Gaius Valerius Catullus

84BC - 54BC

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.

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Taken as a whole, his work is less characterised by inherited Greek forms and conventions than that of the major poets who came after him. Although he was a polished performer in the conventional style and left one long piece in it which is much studied by specialists, but not read much by anybody else (number 64), he also wrote short poems about real life in largely colloquial language.

Many of these are satirical attacks on contemporaries up to and including Caesar himself: in this mood, Catullus can be very funny, and also extremely gross. He is best remembered, however, for his poems about an affair with a woman he calls Lesbia. The best of these are very, very good indeed. 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: when a Latin writer addresses poems to a lady, you should bear in mind the possibility that he has made her up. Reading the poems, however, I find it impossible to believe that there wasn’t a real Lesbia.

No contemporary copies of these Latin poets’ work survive, so we are lucky to have them. Find out more here.

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