Classics The Neoteric Poets
Gianfranco Nuzzo, Salvatore Russo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0403


The modern definition of “Neoteric poets” derives from three references of Cicero, who first refers to neoteroi (Ep. ad Attic. 7.2.1), then poetae novi (Orat. 161), then cantores Euphorionis (Tusc. 3. 45 for a brief review of past scholarly contributions, see Christopher Tuplin. 1977. “Cantores Euphorionis.” Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar 1:1–23), a group of authors linked by a different way of doing poetry, characterized by a refined erudition inspired by Hellenistic poets, in some ways subjective and nonconformist, and, above all, in polemic with the austere and politically engaged tradition, also poetic and in particular with epic, represented by the archaic poet Q. Ennius. Perhaps under the influence of Parthenius of Nicaea (on which see Jane L. Lightfoot. 1999. Parthenius of nicaea. the poetical fragments and the erotika pathemata. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 54–72), Neoteric poetics is inspired by Callimachus and Euphorion, a Greek poet known for the obscurity of his compositions. It is precisely Catullian poetry that can help to ascertain the treatment of the Alexandrian background of poetry in Rome in the first century BCE, as highlighted in the pages on “Roman Alexandrinism” in the introduction of Fordyce’s commentary on Catullus (Fordyce, Christian James. 1961. Catullus: A commentary. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 18–22). In fact, with the exception of Catullus, we have only a few fragments of the production of the other poets; some of their names are mentioned by Catullus himself in nugae or in his epigrams. They inclide Licinius Calvus, Helvius Cinna, Furius Bibaculus, and Quintus Cornificius. To these should be added P. Valerius Cato (whose place in the group is inferred from a mention in Suetonius), Ticida, and Varro Atacinus. Beyond the name to be assigned to the poets in question (supported also by the indications of Cicero mentioned above), it should be noted that scholars have long debated the real existence of a group of poets unified by a single aesthetic view. The sources do not provide us with tangible and overwhelming proof of this, although it is possible to point out that, starting from the fragments preserved, we can identify some elements that were essential for these authors in composing verses. The aesthetic cornerstones of these authors are the varietas (“variety” metric and thematic), the brevitas (“brevity” of the poem), and the levitas (“lightness” of the tones); moreover, they preferred mythological and amorous subjects, often associated in the epyllion. A further element that criticism has often highlighted concerns the relationship between negotium (understood as a civil commitment to the res publica) and poetic writing; in particular, it is noted that in the dimension of otium (already present in prose authors, such as Sallust) the authors try to identify positive values, and you can see how the importance given by writers to the private sphere of the civis Romanus—without subverting traditional morality—progressively coincides with a total disengagement from public office (see Sarah Culpepper Stroup. 2010. Catullus, cicero, and a society of patrons. The generation of the text. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press). Three other authors (Lutatius Catulus, consul with Gaius Marius in 102 BCE; Valerius Aedituus; and Porcius Licinus) have been considered “pre–neoteric” by some scholars, as their production (only a few fragments, unfortunately for us) seems to anticipate, in part, the tendencies made explicit by the next generation of poets, developing different aspects, as demonstrated in Luciano Landolfi. 2010. Epigramma preneoterico, epigramma neoterico: Linee di continuità, linee di discontinuità. La parola del passato 375:394–453. Scholars have long debated whether these authors belong to a real “neoteric circle”; see Alfonsi, Luigi. 1945. Poetae novi. Storia di un movimento poetico. Como: Marzorati thought of the presence of two currents, one composed by Valerius Cato, Furius Bibaculus, and Ticida, the other by Catullus, Licinius Calvus, and Quintus Cornificius; this thesis, however, remained rather isolated. Crowther, Nigel B. 1970. Οἱ νεώτεροι, poetae novi, and cantores Euphorionis. The Classical Quarterly 28: 167–187 appears to be skeptical about considering Valerius Cato as a neoteric poet and, in general, of the existence of a “neoteric circle.” More prudent is R.O.A.M. 1978. The neoteric poets. The Classical Quarterly 28: 167–187, which suggests the idea of a group of poets who influenced each other (and perhaps only Cinna and Calvus were influenced by Parthenius), without recognizing a prevailing figure, a master. Deichgräber, Karl. 1971. Überlegungen zu den Gedichten und Gedichtbüchern der Neoteriker. Hermes: Zeitschrift für Klassische Philologie 99:46–70 has already highlighted the intertextual form and content links traceable to authors such as Cinna and Calvus.

