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Catullus (ca 85-ca 55 B.C.E.)  

The Roman poet Catullus incorporated themes in his verse, both reflecting the passionate character of same-sex friendships and describing several of his own homosexual adventures.

About the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus, we know very little. His family belonged to the ruling elite of Verona, where he was born, and his father seems to have been on good terms with Julius Caesar.

Catullus's early adulthood was spent among leisured and aristocratic circles at Rome. There he and his friends, who were writers, advocates, and politicians, seem to have formed a sophisticated, witty, and cultured social set.

He fell in love with a woman whom he calls "Lesbia" and whom later writers identified as Clodia, the wife of Q. Metellus Celer and the sister of Clodius Pulcher. There is a hostile description of her in Cicero's oration Pro Caelio. The course of the affair with Lesbia was painful and disappointing for Catullus, whose affections were eventually alienated.

About the year 57, he accompanied the propraetor Memmius to Bithynia and probably visited the tomb of his brother, who had died near Troy. His last datable poem, number 11, refers to events that took place in 55. Catullus is believed to have died shortly thereafter.

Poets of Catullus's generation, normally referred to as "neoterics" and influenced by the Alexandrian Greeks, notably Callimachus, rejected the historical epic and emphasized the short, witty "personal" poem. Metrical variety, formal perfection, erudition, elegance, playfulness, and brevity were their principal literary values, and Catullus reflects most if not all of these ideals.

Perhaps most significant, Catullus and his associates rejected the impersonality of epic poetry and made their own sensibility an important aspect of their writing.

Homoerotic themes of various kinds appear in Catullus's work. Several describe his own homosexual adventures. Four love poems (24, 48, 81, and 99) are addressed to an aristocratic adolescent male, Juventius, and delineate a tender but ultimately unrequited passion.

In 21, he makes jealous threats against Aurelius, who flirts with his "boy." In 15, he ironically entrusts his darling to the care of the same Aurelius, again with threats. In 56, Catullus wittily describes a more casual sexual encounter with a youth who is also having an affair with one of his own female paramours.

A number of poems reflect other attitudes to homosexual activity. In 61, an epithalamium or marriage poem, Catullus describes how the bridegroom, now entering respectable married life, must give up his male lover.

In some poems (16, 28), sexual activities such as pedication and irrumation represent domination, vengeance, or machismo. "Passive" homosexuality, fellatio, and effeminacy, which Catullus often invests with economic as well as moral associations (25, 33, 80, 112), are ridiculed.

Finally, some poems (such as 9, 30, and 50) reflect the passionate character of same-sex friendship in antiquity. The degree to which such poems are homoerotic is debatable. Some of them, however, are likely to be read by modern readers as love poems.

Brad Walton


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A bust of Catullus.
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Martin, Charles. Catullus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Quinn, Kenneth, ed. Approaches to Catullus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1972.

_____. The Catullan Revolution. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1959.

Ross, David O. Style and Tradition in Catullus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Wheeler, A. L. Catullus and the Traditions of Ancient Poetry. Berkeley: 1964.

Wiseman, T. P. Catullus and His World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.


    Citation Information
    Author: Walton, Brad  
    Entry Title: Catullus  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 11, 2013  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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