Catullus and his friends, who, despite Catullus's temporary political post in Bithynia, lived their lives withdrawn from politics. They were interested mainly in poetry and love. Above all other qualities, Catullus seems to have valued venustas, or charm, in his acquaintances, a theme which he explores in a number of his poems. The ancient Roman concept of virtus (i.e., of virtue that had to be proved by a political or military career), which Cicero suggested as the solution to the societal problems of the late Republic, meant little to them.

However Catullus does not reject traditional notions, but rather their particular application to the vita activa of politics and war. Indeed, he tries to reinvent these notions from a personal point of view and to introduce them into human relationships. For example, he applies the word fides, which traditionally meant faithfulness towards one's political allies, to his relationship with Lesbia and reinterprets it as unconditional faithfulness in love. So, despite the seeming frivolity of his lifestyle, Catullus measured himself and his friends by quite ambitious standards.

Intellectual influences

Lesbia, 1878 painting by John Reinhard Weguelin inspired by the poems of Catullus

Catullus's poetry was influenced by the innovative poetry of the Hellenistic Age, and especially by Callimachus and the Alexandrian school, which had propagated a new style of poetry that deliberately turned away from the classical epic poetry in the tradition of Homer. Cicero called these local innovators neoteroi (νεώτεροι) or "moderns" (in Latin poetae novi or 'new poets'), in that they cast off the heroic model handed down from Ennius in order to strike new ground and ring a contemporary note. Catullus and Callimachus did not describe the feats of ancient heroes and gods (except perhaps in re-evaluating and predominantly artistic circumstances, e.g. poems 63 and 64), focusing instead on small-scale personal themes. Although these poems sometimes seem quite superficial and their subjects often are mere everyday concerns, they are accomplished works of art. Catullus described his work as expolitum, or polished, to show that the language he used was very carefully and artistically composed.

Catullus was also an admirer of Sappho, a female poet of the seventh century BC. Catullus 51 partly translates, partly imitates, and transforms Sappho 31. Some hypothesize that 61 and 62 were perhaps inspired by lost works of Sappho but this is purely speculative. Both of the latter are epithalamia, a form of laudatory or erotic wedding-poetry that Sappho was famous for. Catullus twice used a meter that Sappho was known for, called the Sapphic stanza, in poems 11 and 51, perhaps prompting his successor Horace's interest in the form.

Catullus, as was common to his era, was greatly influenced by stories from Greek and Roman myth. His longer poems—such as 63, 64, 65, 66, and 68—allude to mythology in various ways. Some stories he refers to are the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the departure of the Argonauts, Theseus and the Minotaur, Ariadne's abandonment, Tereus and Procne, as well as Protesilaus and Laodamia.


Catullus wrote in many different meters including hendecasyllabic verse and elegiac couplets (common in love poetry). A great part of his poetry shows strong and occasionally wild emotions, especially in regard to Lesbia (e.g., poems 5 and 7). His love poems are very emotional and ardent, and are relatable to this day. Catullus describes his Lesbia as having multiple suitors and often showing little affection towards him. He also demonstrates a great sense of humour such as in Catullus 13.

Musical settings

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The Hungarian born British composer Matyas Seiber set poem 31 for unaccompanied mixed chorus Sirmio in 1957.[citation needed] The American composer Ned Rorem set Catullus 101 to music for voice and piano; the song, "Catallus: On the Burial of His Brother", was originally published in 1969.[citation needed]

Catullus Dreams (2011) is a song cycle by David Glaser set to texts of Catullus, scored for soprano and eight instruments; it premiered at Symphony Space in New York by soprano Linda Larson and Sequitur Ensemble.[10] "Carmina Catulli" is a song cycle arranged from 17 of Catullus's poems by American composer Michael Linton. The cycle was recorded in December 2013 and premiered at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in March 2014 by French baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer and pianist Jason Paul Peterson.[11][12][13]

Thomas Campion also wrote a lute-song entitled "My Sweetest Lesbia" dating from 1601[14] using his own translation of the first six lines of Catullus 5 followed by two verses of his own;[15] the translation by Richard Crashaw was set to music[16] in a four-part glee by Samuel Webbe Jr.[citation needed] It was also set to music,[when?][17] in a three-part glee by John Stafford Smith.[citation needed]

