A dangerous subject, poetry, since the cultural aspects of metaphor tend to be lost to time when reading it; although, perhaps, we should give it a try none the less:
Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
Da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
Dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
Deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
Let us live, my Lesbia, and also love,
Give me kisses a thousand, thereafter a hundred,
Then another thousand, next a second hundred,
thereafter yet another thousand, next a hundred.
One can almost imagine Catullus raising his hand to the sky as he speaks to the thousands, then bringing it down again, upon his face, to speak of the hundreds. The poet speaks of heaven and hell, of the best and the worst, the high and the low. The dichotomy plays on a certain idea, that even the worst is the best when Lesbia is around to kiss him. It is clear what Catullus wants, basia mille is his whole purpose, he even demands it, for Da is a Present Active Imperative verb, characterized for the dropping of the s in das, the regular Present Active Indicative. Why is Catullus so demanding? Well, it is Catullus. As far as we know, he never spoke to his Lesbia (a pseudonym for the girl he supposedly loved), or spent some time having an affair and she dumped him in the end. It is perhaps in this light that he expresses his frustration, demanding kisses he will never get again. In other parts of this particular poem, Catullus also speaks of the rumors of old men, and how Lesbia and him should just ignore them and enjoy each other. This poem is definitely a precursor to what we will see in the Medieval and Renaissance periods with poetry: lots of longing, lots of kiss-asking, and suffering, lots of suffering, for another.
In regards to the name Lesbia, there are quite a few theories. One of them is that the girl – and if it is Rome and she is not married she would be no more than fourteen – or married woman he is after had relationships with other women. The reference there of course is another poet, much more ancient than Catullus, Sappho of Lesbos (Lesbos is an island in the north-eastern Aegean). Another theory is that Sappho proper, who also wrote of the beauty of women and her passion for them is the one Catullus is referencing because she was an inspiration to him – if you have ever wondered where the word ‘lesbian’ came from, now you have an answer. A third theory is that the woman was named Lesbia because in Ancient Greek women from Lesbos (Lesbians) were renowned for their fellatio skills. Any theory is as good as the next for, in the end, we just don’t know.
As for me, I think Lesbia was Claudia Metelli Celeris, and her name was encoded to avoid the public finding out about their encounters; Cicero seems to me to make some good points in regards to who Lesbia was in one of his speeches.
So vivamus atque amemus, reader. Let us live and let us love. Let us long for and seek after love, for there is something Catullus said that affects us all. Whether one kiss or a ton, it is living and loving that makes us human the most.