The advent of a new translation is a chance to test the staying power of long-dead poets. Today Catullus passes with high marks, as he has through the seven hundred years since a Veronese scholar discovered, and excitedly copied, the single battered manuscript of his work to survive from antiquity. His popularity is partly due to the graphic glimpse his work gives of sex and nightlife in the high-rolling Rome of the first century bce. Reading his array of lovesick sighs and salvos of jaw-dropping obscenities is like visiting the ruins of Pompeii, where you stroll just a few blocks from houses ornamented with fountains and delicate frescoes to small, dank brothel rooms with stone shelves for beds, the price for an encounter with the occupant scrawled above each door.
How many crushes have come blushingly to light in ragged classroom translations of Catullus's poems to "Lesbia," the alias (an homage to Sappho) of a seductive married beauty who whips the poet into a state of febrile delight and neurasthenic frenzy? And when love evaporates incomprehensibly into boredom or betrayal, Catullus traces the process, explosive rage modulating to pity that retains traces of longing and jealousy:
Poems are not diaries (generations of classical scholarship to the contrary), and Catullus did not dash off his metrical virtuosities in an afternoon, but this is the aesthetic of the shorter lyrics: craft masked as first-person spontaneity. If his habit of direct address invites readers to identify naively with the poem's narrator, the formalist challenge of fitting Latin into meters originally designed for Greek and the accumulation of literary references—to Sappho, Callimachus, and earlier Roman poets—draw attention to the eternally self-conscious aspect of the experience of passion, the way our strongest, most "natural" passions are shaped in part by literary art. Saying "I am in love!" or "I feel . . ." are acts of self-dramatized authenticity, as Roland Barthes observes: Catullus catches both the rawness of emotion and the theatrical quality of its expression.
This is a reworking, down to the vow that follows Aeneas's protest, of Catullus's line
Unfortunately for poor Dido, Catullus's line is no romantic outburst. It is the exclamation of a tress of hair cut from the head of an Egyptian queen, a Latin version of Greek verses written two centuries earlier (and the model for Pope's Rape of the Lock). This is the literature that critics in later ages would call "Alexandrian": intricate, exuberantly allusive, with emotive registers of erotic pathos, comedy, and panegyric mingling in a single line.
Twentieth-century translations, responding to modernism's adoption of urban rhythms, have distilled Catullus's Alexandrianism down to hipness, and he comes off as smart, lecherous, self-deprecating, derisive. The obvious payoff is that the fusty diction and prudery of old schoolboy editions (forever memorialized in Elmer Truesdell Merrill's commentary of 1893: "Contents, execrable. Date, indeterminable. Meter, Phalaecean") have been thrown to the winds. Continuing this trend, Green, an eminent classicist and translator, capably delivers on the longer poems and gives vivid color to the invective and to the lighter erotic verses. The young Juventius is a toothsome "honey-pot," the quick kisses Catullus steals from him "sweeter than ambrosia's sweet." Seeking a friend in a colonnade where prostitutes lounge, Catullus gets a flash: "You want him? / He's right here, in between my rosy titties!" Green captures the antic range of Catullan abuse, which can thud like a pile driver—"no man, but rather a pompous, portentous PRICK "—and pierce like a deft acupuncturist's needle:
What Green's casual phrasing cannot quite express is the menacing sense of dislocation effected by Catullus's coupling of love and politics. To describe the experience of soured passion, Catullus draws unexpectedly, and to devastating effect, on the traditional language of Roman moralism. He likens the tempestuous affair with Lesbia to a legal compact (foedus), a formal alliance (fides), even a father's love for his sons. As the collection unfolds, Lesbia and Juventius play whore with Catullus's traitorous friends, while the "bitch-queen" Julius Caesar shares "disease-spots" with his adjutant, and other politicians, bloated "gamesters," "pustules," and "con men" all, struggle for status in Rome and loot in the provinces. In this context, Catullus's preoccupation with minor-league bad behavior—stinginess, small acts of malice, even napkin stealing—bespeaks the larger anxieties of a society in a state of political collapse. The silent connections between private relationships and political culture are laid bare, the corruption of one propelling the disintegration of the other. It is an unnerving strategy, and one that makes the poetry especially resonant right now.
Catullus wrote during the years that the Roman republic was coming undone. The centuries the Romans spent making the Mediterranean into an imperial lake had created a demand for armies as tremendous as the amount of plunder that poured into Italy, and by the time Catullus came to Rome from his home in Verona, the city's ancient culture of aristocratic competition had been reduced to bloody standoffs between generalissimos whose wealth and military might made republican traditions obsolete. Gang violence concussed public assemblies, legalized assassination filled the forum with heads on pikes, and the backbone of Rome's traditional ideology—the old civic virtues of moderation, piety, concord, and trust—broke apart.
If that ideology had never been more than a convenient fiction (and indeed it was revived to serve the new autocracy a generation later), its collapse was no less momentous. Catullus's work, with its impassioned, insistently present-tense scrutiny of love and faithlessness, reflects his generation's appalled awareness that the spoken words we depend on to reveal emotional affinities and make social contracts real are insubstantial, wayward things, "written on running water, on the wind." "Rufus, I thought you my friend. In vain, and to no purpose"; "You told me once, Lesbia, that Catullus alone understood you": Catullus's gaze, disconcertingly fixed on the unraveling of every human bond, erotic, affectionate, or political, is entirely new to classical poetry, and for all its deserved reputation for charm, his is an art sparked by social disorder. Even the semidivine legendary founder of Rome gets slapped with a crude epithet for tolerating the corruption of Caesar and his cronies: "Hey, / fag Romulus, can you put up with such a scene?"
Dying young around 54 BCE, probably of tuberculosis, Catullus saw neither Caesar's civil-war victory nor his assassination on the Ides of March. Horace and Virgil, Catullus's successors in the Latin canon, witnessed these events and their chaotic sequel, and their work shows the strain. Horace, who fought as a young man on the losing side of Caesar's killers, and whose early work echoes the Catullan synthesis of anguish and wit, ended his life writing verses in praise of Caesar's autocratic heir, Augustus. Virgil closed his Aeneid with a stop-motion frame of the Trojan hero Aeneas, the symbolic forerunner of Augustus, standing over the corpse of an enemy he has just killed in a vengeful rage. Whether Aeneas's deed is proof of the essential evil of empire, or of its necessary cost, Virgil does not say—but Augustus liked the poem.
Catullus's brash preciosity and bad-boy posturing made for good reading in the Clinton years. His immediacy in the context of a different administration rests with his hard-eyed preoccupation with civic breakdown—the images of civility mangled, ideals disillusioned, social bonds blown apart by ambition and greed—and with his capacity to reserve some poetic energy for the flights of imagination that sustain us for the fight against it.
Joy Connolly is assistant professor of classics at New York University.
THE POEMS OF CATULLUS: A BILINGUAL EDITION BY GAIUS VALERIUS CATULLUS, TRANSLATED AND WITH COMMENTARY BY PETER GREEN. BERKELEY: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. 360 PAGES. $25. BUY NOW