Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.20

Alfredo Mario Morelli (ed.), Lepos e mores: una giornata su Catullo. Atti del convegno internazionale, Cassino, 27 maggio 2010. Collana di studi umanistici, 2.   Cassino:  Edizioni Università di Cassino, 2012.  Pp. 286.  ISBN 9788883170652.  €27.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Dániel Kiss, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume contains the papers of a conference that took place in Cassino in May 2010. Its chapters are arranged loosely around the themes of literary sophistication and human character in Catullus. They are followed by a consolidated bibliography and two useful indices. The volume has been edited carefully; typographical errors are rare.1

While some papers are more convincing than others, this is an excellent volume that will provide many Catullan scholars with new insights. Its greatest strengths may lie at the level of microphilology, as it offers close readings of a number of poems that often display notable erudition, sensitivity, and common sense. Most papers also discuss Catullus’ oeuvre as a whole; and some of their conclusions will have to be taken into account by future interpreters.

Franco Bellandi’s erudite opening chapter takes its title from a book by Elena Pulcini on conjugal and passionate love in early modern French novels. Bellandi analyses the Lesbia poems, and especially carmen 51. He argues that the controversial last stanza should not be detached from this poem and that it reflects a traditional view of love as a disruptive force, ‘che vede nella passione non un valore ma un disvalore, un moto che ha la temuta potenzialità di disgregare il soggetto e le sue impalcature psicologiche, abbandonandolo in preda a un disordine doloroso’ (p. 17). Bellandi argues that this view is reflected by Catullus’ description of his passion for Lesbia, with which he contrasts the poet’s utopian vision of marriage in poems 61-62, 64 and 66, mostly in a mythological context. That is an interesting analysis, but poems such as 5, 7, 45, 48 and 107 offer an image of romantic love that is not unambiguously negative, while marriage is presented unflatteringly in poems 67 and 92. Pace Bellandi, Catullus does not seem to have made a neat, typological distinction between conjugal and passionate love, unlike the French novelists of the 17th and the 18th century. He may rather have subscribed to the view, traditional since Sappho, that romantic love can be bitter as well as sweet: compare 64.95 and 68a.17f.

In the second article Sven Lorenz offers a detailed account of the role of obscenity in the Catullan liber. He starts with a lively and provocative interpretation of poem 16, which he calls a ‘pseudo-apology’ (p. 76), and closes with comments on the question whether there is a sexual dimension to the passer poems. His reading of the collection is linear: he believes, with Paul Claes and Niklas Holzberg, that it should be read in the sequence in which it stands today, and that we should allow each poem to influence the interpretation of those that follow. Whether or not the reader agrees, (s)he will still find this a valuable study of obscenity in Catullus.

Alfredo Mario Morelli offers a learned and sensitive reading of a pair of Catullan epigrams. In poem 69 the poet tells Rufus that the cause of his lack of success with women is the foul-smelling billy-goat (caper) that lives under his armpits. Morelli observes accurately the stylistic shift from the elevated language of first two distichs, which describe Rufus’ romantic fiascos, to the more colloquial phrasing of the latter part of the poem, devoted to his malodorous armpits. This epigram has a pendant in poem 71, which describes a romantic triangle: the addressee’s girlfriend has been seduced by a rival, but he and the girl are duly punished by the gout and the evil stench that the man has contracted a te, that is to say, from the addressee, if we accept the transmitted text in line 4. Over a dozen conjectures have been proposed, but Morelli argues convincingly that a te is correct.2 A survey of the evidence and the secondary literature leads him to conclude that gout and goats were associated in ancient poetry with a dissolute lifestyle, and especially with excessive sexual activity, so that the addressee of this epigram could ‘pass them on’ to his rival because the latter shared his way of life (p. 126). However, that would not constitute contagion, even according to the quirky logic of this poem. Nor is Morelli right to characterise this poem as a derisive attack on two dissolute wretches and the prostitute they shared (p. 135). The poet’s attitude to his addressee appears contradictory: on one hand, he reassures him that his unfaithful girlfriend and her current lover have found their well-deserved punishment; on the other hand, he implies that the addressee himself has gout and smelly armpits. One would expect Catullus to treat a close friend with more consideration. It may be inevitable that Morelli does not give a convincing answer to every question posed by this difficult poem, but he certainly enables one to understand it better than before.

In a short chapter that has grown out of a comment on Morelli’s paper, Li Song-Yang offers the conjecture autem for a te at 71.4. That raises a number of problems. autem is ‘regularly placed in the second position in its clause’ (OLD s.v.), so here it would have to stand not after mirifice est (71.4), but after aemulus (71.3). Moreover, it is a coordinative particle, but here Li would place it in the apodosis of a conditional sentence, for which there may be no parallels. Furthermore, it expresses contrast; but mirifice means not ‘in an unexplainable, illogical, irrational fashion’ but ‘[i]n an amazing manner or to an amazing degree, remarkably’ (OLD), so here its contrast with iure bono ‘rightly’ and merito ‘deservedly’ (71.1-2) would be awkward. So this conjecture is not convincing, and Morelli offers strong arguments in the previous chapter for conserving the transmitted text.

