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Classics Catullus
David Konstan


Catullus, a master of lyric poetry, epigram, and other forms during the late Roman Republic, was born in Verona in 87 BCE, according to Jerome’s Chronicle, which also reports that he died at the age of thirty. Since the latest datable references in his poems relate to 54 BCE, most scholars assign Catullus’s birth to 84 (thus treating one of Jerome’s statements as true), but it is possible that he lived longer. At the time of Catullus’s birth, Verona had not yet been granted full Roman status; but Catullus’s family, which was prominent in the city, probably enjoyed Roman citizenship. Catullus moved to Rome as a young man (the precise year is unknown), and probably died there. From his poems, we know that he was very attached to an older brother who died in the Troad. His verses give evidence of a wide circle of friendships among the highest classes in Rome, but, of course, they must be used with great care in reconstructing anything like a narrative of his own life. His friends, as well as his amatory relationships, are discussed below.


In the first half of the 20th century, critics still attempted to recover details of Catullus’s biography, and especially of his love affair with Lesbia, from the poems. Such literal interpretations have been superseded, and critics have adopted more subtle approaches to the poet’s relation to his times. Skinner 2003 offers a summary of the issues; Wiseman 1985 shows both the problems and the kinds of information that can be extracted from Catullus’s verses. Wiseman 1979 is a brief survey of what can be known of Catullus’s life; Wiseman 1987 discusses the famous villa at Lake Sirmio.

  • Skinner, Marilyn B. 2003. Catullus in Verona: A reading of the elegiac libellus, poems 65–116. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

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    The introduction, available online, provides a clear summary of the debates over a biographical reading of the poetry; argues that this part of the collection was arranged by Catullus himself.

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  • Wiseman, T. P. 1979. Catullus, his life and times. Journal of Roman Studies 69:161–168.

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    A brief and balanced introduction to Catullus’s life.

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  • Wiseman, T. P. 1985. Catullus and his world: A reappraisal. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Offers interesting evidence and speculation on Catullus’s biography and relations with his contemporaries; questions the usual (but not universally accepted) identification of Lesbia with Clodia, wife of Metellus, and suggests his lover was a younger sister of hers (already argued by Wiseman in his 1965 Catullan Questions). Also argues for an original three-volume edition of the poems by Catullus, and that Catullus went on, after completing these poems, to write dramatic mimes (cf. Cicero Epistolae ad Familiares 7.11.3), a view that has not won general acceptance.

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  • Wiseman, T. P. 1987. The masters of Sirmio. In Roman studies: Literary and historical. By T. P. Wiseman, 309–370. Liverpool, UK: Univ. of Liverpool Press.

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    Discusses the family estate of the Valerii on Lake Sirmione (Sirmio in Latin), the subject of Catullus’s poem 31, and the later history of the family.

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General Overviews

Hurley 2004 and Godwin 2008 are good starting points for the general reader; most recently, Gaisser 2009 covers Catullus’s life, poetry, and reception. Holzberg 2002 provides an intriguing reading that emphasizes Catullus’s literary genius and calls into question some of the usual identifications of members of his circle. Quinn 1959 was important in redefining Catullus as a poet, identifying his various “levels of intent,” and Quinn 1972 is still valuable as a subtle reading of Catullus in the manner of the New Criticism. Some information, along with text and translation of individual poems, is available at the NationMaster Encyclopedia, a website under construction and of varying quality.

Collections of Papers

The most accessible and comprehensive introductions to Catullus are the excellent Blackwell Companion (Skinner 2007) and the recent, but more selective, Du Quesnay and Woodman 2012; see also the rich collection of articles in Gaisser 2007. Studies of specific poems are in Cairns 2012.

Critical Studies

Catullus’s poems are a splendid combination of technical sophistication and intense emotion; the latter aspect gave rise to the image of him as a romantic poet in earlier criticism. The treatments in this section discuss the formal aspects of Catullus’s poetry (Jenkyns 1982, Fitzgerald 1995), his self-presentation in his poems (Adler 1981, Fitzgerald 1995), the relationship of his book to the tradition of oral poetry (Miller 1994), and something of the social context (Wiseman 1969). Bellandi 2007 deals with various topics, though the unifying theme is poetics (the “wit and emotion” of the title).

