Beyond Seneca, my favorite Latin author is almost certainly Catullus. For all the reasons that I adore Seneca’s writing, I love Catullus’s because they are the complete opposite. His writing is so full of feeling and élan, he can simultaneously be hold two conflicting emotions and record this conflict beautifully. He can convey some of the most complicated emotions in such short, pithy poems. For example in his famous poem 85:
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris. Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
This translate’s roughly to ‘I hate and I love. How is this happening, perhaps you ask./I don’t know, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.’ A great deal of the loveliness is lost when translated, but one can at least see the kind of wonderfully short but powerful poem Catullus is capable of writing. This poem was almost certainly written about his lover, Clodia Mettle, who is often referred to in his poems as ‘Lesbia.’ This name is derived from the island ‘Lesbos,’ which is where the Greek poetess Sappho resided.
However, it is neither Catullus’s background nor, wonderful though it may be, his poem 85. Rather I want to talk about his poem 101, which, to me, is his greatest and most heartfelt achievement. It is a poem he wrote about his voyage to go to his brother’s funeral. And it is whence the extraordinarily famous line ‘ave ate vale’ comes. Here is the full text:
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias, ut te postremo donarem munere mortis et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem, quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum, heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi. Nunc tamen interea heac, prisco quae more partentum tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias, accipe fraterno multum manatia fletu, atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.
Here is my rough translation:
‘Carried through many many nations and through many waters
I come, brother, to these miserable funeral rites,
so that I can finally honor you with the gift of death
and speak in vain to the mute ashes,
since fortune took you yourself away from me,
alas miserable brother taken undeservedly from me.
Now nevertheless these, which by the first rite of our parents
have been handed down, a sad gift, for a funeral sacrifice,
accept running with many tears from a brother,
and in eternity, brother, hail and farewell.’
Whereas so many of Catullus’s poems are about love, lovers, hate for pervious lovers, hate from pervious lovers’ lovers, etc. it is wonderful to see such raw emotion not spring from the well of lust. There are so many wonderful flourishes that Catullus manages, a particular favorite of this author’s is the way he substantializes the rites themselves as something that is drenched in his tears. The way he plans to speak ‘nequiquam,’ or in vain to his brother’s mute ashes is especially poignant. He is making an entire journey that he realizes is entirely in vain.
Even throughout his grief Catullus, who is notoriously narcissistic and self-centered, contemplates all those who have died before his brother, those from whom these rites have been past down. One can only imagine how the grief built up as he travelled ‘multas per gentes et multa per aequora,’ for both land and sea travel were not only slow and arduous, but also dangerous in their own right. His brother died in Bithynia in Turkey, so Catullus is not exaggerating the distance he has to travel from Rome for this funeral.
Catullus save his most powerful words for last, ‘Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.’ This entire poem is address to his brother and the ‘munus’ that he is giving to his brother should be read to be the poem itself. We are sharing in what Catullus says to the mutus cinis that is his brother. This beautiful 2000 year old poem expresses so much grief in so few words, it ought be well remembered as one of the greatest poems produced by man.