It was, subversively enough, a Latin teacher who was the first to hint to us that the Romans were not quite the Englishmen-in-training that we had been led to believe. Eleven or twelve years old and enrolled in a Wiltshire boarding school that the 1960s were, most disappointingly, passing by, we’d been brought up on tales of heroic Horatius at the bridge, of steadfast Scaevola at the fire, of legions on the march, of a great empire, if not quite so great as the one on which the sun, until very recently, had never set. In a break from the usual fare—a maneuver by Caesar, more boredom from Livy—Mr. Chips (not his real name, and not his style either: he drove a Rover 2000, a surprisingly chic car for that time and place and, more thrillingly still, was rumored to be a member of London’s Playboy Club) introduced us to something, he said, that was a little different, a poem by one Gaius Valerius Catullus:

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus . . .

Crikey.

Catullus’s Poem 5, perhaps his most famous, is an ode to his love and an ode to the intoxication of love.

Just a little later, “Da mi basia mille”:

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.

Then another thousand, then a second

hundred.

Then—don’t stop—another thousand, then a

hundred . . .

The translation is by the British writer and classicist Daisy Dunn, the author of Catullus’ Bedspread.1 The book’s suggestive (if slightly deceptively so) title is given an extra boost by its sub, the promise that within its sheets readers will discover The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet. Somewhere in the Elysian Fields Ovid raises an eyebrow. Somewhere at HarperCollins a clever mercenary chortles.

Somewhere in the Elysian Fields Ovid raises an eyebrow.

Ms. Dunn has set herself a tough task. “Of Catullus,” wrote Charles Stuttaford (my paternal grandfather’s cousin, since you ask) in his 1912 edition of the poet’s works, “we know very little.” Dunn agrees: “Practically everything that can be known about him must be extracted from his . . . poetry,” a technique, warned the American classicist Peter Green, that was “risky,” and “nowadays” (he was writing about a decade ago) has “the full weight of critical opinion against it,” although “there are signs of change in the air.”

I don’t know if critical opinion has lightened up since then, but when Dunn leaves off her occasionally clunky re-imagining of the poet’s daily life (“having wolfed down eggs and bread at some miserable inn”) and focuses her attention and considerable erudition on the barely over a hundred poems that survive—poems without title, put in sequence (most likely) long after their author’s death—to reconstruct Catullus’s biography, the man replaces the shade and the millennia dissolve.

Born into a wealthy family in Verona, then a part of Gaul (Cis, not Trans), Catullus, who died aged around thirty, in, probably, 53 B.C., spent much of his adult life amid Rome’s hipster priviligentsia. He was a prominent member of a circle of poets hacking away—somewhat subversively, griped Cicero—at the staid conventions governing poetry in that era. In a turbulent time in the history of the republic (complicated, but well described by Dunn), Catullus loitered on the fringes of politics, insulted the, ahem, “penetrated” Julius Caesar in Poem 57, briefly took a financially unrewarding government job in Bithynia, and mourned a lost brother. Crowning (albeit, in the end, with thorns) a busy sex life, there was his passionate, but doomed, affair with “Lesbia” (almost certainly Clodia Metelli, the wife of an aristocratic politician), a relationship—and its sour aftermath—he chronicled in some of his best-known poems. Metelli was, scolded Stuttaford, “a woman entirely without moral sense,” a description that may not have been entirely unfair, even by relaxed Roman standards.

Much of the delight in this book lies in the details—not all of them scandalous—of Roman life that Dunn provides: the recipe for garum, a “coveted” fish sauce that could also, it was said, “heal a crocodile bite;” the aristocrats plebbing down their accents two thousand years before Tony Blair’s glottal stops started; the appeal of nearly transparent Coan silk, “a favorite among the less virtuous.”

In Catullus, Dunn has a caustic and gossipy accomplice:

I was idling in the Forum when my friend Varus

Saw me and led me off to the home of his lover,

A little tart (as she immediately struck me),

Though not obviously inelegant or lacking in

charm.

