Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas
iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis
doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis.
quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli
qualecumque; quod, <o> patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo.
2 arida ex Seruio Itali; arido archetypum2 5 tum ... es ε: tamen est archetypum 8 tibi habe archetypum: corr. η libelli al. mei X (al. mei del. r) 9 o add. θ qualecunque quidem est, patroni ut ergo Bergk 10 perire O
To whom shall I dedicate such a charming little pamphlet,
just now polished off with dry pumice?
To you, Cornelius, because you've always thought
my little trifles amounted to something,
even in the days when you alone of all Italians
dared to map out all of history in three volumes.
They were learned, by God, and hard work.
So take this little book, such as it is,
for what it's worth, and you, patron Muse,
let it live through the ages more than one lifetime.
The sort of poem one might find in an author's preface. This poem is addressed to Cornelius Nepos, Catullus' patron, fellow countryman and fellow poet. Much of what we know of him comes to us from Pliny and Gellius3. He was from Cisalpine Gaul and a close friend of Cicero's in Rome. Besides the (unfortunately lost) history mentioned in this poem, we also have evidence that he wrote light verse and that a collection of letters between him and Cicero came in at least two books.4
The poem, like much of the Catullan corpus, is in hendecasyllabic metre. This metre was taken from the Hellenistic school of poetry, but also appears in some of Anacreon's early lyric odes. The form of this poem, too, is not without precedent in that school, although Catullus handles it in a very original way.
Although Catullus refers to the collection of poems he is dedicating here in diminutive terms ('libellum', 'nugae'), we can probably assume from poems such as 36 that this is not meant to be taken wholly seriously. Besides, it is unlikely that Catullus would present a collection of his poems to his patron were he not satisfied with their quality.
As for the question of which poems this dedication refers to, both Fordyce and Quinn have much to say on the question of the arrangement of poems in the Catullan corpus.5 For a detailed and learned discussion on this topic, I heartily recommend both commentators. For the purpose of this commentary, however, I will ask you to make do with a couple of meagre quotations from Quinn.
"Cornelius' presentation copy resembled a roll of wall-paper; books as we understand them didn't come till later: you unrolled the roll as you read, rolling up the left-hand end as you unrolled the right. It was a way of making books that necessarily imposed limitations on size: they had to be physically readable.
"... what is for us a mere fifty pages of average size was for the ancients a large and bulky object, a work cumbrous to hold or consult. The fourth book of Apollonius' Argonautica (1,781 lines - about 50 pages in a modern text) is in fact just about the longest book in the ancient sense we can point to. The Catullan collection as it has come down to us runs into 2,289 lines, and must originally have been longer (since here and there lines and parts of stanzas are missing)- say 2,300 lines, or more."6
Quinn goes on to suggest a three-volume Catullan corpus, which seems quite possible, although we might want to think that poems such as 63 and 64 would be published in their own volumina.
The poetry of Catullus and his circle was heavily influenced by the Hellenistic tradition, in sharp reaction to the long-winded Asiatic style which was in vogue at the time, which Catullus is so apt to mock.7 It is therefore quite possible to agree with Quinn and say that the reference to the book being 'fresh from the pumice' is a symbolic reference to Catullus' fresh style.8 However, as Fordyce tells us, "pumice was used for giving a smooth surface to the ends (frontes) of the rolled volumen (which were sometimes afterwards painted) before the umbilicus with its cornua was inserted". In other words, this was a standard part of the publishing process, and it need not be taken as symbolic here.
Catullus describes Nepos' work as 'laboriosis' and 'doctis'. It would be easy to see these as a slight criticism of their long-windedness, but modern scholarship rejects this. First, Catullus is only seen to critise poetry for long-windedness in the rest of his corpus, not prose. Second, it is highly unlikely that one would insult one's patron, on whom one's livelihood depends, in a dedicatory poem. It seems much more likely, then, that these words are expressions of Catullus' admiration for Nepos' thoroughness, which we are unfortunate in not being able to witness for ourselves.
The last two lines are something of a puzzle. While it is not by any means unconventional for a poet to employ apostrophe and invoke a Muse, the invocation is normally made to one in particular. It is difficult for us to see which Muse Catullus has in mind here, since there was not a Muse for the kind of 'little trifles' Catullus describes here. Apart from that, it seems odd for Catullus to invoke a Muse to ensure the long life of poems he has spent the rest of the poem deprecating. This break in sense led Bergk to suggest 'qualecumque quidem est, patroni ut ergo' for the penultimate line ('so that for its poet's sake'). This is a clever suggestion, in that it sees Catullus appealing to his patron directly for continued support. However, we could take an invocation to a Muse as a hint of this, with the sense change merely signifying Catullus' true opinion of his poetry.
- Text and apparatus criticus taken from Fordyce's edition, with consonantal 'u's replaced by 'v's for ease of reading.
- Fordyce's archetypum is a mixture of the texts he calls O and X - the former being the Oxford text held in the Bodleian Library, the latter a mixture of G and R, a Parisian and Vatican text respectively.
- c.f. Pliny, N. H. iii. 127, Gell. xv. 28. 1, and Pliny, Ep. v. 3. 6)
- c.f. Macrobius ii. 1. 14
- c.f. Fordyce, pp. 409-410 and Quinn, pp. 10-20.
- Quinn, p. 11
- c.f. 36, 95.
- c.f. Quinn, p. 10
- C. J. Fordyce. Catullus - A Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.
- T. P. Wiseman. Catullus & His World - A Reappraisal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Kenneth Quinn. Catullus - An Interpretation. Lancashire: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1972.