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The Erotic Bard of Ancient Rome

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Review of a new book on the Romn poet Catullus:

The Erotic Bard of Ancient Rome

By James Romm

Dunn’s first foray into the realm of the dark arts comes when she identifies Lesbia as Clodia Metelli, the sister of Publius Clodius Pulcher—a leading politician of Catullus’ day, a bizarre, bad-boy aristocrat next to whom Donald Trump might seem a sober statesman. This is not an egregious leap of faith; an ancient source with good authority tells us that Lesbia’s real name was Clodia, and Catullus himself reveals, in one of his poems, that Lesbia’s brother was named Pulcher. The trouble is that Clodius had three sisters, all of whom were named Clodia, and at least one recent scholar has strongly argued that a different Clodia was the woman who drove young Catullus half-insane. Since the Clodia Metelli theory is central to Dunn’s story—especially given that much is known about Clodia Metelli’s scandalous sex life, including a rumored affair with her brother, is detailed in an extant speech by Cicero—it matters deeply that it is only a theory. Yet the constructs Dunn builds upon this flawed foundation—the imagined first meeting of Catullus and Clodia, their efforts to keep their affair secret from Metellus, the correlations of Catullus’ Lesbia poems with what is known (or at least rumored, in a surviving diatribe by Cicero) facts of Clodia Metelli’s scandalous sex life—assume it has the solidity of fact. Dunn’s single, poorly reasoned footnote does little to address a problem that should have been acknowledged openly, in her text.

Once she has set foot on the slippery slope of speculation, Dunn’s slide becomes precipitous. Furius, the friend whom Catullus jeeringly threatened with oral and anal rape, is identified on thin evidence as a satirist named Marcus Furius Bibaculus, whom Dunn thereafter refers to confidently as “Catullus’ rival” because the historical Bibaculus wrote in verse. A little boat that Catullus addresses in one of his lighter compositions is made to serve a very specific role in his life, bearing him back through the Black Sea on his return from an administrative tour of duty in the East. In her footnotes Dunn gropes for obscure scholarly support or ancient testimony to shore up these guesses. Her last pages, which conjure up a scene of public mourning for Catullus—when in fact nothing is known about his death or burial—are sourced only to an Italian Renaissance writer who may, or may not, have had access to a now-lost work by the Roman historian Suetonius.

With his freewheeling aggression, his willingness to let fly at the slightest provocation, Catullus evokes the modern Beat poets.

What’s maddening is that Dunn, by going just a bit further down this road, could have written an interesting novel, exactly what Thornton Wilder chose to do in his now-obscure 1948 novel The Ides of March when confronted with the same material. Dunn’s technique is indeed close to that of a fiction writer in much of Catullus’ Bedspread, as when she imagines, in ways that go far beyond the poems, what her characters were sensing or thinking. To describe, as Dunn does, the herbs and flowers Catullus smelled as he made his way to a dinner at Metellus’ house on the Palatine hill, one day in the early 60s B.C., requires a novelist’s imagination. Did such a moment ever take place? Dunn takes her cue from Catullus’ famous translation of an ode of Sappho, poem 51, describing his jealous feelings as he watches his adored Lesbia converse with another man. Others before her have guessed that this is the earliest of the Lesbia poems, written shortly after Catullus had first met his future lover. But even if that is true—already a huge leap—the dinner party that Dunn stages as the venue of their encounter is pure invention, never mind Catullus’ sensations as he went to that party.

Catullus lived through a crucial era of Roman history—the late Republic, a time of decaying political structures, megalomaniac leaders and huge influxes of wealth—and dwelt among some of its more colorful personalities. He knew, at a distance, the rising Julius Caesar, and several times poked irreverent fun at Rome’s most glorious general (Caesar later had him over for dinner and forgave him, an ancient source tells us). He heard Cicero declaim, and befriended a man he called Caelius, quite possibly the orator Marcus Caelius Rufus, whom Cicero defended in a still-famous legal speech. And, he fell passionately in love with one of the sisters of Clodius Pulcher, the most prominent and flamboyant political figure of his day. The temptation to connect the dots, to make Catullus’ poems the through-line by which this rich era can be explored, is indeed hard to resist. But the collection must first be chronologically sequenced, and the identity of Lesbia, Caelius, and others of their dramatis personae established with certainty—feats that can’t be pulled off without recourse to black magic.

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