Catullus 97

Catullus 98

Two Very Dirty Poems

This is one of the experimental poems in which Catullus toys with the far edge of acceptable diction, it seems as an effort to break away from the trite atmosphere of Hellenistically inspired versification, and elicit what we might consider a 'gut reaction' to dirty words appearing before your eyes on a page of "poetry". The high cultural tone of much Latin poetry must have worn thin after a time, inviting a return to the language of the body, its smell and touch, and of course sex. The preservation of throughout the Empire of Plautine comedy as retained in copies for Roman readership does give us some sense of what Roman speech patterns might have been like. The farmyard, the small town forum, the barn and the frank barnyard talk - - - these hardly showed in the pages of the formal literature.

Had Latin writing in the middle Republic years not sucked so heavily at the mists rising above Mt. Helicon, we might have had a different secondary Roman Literature standing beside that of the Hellenistic Renaissance. The farmyard scene known to Plautus, Ennius and Cato could have generated a literature of its own, without the smoothing hand of a Terence on the editorial board. The rough texture of early Satire of which we have in bits here and there, might have given us a picture of the Oscan back-country, with a directness of speech which we find later only in the extravagantized parties of Petronius. Traces of a native style can be found in Horace's Satires and perhaps in Juvenal, but nothing really at ground level, and Roman Literature is always largely 'formal' in style but also in spirit. Had we all the Greek sources, we might not be so interested in studying our Latin writing in such researched detail.

But in his so-called obscene poems, Catullus takes a double path. On the one hand he uses body words in their most disgusting senses, with a full palette from one end of the human anatomy to the other, always connecting some body part to a bad smell, to a disgusting excrescence, or a gagging reflect triggered by an open mouth with an exploratory tongue. But on the other hand, he calls up the social images of the manure spreader or "shit cart", the mill-house which was used as a work-jail for criminals, and the executioner with his torture chamber. And now putting these discrepant elements all together under the single rubric of a poem about his 'friend' Aemilius, he adds the final item to hold it all together: Aemilius fancies himself as a dandy, he is a great girl-fucker, and . . . . he can get away with it!

This package of assorted tidbits is neatly assembled in Poem 97 which is a scant dozen line long. Because it is so formidable in its intentional dirtiness of theme and word, we might not notice that it has one line at #10 which does not make sense at all, a line where I am going to propose an emendation to the text. But let us look at the poem itself first:

Catullus XCVII
Non (ita me di ament) quicquam referre putaui,
utrumne os an culum olfacerem Aemilio.
nilo mundius hoc, niloque immundius illud,
uerum etiam culus mundior et melior:
nam sine dentibus hic: dentis os sesquipedalis,
gingiuas uero ploxeni habet ueteris,
praeterea rictum qualem diffissus in aestu
meientis mulae cunnus habere solet.
hic futuit multas et se facit esse uenustum,
et non pistrino traditur atque asino? 10
quem siqua attingit, non illam posse putemus
aegroti culum lingere carnificis?

Years ago when I was a student this would have been forbidden text and never considered for translation. Mid-century there were actual laws against obscene publications, which the Harvard University Press LOEB series of Greek and Latin literature had to consider. The obscene poems of Martial in the old Loeb were actually translated, but into Italian as a questionably more tolerant language, which made it easy for a student find the interesting passages by leafing through the volume. But by the Millennium, everything was out in public. Words you could not find in l950 in an English dictionary were appearing on evening TV, and frank if loose translations of Catullus had started to appear all over the Internet. In this new spirit of relaxed standards, I can go ahead with a new version of Poem 97:

So help me god, I can't tell the difference
whether I sniff at Aemilius' mouth or at his ass.
The one is not cleaner and the other not dirtier.
Actually the asshole may be cleaner and nicer in the end,
at least it has no teeth, the mouth has long fang ones,
with the gums of an old manure-loaded shit wagon,
and a foul odor which the pissing cunt
of a mule in heat is often likely to have.
Well, he fancies himself a beauty, fucks many a lady
yet is not sent to the mill-jail as a working ass. 10
If any girl touches him, wouldn't we think her ready
to lick the ass of a sick torture-chamber executioner ?

