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The Erotic Bard of Ancient Rome

The life of Roman poet Catullus was stranger than fiction, but a new biography speculates far more than any history should.

“This bedspread, / Embroidered with the shapes of men / Who lived long ago, unveils the virtue of heroes / Through the miracle of art.” These lines, from a mini-epic by the Roman poet Catullus, speak of a coverlet given to Thetis, mother of Achilles, on her wedding day; Catullus is about to set its embroidered scene into motion using the “miracle” of poetry. With a racy title—Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet—and the use of this quote as epigram, classicist Daisy Dunn lays claim to a parallel miracle: The reanimation, for modern readers, of the poet himself. It’s a noble goal, but one that can be pulled off only by resorting to the dark arts of historical biography—guesswork, speculation, and the reconstruction of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Dunn’s book raises questions about how far these forms of necromancy can be taken before nonfiction passes over into fiction, and scholarship is eclipsed by romance.            

The lure of these dark arts is strong for any scholar who approaches Catullus; the voice and emotional candor of this twenty-something writer—he died at age 30—are as alive as anything from ancient Rome. I vividly recall my first encounter, more than three decades ago, with the two dozen odes in which he charted a passionate and ultimately agonized love affair with the woman he called Lesbia, a name that evoked in his day the lyric genius of the Lesbos-born poetess, Sappho. “I hate and I love,” he wrote of his inability to get free of his obsessive passion for this woman. “Why do I do it, perhaps you will ask. / I don’t know why. But it’s happening, and it’s torment.” Catullus may have refined that elegiac couplet, today the most famous in all Latin literature, over days or weeks, but like so many of the poems about his feelings for Lesbia it reads like it poured straight out of him.

Just as his Lesbia poems course with lust and anguish, the verses Catullus addressed to male rivals, or to friends who he felt had let him down, often pullulate with rage and obscenity. Paedicabo ego vos et irrumabo is his gloriously defiant reply to two companions, Furius and Aurelius, who had criticized the indecency of his writings: “I shall fuck you in the ass and I shall fuck you in the mouth.” His fearless attacks on his enemies, even revered public figures, teem with anuses, penises, stinking armpits—one man, a certain Rufus, is said to have a wild goat living beneath his—and graphic sex acts either given or received. The saltiness of these poems has thrilled many a beginning Latin class, but their power extends beyond mere shock value. With his freewheeling aggression, his willingness to let fly at the slightest provocation, Catullus evokes the modern Beat poets; the “neoteric” school to which he belonged was just as daring as theirs in breaking with literary tradition.

Harper, 366 pages, $25

Catullus’ corpus of 116 poems connect us powerfully to his inner life, but to what degree do they describe his life? They come down to us in the order assigned by some ancient editor, grouped by their metrical schemes—essentially a random shuffle. Few can be pinned to a date during Catullus’ decade of adult life, the mid-60’s to the mid-50’s B.C., or even sequenced relative to each other. The problems posed by such undateable texts are complex, as I learned recently when writing about the Roman philosopher Seneca, whose tragic dramas also stand outside chronology. Fortunately, since Seneca played a leading role in politics, contemporary writers supply the framework of his life. Catullus by contrast was small-time, a provincial from Verona (Dunn misleadingly calls him a Gaul) who lived among the great at Rome but never attained greatness.  “Practically everything that can be known about him must be extracted from his book of poetry,” Dunn writes in her prologuean admission, seemingly, that extreme measures will need to be taken.

Dunn’s first foray into the realm of the dark arts comes when she identifies Lesbia as Clodia Metelli, the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher—a leading politician of Catullus’ day, a bizarre, bad-boy aristocrat next to whom Donald Trump might seem a sober statesman. This is not an egregious leap of faith; an ancient source with good authority tells us that Lesbia’s real name was Clodia, and Catullus himself reveals, in one of his poems, that Lesbia’s brother was named Pulcher. The trouble is that Clodius had three sisters, all of whom were named Clodia, and at least one recent scholar has strongly argued that a different Clodia was the woman who drove young Catullus half-insane. Since the Clodia Metelli theory is central to Dunn’s story—especially given that much is known about Clodia Metelli’s scandalous sex life, including a rumored affair with her brother, is detailed in an extant speech by Cicero—it matters deeply that it is only a theory. Yet the constructs Dunn builds upon this flawed foundation—the imagined first meeting of Catullus and Clodia, their efforts to keep their affair secret from Metellus, the correlations of Catullus’ Lesbia poems with what is known (or at least rumored, in a surviving diatribe by Cicero) facts of Clodia Metelli’s scandalous sex life—assume it has the solidity of fact. Dunn’s single, poorly reasoned footnote does little to address a problem that should have been acknowledged openly, in her text.

