The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia held on December 17th in the Julian calendar involved decorating, partying, eating, gift giving and general conviviality. This special day, gradually expanded to a full week, was dedicated to the agricultural deity Saturn whose temple in the Forum was the center of sacrifices for the holiday. A general spirit of frivolity was felt throughout the city as Romans of all classes participated in the merrymaking. Catullus, the 1st century B.C. poet, calls Saturnalia the “best of days.” In his Carmen 14a, Catullus describes his great annoyance when his friend, Calvus, gives him a joke gift—a book of bad poetry!—for Saturnalia. Catullus then plots the sweet revenge he will inflict upon Calvus (Translation is my own):
Oh Calvus, if I didn’t love you more than my own eyes
I would hate you as much as I hate that guy Vatinianus.
What could I have possibly said or done to make you
destroy me with so much bad poetry? May the gods
do very bad things to that client of yours who originally
sent you this wicked gift. Because if, as I suspect, Sulla
the elementary school teacher gave this new and well-chosen
gift to you then this situation has not turned out so badly
for me, and, in fact, it is good and fortuitous, and your
efforts are not in vain. Oh great gods, what a horrible
and accursed little book! That very book which I am
convinced you sent to your friend Catullus on this best
of days, Saturnalia, so that I might die again and again
on this day! I will not, absolutely not, let this go,
you trickster. As soon as it is light out, I am running
to the bookshop and collecting all the poisonous poetry I can
find for you—Suffenus and Caesius and Aquinus. I will
pay you back with these punishments! And as for you,
bad poets, goodbye! Go away! Go back to that place where
you got your bad feet, the troubles of our generation,
you absolute worst of all poets!
We know from his other poems that Calvus is one of Catullus’s most dear and well-respected friends. In addition to being a poet, Calvus is also a lawyer and Vatinianus who is mentioned in the first few lines in the poem is an odious man that Calvus once prosecuted. Catullus considers Calvus an excellent poet and the two close friends would have contests and challenge each other to poetry duels. A book of lousy poetry seems a fitting joke gift between these men. What makes Calvus’s gift especially bad (and funny) is that he regifted it! Catullus calls Calvus out in the poem for his regifting—Calvus received the book as payment from one of his clients, named Sulla, and Calvus then passes the book off to Catullus. Catullus also calls Sulla, the original giver of the books, an elementary school teacher, which in ancient Rome is an insult to Sulla’s intelligence. The part of the poem that has always amazed me is that Catullus threatens to get Calvus back by emptying the bookshop of every bad piece of poetry he can find, and he names names! Of the three he mentions, Suffenus is the poet whose writing we know the most about; in Carmen 22, Catullus describes Suffenus’s verse as akin to lines composed by a goat herder or ditch digger. Oh to have seen the look on Calvus’s face when he reads that book of poetry. Nice burn, Catullus!
To all of my fellow readers: Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays. May you receive lots of excellent books of poetry during your Saturnalia celebrations!