Art Beck: Two Latin poets

  Art Beck

  Romance and Bromance:

  A Tale of Two Poets and Thousands of Kisses
  I. The Upright Poet and the Disreputable Poem

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There’s a much quoted last line in the fourth poem of Martial’s first book of epigrams, lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba. In the Loeb, David Shackleton-Bailey translation: ‘My page is wanton, but my life is virtuous’.


This distinction between literature and life is often traced back to lines in a poem of Catullus, written over a century earlier than Martial’s: nam castum esse decet pium poetam/ ipsum versiculos nihil necessest. As rendered in the 1913 Loeb, C.P. Goold version: ‘For the sacred poet ought to be chaste himself, though his poems need not be so.’


Martial, who masterfully incorporated obscene language and the unmentionable in his epigrams, admired and acknowledged Catullus as an ancestral model. So he may well have had Catullus’ lines in mind. But the two poems in which they appear (Catullus carmen 16 and Martial epigrams I, 4) are so different, that perhaps we should pause before interpreting the sentiment so similarly.


Martial’s epigram I, 4 is an apologia, addressed to the Emperor Domitian. Catullus’ carmen 16, on the other hand, is addressed to two young compadres, Aurelius and Furius, who were ridiculing his poems. It’s a poem, to borrow Yeats’ phrase, written to ‘mock mockers’. Its crude Latin invective was generally bowdlerized in translation prior to the last half of the twentieth century. Here’s my, somewhat interpretive, but I think reasonably accurate rendering. (This is probably a good place to say, that ‘interpretive but reasonably accurate’ will be my translation approach with all the poems in this article.)


Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,
Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi,
qui me ex versiculis meis putastis,
quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum.
nam castum esse decet pium poetam
ipsum, versiculos nihil necessest;
qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem,
si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici,
et quod pruriat incitare possunt,
non dico pueris, sed his pilosis
qui duros nequeunt movere lumbos,
vos, quod milia multa basiorum
legistis, male me marem putatis?
pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.


I’ll shove it up your ass and fuck your face,
Aurelius you queer, you pansy, Furius.
Don’t confuse the poet with his poems. Just
because they’re lovey-dovey, don’t assume
I lack decency. A poet has to be upright
and pure, but good verse needn’t be.
Because it’s only wise and charming when
it’s a little gentle and dirty. That’s what
it takes to spark an urge. I mean, I’m not
writing for school boys here, but old goats
too stiff hipped to hump. You read my
thousand, thousand kisses and presume
I have a male malady? Fuck you
in the ass, and fuck your smart mouths.
  II. Thousands of kisses


The milia multa kisses that inspired his friends’ jibes occur in several Catullus poems. One, is Catullus carmen 48:


Mellitos oculos tuos, Iuventi,
si quis me sinat usque basiare,
usque ad milia basiem trecenta,
nec mi umquam, videar, satur futurus,
non si densior aridis aristis
sit nostrae seges osculationis.
Your honey sweet eyes,
Juventius, if I could just keep
kissing them — three hundred
thousand kisses — while we harvest
the sun ripe wheatfield of our
kisses — and I’ll still be hungry for more.


In our time, this poem addressed to an adolescent male, might seem the perfect candidate for Aurelius and Furius’ accusation of effeminacy and indecency. Especially since Catullus has two other poems in which he separately threatens to pedicate (carmen 15) and irrumate (carmen 21) Aurelius if he messes with Catullus’ toy-boy. But Roman times weren’t our times.


The mores of the age sanctioned these kind of same sex relations, but only with slaves or underclass youths. The classicist and Catullus translator Peter Green did idly wonder if Juventius may have been a member of the venerable Juventi family. For me, the name Juventius seems more a play on ‘youth’, similar to the way Catullus’ ‘Lesbia’ evokes Sappho as a muse and exemplar of poetic love. If Juventius was, in fact, a highborn young Juventi, Catullus would have been accused of more than just being parem pudici (somewhat indecent).


Similarly, he might also have been in for a world of hurt if he addressed his famous adulterous love sequence to Clodia, a senator’s wife, rather than ‘Lesbia’. There are two notable ‘kisses’ poems to Lesbia/Clodia. In carmen 7, Catullus wants more kisses than all the grains of sand in the Libyan desert and all the stars in the sky. But these exhortations pale before the haunting liebestod of carmen 5.


Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut nequis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum


Let’s live, my Lesbia, and love:
All the whispered hisses of the old
don’t amount to a single cent.
Suns set, then rise again. For us,
once our brief light sets, there’s just
night and an endless sleep. So, give
me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
a thousand more, another hundred.
Until we’re lost in so many thousands,
that no reckoning jealous fate
exacts, can ever extinguish
the kisses we can’t begin to count.


To me, there’s an essential difference between this poem and the Juventius poem. Juventius seems a possession, albeit a prized, lovely possession. A ripe wheatfield of sex. But notice the only explicit kisses are Catullus’ on Juventius’ eyes. There’s not a strong sense of mutuality.


And even though Lesbia is mea Lesbia, it’s Catullus who’s possessed in 5. The poem evokes, not a sunny afternoon, but danger, death, desperation and a helpless, clandestine eruption of life. It doesn’t really matter whether the illicit lovers’ mutual kisses exceed the stars, they’ve become the stars.


So, reading the vulgarity of Catullus 16 after 5, you want to paraphrase William Blake and ask : did he who made Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus make Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo? A great poet, but a conflicted young man?


Well, if Catullus’ Lesbia poems are anything, they’re a record of ecstasy and agony. And, his bros, Aurelius and Furius do seem to touch a real nerve. Catullus admits his poem is molliculi (tender, effeminate), but perhaps the better sense of the accusation is ‘pussywhipped’. I think what Catullus 16 ends up saying well is that he may indeed be a lovesick puppy, but the cause is a very stiff, throbbing prick.


Even so, the poem still seems somewhat disjointed and wandering and difficult to reconcile with the ‘romantic’ Catullus. So, what this wandering essay is going to wonder about is whether Martial, a century later, may have posited his own ‘Catullus reconciliation’.

  III. Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba.
  The Censorious Emperor and the Careerist Poet.


The Emperor Domitian is a frequent addressee in Martial’s epigrams, flattered in his lifetime, denounced after his death. The flattery is sometimes witty, often saccharine, and at times, perhaps even sarcastic. The subject is too complex to explore here. But, Martial I, 4, seems almost a collegial apologia; a poem in which the megalomaniac Domitian, who eventually took to demanding he be called ‘lord and god’, is addressed on an informal citizen to first-citizen basis.


Contigeris nostros, Caesar, si forte libellos,
      terrarum dominum pone supercilium.
consuevere iocos vestri quoque ferre triumphi,
      materiam dictis nec pudet esse ducem.
qua Thymelen spectas derisoremque Latinum,
      illa fronte precor carmina nostra legas.
innocuos censura potest permittere lusus:
      lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba.


If you chance upon my book Caesar, relax the raised
      eyebrows that govern the world. Triumphators have
to endure rude jokes. And commanders aren’t shamed
      by their troops’ coarse marching chants. Read my
poems with the smile you can’t help when watching
      Thymele and that scamp Latinus in the mime show:
A Censor is allowed some harmless fun. My pages
      are shameless, an honest living.


Certainly, none of the invective of Catullus 16 here. But does lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba essentially say what nam castum esse decet pium poetam/ ipsum versiculos nihil necessest does? You may notice my (attempted) translation of that last line is somewhat different than Shackleton-Bailey’s ‘my page is wanton, but my life is virtuous’. It also differs from, say, James Michie’s ‘my life is strict, however lax my page’ and a number of similar interpretations. Neither of the above are mistranslations. It’s just that they summarize, and in the process, make prosaic choices. Conversely — at least as I read the Latin — the translation question posed is a little more complex and the ‘correct choice’ may be ‘all of the above’.


Let’s start with the word proba which means ‘good’, but usually in the sense of ‘honest’ or ‘true’, or ‘proven’ with the implication of ‘the real thing’. If say, we were talking about whiskey — ‘100 proof’. ‘Virtuous’ sure, but virtue to the Romans was a somewhat broader, ‘manly’ concept. (Closer, maybe to what Catullus 16 was defending?) Anyway, ‘honest’, I think, is the simplest, as well as most productive, English equivalent.


