A Saturnalia Prank

by Josephine Balmer


The Roman festival of Saturnalia began on 17th December, a day on which jokes were played and gifts were given, and is thought to be the origin of our own custom of Christmas gift-giving and merry-making. In the following poem (Catullus 14), first published in Bloodaxe Books’ Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate, the first century BC Roman poet Catullus receives a joke-present of a collection of bad poetry from his friend, the renowned lawyer, Licinius Calvus. Here, Catullus pretends to assume, as a wilful tease, that the verse must have been sent to Calvus as payment by one of his disreputable criminal clients; in particular, the poem mentions Vatinius, a notorious associate of Julius Caesar whom Calvus had unsuccessfully prosecuted in 54 BC (according to Seneca, during Calvus’s speech Vatinius had leapt up and protested: ‘Should I be condemned because he is so eloquent?’). Poetic jokes often seemed to have flown between Catullus and Calvus and in this poem, Catullus vows to repay Calvus’s ‘gift’ in full by sending him some worse poetry back – the doggerel versifiers Catullus singles out for mention, Caesius, Aquinus and Suffenus, are not otherwise known although Suffenus reappears in another of Catullus’s poems (22) as a writer so deluded that he buys the finest paper and high quality writing materials on which to write his execrable verse

Catullus’s Saturnalia Gift

If I didn’t love you, sweet teasing Calvus,
far more than my own eyes, then for today’s gift
I’d hate you with the hate of Vatinius;
for what have I said or done to deserve it
that you’re killing me now with all these poets?
May the gods frown down on whichever client
settled accounts with this roll of miscreants
(unless, as I suspect, it’s that school-master
Sulla, writing off debts by setting these texts,
then I bear no hate, have no complaint to make:
at least your hard work receives due recompense).
God, here’s as cursed a verse as one might expect –
a book, I know, you sent to your Catullus
to finish him off, to floor and to bore us
on Saturnalia, our day for pleasure.
No, not so fast, you can’t escape, my false friend,
for if this long night of torment ever ends
I’m off to the bookshops to buy Caesius,
Aquinus and Suffenus, all poison pens,
to pay you back in full for your own torture.
Until then, goodbye, farewell, it’s time to quit:
let those bad feet limp away, lines and couplets,
disease of the age, unreadable poets.

(translated by Josephine Balmer)