Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet
William Collins 320pp £16.99
Gaius Valerius Catullus: The Poems of Catullus, a New Translation
William Collins 176pp £8.99
The catchy subtitle of Daisy Dunn’s biography of Catullus does not do justice to its scope. Catullus’ short life (84-54 BC) covers the period when Rome stood on the brink of a civil war that would result in the Republic being swept away to bring to power Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. Catullus’ Bedspread is loosely structured around the story that Catullus’ first-person lyric tempts us to reconstruct (but never explicitly tells), namely his love for the woman he called Lesbia, probably the aristocratic Clodia, married sister of Cicero’s nemesis, Publius Clodius Pulcher. Catullus brings a wide range of characters into this drama of infatuation and betrayal, a love story appropriate to the turbulence of the late Republic and touching on some of the great events of the time without directly engaging them. Around Catullus’ poems Dunn weaves a picture of his world that is full of evocative detail: one of the chief pleasures of this book is its attention to the material and sensuous aspects of Roman life, which refreshes the rather abstract ancient Rome of most history books. Whether it be the novelty of Rome’s first permanent theatre, built by Pompey, the recipe for the ubiquitous fish sauce garum or Roman attitudes to baldness, Dunn shows us the world that Catullus would have experienced.
She is also a sensitive and knowledgeable critic of Catullus’ poetry, quoted in excerpts from her translation of his work. Catullus covers a broad range of emotional and stylistic registers; his love poetry veers from the tender to the obscene and the violent and, in the poem which gives Catullus’ Bedspread its name, we find a long, extravagantly mannered description of the coverlet of a wedding bed, which depicts the story of Ariadne. Dunn’s translations are not equally successful with all of Catullus’ modes, but where she scores is in the ability to capture the elegant simplicity of his poetry, which often suffers from the translator’s desire to make it more ‘poetic’.
Reconstructing Catullus’ life is difficult, as we have little to go on apart from his poems. Cicero’s letters help Dunn to put flesh on the names of the friends and enemies that Catullus’ poetry celebrates and excoriates, and on the fragile political alliances formed, broken and re-formed under Catullus’ sceptical eye, but even the loquacious Cicero has nothing to say about Catullus. Perhaps Dunn’s biography takes Catullus the poet too much at his word. In ancient Rome, first-person poetry was even less constrained by truth than it is now. I am not sure that we can say with any confidence, for instance, that Catullus was ‘partial to cunnilingus’, as Dunn tells us, but she gives us a good sense of what his peers might have thought of him if he were, which is characteristic of the range of this most enjoyable book.
William Fitzgerald is Professor of Latin Literature and Language at King’s College London and author of How to Read a Latin Poem: If You Can’t Read Latin Yet (Oxford, 2013).