Otto Steinmayer: CLASSIC GROUND

One good reason to learn Latin.

[New Straits Times, 30 October 1991]

I'm supposed to be writing here about the classics, Greek (yes) and Latin. I guess I had to get around to talking about the Romans sometime.
The Romans have a reputation of being pretty dull people, a reputation that they to some extent deserve. As a nation they were certainly nowhere as much fun as the Greeks. What are the two enduring creations of the Romans? Civil engineering---they invented poured concrete, useful enough---and Law, about which the less said the better.

You might add to that violent mass entertainment: chariot racing with spectular crashes, and The Games, the Roman equivalent of football, except that the object of play was slice up your opponent before he sliced you up. Fun.

The Romans were, as everybody knows, the expansionists and hegemonists of the ancient world (Alexander the Great notwithstanding; he conquered more for the fun of it than with the thought of actually keeping an empire). As Vergil said, other countries will be better at art, literature, and science,

But you, Roman, remember to rule the nations with command,
these will be your arts, to impose custom on peace,
To spare the subject and break the proud in war...

Rome added Greece to its empire in the 2nd century B.C. Then, as the saying went, "conquered Greece conquered the conquerors." Before that, Roman civilization was vigorous, but a bit lacking in "kulcher." Now that to all intents and purposes the Romans owned the land of culture they went about becoming "kulchered" with their usual energy. Even such a disagreeable old fart as Cato the Elder started to learn Greek in his dotage.

Nearly everything that is refined in Roman civilization, including its poetry, owes its refinement to what the Romans learned from the Greeks. The one exception is the Latin language. Roman writers worked hard, and suceeded in turning their rustic sort of dialect into a smooth and expressive tongue. The same thing happened in English and other languages of Europe.

The chief obstacle to liking Roman literature is the way it is so often tied to Roman superpower ideology. Horace, for example, is a charming lyric poet, a gentle satirist and moralist. But it was the Emperor Augustus who paid him, and these days it is difficult to read the line that so pleased the Emperor, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, "how sweet and beautiful to die for one's country," without feeling slightly sick. General Patton phrased the real truth of it correctly.caesar

Students may still read Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars as their introductory text, as I did, and as generations of British schoolboys did as they were being groomed to become empire builders. The language is clean and the story exciting---but at the age of thirteen one gets wearied with Caesar's massacring French and German tribesmen. The Roman sense of fair play did not extend to barbarian peoples.

How delightful then when I got to the poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus, who commented on this imperialism sourly, when he noticed it, and whose pet name for Julius Caesar was "Prick." Caesar tried to write poetry; Catullus didn't think much of it:

When the attempt on great Parnassus
     was made by Prick,
The Muses tumbled him off
    with little forks.

Catullus was a wealthy young aristocrat who ought, if he had behaved as his relatives probably wanted, to have gone into politics. But Roman politics ten years or so before 50 B.C. were no place for a peaceful man. The only things that interested Catullus were love, poetry, and his friends.

Catullus worked hard at his poetry, he was none of the idle rich. His language owes something to earlier Roman writers, but he seems most to have read the Greek poets of Alexandria, the ancient centre of learning. The great age of Greek poetry was long over by their time. The Alexandrians, several of them Chief Librarians of the Museum there, turned to a new style. The poems they wrote for their friends were clever, polished to the point of preciousness, and packed with learning.

Catullus kept the polish and some of the esoteric feel that you get when writing only for your friends. But the best of his poems come from the heart. He was a man of strong feelings:

I hate and love. Why do I do it? you may ask.
I don't know, but I feel it happen and am tortured.

Catullus fell in love with Clodia, the sister of an unscrupulous radical politician. She was about ten years older than he was. In his poems, he called her Lesbia:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and love.
And the grumbles of strict old people---
Let's value them all at one cent.
Suns can die and return.
When the brief light dies for us,
There's one endless night to be slept.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand, a second hundred,
Then yet another thousand, then a hundred.
Then, when we've made many thousands
We'll mix them up, so we don't know,
And so no bad man can envy us
When he knows how many kisses there are.

Love poetry is not exactly scarce in ancient times, but a romantic passion such as this is rare. Catullus wrote his passion for Lesbia in poems like diamond rings. He translated Sappho for her. He wrote poems for her pet sparrow, and an sad little lament for its death.
Unfortunately, the match between Lesbia and Catullus was a recipe for disaster. We have some gossip about the lady in other writing of the time, a courtroom speech in fact. She was the "most profligate woman in Rome." He loved her; she was just toying with him:

My woman says she prefers to marry nobody
But me, even if Jupiter himself wanted her.
She says: but what a woman says to a desiring lover
She ought to write in wind or rushing water.

When the truth finally got through him, Catullus was shocked and horrified. He tried to push her away with both hands:

Caelius, our Lesbia, that Lesbia,
The one woman Catullus loved
More than himself and all his own,
Now on streetcorners and in alleyways
Does handjobs on the descendants of noble Remus.

and at last, with difficulty, let her go.

Catullus' poems to Lesbia resemble Shakespeare's sonnets. They are our first poetic story of a real love affair. Like a later romantic, Catullus died young, at the age of thirty, though I think rather from malaria than from a broken heart.

This love that had an unhappy end, and the death of his older brother far away darkened Catullus' life, yet most of his 116 poems overflow with a spontaneous pleasure. He had a lot of fun, whether he was writing learned "epic-lets," celebrating his friends' weddings, recalling a good party where they wrote poetry, or teasing his friends for their amusing peccadillos. He was the first of the Roman poets to celebrate his private joys in poetry that may not be grand, but nothing could be more elegant.

A warning: those who have translated Catullus into English so far (except for Louis Zukofsky) seem to think he is some kind of flippant jokester, and force his poems into this trivial image. Hardly. Catullus, like Donne 1600 years later is "not dissolute, but very neat." He's a good reason to learn Latin. Anyone care to try?