Catullus’ Bedspread by Daisy Dunn

9780007554324The late Roman Republic is one of my favourite periods of history.  I love the main narrative of the story and the detail that we have about the characters involved.  Catallus was a poet, and not one who really got involved in politics – so he’s always been (at best) on the periphery of my reading.  This book puts him in the centre and gives a wonderful snapshot of life in Rome at the time.

The main story here is Catallus’ failed affair with Clodia Metelli, notorious patrician daughter of the Claudius family, sister of the populare Clodius and wife of the conservative Metellus Celer.  His poetry (written to her as Lesbea) starts out romantic (and filthy) and ends up bitter, angry (and filthy).  But Dunn shows that there is much more than just smut.  Catallus used his knowledge of greek poetry (particularly Callimachus) to write some very clever stuff, and challenged the convention of long, overblown epics with his personal and emotional style.  The title obviously alludes to the poet’s active sex live, but it too shows the hidden depth: focusing on “Poem 64” a take on the myth of Peleus and Thetis that includes an ornate bedspread, leading to a poem within a poem on Ariadne and Theseus.

As a character, I think Dunn’s is a fairly generous take on his character.  The obsessive jilted lover could be read in a much less charitable way, but Dunn does refrain from portraying Clodia as the sinister plotter of legend.  Catallus’ time in Rome starts around the time Clodius infiltrated the Bona Dea festival and ends with his premature death around the time of Crassus’ death at the battle of Carrhae – it’s a mere ten years.  It’s a strange reminder of how short life could be then and yet how fast things were changing.

I was not previously familiar with Catallus poetry (outside of a few famous bits of smut – Poem 16.  Although Dunn only really includes a full translation of 64, I’m impressed enough to read more and perhaps to look for the depth behind the dirt.  Beyond that the book would be enjoyable for anyone who read Tom Holland’s Rubicon and loved the setting – in a smaller scale, it brings to life a similarly vibrant Rome.

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Juvenal

I am slowly trying to make my way through some of the old Greek and Roman sources.  Juvenal isn’t exactly a historian, but I decided to try my luck with him.  Some of the lines are famous:

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Who guards the guards themselves?

“panem et circenses” – Bread and circuses.

“Mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body

It all seems so high brow!  I wasn’t really expecting the constant stream of sexual insults that fills up the rest of it.  He does tackle big issues: poverty, morality, immigration (he’s not a fan of Greeks), wealth and class; but he doesn’t pull many punches.  Some of the homophobic bits in there are particularly shocking (and intended to be so).  It’s actually quite an enjoyable read (I have Peter Green’s translation for Penguin Classics) but probably not for the fainthearted.