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The Fall of Rome Through the Eyes of Catullus: Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread”

Catullus is a unique figure in Roman/Latin poetic history. He was no Virgil. Nor was he Ovid. Not even Horace. His writings were mostly lost until rediscovered in the late medieval period during the birth pangs of the Renaissance. Unlike the mythopoetic majesty of Virgil, the lyricism of Ovid, or the stature of Horace, Catullus stands as an important but forgotten poet; the creator of elegiac verse in Latin and arguably the Latin language’s most erotic poet (he makes Ovid look tame). Little is known about Catullus. Daisy Dunn attempts to fix that.

Daisy Dunn is, perhaps, Britain’s foremost young classicist. Now a public author and commentator, she began her career with the poet Catullus: translating his poems and writing a brief biography of “Rome’s most erotic poet.” Catullus’ Bedspread is the culmination of her search for Catullus. And it doesn’t disappoint.

If moderns know anything about Catullus, it might be that he was a grotesque and obscene poet, a “naughty poet,” who wrote explicit verse about his love affair with “Lesbia” (Clodia Metelli). Among scholars, Catullus is certainly known for that but more famous for his “Bedspread Poem,” Poem 64 in his canon. Catullus’s bedspread poem and his erotic adventures with Clodia serve as the basis of Dunn’s book.

The bedspread poem is apt for Catullus because he lived during the nadir of the Roman Republic. He was contemporaries with such luminaries as Julius Caesar, Cato the Younger, Cicero, Pompey the Great, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. He lived through Pompey’s conquest of Mithridates’s kingdom in the east and Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. He died on the eve of the collapse of the Triumvirate that would cast Rome into civil war and its transformation into empire.

The bedspread poem is a poetic epic based on the myth of the ages: gold, silver, bronze, heroic, and iron. The myth of the ages envisions a world in decline; from the perfect utopia of the gold age to the irreverence of the silver age to the hardship of the bronze age to the respite and inspiration of the heroic age before the final descent into declination in the iron age. Catullus’s bedspread poem inverts the ideal of the heroic age to show it as offering a false respite and a major contribution to downward descent. So Catullus’s bedspread poem serves as an esoteric critique of Rome and Roman republicanism, lamenting not merely the loss of love (Catallus’s abandonment by Clodia) but also on the inevitability of death. It was the perfect poem for the perfect time.

Daisy Dunn’s book reads like a standard history of the final decades of the Roman Republic. We enter the world of politics and meet the backroom deals and shenanigans of the Senate, of Cicero and the Optimates, of the rivalries between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus as they sought glory and power in the final days of the republic. But rather than offer a great man history of the final decades, we see the slow descent of Rome toward civil war through the eyes of Catullus who is brought to life by Dunn as he lives through these tumultuous years. Inserting poetic commentary where relevant to the daily grind of Roman life and politics, Dunn’s book reads as part history, part poetic criticism, part biography.

We meet a sexual deviant young man in a sexually deviant late Roman world. This young man, his passions of “love and hate” burning inside him, falls for a middle-aged married woman. In his poetry he refers to this lover as “Lesbia.”  The real Lesbia is the wife of a prominent Roman politician (Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer). With Metellus Celer often busy dealing with politics, this left ample time for Catullus to woo his lover. So the affair of Catullus and Clodia entered into the realm of eternity: a young man in his twenties raptured by an older woman in her mid-30s. The story is perfect for Late Hollywood’s own sexual fantasies and dreams.

Yet Catullus is eventually spurned by Clodia. He sets out east, to visit and explore the Orient as all men do when they have nothing else to live for. In the east Catullus retraces the footsteps of the heroes who would subtly critique in Poem 64. He walks the sands of Troy. He bathes in the river where Achilles killed so many that it turned red with blood and the bodies dried up one half of the river. He gazes out over the sea at sunset like Ariadne watching Theseus sail away, fated to die (Catullus is Ariadne and Theseus is Clodia in Dunn’s psychoanalytic imagination). Then, at the tender age of 30, Catullus dies as Crassus gathers his army to invade Parthia only to be defeated at Carrhae which served as the catalyst for the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey to ignite and doom the republic to civil war.

Lovers of the classical world, classical poetry, and Roman history will find a treat in Daisy Dunn’s remarkable little book. The history is familiar, but it is told through the perspective of a relatively obscure but immensely important figure. Moreover, Dunn’s imaginative inclusion of poetic commentary in the midst of the unfolding drama of the final decades of the Roman Republic stands out as a unique contribution to literary criticism on the poetry of Catullus. Moreover, we finally get a little biography of Rome’s naughty poet and find a character who is remarkably like us: a lovesick soul looking back on what could have been as dark storms appear on the horizon.

Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet
By Daisy Dunn
New York: HarperCollins, 2018/2016; 312pp.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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