I have on and off over the years, had this poem in the back of my mind. It was way back in l955 when my doctoral professor Joshua Whatmough was at Berkeley under the Sather Fellowship, that I came over from my office at Stanford to see him and hear his Sather Lecture on Latin Poetry. After the lecture we walked around a bit, until he inquired where the Mens Room was, adding as he read the letters MEN over the door "unde omnes cogimur". You would have to know your Horace well to get the full sense of this capped quotation.

In the Sather Lecture he discussed the use of rare or hapax words in poetry as an intentional way of fixing focus on that specific moment in the poem. This use has been used by modern poets following Ezra Pound as a common device, but it had not been documented in Roman Poetry. Whatmough went through numerous examples of rare wordings with his usual witty commentary, until he came to Catullus 97, which had the rare Gaulish word "ploxenum", which he translated as "night soil cart" rather than " manure wagon" or as we now say over here "shit spreader". For Whatmough as a boy raised in North England in the first years of the 20th century, the mention of manure would not have been forbidden, but I wondered how at the time he passed so easily over the rest of the poem. I suppose this was in l955 and he knew where to stop at an academic lecture in the then still conservative Berkeley atmosphere.

Now some good fifty years later, I think to myself that if my old professor could touch this odoriferous word as embedded in an ill-smelling and worse-tasting poem, without dirtying his hand, I can do my part by trying to clean up the text of the poem to make it less offensive textually.

I must note that the words line 10 do not make sense.

hic futuit multas et se facit esse uenustum,
et non pistrino traditur atque asino? 10

"fine fucker and dandy that he thinks he is
he is not (yet?) turned over to the prison AND a work-animal

The reading with "atque" would mean: "He is not turned over to the jail AND the donkey." Sending him to jail for conviction on possible charges of fornication and more importantly on sure charges of personal delusion, is a good suggestion. But sending him to Jail is one thing, sending him also TO the donkey does not fit. The donkey works the grinding mill in the jail, you do not send him to the donkey. And if you are sending him to jail, for a donkey, then the 'atque' as 'and' does not fit. It is this oddly placed word 'atque' which is causing all the trouble.

In line 10, I propose an emendation of the meaningless word "atque" to be changed to "utque".

It is curious that this word "utque" is not in the OLD dictionary, but it is used (not as serial ut. . . ut que) by as acceptable a poet as Vergil with the increasingly frequent meaning of "as" in the late books of the Aeneid. [8.3 10.454 11.513 11.751 11.838 12.129 12.833]. This is different from his earlier repetitive use of "ut. . . .. . ut que" which is quite different.

Here the word "utque" is used with the familiar grammatical Double Dative construction e.g. : Do librum illi dono (to him. . . as an gift), where English would take the gift as a second direct object, not as a dative. So using this construction, I believe the proper translation would be:

"He is turned over to the mill-jail. . . . for/as a work donkey". In other words after being sentenced to the mill-jail as a place for convicted criminals, he is further specified as a replacement for the donkey which is attached to a beam turning the mill wheel for grinding grain. "Into the jail. . . . .as a working ass. . ."


In these last years Catullus has emerged once again as a interesting author to read for personal pleasure, as the ubiquitous new listings on the Internet show. In a literary world where Silius Italicus' huge Latin epics stand untouched on the library shelves beside those of Velleius Paterculus, the dust hardly moved by a curious reader who pulls out a volume of Statius once in a while, Catullus is alive and well. Yes, there is a real Catullus revival, and it is all the more interesting because the Latin text of Catullus which barely survived in a single medieval manuscript, is still replete with passages which call out for emendation, along with myriad emendations which now have to be emended themselves. This makes an ancient text all the more interesting, being mutilated it seems a little more likely for resuscitation.

Since Catullus is now also widely used in the high schools, it is important for the teacher who dares to let his students peer into the Roman dirty literature, to be able to present along with the obscene words not found in a school dictionary, at least a textually clean version. Many hands are now working toward this end.

