"Last message to Lesbia"

The following is my own translation. You will notice that while I have tried to mimic Catullus' form, I have added an extra line to each stanza to make up for the fact that Latin is often a much more concise language than English.

Furius and Aurelius,
always my companions,
whether I go as far as India,
where the eastern wave pounds the shore,
echoing far and wide,

or to the luxury-loving
Hyrcani and Arabs,
or the Sacae or arrow-throwing Parthians,
or any waters coloured by the seven
mouths of the Nile,

or if I cross the high Alps,
and see Caesar's great memorials,
and the Gallic Rhine, that
horrible water1, and the Britons,
at the end of the world.

Since you are both prepared
to face all these things,
whatever the will of the gods,
send a few unkind words
to my girl:

Let her live, and good luck to her,
as she holds three thousand debauchers
to her breast, loving none truly,
but again and again
bursting their balls;

Let her not seek my love again,
which has fallen by her fault
like a flower on the edge of a meadow,
which has been touched by the plough
as it passes by.


Many commentators see this poem as Catullus' last communication with Lesbia. It is fitting, then, that it is written in the Sapphic metre which characterised what many see as his first Lesbia poem, 51 ('ille mi par deo esse videtur'). The poet has run the full circle of his feelings towards Lesbia, and this poem marks the end of the cycle, tying up the body of poems. Were one inclined to apply the faddish terms of modern psychology to ancient art, one could describe this poem as the moment where Catullus finds 'closure'.

Of course, this would not be wholly accurate. We see from other poems in his corpus that Catullus finds himself unable to forget Lesbia.2 Also, we see Catullus still referring to Lesbia in this poem as 'mea puella'. The last stanza, too, conveys his self-pity.

Who, then, are the 'Furius and Aurelius' of this poem? They appear elsewhere in Catullus, either separately or together, in six other poems (15, 16, 21, 23, 24, 26), usually in a scornful or abusive way. Furius has been identified with Furius Bibaculus, a poet from Cremona, who was certainly someone who would fit in well with Catullus' 'novi poetae'. Aurelius has not been positively identified.

Although the identification of Furius might lead us to believe that Catullus is sincere in his expressions of friendship, most commentators3 have seen the first three stanzas as ironical in their tone, meant to contrast with the scathing message given to Lesbia.

However, the much outspoken Fordyce has this to say for himself:

"...But if these lines are ironical, they are a very complicated kind of irony, containing as they do what can only be a genuine compliment to Caesar. Horace did not recognize irony in them, if, as seems more than likely, he was thinking of them when he wrote the opening of his Sapphic ode to Septimius (ii. 6), Septimi, Gades aditure mecum. We would do well to be cautious about taking light-hearted abuse, however coarse and outrageous, at its face value as evidence of animosity. Catullus' society is not the only one in which convention has permitted friends to call one another names and write scurrilous verses at one another's expense.4"

Although Fordyce raises some interesting points here, it is hard to see the description of large monuments - presumably tombs - as a great compliment. It seems more likely that it refers to the large number of deaths inflicted by the Gallic campaign5. Nonetheless, whether it is a compliment to Caesar or not, it does not affect whether or not the first three stanzas are ironical. A compliment would only serve to build up the grandeur of the passage even more.

Also, the suggestion that the lines are not ironical merely because Horace may have had them in mind when writing one of his poems is incredibly tenuous. Fordyce seems desparate to show that he has new ideas. His seeming acceptance of banter between friends only serves to highlight the prudishness that led him to eliminate a third of Catullus' work from his edition with the justification 'a few poems which do not lend themselves to comment in English have been omitted.'6

The image of a flower on the edge of a meadow being chopped down by a passing plough is not a new one in Catullus' work - it appears in Homer describing the death of young warriors. It is Catullus' genius, though, to make it personal, and apply it to the pain of a broken heart. Vergil imitates the personal nature of the image in his description of the death of Euryalus in book 9 of the Aeneid.7

Catullus' references help us to date this poem to no earlier than 55 B.C. It was in this year that Caesar crossed the Rhine and reached Britain. Gabinius had restored Ptomely to his throne in Egypt in the spring, and Crassus had set out to the east in November of that year.

Textual criticism

Catullus, as usual, uses literary devices to conjure up images in our minds with only the sound of his words. Placing 'tunditur unda' in the half-line at the end of a stanza adds weight to the words and draws our attention to the onomatopaeic effect created.

The second stanza's first three lines all begin with 'seu' or 'sive', which adds to the build-up in Catullus's words. When, in the next stanza, he uses hardly any conjunctions at all, we see how effectively this builds us to a climax.

Immediately before the bathetic denunciation of Lesbia, Catullus uses the word 'caelitum', an archaic word which adds even more grandeur to the preceding sentiments.

The last message to Lesbia is typical Catullan fare, with its hyperbolic accusations and coarse imagery. cf. 58 for another example of a grand build-up followed by this kind of imagery.

The last two stanzas contain a number of alliterative pairs of words, e.g. 'vivat valeatque', 'tenet trecentos', 'culpa cecidit'. These all add to the passion and speed of the poetry, as well as the venom with which Catullus delivers his message.

1 Fordyce takes this line as 'Gallicum Rhenum horribile aequor ulti-', going against the text of the manuscripts, saying that the hiatus caused in the metre and 'the coupling of two disparate epithets' both point to corruption. The emendation is Haupt's.

2 cf. 8 ('miser Catulle, desinas ineptire') and 72 ('siqua recordanti priora benefacta voluptas').

3 The case was most strongly put by Wilamowitz in his Hellenistische Dichtung in der Zeit des Kallimachos.

4 C. J. Fordyce. Catullus - A Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

5 For rough figures of deaths in the Gallic Wars and other Roman campaigns, see the very biased http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/romestat.htm.

6 C. J. Fordyce. Catullus - A Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

7 Aen. ix. 435, 'purpureus veluti cum flos succisus aratro / languescit moriens'