Friday, February 11, 2011

Ancient Rome is ruder than you think: Part 2

Sometimes, researching, you'll come across something truly surprising. And, wading through the turgid essays, poems and philosophies of the Ancient Romans, I did. I found Catallus, the shock jock of his day.
Catallus - poet or sexual predator? 

There is a common misconception that the Ancient Romans patricians were a moralistic, dull bunch of blokes who spent their lives orating pompously to the mob and modelling for marble busts. And if you read anything by Cicero about Duty and Law that’s the impression that you’ll get. Of course, the Romans also knew how to organise an orgy or two, so they were a contradictory bunch.

Which brings me to Catallus 16. Most poems are known by their first lines, but not Catallus 16.  This is because the first line is probably about one of the most sexually explicit things you’ll ever read. This poem was not even published into English until the late twentieth century. It's a shame really. More kids would probably want to learn Latin if they knew it could be that filthy. Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, Catullus says, and I'm not putting the translation here.

Catallus 16 is all about Catallus having a go at his friends Aurelius and Furius for calling him a sissy over the love poems he wrote to Lesbia. The things he’s going to do to them to prove his manliness wouldn’t be out of place in a prison movie, and Catallus doesn’t use any euphemisms in describing them.  

Apparently Catallus contends that a good poet should be virtuous, but his verses needn’t be. It’s very easy to miss the point in all the obscene invective.

Wikipedia offers a good translation of Catallus 16, but there are translations on the web that, while less blatantly biological, sound more like natural speech to the modern ear. In Wiki’s translation Catallus sounds like a seriously demented sexual predator. I can't help picturing him wearing a mask, carrying rope and duct tape, and I have a feeling I'm doing him an injustice. 

I prefer the ending of this anonymous translation, which I think captures the spirit of the poem better: F*ck you both. You can blow me.

Here is a link to a translation of Catallus 16 on Wikipedia, if you want to go down that path: Wikipedia 


  1. Whoa. I never heard of that, and no wonder.

    Aside from the content, it reminds me of when Louis L'Amour was laughed at in the merchant marine for writing romantic poetry, and that night he wrote them "My Three Friends."

    In essence, he was saying the same thing: blow me.

    But boy, that Catallus wasn't holding back.

  2. My god, that's hardcore gangster shit.

  3. Much of the prudism that our civilization has when approaching topics of sexuality is created by Christianity in my opinion. It only makes sense that in the days of the Romans when there wasn't such a huge influence of bible bangers that people had more open minds and expressed how they truly felt. Now, everyone is in the closet about their sexuality so that they won't be judged and be de-friended on Facebook, lose a bookdeal, or possibly have their job affected. So sad. I think people should be true to themselves and if you happen to have a strong sexual appetite, you should be free to express that without judgement from other people.

  4. MC, thanks for the link to "My Three Friends". Loved it!

  5. Matthew, that's what I love about research. You always turn up something that makes you say "Holy crap!" I'm still waiting to discover Catallus's "Yo Mama" series...they have to be out there somewhere.

  6. Michael, agreed! That's what I love about the Romans - so outwardly concerned with morals and duty, but scratch the surface and they were motivated by exactly the same things we are today: money, sex, and power. And they were nowhere near as hypocritical about it as we are!

  7. This is one of the coolest things I've ever learned. Thanks!

    Who knew the classics could be so dirty?

  8. Thanks, Sommer!

    It's kind of refreshing, isn't it, to know that people haven't changed?



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