Yes, much of Poem 64, Catullus’s longest surviving and, to Dunn, “most accomplished” work, dwells on the old myths, myths of a type thought to be more proper fare for the verse of the time, but they were woven into the bedspread that inspired her book’s title. It was a mildly meta conceit (even if that bedspread belonged to one of the Argonauts), a nod, perhaps, to the interest that Catullus and his circle found in describing the everyday. Discussing Poem 27, Dunn tells how the Romans drank their wine watered down, something, she relates, that appalled Catullus the Gaul. Thus the sly anachronism in Dunn’s rendering (in her The Poems of Catullus: A New Translation) of the poem’s final lines:

And you, water, spoiler of wine, away from here

S’il vous plaît. Off you pop to the dour kind.

Here is Bacchus’ wine, neat.

S’il vous plaît.

Gauls talked in a different way too, Dunn writes, tending “to keep their mouths open more often than the Romans as they spoke, causing one word to leak into another like a loudly dripping tap. Gaping vowels gave rise to strange inflections and distinctive dialogue, which was exceedingly difficult to lose. And Catullus was not minded to do so. The sheer languidness of the elided vowel lent itself perfectly to love.”

Reviewer mops brow.

But Catullus was a more sophisticated poet than his naughty reputation might suggest, technically highly accomplished in ways that Dunn makes accessible to the layman, sometimes beautifully so: “[T]hese lines begin so abruptly—da, dein, deinde—it as if we hear them with Catullus’ quickening heartbeat.” He was an innovator, a writer about writing (in Poem 50 Catullus recalls “playing now with this metre and now with that”), the member of a literary set, a magpie, this from the street, that from the Greeks. Catullus’s Poem 51, in which he describes how he feels—not great—watching Clodia being watched by her husband, was inspired by a poem written by Sappho some six centuries before. It’s a reminder of the remarkable continuity of culture in the classical world, and it was a challenge of a sort. Catullus wanted his verse, he humblebragged in Poem 1, to “survive . . . for over a hundred years.”

And here we are.

But more recent generations have not always found it easy to deal with Catullus. His preference for the quotidian over the epic brought, as Dunn notes, “the corporeal and the earthy” in its wake. In Poem 32, he asks his sweet Ipsitilla, “meae deliciae,” to invite him round for “nine consecutive,” well, “fututiones,” the thought of which already excites him as he lies back after a good meal: “I poke through my tunic and cloak.”

Reviewer worries how his editor will deal with that.

Recent generations have not always found it easy to deal with Catullus.

To read Catullus is to be offered a glimpse of a sexual morality so alien to Christian tradition that generations of translators, particularly in the more Puritan corners of Christendom (not least those rainy islands inhabited, according to Poem 11, by horribiles uitro ultimosque Britannos), have tried to consign a good number of Catullus’s poems to the Memory Hole. When, in the preface to his Catullus: A Commentary, published by Oxford University Press in 1961, the Scottish classicist C. J. Fordyce admitted that he had omitted “a few poems [actually nearly thirty percent of the total] which do not lend themselves to comment in English,” he was just the latest in a long line of embarrassed Brits to do so. In the preface to his 1912 work, poor Charles Stuttaford stated that he had previously come under fire for annotating poems that some critics carped would have “been better to have left unexplained,” and, so, in 1912, that’s what he did. No less cautiously, some poems, including Poem 32, were included, but only in Latin: A reader able to translate fututiones (a word invented by Catullus) could cope with its shocking implications.

Stuttaford also did his best to haul Catullus back in the direction of respectability, in essence claiming that much of his poetry was, to borrow a fashionable phrase, no more than locker-room talk. Maybe. More plausibly, he argued that some of Catullus’s outrageous—and often outrageously entertaining—invective, including the notorious first two lines of Poem 16, was no more than “vulgar abuse” (to see just how vulgar, check out the 1990 translation by the British poet and classicist Guy Lee). What provoked them was the suggestion by two other poets that Catullus’s love poems were a touch effeminate. Catullus’s response was, as Dunn, delicately describing the indelicate, indicates, to assert “his masculinity once and for all.”

If that doesn’t make you turn to Mr. Lee, I don’t know what will.


1 Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, by Daisy Dunn; Harper, 336 pages, $25.99.