Lindsay Watson’s chapter starts out from a characteristically provocative comment by Wiseman that ‘Catullus was a Transpadanus, and proud of it’.3 Wiseman had argued that Catullus was thoroughly imbued with the frugal, old-fashioned ethos of his provincial homeland. Watson concedes that ‘Catullus shows an intense awareness of his Transpadane background’ (p. 151), but a study of poems such as 43, 59, 95 and 97 leads him to conclude that ‘in a number of poems Catullus equates what is unsophisticated – culturally, intellectually, erotically – with Transpadane locales and personages, thus implicitly disassociating himself from his terra natalis’ (p. 165). While Watson is clearly right that there are several instances of Transpadane inurbanity in Catullus, that is not the whole story. The poet does not always characterise his home province as boorish: for example, at 100.2 he compliments Caelius and Quintius as flos Veronensum ... iuuenum, and in poem 35 he locates the promising young poet Caecilius and his learned girlfriend in the colonia of Novum Comum. What is more, in the first century BCE men from Gallia Cisalpina were at the forefront of Roman literature, and of ‘Neoteric poetry’ in particular. Evidently, aspiring young Transpadanes could obtain an excellent education, and they could go on to assume a significant position in the Roman cultural elite. Catullus too seems to take it for granted that a Transpadane could be (or become) just as cultured as someone from the city of Rome.

In an especially ambitious chapter, Alex Agnesini tries to set up a new framework for understanding the poems of Catullus. In order to do so, he studies various aspects of Catullus’ liber: for example, the use of archaic language, the reliance on earlier literary models, and the influence on a poem of the addressee as well as of the poet’s personal experiences. Agnesini notes repeatedly that the same poetical ‘protocol’ or strategy can be put to a variety of uses by Catullus: for example, the poet uses archaisms in a prayer, in order to imitate the language of Roman comedy,4 and when he is writing about traditional values. By way of conclusion, he states that he does not see Catullus as an enfant terrible who overthrows established practice, but rather (with Alfonso Traina) as a ‘poeta paradossale’ who puts literary protocols to new uses in order to illustrate the vicissitudes of his own life (p. 202). Future interpreters of Catullus will have to take note of Agnesini’s acute observations, as well as of his overall assessment of the poet.

The volume closes with a chapter by Leopoldo Gamberale on the literary friendship between Catullus and C. Licinius Calvus. After a short discussion of the two men and the notable differences between them (Calvus was active in public life, while Catullus was not), Gamberale offers a close reading of the four poems in which Catullus writes about Calvus. He observes three elements in poem 53 that characterise this literary friendship as a whole: Catullus’ evident liking for Calvus; irony; and a sense that whatever affects his friend also affects him (p. 209-211). The most valuable part of the chapter may be the close reading of poem 50 (p. 217-236). Catullus’ account of his session of versification with Calvus, and his passionate longing for his friend after the latter left him, have given rise to a number of interpretations. One debate has concerned whether there was an erotic element to the friendship of these two young men. Gamberale quotes illuminating parallels from Cicero’s Laelius, and from his letters, for Catullus’ declarations of longing for his friend. He is inclined to attribute the latter to a kind of epistolary convention (p. 231); but if several Romans wrote in different contexts that they missed their friends passionately, can we assume that they never did so? Gamberale’s view that there is no element of eroticism in poem 50 also appears questionable – as he notes (p. 235), the reference to Nemesis in line 20 is a topos in Hellenistic love poetry; and Catullus may pretend jokingly that his longing for his absent friend is romantic love. But these quibbles should not detract from an appreciation of his erudite and insightful paper.

Table of contents

Alfredo Mario Morelli: Prefazione – 7
Alfredo Mario Morelli: Introduzione – 9
Franco Bellandi: Amour-passion e amore coniugale nella poesia di Catullo: qualche considerazione – 13
Sven Lorenz: Versiculi parum pudici: The Use of Obscenity in the liber Catulli – 73
Alfredo Mario Morelli: Invenustus amator: una analisi di Catull. 69 e 71 – 99
Li Song-Yang: a te oppure autem? – 137
Lindsay Watson: Catullus, inurbanitas and the Transpadanes – 151
Alex Agnesini: Lepos, mores, pathos, furor, risus... Per una ‘ri-sistemazione’ di alcuni carmina catulliani – 171
Leopoldo Gamberale: Aspetti dell’amicizia poetica fra Catullo e Calvo – 203
Bibliografia (a cura di Sara Sparagna) – 247
Index nominum et rerum notabilium (a cura di Antonella Laura Fetto) – 271
Index locorum notabilium (a cura di Antonella Laura Fetto) – 281
Indice generale – 285


1.   P. 55, l. 2: read ‘periurium’; p. 126, n. 49, l. 2: read ‘Courtney’; p. 178, n. 24, l. 3 and p. 253, l. 1: read ‘le poème 17’; p. 186, n. 49, l. 4: read ‘Reference’.
2.   To his arguments add those of D.S. McKie, Essays in the Interpretation of Roman Poetry (Cambridge 2009), 161-5.
3.   T.P. Wiseman, Catullus and His World. A Reappraisal (Cambridge 1985), 107.
4.   But here we could simply be dealing with colloquialisms that only happen to surface in Plautus and/or Terence and Catullus.

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