Catullus is back from his year on the staff of a provincial governor. In idle conversation with a friend and his girl, he complains that the material advantages were nothing to write home about, and takes a pop at his erstwhile boss before being caught out in an embarrassing bit of, well, exaggeration.
This piece shows how natural and conversational this metre (hendecasyllables), which Catullus used in most of his most famous poems, makes things seem. Change the details to suit place and time – substitute a Mercedes for the bearers and an investment bank for the governor’s staff, for example – and this talk between fashionable young people could have taken place anytime and anywhere from modern New York to Napoleonic Paris or Elizabethan London. More alien, I hope, is the way in which the conversation kind of assumes that eight Bithynian men are livestock or a piece of domestic equipment, rather than people. Human rights would have seemed a meaningless concept to the average Roman in the late Republic, except perhaps for those that came with being a Roman citizen.
See the illustrated blog post here.
To listen, press play:
To scroll both versions of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.
Varus me meus ad suos amores
visum duxerat e foro otiosum,
scortillum, ut mihi tum repente visum est,
non sane illepidum neque invenustum,
huc ut venimus, incidere nobis
sermones varii, in quibus, quid esset
iam Bithynia, quo modo se haberet,
et quonam mihi profuisset aere.
respondi id quod erat, nihil neque ipsis
nec praetoribus esse nec cohorti,
cur quisquam caput unctius referret,
praesertim quibus esset irrumator
praetor, nec faceret pili cohortem.
‘at certe tamen,’ inquiunt ‘quod illic
natum dicitur esse, comparasti
ad lecticam homines.’ ego, ut puellae
unum me facerem beatiorem,
‘non’ inquam ‘mihi tam fuit maligne
ut, provincia quod mala incidisset,
non possem octo homines parare rectos.’
at mi nullus erat nec hic neque illic
fractum qui veteris pedem grabati
in collo sibi collocare posset.
hic illa, ut decuit cinaediorem,
‘quaeso’ inquit ‘mihi, mi Catulle, paulum
istos commoda: nam volo ad Serapim
deferri.’ ‘mane’ inquii puellae,
‘istud quod modo dixeram me habere,
fugit me ratio: meus sodalis—
Cinna est Gaius—is sibi paravit.
verum, utrum illius an mei, quid ad me?
utor tam bene quam mihi pararim.
sed tu insulsa male et molesta vivis,
per quam non licet esse neglegentem.’
My friend Varus had seen me at a loose end
and taken me from the Forum to see
his love interest, a little tart, as I saw
straight away, but not bad looking or short
of charm – when we had got there, we talked
about this and that, including what Bithynia was
like now, how was the place getting on, and
how far had it done me any good financially.
I replied, as was the case, that there was no way,
either for praetors or their staff, to come home
any sleeker, especially if they had a praetor
who was a complete shit who didn’t give a damn
for his team. Well anyway, they said, surely
you brought back some bearers for your litter,
as people say that they come from there?
To put on a bit of side in front of the girl, I said
that, while I might have drawn a bad province,
things hadn’t gone quite so poorly for me that
I couldn’t get myself eight straight-backed men.
(In fact I didn’t have a single one, here or there,
capable of hoisting the leg broken off an old
camp-bed onto his shoulders.) At this point,
as you’d expect from someone so pushy,
she said please, Catullus darling, lend them to me
for a little while, I’d like to be carried
down to Serapis’s shrine. Hang on,
I said to her, what I said just now,
that I’d got them, what was I thinking of,
it’s my friend Gaius Cinna, he bought them.
But really, his or mine, what’s the difference
to me? I use them just as if I’d bought them
myself. But you really are a drag
and a bore if you expect a fellow
to keep up to the mark the whole time!