Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 26.

Christopher Nappa, Aspects of Catullus' Social Fiction. Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 2001. Pp. 180. ISBN 3-631-37808-4. SFr.56.00. Brian Arkins,
National University of Ireland, Galway.

Nappa has written a very useful and lucid book about poems of Catullus that relate to the society of his day. Nappa finds Catullus' 'common poetic program' to be 'one of sustained scrutiny and criticism of Roman society, a project sometimes openly satirical, at other times subtle and subversive, working by creating a character both resistant to and collusive with the society in which he lives' (p. 23). This view of Catullus paves the way for Nappa to analyse a number of Catullus' poems in an illuminating way.

Catullus' involvement with Roman society tends to be dual, to simultaneously invoke a critique and an acquiescence; as Nappa says, 'The Catullan persona is an adulterer, for example, but one who feels that his adulterous affair is in fact very much like a marriage; he is a pederast, but one whose jealousy is at least in part protective' (p. 31). Nevertheless certain things are taboo: passive roles in sexual activity and, in particular, incest, because incest involves violation of marriage and the domus, things that were very important for Catullus.[[1]]

Catullus' social poems naturally reflect sexual issues in his day. Nappa provides an excellent, brief account of the ideology of sexuality in Rome (pp. 35- 43). He rightly notes that the crucial point here is the question of power in sexual matters: the adult male citizen exercises sexual domination in relation to foreigners, slaves, and women, so that the active, penetrating role is privileged and the passive penetrated role is inferior. But there are two important differences between Rome and fifth-century Athens where this ideology also obtained. In Rome, homosexual relations between an adult male citizen and free-born adolescent boys was not permitted (as the lex Scantinia de nefanda venere makes clear). Accordingly, Catullus' Iuventius poems, which seem to break that rule, are not to be taken au pied de la lettre, but should be seen as jeux d'esprit. Furthermore, in Rome, women were achieving a new role in sexual relationships, so that by the time of Propertius the man could claim to be the slave of the woman: unius servus amoris.

Part of Catullus' preoccupation with sexual themes lies in the field of marriage. Citing poem 17, Nappa rightly believes that Catullus 'recognizes the potential for the traditional system to break down in individual cases' (p. 157). But Nappa's further assertion about marriage in Catullus requires modification: 'it is very difficult to find unambiguously positive statements about weddings, marriage, or the bride's lot in life' (p. 159). But poem 61 is entirely positive about marriage; the boys in poem 62 are also positive about marriage, and their view prevails; and the marriage of Peleus and Thetis in poem 64 is, for the most part, portrayed in a very idyllic way.

Nappa regards Catullus 16, in which the poet responds to criticisms of effeminacy, as referring to the Lesbia kiss-poems, 5 and 7. But it is difficult to see how a poem of exquisite metaphysical wit such as 7 could be seen by Catullus as requiring defence.[[2]] It is far more likely that the kiss poem in question is poem 48 to Iuventius, and that the Iuventius-poems in general are also in question. These pasquinades, which are hardly to be taken seriously, precisely meet the situation described in poem 16: they are unchaste, while the poet himself is chaste.

Nappa provides a very valuable discussion of two poems of Catullus that tend to be neglected, 37 and 39. These poems well illustrate Catullus' sophisticated view of Egnatius who washes his teeth with urine: 'The relationship between the splendor of his teeth and the repulsiveness of his actions is inverse, not as the ancients would naturally have it, coordinate' (p. 83). A point stressed by the fact that, for Romans, Egnatius is seen to have 'the mouth of a promiscuous fellator' (p. 81).

Nappa offers a useful account of poems 10, 28, and 47, in which Catullus 'calls the system itself into question and aims the arrows of social criticism directly at the heart of Roman masculine identity: military and political achievement' (p. 85). But Nappa's view that the references in these poems to irrumatio are to be taken literally is questionable. It is hardly credible that in poem 28 Catullus 'is not the victim of rape so much as a willing pathicus' (p. 96). Surely the sexual activity here is a metaphor for being humiliated; compare English 'fucked', 'screwed'.

