A biography of Catullus is a bold undertaking. As Gilbert Highet wrote sixty years ago in his delightful Poets in a Landscape, ‘Apart from his poignant and violent poems, we know very little about him.’ He was born in Verona in 82 BC and died at an uncertain date, possibly in 54 BC. Daisy Dunn confidently gives 53 BC as the date and Rome as the place. It is astonishing, indeed, that we even have his poems. Only one manuscript copy survived the fall of the Roman Empire and the ravages of the following centuries. One thing we do apparently know is that he introduced a new word for ‘kisses’ – basia – into the European languages. The word may be Celtic in origin: Verona was in the province of Cisalpine Gaul. But then it may not be. It may have been a slang word from the Roman streets.
Dunn tells us that Catullus was ‘part Gaul, part Etruscan’, but ‘never doubted that he had Asiatic blood, however Italian he looked’. Perhaps she is right. On the other hand, he never speaks of himself as anything but a Roman citizen. Although Highet acknowledged this, he thought Catullus might have been of Celtic stock because ‘we see in his nature a desperate passion, an unreasonable, almost suicidal fervour, very unlike the emotions of all other Roman poets’. Again, all one can say is ‘perhaps’.
Dunn describes Catullus’s appearance in detail: ‘He had full lips and a sincere smile, but his most distinctive features had to be his eyes. They were large and brown, though the left one drooped slightly beneath a heavy lid, giving the impression that it was half-closed.’ Of course, the portrait