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.
Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use, provided that both the translator and Diotíma are identified in any such use. Other uses not authorized in writing by the translator or in accord with fair use policy are expressly prohibited.