The private world of Catullus, and the polished performance of Horace.


Lyric poetry has come to mean that in which the composer presents his or her personal thoughts and feelings. Originally, it simply meant poetry or a song accompanied by the lyre, for which the Greeks used a variety of metres.

Girl with lyre

Greek lyre player. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Greeks, Brockhampton Press 1974)

The Romans took over the metres, though not necessarily the accompaniment, and employed them in a rather more precise form to express themselves poetically.


Modern bronze bust of Catullus, Sirmione. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

Gaius Valerius Catullus (87 - 54 BC) was born in Verona, probably of a moderately rich family. After arriving in Rome in about 62 BC, he became one of the wave of “new poets” who reacted against their elders while, from the evidence of his own poetry, boozing, whoring, and generally living it up.

Brothel scene

Wall painting of brothel scene, Pompeii. (VRoma: Paula Chabot)

Catullus moved in high circles, too, especially if the woman he calls Lesbia in his poems, and with whom he had a blazing affair, was Clodia, emancipated and profligate sister of Cicero’s enemy Publius Clodius and the wife of Metellus Celer, consul in 60 BC. In 57 BC, Catullus was the guest, or camp-follower, of Memmius, governor of Bithynia, to whom Lucretius dedicated De Rerum Natura. He died soon after returning to Italy.

We have just 116 poems of Catullus, varying in length from two to 480 lines, and a few fragments; this probably represents the whole of his published work. As well as the famous love/hate poems to Lesbia/Clodia, passionate, tender, sometimes indignant, there are bitingly observant cameos of friends and enemies, and of chance meetings and alfresco sexual encounters, in which he is often coarse but always amusing. Others, including his longest (Poem LXIV), an account in hexameters of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, have mythological themes, but still show depth of poetic emotion.


Thetis was a sea-nymph, such as is depicted in this floor mosaic from Ostia. (VRoma: Jeremy Walker)

Whereas Catullus often wrote in the passions of the moment, Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 - 8 BC), had the leisure and time to marshal his thoughts into lines which usually display more grace and artifice than those of Catullus, but less emotion.


Modern statue of Horace, Venosa (Venusia). (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

Horace was born in Venusia, Apulia, son of a freedman who made a good living for himself and acquired a small estate. Horace was taken by his father to Rome, where he was sent to the best schools. At 18, he was caught up in Greece in the civil wars following the assassination of Caesar, and fought at Philippi on the wrong side. He was pardoned, but when he got back to Rome he found that his father’s estate had been confiscated. He became a civil service clerk, and in his spare time wrote verses which caught the eye of Virgil, who introduced him to his own patron, Gaius Maecenas (c. 70 - 8 BC). A few years later Maecenas set him up in a farm near Tibur (Tivoli), the remains of which survive. Between this farm, a cottage in Tibur, and a house in Rome, Horace lived out his existence as a bachelor with, when it suited him, Epicurean tendencies.

Horace's farm

View of and from Horace’s Sabine farm. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

Horace’s lyric poetry comprises his seventeen Epodes, and 103 Odes in four books. The former, which include some of his early work, are on a variety of political and satirical themes, with a few love poems. Most are written in an iambic metre, a longer line being followed by a shorter one, which is known as the “epode”, or after song. The first three books of odes were written between 33 and 23 BC, and reflect the events of the time. The fourth book was published in 15 BC.

Coin for Ludi Saeculares

Gold aureus of Augustus, depicting a herald for the Saecular Games in 17 BC, holding the caduceus, his staff of office. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Horace’s odes are regarded as his finest works and are written in a variety of Greek metres whose rules he followed strictly. His other works include Carmen Saeculare, a poem to various gods, commissioned by Augustus to celebrate the Saecular Games in 17 BC; three books of Epistles, of which the third is generally known as the literary essay Ars Poetica; and two books of Satires - the Latin word from which “satire” comes had the meaning of a medley of reflections on social conditions and events. Horace appears to have been a bit of a hypochondriac, while enjoying to the full his life, his work, and the position his work gave him in society. He died only a few months after his patron Maecenas.

skeltons on a silver cup

“We all end up in the same boat. Sooner or later, having been shaken about in the urn, everybody’s number comes up, and sends us into everlasting exile” (Horace, Odes II, iii, 25 - 8). First-century AD silver drinking cup from the treasure of Boscoreale, near Pompeii, with convivial skeletons in relief. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)


Catullus & Horace
More on Roman love poetry on the Classics Pages.

Catullus & Caesar

In 55 BC, Catullus wrote some scurrilous verses about Julius Caesar and his chief engineer in Gaul, Mamurra.

“A fine couple of shameless sodomites, /
Mamurra and sex-mad Caesar. . . . /
Perverted bedmates, /
They compete against each other/
At serial adultery /
And pulling teenage birds.”
LVII. 1-2, 7-10

Catullus’s father, a leading citizen of Verona at whose house Caesar often used to stay when wintering in his province of Cisalpine Gaul, was so appalled at his son’s indiscretion that he ordered him personally to apologize. Caesar, who had a forgiving nature when it suited him, admitted that he found the lines extremely offensive, but accepted the apology and invited Catullus to dine with him later that day. He also remained on friendly terms with the young man’s father.

Metres used by Horace:

Horace adapted the verse forms used by the poets from Lesbos, Alcaeus and Sappho. Details here.

Two Greek metres commonly used by Horace are the Alcaic (four-line stanzas of respectively 11, 11, 9, and 10 syllables):

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,
Labuntur anni, nec pietas moram
	Rugis et instanti senectae
		Adferet indomitaeque morti.
Ah, Postumus, Postumus, the years go swiftly by; no amount of righteousness will combat wrinkles, the advance of old age, or the inevitability of death. Odes I. 14. 1--4.

And the Sapphic (four-line stanzas of respectively 11, 11, 11, and 5 syllables):

Pone sub curru nimium propinqui
Solis in terra domibus negata;
Dulce ridentem Lalagen amabo,
	  Dulce loquentem.

Put me down beneath the chariot of the sun where it is nearest to earth, and the land’s unfit for living: I shall still love sweetly laughing, sweetly speaking Lalage” Odes I. 22. 21--4

Dulce et decorum . . .

Horace coined the adage, “To die for one’s country is a gratifying and proper thing to do” (Odes III. 2. 13), and also carpe diem, which might be translated, “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”.


Ars Poetica and Caesar

Horace’s Ars Poetica [The art of poetry] is dedicated to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, half-brother of Calpurnia, Caesar’s third wife, and Lucius’s two sons.