Catullus: Foul-mouthed Genius?

John Godwin

Catullus (c.84–54 BC) was one of the most influential poets ever to have written in Latin, with a wide range of emotions and registers in the slim volume of 116 poems which have survived to us. There are sublime elegies on death and love (such as 68), the masterpiece epyllion 64, the wedding hymns (61, 62), and the smaller poems which say so much about the agony and the joys of love and friendship. There are also, however, the scandalous invective poems which have earned this poet a reputation for obscenity, and the controversy over their language shows no sign of going away.

Catullus certainly knows how to attack people: he mocks people for their dental hygiene, taste in girlfriends, body odour, toilet habits, refusal to fulfil a promise, flatulence, hairy buttocks, and their propensity to sell their bodies for personal gain. He uses foul language to describe poetry and people (Naso, Gellius, Mamurra, Memmius) whom he does not like. In a literal translation some of this reads as simply uncouth and puerile. Is this poetry or just graffiti? Does it deserve to be read at all, let alone used as a school set text? How can a poet who writes this sort of stuff be called a genius? Should we not omit those poems and just read the others, as C.J. Fordyce famously did when he published his censored selection in 1961, saying that “a few poems which do not lend themselves to comment in English have been omitted”?

The Romans did not think so, as far as we can tell. Catullus was praised by them as a fine and influential poet: his poem on his girlfriend’s sparrow was famous enough to be imitated when Ovid (Amores 2.6) wrote an elegy on his girl’s dead parrot, and Virgil seems to have imitated him directly at key moments of the Aeneid (6.460, imitating Catullus 66.39, and 9.435-7, imitating Catullus 11.21-4). Ovid, Tibullus and Martial call him “learned” (doctus), and Propertius even says (2.34.87-8) that “playful (lascivus) Catullus’ poetry has made his girlfriend better known than Helen of Troy”.[1] What may seem to us a succès de scandale was to the Romans a poetic succès d’estime.

The first poem in the oldest manuscript of Catullus (c. 1360s, Oxford, Canon. Class. Lat. 30, f.1r).

Words as weapons

The expression of sexual and scatological humour certainly seems to have been uninhibited in Ancient Greece and Rome. Much Roman obscenity was a form of male posturing – sexual aggression to express anger and a desire to dominate one’s enemies, such as we find in poems 15 (where Catullus threatens vengeance with radishes and mullets) and 16 (where sexual humiliation is threatened in lively language). Some of it imputes sexual impotence (or incompetence) to the poet’s enemies (who are said to be cuckolds in poems 17 and 78); and some of it accuses the enemy of engaging in disgusting acts (e.g. poems 88, 98) or engaging in incest (89–91) or passive homosexuality (112), with the imagery of the “unclean mouth” a regular feature in poems such as 80 and 97.

Catullus himself was aware that some readers might read more into this than playful banter. In poem 16 he makes the point explicitly:

qui me ex uersiculis meis putastis,
quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum.
nam castum esse decet pium poetam
ipsum, uersiculos nihil necesse est;
qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem,
si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici.

You think I lack modesty because my verses are sexy. The dedicated poet himself ought to be a decent man, but his verses do not. In fact they only get wit and grace if they are sexy and shameless… (16.3–8)[2]

and so (he seems to be saying) his obscenity is part of the genre rather than any personal proclivity. We know that composing erotic poetry was a leisure activity even for the ultra-serious Pliny the Younger:

facio non numquam versiculos severos parum, facio; nam et comoedias audio et specto mimos et lyricos lego et Sotadicos intellego; aliquando praeterea rideo iocor ludo, utque omnia innoxiae remissionis genera breviter amplectar, homo sum. 

I do sometimes write short verses which lack seriousness – for I go to hear comedies, mimes, read lyric poems and appreciate Sotadean verse: I occasionally laugh, joke, fool about, and to sum up in a word all these kinds of harmless recreation: I am human. (Epistles 5.3.2: he goes on to name other Romans who shared his hobby).

The savagery of Catullan obscenity is also part of a long tradition of witty attack going back to old comedy (Aristophanes pulls no punches in attacking enemies such as Cleon), archaic poetry (Archilochus): and, in the generation after Catullus, the young Horace composed (in Epodes 8 and 12) attacks on women which even now (or perhaps especially now) are astonishingly crude and savage. Interestingly, however, the love-poetry which has survived after Catullus shows no overt obscenity until the outspoken Martial in the late 1st century AD.

