Literary essay: Catullus 49



Disertissime Romuli nepotum,

quot sunt quotque fuere, Marce Tulli,

quotque post aliis erunt in annis,

gratias tibi maximas Catullus

agit pessimus omnium poeta,

tanto pessimus omnium poeta,

quanto tu optimus omnium patronus.


The poem is very much empty of meaning at first glance, given that only the middle line (v.4) forms the main clause, while the rest three and three verses on either side just characterize the two persons involved in the thanksgiving, i.e. the receptor (Cicero) and the giver (Catullus). Although simple, the poem is excessively loaded of meaning by dint of ambiguity.

The first three lines form a polished and hyperbolic tricolon crescendo with the verbs moving from present to past and then future, very much in the refined tradition of Alexandrian lyric. Although pessimus omnium poeta in verse 5 does not allow for double entendre, it could be an example of the self-deprecating technique of a humblebrag, which Catullus also uses in his first poem, to Cornelius, when talking about his nugas. The last two verses are deceptive in meaning, for it is not a straightforward description of best lawyer and worse poet, but an inverse relationship: tanto... quanto. It is here where the reader asks himself if the whole poem is a praise, or rather an irony in which Catullus sarcastically humiliates Cicero. If Cicero is the best patronus, then Catullus is indeed the worst poet, but it could also be the other way around. Omnium in verse 7 is also ambiguous, for it could go either with optimus ("best of all lawyers") or with patronus ("best lawyer of all [clients]"). Also, the motive for the thanksgiving raises some questions, for we know that Catullus and Cicero knew each other and moved around the same social circles, so the motive could be personal. Nonetheless, there are reasons to suspect that it was due to a certain speech or defense. It could be Cicero's "Pro Caelio", in which the orator criticizes Clodia -who is commonly associated to the imaginary Lesbia- and accuses her of committing incest. If this were the case, the argued irony of the poem would be reinforced.

Lastly, with regards to the orderly distribution of the poems, 49 is connected to poem 50. Not only do they work as an orator-poet contrast, but also the people that are mentioned were historically related. Licinius was apparently the prosecutor against Vatinius, who had been defended by Cicero. This, again, loads the poem even further.