Roman Elegy and Modern Media: From Catullus to the Gilmore Girls

Editor’s note: we are happy to bring you this essay from Riya Juneja. If you are interested in posting on SA, just reach out.

Catullus: Quod vides perisse perditum ducas: “That which you see to have perished, you should consider lost.”

Rory: “I’m ready to wallow now”: Nunc paro in miseria morari.

Often when I’m in need of comfort or a romantic escape, I turn to poems in Roman elegist Catullus’ anthology. One night, as I gleefully hunted down definitions for unknown words, searching for verbs and their subjects while drawing from years of grammar and vocab knowledge to put the pieces together, I realized that elements of Catullus’ writing were present in another of my favorite works: Gilmore Girls.

Over the next few days, I started seeing Catullus in every cultural product I consumed—books, shows, and even songs. I was pleasantly shocked by all these coincidences, but, in the end, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: some scholars such as Paul Allen Miller have even argued that Catullus invented romantic love as we know it in the Western tradition, and he certainly created some of love’s most common tropes—ones we still see all around us (Miller 1).

Gilmore Girls and Catullus’ poetry both feature themes of pining after a lost lover. In his eighth poem, Catullus depicts a lover who struggles to let go of his ex, Lesbia, and calls himself miserable, “Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire, / et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.” (Miserable Catullus, cease to be a fool, and consider lost that which you see has perished, Cat. 8.1–2). Consistently repeating the fact that she is gone, Catullus implies, in a way, that she would be dead without him.

As a pathetic, yet ineffectual, way to build himself up, he asks her “Quae tibi manet vita?” (“What life remains for you?” Cat. 8.15). Talk about male entitlement! Similarly, in season 1 of Gilmore Girls, the main character, Rory, struggles after breaking up with her boyfriend, curls up with a tub of ice cream, and tells her mother, “I’m ready to wallow now” (Gilmore Girls Season 1, Episode 17). Like Catullus, she prefers to pity herself and wallow in sadness rather than move on after her breakup. Her instinct to hold on to a lost love is no different from that of the lovers written about centuries ago by Catullus.

After I connected Gilmore Girls to Catullus 8, I noticed the same themes of lost love in the crime drama, White Collar, which centers around the life of convicted felon turned FBI consultant Neal Caffrey. After Neal’s girlfriend, Kate, dies, his wannabe-girlfriend, Alex, urges him to move on, saying “Kate’s gone. The rest of us are still here” (White Collar Season 2, Episode 3). Alex advises him to live in reality, rather than chase after Kate’s memory trying to figure out how she died. Although it comes from a different point of view, Alex’s guidance also echoes Catullus’ advice to himself. In Catullus 8, the poet realizes he has to stop chasing the past (“nec quae fugit sectare,” Cat. 8.10) because what’s done is done (“et quod vides perisse perditum ducas,” Cat. 8.2).

Romantic TV Scene Moment: Gilmore Girls' Lorelai and Luke - Finding Wonderland

One morning, I found myself re-reading the end of Little Women at breakfast, and I was reminded of the joyful feeling of love displayed in Catullus 107. Catullus writes to Lesbia, expressing delight that she loves him: “Quare hoc est gratum nobis quoque carius auro / quod te restituis, Lesbia, mi cupido,” (“wherefore this is pleasing to us, and also dearer than gold, the fact that you restore yourself, Lesbia, to me in my longing” Catullus 3–4). Catullus then declares that nothing in life is greater than Lesbia’s love, thereby asserting that affection trumps all—even gold! (Not all of Catullus’ romantic poems are so sad and self-pitying.) Similarly, in Little Women, Mr. Bhaer asks Jo to marry him, and when she says yes, he is overjoyed that Jo loves him and that they will spend the rest of their lives together. Though he can provide no great shelter for her, their love is complete and more valuable to her than any extravagant home another could supply. Thus, both works showcase the joy of love, prioritizing romantic contentment over material possessions. The themes present in Catullus’ poetry were even more widespread than I had imagined!

In fact, it didn’t stop with Jo and Mr. Bhaer; later that day, listening to Olivia O’Brien’s “hate u, love u” on the subway, I heard echoes of Catullus again—this time, Catullus 85. O’Brien sings, “I hate you, I love you, I hate that I love you … I hate that I want you.” Her conflicting emotions, typical of teenage love, echo Catullus 85, where he claims that he both loves and hates, but doesn’t know why: “Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris. / Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior” (“I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask. I don’t know, but I sense that it is happening, and I am tortured,” Cat. 85.1–2). Catullus’ use of odi, “hate,” and amo, “love”—adjacent verbs with contrasting meanings—reflects the excruciating conflict between his feelings.

Additionally, the verbs are indicative, rendering his emotions tangible and concrete, thereby enhancing the emotional unrest he is experiencing: Catullus must really feel his feelings! In “hate u, love u,” Olivia O’Brien describes the exact same mingling of powerful, opposite emotions—she even juxtaposes the two verbs just like Catullus, and in the same order (“hate u, love u”). I sure wouldn’t have thought twice if Catullus had written this modern pop song!

The Sparrow of Lesbia by Guillaume Charles Brun, 1860

Through studying Catullus and other classic works, I’ve found that modern media offers fresh spins and different takes on old ideas and characters. From pining over a lost lover to the conflicting emotions of love and hate, and even the joy one receives from love, Catullus displays  repeated themes that cover the full spectrum of love. Catullus, a neoteric poet from the first century BCE, crafted poems that were both lighthearted and anguished—and explored ideas about romance that still resonate today in the tropes of modern works. While I knew that studying Classics could help me better understand the past, it is clear that ancient Roman texts can also provide insight into ourselves and how we navigate modern society; and, in the case of Catullus specifically, how to handle love in all its forms.

As someone who has never been in love, I’m fascinated by media, both ancient and modern, that has romance as its focus. Whether it’s Gilmore Girls or Catullus 107, I relish the joy I experience immersing myself in others’ experiences, placing myself in the space of the main character, and wondering what I would do in their shoes. I revel in experiencing the “what ifs?” from the safety of my own bed, lights out, snuggled under the covers. Who wouldn’t want that?

Riya Juneja is a high school senior at Friends Seminary in NYC interested in Classics. Having taken Latin for six years now, her research interests lie in finding parallels between the ancient and modern worlds. In addition to loving Latin, she’s a proud Mathlete who also loves science and theater!

One thought on “Roman Elegy and Modern Media: From Catullus to the Gilmore Girls

Leave a Reply