Guides to the Poems

Catullus’s poetry is dense, despite its immediacy, and lends itself to close reading poem by poem. Commentaries provide such readings, of course; but for a general companion to the poems, Small 1983 is a good place to start. The three volumes by Hans Peter Syndikus (Syndikus 1984, Syndikus 1987, Syndikus 1990) offer detailed analyses of all the poems.


The compilation of bibliographies has changed radically with the arrival of the internet. Older lists, such as Harrauer 1979 and Holoka 1985, while useful, are no longer being compiled; in the future, online bibliographies such as that maintained (somewhat irregularly) by Cuypers (Cuypers 2007) will be the rule, but these require continual updating. Even the venerable L’Année philologique has gone online. Critical reviews of secondary literature, like Leon 1960, Quinn 1973, Granarolo 1987, and Ferguson 1988, are particularly helpful.

Texts and Commentaries

Catullus is a favorite poet in elementary Latin courses, and he is well served by editors; all those listed below are highly recommended.


For schools, Ancona (Catullus 2002) and Forsyth (Catullus 1986) are particularly useful; Garrison (Catullus 2004) is suitable at the university level, as is Merrill (Catullus 1961), an old warhorse. The two volumes by Godwin (Catullus 1995 and Catullus 1999) are good for readers with limited Latin, but worth consulting by more advanced students as well.


At the university level, Fordyce 1961 (which omits a good many of the lyrics—32 poems out of a total of 113) and especially Quinn (Catullus 1973) best serve the student. For research purposes, Ellis 1889 is still useful, but scholars will want especially to consult Kroll 1923; Thomson (Catullus 1997) is good on textual matters, and provides an up-to-date bibliography. Mynors (Catullus 1960) remains a handy text (no commentary); likewise, Thomson (Catullus 1978) provides only a text. Pérez Vega and Ramírez de Verger (Catullus 2005) provide a text with good Spanish translation.


There is no lexicon specifically on Catullus that provides definitions of all the words in his text; since the corpus is small and good Latin dictionaries are available, there is less necessity for such a work. McCarren 1977 and Wetmore 1912 are word lists, and are useful for seeing the distribution of vocabulary in the poems.

English Translations

Although the first complete English translation of Catullus did not appear until the end of the 18th century, he has been popular with translators over the past fifty years. Listed in this section is just a sample.

Translation Collections

It is informative as well as entertaining to see various versions of the same poem. Gaisser 2001 gives a good historical overview; Gaius Valerius Catullus is open to additions; the anonymous website Selected poetry of Catullus provides multiple versions of a few poems.

Single Translator

Poetry, including poetry in translation, is a matter of taste. Many translations are available for Catullus; this selection is doubtless idiosyncratic in some respects, especially since it includes a couple of versions that are little known and hard to acquire. The website Selected poetry of Catullus (cited under Translation Collections) provides samples of versions not included here, with bibliography. Green (Catullus 2005) and Michie (Catullus 1969b) also include the Latin text.

Studies of Selected Individual Poems

The following is intended to guide the reader to some interesting articles on specific poems, illustrating a variety of approaches; it makes no pretense to completeness, and in the interest of space many equally fine items have been omitted. For the epigrams (69–116) only two studies are listed, which will direct readers to further items; anything more would begin to resemble a full-scale Catullus bibliography. See also under Collections of Papers, Critical Studies, and Guides to the Poems.

Polymetric Poems (1–60)

These poems are collected in the first part of the corpus as it has been transmitted (some scholars maintain that it was published separately). The opening poem is a dedication, and clearly not meant to include the longer poems since it refers to Catullus’s “bagatelles”; Elder 1966 is a good treatment. Poems about Lesbia are a must: see Segal 1968, Dickie 1993, and Greene 1997 on some of these (space requires omitting any articles on the “sparrow” poems). For Catullus’s invective (characteristic of the iambic meter), see Fernández Corte 1999–2000 and Heyworth 2001; and for the reverse (that is, friendship), see Williams 1988 and Finamore 1984.

Long Poems (61–68)

At the center of the collection as we have it are eight long (or fairly long) poems. The first two are wedding poems, or epithalamia; the third is a poem on a devotee of Cybele, in an orgiastic meter; the fourth is a miniature epic; there follow four more poems in elegiac meter. These are treated in order.

Wedding Poems

The first two in the series of long poems, gathered in the middle of the collection as transmitted, are marriage poems, or epithalamia (see Fedeli 1983): the first is in the glyconic meter, continuing in this respect the first part of the collection, whereas the second is in hexameters. Consult Agnesini 2007 for text of and commentary on Catullus 62.