And then there’s vita. As succinctly defined by that invaluable online Latin resource, William Whittaker’s Words.
vita, vitae N F life, career, livelihood; mode of life


So what I think the line, in context, says is:

  • My page is lascivious, my life honest
  • My page is lascivious, an honest occupation
  • My page is lascivious, honest life.

All three of the above, because ironic resonance is what Martial’s epigrams are all about, and the Latin reader doesn’t need to make a translation choice. Rather, isn’t this the kind of harmonic fugue that transforms discourse into poetry?

  IV: Irony and emphasis


As I’ve mentioned, my intent in this article is to take a stab at reconciling the lascivious love in Catullus 5 and the honest mockery in 16. And to do so, with some Martial poems. But the path to this is circuitous and might benefit from snaking through political territory. So, indulge me with a short detour.


In Reading the Imperial Revolution an intriguing article on Martial’s Book X, the classicist Hannah Fearnley quotes Martial’s contemporary and friend, the grammarian Quintillian on a language concept he termed ‘emphasis’. A technique ‘I think is most popular. …One in which we wish to incite a certain suspicion without actually saying it. Not the opposite of what we want to say, as is the case of irony, but something hidden that is left to be discovered by the hearer…’


Perhaps what Quintillian calls ‘emphasis’, we might characterize as ‘inference’. And it’s a technique particularly suited to navigating periods of political oppression and un-free speech. Book X marks the period in Martial’s publishing life that coincided with the assassination of Domitian and his replacement by the senator, Nerva and his soon to be successor, Trajan.


Martial celebrated this transition in his epigram X, 72:


Frustra, Blanditiae, venitis ad me
attritis miserabiles labellis:
dicturus dominum deumque non sum.
iam non est locus hac in urbe vobis…


Now my flatteries are a waste of time,
my shameless groveling lips no longer
mouth out ‘lord and god’. There’s no
more place for that in the City….


The epigram goes on to praise the new imperator, ‘the most upright of all senators bringing dry, homespun truth back from the dead’.


A rebirth from the totalitarian atmosphere under Domitian described by the contemporary historian Tacitus:


… as a former age had witnessed the extreme of liberty, so we witnessed the extreme of servitude, when the informer robbed us of the interchange of speech and hearing. We should have lost memory as well as voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence. Now at last our spirit is returning.


But the last lines of Martial’s X, 72 are ironic:


hoc sub principe, si sapis, caveto
verbis, Roma, prioribus loquaris


Under this princeps, Rome, you’d be wise to
avoid talking the way you used to talk.


Fearnley quotes a similar sentiment regarding the new liberty from Pliny the Younger: ‘You command us to be free, and we shall be free; you order us to express ourselves, and we shall do so’. The irony is that the Roman people are no longer capable of liberating themselves. What they’re enjoying is the top-down freedom of a palace coup.


But Quintillian’s emphasis, as he points out, is something different from simple ironic paradox. There’s a much earlier Martial epigram, Book I, 78 , that may (or may not) be taken as an example of emphasis.


Indignas premeret pestis cum tabida fauces
      inque ipsos vultus serperet atra lues,
siccis ipse genis flentes hortatus amicos
      decrevit Stygios Festus adire lacus.
nec tamen obscuro pia polluit ora veneno
      aut torsit lenta tristia fata fame,
sanctam Romana vitam sed morte peregit
      dimistique animam nobiliore rogo.
hanc mortem fatis magni praeferre Catonis
      fama potest: huius Caesar amicus erat.


An undeserved malignancy fed on his throat,
      and dark disease began to snake into his face.
Dry eyed himself but consoling his weeping friends,
      Festus chose to depart to the Stygian pools.
He didn’t pollute his pious lips with subtle
      poison, nor drag things out with slow starvation, but
ended a virtuous life with a Roman death,
      liberating his soul with a quick noble act.
A death even more talked about than great Cato’s
      example: because Festus was a friend of Caesar.


The usual interpretation of this poem recognizes the surface irony of the last two lines. The stern hold-out republican, Cato, killed himself because he refused to accept clemency from Julius Caesar. He died an enemy of Caesar. Festus, on the other hand was Domitian’s friend and still killed himself.


But, I think it’s a rather lame irony, really unworthy of Martial’s usual subtlety, especially after the clinical description of what seems throat cancer; the honest pathos of Festus’ farewells,; the politically charged designation as ‘great’ (magni) of the Republican exemplar we call Cato the Younger.


I’ve tried to quietly imply a title that isn’t a title in the original, which just says ‘Caesar’s friend’. But the amici Caesaris (‘Friends of Caesar’) was a senatorial advisory council to the emperor, a sort of honorary ‘kitchen cabinet.’ And under the increasingly paranoid Domitian, membership could be both humiliating and dangerous. Domitian may have been relatively restrained at the time of Martial’s Book I, but contemporary accounts agree that by the end of his reign, Domitian had no friends. Rather, he cultivated a spider web of informers. Whom he also routinely condemned on the testimony of other informers.


So, is it a stretch to infer the suggestion that Festus suffered a deadly choking disease because he was one of the amici Caesaris? Presumably, there was a real Festus, but you just have to ask yourself — how would this poem read if Festus was an imaginary figure? This is either a poem in which nine powerfully descriptive lines are followed by a tacked on, coincidentally ironic ending. Or a poem in which the tenth line, organically and subtly, uses emphasis to whisper what can’t be said out loud.


In the context of the Tacitus quote above, I tend toward the latter conclusion. Paradoxically, that reading might even pass muster with Domitian, because he might take it to confirm his growing suspicions that his amici were his enemies. A fear that, in the end, came to pass.

  V. The Sweet Bird of Love.


While Quinitillian’s emphasis might seem particularly suited to the politics of the early Imperial period, the technique may also apply another, non-political, example from Cato’s late Republic — Catullus’ two poems to Lesbia’s sparrow.


Catullus’ carmen 2, on surface, is a charming tribute to his lady love’s pet bird.

Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari,
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo, ut tum gravis acquiescet ardor;
sit solaciolum sui doloris,
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi levare curis!
(tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici aureolum fuisse malum
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam.)


Here’s an 1894 prose translation by Leonard C. Smithers from Tufts University’s Perseus site:


Sparrow, darling of my girl, with which she plays, which she presses to her bosom, to whom she gives her fingertip, arousing sharp bites as he seeks after it, when gleaming with desire of me she jests a light joke of it, so that, I think, it is a solace for her pain when the heavy burning is at rest. Could I but play with you just as she does and lighten the sad cares of mind. (… This was as pleasing to me as the golden apple was to the fleet footed girl, which unloosed her girdle long-time fastened.)


This seems a fairly simple poem, but there’s a lot of variance in even literal-intent translations. In part because there’s disagreement about whether the last three parenthesized lines, belong to this poem, or represent a fragment of another poem. But translations also vary because of where the translator stands on a longstanding dispute as to whether the Lesbia’s sparrow is simply a sparrow, or an inference of another kind of ‘pecker’. To wit, Catullus’ penis.


Carmen 3, the other ‘sparrow: poem, seems also open to a similar interpretation. In Smithers’ rendering:


O mourn, you Loves and Cupids, and all men of gracious mind. Dead is the sparrow of my girl, sparrow, darling of my girl, which she loved more than her eyes; for it was sweet as honey, and its mistress knew it as well as a girl knows her own mother. Nor did it move from her lap, but hopping round first one side then the other, to its mistress alone it continually chirped. Now it fares along that path of shadows from where nothing may ever return. May evil befall you, savage glooms of Orcus, which swallow up all things of fairness: which have snatched away from me the comely sparrow. O wretched deed! O hapless sparrow! Now on your account my girl’s sweet eyes, swollen, redden with tear-drops.


Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you distinguish between allegory and Quintillian’s emphasis, you might find yourself reconciling the sparrow-penis debate by having it both ways. Allegory uses the symbolic to metaphorically define reality. Emphasis (as I understand it) starts with explicit reality and finds something quietly implicit.


The beauty of Catullus’ 2 may be that it describes a real, not allegorical, bird that can’t help but become a verbal sex toy of sorts in the lovers’ heating dialogue. What we have may not especially be a clever allegory, but a conversational record where every surface word has its own inner pulse.


