CATULLUS WAS THE MOST erotic poet of ancient Rome. He wrote thrillingly of his desire to play with a lover’s “sparrow” and of his hunger for “a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand” from the mistress he called Lesbia. When their relationship soured, he pictured Lesbia soliciting “on crossroads and in alleys” and complained of being “crucified” by his feelings: odi et amo (“I hate and I love”). But Catullus was also the author of a short epic that rivaled Homer in its profundity. Surprisingly little known these days, “Poem 64” was Catullus’s greatest masterpiece, a poem that questions what it means to live and love in the shadow of the past.
Writing in the mid-first century BC, as the Roman Republic crumbled beneath the feet of rising populists, including his father’s friend, Julius Caesar, Catullus turned to the poets of ancient Alexandria for inspiration. Scholars from the city’s great library had long since refined the art of reshaping familiar stories into original, tight verse. Late Republican Rome was hardly the time for composing sprawling martial epics. Catullus determined to show that shorter was better, his “miniature epic” of just over 400 lines a celebration of concision and form. “Poem 64” is a retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur embedded within a retelling of the myth of one of Jason’s Argonauts. It is a Russian doll of a poem: intricate, clever, endlessly turning.
It opens with a delightfully intimate description of the Argo, the legendary ship that conveyed Jason over the Black Sea to steal the Golden Fleece. Unlike earlier poets, Catullus envisaged the Argo as the first ever ship to have sailed. His imagery is suitably novel. Here is the pine being born from the “head” of a mountain. There is Minerva, the goddess born from the head of Jupiter, knotting the pines together to form a keel. The ship, unused to water, is at first tentative. The Argonauts strain at the oarlocks, “sweeping turquoise waters with oars upturned like hands.”
As a poet, Catullus was less a sparrow than a magpie. He would hop over his predecessors’ poems of every genre, filching a word here, an image there, before weaving them together to form his own design. His principal models in the opening lines of “Poem 64,” Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica and a Latin adaptation of Euripides’s Medea, take on new life as he begins to steer the story clear of the water. His focus is not the famous Jason but another of the Argonauts. Gazing overboard, the mortal Peleus spies a bare-breasted nymph emerging from the sea foam. Peleus is captivated and “burned in love for Thetis.” Catullus proceeds to describe the wedding of Peleus to the nymph Thetis and the son they will conceive, Achilles.
“Heroes,” Catullus invokes them, “born in the moment most admired / Beyond measure of all Ages, godly race.” It feels overblown, but it is a loaded line. In the tradition of Greek myth, the Argonauts and Achilles belonged to the Heroic Age, the fourth in a sequence of five eras against which writers liked to map their history. First came the Golden Age, in which men lived simple, untroubled lives, with all the food they needed. But then the titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mortals so they could fend for themselves. A guest at the wedding in Catullus’s poem, Prometheus initiated shipbuilding among men and paved the way for an inferior Silver Age. Silver was followed by Bronze and Bronze by the Heroic. Finally came the Iron Age, the bleakest of all the ages. Ancient poets naturally assumed they inhabited this one.
It was in his approach to this myth of Ages that Catullus made his mark and demonstrated, I think, why classical stories are so enduring. “Poem 64” is an exercise in the malleability of myth. Catullus was not merely able to reformulate stories which had passed down since before Homer’s time. He was also able to ask, “What if?” What if the nymph had married Jupiter instead of Peleus? There was an ancient tradition in which Jupiter desired her for himself. He was warned against seducing her by Prometheus, who knew a prophecy that any son she bore him would be capable of toppling his throne. But what if she had born him a son? Might a new Age have taken root?
For centuries, the Greek writers had celebrated the glory of Heroic Age men like Jason and Achilles. In “Poem 64,” Catullus began to question whether their times really were so wonderful. In so doing, he proved himself as skeptical as perhaps we are in the face of “fake news.” Was not the crossing of the Argo and invention of seafaring the beginning of man’s misery? Consider, Catullus seems to say, the Heroic Age escapades of Theseus. Here they are, woven into the design of the bedspread that covers the marriage couch of Peleus and Thetis. Dyed purple with the ink of murex mollusks, this bedspread, “embroidered with the shapes of men / Who lived long ago,” is a window onto another scene of so-called heroism.
Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, has awoken to find herself abandoned by her lover Theseus. She had helped him navigate a magnificent labyrinth designed by master craftsman Daedalus to conceal her monstrous half-brother, the Minotaur, whom he killed. Only now, like Jason, who accepted the help and love of Medea in his quest to steal the Golden Fleece before later abandoning her, Theseus has left: “Traitor.”
Many ancient poets would have seen Theseus’ act of desertion as the necessary sacrifice of a hero. Catullus took the kind of revisionist view that perhaps feels more natural to us than it did to earlier readers. Theseus is the Lesbia to Catullus’s Ariadne. The princess suffers in a way that was all too familiar to the lovelorn poet. Ariadne has become “a stone sculpture of a bacchant.” She is frozen in frenzy. When she speaks, she rages. “With the kind of heart Theseus had when he left me,” she prays, “may he destroy himself and his family.” Theseus had promised his elderly father that he would raise white sails on his way home if he survived the labyrinth. He forgets. His father throws himself from the cliffs. Theseus, “Forgetful, ah.” So this was heroism.
In the 16th century, the Venetian artist Titian turned Catullus’s cloth into an exquisite canvas. In his Bacchus and Ariadne, the abandoned woman looks forlornly out to sea. Theseus’ ship is just visible on the horizon. In flies the wine god Bacchus, determined that she should love him instead. He is much as Catullus described him, followed by a noisy throng of revelers beating cymbals and drums and “hurling the limbs of a dismembered bullock.” In some myth traditions, Bacchus saved Ariadne and gave her a constellation only to leave her for another lover.
The risk with a poem like “64” is that the variety of scenes and timeframes will lead to disunity. Catullus overcame it by creating echoes between frames. The son of Peleus and Thetis would grow up to be quite the hero. Catullus describes in the poem how mothers will grieve as the adult Achilles hacks down Trojans “as a reaper picks thick bundles of corn.” The river will narrow with the corpses of the men Achilles kills. He will slay a virgin at an altar. Compare this with the Iron Age, in which “[a]ll things speakable and unspeakable, muddled together in evil fury, / Have turned the just minds of our gods away from us.” It is a bitter indictment of late Republican Rome. Catullus showed little optimism for the Iron Age of the present or future, but little optimism for the hallowed Heroic Age of the past, either.
In “Poem 64,” he struck a blow at Greek heroism, nostalgia, and Golden Age thinking. It is as much a poem about how we view history as it is an ingenious tapestry of myth. Though inspired by the uncertainty of the first century BC, it captures a phenomenon that is common to every age. Who hasn’t wished for a time of heroes and heavenly splendor on earth? With his miniature epic, Catullus proved himself more than a love poet and witty polemicist. He had suffered betrayal and heartbreak and yet somehow seen the light. The past was as dark as the design of his bedspread.
Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet by Daisy Dunn is published in paperback by Harper, July 24