Spin? We've seen it all before

April 2, 2004

The Roman poet Catullus, whose odes about life and love are still taught in schools, has been revealed as a classical equivalent of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former communications chief.

Classicist Kate Hammond, a former senior member of Mr Blair's policy delivery unit, has charted the poet's politically motivated attacks on a number of leading Roman figures, most prominently Julius Caesar. The study will be presented on Friday at the Classical Association conference at Leeds University.

Ms Hammond's revision of Catullus' reputation as a sensitive, if sometimes obscene, writer was in part inspired by new Labour's use of the media, which was especially effective at attacking John Major's Conservative government.

In particular, Ms Hammond found that the new levels of sophistication and planning in directing the press to pick off adulterous Tories during the party's Back to Basics campaign bore a striking resemblance to Catullus'

innovative use of invective poetry to damage the political standing of his opponents.

Ms Hammond, who last year left the government unit, said that although there was no equivalent to the party political system in Rome, politics pervaded the lives of many people.

Essential to a Roman's political standing was their personal prestige and reputation, of which their sexual behaviour was regarded as an important element.

Catullus was born in Verona in 82BC to a wealthy family. He dedicated himself to poetry and is renowned for his verses about his doomed love affair with Lesbia, sister of a key ally of Caesar.

But Ms Hammond believes the extent to which he also used his poems to wield a rebellious form of political influence has been largely overlooked.

When Catullus labelled Caesar the "poof Romulus", "shameless, a glutton and a gambler" and used more abusive terms to describe his supposed relationship with his friend and adviser Mamurra, the poet was attacking his manhood and hence his political credibility.

Accusations of moral degeneracy were accompanied by claims that Caesar's celebrated conquests were being squandered.

The poems were distributed around the Roman Forum while Caesar was fighting in Britain and Gaul.

Ms Hammond found that Catullus used his poetry to comment on the conduct of a host of political figures, including the statesman Pompey and the orator Cicero.

The strategy seems to have been effective. A century later, the Roman historian Suetonius noted: "Gaius Valerius Catullus had also libelled him (Caesar) in his verses about Mamurra, yet Caesar, while admitting that these were a permanent blot on his name, accepted Catullus' apology, and never interrupted his friendship with Catullus' father."

Ms Hammond noted: "He attacked political figures through their private lives, just as new Labour's spin machine deliberately targeted the soft underbelly of John Major's Conservatives as part of Labour's bid to regain political credibility and power."

She said that had Catullus been alive today, he would probably have been a member of the press. Or possibly even a spin doctor.

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