BMCR 2005.01.05


, Catullus. Ancients in action. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2004. 158 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1853996696. $20.00.

One of the surprising things about Catullan scholarship, given the nearly universal prominence of Catullus in Latin curricula, is that it has been hard to find introductions to the poet that are at once reliable and readable. Amanda Kolson Hurley’s introduction goes a long way toward filling that gap, and for its intended audience it is a definite success. The book is part of Bristol Classical Press’s Ancients in Action series; the intended audience of the series, and thus of Hurley’s book, is, according to the series description on the back cover, “the modern general reader.” The books are designed to introduce important ancient figures — including, so far, Catullus, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace, Spartacus, and Cleopatra — and to cover “the essentials of each subject’s life, works, and significance for later western civilisation.”

The book consists of an introduction, conclusion, and seven chapters. The first of these, “Between Myth and History: The Life of Catullus,” is a useful summary of what we know and think we know about the life of Catullus. Hurley does a good job of pointing out where our evidence is unreliable while still acknowledging that the life of Catullus as reconstructed in the nineteenth century has taken on a life of its own and has to be reckoned with even though it may not, in every respect, be accurate.

Each of the remaining chapters examines a group of related poems that serve to introduce one or more major aspects of Catullus’ work. Chapter 2, which covers the opening sequence (1-3, 5, 7, and, because of its thematic link to poems 5 and 7, 48) is a good concise introduction to the aesthetics of Catullan poetry. Chapter 3 covers male friendship in Catullus (poems 11, 15, 16, 35, 36, and 50). Chapter 4, “Catullan Self-Address,” looks at poems 51 and 8. Chapter 5 looks at the first three longer poems (61-63) and, with the following chapter, is one of the strongest. In the sixth chapter, “The Artist in a Fallen World,” Hurley discusses poem 64. Unlike some older critics, Hurley gives the poem its due — and this is a good thing in a book directed to readers who are most likely to first hear of Catullus as a passionate love poet. Chapter 7 deals with the elegiacs (poems 74, 80, 88, 72, 68, 87, 109, and 76). Poems 85 and 31 are treated briefly in the introduction and conclusion respectively. Obviously, some will want to see fuller treatment of these poems or the inclusion of other texts altogether, but Hurley gets a lot of mileage out of her chosen texts, and, in fact, it is the selectivity of the book which makes it so useful as a general introduction.

Hurley’s prose is elegant, and overall, I think, she strikes the right balance between scholarly detail and useful generalization. Typically she relies on one or two treatments of the poems at hand (for instance, Amy Richlin on the Gellius poems, William Fitzgerald on poem 64, and Marilyn Skinner on poem 63). This strategy is in some ways valuable. It allows Hurley to guide the reader through a few poems that can then illuminate the corpus as a whole without overburdening the text with footnotes or debates that may not really engage the general reader in Catullus’ poetry. On the other hand, it has its drawbacks. Hurley’s discussion of poem 64, for example, relies heavily on Fitzgerald’s stimulating chapter in Catullan Provocations, but one wishes that she had gone further, perhaps expanding her comments about belatedness and the morality of contemporary Rome with reference to work by David Konstan and others.1

In one or two places, the book may mislead. Iuventius, for instance, is certainly a speaking name, but it is unlikely to be a slave’s name (p. 43). And personally I cannot believe — though Hurley is certainly not alone in doing so — that Furius and Aurelius are really Catullus’ friends. Only poem 11 seems to suggest this, and the address to them there may well be ironic. Yet Hurley’s discussion of male friendship begins with them, not with Veranius and Fabullus, or, even better, Calvus. Also, there are a few topics that the intended audience might want but will miss; for instance, there is no chapter on Catullus’ Nachleben. This is somewhat surprising given the target audience, but Hurley’s few comments along these lines are definitely worthwhile and suggestive. In light of Hurley’s obvious strengths in the area, however, a little more engagement with post-classical literature would be welcome.

For its intended audience Hurley’s book is a good introduction to Catullus. That is saying quite a lot. She is particularly deft at conveying the import of scholarly debates without bludgeoning her audience with scholarly apparatus. Catullan scholars will not agree with her on every point, and it is true that advanced undergraduates or graduate students coming to Catullus will want to look elsewhere — or at least to supplement Hurley’s book with a number of other things.2 Still, when I recommend this book to friends, non-classical colleagues, and students, I will not feel that I have to offer a string of corrections and disclaimers. Hurley’s book does a better job than anything else at bringing an educated, but Latinless, audience to the Catullan corpus. The author is to be commended for writing such a book without betraying in essence either author or audience.


1. David Konstan, Catullus’ Indictment of Rome: The Meaning of Catullus 64 (Amsterdam 1977).

2. Graduate students, who are obviously expected to engage with the intricacies of the Catullan corpus in a way different from the general educated reader, will be wise to start with the introduction to Marilyn Skinner’s Catullus in Verona (Columbus 2003), a book that not only provides the fullest analysis of the epigrams of Catullus but also brings to the fore some of the issues that confront anyone who would try to understand the Catullan corpus as a whole.