Throughout Roman literary history the satirical tradition always claimed “outspokenness” (libertas) as part of its remit. So Catullus is not breaking any rules or even (it seems) raising (m)any ancient eyebrows. Yet still the debate goes on and translators of his poetry still feel the need to issue ‘trigger-warnings’ about the content that follows. Are we perhaps missing the point and reading it wrong?

Erotic fresco from the southern wall of the lupanar (brothel), 1st cent. AD, Pompeii.

Family Frolics

Catullus’ verses can be rude and even crude, but the poet’s wit and inventiveness always surprise and delight the reader. Sometimes the wit is in the use of perfectly innocent words as forms of obscene attack. Look for example at this charming family group in poem 78:

Gallus habet fratres, quorum est lepidissima coniunx
    alterius, lepidus filius alterius.
Gallus homo est bellus: nam dulces iungit amores,
    cum puero ut bello bella puella cubet.
Gallus homo est stultus, nec se uidet esse maritum,
    qui patruus patrui monstret adulterium.

Gallus has brothers. One of them has a very charming wife, another has a charming son. Gallus is a nice man: for he unites sweet lovers, so that pretty girl sleeps with pretty boy. Gallus is a fool, and doesn’t see that he too has a wife, and that he (the uncle) is showing how an uncle gets cuckolded.

The reader will be baffled by the sexual family-tree on show here – which is partly the point as this family goes in for incest on a mind-blowing scale. The poem begins like an innocent children’s tale and the faux-naif style only enhances the mood of sordid shame. The reader is left with a riddle to disentangle and the truth, when uncovered, is appalling, even though no obscene words are uttered. The appearance of respectability masks the sordid shenanigans underneath, both in the form and in the content of this deceptively simple poem. Similar breathless outrage is voiced in poem 88:

quid facit is, Gelli, qui cum matre atque sorore
    prurit, et abiectis pervigilat tunicis?
quid facit is, patruum qui non sinit esse maritum?
    ecquid scis quantum suscipiat sceleris?
suscipit, o Gelli, quantum non ultima Tethys
    nec genitor Nympharum abluit Oceanus:
nam nihil est quicquam sceleris, quo prodeat ultra,
    non si demisso se ipse voret capite.

Gellius, what is that man doing, who lusts with mother and sister and does it all night with clothes thrown off? What is he doing, who does not let his uncle have a wife? Do you know how great a crime he is undertaking? He is undertaking one so big that not even furthest Tethys washes away, nor Oceanus father of the Nymphs: for there is no crime that he could move into beyond this one, not even if he lowered his head and swallowed himself.

The poem vents indignation throughout, from the opening salvo of rhetorical questions to the final grotesque image of sexual contortionism. The mood of disgust in the text is mirrored in the open-mouthed indignation of the first two lines, with the tut-tutting euphemism “go all night” (pervigilat) and “get the urge” (prurit, followed by the prurient image of the “clothes thrown off”). The sequence suggests that the speaker is getting a thrill from the pictures he is creating, for all his alleged disgust. The poem then dials down the sexual imagery with the language of family and of crime, with a short riff on the idea of “washing away” pollution complete with learned mythology to reinforce the speaker’s authority. The mythology is well chosen: Tethys and Oceanus were incestuous siblings and so would hardly be in a position to cleanse the immorality of a Gellius.

The full-throttle outrage comes roaring back in the final phrase – a phrase made all the more bathetic by the contrast with the ‘high’ style in the preceding lines. This grossly obscene gossip manages to create its effects without any obscene words and (as in 89, where the same Gellius is mocked for the lean physique which his excessive sexual activity has given him) the poet affects moral superiority as much by his delicate choice of language as by what he actually says.

Oceanus and Tethys mosaic, 3rd cent. AD (Zeugma Mosaic Museum, Gaziantep, Turkey).

Street Scene

At other times Catullus gives the impression of spontaneous speech when the text is anything but spontaneous. Look for example at poem 10:

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.’

Varus had taken me from out of the forum when I was idle to see his girlfriend, a little tart (scortillum), as I saw straight away, but not without charm or sex-appeal. When we got there various topics of conversation cropped up, such as how Bithynia was these days – what state it was in and what sort of money it had made me. I told them the truth in reply; that there was nothing there for the praetors themselves or for their staff, no reason for any of them to come home better off (literally “bring back a head better oiled”), especially since we had a bugger of a praetor who didn’t give a toss for the staff. “But even so,” they say “you did get men to carry your litter chair – the place is famous for that.” To make myself look better in the eyes of the girl I said: “Just because I got a rubbish province doesn’t mean that I could not get eight men who can stand up straight.” In fact I didn’t have anybody – either here or there – who could put the broken foot of an old bed on his neck. She (as you might expect of such a whore) at once said “Please, my Catullus, lend me them for a while; for I want to be carried to Serapis.” “Hang on” I said to the girl “what I just said I had – I was not thinking straight. My friend, Gaius Cinna, he got them for himself. But it’s all the same whether they are his or mine. I make use of them as if they were mine. But you – you’re a bore and a pain for not letting a man speak carelessly.”

