Catullus: the Conscience of an Adulterer

Catullus’ use of self-describing pronouns is an indicator of his honesty. This is evident in a variety of his poems, such as Carmen 5, Carmen 49, and Carmen 72

In his fifth poem, Catullus uses first-person pronouns with respect to himself, which indicates his sincerity to Lesbia. When Catullus wrote this poem, he was in the earlier stages of his relationship with Lesbia when he did not question her fidelity. His writing corroborates this since he asks her to be with him despite her marriage and the whisperings of old men. It is clearly a dramatic and heartfelt poem from the opening lines: Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus (Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love). The line also contains a beautiful word  picture with Lesbia in the middle, painting her as the center of Catullus’s affection and life. This fits with the sincerity of the poem, which is also shown by the pronouns he implies when he references himself and Lesbia with the two subjunctives, vivamus and amemus

In contrast, Catullus uses third-person pronouns in Carmen 49 to give sarcastic praise to Cicero for his litigation involving a scandal with Lesbia and her former lover, Caelius. Cicero represents Caelius, and, in order to win his case, he tries to destroy Lesbia’s reputation and discredit her. Catullus is still in love with Lesbia even though she left him, and, as a result, he is angry with Cicero. This is evident in the lines tanto pessimus omnium poeta, quanto tu optimus patronus (just as Catullus is the worst poet of all, you are the best lawyer of all), which highlights his sarcasm: Catullus naturally did not think he was the worst poet since he was gaining fame and success for his poems and knew he was talented. His duplicity is confirmed in the following passage, where he uses the third person to refer to himself: gratias tibi maximas Catullus agit (Catullus gives the greatest thanks to you). Once again, the type of pronoun Catullus uses correlates with his genuine nature.

Although this may seem coincidental, in Carmen 72, Catullus employs both first-person and third-person pronouns to describe himself in accordance with his honesty. When writing, Catullus is certain that Lesbia has been unfaithful. He is harsh to her at the beginning of the poem, and he likely thinks she deserves his cruelty. As a result, he writes: Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum (You said that you only knew Catullus). By using dicebas, he undermines Lesbia’s credibility, implying that her words sometimes hold lies. Additionally, “knowing someone” is a biblical reference to having relations with that person. With this in mind, the line actually means that Lesbia claims she is faithful. However, Catullus hints again later in the poem that she is not. It is also pertinent to note that Catullus refers to himself in the third person to distance himself, so his hate is not entirely in earnest. This is conveyed in the line quare etsi impensius uror multo, which literally means that he still “burns” for Lesbia. Since he admits to desiring her, he contradicts his earlier spite. This was supported by his use of uror, which is in the first person. Hence, Catullus is unable to criticize Lesbia genuinely.

It would be an understatement to say that Catullus was an emotional person who prided himself on his devotion and righteousness. If he held himself to these moral standards, lying is not consistent with his character. Thus, Catullus dissociated himself from his pretense and the guilt that came with it by using the third person to lie.

Author’s note:

Needs some work. Wrote it a while ago. Citation just Catullus’s poems (5, 49, 72). The tense needs to be changed to present. It has to be more concise in some parts. There’s one spot I should have used a quote. Won’t be too hard to find since each poem is organized by poem and it’s the rumoresque severiorem senum quote. Thanks. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.