Reassessing the Classics: Catullus

You don’t really expect gangster rap from Latin love poetry. But it exists. Beneath the formal words, there are poems that would make Tupac blush if you know where to look. Imagine a collection with poetry so filthy that scholars don’t dare translate it fully in English until the end of the 20th century. That’s Catullus.

The Victorian era has left us with the idea of stolid, boring Romans – effectively, Victorians in togas – but that is far from the case. I’d heard rumors of the dirtiness of Catullus but wrote it off as Classics students being nerdy, until read some of his poems for an ancient history project.  I was expecting them to be dry and boring, but found myself actually laughing when I realized that they read a lot like rap music.

There are some lovely poems scattered throughout his book. For example, 101 (all of his poems are numbered) mourns his brother’s death and 5 is actually quite romantic. But don’t judge him as sensitive before you read 16, which is far, far too fruity to put in this article – some of us at St. Andrews are still innocent, wide-eyed seventeen year-olds… Though for those who want a little titillation, you can find it online. This is the most famous of his poems, and equally so infamous it wasn’t translated in its entirety until the just a few decades ago. Its first line is famous for being one of the foulest phrases ever written in the Latin language, and in case you miss it during the first line, Catullus kindly restates it to finish off the poem.

In 16, Catullus also assures two “haters” that he’s no softie, just because he writes romantic poems. He then quite vividly describes how he’s going to prove that he’s far from effeminate. Other poems have surprisingly well thought out insults to fellow men (ex:33) and in others, this “love” poet doesn’t shy away from insulting the ladies either (ex:42).

Now, I honestly don’t expect most people to read the entire collected works of Catullus; it’s witty and fun, but after about 50 poems, it gets a bit dull. Despite this, I definitely recommend you check some of them out. It’ll raise your scholastic cred and definitely give you a few giggles along the way.  


Title image sourced from Fine art America. Other images sourced from Fine Art America and Christie's. Compiled by Nicole Horgan.