CATULLUS AND THE ROMAN LIFE OF
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
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.
To the main page
The Life of Catullus
Examples of Catullan poetry
The Life of Lesbia
Power in Roman Relationships
A list of works cited