Catullus 3, on the other hand, may well be pure allegorical apology for the premature passing of the poet’s own loving passer. And an admission that the insatiable lover of Catullus 5 (and self described stud of 16) has, alas, his limitations. There’s a wonderful Dorothy Parker take on the second sparrow poem.


From A Letter From Lesbia:
… So, praise the gods, Catullus is away!
And let me tend you this advice, my dear:
Take any lover that you will, or may,
Except a poet. All of them are queer.
It’s just the same — a quarrel or a kiss
Is but a tune to play upon his pipe.
He’s always hymning that or wailing this;
Myself, I much prefer the business type.
That thing he wrote, the time the sparrow died —
(Oh, most unpleasant — gloomy, tedious words!)
I called it sweet, and made believe I cried;
The stupid fool! I’ve always hated birds …
  VI. Martial’s Take on All This.


If you’ve read this far, thanks for your patience. We’re finally getting somewhere close to where I wanted to go. The scholarly dispute over whether or not Catullus’ sparrow poems contain double meanings seems to have become a dispute only in post-Renaissance interpretations. The earliest extant source manuscript we have for Catullus’ poems dates from the fourteenth century, but he’s mentioned by a number of Roman empire era writers, perhaps none more than Martial. David Shackleton-Bailey, the translator of the current Loeb complete Martial, catalogs seven Martial epigrams that play on the theme of ‘Catullus’ sparrow.’ But, despite the fact that all seven impart a salacious meaning, Shackleton-Bailey refuses to extend Martial’s interpretation to Catullus’ intent.


Conversely, the 15th century Florentine scholar Angelo Poliziano cites a Martial poem to do exactly that, on the presumption that Martial was well qualified to read sex into the sparrow poems.


The sparrow of Catullus in my opinion allegorically conceals a certain more obscene meaning which I cannot explain with my modesty intact. Martial persuades me to believe this in that epigram of which these are the last verses:
…quae si to fuerint quot ille dixit,
      donabo tibi passerem Catulli
For he would be too inept a poet (which is wrong to believe) if he said he would give the sparrow of Catullus, and not the other thing I suspect, to the boy after the kisses. What this is, for the modesty of my pen, I leave to each reader to conjecture from the native salaciousness of the sparrow.


The Latin lines above, as translated by Shackleton Bailey (from Martial XI, 6) say: …Give me kisses, Catullan kisses. If they shall be as many as he said, I will give you Catullus’ sparrow.


S-B notes:


clearly with an obscene double sense here, but that is M’s contribution. Catullus meant no such thing, nor is M. likely to have thought he did.


Well, piss on that learned opinion. Pontificating some 2000 years after the fact. Shackelton-Bailey evokes the image of Yeats’ shuffling Catullan Scholars who ‘cough in ink’. We should keep in mind that Martial wasn’t writing just for his own amusement; he had readers who were not only familiar with Catullus’ ‘sparrow’, but presumably shared the double-entendre take expressed quite blatantly in, for example, Martial’s epigram VII, 14. (jauntily translated by Susan McLean):


Aulus, a monstrous evil has afflicted
my girl — she’s lost her plaything and her dear:
not like the one for whom Catullus’ Lesbia,
losing her naughty sparrow shed a tear…

…She’s lost a boy just twelve years old whose dong
was not yet fully eighteen inches long.


It’s hard to doubt that — whatever Catullus’ intent — his sparrow poems, a century after they were written, had taken on a distinctly erotic life. And does Catullus’ intent really matter? Rilke once wrote to an admirer who asked what a certain image (a ‘black monk’) in one of his poems meant:


I just wanted to make a black monk in the landscape against the sea….The interpretation always rests with the reader and must be free and unlimited… the more meanings there is room for in (images), the broader and more real they are.


Catullus, sadly, is long dead. His sparrow lives on. And if it wants to be a naughty pecker, that’s a prerogative of the living poem, not the late poet. The sparrow poems (as we used to say) allow different strokes for different folks.