Poem 98

But the same approach doesn't work in the case of Poem 98 which is always mentioned along with Poem 97 as one of the indecent ones. It is much simpler in construction, it concentrates on an olfactory matter which smart American advertisers, who coined the name B. O. for Bad Breath in the '30s, turned into a social obsession and a major economic business. Swallow an aromatic pill before you kiss, don't raise your arms in any salutation or your will reveal ''underarm odor'', and as to the inferior regions use any one of the hundred powders, deodorants or medicines specially suited to the feminine trade. A bad whiff or a bad breath can cost a job or a bonus.

Here is the Latin of this strange poem:

In te, si in quemquam, dici pote, putide Victi,
id quod uerbosis dicitur et fatuis.
ista cum lingua, si usus ueniat tibi, possis
culos et crepidas lingere carpatinas.
si nos omnino uis omnes perdere, Victi,
5 hiscas: omnino quod cupis efficies.

Notes: MS have Victi (Victius). Haupt long ago suggested Vitti, Statius even longer ago read Vetti, being aware of the well known informer Lucius Vettius mentioned by Cicero (Ad Att. II 24 and In Vat. X 24) as the informer who brought false charges against the younger Curio in 59 BC, the year in which Vettius died. Cicero sarcastically calls him "ille noster iudex" or 'our' secret informer. The fact that the spelling Victius / Vittius is different can come from Cicero's usual dictation of his documents to stenographer Tiro; or it can be from a long and insecure manuscript tradition. Crepidae are Greek sandals with thongs as used in Greek comedy, an affection at Rome, and carpatinae "leathern" is a rare word just transliterated from the Greek.

Stinky Vettius, it can be said against you if anyone,
what is said of blabbermouths and fools,
with your tongue, if you can still use it, you can
lick assholes and stinking hippie sandals too.
If you want to kill us, Vettius, you can just
yawn straight open. That will do what you want.

This is a weak poem, no match for the verbally cutting Poem 97. The only question is why this poem is here at all. Is it an early poem included out of respect for the poet, or a draft for something never finished? These suggestions are unlikely since the collection of Catullus' poetry does show care in its distribution of various verse formats and types. Why should this lame duck be here attracting our scholarly attention. . . . . and it seems in vain?

Following this association, which places Victius/ Vettius in the poem as an informer, as one of the most detested of Roman occupations, we see another possibility for the poem. The words stinking, verbose and stupid are all suitable to this profession of the informer, and if the tongue it still in operating condition (i.e. not for pay in a court proceeding) you can use it to lick the ass and sandals of those who use Greek style affected stage footwear. I said hippie for old sandals with thongs up the leg which appeared as a mark in l960 of the new freedom. Romans would know who wore the Greek style stage sandals in public, unfortunately we do not.

The Informer in l950

Let me rewrite the situation in terms which happen to be parallel to something that happened in mid-century America. During the McCarthy anti-communist proceedings, a former Communist spy now turned informer got from his former friend Alger Hiss who was also a spy, a set of secret film from a hollowed out pumpkin in Hiss's Maryland farm. Chambers, the 'iudex' or Informer was praised for his snitching, but his testimony was largely false. Hiss went to jail for a few years on a charge of perjury, but is now believed by many to have been the victim of a McCarthy plot approved by Richard Nixon. With this parallel background, we can recast Catullus poem 98 speculatively as follows;

"Stinking spy Chambers, against you, if anyone
what is said of blabbermouths and fools, says
you can with your evil tongue (if you can still use it)
go kiss McCarthy's ass and lick the pumpkin patch Maryland dirt off the sole of your gumshoe sneakers.
But if you want to kill us, you can stretch wide open
your mouth at us. The stink will do the trick"

Someone at some future time may possibly find more about Vettius , what he did and why he is here in this odd piece of poetic satire. Or we may never get to the truth, and that may be one part of our fascination for the poetry of Catullus. He amuses our mind with his striking and alive wording, while he continues to tease our imagination with the things which we probably cannot ever know.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College