Catullus in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Catullus, Valerius A celebrated Roman poet, born in the territory of Verona, about B.C. 84. His praenomen, Gaius , is not given in any good MSS., which only mention his cognomen; but Gaius is accepted on the authority of Apuleius ( Apol. 10). In consequence of an invitation from Manlius Torquatus, one of the noblest patricians of the State, he proceeded in early youth to Rome, where he appears to have kept but indifferent company, at least in point of moral character. He impaired his fortune so much by his extravagance that he complains he had no one Fractum qui veteris pedem grabati, In collo sibi collocare possit. This, however, must have been written partly in jest, as his finances were always sufficient to allow him to keep up a delightful villa on the peninsula of Sirmio and an expensive residence at Tibur. With a view of improving his pecuniary circumstances, he adopted the usual Roman mode of reestablishing a diminished fortune, and accompanied MemmiusGaius , the celebrated friend of Lucretius, to Bithynia, where he was appointed praetor to that province. His situation, however, was but little ameliorated by this expedition, and, in the course of it, he lost a beloved brother who was along with him, and whose death he lamented in verse never surpassed in delicacy or pathos. He came back to Rome with a shattered constitution and a lacerated heart. From the period of his return to Italy to his decease, his time appears to have been chiefly occupied with the prosecution of amours in the capital or in the solitudes of Sirmio. He died B.C. 54. The distracted and unhappy state of his country, and his disgust at the treatment which he had received from Memmius, were perhaps sufficient excuse for shunning political employments; but, when we consider his taste and genius, we cannot help regretting that he was merely an idler and a debauchee. He loved Clodia (supposed to have been the sister of the tribune Clodius), a beautiful but shameless woman, whom he has celebrated under the name of Lesbia. Among his friends he ranked not only most men of pleasure and fashion in Rome, but many of her eminent literary and political characters, such as Cornelius Nepos, Cicero, and Asinius Pollio. His enemies seem to have been as numerous as his loves or friendships, and competitions in poetry or rivalship in gallantry appear always to have been a sufficient cause for his dislike; and where an antipathy was once conceived, he was unable to put any restraint on the expression of his hostile feelings. His poems are chiefly employed in the indulgence and commemoration of these various passions. They have been divided into lyric, elegiac, and epigrammatic, an arrangement convenient from its generality, but to which all can not, with strictness, be reduced. He seems to have been the earliest lyric poet of Latium, notwithstanding the claim of Horace to the same honour. Much of his poetry appears to have been lost: the pieces that remain to us (116 in all) exhibit, in singular contrast, the sensual grossness which is imbibed from depraved habits and loose imaginations, together with exquisite touches of sentiment and taste, and the polish of intellectual cultivation. Those who turn with disgust from the coarse impurities that sully his pages may be inclined to wonder that praises of his delicacy should ever have been coupled with the name of Catullus. But to many of his effusions, distinguished both by fancy and feeling, this praise is justly due. Many of his amatory trifles are quite unrivalled in the elegance of their playfulness; and no author has excelled him in the purity and neatness of his style, the delightful ease and simplicity of his manner, and in graceful turns of thought and felicity of diction. Some of his pieces, which breathe the higher enthusiasm of the art, and are coloured with a singular picturesqueness of imagery, increase our regret at the manifest mutilation of his works. Among these, the most remarkable is, perhaps, the Attis, a poem in the galliambic metre, and unlike the work of any other Latin author in the strangeness of its subject and its weird imaginative power. No one of his poetical predecessors was more versed in Greek literature than Catullus, and his extensive knowledge of its beauties procured for him the appellation of Doctus. Catullus translated many of the shorter and more delicate pieces of the Greeks, an attempt which hitherto had been thought impossible, though the broad humour of their comedies, the vehement pathos of their tragedies, and the romantic interest of the Odyssey, had stood the transformation. His stay in Bithynia, though little advantageous to his fortune, rendered him better acquainted than he might otherwise have been with the productions of Greece; and he was therefore, in a great degree, indebted to this expedition for those felicitous turns of expression, that grace, simplicity, and purity which are the characteristics of his poems, and of which hitherto Greece alone had afforded models. Indeed, in all his verses, whether elegiac or heroic, we perceive his imitation of the Greeks; and it must be admitted that he has drawn from them his choicest stores. His Hellenisms are frequent; his images, similes, metaphors, and addresses to himself are all Greek; and even in the versification of his odes we see visible traces of their origin. Nevertheless, he was the inventor of a new species of Latin poetry; and as he was the first who used such variety of measures, and perhaps invented some that were new, he was amply entitled to call the poetical volume which he presented to Cornelius Nepos lepidus novus libellus. The expressions, too, and idioms of the Greek language, which he has so carefully selected, are woven with such art into the texture of his composition, and so aptly paint the impassioned ideas of his muse, that they have all the fresh and untarnished hues of originality. All the MSS. of Catullus are of recent date, and all are derived from a single codex (Codex Veronensis) of which Rather, bishop of Verona (A.D. 965) made some use, and which in the fourteenth century was again copied, as also a third time, and then finally lost. The earliest and best MS., copied directly from the Codex Veronensis, is one in Paris (Germanensis), nearly related to which is the Codex Oxoniensis, probably copied about the year 1400 (Bährens). In all, there are some seventy MSS. of Catullus, on which see R. Ellis's prolegomena.

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