One swallow interlude: Lesbia’s sparrow #3

I’m going to hold off my theory about Lesbia’s sparrow and what it means, because it might be an idea to give the context for this, and why people care.

Catullus comforting Lesbia on the death of her sparrow." Antonio Zucchi, 1773.

Catullus comforting Lesbia on the death of her sparrow.” Antonio Zucchi, 1773.

About 2070 years ago, somewhere around 60 BCE, the Roman poet Catullus wrote a book of poems. Quite a few of them were about his lover, who he called “Lesbia”, to disguise her real name. The poems addressed to Lesbia start with the poet besotted, but over the sequence of poems, the poems about arguments and doubts become more frequent, and the last poems he writes about her are only curses and insults.

We know much less about Catullus, and Lesbia, than people used to think.

We do know that Lesbia’s real name was “Clodia”. It used to be assumed that Catullus’s Clodia was the same person as the Clodia who is mentioned in one of Cicero’s court speeches. That speech was mainly an attack on her brother, but Cicero took time out to call Clodia a prostitute, degenerate and general slut.

So people used to treat Catullus’ account of his affair fairly sympathetically: “Of course, if an innocent young man takes up with a woman like that, he’s going to have a hard time. Poor bastard.”

But we don’t really know if Catullus’s Clodia is the same woman as the Clodia that Cicero attacked. But we do know that Cicero was a lawyer, out to win his case by smearing the other side. So we don’t really know if anything Cicero said about his Clodia is true.

So we’re turned back to the poems themselves, which is as it should be. What you get from the poems is that Catullus and Lesbia were lovers, who fell out and separated. Catullus took it hard, and by modern standards he didn’t take it very well. In fact he took it ugly.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for him all the way through, though I think most people forgive him because of his passion, his honesty (of a kind, and within limits), his wit and his readiness to put himself down as well as others.

But the fact is, Catullus is exactly the kind of guy who’d have published revenge porn about Lesbia/Clodia on the net if the technology had been around. “Here’s a photo I took when she was sucking my cock, and here’s one of her wanking for me, and here’s one of her in the bath. And here’s her facebook page and her mother’s email.”

But he couldn’t. So instead he wrote and published poems in which she supposedly stands by the road and fucks passing soldiers for money.

This is a modern statue of Catullus. We have no idea what Catullus really looked like, except that he died at about 30, so he was never as old as this statue seems to be.

This is a modern statue of Catullus. We have no idea what Catullus really looked like, except that he died at about 30, so he was never as old as this statue seems to be.

So: Catullus. He’s hard to defend, except that he wasn’t just a young man (he died when he was about 30), he was a young man 2070 years ago, in a civilisation that wasn’t big on the rights of women, or sensitivity, and that tended to admire revenge. So he was a boy of his time, but he burned brightly, he shone.

He hurt Clodia and Clodia maybe hurt him (maybe, even leaving Cicero out of it). But they’ve all been a long time dead, now.   

Bear with me, please. I’ll finish this aside on Catullus in one or two more posts, and then we can get back to the punishing of Svitlana, and what she thought of having her bottom leathered, on a first date.  

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