Once she has set foot on the slippery slope of speculation, Dunn’s slide becomes precipitous. Furius, the friend whom Catullus jeeringly threatened with oral and anal rape, is identified on thin evidence as a satirist named Marcus Furius Bibaculus, whom Dunn thereafter refers to confidently as “Catullus’ rival” because the historical Bibaculus wrote in verse. A little boat that Catullus addresses in one of his lighter compositions is made to serve a very specific role in his life, bearing him back through the Black Sea on his return from an administrative tour of duty in the East. In her footnotes Dunn gropes for obscure scholarly support or ancient testimony to shore up these guesses. Her last pages, which conjure up a scene of public mourning for Catullus—when in fact nothing is known about his death or burial—are sourced only to an Italian Renaissance writer who may, or may not, have had access to a now-lost work by the Roman historian Suetonius.

What’s maddening is that Dunn, by going just a bit further down this road, could have written an interesting novel, exactly what Thornton Wilder chose to do in his now-obscure 1948 novel The Ides of March when confronted with the same material. Dunn’s technique is indeed close to that of a fiction writer in much of Catullus’ Bedspread, as when she imagines, in ways that go far beyond the poems, what her characters were sensing or thinking. To describe, as Dunn does, the herbs and flowers Catullus smelled as he made his way to a dinner at Metellus’ house on the Palatine hill, one day in the early 60s B.C., requires a novelist’s imagination. Did such a moment ever take place? Dunn takes her cue from Catullus’ famous translation of an ode of Sappho, poem 51, describing his jealous feelings as he watches his adored Lesbia converse with another man. Others before her have guessed that this is the earliest of the Lesbia poems, written shortly after Catullus had first met his future lover. But even if that is true—already a huge leap—the dinner party that Dunn stages as the venue of their encounter is pure invention, never mind Catullus’ sensations as he went to that party.

Catullus lived through a crucial era of Roman history—the late Republic, a time of decaying political structures, megalomaniac leaders and huge influxes of wealth—and dwelt among some of its more colorful personalities. He knew, at a distance, the rising Julius Caesar, and several times poked irreverent fun at Rome’s most glorious general (Caesar later had him over for dinner and forgave him, an ancient source tells us). He heard Cicero declaim, and befriended a man he called Caelius, quite possibly the orator Marcus Caelius Rufus, whom Cicero defended in a still-famous legal speech. And, he fell passionately in love with one of the sisters of Clodius Pulcher, the most prominent and flamboyant political figure of his day. The temptation to connect the dots, to make Catullus’ poems the through-line by which this rich era can be explored, is indeed hard to resist. But the collection must first be chronologically sequenced, and the identity of Lesbia, Caelius, and others of their dramatis personae established with certainty—feats that can’t be pulled off without recourse to black magic.

It would be a sad irony indeed if Dunn’s questionable methods ended up reducing, not enhancing, the power of the poems she so clearly loves—her translation of the entire Catullan corpus of 116 poems appeared in a separate volume earlier this year. Yet, for me at least, her over-precise contextualizations of the poems cannot help but diminish them. The poet Charles Martin spoke of this danger in his superb 1992 book on Catullus, a warning Dunn might have heeded: “Assuming that there is a kind of two-way bridge between life and work, to be crossed easily and profitably in both directions, almost always results in a misreading of the poems.” Perhaps Catullus loved Clodia Pulcher, or perhaps it was another woman of the same name; in either case the Lesbia he created is not Clodia Pulcher, just as Dante’s Beatrice is not simply Beatrice Portinari. We do wrong to pluck this imago out of the ardent fancies of a young man’s mind, as Dunn would have us do, and thrust her into a world of near-cinematic realism.