I wrote this for Guardian.co.uk, but annoyingly (for me anyway), their resident classicist Charlotte Higgins had spotted the same story and wrote this neat piece at the same time. Being the freelance, I got spiked. Such is politics. But I still enjoyed writing my version, so thought I'd give it a bit of life here. Especially since I think there may be different ways of looking at the interesting First Century BC context...
More than 2,000 years after his death, it appears that the poet Catullus still has the power to shock and cause controversy. An employment tribunal in London has just heard that Mark Lowe, the millionaire boss of Nomos Capital sent a work experience girl an email containing the phrase “pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo” .
The lawyers opposed to Mr Lowe suggested that this line was, inappropriate and likely to "violate" the dignity of the email’s recipient. Lowe, meanwhile, claimed the poem: “… is burlesque, it was always light-hearted in the first century and it still is now.”
Rather wonderfully then, a court case dealing with such specifically modern phenomena as hedge-funds, email communications and Thai prostitutes has stumbled across a question that has been exercising poetry lovers for the last 2000 years: exactly how rude is the poem we now call Catullus XVI?
As far as we moderns are concerned, until fairly recently, the simple answer would have been ‘unprintably so’.
Those plosive-heavy words “pedicabo” and “irrumabo” refer to anal and facial penetration. “I will bugger you and stuff your gobs” is the admirably literal translation suggested by Guy Lee (in the 1990 Oxford translation). Catullus then goes on to refer to Furius and Aurelius, the addressees of the poem with the lovely chiasmus: “Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi.” That’s to say, it’s Aurelius who will enjoy the attentions of Catullus’ penis in his mouth and Furius who will get it in his bottom.
For years, these first two lines were considered so indecent they weren’t translated into English. Even in the 1960s the Loeb edition of the poem, with translations by FW Cornish, rendered the contentious line thus: “…” Cornish also refused to print the last 8 lines of the poem, even in Latin. Other editions have seen it translated into Greek, French or just duplicated the original Latin phrase in place of translation. When they have dared tackle the lines, scholars have come up with curious suggestions like: “Nuts to you boys! Nuts!” or “I’ll show you I’m a man!” or “Furius, Aurelius, I’ll work your/ own perversions on you and your persons.”
That probably says more about 19th and 20th Century squeamishness than Catullus’ contemporaries. The marvellous “it was light-hearted in the first century” defence put forward by Lowe is not without substance. Certainly, Catullus is making a joke.
Later in the poem he says that the reason he’s made these threats to his friends Furius and Aurelius is that they’ve suggested his poems may be a bit soft (molliculi) and that he’s less of a man because he’s written a poem addressed to his lover Lesbia suggesting that he’s going to give her many thousands of big kisses.
The most obvious solution to the poem that follows from that is that Catullus is being heavily ironic. Suggest he’s a softy, both in the sense of being effeminate and unable to perform sexually, and he’ll prove you wrong by making vigorous love to your bottom. An act that becomes even more transgressive since Catullus also suggests that the “pius” poet ought to be “castus” (normally translated that the pious poet ought to be chaste.)
Of course, this being Catullus, there are further potential interpretations. The poem is steeped in innuendo and ambiguity. That word “castus” , for instance, could be understood to mean “acting correctly from a masculine point of view”. In which case, having lots of sex wasn’t such a problem. Even the famously censorious Cato the Elder had declared it perfectly acceptable for Roman men to frequent prostitutes.
The joke in the First Century might also have depended on the feminisation of Furius and Aurelius. The important point is that because they have suggested Catullus is a bit of a girl, they are going to become the passive recipients of his attentions. And that could be seen as a serious insult.
The charge of feminity, to give one notorious example, was at the heart of a 62 BC scandal involving Publius Clodius Pulcher. (Neatly, he was the brother of Clodia - the woman whom many scholars suspect is the real subject of the poems dedicated to ‘Lesbia’. The ones to which Furius and Aurelius objected to in the first place…) Clodius had dressed as a woman in an attempt to get close to Julius Caesar’s wife during a rite from which men were excluded - and he had also been caught in incestuous relations with his sister. A massive bribe got Clodius off the hook in the following court case, but his arch-enemy Cicero would attack him ever afterwards on the grounds that he was lascivious and feminised. Suggestions that were meant to really sting – and which took on extra weight thanks to a wide-spread rumour that when Clodius had been captured by pirates during the Third Mithridatic War, he’d paid the price of his freedom with his anal virginity. A rumour whose very existence proves that receiving anal sex as a Roman man was no laughing matter.
In such a context, Catullus’ “burlesque” takes on fangs. Yes, he’s being funny, but he’s also launching into the furthest stratosphere of rudery and insult. As far as the modern court case goes, it seems a shame that history doesn’t record how Furius and Aurelius reacted to this metaphorical fucking. But the fact that it remains troubling after all this time (not to mention hilarious) is testament at least to Catullus’ unique and wayward genius.