Catullus 5, the love poem "Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus", in the translation by Ben Jonson, was set to music,[when?][18] (lute accompanied song) by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger.[citation needed] Dutch composer Bertha Tideman-Wijers used Catullus's text for her composition Variations on Valerius "Where that one already turns or turns."[when?][19] The Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson set Catullus 85 to music; entitled "Odi Et Amo", the song is found on Jóhannsson's album Englabörn, and is sung through a vocoder, and the music is played by a string quartet and piano.[when?][citation needed] Catulli Carmina is a cantata by Carl Orff dating from 1943 that sets texts from Catullus to music.[20] Finnish jazz singer Reine Rimón has recorded poems of Catullus set to standard jazz tunes.[when?][citation needed]

Cultural depictions

See also


  1. ^ The bust was commissioned in 1935 by Sirmione's mayor, Luigi Trojani, and produced by the Milanese foundry Clodoveo Barzaghi with the assistance of the sculptor Villarubbia Norri (N. Criniti & M. Arduino (eds.), Catullo e Sirmione. Società e cultura della Cisalpina alle soglie dell'impero (Brescia: Grafo, 1994), p. 4).
  2. ^ Skinner, Marilyn B. (2010). A Companion to Catullus. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 481. ISBN 9781444339253. Retrieved 13 July 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Gaius Valerius Catullus". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  4. ^ M. Skinner, "Authorial Arrangement of the Collection", pp. 46–48, in: A Companion to Catullus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.
  5. ^ Suetonius Divus Iulius 73".
  6. ^ Howe, Quincy Jr. (1970). Introduction to Catullus, The Complete Poems for American Readers. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. pp. vii to xvii.
  7. ^ Catullus (2005). The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Green, Peter. University of California Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780520242647.
  8. ^ M. Skinner, "Introduction", p.3, in: A Companion to Catullus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
  9. ^ T.P. Wiseman, "The Valerii Catulli of Verona", in: M. Skinner, ed., A Companion to Catullus, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
  10. ^ "Glaser's Song Cycle To Receive World Premiere At Symphony Space". Yeshiva University. Retrieved 6 March 2024.
  11. ^ McMurtry, Chris (19 August 2014). "New Release: Linton: Carmina Catulli". RefinersFire. Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  12. ^ "LINTON: Carmina Catulli".
  13. ^ "Priape, Lesbie, Diane et caetera - Forum Opéra".
  14. ^ "My Sweetest Lesbia | For Better For Verse". Retrieved 6 March 2024.
  15. ^ Rumens, Carol (22 March 2010). "Poem of the week: My Sweetest Lesbia by Thomas Campion". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 6 March 2024.
  16. ^ "Come and let us live : Samuel Webbe Jr. (c. 1770–1843) : Music score" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 October 2022. Retrieved 16 March 2019.
  17. ^ "Let us, my Lesbia, live and love : John Stafford Smith (1750-1836) : Music score" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 October 2022. Retrieved 16 March 2019.
  18. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 October 2011. Retrieved 20 August 2011.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  19. ^ "ccm :: Tideman Wijers, Bertha Tideman Wijers". Retrieved 12 July 2021.
  20. ^ Ball, Timothy (3 July 2003). "Orff's Trionfi - Jochum (DG)". The Classical Source. Retrieved 6 March 2024.
  21. ^ "Our Play-Box: Lesbia". The Theatre. 1 November 1888. pp. 256–257.
  22. ^ "Amusements: Lesbia". The New York Times. 9 October 1890. p. 4 – via
  23. ^ Dixon, Pierson (1954). Farewell, Catullus – via
  24. ^ Reine Rimón and her Hot Papas jazz band; Gregg Stafford; Tuomo Pekkanen; Gaius Valerius Catullus, Variationes iazzicae Catullianae (in Latin), retrieved 7 October 2013
  25. ^ Dyer, Gary R. (13 August 1988). "Humbert Humbert's Use of Catullus 58 in Lolita". Twentieth Century Literature. 34 (1): 1–15. doi:10.2307/441433. JSTOR 441433.
  26. ^ "The City of Libertines by W. G. Hardy". Winnipeg Free Press. Winnipeg, Manitoba. 7 December 1957. p. 38.Free access icon

Further reading