Catullus has always been tremendous company. Even at school, when we had the safe stuff and the sparrow, there was a swagger to him. He’s not afraid to show envy, vulgarity, grief, failure or — most disdainfully to virtus-hardened Romans — love, passionate, over-mighty love. He trolls critics and skewers snobs. He snubs Caesar, and then, when he deigns to notice him, calls him a cinaedus, a penetrated man. He falls in love with “Lesbia”, not only because she is beautiful, but also because she has “salt”, wit. He has no time for religious fanatics (“may all your madness be far from my home”), nor for killjoys (“water, spoiler of wine . . . off you pop to the dour kind”). One can admire Virgil and approve of Horace, but one wants to be friends with Catullus, or at least have a proper drink with him.
But how to write his life? Literary biography is notoriously tricky. The nuts and bolts of historical record can rattle about in poems, slowing them down, reducing their force. Daisy Dunn largely avoids this problem with Gaius Valerius Catullus, because, as she readily admits, very little is known about him from external evidence. The man from Verona went to Rome, fell in love, lost his brother and spent a year (57-56 BC) book-keeping in Bithynia on the Black Sea coast, where he served the “fuckwit” praetor, Memmius, and counted coins instead of kisses. He returned, via Lake Garda, to Rome, and died there before he was 30. Around four years later, in 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and plunged the country into civil war. While Catullus railed at lovers and friends, Rome, the Republic, reeled from an endless succession of riots, plots and “perjured vows”.
The only way to Catullus is through his carmina, or lyrics, which were discovered, as if by a miracle, at the beginning of the 14th century. Daisy Dunn, not yet 30 herself but already editor of the Greek culture magazine Argo and a bright light in a new generation of evangelical classicists, vows to make them sing again. She succeeds through a confection of history, literary criticism and imaginative travelogue. She is an appreciative and observant guide, pointing to continuities in the landscape and teasing out ancient allusions. There are fascinating digressions — via the likes of Strabo, Ovid and Pliny — on everything from elite beards and Persian pleasure gardens to ancient contraception (two parasites from a large-headed spider were much-coveted) and the olfactory challenge of manufacturing garum, the popular fish sauce that was fermented under the sun. Dunn’s prose is Catullan in its versatility: she can be deliciously coarse and, despite the odd purple passage, lyrical. She marshals the poems into a life story, yet retains something of their fluidity, reflecting the structure of Catullus’s collection — “neither chronological nor entirely thematic, but hardly random either. Like a good music album.”
At the heart of any appreciation of Catullus is his love affair with Lesbia, rendered so tenderly, painfully and, ultimately, savagely. Dunn does not doubt that she was Clodia Metelli, the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher, the nemesis of Cicero, who wrought his revenge by smearing Clodia as a prostitute and murderess. Dunn was 17 when she first read Poem 5, in which Catullus entreats Lesbia for “a thousand kisses, then a hundred / Then another thousand, then a second hundred. / Then — don’t stop . . .” In the quickening pulse of da, dein, deinde, he felt “more alive to me than any other poet I knew”. As Dunn points out, “Latin lends itself formidably well to sexual expression.” This is particularly the case with Catullus whose Gallic tongue encouraged those languid, elided vowels that turned Lesbia, atque amemus (from the opening line of Poem 5: “We should live, my Lesbia, we should love”) into Lesbiatquamemus: “It sounded like a lover’s drawl.” Not since Nicola Shulman’s Graven with Diamonds on that other avant-garde poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt, has literary criticism seemed so thrilling.
Catullus called his poems nugae, which is usually translated as “ramblings”, but also means “mimes”. They provide snapshots of the Roman metropolis — not in the Senate, but on the streets, at dinner parties and under the covers. Here is the bed of his friend Flavius, “steeped in flowers and the oil of Syrian olive, / knackered and tattered, pillows everywhere”. There, in the newly-built colonnade of Pompey the Great, hover blank-faced young prostitutes. And in a seedy inn just nine pillars from the Temple of Castor and Pollux is “my girl, who fled my embrace” and whom Catullus now pictures servicing hundreds of punters, including “rabbity” Egnatius, “who feigns nobility with a thick beard / And teeth brushed with Iberian urine”.
He had his critics and was sensitive to them. In one self-flagellating poem, he recalls Lesbia threatening to burn his “tortuous iambics”. His response to fellow poets who dared to call his lyrics effeminate was a vicious bit of trolling that opens and closes with the line, “I shall fuck you anally and orally.” (Twitter, one feels, would have been a mistake for Catullus.) Elders like Cicero regarded his lines with the same “evil eye” that they cast upon lewd graffiti, but like the angry young men of kitchen-sink realism, Catullus was reacting to art that seemed out of the kilter with his age. He found beauty in the mundane and, like Callimachus, the Greek poet whom he admired, he sought “unworn roads”. He preferred svelte, sprightly stanzas to the baggy and grandiloquent epics that did not reflect the late Republic he knew. Catullus wasn’t interested in panegyric; his hero was not Achilles, but the urbane Roman.
When he turned to his masterpiece, what Dunn calls his “Bedspread Poem” (after the wedding bedspread of Peleus and Thetis), Catullus subjected the so-called Heroic Age to a new level of scrutiny. Dunn draws attention to a cameo from Prometheus, the trickster Titan who stole fire from the gods, triggering the end of the Golden Age and the decline of times. His presence seems to challenge, or at least encourage contemplation of, the myth of the Ages, the sequence of five eras against which writers of ancient Greece and Rome charted their past. Catullus’s complex, multi-layered poem concludes with the Iron Age present: “All things speakable and unspeakable, muddled together in evil fury.” But his depiction of the preceding Heroic Age is equivocal. In relentless, queasy hexameters the Fates spin and sing of Achilles:
Time and again mothers will speak of his unequalled virtues
And distinguished deeds at the funerals of their sons
As they release unwashed hair from their white crowns
And bruise aged breasts with weak hands.
Run on, drawing out the weft, run on, spindles.
Daisy Dunn’s imaginative, enriching and quick-witted book reminds us that Catullus is a poet for all time. He hankered after a life with “no fears — / Not fires, not grievous building collapses, / Not criminal activity, not creeping poison, / nor any other threat of danger.”
He sensed that the Republic was in decline, but it stimulated rather than stultified him: “The sun can set and rise again.” His indestructible little song-book is a civilising force: a monument to living, loving, laughing and having the freedom to innovate, question and offend. To the ephemeral lunacies of this world, it is the perfect tonic.