Byron's Indebtedness to Martial and Catullus

By Higashinaka, Itsuyo | The Byron Journal, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Byron's Indebtedness to Martial and Catullus

Higashinaka, Itsuyo, The Byron Journal


Byron was interested in the epigram throughout his life, and learned the art of writing epigrams primarily by reading Catullus and Martial, though Alexander Pope was also an influence. Byron not only translated and imitated the Romans' epigrams but also wrote his own. He was interested, like the Romans, in dealing with quotidian human activities such as love, friendship, wining, dining and so forth. On top of these topics, Byron makes a point of following in the Romans' footsteps by using the form to comment on the writing profession. This article demonstrates the extent to which Byron shared, and was indebted to, some of the epigrammatical tendencies of Martial and Catullus, as well as, to a lesser degree, Pope.

In Don Juan, Donna Inez does not want her son to read Classical authors because she 'dreaded the mythology' (I, 41).1 She tries to censor Classical writers mainly on moral grounds. The narrator, with tongue in cheek, agrees with her apprehension, saying:

Ovid's a rake, as half his verses show him,

Anacreon's morals are a still worse sample,

Catullus scarcely has a decent poem,

I don't think Sappho's Ode a good example [...]

And then what proper person can be partial

To all those nauseous epigrams of Martial? (I, 42-43)

As the narrator points out, one finds an abundance of obscenity in Catullus and Martial. Yet we know that Byron was quite interested in these two Roman poets, since he both translated and imitated a fair number of their poems.

Martial wrote over 1,500 epigrams. The total number of Catullus' poems, as handed down to us, is 116, and about half of them are generally considered epigrams.2 Byron's Hours of Idleness includes two translations and one imitation of Catullus.3 One translation famously concerns the death of Lesbia's sparrow. The other translation shows how Catullus is affected by his love for Lesbia by enumerating his physical reactions. The imitation is addressed to 'Ellen' while Catullus' original poem is addressed to Juventius. It is about the poet's insatiable appetite for kisses. As far as translations and imitations are concerned, Byron sticks to the Roman poet's love poems. But he also mentions Catullus elsewhere. In Don Juan, for example, he apostrophises the god of love as follows: 'Oh Love! Of whom great Caesar was the suitor, / Titus the master, Antony the slave, / Horace, Catullus, scholars, Ovid tutor' (II, 205). In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Thomas Moore is compared to Catullus and humorously censured thus: ''Tis LITTLE! Young Catullus of his day, / As sweet, but as immoral in his lay' (287-88). Catullus wrote about various facets of love both heterosexual and homosexual. Love is both passion and farce for him. It is often linked to scabrous physical detail. In a note to The Island, Byron mentions the name of Catullus when he refers to Savage Landor's Latin poems, 'which vie with Martial or Catullus in obscenity'.4

'Edleston', written in Latin in 1811 or 1812, is a dirge lamenting the death of the Cambridge choirboy, with whom Byron was, as he told Elizabeth Pigot, in love.5 According to Jerome McGann, this poem is indebted to Catullus' two elegies on the death of his brother.6 Why did Byron resort to Latin to express his ardent love of, and lament for, Edleston? No doubt, by writing in Latin, he was covering up his Greek love, but he was also paying homage to Catullus. While Byron ironically claims to consider Catullus an immoral poet, he does not choose to translate or imitate those poems that show this aspect of the Latin poet. Catullus wrote epigrams on various subjects: love, friendship, the writing profession and the human infirmities and oddities to be found in the quotidian life of Rome. So does Byron in his own epigrams and other poems.

As for Martial, Byron either translated or imitated his epigrams even more often than those of Catullus. According to McGann, Byron's output based upon Martial amounts to ten poems in total and includes two translations, seven imitations and one adaptation, all written in 1812, except for one translation, which was produced in 1822. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Byron's Indebtedness to Martial and Catullus


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.