The Most Famous (and Best Known) “Poeta Novus”: Catullus

Catullus represents the key figure for understanding the Neoteric movement, as among all poetae novi he is the only one from whom a considerable number of poems has been preserved. Jerome’s Chronicle gives his birth in Verona as 87 BCE and died at thirty, but, based on references in his poems to 54 BCE, most scholars place the poet’s birth date at 84 BCE. Moving to Rome at a young age to become an orator, Catullus soon devoted himself to poetry. Although prudence must be used in recovering details of Catullus’s biography from his poems, at first glance his poems talk to us about the poet’s tormented love for Lesbia (pseudonym for Clodia, the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher, political opponent of Cicero; however, this hypothesis does not convince Wiseman 2022), hatred for some of his opponents, and sharp irony toward some famous people, such as Caesar and Pompey. Some of these themes are common points between Catullus and his sodales, probably poets engaged like him in the composition of poems inspired by the refined erudition of Alexandrian poetry, such as the epyllion on a mythological subject, or love poems (Gaisser 2009 provides an excellent introduction to Catullus’s life, poetry, and reception). Some of these friends (see Ov. Tr. 2. 435–436: Licinius Calvus, cited in c. 50 about an evening dinner during which the two poets had composed occasional verses; Helvius Cinna, honored for the publication of his Zmyrna in c. 95; a politician and an Atticist orator appreciated by Cicero, Q. Cornificius, for whom see Hollis 2007, pp. 149–154 (cited under Texts, Commentaries, and Translations: Critical Studies]) could be linked to the Neoteric circle; however, it is more difficult to determine whether Valerius Cato (cited also by Cinna) or Caecilius were part of the Neoteric poets; in addition, because of their literary production nothing has survived (this last is cited in c. 35). On the relations between these poets and Catullus, see Gaius Helvius Cinna, Publius Valerius Cato, Marcus Furius Bibaculus, Gaius Licinius Calus, Publius Varro Atacinus, and Ticida. For more detailed information about this poet, see the Oxford Bibliographies in Classics article Catullus). A good starting point is Godwin 2008 as well as Skinner 2007. To appreciate Catullian poetics, start from Small 1983; regarding Catullus’s poems, Godwin 1995 is good for readers with a limited knowledge of Latin as well as for more advanced students; Mynors 1960 provides a critical text, but not commentary, for which consult Thomson 1997 and, at the university level, Kroll 1923. Syndikus 1984 offers good, detailed analyses of Catullus’s poems, even if the author’s main contribution is on literary history.

  • Gaisser, Julia Haig. 2009. Catullus. Blackwell Introductions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444310474

    A detailed treatment of Catullus’s poetry in its historical and literary context, focusing also on style, intertextuality, and reception. For a balanced and synthetic introduction to the poet’s life see T. P. Wiseman, “Catullus, His Life and Times,” Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979): 161–168.

  • Godwin, John. 2008. Reading Catullus. Exeter, UK: Bristol Phoenix.

    DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781904675631.001.0001

    A good introduction with selected translations and bibliography.

  • Godwin, John, ed. and trans. 1995. Catullus: Poems 61–68. Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips.

    The scholar provides facing translation and commentary. Later, the author provides epigrams’ translation, and commentary in John Godwin, ed. and trans., Catullus: The Shorter Poems (Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips, 1999).

  • Kroll, Wilhelm. 1923. C. Valerius Catullus. 5th ed. Stuttgart: Teubner.

    A good detailed full German commentary, especially sensitive to Catullus’s Hellenistic background.

  • Mynors, Roger A. B., ed. 1960. C. Valerii Catulli carmina. Rev. ed. Oxford Classical Texts. Oxford: Clarendon.

    The scholar provides only ax critical text, without commentary. Reprinted in 2001.

  • Skinner, Marilyn B., ed. 2007. A companion to Catullus. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    The chapters of this volume cover numerous aspect of Catullan studies, including pedagogy. The student and professional classicist will be guided to the latest work by suggested readings.

  • Small, Stuart G. P. 1983. Catullus: A reader’s guide to the poems. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

    The scholar provides an introductory study for all Catullus’s poems.

  • Syndikus, Hans Peter. 1984. Catull: Eine Interpretation; Erster Teil, Einleitung, Die kleinen Gedichte, 1–60. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    The work, followed by two other volumes (Hans Peter Syndikus, Catull: Eine Interpretation; Dritter Teil, Die Epigramme, 69–116 [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1987]; Hans Peter Syndikus, Catull: Eine Interpretation; Zweiter Teil, Die grossen Gedichte, 61–68. [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990]) analyzes in detail all the Catullian poetic production.

  • Thomson, Douglas F. S. 1997. Catullus. Edited with a textual and interpretative commentary by D.F.S. T. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442672789

    Updated text of D. F. S. Thomson, ed., Catullus: A Critical Edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978). Critical edition with discussion of the transmission of the poems and an ample bibliography, though the interpretations of principal questions do not take account of scholars’ modern approaches.

  • Wiseman, Timothy Peter. 2022. Catullan questions revisited. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781009235761

    The author returns to some of the questions raised in the first edition (1968), proposing two sections dedicated to Lesbia, the public and long poems, and also to the ethnography of Catullus’s native region and “poem 64.”

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