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Gaius Valerius Catullus

Catullus 51

Fiction | Poem | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Born around 84 B.C.E., Catullus is the most significant of the surviving Neoteric poets. An avant-garde movement of the late Roman Republic, the Neoterics turned from traditional poetic forms—such as the epic—to write shorter, lyrical works. Instead of focusing on subjects such as ancient heroes and gods, Catullus and his contemporary Neoterics emphasized more personal, superficial topics. Though Neoteric poetry was largely lost (along with many other classical works) after the fall of the Roman Empire, Catullus was rediscovered in the Late Middle Ages, where he influenced poets such as Petrarch.

“Catullus 51” is representative of Catullus’s focus on personal, everyday themes. The poem is one of 116 works preserved in an anthology of Catullus’s poetry. “Catullus 51” counts among the 49 erotic poems about Catullus’s sexual desires and acts. The poem is a near-translation of Sappho’s lyric poem “Fragment 31,” in which Sappho describes her love for a young woman. Catullus’s translation of Sappho’s verse from Greek to Latin maintains the poem’s form, but personalizes it so that the poem’s speaker is difficult to separate from its author-translator. Further complicating this issue, Catullus inserts the character of Lesbia: a stand-in for his married girlfriend, Clodia. Lesbia is the object of desire in many of Catullus’s poems.

Poet Biography

Gaius Valerius Catullus was born into a wealthy equestrian family in Verona sometime between 87 and 84 B.C.E. The equestrians were the lower of two aristocratic classes in the Roman Republic. Catullus’s family owned a villa at Sirmio, near Verona, and Catullus’s father was a friend to Julius Caesar. Catullus is also believed to have owned his own villa near Tibur. Despite claiming financial troubles in some of his poems, Catullus was among the republic’s wealthy elite.

Few objective facts are known about Catullus’s life. His father sent him to the Roman city center at a young age, likely out of a hope that Catullus would make political and cultural connections. While in Rome, Catullus met with Cicero and Julius Caesar. Cicero hated Catullus’s poetry for its amorality. According to an account in Suetonius's Twelve Caesars, Catullus’s relationship with Caesar was similarly troubled.

Around 57 B.C.E., Catullus entered public service under Gaius Memmius—the governor of the Roman province of Bithynia in present-day Turkey. Upon his return to Rome only a year later, he dedicated himself to poetry. Catullus likely met and fell in love with Clodia Metelli (the "Lesbia" of “Catullus 51” and 25 other poems) after his return to Rome. Catullus also had a male lover named Juventius around this time.

The majority of Catullus’s contemporaries participated in public service and wrote epic poetry commissioned by aristocratic families. Catullus and the Neoteric poets with whom he aligned himself rejected both these traditions, withdrawing from political life. Instead, the Neoteric poets wrote of their personal experiences using common language.

Catullus died at the age of 30. Over 100 of his poems survive to the present through a single manuscript discovered in Verona in 1305. Though the manuscript was soon lost again, two copies of it were made. One of these copies is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The other copy was also lost. The copy in Oxford contains 116 poems divided into three sections. Catullus’s poems are organized and numbered based on this surviving copy.

Poem Text

Catullus. “Catullus 51.” 64-54 B.C.E. Literary Matters. Translated by Chris Childers.


“Catullus 51” relates an interaction between Lesbia and a man who appears to be her significant other. The speaker—revealed to be Catullus himself in the poem’s final stanza (Line 13)—directs the poem to Lesbia.

The speaker begins by describing the man “who sits across from [Lesbia]” (Line 3) as “The equal of a god” (Line 1). The speaker further elevates the man saying that he might be “better than gods, if it’s not blasphemy” (Line 2). The man across the table from Lesbia is attentive to her, and “stares, and hears / continually / [her] lovely laughter” (Lines 3-5). Though Lesbia’s laughter is lovely, it deepens the speaker’s “despair” (Line 5) and “siphons his senses” (Line 6). Struck “dumb” (Line 7) by the scene, the speaker is unable to speak.

In the third stanza, the speaker moves from the scene between the man and Lesbia and relates his emotional response to it through a series of metaphors. He describes how his “tongue grows heavy” (Line 9) and how his “ears ring with a bright / and tinny sound” (Lines 10-11). The speaker also describes that his despair has deepened, and that he is “veiled within / a two-fold night” (Lines 11-12). The speaker addresses himself and identifies as Catullus in the final stanza. He blames “Free time” (Line 13) for his “fidgeting and [his] flings” (Line 14) with Lesbia. He condemns free time as a vice that contributes to his despair, just as it “has leveled prosperous cities […] and mighty kings” (Lines 15-16).