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Catullus, Gaius Valerius (87-54)

Latin poet. Born at Verona, he spent most of his life in Rome, but kept a villa near his birthplace at Sirmio on Lake Garda. Often considered the best Republican poet, he imitated Sappho as well as other archaic, classical, and Hellenistic models, upon which he often improved, and which he combined with native Latin traditions to create stunning, original pieces. He wrote poems, 250 of which survive, of happiness and bitter disappointment. Some are addressed to his highborn, married, then widowed mistress Clodia, the sister of Cicero's antagonist, 10 years his senior, whom he addressed as Lesbia (thoughwith no insinuation ofwhat we now call lesbianism), and who was unfaithful to him with other men. Homophobic Christian and modern schoolmasters have, however, greatly exqggerated the importance of the poems to Lesbia, which amount to no more than an eighth of the Catullan corpus.

Besides a wide variety of other verses, in some of which he criticized Caesar and Pompey, many of Catullus' poems were pederastic, addressed to his apparently aristocratic beloved Juventius. He was unusual among Romans in preferring an aristocratic boy to a slave but made clear that most others preferred concubini, that is, male slaves with whom they slept. Sophisticated and fastidious, he set the standard for the Augustan poets of love Ovid, Horace, Vergil, and Propertius. In the Silver Age even Martial acknowledged his debt to Catullus' epigrams. Like those poets, and most specifically Tibullus, he showed little inhibition and equal attraction to boys and women, but also shared the traditional attitude that the active, full-grown male partner degraded the passive one, and that the threat to penetrate another male symbolized one's superior virility and power. On the other hand, the accusation of having been raped by another male has a largely negative force; Catullus poses as victim in order to insult the excessively Priapic male.

In Latin erotic poetry, as in its Greek sources after thefifth century, the boys have no family, no career, and no identity other than as athletes and slaves, with the sole exception of Juventius. Like most of theHellenistic poets, their Roman imitators oftensang of boyswhodemanded gifts or were even outright prostitutes. The older, still beardless boy was considered superior to younger ones, so that eighteen was preferred to thirteen. Even in his wildest flights of imagination or rancor no Latin or Greek poet ever advised his listener to enjoy another adult male sexually. So Catullus' homoerotic poetry is firmly in the tradition of the Hellenistic and the fashionable Roman attitude toward the love of boys.

Jean Granarolo, L'Oeuvre de Catulle: Aspects religieux, dthiques et stylistiques, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1967; Saara Lilja, Homosexuality in Republican and Augustan Rome (Commentationes Humananun Litteranun Societatis Scientiarum Fennicae, 74 (1982).

William A. Percy

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