The Attis Poem

This poem is in a very rare meter and deals with the self-castration of a devotee of the orgiastic cult of Cybele; Nauta and Harder 2005 provides a good collection of articles on this poem.

The Epyllion

Poem 64 is a miniature epic (of sorts: it includes an epithalamium or wedding song, and much else) in hexameters. It has elicited much commentary, both for its unusual form and debt to Hellenistic and earlier poetry (Bramble 1970, Schmale 2004), and for its relation to Catullus’s own lyrical verse (Putnam 1961); for a social interpretation, see Konstan 1977 and Konstan 1993.

Elegiac Poems

The last four of the long poems are in elegiac pentameter, resembling in this respect the epigrammatic poems that make up the last part of the collection. One of these (66) is a translation of a now fragmentary poem by Callimachus (full discussion in Marinone 1997); another is a conversation with a door (Laguna Mariscal 2002); the last of the set (68) is a highly complex combination of mythological and personal poetry, and has invited very different kinds of interpretation (Feeney 1992, Kiss 2009, Wiseman 1974). See also the chapters on poems 65, 66, and 68 in Du Quesnay and Woodman 2012 (cited under Collections of Papers).

Epigrams (69–116)

The two books listed below provide interpretations of the poems in elegiac couplets, which are mainly brief items classified as epigrams (Skinner 2003 includes the last four of the long poems; see Elegiac Poems); the bibliographies provide guides to further reading.

  • Hartz, Cornelius. 2007. Catulls Epigramme im Kontext hellenistischer Dichtung. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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    An intertextual approach, but not always convincing in identifying allusions to Hellenistic poetry; argues rather speculatively that Catullus’s epigrams were written for insiders in his own poetic circle, who would know the people and the facts.

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  • Skinner, Marilyn B. 2003. Catullus in Verona: A reading of the elegiac libellus, poems 65–116. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

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    Apart from the argument for the coherence of this portion of the collection, provides numerous subtle readings of the poems.

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Text and Transmission

Catullus’s works have survived via a single manuscript, the Veronensis (V), now lost. As a result, much work has been done on the text and the history of its transmission.

Textual Studies

In addition to the textual matters treated in the advanced commentaries on Catullus, the following works may be consulted. Harrison and Heyworth 1998 and Harrison 2000 examine problems in the currently available texts; Trappes-Lomax 2007 offers numerous emendations, along with novel ideas on the transmission of the text; cf. also McKie 2009. It is intensely debated whether the Veronese manuscript preserved anything like the original order of Catullus’s poems (see Arrangement of the Collection). For an online compendium of textual variants and emendations, with bibliography and much else, see Catullus Online.

  • Harrison, Stephen J. 2000. The need for a new text of Catullus. In Vom Text zum Buch. Edited by Christiane Reitz, 63–79. Subsidia Classica 3. Sankt Katharinen, Germany: Scripta Mercaturae Verlag.

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    On why the current texts of Catullus are not wholly adequate: “Here is the fundamental problem of the textual tradition of Catullus. The whole of our manuscript tradition, outside the fortuitous Carolingian transmission of poem 62, is descended from a late and corrupt copy which was already the despair of its earliest scribes.” Available online.

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  • Harrison, Stephen J., and Stephen J. Heyworth. 1998. Notes on the text and interpretation of Catullus. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 44:85–109.

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    Various suggestions on the improving the text.

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  • Kiss, Dániel, ed. Catullus Online.

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    Offers a critical edition of the poems of Catullus, a repertory of conjectures on the text, an overview of the ancient quotations from Catullus that have independent source value, and high-quality images of some of the most important manuscripts.

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    • McKie, D. S. 2009. Essays in the Interpretation of Roman Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Classical Press.

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      Close textual criticism, mainly on Catullus (despite the title), with a variety of new and intriguing suggestions.

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    • Trappes-Lomax, John M. 2007. Catullus: A textual reappraisal. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

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      Recommends hundreds of textual emendations, arguing that the received text underwent a variety of alterations over time. Scholars should consult also the detailed review by S. J. Heyworth in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, available online.

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    Three surviving manuscripts, located in Oxford, Paris, and the Vatican, bear independent witness to the Veronensis; other manuscripts, which are numerous, depend on these (see Thomson [Catullus 1997] and Butrica 2007). Gaisser 1992 provides an extensive list of editions; Kiss 2012 provides a survey of extant manuscripts.

