Catullus: a passionate poetic voice from ancient Rome

Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal, by T. P. Wiseman. New York: Cambridge University Press. 287 pp. $39.50. The famous image of the girl holding, in one hand, an iron stylus against her lip and in the other a diptych, or pair of hinged wax tablets, comes from a wall in Pompeii. In her eyes, we see the universal gaze of thought on the verge of expression; in her writing equipment, the particular technique common to her time and place.

The disaster that struck Pompeii in AD 79 when Vesuvius erupted turned that wall into rubble. The image is a reconstruction. But it has the nostalgic appeal of a fragment: We supply half the meaning. We give it power.

The danger is obvious: Perhaps we give fragments of the past the wrong meaning.

In his reappraisal of the poet known to us as Gaius Valerius Catullus, a poet of the late Roman Republic (the age of Caesar and Pompey and Cicero), T. P. Wiseman has retrieved Catullus for us by showing how different he was from us.

Paradoxically, showing how different he was only makes him seem more familiar.

Catullus lived in a culture where public torture was common. Public violence extended into sadistic forms of sex. The first part of Wiseman's book discusses these and other aspects of Roman life, thus setting the scene for his reappraisal of the poems of Catullus.

Catullus's most famous poem is only two lines long. It tells us something about Catullus's view of his own complex emotional life. And it expresses the conflicts of romantic passion with memorable concision. Here it is in J. V. Cunningham's translation: ``I hate and love her. If you ask me why/ I don't know. But I feel it and am torn.''

Odi et amo, as it is called (quoting the first sentence), is one of the tamer poems. Many of Catullus's short poems are rude in a way modern taste can't accept. But, as Wiseman shows, the anger, sometimes expressed in obscene gibes, was directed at what would still be considered intolerable behavior. The gibes may be addressed to contemporary figures otherwise unknown, or they may be addressed to one Lesbia, whom Catullus loved with a passion of medieval intensity, but who had little capacity for returning the favor.

We do not know who Lesbia really was. From evidence outside the poems, Wiseman reconstructs the type of woman she must have been. Whereas Catullus was from a successful farming family, Lesbia was part of the ruling party of Rome.

Catullus's point of view was that of the ancient traditions of the Roman countryside, which stressed fidelity and loyalty, piety and marriage and family, while Lesbia belonged to a set in which the sophistication of the senses was an end in itself, a set enamored of corrupt forms of pleasure that the traditional Roman rejected as foreign, Eastern. And yet, as scholars have shown, Latin literature of the late Republic and Empire owes much to Hellenistic standards of refinement and sophistication.

The love poems of Catullus grow out of the shock of conflicting cultures. His anger, his indignation, was directed at a world Catullus didn't belong in, but that, in the form of Lesbia, he was attracted to.

He was attracted to a refinement of sensibility that, as an artist, he reconceived in artistic terms. As a poet, Catullus is a docta poeta -- a learned poet. Recent scholarship such as Wiseman's uncovers the Hellenistic heritage of the Roman poets. (The same refinement can be seen in the painting from Pompeii.)

It's Wiseman's contribution to show us the conflict between this sophistication and Catullus's moral intentions.

The conflict led to some great poetry, none so great perhaps as the so-called Attis poem. Earlier scholars and editors thought it must be a translation of a Greek original.

Wiseman helps us see how much of Catullus's personal experience went into this often terrifying, highly compressed, elliptical poem about the cult of the Great Mother, which invaded Italy from the East in the 3rd century BC.

From his humiliating experience with Lesbia, Catullus knew the madness and slavery that was the lot of the devotee of the goddess.

As Wiseman remarks, Lesbia and the Great Mother inhabited ``a moral wilderness, where the values he had been brought up with did not apply: fides and pietas were treated with contempt, and the responsibilities of marriage and the family were corrupted into incest and perversion.''

Catullus was not all outrage. Piety and fidelity come through in his marvelous poems to friends and family. Refined perceptions make his so-called sparrow poems favorites with readers who know nothing about Lesbia. Many poems reflect what Wiseman calls ``the beauty of innocence'' and its vulnerability, an innocence nicely translated in the rhythms of Richard Lovelace's 17th-century version of one of the short poems:

That me alone you lov'd, you once did say,

Nor should I to the King of gods give way,

Then I lov'd thee not as a common dear,

But as a Father doth his children chear;

Now thee I know, more bitterly I smart,

Yet thou to me more light and cheaper art.

What pow'r is this? that such a wrong should


Me to love more, yet wish thee well much lesse.

In a way, that poem says it all: Catullus may compare his love for Lesbia to that of a father for his children, but her indifference to his refined moral attitude only gives him access to the bitter knowledge of the ``cheapness'' of her behavior.

Sometimes the ``innocence'' of Catullus bears a striking resemblance to the refinement of that face from the wall in Pompeii. We are grateful to Wiseman for recovering it for us in his elegant (and expensive) reappraisal of the poet we call Gaius Valerius Catullus.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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