Graecia Capta: Sappho and Catullus

Photo: artwork by Mati Davis, based on Lesbia and her Sparrow by Edward John Poynter and In the Days of Sappho by John William Godward

Graecia Capta: Sappho and Catullus

By Mati Davis


Sappho 31

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν

ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι

ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-

σας ὐπακούει


καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ᾽ ἦ μὰν

καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·

ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ᾽ ἴδω βρόχε᾽, ὤς με φώναι-

σ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ἔτ᾽ εἴκει,


ἀλλ᾽ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε†, λέπτον

δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,

ὀππάτεσσι δ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ὄρημμ᾽, ἐπιρρόμ-

βεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι,


†έκαδε μ᾽ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται†, τρόμος δὲ

παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας

ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ᾽ ὀλίγω ᾽πιδεύης

φαίνομ᾽ ἔμ᾽ αὔται·


That man seems on par with immortals

That is, whoever sits opposite you

And listens closely while you

Sweetly hum


While you chuckle,

my heart quakes in my chest

And when dare to look at you,

a murmur cannot escape


My tongue collapses,

a sudden flame races under my skin,

sight flees my eyes,

And a buzz rings in my ears


Next, a cold sweat dissolves,

a quake traps me, and,

skin greener than grass, I appear

A few moments from mortality



Catullus 51

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,

ille, si fas est, superare divos

qui sedens adversus identidem te

spectat et audit


dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis

eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,

Lesbia, adspexi, nihil est super mi

<vocis in ore;>


lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus

flamma demanat, sonitu suopte

tintinant aures, gemina teguntur

lumina nocte.


otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:

otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:

otium et reges prius et beatas

perdidit urbes.



He looks like he’s on par with a god,

He seems, dare I say, even to eclipse one.

He sits across from you and has

both eyes and ears tuned in


To your sweet laughter, which snatches

Every sense from my miserable self.

As my eyes come upon you, no sound remains

Inside my throat.


My tongue is petrified,

a fire ripples through my bones,

my ears rattle with their own noise, and

night drapes both my eyes.


Peace stresses you, Catullus;

Peace makes you jump up and throw yourself around;

Peace has ruined kings and cities

Long before you.



Author’s Statement

These two poets focus on the same theme as the previous part of this series: love’s pains. Catullus’ poem 51 hovers somewhere between allusion and direct quotation of Sappho’s poem 31. These two are as interesting for their similarities as for their differences. Even though they follow nearly the same formula, Catullus deftly contrasts Sappho’s romantic euphoria with his own frenzied agony. Read together, one poem plays off the other, conveying the extreme positives and negatives that one experiences while falling in love.


Mati Davis (College ’21) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies with a minor in Computer Science.