Miser Catulle?  Making a Powerless Catullus & a Powerful Lesbia 

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Catullus’s love affairs are a central theme of  his poems–illustrating tales of beautiful, amorous relationships as well as the pain they inflict upon him. Much scholarship on Catullus’s poems aims to unpack his unending depictions and lamentations of his love for Lesbia.

Meghan O. Drinkwater’s “The Woman’s Part: The Speaking Beloved in Roman Elegy,” expands on the idea of a powerful beloved in elegy. She points out that whenever the domina in elegy speaks, she does so in a manner meant “to destabilize” (Drinkwater, 32 ) and keep her lover interested. Judith P. Hallet’s “The Role of Women in Roman Elegy: Counter-Cultural Feminism” gives us an insight into the true meaning of the word domina–explaining that a domina describes a “‘woman in command of household slaves”’ and thus asserts that the domina has an intrinsically enslaving power (Hallet, 112 ). Christel Johnson’s “Mistress & Myth: Catullus 68,” asserts that domina appears closely linked to domus, and thus characterizes the woman in the sphere of the domus–proving men powerless in this realm.

Johnston also explains that in poem 68, line 136, Catullus calls Lesbia an era “mistress of slaves,” which further supports the claim that Catullus’s domina possesses a powerful enslaving capability. Adding onto the work of these scholars, I will examine how Catullus inflates both the beauty and the intelligence of his female beloved in order to justify his position as the servus amoris, “the servant of love.” The theme of domination by a strong, female beloved suggested by Catullus continues to have resonance in today’s sex work industry, especially as seen by men’s desire to seek Dominatrixes–women who take on the sadistic role of sadomasocistic sex. 

Catullus 8 is a poem in which the poet encourages himself to obdura, to “man up,” and to forget Lesbia; however, the hyperbolic illustrations of his misery exemplify his role as the servus amoris

Nunc iam illa non vult: tu quoque impotens noli,
nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser vive,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
Vale puella, iam Catullus obdurat,
nec te requiret nec rogabit invitam.
At tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla. (9-14)

Now she no longer wants these things, you being powerless, must not want them either, and do not chase after the one who flees, don’t live as a miserable man, but endure and be firm with a resolute mind, be strong. Farewell girl, now Catullus is strong, he doesn’t require you and he will not ask out an unwilling person.

The poem is written in limping iambics (Garrison, 98 ) which immediately allows the listener to recognize the pain, suffering, and defeat that Catullus is subject to because of the powerful Lesbia. Catullus repeats the word miser (along with its cognates) 42 times throughout the entire poem and this excessive usage results in the poem becoming characterized by a ridiculous sense of hyperbole. Although throughout the poem Catullus encourages himself to obdurat or be strong, the poem is riddled with claims of his miserableness and the obsessiveness of his love for Lesbia, suggesting he is either utterly failing in his effort to obdurat or actually does not genuinely want to succeed. The excessive use of miser supports the latter claim as it shows that Catullus is utterly obsessed with his miserableness. Furthermore, although miser can simply mean miserable, it also connote intense erotic love (Garrison, 98) which suggests that these two qualities–miserableness and infatuation–are intrinsically connected. Poem 8 exemplifies Catullus’s desire to be dominated by a powerful woman–his unending declarations of his misery and his lamentations of his absolute love for Lesbia illustrate an obsession with his role as the servus amoris

Catullus 86, a poem in which Catullus compares the beauty of Lesbia to that of Quinta, explains how Catullus defines beauty: Lesbia formosa est, quae cum pulcherrima tota est, / tum omnibus una omnis surripuit Veneres.  “Lesbia is beautiful, she is not only entirely beautiful, but she alone has stolen all the charms from everyone” (5-6). 

Catullus employs Veneres to explain the reason for Lesbia’s beauty. Although Veneres is most logically translated as “charms,” we cannot ignore the obvious illusion Catullus is making to Venus–goddess of love, sex, and fertility. By employing Veneres here, Catullus paints Lesbia as goddess-like and thus both emphasizes her fantastic beauty as well as her immense power.

Similarly, he again casts Lesbia as a goddess in poem 68, calling her candida diua, “a beautiful goddess.” And also refers to Venus saying: “nam, mihi quam dederit duxplex Amathusia curam, / scitis, et in quo me torruerit genere” (68.51-52), “Well, you know the heartache that double-edged Venus has given to me and how she scorched me.” Duplex can mean both “treacherous;” “two-faced;” or “deceitful.” And as Johnson writes, “all these readings cast Venus as a dominating force who brings both dreadful and joyous events into the lover’s life”  (151 ). His repeated illusions to Venus work both to illustrate a connection between pleasure and pain in Catullus’s eyes AND to overtly emphasize Lesbia’s magnificent beauty and seductive power. Catullus thereby aims to justify his role as the servus amoris–painting himself both as adoring of and subject to the immense power of goddess-like lover. 

In poem 75, Catullus describes his vulnerability and weaknesses in his relationship. 

Huc est mens deducta tua mea, Lesbia, culpa
atque ita se officio perdidit ipsa suo,
ut iam nec bene velle queat tibi, si optima fias,
nec desistere amare, omnia si facias.

