Catullus Caring Less about Caesar and his Color

· Comment

I do not seem to have much success with my politically or historically-flavored articles (with a couple of exceptions), but this should hardly diminish my latent, if not active, interest in such matters.  Here, for the second time in the space of a week, I am inspired by the Roman poet of Caesar’s time, Catullus.  What he said, although we may be drawing conclusions from his words that he would deny, is that he was neither impressed by the emperor, nor cared about his skin color.  Whether the question of cutaneous pigmentation was of concern to Caesar, is something unbeknown to me at the time of this writing, but it would appear to be the case, if we take Catullus’s epigram seriously, and which we will first transcribe in Latin:

Nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere,

Nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo.

We will translate this as:

I do not care even slightly, Roman top banana

        Caesar; whether mother’s white, or too-tanned Africana.

The more literal intent should be clear from the focus of this short article.  Indeed, we clearly see even in my version of the first line, signs of indifference which however were expressed in Latin as indifference to wanting to please Caesar. How lucky for Catullus that he was not attempting to supplant either the former’s power!

We can suggest that we in our present society might have the same attitude towards our rulers, especially convenient during times of the election of our representatives, so as not to overestimate what they might do for us, or what we might be for them.  In this regard, we have the words of John F. Kennedy:

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

The expression is quite intelligent, because it does not give a clearly-defined political point of view.  Here we have a Democrat telling his base – unlike many current politicians of his party – not to request that the Nation be Santa Claus.

Although the final part of the statement might sound like a call to patriotism expected by and of Republicans, it could never be ruled out by the Democrats. This is true, because it suggests government involvement on a large level, and this would be impossible without the cooperation of the citizenry.  The Republican version may or may not be the same, but tradition would have it, that the government should be small, while carrying a big stick.

Were Catullus alive today, he might say something like the following, in which I play with words not quite with the success I would like to have in imparting both my clear and subtle meaning:

I do not care, “Caesalery”, to be any more pleasing

Than a poor deplorable, hungry and freezing

Your party might be led by one who’s white or black

But my vote will be based on the things which I lack.

It’s the economy, stupid!”*

*(Modification of Bill Clinton campaign slogan.)

In the second part of Catullus’s verse, we see his indifference to Caesar’s skin color. We have not found any reason for this to have been an issue one way or another.

Perhaps the poet was a racist with respect to lesser mortals, and the reference in the epigram was merely to show his real or feigned contempt for Caesar, a supposed friend.

The color question may have had nothing to do with Caesar himself so much, as with Caesar, the embodiment of the Empire. Here we do have questions on complexion:

  • The empire was full of both white and black slaves, coming from Gaul, Germania, Africa, and the Mediterranean countries in general.
  • Although blonde was a color decreed for the use of “women of lesser nobility in their affairs” (note that I employ a euphemism), some Roman women wanted to imitate their Northern “sisters”. This was commented upon by Tertullian: “It is … wicked to plaster oneself with cosmetics. As for those who dye their hair, do they desire to turn themselves into Gauls or Germans?” (
  • Before the fall of the Roman Empire, it had had emperors not only from among the Romans and Latins in general, but also from Syria (Philip the Arab), a Thracian, at least one Pannonian, leaders from Hispania, an empress in Constantinople, (Pulcheria), another from Cyprus (Theodora); and Septimus Severus (from what is now Libya).

Some of these ethnicities are unclear, and it may be unfair to include members of the Eastern Empire, but the multiethnic character is unmistakable even in the leadership.

In conclusion, as our comments specifically relates to a poet of the Golden Age of Roman literature writing perhaps for his own glory, we conclude that at that time, we see here that there was a maturity of thinking, in questions of deference to authority, and about race – at least in some quarters – that put many contemporaries to shame.

September 20, 2019

Copyright © 2019, Paul Karl Moeller




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: