III. LESBIA’S LOVER

In 57 B.C. the Caius Memmius to whom Lucretius dedicated his poem left Rome to serve as propraetor in Bithynia. After the growing custom of Roman governors he took with him an author- not Lucretius, but a poet different from the other in everything but the strength of his passion. Quintus (or Caius) Valerius Catullus had come to Rome some five years before from his native Verona, where his father was of sufficient standing to be frequent host to Caesar. Quintus himself must have had a substantial competence, for he owned villas near Tibur and on Lake Garda and had an elegant house in Rome. He speaks of these properties as choked with mortgages, and repeatedly proclaims his poverty; but the picture we form of him from his poems is that of a polished man of the world who did not bother to earn a living, but enjoyed himself unstintingly among the wilder set in the capital. The keenest wits, the cleverest young orators and politicians belonged to this circle: Marcus Caelius, the impecunious aristocrat who was to become a communist; Licinius Calvus, brilliant in poetry and in law; and Helvius Cinna, a poet whom Antony’s mob would mistake for one of Caesar’s assassins and beat to death. These men opposed Caesar with every epigram at their disposal, unaware that their literary revolt reflected the revolution in which they lived. They were tired of old forms in literature, of the crudity and bombast of Naevius and Ennius; they wished to sing the sentiments of youth in new and lyric meters, and with a refinement and delicacy of execution known once in the Alexandria of Callimachus, but never yet seen in Rome. And they were resentful of old morals, of the mos maiorum perpetually preached upon them by their exhausted elders; they announced the sanctity of instinct, the innocence of desire, and the grandeur of dissipation. They and Catullus were no worse than other young literary blades of their generation and the next; Horace, Ovid, Tibullus, Propertius, even the shy Virgil in his youth, made life and verse revolve around any woman, married or not, who fed their muses with facile casual love.

The liveliest lady in this group was Clodia, of the proud old Claudian gens that even now had emperors in its loins. Apuleius assures us that it was she whom Catullus named Lesbia in memory of the Sappho whose poems he occasionally translated, often imitated, and always loved. Arriving in Rome at the age of twenty-two, he cultivated her friendship while her husband governed Cisalpine Gaul. He was fascinated the moment she “set her shining foot on the well-worn threshold”; he called her his “lustrous goddess of the delicate step”; and indeed a woman’s walk, like her voice, may be in itself a sufficient seduction. She accepted him graciously as one of her worshipers; and the enraptured poet, unable to match otherwise the gifts of his rivals, laid at her feet the most beautiful lyrics in the Latin tongue. For her he translated perfectly Sappho’s description of the lover’s frenzy that now raged in him; and to the sparrow that she pressed to her bosom he indited a jewel of jealousy: