CATULLUS AND THE ROMAN LIFE OF LUXURY




Narcissus, 
from the house of Loreius Tiburtinus in Pompeii The "life of luxury" is an important dimension to Catullus' poetry, as the former Roman stoic ideal lifestyle gave way to extravagance and ostentatious display of wealth in the Late Republic and Early Empire. Nightly dining parties and finery of all types marked the luxurious life of the elite class. The vocation of the poet in itself implies comfort and leisure, so that Catullus may write: "At leisure, Licinius, yesterday/ We'd much fun at my writing-tablets/ As we'd agreed to be frivolous./ Each of us writing light verses/ Playing now with this metre, now that,/ Capping each other's jokes with toasts," (L, ll. 1-6). His work is reflective of the life of the elite class, demonstrating Rome's complex social hierarchy, its interaction with Hellenism, and the importance of luxury and leisure in contributing to and stratifying social dynamics.

Catullus' personal account of the lives of the elite in a social context have great implications for our conception of the social hierarchy in Rome, especially between elite males and women of many classes. From his depiction of Lesbia, a woman at the highest level of the Roman class structure, to his general commentary on the common harlot, the poet reveals different ideas about sex and love in society. Women by all accounts were largely objectified. Slaves and freedwomen had no rights and were subject to the will of elite males, while the elite woman's role was ideally one of producing children, (Treggiari: 123). However, one sees women like Lesbia frequently taking on many lovers, as promiscuous as the most prolific male party-goers. Catullus writes of Lesbia, "Farewell and long life with her adulterers,/ Three hundred together, whom hugging she holds,/ Loving none truly but again and again/ Rupturing all's groins," (XI, ll. 16-20). But at the same time Lesbia maintains her status as an elite woman, somehow still worthy of Catullus' oft-proclaimed boundless love, explicitly stated in poem LXXXVII: "No woman can say truly she has been loved as much/ As Lesbia mine has been loved by me./ No faith so great was ever found in any contract/ As on my part in love of you."

In this sense Lesbia is a problematic figure, for she is the expression of an ideal in society. One is forced to consider whether or not such a woman truly existed. Slave girls and those who accept money for sexual favors are constantly portrayed negatively, but is not Lesbia just as promiscuous and cunning in her numerous affairs as the girls of lower classes? Should she not also deserve the lashings of Catullus' wit? What must be assumed instead is the archetype of the woman in a dependent and passive position given outside of this personage, seen in a number of forms throughout Catullus' work. Lesbia marks a contradiction between the Roman ideal and practical reality, which can be seen through examination of the life of luxury and the cultural ideology underpinning Catullus' poetry.

An excellent example of Catullus' general portrayal of women in poetry comes in his use of the subject of Ariadne in poem LXIV. As Theseus' ship is still in sight Ariadne weeps on the beach helplessly, soon to be aggressively taken by Bacchus. Her role as passive in the relationship is important, demonstrating the subjugated position of women in Roman society. In this manner Catullus' poetry conveys the stratified roles in Roman society, and in with the public nature of poetry, no doubt propagated and augmented them among the Roman elite.

In a few words, Catullus' poetry reflects the sexual freedom and other components of the Roman lifestyle of luxury and ostentation. An analysis of sexual relations, as they are such a prominent theme in Catullus' work, is crucial in understanding the life of luxury enjoyed by the cultural elite. But one is led to question as to how these roles play out in Roman society. What is the setting in which women might be interacting with elite men, and why is this even important?

The setting that is either explicit or assumed in many of Catullus' poems is the nightly dining party, or convivium, that became popularized with the pomp and extravagance of the poet's time, the Late Republic. The banquet supplies a setting in which the wealth and status of the host can be displayed through guests, slaves, and the showing of his extravagantly decorated home. Also, it supplies a setting where the archetype of the matrona, or private, domestic female sphere might meet with the public, in the meretrix, or courtesan. With wine and feasting the Romans come to associate sex, and the ideal for this partner is realized in the dinner party. Both slaves and elite women alike might partake in these activities, whether or not their participation may be voluntary. Either way, they are subject to the will of men and given secondary status, (Wallace-Hadrill: 110). This status is displayed repeatedly in Catullus' work, where the only woman with apparent free agency is Lesbia, and her only because the poet's love for her is so strong. In most cases, female subjects are characterized as ugly sluts or whores demanding money for sex, expressed in harsh invective.

