Catullus was a Roman poet in the 1st century BCE. His poems were known for being differently written from what his contemporaries were writing at the time. While others were writing more “manly” poetry, about their sexual conquests, Catullus was less racy in his writings. In his “Poem 1”, Catullus is dedicating his new poetry to a man named Cornelius. While not a love poem like he usually wrote, “Poem 1” shows several aspects of Roman culture and gives us a glimpse of how Romans tried to make a lasting impression on the world of the future.
In “Poem 1”, Catullus is simply dedicating his new poetry to Cornelius. He says that Cornelius “had the habit of making much of my poetic little”, which seems as if Catullus is saying that Cornelius made his poetry more of a big deal than it was worth. This may mean that Cornelius was very excited to be reading Catullus’ poetry, implying that the two were friends, or that Cornelius was just an admirer of Catullus’. This is reinforced by the next line which states, “… the first in Italy, were boldly unfolding all past ages in three volumes… . In Rome, at this point in history, preserving one’s legacy was a very important task to undertake. It was on the mind of most every notable Roman.
Whether it was through great acts committed in the name of Rome or through great works of literature, everyone wanted to be remembered far down the line. What we see in Catullus’ “Poem 1” is this notion of eternal preservation. Catullus says that he will give his new collection to Cornelius and that he hopes that, “for the sake of its patron may it survive a century or better. This shows the Roman preoccupation with the preservation of their legacy. Catullus’ poem may also show the Roman idea of amicitia, or friendship. In Rome, friendship could be an actual friendship, where those involved have a sort of admiration and respect for each other, or a circle of favors where one Roman would do a favor for another. It is possible that Catullus says that he will dedicate this poem to Cornelius as a return of a favor that Cornelius did for Catullus or in order for Cornelius to does him a favor later down the line.
But it seems more likely, based on the way that he writes, that Cornelius and Catullus are good friends and Catullus is preserving his friend’s name at the same time as he is trying preserve his own and to secure his legacy. The poem is ambiguous in the fact that it does not come right out and say whether Catullus is being sarcastic with his words. As stated earlier, it seems that the relationship between Catullus and Cornelius is one of friendship. However, there is room for interpretation towards the sarcastic side of Catullus’ writing.
It could be that Cornelius is a critic of Catullus, who tries to make little of his great works of literature. The dedication could actually be a jab at Cornelius if he is in fact a critic of Catullus’ writing. Catullus has used his poems to attack his critics before, as in “Poem Sixteen”. He used his poetry to attack two critics, Aurelius and Furius, who were criticizing Catullus’ less than masculine writing style. These aspects of Roman culture, the preservation of legacies and the concept of amicitia, are shown not only in Catullus’ work, but also in other writings from the time.
Many letters from Cicero to various correspondents show the value of amicitia, both the true friendship and the circle of favors that were both part of this friendship. When he writes to and about Tiro, it is shown that there will be an exchange of favors as Cicero has recently freed Tiro, who was his servant. In exchange, Tiro will be indebted to Cicero and will have to perform a service for him later to repay this favor. The preservation of legacies is apparent in other readings by Catullus as well. In “Poems 68 and 101”, Catullus uses his poetry to preserve the legacy of other men.
He tells us of a friend of his named Allius and of his brother. This man, Allius, aided Catullus after the death of Catullus’ brother. He offered him a home to stay under and the mistress of the house to take care of him. This poem also exemplifies the Roman favor system. In repayment for his aid to Catullus, Allius’ legacy was preserved in “Poem 68”. Catullus’ brother was also preserved in these poems. He tells us of the grief that he feels in the wake of his brother’s death, and by doing so tells us of his brother. Catullus was a very strange writer to read.
His poems could vary in subject matter from his obsession over Lesbia, to attacking his critics, to how he has writer’s block after the death of his brother. However, his poems did accomplish one of the most important of Roman goals. He was remembered. And through our remembrance of Catullus, we are given a small glimpse into Roman society in his life and what was valued by that society. In addition to this, we also remember many other Roman men who he preserved with his poetry. Without the efforts of Catullus and many others in their attempts to be remembered, we would not have the wealth of information that we do today about life in Rome.