No translation can recreate the verbal artistry here. The poem sounds almost improvised with its chatty style, its deliberate use of offensive slang (such as scortillum, “tart”, and irrumator, “bugger”), colloquialisms (caput unctius referre, “bring back a head better oiled”), its snatches of dialogue complete with stammering incoherence as the embarrassed poet finds himself looking an idiot. ars est (of course) celare artem: art is hiding art. The poem is skilfully written in the hendecasyllabic metre, with the playful contrast of the putative eight litter-bearers with the (un)reality of the man who could pick up one leg of a broken couch; there is the ring-composition whereby the opening shot of the “idle” (otiosum) poet is echoed with the final word neglegentem.

There is also clear development of narrative line: the girl who is impressive enough to be praised with the litotes “not without charm or sex-appeal” is subsequently called cinaediorem (“a whore”) – a term of disapproval raised with the comparative form – and ends up being called a “bore and a pain” for calling Catullus’ bluff and showing him up in front of his friends. His final excuse – that he simply mis-spoke – is also shown up by his own admission (16–17) that he was bragging to impress the girl. Catullus in this short poem gives us a glimpse of the world he lived in but also a readiness to present his poetic persona as one who is vulnerable and fallible, as he also shows in poems such as 8, 11, and 76. The slang and the colloquial Latin reinforce the realism of the poem and so succeed in reinforcing the emotional effect of the text.

Catullus at Lesbia’s, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1865 (private collection) – a favourite illustration for some.

Impure Poetry

It took a long time for this literary use of the sordid to become mainstream in European literature. In the 20th century the Chilean Nobel-laureate Pablo Neruda (1904–73) coined the phrase “impure poetry” to describe how a poet can perform the alchemy of transforming human dross into literary gold. Nothing is on this view irredeemable – in fact the poet should positively seek out that which is

steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it… our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behaviour, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes.

Pablo Neruda (1904–73).

Catullus, it might be argued, is similarly faithful to the reality of life and succeeds in John Updike’s aim of giving “the mundane its beautiful due”. In this he can even be seen as anticipating such modernist texts as James Joyce’s Ulysses (celebrating its centenary this year, and accused of obscenity when it was first written), T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922, also in its centenary year), and Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), in all of which snatches of realist dialogue and decidedly unheroic aspects of life are reproduced within these highly literary creations. When Catullus is at his most obscene he is also at his most artistic, showing a poet’s delight in vivid imagery and above all raising the language of the street to the heights of poetic sublimity.

John Godwin was for many years Head of Classics at Shrewsbury School. He has written an edition of all of Catullus’ poetry in two volumes (Aris and Phillips, Warminster, 1995, 1999), a monograph Reading Catullus (Greece and Rome Live, Liverpool Univ. Press, 2008) and the volume Catullus: a Selection of Poems (Bloomsbury, London, 2021) which has been set for A Level in 2022 and 2023 by OCR.

Further Reading

The best thing to read is Catullus himself, in Latin and/or in English. Guy Lee’s 1998 translation for Oxford World’s Classics is excellent, and there are good editions with facing translation by G.P. Goold (Duckworth, London, 1989) and Peter Green (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007). The new Cambridge Companion to Catullus (Ian Du Quesnay and Tony Woodman eds., Cambridge UP, 2021) is a feast of excellent articles (with suggestions for further reading) and looks at many different aspects of the poetry.  On Catullan obscenity see William Fitzgerald’s Catullan Provocations (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1995, 59–86) and the articles by Donald Lateiner and Amy Richlin contained in Julia Haig Gaisser (ed.), Catullus (Oxford Readings in Classical Studies, Oxford UP, 2007).


1 haec quoque lascivi cantarunt scripta Catulli,/ Lesbia quis ipsa notior est Helena (This is what the writings of playful Catullus sung of, through which Lesbia is more famous than Helen herself).
2 The complete text of this (in)famous poem, as well as any other discussed in this piece, can be most conveniently consulted here.