  VII. Give me, Kisses, Catullan Kisses…


But what did Martial mean by ‘Catullan kisses’? And what might Catullus be talking about, in carmen 16, when he alludes to something ‘a little gentle and dirty’ that’s needed ‘to spark an urge’, not in schoolboys, but in ‘old goats’ stiff in all the wrong places? Here’s where I better warn you that, from this point forward, I intend to shamelessly speculate. I’m an amateur, ‘independent scholar’ who believes that — not unlike religion — scholarship is most interesting when it questions and imagines, and most pernicious when it’s dogmatic. My purpose is to entertain and wonder about things, not preach.


In epigram XI, 46 Martial describes an age-old, senile malady as clinically as he narrated Festus’ throat cancer in I, 78. But in this case, he holds out a cure.


Iam nisi per somnum non arrigis et tibi, Mevi,
      incipit in medios meiere verpa pedes,
truditur et digites pannucea mentula lassis
      nec levat extinctum sollicitata caput.
quid miseros frustra cunnos culosque lacessis?
      summa petas: illic mentula vivit anus.


It only awakens, now, in your sleep, Mevius. And
      when you piss in the middle of the night, your
knob just dribbles on your feet. You keep trying to coax
      the shriveled thing with your fingers. But no amount
of begging will lift that spiritless head. Squishing it
      into cunts and assholes is worse than useless.
Face it, it’s time to elevate your appetite. It takes
      a sophisticated palate to stir an old cock to life.


It’s an argument he makes more succinctly in IV, 50:


Quid me, Thai, senem subinde dicis?
nemo est, Thai, senex ad irrumendum.


Why do you keep calling me old, Thais? No
man’s an old man, Thais, pronging a mouth.


Although IV, 50 also seems to also impart a crude Ralph Kramdenish threat, both epigrams play on the trope that old men, in particular, greatly benefit from certain ‘kisses’. Could this be what Catullus was alluding to in carmen 16?: ‘…that’s what it takes to spark an urge… ‘not in schoolboys’ … but old goats too stiff hipped to hump’


Are these the kind of kisses Aurelius and Furius are accusing Catullus of needing? He certainly wasn’t an old man, he died, after all, at 30. But, he could be envisioned as a flash in the pan puer whose sparrow chirped and died. If so, where’s the harm in that kind of revival by his wise, more experienced lover?


But as I mentioned above, if the romance and caresses and thousands of kisses of Catullus 5 are anything, they’re mutual. Dare I say, sixty-nine thousand kisses?


Aurelius and Furius may have had something in mind along the lines of Martial’s epigram XI, 23:


Illa salax nimium naec paucis nota puellis
      stare Lino desit mentula. lingua, cave.


That oversexed prick more than a few girls know so well,
      won’t stand up for Linus. Uh-oh, tongue, your turn.


That would be a very crass interpretation of one of the great love poems of all time. But maybe just the interpretation we might expect from Catullus’ crude homies.


The scenario of mutual oral sex plays out easily in our post-feminist, liberated imaginations. This wasn’t the case in the last great period of Classical scholarship, the Victorian and post-Victorian age. And even current-day classicists seem afflicted by a Victorian-hangover conviction that cunnilingus was a fringe vice and matter of universal disgust in the ancient world. They bring up something called the os impurum, an affliction caused by oral sex evidenced by horrid halitosis. Well, Martial frequently talks about cunnilingus and always mockingly, with halitosis to boot.


But, none of this is either new nor old. When I was a teen, masturbation was rumored to cause hair on the palms. And our Irish monsignor, in what passed for male sex education, warned us that if the cops caught us necking with girls in cars, they’d make us lick our fingers. That thought was supposed to cause retching yechs. But then, we were schoolboys. There was a Sopranos episode in which old Uncle Junior’s sweet lady friend naively lets it out that he likes to go down on her. Tony and his mafioso cohorts’ Italian response isn’t all that different from the grief I imagine Aurelius and Furius may have given Catullus.


I guess what I’m trying to say is — cultures change, mores change, but human genes are constant and actual physical sexual behavior doesn’t change that much. Lovers did then what lovers do now. The twenty-something poet Catullus and his thirty-something, sex-tutor Clodia probably explored each other not much differently than Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salome. Rilke had the good luck to find a kinder, more scrupulous initiator. Catullus had to learn love the hard way. But all that came afterward. And, if you want a more Roman example, does anyone doubt Cleopatra would be shy about requesting some very un-Roman kisses from Antony. And maybe, earlier from Caesar, as well?

