A comparison of Catullus and Cicero’s mud-slinging antics
Monday, October 28th, 2013
As far back as people started to express themselves, human beings seem to have always used abusive language to undermine and destabilise others. By using a form of language known as invective, famous orators and writers of the likes of Lincoln and Sir John Falstaff have gained considerable advantage over their social and political opponents. Yet, what exactly is invective? Invective, simply put, is insulting speech meant to either destroy or build up social relations through the use of language that degrades and insults the victim.1 By far, the two most famous (or perhaps infamous) Romans in their use of invective that survives to this day is that of Catullus and Cicero. Catullus, born c.84 in Verona and living until 54 BCE, was a love poet, while Cicero, living c.106 to 43 BCE, was one of the best lawyers and politicians of his time.2 Being contemporary, and being from a similar if not identical background, it is only natural to wish to compare the two, but with it questions arise: Did they both use invective for the same purpose? Did they have a similar style despite using different forms of literature? Who did they chose to insult, how did they chose to insult them, and most importantly, to what ends?
Before tackling what and why, it seems to be reasonable to examine exactly whom these giants of invective were targeting with their insults. Unsurprisingly, whom they chose to insult just happened to correlate directly to their professions. Cicero, being a bigwig politician and lawyer, insulted primarily the defendant as a prosecutor, and (without much surprise) his political opponents. In Catilinam is essentially Cicero insulting Lucius Sergius Catilina repeatedly to expose his plot to overthrow the senate.3 In Verrem, this time persecuting Gaius Verres, is essentially the same.4 He occasionally does have clients to defend as a lawyer, and in this case, such as in Pro Caelio, he, interestingly enough, uses invective to diminish the crime his client “possibly” committed by dehumanising the victim.5
Catullus is a little less, professional, in his antics and consequently, his choice of targets. His invective poetry are divided into two succinct categories; He is either insulting an ex-lover or a potential lover he disapproves of, or he is putting down his male rivals which were occasionally politicians. For instance, XLI and XLIII are meant solely to put down Ameana as being nowhere near good enough for Catullus.6 Similarly, LXXX, LXXXVIII, LXXXIX, and XCI, completely destroy Gellius, a Consul, seemingly without provocation.7
Which leads succinctly to the question of “Why?”. Why would these grand, and very eloquent, orators decide to stoop to the level of childish mud-flinging, and use their schooling and vocabulary to describe such filth? In fact, the nastiness in public discourse was so high, it caused some historians to throw into question the so-called glory of the Roman Empire.8 The reason is quite clear: It was to get ahead. For Cicero, it was to get ahead as a lawyer. The way he destroyed not only Catalina, but all of his compatriots and peers ensured that no one would want to associate with him. Catullus was less career orientated, but his invective and its obscenity helped catapult himself into a state of irreproachable love god-poet hybrid, idolised by both man and woman alike.9
Although so different in form and use, Catullus and Cicero shared a common theme in many of their poems; Sex and masculinity. Unlike today, Romans had an entirely different view of sexuality. It was not the entire rainbow of sex and gender we know of, but instead a very rigid line between the passive “receiver” and the active “penetrator”.10 In addition, from a contemporary viewpoint Romans had a rather unusual relationship with homosexuality. Firstly, lesbianism is