“I will sodomize and face-fuck you” – Catullus 16
Born to a equestrian (noble) family in Verona, Catullus belonged to the elite. His family entertained Julius Caesar when he was just a Proconsul and owned multiple villas. Like any boy whose family has money, he went to the then equivalent of New York City – Rome – and became an artist. Later in life, he roasted Julius but, according to the historian Suetonius, when he apologized Caesar invited him to dinner. That said, Suetonius was writing about a hundred years after the fact so there’s no way to know if the story is true or not.
Everything we know about Catullus is about his younger years. He generally comes across the edgy artist archetype who died around age thirty. Like most young Romans of noble families, he had a governmental job and went to Bithynia around two years before he died, where he served as an aide to Gaius Memmius, the local Governor. We also know he was overwhelmed with grief at his brother’s death. We don’t know why his brother died, but we know his ashes were kept in Northwestern Anatolia, near the ancient City of Troy.
Not much of Catullus’ writing survives today. We know he existed because there are a lot of references to him throughout the next several centuries, but his actual work was lost for more than a thousand years, and surfaced in a single manuscript in 1300. We don’t even have the original manuscript, just three copies of it. They contain about 116 of his poems or “Carmen.” The names are typically given as “Carmen #” or “Catullus #” and you’ll see either if you search them. Carmen is generally translated as “poem,” but the root is probably from a word relating to song or singing. Poetry wasn’t held in great esteem by the Romans until the Augustinian period. At the time of Catullus, it was seen as suspicious and a little too effeminate. If you did like poetry, it was far more fashionable to be like Cicero who preferred poetry that was martial and epic.
We also don’t know how Catullus’ poetry was delivered. Until the Augustinian period, when it became a craze, we know that the Romans didn’t read the poetry of living people aloud, and you certainly didn’t read your own works. Given the scurrilous nature of some of his poetry, it’s easy to imagine it being passed around in silence with everyone exploding into laughter as it included such gems as a poem that started “I will sodomize and face-fuck you.” While it’s possible that Catullus and his friends did read their own poetry or speak their short poetry in defiance of convention, Cicero doesn’t mention hating that about them, and he was notable for speaking at length about those things of which he disapproved.
We know he had an incredibly passionate and complex affair with a married woman he called “Lesbia.” Historians tend to identify her as Clodia, one of three daughters of an important Roman patriarch. If this is true, and the evidence is shaky, We know more about Clodia than Catullus. She was married to her first cousin, they quarreled constantly, and she had several affairs.
Clodia’s husband died suddenly in 59 BCE and she was accused of poisoning him, though the case was never proven. Subsequently she had a number of relationships, most of which ended badly. She accused at least two of of her exes of attempted murder, and Cicero the most famous lawyer and politician of the time, defended him, successfully. It’s unclear exactly when she would have had an affair with Catullus, but likely sometime shortly after the death of her husband.
Clodia’s brother was Cicero’s primary political opponent and succeeded in getting him exiled briefly, so there was a deep running family feud. What we know about her mostly comes from Cicero’s attacks. He accused her of being a seducer and a drunkard. Plutarch, writing about a century later, claims Cicero had trouble with his own wife, who was convinced he was having an affair with Clodia.
Catullus was also friends with Marcus Caelius Rufus who definitely had an affair with Clodia. He came to despise Rufus and accused him of betrayal, possibly over the affair, possibly over something else. After he broke up with Clodia, Rufus became the next ex-lover she incriminated, seeing him brought before the courts for attempting to murder an ambassador. Cicero defended Rufus, claiming that Clodia had framed him to get revenge. Like her previous ex, Rufus got off, dying later in one of the rebellions against Julius Ceasar.
All that said, Catullus’ relationship with Lesbia, whether she was Clodia or not, was conflicted. His statement “I hate and I love” in Catullus 85 is classic for its brevity and strength. Catullus loved Lesbia sincerely or at least thought he did. In Catullus 87 he says “No woman can say truly that she has been loved as much as you, Lesbia, have been loved by me: no trust in any pact has ever been found so great as was that on my part in the love of you.”
For a generation raised on a steady diet of music where a few twists of the lyric convey both lost love and complexity of remorse this may not be very astonishing but this was new ground in the subtlety of human relationships in the first century BCE. In Catullus 70 we are told “No one, says my lady, would she rather wed than myself, not even if Jupiter himself sought her. Thus she says! but what a woman says to a desirous lover ought fitly to be written on the breezes and in running waters.”
