do have (very few), combined with scraps of suggestive hearsay (rather more), amount to a partial account with enough scope for creative interpolation that a convincing and absorbing story is easily constructed. Such accounts recover Catullus from anonymity and obscurity (the resting place of most Latin poets) and make of him an apparently red-blooded, three-dimensional protagonist.
This attraction to biography does not rise plainly and simply from the salacious content of the poems, but equally from their seeming intimacy, the way they address the reader personally. For example, Poem 8 – the first poem this translator attempted – positions the reader as if looking through a keyhole onto a familiar, intimate, and immediate world whose relationships carry the same emotional and psychological turmoil as modern ones, while simultaneously occupying a strange world which, the longer the reader inspects and inhabits it, becomes quite other. The reader is lured into identifying with the protagonist and his lover; however, once he understands the importance of social class for Catullus and Lesbia, their very different ages (he was in his twenties, she in her mid-to-late thirties) and the significance of these two factors in historical context, the poem begins to look quite different.
First: because of the relatively low life expectancy in Late Republican Rome, the age gap would be a generational one. Second: in Roman culture of the Late Republic, a marriage might be impossible because of differences in class; in this case, Clodia Metelli was of a higher class than Catullus, an affluent young man from the provinces. An affair, however, would be tolerated. Today, these are private matters, for the judgment of individuals. For the modern-day reader approaching the poem anew, unfamiliar with its cultural nuances, there is a risk: encouraged by the poem’s seeming familiarity and the apparent simplicity of the lovers’ situation, he is lured into an act of cultural appropriation, eliding the poem’s historical reality. The seduction of biographical reading has led to the popular notion that Catullus is ‘accessible’, or more accessible than other Latin poets of that period, that he is more ‘like us’, preternaturally modern. In reality the situation is more complex and problematic than it first seems.
x . catullus