The life of Roman poet Catullus was stranger than fiction, but a new biography speculates far more than any history should.
James Romm in The New Republic:
“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.