The short life of Rome’s first lyric poet.
Journalist and classicist Dunn (translator: The Poems of Catullus, 2016) reveals the “uncertain and turbulent times” of ancient Rome in this appreciative, informed biography of Catullus. Dying before he was 30, Catullus produced 117 poems “full of emotion, wit, and lurid insight into some of the key Roman personalities.” Melding many literary genres, his poems’ “apparent simplicity…often masks far greater, deeper sentiment and subtlety of thought,” and he influenced later writers, including Ovid, Virgil, Horace, and Roman satirists. Central to Dunn’s study is Catullus’ longest poem, which she appends to this biography. She calls it his “Bedspread Poem” because it describes in detail the myths incorporated into the sumptuous wedding bedspread of one of Jason’s Argonauts. “The bedspread,” she writes, “was a visual web of words” that evoked history and mythology to create “a miniature epic.” Dunn constructs her narrative around Catullus’ verse, which she has translated from the Latin. “I see this very much as a joint venture: Catullus provides the poetry; I offer something of the world that informed it.” That world was peopled by Cicero, the wealthy orator and statesman, who sought to bolster stability by strengthening Rome’s Senate; ambitious Julius Caesar, a friend of Catullus’ father, who “cemented his claim to Rome through dictatorship”; and the poet’s beloved, Clodia Metelli, a married woman of at least 35 who appeared to him as a “shining goddess.” He gave her the pseudonym Lesbia and made her the subject of a spate of erotic love poems. Lesbia became the poet’s “raison d’etre.” Among many revelations about Roman culture, Dunn speculates that because their affair produced no child, either Clodia or Catullus might have used some method of herbal or barrier contraception.
A fresh, knowledgeable introduction to life, love, war, and rivalries in ancient Rome.