The Latin poet Catullus, an acquaintance of Julius Caesar, lived thirty years or longer between 84 BC and no later than 32 BC (on shaky evidence many say 54 BC). Other ancient writers quote isolated phrases and mention works of his that are now lost. When the Western Roman Empire fell everything Catullan disappeared from public view until many of his poems reappeared at about AD 1290-1310 in Verona, Italy. These were in a badly garbled manuscript (called ‘V’ for Verona) that was copied only twice and then disappeared again. Petrarch saw this manuscript or a copy. Some of the poems read as if they could have been part of a stand-up comedy act at a raucous Roman dinner party among friends, and perhaps they were. Some could have been acted out by silent performers as mimes while the poems were recited to music.
Among the poems we have are lovely lyrics, obscene attacks on Julius Caesar and his friends, screams of rage, a hilarious poem on snobbish mispronunciation, a poem about a dubiously intoxicating perfume (‘cenabis bene…’), sarcasm, very explicit pieces about oral and other odours and oral sex of several sorts, bodily elimination, some ostensibly gay poems, and boastful threats of homosexual aggression. There is even a poem about a legendary madman (Attis) who castrates himself and dresses as a revelling woman, a Bacchant, and later regrets it while desperately fleeing for his life from divine punishment. About this poem (number 63), it is important to observe that it has some secondary plot parallels with the ‘Bona Dea’ scandal that arose out of the behaviour of the youngest brother of the woman Catullus loved deeply, ‘Lesbia’. Further, it seems reasonable that Catullus’s artistic reflection of the ‘Bona Dea’ sacrilege in poem 63 made his writings more valuable to some pagan religious figures at thetime. In any case, the granularity, if you will, of the obscenity in Catullus exceeds that of many other surviving texts. How did these get to Verona?
Fans of well-made poetry know that Catullus experienced an apparently agonising connection with a woman called Clodia. Catullus fell in love with her but she soon spurned him, although poem 107 (‘a pleasure more precious than gold, that you, Lesbia, restore yourself to me who longed for you …’) and poem 109 indicate a reconciliation. Catullus called her ‘Lesbia’ in his work, partly to disguise her in a relationship that started out as an adulterous one, partly to distinguish her from her sisters who had very similar names before marriage and partly to advertise her knowledge of earlier poetry. It was a headline reference to Sappho, who was born six hundred years earlier on the Greek island of Lesbos and who spent much of her life there, apart from an exile in Syracuse, Sicily. Catullus wrote several poems in a poetic meter of Sappho’s that he wanted his ‘Lesbia’ to appreciate, including one that many think is a fine Latin translation of one of Sappho’s best fragments.
Catullus wrote that Clodia was beautiful but not statuesque, with a charming nose, slender fingers and small feet. Her ancestry was patrician for centuries, and she was familiar with the three or four hundred people who made up the elite of Rome. Clodia knew, and was known by, every other important woman in Rome, including the Vestal Virgins, one of whom was in her father’s family. His elder half-sister, Claudia (born roughly 163 BC), was a vestal. Claudia might have lived long enough for Clodia to have spent time as a young child with the priestess, who would have been about seventy years older. (Top Roman women could be durable: Livia, born about this time and the third wife of Emperor Augustus, reached eighty- seven after delivering several of his children.)
Clodia’s family of origin (the Claudii) seems to have been severely divided. One group of three brothers were successful politicians and leaders in the conventional sense: two were Consuls, and one a Proconsul. However, her youngest brother, Publius ‘Clodius’, early on became a focus for rebellion within their own family, eventually respelling the clan name (Claudius) in the Umbrian or Sabine form as Clodius. In alliance with ‘Lesbia’ and two of her sisters, young Publius produced a whirl of political intrigue with accusations of sibling incest. For Publius, this brew also included mob violence. Metellus Celer, who many think was the husband of Clodia, threatened to murder Publius himself if Publius kept on making trouble. But Metellus Celer died abruptly in 59 BC …
Publius impulsively created a major scandal that rocked the relations between Clodia’s family and the Vestal Virgins. He was put on trial for his life after he sneaked into a forbidden women’s religious festival for the Bona Dea (the ‘Good Goddess’) that the Vestal Virgins presided over. It was being held at Julius Caesar’s house since he was Pontifex Maximus, the head of Rome’s priests and priestesses. Publius came dressed as a woman celebrating the goddess’s sacred rites. His reason for doing this was to seduce the wife of Julius Caesar while Caesar was away for that night. Eyewitness evidence at his trial revealed that Publius had previously slept with one of his married sisters while her husband was heading an army in the eastern Mediterranean. Publius escaped punishment because the jury was both intimidated by threats from roughnecks loyal to Publius, and bribed by powerful politicians to mark their ballots illegibly.
