province for the freedom and keen enjoyment of his voyage home in his yacht, built for him at Amastris on the Euxine, and for the beauty and peace of his villa on the shores of Lake Benacus, which welcomed him home “wearied with foreign travel.” To this period and to his first return to Rome after his visit to his native district belong the poems xlvi., ci., iv., xxxi. and x., all showing by their freshness of feeling and vivid truth of expression the gain which the poet’s nature derived from his temporary escape from the passions, distractions and animosities of Roman society. Two poems, written in a very genial and joyous spirit, and addressed to his younger friend Licinius Calvus (xiv. and l.), who is ranked as second only to himself among the lyrical poets of the age, and whose youthful promise pointed him out as likely to become one of the greatest of Roman orators, may, indeed, with most probability be assigned to these later years (xiv.). From the expression “Odissem te odio Vatiniano,” in the third line of xiv., it may be inferred that the poem was written not earlier than December (the “Saturnalia”) of the year 56 B.C., as it was early in that year, as we learn from a letter of Cicero to his brother Quintus (ii. 4. 1), that Calvus first announced his intention of prosecuting Vatinius. The short poem numbered liii. would be written in August 54 B.C. The poems which have left the greatest stain on the fame of Catullus—those “referta contumeliis Caesaris,” the licentious abuse of Mamurra, and probably some of those personal scurrilities addressed to women as well as men, or too frank confessions, which posterity would willingly have let die, may well have been written in the last years of his life, under the influence of the bitterness and recklessness induced by his experience. It cannot be determined with certainty whether the longer and more artistic pieces, which occupy the middle of the volume—the Epithalamium in celebration of the marriage of Manlius Torquatus, the 62nd poem, written in imitation of the Epithalamia of Sappho, “Vesper adest: iuvenes, consurgite”; the Attis, and the Epic Idyll representing the marriage festival of Peleus and Thetis—belong to the earlier or the later period of the poet’s career. If the person addressed in the first part of the 68th is the Manlius of the Epithalamium, and the lines from 3 to 8—
“Naufragum ut eiectum ... pervigilat,”
refer to the death of Vinia, it would follow that the first Epithalamium was written some time before that poem, and thus belongs to the earlier time. While the translations of Sappho,—
“Ille mi par esse deo videtur,”
and of Callimachus (lxvi.),—
“Omnia qui magni dispexit lumina mundi,”
belong to the earlier period, the Attis and the Peleus and Thetis; although perhaps suggested by the treatment of the same or similar subjects in Greek authors, are executed with such power and originality as declare them to be products of the most vigorous stage in the development of the poet’s genius. That his genius came soon to maturity is a reason for hesitation in assigning any particular time between 62 and 54 B.C. for the composition of the Attis and of that part of the Epithalamium (“Peliaco quondam prognatae vertice pinus”) which deals with the main subject of the poem. But the criticism of Munro in his edition of Lucretius, which shows similarities of expression that cannot be mere casual coincidences, between the Ariadne-episode in the Epithalamium of Catullus (from line 52 to 266) and the poem of Lucretius, leaves little doubt that that portion at least of the poem was written after the publication of the De rerum natura, in the winter of 55–54 B.C.
No ancient author has left a more vivid impression of himself on his writings than Catullus. Coming to Rome in early youth from a distant province, not at that time included within the limits of Italy, he lived as an equal with the men of his time of most intellectual activity and refinement, as well as of highest social and political eminence. Among those to whom his poems are addressed, or who are mentioned in them, we find the names of Hortensius, Cicero, Cornelius Nepos, Licinius Calvus, Helvius Cinna and Asinius Pollio, then only a youth (xii. 8). Catullus brought into this circle the genius of a great poet, the social vivacity of a vigorous nature, the simplicity and sincerity of an unambitious, and the warmth of an affectionate disposition. He betrays all the sensitiveness of the poetic temperament, but it is never the sensitiveness of vanity, for he is characterized by the modesty rather than the self-confidence which accompanies genius, but the sensitiveness of a heart which gives and expects more sympathy and loyalty in friendship than the world either wants or cares to give in return. He shows also in some of his lighter pieces the fastidiousness of a refined taste, intolerant of all boorishness, pedantry, affectation and sordid ways of life. The passionate intensity of his temperament displays itself with similar strength in the outpourings of his animosity as of his love and affection. It was, unfortunately, the fashion of the time to employ in the expression of these animosities a licence of speech and of imputation which it is difficult for men living under different social conditions to understand, still more difficult to tolerate. Munro has examined the 29th poem—
“Quis hoc potest videre, quis potest pati,”
the longest and most important of the lampoons on Caesar and Mamurra, and shown with much learning and acuteness the motives and intention of Catullus in writing them. Had Julius Caesar really believed, as Suetonius, writing two hundred years afterwards, says he did, that “an eternal stigma had been cast upon him by the verses concerning Mamurra,” we should scarcely apply the word magnanimity to his condonation of the offence. But these verses survive as a memorial not of any scandal affecting Julius Caesar which could possibly have been believed by his contemporaries, but of the licence of speech which was then indulged in, of the jealousy with which the younger members of the Roman aristocracy, who a little later fought on the side of Pompey, at that time regarded the ascendancy both of the “father-in-law and the son-in-law,” and the social elevation of some of their instruments, and also, to a certain extent, of the deterioration which the frank and generous nature of Catullus underwent from the passions which wasted, and the faithlessness which marred his life.
The great age of Latin poetry extends from about the year 60 B.C. till the death of Ovid in 17 A.D. There are three marked divisions in this period, each with a distinct character of its own: the first represented by Lucretius and Catullus, the second by Virgil and Horace, the last by Ovid. Force and sincerity are the great characteristics of the first period, maturity of art of the second, facility of the last. The educating influence of Greek art on the Roman mind was first fully experienced in the Ciceronian age, and none of his contemporaries was so susceptible of that influence as Catullus. With the susceptibility to art he combined a large share of the vigorous and genial qualities of the Italian race. Like most of his younger contemporaries, he studied in the school of the Alexandrine poets, with whom the favourite subjects of art were the passion of love, and stories from the Greek mythology, which admitted of being treated in a spirit similar to that in which they celebrated their own experiences. It was under this influence that Catullus wrote the Coma Berenices, the 68th poem, which, after the manner of the Alexandrines, interweaves the old tale of Protesilaus and Laodamia with the personal experiences of the poet himself, and the Epithalamium of Peleus and Thetis, which combines two pictures from the Greek mythology, one of the secure happiness of marriage, the other of the passionate despair of love betrayed. In this last poem Catullus displays a power of creative pictorial imagination far transcending that displayed in any of the extant poetry of Alexandria. We have no means of determining what suggested the subject of the Attis to Catullus, whether the previous treatment of the subject by some Greek writer, some survival of the myth which he found still existing during his residence among the “Phrygii Campi,” or the growth of various forms of Eastern superstition and fanaticism, at Rome, in the last age of the Republic. Whatever may have been its origin, it is the finest specimen we possess, in either Greek or Latin literature, of that kind of short poem more common in modern than ancient times, in which some situation or passion entirely alien to the writer, and to his own age, is realized with dramatic intensity.