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 , 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.