The poet Catullus is best known for an achingly powerful series of poems he devoted to his pseudonymous lover Lesbia. Despite their provenance in late republican Rome, the passions they express — admiration, lust, impatience, sadness, anger, and joy, all commingled, each mutually intensifying each — compel an immediate recognition from modern audiences. Love and hate, it seems, have changed little in the intervening millennia.
Catullus himself was an intense and gifted personality, with a wide-ranging mind and a sure command of language in every register. So who better to guide us through his work than the cultural polymath Frederic Raphael? Raphael is a novelist, screenwriter, classicist, critic, and memoirist. He has adapted for the movies both Aeschylus and Thomas Hardy; he worked with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut; his Oscar-winning screenplay for John Schlesinger’s Darling remains as bitter and brilliant and relevant on the subject of sex and love today as it was in 1965.
Raphael’s latest project is a just-finished novel about the life and loves of Catullus — a project he has been working on since the early 1950’s. “I started writing about him when I was 18,” Raphael told us. “I thought he was this passionate, young guy who fell in love with a rather naughty Roman lady called Clodia Metelli.”
The naughtiness was, in Raphael’s telling, a major part of what initially attracted him to the poet’s work. “In the 1950’s — I imagine that’s ancient history to you people — there was an edition of Catullus, and a very good one, brought out by a man called Fordyce. He refused to print the obscene poems, because he thought they were unworthy of a great poet. When I was at Cambridge, I was actually drawn to what was forbidden, and believe it or not, that included Catullus. The lure of the obscene is a pretty strong one, I think, among young persons in every walk of life — particularly perhaps in Cambridge.”
This youthful interest in Catullus never waned; according to Raphael, it waxed over the years. “I think that Catullus is a complex figure. He’s also very likable because he is so bold and he can write in a whole number of different registers, some of which are very elaborate. Hence Horace’s description of him as doctus, which means almost ‘professorial.’ And the reason for that is that he admired very much the Greek poets, not only Sappho but also Archilochus, the great Parian poet of the 8th or 7th Century BCE (whose scathing poems are very like some of Catullus’s).”
Raphael notes as well that the English classicist T. P. Wiseman confessed in an essay that at 45, he thought he was now too old to write about Catullus — Catullus being a young and passionate person outside the experiential realm of a middle-aged professor. Raphael has no such qualms. “I’m now 87 years old,” he told us, “and I don’t have any feeling whatever that I am too old to write about Catullus.”
So who was this young and passionate person? Not a Roman by birth. He came from Verona, in Italy’s north — then the province of Cisalpine Gaul. And though he, as the son of a prominent (although nouveau riche) family, enjoyed the many advantages that wealth conveyed in the 1st Century BCE, he was somewhat atypical for a man of his class. Raphael points out that he, for example, did not make a start to his public career by going on campaign with a general after having relocated to Rome as a young man. He did traffic with high Roman society: he was well-known to Caesar, to Pompey, and to Cicero (who called him “Clever Catullus”). The precisely known facts of his life are few.
This makes, one might argue, his work stand forth all the more brightly. The signal quality of that work, for Raphael, is a playfulness present even in its darkest moments. “I don’t believe sincerity has an important place in art,” Raphael told us. “I’m not even sure what ‘sincerity’ means. I know what ‘accurate’ means. There’s a very good poem by Catullus about Lesbia’s passer, her pet sparrow. She is upset about its death. He pretends to be sympathetic until, by the end, he more or less says, ‘That stupid little bird she’s weeping about has made her eyes look small.’ He uses the word ocelli. People don’t seem to notice that ocelli, which is a diminutive word meaning exactly ‘little eyes,’ is not the same as oculi, which means ‘eyes.’ And that sort of distinction — that accuracy — has nothing to do with sincerity, God help us. It has more to do with a kind of fun. The love poems are more seductive than sincere. I think that the fun of being a poet, for Catullus, was the fun of a freedom of expression.”
This quality, as Raphael sees it, is embodied most clearly in a famous couplet:
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
That is (in Raphael’s translation)
I love and I hate. You’re possibly wondering why I feel that way.
I don’t know. But that’s how I feel, and it tortures me.
“The poems to Lesbia are torn between this love and this torture,” Raphael says. “They have a masochistic, to put it in a very loose way, strain in them. He loves Lesbia, but it’s a desperate love, a love which can’t turn out well. Some people are drawn into those kinds of affairs. In fact, I understand it’s quite common. I fortunately have not had that experience.”
Though Catullus is best known for these poems about Lesbia, he by no means wrote exclusively about her. “The odd thing about his work is that it’s divided between the famous and passionate poems and abusive and scurrilous ones,” Raphael told us. “These include — and this is part of the charm of Catullus, or part of his rarity — attacks on Julius Caesar when he was not quite at the height of his power but well on his way to that, and attacks on Gnaeus Pompeius — at that time, Caesar’s confederate and son-in-law. Catullus seems to have specialized in daring attacks on famous people. He was extremely abusive and obscene, but he was abusive and obscene in a very elegant way, which is quite a skill if you have it. Later on, there were various savage Romans — including obviously Tacitus, who wrote about emperors with some scathing brevity and wit. But he generally wrote about dead emperors, which was quite safe. Not about living ones, which was very dangerous. Catullus had the nerve, at the end of the Republic, not to be afraid of anybody. When Octavian became the most powerful person in Rome it paid, to put it mildly, to applaud his ascent. Virgil and Horace both, without quite crawling, did something pretty damn close to crawling to Augustus. There is no great scandal about that. Lots of people have done works of art which have been commissioned by, and had to be approved by, kings. That’s why I say that Catullus was a very rare figure.”
In the poem about the death of Lesbia’s sparrow, Catullus evokes the image of death as an eater of life and its bounties. So how did his own work escape this maw?
“Luck,” says Raphael. “There’s another poet who was a great friend of his, who was very well spoken-of in the ancient world, called Calvus. None of his work survived in Rome. That was true of him and a number of other people who are very well spoken-of in contemporary literary documents, like Quintilian. Cicero was very lucky to enjoy a high reputation — high enough that even Augustus, responsible for his political persecution, described him as ‘a very great writer, and one who loved his country.’ Reputation worked for Cicero. It didn’t work for a number of writers. Survival in the modern world has a great deal of luck involved with it.”
The question of survival, however, is not without its own troubling ambiguities. Raphael notes that “there’s a huge amount of television which purports to be about the ancient world. There are an enormous amount of books about the ancient world. About ancient philosophy, about ancient poetry. What you do not have are people studying Greek and Latin. They study opinions about Greek and Latin writers at university, and the trouble with the grading in universities, however grand they may once have been or still seem to be, is of course that you either conform with what people like Professor Beard want you to say or you don’t get a good grade.”
It is hard to disagree with his assessment: at the moment, we demand orthodoxy along with our entertainment. Worse still, this rot began (as most rot does) at the head. Even among professional translators of the classics, Raphael notes, you will find “pretty rough work. Anybody who knows any Latin or Greek is almost certainly going to come across things, whether in Ted Hughes or any other literary translator you care to mention, which aren’t in the Latin or the Greek at all. My friend Peter Green is a great translator, who’s just finished — at the age of 94! — translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. I said to him, ‘Why are you doing it?’ He said, ‘Because nobody’s done it before.’”
The fate of classics may be in doubt. But their value never can be. That, we would argue, is a tension Catullus himself might have appreciated