Nappa draws attention to what in poems 12 and 13 Catullus finds valuable: 'in c. 12, he values the memory and continuance of the bond between himself and his friend; in c. 13 he values the company of his friends and the intangible charm that accompanies the event' (p. 118). Which is, of course, all part of Catullus' urbanitas. In poem 12 and 13, Catullus uses the napkin and the unguent respectively as 'a significant object to symbolize some idea' (p. 122), and Nappa finds the same process at work in other poems of Catullus: the passer in poems 2 and 3; the apple of poem 65; the litter of poem 10.

The same process also applies to poems about poetry such as 1, 22, and 42 where the physicality of the poetry book is stressed.

In stressing the social aspects of Catullus' poems, Nappa is rightly wary of problematical applications of theory to Greek and Roman writers: 'too many recent studies of classical authors strive so earnestly for philosophical cachet that they wander into murky theoretical labyrinths from which they never emerge' (pp. 9f.). But Nappa himself accepts without question the theoretical view that the relationship between a poet's life and her or his work is a matter of no importance, and that the notion of the persona is all important. But if social reality can be depicted in poetry, why cannot personal reality too? Critics of Greek and Roman literature would do well to look at examples in modern literature where there is a close relationship between the life of the writer and her or his work. As attested in the biographies of Yeats, Joyce, and Wilde by Ellmann; of Beckett by Knowlson and by Cronin; of Eliot by Gordon; and of Iris Murdoch by Conradi.[[3]] These studies clearly show that material from the life can, if used in a sensitive way, illuminate the work.

One example, that of Yeats, will make the case. For many years, Yeats unsuccessfully pursued Maud Gonne, and wrote voluminously on this topic. Nobody in English studies imagines that Maud Gonne was a fiction, or claims that it doesn't matter whether she existed or not, or believes that Yeats was simply using a persona to write about her. Naturally, the poems to Maud Gonne are the product of a male imagination steeped in the Romantic tradition and of Yeats's own obsessions, but they still derive from a real situation.

The significance of our knowledge of Yeats 's life can be seen if we compare two poems of reconciliation, that between Catullus and Lesbia in poem 107, and that between Yeats and Maud Gonne in the poem 'Reconciliation'. We have no way of knowing how or when Catullus and Lesbia were estranged, or how or when they were reconciled. But if we did know, this would greatly assist us, as the case of Yeats illustrates. In Yeats's case, we know that he broke with Maud Gonne when she got married to John MacBride in 1903, and that they were reconciled in 1908. Biography can illuminate the work, and the problem with Catullus is not some theoretical objection to using material from the life, but the fact that we do not have such material.

As a result, Nappa's attack on what he calls 'the Romantic Catullus' is only partially legitimate. Certainly, in the past ludicrous attempts were made to map out Catullus' life and his relationship with Lesbia. But these excesses should not blind us to the fact that Catullus did have a very romantic view of his love for Lesbia; the assertion that she is amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla (8.5) is quintessentially romantic.

It is important to stress, in accordance with Nappa's project, that this kind of romantic love has its roots in the increasing freedoms enjoyed by upper- class women in Rome at the time of the Late Republic, and in the emergence of sexual love between men and women as a social reality and as a subject for discourse. A phenomenon that drew down the Epicurean contempt for sexual love that we find in Lucretius.

Nappa is also too dismissive of what he calls 'the Alexandrian Catullus'. Recent scholarship has shown how enormously important Callimachus and especially the Prologue to the Aitia was for Latin poetry: for Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid. What Callimachus offered these poets was a congenial aesthetic -- together with the freedom to then develop in their own way.[[4]] Hence Catullus expounds Callimachean doctrine about poetry in poem 1, and then produces the first Lesbia-poem in poem 2.


[[1]] B. Arkins, Sexuality in Catullus (Hildesheim 1982) 117-56.

[[2]] B. Arkins, 'Catullus 7', L'Antiquite Classique 48 (1979) 630-35.

[[3]] R. Ellmann, Yeats --The Man and the Masks (London 1965); id., James Joyce (Oxford 1983); id., Oscar Wilde (London 1998); J. Knowlson, Doomed to Fame -The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York 1997); A. Cronin, Samuel Beckett -The Last Modernist (London 1997); L. Gordon, Eliot's Early Years (London 1998); id., Eliot's New Life (Oxford 1989); P. Conradi, Iris Murdoch: a Life (London 2001).

[[4]] B. Arkins, 'The Freedom of Influence: Callimachus and Latin Poetry', Latomus 47 (1988) 285-93.