The first of the Big Four to write was Catullus. He was reportedly born in 84 BCE in Verona, but spent much of his adult life in Rome, and died young in about 54 BCE, ten years before the death of Julius Caesar. References in the poems suggest that he spent a year abroad at some point on the staff of the Governor of the Province of Bithynia, near the Bosphorus and Black Sea in modern Turkey.
Like all Latin poets at the time, he was knowledgeable about and strongly influenced by Greek mythology and literary conventions. He was a polished performer in the conventional style, and belonged to a group of poets which aspired to refresh and modernise it and give it a more distinctively Roman turn. But he also wrote short poems about real life in largely colloquial language.
Many of these are satirical attacks on contemporaries and even Caesar himself: in this mood, Catullus can be very funny, and extremely gross. He is best remembered, however, for his poems about an affair with a woman he calls Lesbia. It is impossible to know for sure whether ancient sources who identified Lesbia as a real married woman called Clodia, who was about ten years older than Catullus, had it right, but the Lesbia poetry is so beautiful and so moving that it is hard to imagine that he made her up.
No contemporary copies of these Latin poets’ work survive, so we are lucky to have them. Find out more here.