Down and Dirty in Ancient Rome
More than a half-century ago, in third-year Latin, my precocious classmate Luis asked our rather severe teacher Fr. Antonio if we could read Catullus. At the time we were slogging through Tacitus and were hoping desperately for something less ponderous. The good Jesuit responded firmly: “Tacitus is a prince of the Latin idiom; Catullus is only a court jester. And besides, his verses are not for your tender ears.” Perhaps one or two of us protested his dismissal but we knew well that Fr. Antonio would not relent. But he did excite our fantasies: we were eager to cause our tender ears to turn red.
Luis somehow procured a copy of Carmina Catulli and during siesta break we attempted over the next couple of weeks, with the help of the Diccionario Universal Español–Latino to unearth as much smut as possible. But the struggle was immense and we gave up rather quickly.
Had Peter Valente’s Let the Games Begin been available, our ears, and likely other parts, would have been blazing.
Valente’s anthology of Roman writers is perhaps the first to focus on the more salacious work of classical Latin. His choice of those to include—Catullus, Ovid, the Priapeia poets and Lucian— are presented in contrast to the staid and pompous letters of Pliny the Younger who seems totally oblivious to the goings-on of these more decadent poets. If “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” Pliny pontificates while Catullus fornicates. And then he writes about it!
Valente’s versions are not translations in the usual sense: they are inventive rewrites, occasionally even re-imaginings. He takes creative liberty with his source matter, preferring to evoke the spirit if not the exact letter of these classical writers. The result is generally successful. He has managed, with his nimble phrasing, to capture the linguistic drive and often coarse tone of the originals.
His selection of writers is interesting. Catullus matches up well with the jocose poets of the Priapeia; Ovid and Lucian pair nicely as both are using satiric language to discuss desire, and in the case of Lucian, even death.
Valente shines with the bawdy lyrics of the Priapeia and Catullus. He deftly recreates the thrust (pun intended) of these poets. He feels free to introduce contemporary phrasing into the poems. Rather than seem out of place, his current colloquialisms work so exceedingly well that these ancient poets come off as hard-assed punks scribbling their profane lyrics on bathroom walls.
Here’s a portion of Catullus 98: