BMCR 2000.02.23

The Priapus Poems

, The Priapus Poems. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

This book offers a Latin text and new English translation not only of the 80-poem corpus known as the Priapea plus the early additions to it but of all Priapic poetry in Latin: Catalepton 1-3, Horace’s Satires 1.8, Tibullus 1.4, CIL 14.3565, and Catullus fr. 1 Mynors, quaintly cited as “Fragment 2 (Ellis).” All of this is fortified with an Introduction of 46 pages, including the notes, plus a further 19 pages of notes on the translations.

The various sections of that Introduction give the impression of a lively intelligence in joyous pursuit of its individual interests though still well grounded in the recent literature on the Priapea and on ancient sexuality in general. “Who is Priapus?” (1-3) offers more on the Greek world than the Roman; this and other sections could have benefited significantly from consultation of the LIMC entry for Priapus, published in 1997, perhaps too late for Hooper. A much longer section on “The Cultural Background” (4-16) explains Greek and Roman conceptions of sexuality to a modern general audience that might be confused by a god who has sex with boys and men as well as with women, presenting the now familiar view of ancient sexuality as fundamentally grounded in penetration as an expression of power and status rather than the sex of the chosen partner. Again Greece seems to get more attention, perhaps because Hooper depends so heavily upon recent scholarship, Winkler and Halperin especially, and had little available for Rome beyond Richlin’s Garden of Priapus; no doubt the section would look very different had Craig Williams’ recent Roman Homosexuality been available. He repeats the now-familiar assertion that a cinaedus“was not a homosexual in the modern sense” (14): true to a degree, of course, since the concepts “heterosexual” and “homosexual” did not exist, but there does seem to be a high degree of correlation between the conduct of men identified as cinaedi and that of some men now labeled “homosexuals,” though it must be appreciated that the modern term is clinical while the ancient one is emotional and even hostile, and that both have been imposed from outside (we do not know whether the men labeled cinaedi used the term of themselves). In any case, the ancients were certainly aware that a cinaedus was an adult man who chose only other adult men as his sexual partners; they appear to have limited the term to the ones who were penetrated by those partners, but their attitude has a parallel in the view found among some contemporary males (hustlers in particular, perhaps, but not exclusively) that they are not “gay” as long as they are the penetrator. Hooper here ignores most of the Roman evidence, making no mention of Gellius and Victor in Catullus 80, of Juvenal 2, or of the pueri delicati of the Empire, and little use of Pompeian graffiti. The next section, “Every word in its place” (16-20), is a history of the epigram as a harbour for obscenity in Roman literature.

Then Hooper initially answers “yes” to the question “Is the ‘Priapea’ pornographic?” (20-21), defining “pornographic intent” as a desire “to increase societal violence and to institutionalize further the debasement of women.” Here Hooper seems to be reading a different collection from the one familiar to me (and to be hearing a different Don Giovanni), since he states that Priapus, “Like Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera … is presented to us as the ultimate seducer and symbol of fertility.” This Priapus, however, is predominantly a protector of gardens, not their fertilizer, and the acts of rape that he threatens can hardly be equated with seduction. But more surprising is the suggestion that these poems — apparently dolo malo — “increase societal violence” and “institutionalize” the “debasement of women.” First of all, I wonder whether even in the collection itself women are “debased” any more than the male thieves who are to have a penis shoved down their throats; nor do I perceive any opportunity for “institutionalization” of Priapus’ behaviour. Hooper has earlier cited the Priapea as “an excellent illustration of the subordinate position of women in Roman society” on the grounds that “the male narrator consistently defines women according to his standards” (4-5), which seems nothing more than an inevitable consequence of human nature. Determined to find hostility toward women, Hooper continues: “They are beautiful if he desires them, ugly if he does not [no surprise here], and unbelievably ugly if they are old and lust after him” (one would hardly guess that there is not a single poem in the collection where an ugly old woman lusts after Priapus). Nor does Hooper ever explain how a wooden statue of a foreign god is to be situated within the hierarchy of Roman society and thus how his sexuality can be mapped confidently onto that of a Roman citizen.

Most importantly of all, however, Hooper notices but does not take adequate account of Priapus’ utter and absolute failure as sexual predator. For all his bluster, Priapus never does execute his famous “three-fold punishment,” because he is inert, immobile wood: he is a comic figure, effectively reduced to impotence, and incapable of debasing anyone other than himself (cf. 56, where he seems thoroughly aware that he cannot himself exact punishment). When he is involved in a sexual situation, it is because his immobility leaves him at the mercy of persons he finds repellent or too demanding (cf. 26, where the uicinae prurientes have left him effututus; in 32 a puella aridior uses him, in 46 the equally unappealing non candidior puella Mauro; only in 73 do the attentions [of pathicae ] seems to be appreciated). The great Roman sex-machine is a boastful failure, and is himself a victim of much of the humour. That wit and humour is unfairly reduced to brutal invective against women and cinaedi, so that one is left wondering why one should bother to read this poetry at all, except as a curiosity from an intolerably primitive age. Recent advances in Puritanism now allow us to read and speak the dirty words, but it seems we must still tut about something.

The next section (22-25) compares Priapus to Silenus ( LIMC has a host of Socratic-looking Priapi modeled on Silenus), then to the Native American Wakdjunkaga (the “Winnebago Trickster”) and finally to Edward Scissorhands, “Tim Burton’s unconscious tribute to the Priapic archetype” (this left me wondering whether Hooper sees fencing coaches as Priapic too). The brief discussion of “Priapus and Aggression” (25-26) takes us nowhere but at least acknowledges the presence of humour. The longer treatment of “The Collection” (26-31) struggles with the difficult issues of authorship (one writer, perhaps Ovid, or many) and arrangement, then wanders off to an unnecessary discussion of “Lygdamus” before suggesting single authorship and a date of about A.D. 100. Finally (31-34) Hooper discusses the principles behind his translations. As he says, “The Priapus poet takes his readers to Coney Island in a Rolls Royce,” and so the formal elegance of the original is represented through devices like rhyme and recognizable metres (couplets for translating elegiacs, trochaics for hendecasyllables).

The text translated is identified as a modified version of Bücheler-Heraeus (Berlin 1912); it is disappointing, but not surprising for a classicist trained in North America, that Hooper says nothing about the collection’s interesting textual history, an understanding of which is in fact a prerequisite to any informed decision about the text.

Translating the Priapea is as hard as Priapus himself, for many reasons: some poems are difficult to understand because of textual corruption; some Roman sexual practices, like irrumatio, lack simple English equivalents; English has no non-metaphorical native word for the penis (the likes of “dick” and “pecker” lack the heft of Latin’s mentula magna minax); and, perhaps most seriously, one must convert concentrated, epigrammatic utterances in the naturally laconic language of Latin into concentrated, epigrammatic utterances in the naturally verbose language of English. Complete success is too much to demand, but Hooper’s achievement is impressive, especially in his rhymed couplets. It is simply astonishing to see how often his version allows the Latin-less reader to appreciate not only what the poet says but how he says it, balancing wit and accuracy and displaying a verve comparable to the original effect. Of course one can always quibble over details: for example, “queer” is potentially misleading in the first line of poem 1, in poem 8 something is lost in the failure to translate magnam (the matronae now look with pleasure only at “cocks,” not at “a big cock”), nobiles in 25.5 has not been translated, etc.

To save space, I will concentrate on the epigrams, some of them capable still perhaps of slight improvement. Poem 18 ( Commoditas haec est in nostro maxima pene, / laxa quod esse mihi femina nulla potest) becomes “My cock’s great size results in one delight: / I’ve never fucked a girl who wasn’t tight.” The choice of “fucked” jars slightly because of the lack of a primary obscenity in the Latin, commoditas is not precisely “delight,” maxima seems to have been lost, and the past tense obscures the universality of the experience described (I would prefer “I’ll never fuck a girl who isn’t tight”), but it works. Also well done is 22 ( Femina si furtum faciet mihi uirue puerue, / haec cunnum, caput hic praebeat, ille nates), which has become “If boy, or man, or woman steals I hump / (in converse order) pussy, head, and rump,” though it would be better with the punctuation “If boy or man or woman steals, I hump.” In his neat version of 54 ( CD si scribas temonemque insuper addas, / qui medium uult te scindere pictus erit = “Impose the letters CD on a staff / to picture what would sunder you in half”), Hooper has rightly assumed Bücheler’s correction of the initial ED to CD but seems unfamiliar with Bücheler’s arguments for it. A note favours the conjecture because it gives “a more realistic picture,” namely C —D; but what Bücheler intended is the truly realistic CB. Another epigram rendered effectively is 71 ( Si commissa meae carpes pomaria curae, / Dulcia qui doleam perdere doctus eris = “You’ll learn, should you steal apples in my care, / how losing sweets provokes me to despair”), though it would be even better if the pun on dolem (in the sexual sense found also at 46.9) could somehow have been preserved. The unrhymed trochaics are in general less successful but often still good. For example, 59 ( Praedictum tibi ne negare possis: / si fur ueneris, impudicus exis) is neat enough as “Don’t pretend I didn’t warn you: / In a thief and out a faggot,” but impudicus is not strictly equivalent to cinaedus, and the bite would be sharper with a rhyme. At their weakest, however, they are scarcely to be distinguished from prose, as in 4: “With this gift of dirty pictures / from the tract of Elephantis / Lalage asks if the horny / deity could help her do it / just like in the illustrations.”

The nearest thing to a misunderstanding of the Latin that I could detect is the translation “when they couldn’t live up to the diagrams” (i.e., in a sex manual) for 63.17-18 quo tot figuras … / non admouente; it is the man who fails to meet the woman’s expectations. I do not know how “Aeachides” comes to be mentioned in 68. I think that Hooper has missed the point of 45, which seems likely to have been that the cinaedus can no more make himself a girl by curling his hair than his penis can be a girl because it’s surrounded by his “short and curlies”; the text as transmitted, however, does not yield this — or indeed any — sense. The version of 57 would be better had Hooper’s obvious feel for epigrammatic “point” prevailed over the authorities cited in his note to convince him that the final line he has translated is interpolated.

