Laments for Lost Friends in Ancient Rome

The below are two of the most moving poems to have survived from Ancient Rome. The poets Catullus and Horace comfort close friends on the death of someone dear to them. Both odes are deeply poignant in their grief, but also use poetry to wilfully defy mortality itself by showing that those we loved are never truly lost to us.

In poem 96, Catullus comforts his friend Calvus on the death of his wife, telling him that her spirit is gladdened by the love her husband shows in his great grief:


If anything from our grief, can reach beyond
the silent tomb, Calvus, and be pleasing and welcome,
grief with which, in longing, we revive our lost loves,
and weep for vanished friendships once known,
surely Quintilia is not so much grieved at her early death,
as joyful for your love.

In Ode 1.24, Horace comforts the famous poet of the Aeneid, Virgil, at the death of their mutual friend and teacher Quintilius. I have only included the last 3 stanzas as they are the ones I want to discuss here. Horace tells his friend that no amount of grieving can help them to bring their friend back, comparing Virgil to Orpheus, the mythical poet who performed for the King of the underworld to try in vain to bring back his wife from the dead. The god Mercury was the guardian of the boundaries between the upper and lower worlds, and Horace reminds us that those who pass by him are never suffered to return.


Many are the good men who weep for his dying,
none of them, Virgil, weep more profusely than you.
Piously, you ask the gods for him, alas, in vain:
not so was he given to us.

Even if you played on the Thracian lyre, listened
to by the trees, more sweetly than Orpheus could,
would life then return, to that empty phantom,
once Mercury, with fearsome wand,

who won’t simply re-open the gates of Fate
at our bidding, has gathered him to the dark throng?
It is hard: but patience makes more tolerable
whatever wrong’s to be righted.

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Catullus 5: To live and to love

In Catullus 5 love is the essence of life. The poet’s energy, inspired by love, is an infinite force that is a thousand times more powerful than the malicious rumours and prying eyes that seek to destroy it. It even has the power to challenge the eternity of death.

The poem is addressed to Lesbia, the subject of many of his poems. Lesbia is a pseudonym, probably for Clodia, wife of the illustrious Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. She was a woman made famous for her affairs, her gambling, and her drinking. She was even suspected of murdering her husband in 59BC, when he died in mysterious circumstances. How much of this is true we cannot really know. We do know from Catullus’ poetry that his affair was a tempestuous one; poem 85 famously begins with the lines ‘I hate and I love’. But Catullus 5 was composed in a happier moment, although the pair are already threatened by the shadowy presence of onlookers.

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and all the rumours of stern old men
are worth just a single penny to me.
Suns may set and rise again,
but for us, when our brief light is ended,
night is but one everlasting sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
another thousand, a second hundred,
another thousand again, and a hundred.
Then, when we have counted the many thousands,
confuse them, so the number is hidden,
and some enemy may not cast his evil eye,
knowing the total of our kisses.

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Catullus 101: A Brother’s Farewell

For my next poem I have jumped ahead several centuries to Republican Rome and the poetry of Catullus. Writing in the first century BC Catullus is perhaps the most popular Roman poet today. Passionate, funny, rude, and pretty graphic at times, he is a prevailing favourite of the classical world.

I have chosen to start with one of his most moving poems, addressed to the grave at his brother’s funeral.

Through many countries and over many seas
I have come, Brother, to these melancholy rites,
to show this final honour to the dead,
and speak (to what purpose?) to your silent ashes,
since now fate takes you, even you, from me.
Oh, Brother, ripped away from me so cruelly,
now at least take these last offerings, blessed
by the tradition of our parents, gifts to the dead.
Accept, by custom, what a brother’s tears drown,
and, for eternity, Brother, ‘Hail and Farewell’.

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