Catullus 63: Looking at the Data of the Diction

The diction of Catullus 63 is elevated and poetic, but at certain key moments become notably plain and prosaic, as can be seen through a statistical look at the words he uses, argues Tessa Cassidy (’20)

Cybele, Goddess of Civilization, from the Goddesses of the Greeks and Romans series (N188) issued by Wm. S. Kimball & Co. 1889
Cybele, Goddess of Civilization, from the Goddesses of the Greeks and Romans series (N188) issued by Wm. S. Kimball & Co. 1889. Metropolitan Museum.

The sixty-third poem in Catullus preserved collection deals with the story of Attis, a follower of the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele. At the climax of the poem Attis castrates himself to become one of the Cybele’s priests. While the subject matter in itself is interesting, as it causes you to wonder what could drive someone to do such a thing, looking at the combination and use of diction are also very interesting. Catullus, while using poetic word choice throughout, does not stick to one certain theme. Rather, we see Greek and “Asian” diction (i.e., Greek associated with Asia Minor, present day Turkey, Cybele’s homeland) along with diction that evokes the imagery of the wild animals. This raises the question as to what it means when Catullus deviates from the poetic structure he creates throughout the whole poem. I will attempt to address this question using R.G.G. Coleman’s explanation of poetic diction in context of the poetic register, along with research compiled on the relative poeticism scores of synonyms, a project that I worked on with Beth Eidam.

Critics have taken various views on the structure and key themes of Catullus 63. For Gerald N. Sandy, the constant imagery throughout the poem is centered around that of herds and wild beasts. Sandy looks at the specific diction used to describe Attis and the environment to draw this conclusion.[1] The reason for this, Sandy writes, is because the idea of the “herd-predator may very well be rooted in the cult traditions of Cybele.”[2] John P. Elder focuses more broadly on the poem, asserting that there should be emphasis on Catullus’ general curiosity and the intrigue of writing about such a wild subject in the Roman poetic context. Elder focuses at one point on the how the use of speeches in poem act as good transition points and emphasis on the emotion.[3] This idea is what has caused me to narrow my focus onto Attis’ second speech, where he reflects and laments the dire consequences of his castration. It is in this speech that we see a deviation in the general structure of the poem and what allows to see the emotional anguish of Attis. I think that this idea works with Sandy’s point of the generally wild imagery of the poem, because without this imagery as a backdrop Attis’ second speech would not stand out as much.

All scholars and commentators note the unusually high degree of high poetic diction and Grecism in this poem. Beth’s and my statistical research on the use of Latin synonyms can help quantify and qualify this picture, and help us better understand the poeticism of Catullus 63. R.G.G. Coleman makes the point that the poetic register cannot be defined by looking for characteristics that are only present in poetry, but one will find the definition by comparing the diction, devices and meter to that of prose.[4] “It is not just the presence of this or that linguistic item that is definitive, but rather the texture a whole passage, formed from the accumulation of other ingredients summarized in the concluding paragraphs,” such as meter, special vocabulary, archaism, Grecism, metaphor, and other poetic devices.[5]

It is through the idea that you must look at poetic diction in relation to prose that inspired the more data driven end of this research project. That is the goal to compile a set of synonyms from Döderlein’s Hand-book of Latin Synonyms, using Opera Latina’s LASLA database. The LASLA database, which is a system that has complied the works of nineteen different Latin writers, allows you to get the number of occurrences through works of those nineteen writers. We used this database to calculate the relative poeticism of a word.  Here is a visual example of what exactly the equation we used to make create a poeticism score using AMO (to love) as the example:

calculation used to create poteicism scores

As you can see, amo, amare has the poeticism score of .90 which puts it very high on the poeticism scale, the highest score being 1.0, which would mean zero occurrences of the word in prose. We kept track of the scored synonyms using a spreadsheet, which also completed the calculations for us.

Coleman’s article does not use such data, but his discussion helps put the data in context. He makes the point that the words of Catullus 85 are common and devoid of blatant poeticism, but it still an incredibly moving poem in spite of its plainness.

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.

   nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love. You may well ask, why I do so.

I do not know, but I feel it and suffer. (trans. C.H. Sisson, 1967)

Coleman notes that there is nothing poetic about the vocabulary in the poem as it is generally pretty plain, however it still conveys an incredibly deep and poetic tone.[6] I thought that given this assertion it would be interesting to use the poeticism scale to see if it matched up with Coleman’s view of the plainness of the vocabulary. Below I have taken the verbs from the poem and provided a table with the poeticism score calculations along with their synonyms to compare.

