Catullus ( 84-54 BCE) was a provincial from Verona, in Cisalpine Gaul, but seems to have been most happy in his villa by an Alpine lake, Benacus (now Lago di Garda), on whose treacherous waters he and his brother learned to sail and fish. He may have been a less than dutiful son, showing a vigorous contempt for Julius Caesar, a family friend, whom he skewered (along with other members of his party) in a number of scurrilous epigrams. The two momentous events in his life were the meeting with "Lesbia" (Clodia Metelli) and the death of his brother.
Thrown in promiscuously among the famous poems of adoration and hatred is an outpouring of witty squibs, translations from Greek, odes, obscene libels, and long meditations. Catullus died at the age of thirty, having already found a personal voice as vivid as Sappho's. He left to all the Romance languages the Celtic word for a kiss.
Who'll handle this fresh little book, this
smart, scrubbed, polished little book?
My friend, you liked these jottings, so
you said. And you put all of history
into three fat tomes. Good god, who else
in Rome would try a stunt like that?
It's your turn, make what you can
of this collection.
And Lady Muse,
keep it alive at least one generation.
Come see my new girlfriend, said Varus
in mid Forum, so I kept him company.
For a tart, I saw at first glance, she wasn't
without intelligence, and she was easy
on the eye, so we got to talking about
this and that, but mostly about Bithynia,
how well we all made out back there
and how many perks brought home.
No need to wrap up the truth, I said,
none of us, governor or staff, did well
out of it, mostly on account of the boss,
about whom the less said the better,
treating all his staff like dirt. But surely,
chimed in the others, at least you formed
a squad of litter-bearers, Bithynia
being the place for litter-bearers?
She was a good-looking girl, I couldn't
resist a small untruth. Pickings were slim,
I said, but I managed to find myself
eight upright men to carry me around.
The truth is, I couldn't hire a beggar
with either strength or inclination
to hoist a broken bed leg. But she,
the little vixen, piped up again:
Darling, dear Catullus, do me a favor,
let me borrow your men. I need a ride
to the festival of Serapis. Hold it
right there, I said, my memory's not
what it was, they're not mine, they're
Cinna's, my old pal Gaius Cinna. But
what the hell, mine or his, we share
and share alike. But as for you,
You tactless slut, isn't a man allowed
to make a mistake occasionally?
Yesterday, Calvus, nothing to do, we
played lazy day blues on the keyboard,
two cool customers doing their thing
giving each other poem starts, a game
of pitch and toss with metrical schemes,
passing the bottle, having the last laugh.
I came away high as a kite, Calvus,
lit with your wit, your quick ripostes.
Now I'm off my feed, no appetite,
not a bite, no respite for weary eyes,
tossing and turning all over the cot,
white-hot, awaiting day's light, ready
to start all over the whole palaver.
Dawn. Worn to a shred, half dead,
spread supine on my little bed,
came to me, dear flame, this riff,
a whiff of my despair, a prayer.
Take care, light of my life, don't dare
ignore this love-note shipped to you.
Nemesis will whip you black and blue,
and she's a boss you'd best not cross.
Furius and Aurelius, old mess-mates,
try these brochures: “Farthest India”
(sunset, the eastern ocean thudding
on a long shoreline)
Or “Overland with a Camel Caravan”
(run the gauntlet of warring tribes)
or “Back to the Med” (its waters
reddened by Nile floods)
North, perhaps? “An Alpine Scramble
In the Footsteps of Caesar” (across
Germany to Britain, lost in the ocean
right off the world's rim)
Any of these you said, with god's help,
you'd sample. Take then, if you dare,
this message (short but not sweet)
meant for my darling:
Long life and health! Happy adulteries!
(all three hundred in a single clutch
like a vampire, loveless, methodical
sucking them bone-dry)
I adored her. Forget that. She destroyed
my love. (It was a flower blossoming
touched it and went on.