Catullus 1 Translation

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Catullus was a short-lived but very influential Roman lyric poet. Carmen 1 is the introductory poem for 116 Carmina, the collective term for his poetry. This brief verse is a lovely opening for the subsequent Carmina. It asks, as many a frontispiece has done, to whom is this book dedicated? The answer is Cornelius, probably Cornelius Nepos, a biographer and contemporary of Catullus. Apparently, his fellow writer was an admirer, and the respect was returned for Catullus goes on to commemorate the biographer’s ability to “unfold every age in three papyrus rolls.” 

A papyrus roll was the writing surface provided by unrolling the fibers of a papyrus reed to form a sort of paper. Unfortunately, it was too stiff and brittle to fold, so the edges of each roll was glued to the next one and they were stored as scrolls and unrolled to be read. So apparently, Cornelius used three papyrus rolls for each of his writings. This is a relatively short writing, if his “Lives of Eminent Commanders” is any indication for it includes brief biographies of Hannibal, Hamilcar, and others.

Catullus then goes on to add, that Cornelius resembled Jupiter in wisdom and industry. This was high praise since Jupiter was not only the father god of the Roman pantheon, he was credited with overthrowing his father, Saturn. Saturn, one of the Titans, had swallowed all his other children. Jupiter forced him to throw them back up. Jupiter and his brothers and sisters then joined in overthrowing their father, thus fulfilling the prophecy he had tried to forestall. Clearly, comparing Cornelius to Jupiter is significant praise.

Since there were no printing presses, books were handwritten. Writing was a far more labor-intensive occupation than it is today. To turn out a work such as the “Lives of Eminent Commanders” required long hours, and probably many sessions of copying and recopying the material to produce a finished product.

Given that Cornelius had written about others, apparently to good effect, he says, “Here, have this little book. Enjoy it, and it is my hope that it will last for many years.” Like many authors and poets from every era, Catullus hoped for the immortality conferred by his works living on after him.

Catullus and Cornelius belonged to a group of Romans were more focused on everyday life, love, living and perhaps a little satiric commentary, rather than being great statesmen, orators or politicians. They were, if you will, a sort of little arts colony existing within the greater political structure of Rome. Since they lived in the era of the Republic of Rome, which lasted approximately from 504 BC through around 27 BC, this was no mean fete. Consider that Julius Caesar was slain in 44 BC, and the subsequent political and economic upheavals in the region. It was not an easy time to focus on ordinary living.

Records are a little spotty for less well-known citizens, but it is probable that Catullus lived from around 84 through 54 BCE. This means that he would have seen the reign of the first Triumvirate and the rise of Julius Caesar. The struggles between these leading Romans frequently had Rome in a turmoil, including setting fire to the city on at least two occasions.

Catullus’ life was brief, but his influence has been quite far-reaching. He affected both Ovid and Virgil, two well-known writers whose writings are frequently referenced in modern texts. His works disappeared for a time, but he was rediscovered in the late middle ages. Some of his content is quite shocking by historical standards, especially during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Yet he was often used as a resource for teaching Latin. He is still extensively read in a variety of literature programs. He is famed for his insertion of witticisms while still adhering to classical forms.  Carmen 64 is considered to be his greatest work, but as modern reader, we are fortunate to be able to read all 116 Carmina in collected format.

It is safe to say that Catullus’ wish that his works live on after him has been fulfilled. His little book has long outlived empires, changes in customs and an amazing variety of writing formats.


Carmen 1 

LineLatin textEnglish translation
1cui dono lepidum novum libellumTo whom do I dedicate this new, charming little book
2arida modo pumice expolitumjust now polished with a dry pumice stone?
3Corneli tibi namque tu solebasTo you, Cornelius, for you were accustomed
4meas esse aliquid putare nugasto think that my nonsense was something,
5iam tum cum ausus es unus Italorumthen already when you alone of Italians
6omne aevum tribus explicare cartisdared to unfold every age in three papyrus rolls,
7doctis Iuppiter et laboriosislearned, Jupiter, and full of labor.
8quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelliTherefore, have for yourself whatever this is of a little book,
9qualecumque quod o patrona virgoof whatever sort; which, O patron maiden,
10plus uno maneat perenne saeclomay it remain everlasting, more than one lifetime.

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