Catullus Politicus

Susan O. Shapiro

Utah State University

At first glance, Catullus seems to eschew political themes in favor of personal ones.  Sometimes Catullus seems to directly disavow any interest in political affairs (poem 93); frequently, however, his rejection of politics is more subtle.  In poems 10, 28, and 46, for example, Catullus mentions his own brief political career (he served in Bithynia in 57-56 B.C.)[1] and the careers of his friends only to use them as a backdrop for more pressing personal concerns, such as the paltry financial gain they received, and the poet's excitement at the prospect of going home.  By discussing political affairs from a strictly personal point of view, Catullus seems to dismiss the larger political context as completely unimportant.

Scholars, too, have generally agreed that Catullus was not a political poet.[2]  But in view of Wiseman's research on Catullus' family (they were wealthy equestrians with business interests in the East who maintained connections to several prominent members of the ruling class), we must ask whether any Roman of Catullus' social position could have remained completely unconcerned with politics during the mid-50s B.C., one of the most politically charged periods of all time.  And in fact some of Catullus' poems do reveal a concern, not only politics in a narrow sense (poems 49 and 52), but also with the  broader issues of empire, justice and injustice (poem 29).  Given that a few of Catullus' poems show a keen interest in political issues, how should we interpret those poems that claim (either directly or indirectly) to reject such concerns?

After a brief survey of Catullus' poems that may be considered to be political, [3] I will demonstrate that Catullus was in fact concerned with political issues, and that his apparent rejection of such concerns should be seen as carefully nuanced and in some cases ironic.  In particular, those poems in which the poet seems to mention political topics only to discount them, gain added depth and meaning when understood within the larger context of Catullus' political views.  Finally, I will argue that Catullus' political point of view, while admitting some inconsistencies (Skinner 1989: 18; 1979: 138), was remarkably coherent for a Roman of his position during the late Republic. 

[1]  Thomson, Catullus, Edited with a Textual and Interpretive Commentary (U of Toronto, 1998) 5.

[2]  See the complaint by Skinner ("Parasites and Strange Bedfellows: A Study in Catullus' Political Imagery," Ramus 8 [1979] 137-52) that scholars have tended to ignore the political aspects of Catullus' poetry.  This situation has not significantly changed; see Tatum, "Friendship, Politics, and Literature in Catullus," CQ 47 (1997) 482-500 and the slender the bibliography in Braund, "The Politics of Catullus 10," Hermathena 160 (1996) 45 -57.  The works I have found most helpful, in addition to Skinner (1979) and Tatum, are: Deroux, "A propos de l'attitude politique de Catulle," Latomus 29 (1970) 608-31; Scott, "Catullus and Caesar," CP 66 (1971) 17-25; Konstan, Catullus' Indictment of Rome (Hakkert, 1977); Wiseman, Catullus and his World (Cambridge, 1985); Wiseman, Roman Studies (Cairns, 1987) and Skinner, "Ut Decuit Cinaediorem: Power, Gender, and Urbanity in Catullus 10," Helios 16 (1989) 7-23.

[3]  To Deroux's list of 17 poems with political references (11, 14, 28, 29, 41, 43, 47, 52, 53, 54, 57, 93, 94, 105, 113, 114, 115), I would add poem 49, as well as at least five poems with indirect political allusions (9, 10, 31, 44, and 46), and possibly seven more (1, 5, 37, 58, 64, 84, and 103).


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