Poem verb odi amo facio requiro nescio fio sentio excrucior
Poeticism score .81 .90 .59 .69 .71 0.58 .68 .81
Synonym invideo diligo gero rogo ignoro no synonyms cognosco No synonyms
Poeticism score .70 .49 .57 .57 .47   .37  
Synonym     ago       intellego  
Poeticism score     .59       .17  


As you can see, the numbers don’t automatically prove Coleman’s point. Most of the verbs in the poem our well over the .50 line. Even when you compare the synonyms to each other, Catullus’ choices evidently seem more poetic. However, this does not negate the point Coleman makes, for you have to take the relative commonness of the verbs into account. Odi (I hate) and amo (I love) are both more common than their synonyms, it should also be considered that verbs of feeling especially around love might be more prevalent in poetic works due to the subject matter. Requiro (“ask”) is an outlier, as rogo is much more prosaic in comparison. But their poeticism scores are not entirely different. Sentio and fio are different, because while there are potential synonyms to compare to, synonyms relative definitions do arcuately convey Catullus’ meaning.

This does not take away from Coleman’s argument, but strengthens it, since Coleman does not believe that we can define the poetic register in isolation and especially not just through vocabulary. If anything, the scores proves the importance of the looking at the sentence as whole. Even though the words are more poetic on the scale, they are not exotic, but instead words that one might use when describing the torment of emotion, and it is this simplicity that make makes it effective. Everyone is able to understand the feeling of love and hate, and the torturing ambiguity that those feelings can bring. If we had simply looked at the verbs and in the context of the poeticism scale, the meaning would have been lost from the poem and from Coleman’s argument that relatively common diction can still be used in a poetic context. With all of this in mind it is time to use the same methodology I used to analyze Catullus 85 and delve into Catullus 63.

At certain points of Attis’ lament the relatively plain vocabulary and structure makes the consequences of such a bizare subject approachable to Catullus’ Roman audience and thus create a connection through the translatable tragedy. For this purpose, I will not go over the entire speech but focus on two lines that nicely represent Catullus’ use of plain diction within the speech. Let us look then at lines 59–60: “patria, bonis, amicis genitoribus abero?/Abero foro, palaestra, stadio et gymnasiis?”  (Will I be absent from the father land, good things, friends and family? / Will I be absent from the forum, the palestra, the stadium and the gymnasium? )

Poem Word patria bonus amicus gens forum palaestra stadium gymnasium
Poeticism Score .63 .52 .68 .66 .51 .87 .25 .75

The diction in these lines in general is, statistically speaking, not very poetic, and some parts again seems to reference Rome. Palaestra and gymansium stand out a little, but they still conjure up normal parts of Greek social life.[7] Stadium too should fit in with palaestra and gymansium, but the common use of it in measurement contexts seems to have skewed the score toward prose. The reason for the relatively plain score for the words could mean that Catullus was trying to bring this image into a more translatable context, similar to that of Catullus 85. That is, he does not need to pepper these lines with poetic diction to show Attis’ despair and loss, rather the plainness seems to augment his lament. Imagine the lament of an exiled college student: “Will I be away  from the classroom, my stuff, my friends and my roommates? Will I be away from the dining hall, the football games, and the library?” The words are simple, and because of this the aguish of the exile from them would also be easily understood and felt.

Through the analysis of Catullus 63 with the poeticism scale, we can come to understand a key technique that Catullus uses in order to convey a deep poetic meaning, similar to that of Catullus 85. In a complex manner he builds up a poem with distinctly standard and highly poetic structure. It is with this structure as a backdrop, that Catullus draws the most on emotion to emphasize the tragedy and torment of Attis’ situation through his deviation. On the topic of why Catullus chooses this poem, I like Elders’ explanation the most: the topic of emasculation shown through the cultic practices of the priests of Cybele would have been horrifying and intriguing, leaving the only safe route to explore the situation, through literary works. Catullus then explores the plight of a Greek character but using Roman nuances to make the story translatable to his audience.


[1] Gerald N Sandy, “The Imagery of Catullus 63,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 99 (1968): 389–399, at 390.

[2] Sandy, “The Imagery of Catullus 63,” 399.

[3] John P. Elder, “Catullus’ Attis,” The American Journal of Philology 68, no. 4 (January 1, 1947): 375.

[4] R.G.G. Coleman, “Poetic Diction, Poetic Discourse and the Poetic Register” Proceedings of the British Academy (1999): 22.

[5] Coleman, “Poetic Diction,” 92.

[6] Coleman, 55.

[7] Ruurd Nauta, “Catullus 63 In a Roman Context.” Mnemosyne 57, no. 5 (2004): 624.