Despite some evidence of mutual support and affection between Clodia and Publius, Clodia (and her sisters) must have been embarrassed by his trial. Until Publius himself was killed at last in a political gang war on the Appian Way (probably after Catullus’s death), much of Clodia’s life seems to have been a wild balancing act with (and between) her powerful brothers, armed political factions, and lovers (although Catullus was not powerful), and at times she might have briefly lost her bearings. Still, amid the uproar and her possible intermittent periods of self-abandonment on Rome’s streets (poem 58), Catullus’s Clodia might have found supportive friendship in the off-limits island of endurance, relative stability and womanly understanding of various Vestal Virgins, some of whom would have remembered her father’s half-sister, the vestal Claudia.
In Poem One of his hand-written collection, Catullus dedicates his work to two figures. The first is Cornelius Nepos, a history writer who had praised Catullus. The other is an unidentified woman to whom Catullus appeals with the words ‘o patrona virgo’. Catullus calls on her in the same breath that he begs that his works might ‘endure more than one century’. (Among my roughly twenty Latin Catullus texts with notes or translations, the best that anyone has done with that is to say that the patrona virgo is the poet’s ‘patroness’, ‘special muse’ or ‘personal Muse’ – whatever those mean.)
Every bit of writing we have from the classical world has had its own unique history. Some books survived in quantity; Catullus survived in only one copy. Catullus refers to half a dozen contemporary poets like himself whose works have vanished except for a few words. Why did they disappear? The short answer is that their works lacked the advocacy of later emperors, and when the papyrus scrolls of these poets eventually fell to pieces not enough people hand copied their contents into more durable book-shaped codices that had parchment-leather or papyrus pages. Although a codex was tougher, it too would get mouldy, fade, wear out, or be scraped bare for later reuse. Catullus and his friends wrote at the very end of the era when Roman speech was still free. This meant Catullus did not benefit from the imperial coddling and control that surrounded Horace and Virgil as politics consolidated under Augustus in the next generation. Either too rebellious or too obscene, Catullus was never taught in Roman schools like Virgil, Terence or Cicero, so the statistical chance of a text surviving was much lower.
A big change in literary taste came with the anti-pagan swing of universal Christianity. Scrolls that undermined the Church generally failed to get copied. It was laborious to copy something, and someone had to want to recopy the material. Of course, artistic eroticism and obscenity retained their clandestine appeal, but fewer pre-Christian writings survived as the centuries passed. In Western Europe, most preservation took place in monasteries with little privacy and limited parchment resources for texts that had to be hidden from some other monks. Older codices inevitably decayed, and later copyists sometimes had to guess at what the damaged writing said; errors accumulated with each new generation of copies. Often copying had to be done one letter at a time because of the widespread late Roman habit of dropping all spaces between words. (Some have speculated that this oddity was to obscure the meaning and to discourage casual reading by the less educated.) It was not always obvious exactly what a text meant, and a certain amount of illegibility and confusion could protect a well-cloaked problematic book for a long time. In 1829 a misfiled secondary copy of the ‘V’ manuscript was located in the Vatican Library.
The scroll text that would march forth finally to appear as the Verona codex could have started out in one of four basic ways and each requires that the text weather nine hundred years of monastic manuscript preservation during the triumph of medieval Christianity.
The first possibility involves Cornelius Nepos, the man to whom Catullus dedicated his manuscript. Cornelius Nepos might have had Catullus’s gift scroll (or scrolls) recopied. We do not have any idea what Cornelius Nepos did with the copy he was given, or if he put it anywhere for safekeeping.
The second possibility is that the Verona text originated in a Roman bookseller’s scroll that was preserved through an unknown lineage of copyists. Catullus doubtless arranged for extras to be made when he had his work published. To the extent that Catullus was a popular or notorious author, merchants would have had their own copyists produce more examples to sell. The popular later poet, Martial, traded on the reputation of Catullus by recycling some of the same names that Catullus employed – including ‘Lesbia’ – and there must have been Catullan texts circulating in the days of the early emperors, but we know nothing certain about them.
Possibility three involves Catullus’s relatives. Catullus was born into a north Italian business family successful enough to have entertained Julius Caesar overnight when he travelled. T. P. Wiseman of the University of Exeter and Christian Settipani of the Sorbonne and Oxford have found that after Catullus died his extended family continued to flourish and grew very wealthy near Verona. Solid evidence exists for direct relatives there up to two hundred years after the poet’s birth, and we know that a single odd ‘Catullus Valerius’ was born in AD 235. There is a top-notch reason to think that someone in Verona preserved some poems. In the year 966 a Christian bishop in Verona reported finding and reading Catullus’s poem 62 that is about the mythological marriage of Peleus and Thetis.
A fourth possibility is a ‘literary will’ for Catullus. This could be the most important possibility because of its indirect effects, even if it did not produce the exact progenitor of the Verona codex. The most likely reason for Catullus to have written o patrona virgo in Poem One at the start of his prayer for permanence is that he wanted concrete help from a patrona virgo of some sort.
