Catullus, Poem 49

Not many posts recently I know, so back to Catullus. – I hear he’s made the national newspapers since I’ve been away (how remiss of me not to exploit the opportunity).

I’ve been reading Plutarch’s life of Cicero recently, which only went to confirm my schoolboy vision of him – an an insufferable bore. Even the Romans apparently got fed up with his self-glorifying rhetoric. I didn’t know though that he divorced his wife and married a 16-year old ward of his in order to pay off his debts. A very moral man.

Anyhow, to the poem:

Disertissime Romuli nepotum,
quot sunt quotque fuere, Marce Tulli,
quotque post aliis erunt in annis,
gratias tibi maximas Catullus
agit pessimus omnium poeta,
tanto pessimus omnium poeta,
quanto tu optimus omnium patronus

Pretty simple enough: – not much variation in translations of this one. Here’s my (rather bad) attempt:

Most eloquent of the sons of Rome,
As many as they are or were, Marcus Tullius,
And as many as there will yet be,
Catullus, the worst of all poets,
Gives you the greatest thanks –
As much the worst of all poets
As you are the best of all p…atrons.

The main scholarly dispute around this poem is where it is sincere or not.

Some scholars go for sincere: e.g. “The simplest view is that represented by L. Schwabe (Quaestiones Catullianae [1862], p. 127), according to which Catullus, having received from Cicero in 56 B.C. a copy of his Pro Caelio, is thanking him for his successful attack on Clodia” (I knew they’d bring in Lesbia / Clodia).

Others point to the excessive repetition in the last three lines, the exaggeration generally, Catullus’ poetic self-abasement, and suggest that he may not necessarily be meaning it all literally. So we get other weird scholarly theories: “[G. Friedrich] supposes that Cicero, having perhaps read poem 64, has sent Catullus a note of commendation, but in terms so condescending as to provoke from Catullus a mischievously obsequious acknowledgment.”

I don’t myself know what event it was that drove Catullus to write this poem, if any. It seems to me though (as it does also to some fellow called Ellis), that there is a very strong contrast being drawn between “poeta” and “patronus”; that the poem is written as from a client to a patron, with the expected (if exaggerated) grovelling. – Is it a simple twist on the final word: – it should have been “poeta” too, like the previous two lines?  What does it mean if it is: – Catullus doesn’t think himself the worst poet; so therefore he doesn’t think Cicero is the best patron? (Was Cicero not a good patron? – He was a political outsider, after all. He was certainly not a Caesar or a Pompey.) etc. etc.

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5 thoughts on “Catullus, Poem 49

  1. Here are a couple of Daniel Garrison’s notes to add to this garland of erudition (from his Student’s Catullus):

    “An elaborately fulsome poem of thanks to Cicero for some favor. Five superlatives give the poem a hyperbolic tone. Cicero was always generous with self-praise, and many readers detect a note of irony in Catullus’ lines.”

    line 7: “optimus omnium patronus: a possible double entendre: taking omnium with patronus instead of with optimus changes the meaning from ‘best of all patrons’ to ‘excellent patron of everybody,’ reminding the reader that Cicero was known to change sides in his political maneuvers, defending persons he had previously prosecuted.”

    That last bit of wordplay, if that’s what it is, is clever, and funny, in just the way Catullan barbs characteristically are. Add the high ceremony of address, the sonority (quot […] quotque […] quotque), the oily self-deprecation of pessimus omnium poeta [ditto] — sneer sounds more like the poem’s tone than that of a friendly (or even respectful) ‘thanks’, to me.

  2. Robert Harris’s biography of Cicero, ‘Imperium’, is now considered more authoritative than Plutarch’s meretricious hack-work.

  3. dg: The article I was reading wasn’t so hot on taking “omnium” with “patronus” – its argument was something along the lines: since we’ve taken “omnium” with “pessimus” in the last two lines, it would be a highly unnatural reading not to take it with “optimus” in the last line. I’m not decided. – I do think though, by this reading, you maybe have a problem with “optimus” / it must still be taken as “best”, in contrast to “pessimus”. The natural word-order too would indicate “best of all patrons”.

    MM: Strangely enough, I’m sure Harris did do much more meticulous research than Plutarch. Ancients weren’t ones for going down the library and checking the truth of their histories, not when it got in the way of a good story.

  4. Let me defend the reading that Garrison retails:

    It’s true that pessimus omnium poeta is parallel with optimus omnium patronus, and that ‘excellent’ is not exactly ‘best’, which is closer to optimus. So: ‘worst of all’ / ‘best of all’.

    But the phrases are ‘worst X of all’ / ‘best Y of all’, not ‘worst of all Xs’ / ‘best of all Ys’.

    The phrase in lines 5-6 is not ‘worst of all poets‘; it’s ‘poet worst of all’, or ‘worst poet of all’. (poeta (unusually, masculine in the first declension) is masculine singular nominative, going with pessimus.) Your translation is fine for getting the meaning, but it’s not quite literal, regardless of the word order.

    So: ‘patron best of all’, or ‘best patron of all’, not ‘best of all patrons’. (patronus, masculine singular nominative, going easily with optimus.)

    The suggestion Garrison is passing along is to see, behind and showing through (as it were) the literal ‘best patron of all [patrons]’ (which Garrison non-literally writes as “best of all patrons”), rather, the equally literal ‘best patron of [belonging to] all [potential customers]’.

    You might prefer a dative (omnibus) to make the latter reading, not more literal, but smoother – smoother if you favor an indirect object / Beneficiary rather than a genitive of possession in this expression.

    But the contrast Garrison suggests does seem to me both possible (literally) and plausible (given Catullus’s humor): first, the obsequious “I, worst poet of all [poets]” — then, the shiv-in-the-ribs “you, best patron of all [whose position might be in your interest]” – ‘you, ownable by anybody, available to anybody with a nickle (or tuppence to you, I guess)’.

    Garrison’s explanation is not felicitous; he perhaps could have written: “[…] changes the meaning from ‘best patron of all patrons‘ to ‘excellent patron of everybody'”. I hope my labored defense of Catullan sarcasm is clearer!

  5. I just thought of a clearer way to sum up the point of Garrison’s note:

    The suggestion is that Catullus is making a transition from an emphatic “worst poet of all [poets]” to the already-solemnly-addressed “best patron of – everybody”, the transition being, not “unnatural”, in the sense of ‘non-literal’, but unexpected, and so humorous:

    as much the worst poet of all
    as you are the best patron of any.

    That is, “the worst poet of all [poets]” contrasted by “the best patron of all [whom it’s expedient to defend]”. Which patronus would be, eventually, no “patron” at all – except of himself.

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