Now is my mind brought down to this point, my Lesbia, by your fault, and has so lost itself by its devotion, that now it cannot wish you well, were you to become most perfect, nor can it cease to love you, whatever you do. (1-4; Leonard C. Smithers )

Catullus’s claim that his mind has perdidit ipsa, “lost itself ” because of Lesbia serves as yet another example of the pain that his relationship has inflicted upon him. Even stronger than to lose, perdo can also signify to destroy, and thus Clark believes this passage to mean that Catullus’s “mind has been destroyed (perdidit) by doing its duty to her” (Clark 269). 

Catullus next vows his eternal devotion for Lesbia, saying nec desistere amare, “nor can it cease to love you.” But avowing his love to Lesbia following his description of her destructive power, Catullus asserts that he is absolutely infatuated by her damaging ability. He concludes with a concession that typifies the powerless–omnia si facias, “whatever you do.” Despite the unending claims of the pain Catullus endures in his relationship with Lesbia, he cannot and will forever be unable to stop loving her–he is obsessed with her beauty, obsessed with her mind, obsessed with her power. 

Throughout his works, Catullus paints himself as a miserable, lamentable, and destroyed man subject to the will and desires of the powerful Lesbia and thereby takes on the role of the servus amoris, a trope in which the elegist feigns inferiority and a servile position to bolster the power of his mistress. Despite all the claims of his pitifulness, he continues to love Lesbia regardless, proving that, despite all the supposed pain he endures, he continues to be infatuated with her and even enjoys suffering under her power.

Catullus’s desire to receive pain and to embrace his status as a servus amoris echoes the modern day desire for a Dominatrix. Instead of reading elegy as men who are trying to uplift women, we should understand that male sexual pleasure can be derived from creating, theorizing, and fantasizing a woman with such immense power. Elegy is often examined through a feminist canon because it seems to present a genre of literature in which women uniquely come off as powerful; however, studying elegy in comparison to the phenomena of a Dominatrix forces us to question the truthfulness of this power women seem to posses in their elegiac love affairs.

The conversation around whether the construction of a powerful, dominating woman is empowering remains very much alive today when we consider whether or not sex work is an industry that is inherently feminist. Interestingly, since elegy is written from the male perspective where we rarely–if ever–hear the woman’s voice, we are only able to understand the effect that this giving of female power has on the male perspective. We now hear the female voice from memoirs and articles written by Dominatrixes and it is interesting to examine the words of these women whose job titles and clients imagine them as strong and powerful.

An article by Melissa Febos, a woman who worked as a Dominatrix for three years, entitled “I Spent My Life Consenting to Touch I Didn’t Want,” explores the story of a woman who had a hard time deciding whether her work as a Dominatrix was inherently empowering or feminist. Febos writes that she felt “nothing” (Febos, NYT) after her sessions suggesting that her work didn’t instill her with the sense of power and domination that the name promises. Although, of course, Dominatrixes inevitably differ in their beliefs on whether their work is empowering, the narrative of Febos illustrates that for some, their work does not live up to its title–they are not transformed into all powerful dominas. Thus elegy’s portrayal of the female beloved as sadists perhaps can be explained through this phenomena of a desire for Dominatrix–the role that Lesbia assumes throughout Catullus’s poetry is not in fact an attempt to instill her with a powerful status, it is a Catullan tool to demonstrate his sexual desires and he never provides a glimpse of Lesbia’s reaction to being placed in this role of male-manufactured power. 

Catullus and Lesbia, 1809 Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (Museum: Nivaagaard Museum)


DRINKWATER, MEGAN O. “THE WOMAN’S PART: THE SPEAKING BELOVED IN ROMAN ELEGY.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 1, 2013, pp. 329–338., http://www.jstor.org/stable/23470088. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021. 

Clark, Christina A. “The Poetics of Manhood? Nonverbal Behavior in Catullus 51.” Classical Philology, vol. 103, no. 3, 2008, pp. 257–281. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/596517. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021. 

Hallett, Judith P. “THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN ROMAN ELEGY: COUNTER-CULTURAL FEMINISM.” Arethusa, vol. 6, no. 1, 1973, pp. 103–124. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26307466. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021. 

JOHNSON, CHRISTEL. “MISTRESS AND MYTH: CATULLUS 68B.” The Classical Outlook, vol. 85, no. 4, 2008, pp. 151–154. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43939232. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. 

Catullus, Gaius Valerius, and Daniel H. Garrison. The Student’s Catullus. University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 

Catullus. The Carmina of Gaius Valerius Catullus. Leonard C. Smithers. London. Smithers. 1894 

Febos, Mellissa, “I Spent My Life Consenting to Touch I Didn’t Want.” New York Times, 31 March 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/magazine/consent.html. Accessed 26 April 2021. 

Miller, Paul Allen. Latin Erotic Elegy. London, Routledge, 2002.

Plum Luard is a senior at Friends Seminary studying Latin, Ancient Greek, and Spanish.  She is particularly fascinated by gendered power structures in elegy and the degree to which we can understand the elegists as feminists.  Plum is passionate about translation—what is lost and what is elucidated.  This is her first publication.