Of the men and women of ancient Greece and Rome, only a very few can be made the subject of a full-scale, modern biography. There just aren't the facts from literature, archaeology or inscriptions to reconstruct the lives of any but the greatest celebrities: Alexander, Augustus, Julius Caesar, maybe one or two others.
For the poets, merely for their works to have survived in manuscript through the Middle Ages is a miracle. Biographical facts are a luxury. We know nothing at all about Homer, just a couple of things about Sappho, not a great deal even about the poets of the Roman empire such as Virgil and Horace.
Of Gaius Valerius Catullus, a lyric poet of the final catatastrophic years of the Roman republic, we are sure of almost nothing. A single manuscript containing three books of 116 carmina or lyrics, amounting to about 3,000 lines, turned up like an apparition in Verona in the early 1300s, and then vanished. But a copy or copies had been made.
St Jerome, quoting a biography that has been lost, said Catullus was born in 87BC and died in 57BC, but there are reasons to believe those dates aren't right. Pretty well everything about Catullus must be deduced from the poems, a mixture of the refined and the obscene quite without parallel in literature. He is the first poet of megalopolis, a sort of Baudelaire, but tougher.
Catullus came from Verona or nearby, lived on the Sirmio Peninsula in Lake Garda, spent several years in Rome, lost a beloved elder brother, did a tour as a government official on the Black Sea and failed to enrich himself, owned a yacht. He calls Julius Caesar a bugger and paedophile. In other words, one senses the approaching collapse of the Roman republic only in the dissolution of sexual morality.
Dispersed through the three books are 13 intense and passionate poems that mention a woman called Lesbia. The name means "woman of Lesbos", birthplace of Sappho. Ever since the first printing of the poems in Venice in 1472, the readers of Catullus have liked to arrange these poems and others of a heterosexual character into a romantic narrative.
Catullus and Lesbia meet at a dinner party or wedding, he gives her his translation of a Sappho lyric, she plays with her pet songbird. The bird dies and Catullus writes a mock-heroic elegy. He is intoxicated with her. There are assignations in borrowed houses. Her infidelities break his heart. The climax is the bitter and horrible Poem 58, where the woman he loved "more than himself" has open-air sex with strangers all over the city, " in quadriviis et angiportis/ glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes" .
In the middle of the second century AD, Apuleius reported that Lesbia was a pseudonym for a woman with the metrically identical name Clodia. In the 16th century, the great Florentine Latinist Pietro Vettori identified Lesbia with Clodia, a noblewoman of the Claudii family, wife of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, consul in 60BC, and sister of the gang-leader and demagogue Publius Clodius Pulcher.
The attribution had the virtue of linking Catullus to the most notorious woman of her age, whose reputation for poison, incest and aristocratic prostitution provides some of the most thrilling passages in a speech by the lawyer Cicero in defence of Marcus Caelius Rufus. It also gave Catullus a role in the breakdown of political order in Rome that was to culminate in Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in 49BC. The Carmina of Catullus were news.
These two stories - personal and political - have occupied Catullus's readers for four centuries. Aubrey Burl's spirited Catullus is the latest attempt to write an entire romantic biography of the poet out of supposition. Since there aren't any facts, he supplies their absence with conjecture, much of it quite convincing. [more]