    • Butrica, James L. P. 2007. History and transmission of the text. In A companion to Catullus. Edited by Marilyn B. Skinner, 13–34. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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      A thorough survey of the history of the text.

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    • Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus). 1997. Catullus: With a textual and interpretative commentary. Edited by D. F. S. Thomson. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

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      Good discussion of the transmission of the poems; especially valuable for the ancient and medieval traditions.

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    • Gaisser, Julia Haig. 1992. Catullus. In Catalogus translationum et commentariorum. Vol. 7. Edited by Virginia Brown and Paul Oskar Kristeller, 197–292. Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press.

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      A detailed discussion of the transmission of Catullus from Antiquity to about 1600, with an account of editions and commentaries.

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    • Kiss, Dániel. 2012. Towards a catalogue of the surviving manuscripts of Catullus. Paideia 67:607–622.

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      An up-to-date account of an ongoing research project on the manuscripts.

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    • Scherf, Johannes. 1996. Untersuchungen zur antiken Veröffentlichung der Catullgedichte. Spudasmata 61. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms.

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      Contains much information on ancient publishing, including lists of poems in various meters; argues that Catullus’s book as we have it could well have been contained in a single roll. See Arrangement of the Collection.

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    • Zicàri, Marcello. 1960. Scritti Catulliani. Urbino, Italy: Argalia Editore.

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      The second chapter is devoted to examining late manuscripts of Catullus, which, while mostly derivative and hence useless for the establishment of the text, indicate much about the nature of transmission (the first chapter demonstrates that there was no other source for the transmission of Catullus apart from the lost Veronese manuscript). Other chapters deal with the contributions of the Renaissance humanists to the text.

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    Arrangement of the Collection

    Whether Catullus himself was responsible for the arrangement of the poems as they appear in the manuscripts, or whether this was a later compilation drawn from several (at least two) independently circulating libelli (cf. Hubbard 2005), remains a matter of dispute. But the question has given rise to many intriguing efforts to find narrative or formal coherence in either a part or a whole of the collection. Dettmer 1997 argues for the coherence of the entire collection; Skinner 1981, Skinner 2003, and Most 1981 discuss the arrangement of major segments, Segal 1968 focuses on the first set of eleven poems, and Forsyth 1977 concentrates a shorter cycle of poems.


    Catullus was on personal terms with the leading political figures of his day, including Julius Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, and his intimate friend Licinius Calvus. Many of his poems have an immediate political reference, and he is said (by Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar) to have left an indelible stain on Caesar’s reputation. Neudling 1955 identifies to the extent possible the persons named in Catullus’s poems (many are pseudonyms, and many doubtless entirely fictional). Burl 2004 and Wiseman 1985 discuss Catullus in relation to Roman politics generally; Konstan 2007 looks to some possible allusions to politics in poems that are not overtly political; Skinner 1979 is good on Catullus’s vitriolic style. Zierl 2003 explores Catullus’s criticism of the prevailing values of his times; see Williams 2012 in particular for the language of friendship.

    Caesar, Pompey, and Their Henchmen

    Catullus came to see Julius Caesar and Pompey—father-in-law and son-in-law, since Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia—as the ruin of Rome, though it is debated how deep a social vision one should ascribe to him; "Mentula" (penis) is the obscene nickname Catullus used for Mamurra, one of Caesar’s minions (see Deuling 1999 and Harvey 1979).

    Other Targets

    Catullus served in the administration of Memmius when he was a provincial governor (Braund 1996); he also had plenty of other enemies, for example the violent tribune Clodius (Tatum 1993).

    Greek Influences

    Catullus was a learned (doctus) poet, despite the ready wit that makes his poems so popular today, and he was deeply indebted to early Greek and Hellenistic poetry (he translated poems by Sappho and Callimachus). Braga 1950 is still the best overview of Hellenistic influences; Clare 1996 and Clausen 1970 focus on individual poets. A rich bibliography on this aspect of Catullus is collected in Cuypers 2007. Hartz 2007 and Hutchinson 2003 focus on the epigrams. Newman 1990 sees Catullus rather as embodying the spirit of archaic Greek invective.


    Catullus’s style ranges from the allusive, erudite manner of Alexandrian poets such as Callimachus to the slang bawdiness of invective poetry and occasional epigram. It is a pity that we do not have more than fragments of works by his contemporaries among the so-called New Poets, such as Cinna (and Cicero too was a poet).