  VIII: Catullus and Martial, the Bromance of Opposites


On surface there are huge differences between the two poets. Catullus lived in the last, anarchic days of the Roman Republic. He was a patrician from a wealthy family, and hobnobbed with the great political players of his day. His lover Clodia was married to a powerful senator and came from a powerful, if morally disreputable, family in her own right. Catullus’ poems are a torrent of youth, love, brilliance, rage, and a life cut off before it barely began. What would he have written if he’d lived another 30 years? We ask similar questions about Rimbaud (despite his wilful post-early-twenties silence).


Martial emigrated to Rome from his native Spain in his twenties. But he doesn’t seem to have found himself as a poet much before he turned forty. He lived in a Rome where imperial cultural authority could be whimsical and border on the totalitarian. He’s thought to have arrived in the City under the patronage of his very successful fellow-Spaniards, Seneca and Lucan, both of whom were not long after forced to commit suicide by Nero. In Martial’s poems, his livelihood seems always tenuous.


Catullus endures for us in the richness of his romantic poems and the agony of love gone sour. Martial may be the most explicitly sexual Roman poet. but he seems to not have a romantic bone in his entire body of work. Catullus is the master of simply stated raw sincerity; Martial, of the surgical bon mot and middle-aged irony. Still, Catullus remains Martial’s acknowledged model and enabler. Martial’s glory is his ability to find elegant poetry in the grit, obscenity and wise-ass ridicule of the language of the Roman streets. And Catullus did this before him like no other Roman poet.


But beyond the routine use of the kind of language you’re not supposed to use at dinner, much less in poetry, Catullus presents the kind of imagined Capitol that a provincial poet might set out for.


That Rome was, of course, supplanted by the Rome of Martial’s time. But if the child is father to the man, Catullus’ young man’s Rome may have pulsed as a city almost personally remembered. Because Rome for Martial was mea Roma, as much a muse as mea Lesbia for Catullus. Similar to Basho in Kyoto, perhaps Martial wandering Rome, yearned for the ghost of Catullus’ city still lingering in poems like these.

  Catullus 33


O furum optime balneariorum
Vibenni pater et cinaede fili,
(nam dextra pater inquinatiore,
culo filius est voraciore)
cur non exilium malasque in oras
itis, quandoquidem patris rapinae
notae sunt populo et nates pilosas
fili, non potes asse venditare.


Oh, you’re the finest connivers
in the bathhouse: Father Vibennius
and his faggot son. (The old man has
dirtier hands, but the kid’s asshole is a
gluttonous pig.) It’s time you exiled yourselves
to some miasmal shore. Your father’s
pilfering is out, now. Everyone knows.
And your hairy butt isn’t worth a cent.
  Catullus 41


Ameana puella defututa
tota milia me decem poposcit,
ista turpiculo puella naso,
decoctoris amica Formiani.
propinqui, quibus est puella curae,
amicos medicosque conuocate:
non est sana puella, nec rogare
qualis sit solet aes imaginosum.


That fucked out juvenile Ameana
asked me for a whole ten thousand.
Bankrupt Mamurra’s little playmate,
the girl with that so ugly nose.
Her family’s still responsible for this
sick kid. Get help, call the doctors,
talk to her friends,
make her look in the mirror.
  Catullus 47


Porci et Socration, duae sinistrae
Pisonis, scabies famesque mundi,
uos Veraniolo meo et Fabullo
uerpus praeposuit Priapus ille?
uos convivia lauta sumptuose
de die facitis, mei sodales
quaerunt in trivio vocationes?


Porcius and Little Socrates: Piso’s underhanded
pair of extortioners, itching to starve the world:
Did that hard on, that fucking Priapus, promote
you over my dear Veraniolus and Fabullus? So
you can host elegant, sumptuous banquets in
the middle of the day, while my compadres
wander the streets, waiting for an invitation?
  Catullus 57


Pulcre convenit improbis cinaedis,
Mamurrae pathicoque Caesarique.
Nec mirum: maculae pares utrisque,
urbana altera et illa Formiana,
impressae resident nec eluentur:
morbosi pariter, gemelli utrique,
uno in lecticulo erudituli ambo,
non hic quam ille magis vorax adulter,
riuales socii puellularum.
Pulcre conuenit improbis cinaedis.


