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Catullus’s great love: “Lesbia and her Sparrow” (1907) by Sir Edward John Poynter

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.

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