Catullus needed a will. He used accounting terminology and language that shows that he was a businessman as well as a poet. After his father and brother died it fell on Catullus to manage at least part of the family finances; for this reason alone Catullus would have registered a formal will in the event of his death to protect the large family property near Verona where he was born. Copies of wills were stored in archives at multiple locations, including Rome.
If there was any institution that pagan Romans respected, it was the half dozen senior Vestal Virgins. Not only were they untouchable religious figures, they sometimes served as custodians of Rome’s important state documents, wills and treaties. The vestal temple in the Forum was a smallish structure that sheltered a ceremonial hearth, and it is unlikely that any vestal lived there. However, from time to time locations known to the vestals were repositories used by the power elite.
For example, Suetonius, in his The Twelve Caesars, writes that after Julius’s assassination in 44 BC ‘Caesar’s will, which he had drafted six months before at his villa near Lavicum, and entrusted to the safekeeping of the chief Vestal, was unsealed and read in Antony’s house’. Again, regarding the will written by Augustus, who was Caesar’s successor: ‘The Vestal Virgins to whose safekeeping he had entrusted these documents now produced them, as well as three rolls, also sealed by him. All were opened and read in the [Senate] House,’ (translations by Robert Graves).
What did it mean to be a virgin in Rome? In the pre-Christian Rome of Catullus and ‘Lesbia’, an important adult virgin was understood to be a Vestal. A generation later the poet Horace surmised that his own work would be read as long as the ‘pontiff climbs the Capitol with the silent Virgin’ (the chief Vestal).
Was there a meeting of minds between star-crossed lovers? Catullus’s poems indicate that he had at least one reconciliation with Clodia. Perhaps she made peace with the sincere passion in his poems. He clearly wanted to marry her and wrote the ornate marriage poem that aligns with this goal (poem 62). Alas, in the end, her needs did not match his. Yet, as the two reconciled, what would Clodia have said if Catullus had asked her to help persuade a vestal to include his poems along with a very small property will? Everyone in society knew that many of these sweet and stinging poems were about her explicitly or otherwise – and that a vestal could preserve them indefinitely.
There is no hint of any friction between the Vestal Virgins and Catullus, and I suggest that Catullus with Clodia asked a Vestal Virgin as a favour to take a set of his poems into vestal custody along with a short will. There also could have conceivably been a religious interest for the community of the vestals, since parts of Catullus’s poem on Attis seem to resonate with Publius’s disastrous Bona Dea blasphemy.
If my estimate of Catullus’s intent in writing ‘o patrona virgo’ is correct, I doubt that any vestal needed much convincing. The poems are either beautiful, funny or outrageously raunchy, and altogether remarkable. If stored at a private location known to the chief Vestal or even in the Temple, they were probably read now and then – vestals needed a giggle like anyone else – and eventually copied into a codex that could have lasted well over four hundred years until the temple was closed in 391 by the fiercely Christian emperor, Theodosius. The last chief Vestal, Coelia Concordia, was converted to Christianity after the temple closed. Perhaps she or another vestal took a copy of Catullus, if one had been deposited somewhere with them, and routed it to a friendly religious authority who could salt away its sometimes lovely yet sometimes remarkably lewd content. But even if a copy that might (or might not) have been in the care of the vestals did not survive Theodosius, the words (o patrona virgo) which Catullus put in Poem One surely made it easier for later medieval Christian copyists to store other examples of the same manuscript.
Patrona virgo: a happy coincidence? Clearly, Catullus’s ardent words requesting permanence and protection from his patrona virgo were aimed at a pre-Christian individual, and I strongly suspect that this was a Vestal Virgin. Just as important, I am persuaded that even if no copy directly descended from vestal custody reached Verona, these words helped preserve the text in later Christian monastic environments by allowing the pre-Christian patrona virgo to be superficially assimilated to the figure of the Virgin Mary under the eyes of untroubled library visitors wherever copies existed. Is this any less probable than the remarkable fact that we have any of Catullus’s sometimes quite gross material at all (poem 97, for
example)? Sometime around the years 1290-1310 in Verona, Italy, the badly garbled codex ‘V’ came to light. Doubts exist whether it came from the giant monastery of Saint Michael in Tours, France, or whether it had been near Verona all along, but Catullus and Clodia were back. Since then scholars have laboured over the material for seven hundred years.
(Basia, Lesbos and Speculative Etymology: Whenever I read poem number 5, ‘Da me basia …’ [Give me kisses …] I recall that Catullus was the first person to put the word basia in writing. Educated Romans of both sexes knew that a Greek verb used by Aristophanes for oral sex was ‘lesbiazein’. Dare I suggest that there might have been unattested forms of this Greek word used among elite Romans, and that the first ‘le-’ sound in these forms might have eroded over time? Perhaps the meanings of the loan words could have broadened and softened beyond those of their Greek source. If so, such a transitional word could have been the source for Catullus’s word basia, since the sounds of several of the grammatical suffixes in Clodia’s upper-class accent would somewhat resemble the sound of basia.)