Those prancing pretty boys — Mamurra and his
butt-pal Caesar: They get along beautifully.
No wonder both the rube and the urbanite
have matching spots that won’t wash out
no matter how they scrub. They’re twins
who share. The same bed. The same diseases.
Even similar literary pretensions. One as
voracious an adulterer as the other. Competing
partners with the girls, they get along
beautifully, those prancing pretty-boys.


It probably wouldn’t have been lost on Martial that several of the poems above (portraying Julius Caesar, his father-in-law Piso and Caesar’s chief of engineering Mamurra), would probably be the end of someone like Martial if written about their equivalents in Domitian’s Rome. While their invective, in fact, earned Catullus a peace-offering dinner invitation from the original Caesar. Martial’s own invective at a ‘Caesar’ of his youth, addressed to the doomed poet Lucan’s widow, was written safely long after the fact, with none of the merriment of Catullus’ s mockery.

  Book VII, 21


Haec est illa dies, magni quae conscia partus
      Lucanum populus et tibi, Polla, dedit.
heu! Nero crudelis nullaque invisior umbra,
      debuit hoc saltem non licuisse tibi.


Today we commemorate a great birthday, the day
      that gave Lucan to humanity, and to you, Polla.
Damn it, vicious Nero, for no ghost more despised, this
      victim, at least, you shouldn’t have been allowed.

There’s an enigmatic Martial epigram addressed to ‘Catullus’.

  XII, 73


Hereden tibi me, Catulle, dicis.
non credam, nisi legero, Catulle.


You tell me you’ve named me your heir, Catullus.
I won’t believe it, Catullus, until I’ve seen the ashes.


The usual interpretation is that the addressee isn’t the poet Catullus, but probably some character who Martial has named Catullus. The literalist ‘point’ is that the poem refers to the practice of falsely telling legacy hopers they’re in your will, just so they’ll do you favors. But why does Martial choose a name so important to him? For me, the resonance, the Quintillian emphasis as it were, may be a quiet homage beneath the surface quip. How can I collect your poetic legacy, Catullus, when your poems are immortal?

  IX: Coda: Rip van Winkle


Martial returned to his native Spain in 98 A.D. when he was around 58 years old. He died there five or six years later. Sometime, in that ‘retirement’, he wrote epigram XII, 59. It starts with a nod to Catullus. There’s an almost dreamlike quality to the poem which begins with the narrator returning to Rome after a fifteen year absence. It’s unlikely Martial was ever away from Rome for very long since arriving there in his twenties, and he’d only been back in Spain for a few years. So if the speaker is Martial, it’s a Martial just imagining a return. But there’s no doubt this poem’s Catullus is, not only, Catullus the poet, but the poet of carmen 5.


What’s quizzical is whether the poem’s ending imagery relates to the poem’s opening. And whether the reader — as Rilke said, it’s always up to the reader — wants to imagine a dreaming Martial and a dreaming Catullus finally awakening to meet in their eternal City.


Tantum dat tibi Roma basiorum
post annos modo quindecim reverso
quantum Lesbia non dedit Catullo.
te vicinia tota, te pilosus
hircoso premit osculo colonus:
hinc instat tibi textor, inde fullo,
hinc sutor modo pelle basiata,
hinc menti dominus periculosi,
hinc dexiocholus, inde lippus
fellatorque recensque cunnilingus,
iam tanti tibi non fuit redire.


When you return after fifteen years,
Rome greets you with all the kisses
Lesbia never gave Catullus. The whole
neighborhood descends on you: The farmer
with lips sprouting bristles hugs you like a bear.
Then the weaver grabs you, next the pissy fuller,
then the shoemaker who’s just licked his cowhide,
then the proud owner of a sharp protruding chin,
then a cripple, and a runny-eye. And, here they
come  — that cocksucker and cuntlapper, fresh from
their nap. Was this worth the long trip back?



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