The Significance and Structure of An Ancient Roman Love Poem

Catullus Kills It!

Clodia/Lesbia, Caelius's trouble-making mistress. Edward Poyntor/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who urged against letting passions rule could have been writing for Catullus, the lyric poet so well known for a tempestuous affair with a woman he called Lesbia. While Lesbia is named in only thirteen of Catullus' carmina, she is implicit in 26, among which is the memorable elegiac couplet, carmen lxv.


Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.


Forget, for a moment, about translating it. The structure of the poem is almost as important as the words themselves. Noting how and where certain words are used lets you see what the poet was emphasizing. In a language where poetry doesn't rhyme and where word order is more flexible than English, these are some of the elements that separate mundane writing from the inspirational.

The first word is a verb; the second, a conjunction; the third a verb. Go to the end of the sentence to see the same construction. Now look up the forms and note the meaning of these four verbs: (odi) hate, (amo) love, (sentio) feel, and (excrucior) am crucified -- two negatives and two positive emotions. Not only are there two very strong negative emotions, but they're competing for prominence in this poem by taking first and ultimate place. This forms a cross called chiasmus. The antepenultimate (ante [before] paene[almost] ultimate [last] = third to last) position of sentio also forms a cross with the third word from the beginning of the couplet.


This chiastic structure continues with the verbs of doing, faciam and fieri. In the first doing verb (faciam), Catullus is doing it, and in the second (fieri), it is being done to him -- just like the active odi vs. the passive excrucior. There is also a third parallel construction. Requiris (you ask) matched by the answer nescio (I don't know).



I hate and I love. Why do I do it, perchance you might ask?
I don't know, but I feel it happening to me and I'm burning up. 


Who is this person for whom Catullus is suffering such unstoic passion? Probably Lesbia, the name believed to have been given by Catullus to his mistress. Although we aren't certain, we believe Lesbia was really Clodia, the elder sister of the P. Clodius Pulcher (the man charged with sacrilege by Cicero for illegally infiltrating an all-female ceremony for the bona dea) and the promiscuous wife and later widow of Q. Caecilius Metellus. It appears that Catullus' relationship with her ended when she took on as lover, Caelius Rufus. 

The carmina that specifically mention Lesbia are: 5, 7, 43, 51, 58, 72, 75, 79, 83, 86, 87, 92, and 107. Through these and the other poems in which she is not named (2, 3, 8, 11, 13, 36, 37, 68, 70, 76, 85, 104, and 109), Catullus shares with the reader the joy and anguish he feels.

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Gill, N.S. "The Significance and Structure of An Ancient Roman Love Poem." ThoughtCo, May. 12, 2016, Gill, N.S. (2016, May 12). The Significance and Structure of An Ancient Roman Love Poem. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Significance and Structure of An Ancient Roman Love Poem." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).