Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore - review by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker

Odi et Amo

Counting the Stars


Fig Tree 273pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Latinity is in vogue, with an abundance of classically situated novels for children, novels for adults, historical constructions, feminist deconstructions, historical re-appraisals, horticultural treatises, and even, whisper it, do-it-yourself language manuals, drawn up in colourful array along the bookshop shelves, although that language remains sadly absent from the nation’s classrooms. And so, timely and pleasurable it is, in bleak midwinter, to drift through a couple of Roman summers half a century before Christ, and revisit Catullus’s doomed romance with the woman he called Lesbia. The known facts are few. Catullus was born about 84 BC to a landowning family from Verona. He died about 54 BC and spent most of his life in Rome, where under the patronage of Memmius he developed a reputation as a poetic innovator, renouncing the old epic tradition and circulating verses of dazzling immediacy and extreme sophistication, addressed to friends, enemies, places and a door. Their most perfect expression is found in his poems for Lesbia.

Lesbia’s real name was Clodia Metelli: Catullus chose her literary name to protect her identity and to compliment her as a puella docta, a young woman of wit, education and literary ability, to be compared, albeit distantly, with the great and legendary Sappho, whose works shaped and inspired Catullus’s own. His very first poem to Lesbia is a version of a poem of Sappho’s, and the name Lesbia has the same metric quantity as Clodia. Clodia Metelli, the woman Catullus declared he loved more than any woman ever had been loved, the woman who inspired the famous ‘Odi et Amo’ and some of the most beautiful love lyrics ever written, was a married woman from a patrician family, ten years his senior, and the possibly incestuous sister of Clodius Pulcher, a notorious aristocratic gangster.

Clodia was notorious too: Cicero, that pillar of republican probity, defending one of her former lovers in court, refers to her with elegant obliquity as ‘a woman who has always been widely regarded as having no enemies since she so readily offers intimacy in all directions’. And Clodius, ‘the woman’s

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