Don’t Bank on Friends: Catullus, Carmen 77

Carmen 77

by Gaius Valerius Catullus (?84 BCE – ?54 BCE)

Rufe mihi frustra ac nequiquam credite amice
(frustra? immo magno cum pretio atque malo),
sicine subrepsti mi atque intestina perurens
hei misero eripuisti omnia nostra bona?
eripuisti, eheu nostrae crudele venenum
vitae, eheu nostrae pestis amicitiae.

Poem 77

[translated by DK Fennell]

Rufus, friend, banked on by me, with misplaced trust and for no profit
(Profit! No! At great expense and then loss!)
So this is how you wormed your way into me and, consuming my guts,
Ripped out from wretched me everything that was good between us?
Ripped everything out, dear god, you grim potion to our lives,
Ah me, you plague to our affection.

As in English, merchants in Latin used the ordinary terms for trust to describe lending and other commercial transactoins.  In the first two lines Catullus uses commercial terms to express how his friend Rufus accepted on trust (like a loan) the friendship of Catullus, then betrayed him for a great loss to Catullus.  In the third line the word “subrepsti”  (a syncopated form of “subrepsisti” from the verb “subrepo / surrepo” meaning to creep up on, to steal upon (sub + repo (to creep)) plays a double role.  In one sense it has the legal sense of commerical fruad.  (The verb is used in this sense in Justianians Institutes, Liber XLVII.  In later Canonical Law it means to obtain  a rescript by fraud.)  But Catullus uses it also in the literal sense of “to sneak under,” to insinuate oneself into another’s trust.  The verbal image, however, is of Rufus sneaking inside of Catullus and starting a fire with his innards. Burning from inside was (and still remains) a common metaphor for jealousy. Thus by using the verb surrepo, Catullus pivots from images of commercial deceit to images of the inner turmoil of jealousy (caused by Rufus’s liaison with Catullus’s former mistress).

When you recite this poem aloud, note the liquid flow of the long o’s in line two.

Rufus is probably Marcus Caelius Rufus, an ally of Cicero and once allied with Julius in the complicated politics of Republic Rome.  The crime Catullus bemoans in this poem is probably Rufus’s affair with Clodia, the Lesbia of the love poems of Catullus.  Clodia was the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher.  Her niece, Clodia Pulcher, was briefly married to Octavian.  Her brother Clodius, a lifelong enemy of Cicero, had prosecuted Rufus for his supposed role in the Cataline conspiracy.  Although Cicero had made his name prosecuting Cataline for his supposed attempted coup against the Senate, Cicero successfully defended Rufus from the charge of his involvement.  Clodia and Clodius are involved in some of the more decadent escapades of Republican Rome, and Rufus and Cicero appear in other carmina of Catullus. Piecing together the personalities as they appear throughout Catullus is only a minor part of the enjoyment of spending time with this great Latin lyricist.  A future post will be devoted to Catullus and Clodia.

Aesthetics aside (as well as his influence on the poet’s of Rome’s golden age), Catullus has never been forgotten since his rediscovery in medieval times.  And for good reason. Mournful threnody and artful amorousness combine with filthy debauchery and wicked character assassination to make up a body of work that still justifies the long hours with a grammar and dictionary.

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