CUP (2021) p/b 404pp £24.99 (ISBN 9781316644713)
Many people studying Latin who might be put off by the windy rhetoric of a Cicero or by bellicose chronicles of ancient warfare find the poems of Catullus a breath of fresh air and a reassurance that Romans had emotions shared by the rest of humanity, ‘rhymed out in love’s despair’ as Yeats famously put it. It is no surprise therefore that Catullus is one of the most popular, most translated and most imitated of Roman poets and that his poetry is regarded as a window into the ancient world as much as a mirror of the human heart—as Stephen Harrison shows superbly in his final chapter of this book dealing with Catullus in English poetry since 1750. So why has it taken Cambridge so long to add him to the massive list of their Cambridge Companions? Ten years ago Marilyn Skinner edited a similar volume (A Companion to Catullus [Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World]) and in the decade before that Oxford produced a useful collection of essays in their Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series. Cambridge was clearly keeping their powder dry for this volume—and it was well worth the wait.
Fourteen different leading (largely anglophone) scholars contributed to this volume, each of them offering their own perspective on this poetry, and the book thus represents a snapshot of the very best in Catullan scholarship and a superb vade mecum of ways to approach the Latin. We are taken around Catullus’ place in Roman life and literature, his use of poetic themes and gender issues, his style and his Nachleben in the later Roman and modern worlds. There is not space here to do justice to all the contributions in a short review, but some highlights for me were Stephen Oakley’s essay (which provides the clearest and most thorough short account to date of the transmission of the text), Monica Gale’s thoughtful and sensitive account of Catullus and Augustan poetry, and David Butterfield’s essay on the poet’s metrical virtuosity.
Some chapters (such as that of Anna Chahoud on ‘Language and style’) assume the ability to understand the Latin original but the vast majority of the offerings provide accurate and lucid translations of all Latin and Greek quoted and could be enjoyed by those with little or no Latin. Nor do they shy away from the full force of Catullus’ invective (caveat lector!) in poems such as 16 (memorably rendered by Alex Wong at p. 321) and the Gellius poems (well deconstructed by Ian Du Quesnay pp. 204-5), although the obscenity is not regarded as something to be either avoided or to be highlighted but simply accepted as one aspect of the oeuvre of this ‘poet of versatility’ (as Bruce Gibson calls him). The irresistible urge to find the life behind the work has produced a multitude of discussion about the identity of ‘Lesbia’ and this book tiptoes judiciously (pages 3 and 93) through the thickets of speculation and wishful-thinking while concentrating on what is historically plausible and alerting the reader to some new takes on this age-old dilemma. The ordering of the poems within what may have been several libelli is adeptly discussed by Ian Du Quesnay, who suggests plausibly that the ‘long poems’ (61-68) were composed for separate publication and circulation.
The book is rightly termed a ‘companion’ rather than an ‘introduction’ to Catullus, but readers who know little about this poetry will learn a lot and be helped along the way by these adept exegetes. Readers (such as this reviewer) who have spent their lives reading Catullus will be faced in every chapter with fresh readings and fascinating aperçus into the work of this enigmatic and fascinating poet. People who know nothing of the subject often regard the ancient world as done and dusted and long since chronicled to death: this book is (inter multa alia) a timely reminder that the ancient world still has many surprises up its sleeve and retains the ability to shock and to move the modern world.
There are thirty-six pages of bibliography, a general index and an Index Locorum. The book is immaculately produced and proof-read and at this bargain price ought to be on everyone’s Christmas wish-list.