    Catullus in Relation to Latin Poetry

    Courtney 2003 is the place to go for the texts of other poets in Catullus’s circle, supplemented by Hollis 2007, which concentrates more narrowly on Catullus’s time and shortly afterwards; Lyne 1978 argues that Catullus was part of a self-conscious poetic movement, whereas Heusch 1954 discusses Catullus’s diction in relation to earlier Latin verse. Loomis 1973 focuses on Catullus’s choice of words in his lyric poems; Fain 2008 situates Catullus’s epigrams in the tradition running from early Greek verse to Martial.

    Social Aspects of Style

    Invective has its own stylistic qualities, as Pedrick 1993 argues; so too does obscenity (see Lateiner 1979). For Catullus’s self-referential aesthetic vocabulary, see Krostenko 2001 and Seager 1974. Ross 1969 examines, among other things, Catullus’s use of political vocabulary for aesthetic purposes. Nappa 2001 discusses how Catullus presents himself in the social world of Rome (cf. also Stroup 2010).

    Sexuality and Gender

    Catullus addressed love poems to women and to boys, and expressed his attachment to male friends in exceptionally passionate language. What is more, in his first-person poems one may detect striking analogies to voices of women in his narrative poems (e.g., Ariadne in Catullus 64; recall that he translated Sappho; see Greene 1999, Skinner 1993), and one of his poems (Catullus 63) is about a boy who castrates himself, and who is henceforward identified by feminine pronouns and adjectives. He thus presents fascinating material for the study of sexuality in Classical Rome. The following are but a selection of the many recent discussions of the topic (more may be found in the volumes cited under Collections of Papers). In particular, for the construction of the erotic self, see Arkins 1982, Greene 1994, and Konstan 2000; with special reference to the construction of masculinity, see Skinner 1993 and Wray 2001. Janan 1994 focuses on the complex representation of the love object.


    Certainly the most memorable figure in Catullus’s poetry is Lesbia, although she figures in only a limited number of poems. Scholars of an earlier period attempted to reconstruct the trajectory of Catullus’s love affair with Lesbia, who was identified, on the basis of a statement by Apuleius in his Apology, with Clodia, the wife of Metellus, a leading political figure at Rome (on Clodia, see Dyson 2008). Although modern treatments reject so direct a connection between real life experience and poetry (what Steele Commager once referred to as “going from bed to verse”), Catullus’s relation to “Lesbia” retains its fascination. On Lesbia’s appearance, see Baker 1960, Rankin 1976; for her effect on Catullus, Copley 1949 and Lieberg 1962 offer sensitive but traditional interpretations, whereas Janan 1994 makes good use of modern psychoanalysis to account for Catullus’s ambivalent representation of Lesbia.

    Influence on Roman Poetry

    Catullus exerted a considerable influence on later Roman poets; Virgil modeled his Dido at least in part on the Ariadne of Catullus 64, Horace and the elegiac poets drew on his verses, and Martial (also Pliny, by his own confession) were deeply indebted to his epigrams and poems in other meters. Commentaries on these later works provide many references, of course; here are a few articles that provide some initial orientation. For Virgil’s debt to Catullus, one may start with Ferguson 1971–1972; Gonnelli 1962 is also useful, and for a more specific focus, see Kilroy 1969 (see also Thomas 1999 and Fernandelli 2012). For Horace, see especially Putnam 2006 (Fernández Corte 1990 examines the way Catullus and Horace are perceived as lyric poets). On Catullus as a model for later epigrammatists, see Summers 2001 and Swann 1994. There are also several fine chapters on the subject in Skinner 2007.

    Later Reception

    Catullus’s survival into the modern world hung by a single manuscript, and his influence first began to be felt again in the 15th century. The story is well told in Gaisser 1993; for a briefer survey, see her chapter “Catullus in the Renaissance” in Skinner 2007 (cited under Collections of Papers). Many modern poets were influenced by Catullus; William Butler Yeats’s poem The Scholars lampoons the “bald heads” who edit and annotate Catullus, shuffling along: “Lord, what would they say / Did their Catullus walk that way?” However, there is no full-scale treatment of Catullus in modern poetry (for a brief survey, see Arkins 2007).

    LAST MODIFIED: 01/13/2014

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195389661-0010

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