Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2018-19: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit V: Republican Rome ca. 200 to 44 B.C.

Week 16: T. Lucretius Carus, ca. 96-55 B.C.;
C. Valerius Catullus, ca. 84-54 B.C.

For this week, please read the following discussion carefully, and then the linked passages from the poets Lucretius and Catullus.

The origins of Latin poetry are uncertain and awkward. The earliest Latin verse is a rough-hewn and unselfconscious native product; but about the time that Rome conquered the eastern half of the Mediterranean, Roman poets clearly became overawed, even intimidated, by the achievement of the Greeks. The remainder of the Roman poetic tradition — the Latin poetic tradition down to the Middle Ages — was demonstrably conducted in the shadow of Greek poetry. The forms, principles of versification, even the traditionally appropriate subject matters — all were derivative of Greek models. It is perhaps a measure of Roman determination that, at its best, this program succeeded as well as it did, and that, in an apparent attempt to achieve the level of their Greek predecessors, the greatest of the Latin poets wound up creating something new and dynamic. Though the first examples were rude and mechanical, full of uncomprehending imitation of Greek models, by sometime in the first century B. C., Roman poetry seems to have come into its own. The Latin poetry of the next hundred years or so represents the peak of the Roman poetic achievement, and it embraces a variety of authors working in a range of possible forms. Seldom as spontaneous and free as their models, these works nevertheless achieved a level of control and precision that has seldom been surpassed in the poetry of any language, and a level of steady introspection in the midst of doubt that is characteristically Roman.

Turbulent flow of water, Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Photograph © Copyright 2010, Bruce A. McMenomy

Turbulent flow of water from a fountain, Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Lucretius believed that all perceptible material forms were caused by the collisions of atoms falling through space. Photograph © Copyright 2010, Bruce A. McMenomy

Two distinct strands from the Hellenistic poetic tradition emerge in the Latin imitations as well. The first is a deliberately archaizing tendency — often identified with the Hellenistic poet Appollonius Rhodius, whose Argonautica was in some ways an attempt to recover the poetic voice of Homeric epic. That this was impossible probably goes without saying: the pure transparency of Homer cannot be copied self-consciously. Nevertheless, the product was unique in its synthesis of old voices with new perspectives. The second strand is represented by the Hellenistic poet Callimachus, who claimed that long poems were no longer valid forms of expression, and that the true poet should rather concentrate on the small form, full of highly concentrated poetic expression, executed with perfect control. These two opposing schools contend in Latin verse, until they are effectively merged in the work of Vergil. Prior to Vergil’s day, however, there were two great poets, contemporaries of Cicero and Caesar, who represent these separate schools.

The philosopher Epicurus. Paris, Musˇe du Louvre. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomyThe first is T. Lucretius Carus (Lucretius), whose De rerum natura is an exposition of the Epicurean philosophy. Despite its rather dull stated agenda, and the unlikely program of expressing this in the form of Roman epic, it is nevertheless a vigorous poem in the archaic mold, filled with old words, formal (and sometimes stilted) diction, and exceptionally striking imagery — all in defense of an atomic and materialistic theory of reality. The excerpts here from Book I contain his attempts to dismiss all forms of religion, and his passionate and lyrical description of the by-now familiar material surrounding the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis, as well as his explanation of why an atomic universe should preclude the existence — or at least the relevance — of the gods.

Depicted here: the Greek atomist and materialist philosopher Epicurus, on whose work Lucretius was relying. Paris, Musée du Louvre. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomy

As you read this poem, consider:

The second is C. Valerius Catullus (Catullus), who attempted to follow the lead of Callimachus. In Rome such poets called themselves “Neoteric” poets (i.e., poets of the new school). Catullus’ poetry was earthy, immediate, and often free of the trappings of particularly “poetic” diction: he often used the street language of his day (and some of his poetry is quite crude). Nevertheless, he was a master craftsman of uncompromising standards, and his poems are among the most immediate and human products surviving from the first century B. C. — surpassed in immediacy only by the epistles of Cicero.

Unlike the archaizing poets, the Neoteric poets of the Callimachean school were opposed to writing epic on principle. This manifested itself in two particular ways: first, the recusatio, or “denial” poem, in which the poet declines an invitation to write an epic (usually, along the way, exhibiting his ability to handle the material in a small scope); the second is the epyllion or “baby epic”, a poem of about 300-500 lines — short by epic standards, but long for lyric — dealing with material of an epic type, but in a very small scope. Usually it is focused on a single incident or a small set of incidents. How widely this form was practiced is still debated, but it seems that Catullus was attempting to do just this in his poem 64, included among your selections here. Among the features of the epyllion that you can observe in C. 64 are:

As you read this poem in particular, consider:

While reading the other poems of Catullus, consider:

Wedding of Ariadne and Dionysus

Depicted here: Wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne; they embrace in a cart drawn by panthers; cupid, silenus, satyr in partial view of procession. Via Appia, Rome, 110-130 AD. Berlin, Pergamon Museum. Credits: Ann Raia, 2005. Used courtesy of VRoma.