Catullus: A Lexicon

Catullus 96 is classed as a consolation, a poem comforting the bereaved at the death of a loved one (in this case a wife or mistress, it seems). The poems imagines what the corpse would feel if somehow it were aware of the grief of the living: 


If anything dear and welcome can happen in mute graves
Because of our sadness, Calvus,
Because of that longing by which we renew old loves
And by which we weep for friendships formed long ago,
Surely Quintilia isn’t saddened by her untimely death,
But rather, she’s gladdened by your love.

Si quicquam mutis gratum acceptumve sepulcris
accidere a nostro, Calve, dolore potest,
quo desiderio veteres renovamus amores
atque olim junctas flemus amicitias,
certe non tanto mors immatura dolori est
Quintiliae, quantum gaudet amore tuo.

The central word in the lyric is “sadness” (dolor): it motivates the first couplet; it’s given a synonym and definition in the second; and reappears in the third. 

What’s styled as a consolation is really an occasion for Catullus to display his private language. Catullus tells us that “sadness” (dolor) is a form of “longing” (desiderium), and longing has two aspects: 1. the reanimation of old love (desire renewed, that is), and 2. a lament for an old friendship.

I’m fairly sure that if you or I were to deconstruct “sadness” this is not where we would land. These definitional moves beg the question, if in Catullus’s private language familiar terms like “sadness” and “longing” have idiosyncratic meanings, then “love” (amor) and “friendship” (amicitia) probably do too. 

You’ll have to take my word for it that by love (amor) Catullus intends something like passion and desire (nothing unusual there). But “friendship” (amicitia) is trickier. It also belongs to amorous discourse, but it’s some combination of intimacy, mutuality, and trust between lovers. “Longing” is both carnal (amor) and, for lack of a better word, spiritual (amicitia). 

The love lyric Catullus 109 shows what “friendship” means:    


My everything, you claim this mutual love
Of ours will be lasting and happy.
Great god, grant that she can keep her word,
Speaks sincerely, and speaks from the heart,
So we might sustain this eternal compact
Of sacred friendship for all of life.

Iucundum, mea vita, mihi proponis amorem
hunc nostrum inter nos perpetuumque fore.
di magni, facite ut vere promittere possit,
atque id sincere dicat et ex animo,
ut liceat nobis tota perducere vita
aeternum hoc sanctae foedus amicitiae.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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