Even in the end, Catullus admits his feelings weren’t clear. In Catullus 72, he evinces this rather complex emotion. “Now I do know you: so if I burn at greater cost, you are nevertheless to me far viler and of lighter thought. How can this be? you ask. Because such wrongs drive a lover to love the more, but less to respect.” Catullus also had other lovers, including a girl who was the subject of his “sparrow” poems, which have a different tone than the Lesbia poems which focus on Clodia.
Probably more importantly in Crowley’s eyes, Catullus, through his relationship with Juventius, was a patron saint of what a youthful Crowley would have called “buggery.” While a great deal of historical focus has been on his love for Lesbia, his love for Juventius seems just as robust and central, though there are somewhat fewer surviving poems to Juventius.
Rome in the late Republican period certainly had its issues with toxic masculinity. Catullus seems to have been part of a gang of young men who had no issues with being the insertive partner in homosexual relationships, but maintained an attitude of superiority toward the receptive partner. Catullus 16, quoted at the beginning is a threat in defense of his own manhood. Catullus’ verses had apparently been considered too “effiminate” by his friends and so he uses his poetry to threaten to rape them to show them what a bad ass he actually is. He then threatens the same to anyone who messes with his “boy.” To one of his friends he wrote in Catullus 21:
“you want to sleep with my boy.
Not secretly: for you’re always with him, you joke around together,
attached to his side you try everything.
For although you plot against me,
I’ll stick it to you first, my dick in your mouth.”
It’s hard to know how this came off. It is entirely possible that among the jaded younger sons of the Roman elite this was less the hateful desperate threat it comes off as…less someone standing a parking lot screaming “I’m gonna cut you!” and more a series of testosteronergic jests. Serious perhaps, but delivered in an atmosphere of casual backhanding and mock bravado not unlike the society of English rakes in the late 18th century.
Catullus shattered norms. He was sparse, bold, and powerful. He wrote sensitive personal poetry about things and people around him. He was the father of what is called the Neoteric school of poetry, which was a genre shattering influence in the first century BCE. “Neoteric” meant, literally, “new poets,” and was a term used by their haters. The new poets had the impact of the pioneers of rock music, or the development of the modern novel by Thomas Hardy. To Cicero and older poets they were different, threatening, and decadent.
Nothing comes out of a vacuum, and Catullus was influenced by Hellenistic innovators, especially Callimachus and other Alexandrian School poets, who had turned away from epic themes with realist works like “The Street Poet.” By the time Virgil wrote the Aeneid about a quarter century after Catullus’ death a generation of poets had grown up on this new realism. This is why The Aeneid is not simply a wooden knockoff the Odyssey. The theme is similar but the telling is far more modern and nuanced. In many ways, Catullus began modern literature by empowering a focus on the individual.
We don’t know how Catullus died, only that he died young at about age thirty. Given the lack of any memorable story passed down in reference to him it seems likely that he died of natural causes, sometime c. 57-54 BCE. While his death was too early for the pestilence of 43 BCE, death of disease was still quite common in ancient Rome, even among the wealthy.
It should be pretty clear by now why Catullus, not Cicero, is the Thelemic Saint. Catullus pressed the boundaries of Roman literature and decency. Crowley, educated in the classics, would have known the details of Catullus’ life and romances. It is worth noting that in his adaptation of the list of Gnostic Saints from the list of important (supposed past) members in the 1912 O.T.O. manifesto, Catullus is an addition as an object of Crowley’s personal affection.
It is important, however, to understand that Crowley’s love of Catullus is not just his breaking literary genre, but his willingness to speak overtly about buggery. Cambridge was a hotbed of homosexual activism. Students there conducted a secret march with placards bearing Oscar Wilde’s prisoner number. In his New Comment on Liber AL, I.51 Crowley wrote: “In real life, we have seen in our own times Oscar Wilde, Sir Charles Dilke, Parnell, Canon Aitken and countless others, many of them engaged in first-rate work for the world, all wasted because the mob must make believe to be ‘moral.’ In the preface to “The World’s Tragedy” Crowley says “Again we may say that all the great men of antiquity were sodomites: Socrates, Caesar, Alexander, Martial, Catullus, Virgil, Achilles…” His recognition of Catullus as an arch sodomite is clear, and his defense of Sodomy, in 1910 was enough to insure that most of the copies were seized by customs.
Catullus is not just a genre breaking poet, but a hero of sexual freedom. Of all of those “great men,” he alone speaks out plainly about sodomy as Crowley did. To us Catullus remains an important figure. By understanding him not as some forgotten poet, but as a driving force responsible for a dramatic modernization of literature, reclaiming the strongest Hellenic currents and bringing them forward into the Roman era, as well as his championship of an easygoing, personal, sexuality that transcends gender norms, we can appreciate him as an innovator still worthy of study two millennia after his death.