Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
And let us judge all the rumours of the old men
To be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise:
When that brief light has fallen for us ,
We must sleep a never ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
Then another thousand, then a second hundred,
Then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
We will mix them all up so that we don`t know,
And so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
How many kisses we have shared.
~~ Gaius Valerius Catullus, Carmen 5 ~~
Catullus lived in the twilight days of the Roman Republic; his poetry is obsessed with sex, whether it be consummated to his satisfaction, interrupted, or thwarted. In fact, he is a perfect example of this greatest of all Roman pastimes: Romans saw sex as one of the good things in life; any kind of sex would do. There was no concept of perverted sex in ancient Rome; their psyche was not tainted by the Judeo-Christian concept of guilt, and it`s belief that there is somehow, something “unwholesome” about sex other than for procreation. For the most part, it was an activity which didn`t need privacy; copulation could take place in front of one`s servants, or in a public place. If this attitude worries people today, then it must be stressed that we are all the products of the prevailing social rules; what is right or wrong can change over time, and so the average Roman in the street wouldn`t understand modern social attitudes to sex.
The poetry of Catullus finds it`s roots in the changing world of Roman social intercourse, as the elite looked for new ways to display their pre-eminence. It had become essential to be able to write an elegant letter, voice a malicious witticism, and compliment or snub someone. Traditional Roman patrician virtues such as gravitas, and steadfastness ( constantia) were no longer enough to hack it in the highest social circles of the new chattering classes.
The young woman who was the most persistent target of Catullus`s sexual interest was Clodia Metelli – a dangerous choice of lover. Ten years his senior, she was a legendary heavy drinker, gambler, and eater of men, among whom it was claimed, her own brother. She argued constantly with her powerful husband, and when he suddenly died, everyone suspected her of hastening him on his way by poison. Like so much of Roman society, we shouldn`t assume that the women folk sat at home, meek and mild, while doing a bit of stitching and sowing; women of Clodia`s class were She Wolves of the first order with very strong personalities. For such a woman, Catullus fell totally in love, and showered her with poems, and his undying adulation. Unfortunately, she ditched him in favour of someone else to freshen up her jaded palette. Such is life: Catullus turned his attentions to insulting his rivals in love; bile was also something he was very good at putting down on paper. Those crazy Romans.