Written in Hedecasyllabic meter, this piece is consistent with the Neoteric (“new poets”) style employed by Catullus. The subject of this poem isn’t that of an ancient hero or god, but rather the heroine with whom he has fallen in love. Lesbia, or rather Clodia, was a woman married to a prominent, powerful man by the name of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. As was often the case among Romans of high society, this was an arranged marriage based on financial and political reasons. Because of this, there was no real love between Clodia and Quintus, and this is likely why Clodia sought affection from others, including Catullus. The usage of the pseudonym “Lesbia” can be seen as an additional means to conceal the affair, rather than directly using her name.
The locations mentioned in this piece are used as part of several hyperbolic metaphors professing his affection for Clodia. Line 3 reads, “as great a number of the Libyan sands” which is an allusion to ‘infinity’, implying that ‘there will never be enough kisses’ for Catullus. It is to be noted that the mention of Libya is not to be confused with the present-day nation of Libya. The Romans called the continent of Africa ‘Libya’.
As Clodia had several other lovers, Catullus’ works focusing on her may be perceived as melancholic. With mention of the “lasarpicium” plant in line 4, one may gather this melancholic interpretation as these plants were often administered to women when terminating pregnancy. This may be an expression of his anxieties towards the other sexual encounters in Clodia’s life.
One could additionally draw a double meaning from the distances of the mentioned locations and what these locations themselves mean. “The sacred tomb of old Battus” mentioned in line 6 was 300 miles away from the Oracle of Jupiter, which Romans would seek in the desert in search of a ‘vision’. The literal distance gives the reader an idea regarding “the number of Libyan sands” and “how many kisses” it would take to satisfy Catullus’ desires. Furthermore, one could claim that for Catullus, having Clodia’s affection to himself was just as fleeting as the vision in the desert sought by the Romans.
Additionally, the passion Catullus has for Clodia is undercut with the complexity of their situation. Not only did Clodia have multiple lovers, but Catullus is thought to have had an affair with a senator’s wife, “See people’s secret love affairs… Inquiring me could not count completely” (Lines 8-11).
The final metaphor of the poem solidifies the fact that there wasn’t a number of kisses to satisfy “love-crazy Catullus” (Line 10). In reference to “bewitch” (Line 12), there was a belief in witchcraft that if a “specific number” was affiliated with the victim of a curse, the curse would be more effective. Again, Catullus draws double meaning when speaking of kissing his love, Clodia. An infinite number would be the number of kisses to quell his lust for her, while at the same time, keeping them safe from curses.
|QVAERIS, quot mihi basiationes
|You ask how many kissings of you,
|tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
|Lesbia, are for me and more than enough.
|quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
|As great as the number of the Libyan sand
|lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
|that lies on silphium-bearing Cyrene,
|oraclum Iouis inter aestuosi
|between the oracle of sultry Jove
|et Batti ueteris sacrum sepulcrum;
|and the sacred tomb of old Battus;
|aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
|or as many as the stars, when night is silent,
|furtiuos hominum uident amores:
|that see the stolen loves of men,
|tam te basia multa basiare
|to kiss you with so many kisses
|uesano satis et super Catullo est,
|is enough and more than enough for your Catullus;
|quae nec pernumerare curiosi
|kisses, which neither curious eyes may count up
|possint nec mala fascinare lingua.
|nor an evil tongue bewitch.
VRoma Project: http://www.vroma.org/~hwalker/VRomaCatullus/007.html