Born around 84 BC in Verona, Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Roman poet and is generally perceived as a strong literary influence on the more well-known writers such as Ovid and Virgil who were to follow. Over time his works fell into obscurity before being rediscovered in the Middle Ages where they resumed their rightful place in the pantheon of ancient literature.
Catullus was born into a family that had more than its fair share of social kudos, his father entertaining the likes of Julius Ceasar whilst he was proconsul for the district. Catullus spent a large part of his childhood and younger days living near Rome where he came into regular contact with other poets of the age. This is further collaborated by the number of poets such as Bibaculus and Cicero who are mentioned in his works.
In Rome he reputedly fell in love with Claudia Metelli Celeris who would form the basis for many of his poems under the literary name Lesbia. Indeed, she is the subject of around 25 of his 116 poems that survive from that period and the works show a range of emotions from disappointment to deep love that perhaps demonstrates their ongoing relationship.
From these poems you can assume that Claudia had quite a healthy sexual appetite as she had a number of other lovers besides Catullus himself. Her attitude to him was often one of indifference and the collection of poems provides a universal insight into the fragility of love as the poet ranges from devout suitor to more embittered and often scornful lover.
Much of the life of Catullus, as with all ancient poets, is gathered from isolated references and the subject matter of his poems. It is known that he spent some time under the auspices of poet and orator Gaius Memmius and that he traveled East at one point to make preparations for the death of his brother, but there are no exact dates for either his birth or death, though he is thought to have passed away at the young age of 30.
The 116 poems that survive to this day vary in their subject matter though it is certain that Catullus largely ignored the canonical writing of the time and was more experimental than perhaps some of his contemporaries. He wrote poems about his friends and as well as condolences but he also produced erotic poetry, largely connected to Lesbia, and some rude, perhaps obscene, verses that were directed not only at her but also lost friends and well-known figures at the time.
Rather than their poetic merit, these poems more importantly provide a snapshot of what life was often like at the time. His works were influenced largely by the Hellenistic approach and he was a great admirer of the female poet Sappho.
The explicit nature of much of his writing certainly shocked readers in the Middle Ages who rediscovered his works and this may have contributed to his enduring appeal over the ensuring years. His greatest work, Libellus, is thought to have been written in the year of his death around 54 BC.