Catullus often equates money, food, and sex in his poetry, all cultural components of the dinner party scene, (Richlin: 148-9). These were used as expressions of the wealth and status of the host at convivium. Across the work of a number of Classical poets, one sees this as the setting where elevated love might occur. We see in Catullus' poetry that sex in the context of the dinner party is discusses as a jolly and excellent activity, where in other settings it is mentioned with disapproval, characterized as adultery, or at least vulgar, (Richlin: 151). The poet fully believes in a an ideal of a faithful marriage, conjuring up images of a loving and loyal conjugal union in poem LXVI. Yet in the context of convivium he writes, "Please, my love, sweet Ipsitilla,/ My darling, my own clever girl,/ Command my presence at siesta...," (XXXII, ll. 1-3). There is no real contradiction between the two notions of sex, one might be married faithfully after partaking in the festivities, at least if one is a man, which is alluded to in poem LXVI. But the reality remains that after marriage there was seldom a loyal relationship between elite couples. And the extravagant convivium is certainly the background for these relationships to be played out.

But one must wonder from where this cultural activity came, considering the stoic values stressed by moralizers such as Cato the Censor in the Middle Republic. Erich Gruen asserts that the interaction with Hellenism was to play a great part in the cultural development with Rome, and this fact is also reflected in Catullus' poetry. Gruen writes, "Hellenic learning would serve the ends of a Roman aristocrat...," (Gruen: 255) as it served to stratify classes, adding art, clothing, literature and philosophy, and cultural phenomena like symposium (to become convivium) to their lives. In the late republic Cato's greatest fears are realized in regard to the fate of Rome, as old stoic values gave to ostentatious displays and extravagant spending. Catullus, as a member of this Roman culture, employs aspects of Hellenism frequently to convey his thoughts and feelings to his elite audience.

Wine, dress, make-up and perfumery, intellectual discussion and sexual attitudes were all influenced by Hellenism in Roman convivium. Again, these things served to stratify social classes, and inform the Catullus and his audience as to appropriate behavior considering their position in the Roman elite. Jasper Griffin writes:

The life we glimpse in the poems of...Catullus and his contemporaries, has precisely this character: a life of amours parties, drinking, jealousy and debauchery, inertia nequitia....And of course from an early date such a life was felt to be Greek, (Griffin: 6).

Further, Festus characterizes such a life simply, expressing such a festive life as "Greeking it up."

And Catullus did not hesitate to "Greek it up." His mention of wines in poem XXVII, his use of subjects such as Ariadne in poem LXIV, and his common backdrop of convivium all display his own connection to Greek culture. Epigram in itself began in Greece, and while Catullus' poetry is something innovative and new it finds its roots in the literature and culture of Greece. An understanding of Rome's cultural interplay with Greece and its implications for stratifying class structure and altering the lives of elite Romans is essential to understanding Catullus' poetry. The life of luxury certainly would not have manifested itself in Rome in the way it did without the infusion of Hellenism.

So in the end one can see how the life of luxury, such a prominent theme in Catullus' poetry, is reflective of a great many factors necessary in fully understanding his verse. His work serves to convey the subtleties of the complex social hierarchy and how they manifest themselves among the elite. The ideal of Lesbia realized in poetry in opposition to the characterization outside of the context of convivium can be seen in Catullus' poem LXVI. Promiscuous sex and the dinner party are privileges of the elite, while outside of such a setting they are looked upon disapprovingly. Similarly, understanding Hellenism as a theme in his work is vital, because the interplay between the cultures of Rome and Greece might be argued as the reason the convivium came about. Catullus work is even based in Hellenistic literary traditions, and must be understood as such. And lastly, simply in order for him to write he must have had time and wealth to do so, and one must realize this as well. The wine and women of Catullus' world, as components to the Greek life of luxury in the Early Empire, create Lesbia, and create the genre of love poetry. What we can learn from artist is the nature of social relations between Romans, and how Hellas affected the course of their development.


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The Life of Catullus
Examples of Catullan poetry
The Life of Lesbia
Power in Roman Relationships
A list of works cited