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Introduction to Catullus 64

by Thomas Banks

Translation copyright 1997 by Thomas Banks. All rights reserved.

Biographical scholarship on Catullus is inferential, often speculative. It tells us usually that he was born in the 80s BCE and lived about thirty years; that he grew up in northern Italy in a family prominent enough to host Julius Caesar; that he had a scandalous romance in Rome; that he was well known for innovation, even revolution, in poetic forms. Today, though--whatever the biographical truth--his surviving art is not speculative but in our hands. Catullus, whoever he was to the lovers and friends and enemies his poems address, wrote this poem and we have it.

The poem assumes its readers know the common myth of the Trojan War and the common myth of Theseus and Ariadne. It retells the myths (selectively, often obliquely) with sophisticated, mock-naive compression and irony. The outline of the poem is a structure of "ring-composition"--that is, a pattern of symmetrical balances, well known in epic poems. A general overview, which readers can easily elaborate further, would appear like this:

        Dawn of the Heroic Age

                Wedding day of Peleus and Thetis--human commoners

                        Wedding bed and its cover

                                Ariadne--won and abandoned by Theseus

                                        Flashback--Theseus in Crete

                                                The curse of Ariadne

                                        Flashback--Theseus in Athens

                                Ariadne--taken by Dionysus

                        Wedding bed and its cover

                Wedding Day of Peleus and Thetis--gods and their prophecy

        Murk of the Iron Age

 

This form of allusive miniature epic (which later times would call an "epyllion") is itself--exactly by being a self-conscious and miniature epic--a statement of rebellion against the unreflective "heroic" traditions that the poem seems in its irony to celebrate. The irony of structure is woven with, in the Latin, irony of image, sound, and words of praise.

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