Some disappointments involve the misunderstanding of sexual terms. Pathicae [ puellae ] is translated differently on every one of its 4 occurrences, as “nymphos” at 25.3, “ladies of the evening” at 40.4, “kinky wenches” at 48.4, “shameless tarts” at 73.1. The word’s more widespread application to males suggests that these should be women who enjoy being sodomized, for which I know no convenient English equivalent. In addition, I dispute Hooper’s treatment of irrumare, used a total of 5 times in 4 poems. Taking his cue from Adams’ The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, and in agreement with what appears to be scholarly consensus (Richlin, however, defined it correctly), he regards this as referring to fellatio from the viewpoint of the fellatee; in other words, irrumare is identical to fellari, and fellare is identical to irrumari. (It must therefore be a slip when, on 17, he glosses irrumo with “suck off.”) On this interpretation, a threat to irrumare someone is really a threat to invite or to force him to perform fellatio, and Hooper so renders it at 35.2 and 5 (“If you’re caught again, you suck me … you’ll give fuck and suck in sequence”), at 44.4 (“Every thief I catch will thrice and / four times serve me with a blow job”: perhaps the nadir among Hooper’s translations), and at 56.6 (“He takes all my blow jobs for me”). (On the other hand, Hooper simply denies a threat of “forced fellatio” in discussing a graffito that reads caca bene et irruma medicos : “let the doctors suck off,” in his incomprehensible translation.) Fellating a wooden object is absurd and fruitless in a way that inserting it for vaginal or anal sex is not (even the nobiles cinaedi of 25 only kiss), and this interpretation is especially absurd when applied to the fifth occurrence (70.13). Here the locals are asked not to leave edible offerings; otherwise their watchdogs might spend the night licking Priapus’ privates instead of keeping guard ( ne … custodes habeatis irrumatos). Even a metaphorical “blow job” from the dogs is out of the question, and they will certainly not be coerced into providing one; hence Hooper’s translation is forced to desperate measures (“lest … I should blow away your watch dogs”). In fact not a single passage in Latin literature demands this widely received interpretation of irrumare, and there are a few (including 70.13) that stand against it. The Catullan examples are not decisive, since they appear in jocular threats and are not used literally (16.1, 14; 21.8, 13; 28.10; 37.8; cf. also irrumator 10.12). It could also be argued that the passages where Martial uses it literally in reference to sexual practice are also ambiguous (2.47.4; 2.83.5; 4.17.3; 4.50.2). But the best evidence that irrumari really means “to have a penis shoved into one’s mouth” rather than “to perform fellatio” is probably Martial 2.70.3, where undis … irrumatis refers to water at the baths which has been entered by nude men, and fellatio, forced or otherwise, cannot be at issue. (Note also Catullus 28.12-13, where nihilo minore uerpa farti estis is effectively the passive equivalent of irrumasti in 10.) Hooper is particularly unrealistic about inviting or coercing fellatio from a “heterosexual” male and even refers on 15 to “a man who allow[s] himself … to perform fellatio.” But is it really so unlikely that the Romans — who, as everyone agrees, constructed sexuality and gender around penetration — cultivated this particular form of sexual gratification through penetration (“face-fucking” in vulgar English, for which any search engine will provide a number of unsavoury hits), especially when it conforms better than fellatio to the “normal” condition that the insertor should also be the active agent? Fellatio in fact challenges the basic paradigms of Roman sexuality precisely because the insertor, who simply allows his penis to be used, is the passive figure, while the fellator, though he is penetrated, is the active one (to make it even more confusing for the Romans, in male-to-male fellatio the fellator is in effect using another man’s penis to penetrate himself, thus playing simultaneously both active penetrator and passive receptor). Hooper is certainly aware of this important principle, since he writes in a note on poem 78 that “Any sexual act involving the mouth, whether cunnilingus or fellatio, was seen as extreme defilement. This was … because such reversals literally overturned the male’s normal role as penetrator.

The notes that make up the Commentary show the same individuality as the Introduction; note for example the interesting, but irrelevant, excursus on English “faggot” (on poem 25) or the one on Lesbians (on poem 12). Since Hooper has taken very seriously the task of turning Latin poems into English ones, some notes explain how Latin word-play has become English; thus the one on 67 explains that he has replaced four names whose first syllables spell out pedicare with four others that spell out “pederasty.” Other notes offer discussions of textual problems (though never with reference to the manuscript tradition) or difficulties of interpretation. The same grimness apparent in the Introduction influences some interpretations, such as when Priapus’ obviously humorous and self-flattering claim that nobiles cinaedi come to kiss his member (25.5) elicits the comment, “Priapus is here attacking men who have abandoned their active, dominant heritage while at the same time (paradoxically) bragging that these cinaedi find his own phallus irresistible.” I do not know why Hooper’s note on 68 claims that “it became so dangerous to read [Gallus’] poetry … that most of it disappeared”; if the Qasr Ibrim fragment is anything to judge by, it disappeared on its own merits.

The quality of production is generally high; “vililcus” in 42.1 and some missing indentations are the only obvious flaws in the Latin text (though I hope that “ni” in 44.4 is a typo as well). Hooper’s Introduction and notes do a reasonably good, if grim, job of acquainting non-specialist readers with the current state of scholarship on Roman sexuality and on the Priapea. The best of his witty and joyous translations, however, will show them why the work is worth reading, despite his comments about their content.