Catullus 101

Catullus, Gaius Valerius

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Jul-30-2017
  • Last revised: Feb-27-2018



Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.


Brother, I come o'er many seas and lands
To the sad rite which pious love ordains, 
To pay thee the last gift that death demands ;
And oft, though vain, invoke thy mute remains : 
Since death has ravish'd half myself in thee,
Oh wretched brother, sadly torn from me ! 

And now ere fate our souls shall re-unite,
To give me back all it hath snatch'd away, 
Receive the gifts, our fathers' ancient rite
To shades departed still was wont to pay ;
Gifts wet with tears of heartfelt grief that tell,
And ever, brother, bless thee, and farewell!

Catullus, G. V., & Lamb, G. (1821). The poems of Caius Valerius Catullus. London: J. Murray. Vol. II: page 94.

Catullus 101 is a 10 line elegy that Catullus, a Roman lyric poet (84 - 54? BCE), wrote upon the occasion of his visiting the tomb (probably as part of his trip to Bithynia in 57 BCE) of his brother, who had recently died in the Troad. We do not know much about his brother, whom he mentions several times (also in poems 65 and 68) in his 116 poems, but it is clear from this beautiful threnody that he loved him a great deal.

Written in elegiac couplets (comprising a two line sequence of a 6 foot line followed by a 5 foot one), this poem has justly become famous for its depth of emotion and its stylistic elegance, all neatly fitting into a 10 line jewel of poetry. Unlike the bulk of Catullus's oeuvre, which has for its most common subjects love and sex, in all their heights and depths - from marriage hymns to scurrilous poems more appropriately adorning subway walls as graffiti - this poem simply expresses the poet's sadness in profoundly solemn tones, invoking, in almost ritualistic manner, the Roman funeral rites ("inferias" in the original) due the dead by family. Some scholars feel that it might have been inscribed on the tomb. The gifts mentioned would have been modest ones, e.g., wine, lentils, honey and flowers.

Although the translation above is antiquated, it nicely renders the Latin. Others abound, including the three I also prefer, listed below.


This moving tribute to his brother has inspired poets from Virgil to Dryden to Foscolo to Swinburne to Tennyson. It is devilishly difficult to translate while simultaneously capturing the pathos and craft of a poet who was equally master of the short and long form. Catullus 85, describing his love for Lesbia in raw terms successfully corralled into just two famous lines, may be Catullus's best known work but 101 is, for many, a more skillful blend of technique and sensibility.

Although a discussion of some of Catullus's poetic devices is beyond the scope of this annotation (see Howe below), a quick look at the original Latin will reveal the soft sound of all those labial "m"'s in the poem. The repetition of "brother" in Latin lines 2, 6, 10, in exactly identical locations, i.e., following the caesura of the first half of the line, is no co-incidence and, as my son points out, becomes a "hymnic refrain".

Catullus 101 is a moving text richly rewarding for students of the medical humanities, whether it be medical anthropology and the study of funeral rites or elegiac tributes to dead relatives (compare, in this database, "Lament" by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elegy by Mary Jo Bang, "Autopsy in the Form of an Elegy" by John Stone,  "On My First Sonne" by Ben Jonson and, of course, Inventions of Farewell: A Book of Elegies edited by Sandra Gilbert).





Catullus Translations website:

Other notable translations:
Fitzgerald, Robert. Spring Shade: Poems, 1931-1970. New Directions Publishing, 1971, page 174
Gregory, Horace. The Poems of Catullus. Grove Press, 1956, page 167.
Martin, Charles. The Poems of Catullus. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, page 138.

Howe, Nicholas Phillies. "The" Terce Muse" of Catullus 101." Classical Philology 69.4 (1974): 274-276.

Primary Source

The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Volume II


John Murray

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