Catullus 39 Translation

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In this poem, Catullus writes about Egnatius, who is a man that had an affair with Lesbia. He was supposedly from Spain and Catullus gossiped that the man washed his teeth with urine. This poem is about the man who had good taste in women, but chose the wrong woman. Catullus attacks him and his constant smiling. 

In the first two lines, Catullus writes about how white Egnatius’s teeth are and because his teeth are so white, he is always smiling. Then, Catullus shares all of the places that Egnatius inappropriately smiles. Those places include a courtroom where a defense lawyer is explaining what horrible crimes the prisoner did and a funeral where parents mourn the death of their only son. 

In lines six and seven, we learn that Egnatius smiles everywhere and no matter what he is doing. Catullus calls the constant smiling a “malady.” In line eight, the poet refers to the malady as not being elegant or in “good taste.” Then, Catullus decides to give the man some advice. 

In lines 10-13, he says he would give this advice to people from all over the area. In line 14, he refers to all of the people as those who wash their teeth with clean water. Then, he gives the advice in line 15 and 16 saying that even if his teeth were truly clean, he should not be smiling constantly as it is nothing sillier than smiling for a silly reason. 

Then in the last five lines, we get to see Catullus share the knowledge of how this man cleaned his teeth with urine. Catullus says that Egnatius is a Celtiberian – which is a Celt who is living in the Iberian peninsula. In Catullus’s eyes, he would not have been as civilized as the Romans, even though they did have an alphabet and they learned to write in the Iberian style. Then, Catullus shares that the natives were known to wash their own teeth with their own urine. As urine would have made their teeth clean, Catullus shares that Egnatius would want to show off how clean they were. 

In what is a signature style of Catullus, he took an admirable trait  – clean teeth – and turned it into something vulgar. If Egnatius didn’t have a sexual relationship with Lesbia, then Catullus might have admired his clean teeth rather than mocked them for being cleaned by urine.


Carmen 39

LineLatin textEnglish translation

EGNATIVS, quod candidos habet dentes,

EGNATIVS, because he has white teeth,


renidet usque quaque. si ad rei uentum est 

is everlastingly smiling. If people come to the prisoner’s bench,


subsellium, cum orator excitat fletum, 

the counsel for the defence is making every one cry,


renidet ille; si ad pii rogum fili 

he smiles: if they are mourning at the funeral of a dear son, 


lugetur, orba cum flet unicum mater, 

when the bereaved mother is weeping for her only boy, 


renidet ille. quidquid est, ubicumque est,

he smiles: whatever it is, wherever he is, 


quodcumque agit, renidet: hunc habet morbum, 

whatever he is doing, he smiles: it is a malady he has, 


neque elegantem, ut arbitror, neque urbanum.

neither an elegant one as I think, nor in good taste. 


quare monendum est te mihi, bone Egnati. 

So I must give you a bit of advice, my good Egnatius. 


si urbanus esses aut Sabinus aut Tiburs

If you were a Roman or a Sabine or a Tiburtine 


aut pinguis Vmber aut obesus Etruscus

or a pig of an Umbrian or a plump Etruscan,


aut Lanuuinus ater atque dentatus

or a black and tusky Lanuvian, 


aut Transpadanus, ut meos quoque attingam, 

or a Transpadane (to touch on my own people too), 


aut quilubet, qui puriter lauit dentes, 

or anybody else who washes his teeth with clean water, 


tamen renidere usque quaque te nollem: 

still I should not like you to be smiling everlastingly; 


nam risu inepto res ineptior nulla est. 

for there is nothing more silly than a silly laugh. 


nunc Celtiber es: Celtiberia in terra, 

As it is, you are a Celtiberian; now in the Celtiberian country


quod quisque minxit, hoc sibi solet mane 

the natives rub their teeth and red gums, 


dentem atque russam defricare gingiuam, 

every morning with what they have urinated, 


ut quo iste uester expolitior dens est,

so that the cleaner your teeth are,


hoc te amplius bibisse praedicet loti.

the more urine you are shown to have drunk.

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