BMCR 2008.02.50

Catulls Epigramme im Kontext hellenistischer Dichtung. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 246

, Catulls Epigramme im Kontext hellenistischer Dichtung. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 246. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2007. 241 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9783110194661 €88.00.

A study of Catullus’ engagement with Hellenistic poetry, not based on the principles of Quellenforschung, but well-grounded in the methods of modern literary criticism, is certainly a great desideratum. It is all the more disappointing that Hartz’s book—despite its promising title and its pronouncedly theoretical approach—offers nothing of the kind. For all his concern with intertextual theory and his obvious delight in lit-crit jargon, H. nowhere demonstrates a special awareness of Catullus’ sophisticated arte allusiva, nor does he convincingly illustrate how the Roman poet adapts and responds to Hellenistic literary aesthetics in his epigrams (c. 69-116), which stand in the center of this study.

The first chapter (pp. 7-19) contains a brief survey of the theories developed by Kristeva, Barthes, Riffaterre and Genette. Fundamental as their works are for the interpretation of modern and ancient texts alike, this section appears to be not much more than a compulsory exercise. For H. simply rephrases what one can easily find in many introductions to the subject, such as the book of Thomas Schmitz,1 to which he continually refers. In his second chapter (pp. 20-31) the author sets out to apply the “intertextualitätstheoretischen Ansätze” to Catullus’ poetry and presents his main thesis, which the readings of specific epigrams in chapter 4, by far the largest part of the book (pp. 49-224), are supposed to corroborate: Hellenistic poetry functions, in the terms of Gérard Genette, as Catullus’ architext; learned allusions, a preference for short, refined forms, a polished, elaborate style and other elements that one typically encounters in both Hellenistic texts and Catullus’ oeuvre are, in the terminology of Michel Riffaterre, the ” matrices of the neoteric sociolect.”

What at first may sound rather theoretical basically comes down to this: Catullus primarily writes for friends who, like him, are members of the so-called “Neoterikerkreis” (whatever that means) and therefore share his interest in learned poetry; the exclusivity of their circle is not least evidenced by attacks against people who do not conform to their moral and artistic ideals. The individuals ridiculed in Catullus’ epigrams may be nothing but names to us—H. decidedly rejects any attempts at identification—but the neoterics, as opposed to ordinary Romans, in all likelihood knew who was targeted, such exclusive knowledge being part and parcel of their sociolect. H. prima facie opposes biographical interpretation, but he curiously brings it in through the back door when speculating about the contemporary reception of Catullus’ epigrams. While he grants, for example, that a figure like Gellius, whose sexual aberrations are denounced in several poems (74, 80, 88, 89, 90 and 91), may be fictional, he prefers the idea that Catullus’ invectives were inspired by specific slights which his prime audience, i.e. the other neoterics and they alone, knew about (p. 116).

Thus H. concludes his interpretation of c. 80, in which Catullus unmasks Gellius as a fellator, with the following observation: “Die hypertextuelle Verbindung und die private Thematik funktionieren hier schlielich als Matrices des Soziolekts, der die hellenistische Dichtung, hier durch die Hypertextualität besonders deutlich, als Architext der neoterischen Dichtung ausweist und die Neoteriker wiederum von der Gesellschaft trennt” (p. 117). This is one of the few instances in which H. discusses a concrete intertextual (or, in Genette’s terminology, hypertextual) link between one of Catullus’ epigrams and a Hellenistic poem. The text that he has in mind is Callimachus ep. 30 Pf. (= AP 12.71), where the poet deduces from Cleonicus’ physical appearance—he is but skin and bones—that he must be (unhappily) in love with Euxitheus. Catullus, in turn, takes Gellius’ white lips as evidence for oral sex. While one may perceive structural similarities between the two texts, there simply is no direct “motivische Übereinstimmung” (p. 115), such as H. suggests: “Beide sind an eine namentlich angesprochene männliche Person gerichtet, und beide Male ist die Motivik sexuell: Dem Angesprochenen wird vorgeworfen, auf Grund von sexuellen Ausschweifungen körperliche Makel aufzuweisen” (p. 115). Cleonicus’ emaciation, however, is certainly not due to sexual debauchery, but to his unfulfilled desire for the beloved boy; he thus does not have too much sex, but none at all! Ovid wittily takes up this topos in Amores 1.6, where he pictures himself as so haggard that he could sneak through a tiny crack in the door: longus amor tales corpus tenuavit in usus / aptaque subducto pondere membra dedit (vv. 5-6). Strangely, H. also reads Ovid’s skinniness as indicating an excessive sexual life (cf. p. 100 n. 327), but the image of an overly successful Don Juan hardly is in line with the predicament of the elegiac lover, whose prayers are so seldom answered.

All in all, H.’s interpretations do not delve very deeply into the individual poems and he does not offer any particularly remarkable observations about the role that Hellenistic poetry plays in Catullus’ oeuvre. His third chapter (pp. 32-48), entitled “Allgemeine Untersuchungen zum hellenistischen Epigramm”, reads more or less like a handbook entry (as does his section on neoteric poetry, pp. 23-31). In fact, the author hardly shows great familiarity with Hellenistic texts, not to mention the relevant scholarship. Considering his focus on neoteric exclusivity, it is, for example, astonishing that H. does not take into account Karen Bassi’s article “The Poetics of Exclusion in Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo,”2 which could, at least partly, have strengthened his argument. In the case of c. 95, where Catullus contrasts Cinna’s Zmyrna, inter alia, with the poetry of crowd-pleasing, swollen Antimachus (c. 95.10), H. has nothing to say about the role of Antimachus’ Lyde in a possible literary dispute between Callimachus and his contemporaries Asclepiades and Posidippus.3 While omissions of this sort are not all that serious, H.’s contention that Hellenistic epigrams are full of invective and obscene elements (p. 53) is highly problematic. It is simply not true that Greek epigrams of this period betray a high degree of sexual aggressiveness.4 Not surprisingly, the only example H. provides in support of this claim is an epigram from book 11 of the Palatine Anthology, wrongly attributed to Meleager (AP 11.223: “You doubt that Favorinus fucks? Stop doubting! He himself has told me that he fucks—with his own mouth”). This poem is not remotely like the rest of Meleager’s epigrams or any other Hellenistic erôtika for that matter; rather it resembles the scoptic epigrams of the first and second century AD, with which it has been associated by others.5 At first, H. seems to acknowledge certain doubts as to the epigram’s authorship, but later he speaks without qualification of the “Meleager-Epigramm” (p. 128).

The author certainly is right to underline the polyphony of Catullus’ texts and to plead for openness toward their sexual contents, but an awareness of both these aspects is hardly as new as he wants to make us believe. In any case, his attempts to find links between Catullus and Hellenistic poetry appear, at times, rather forced. Analyzing c. 94 (Mentula moechatur. moechatur Mentula? certe / hoc est quod dicunt: ipsa olera olla legit), for example, H. follows Damschen’s suggestion6 that Catullus alludes to the Greek practice of punishing adulterers by inserting a radish into their anus. He concludes: “Ganz gleich jedoch, ob die Aporaphanidosis gängige Praxis war: Es reicht das Wissen darum, dass sie in Griechenland gebräuchlich war dafür, sie in den Bezug zwischen Catulls Epigrammen und der hellenistischen Dichtung zu stellen” (p. 81). One may wonder what exactly this practice has to do with Hellenistic poetry, but that does not interest H.

A quick look at the bibliography tells you that H. has ignored one of the most important contributions to Catullan scholarship in recent years: Marilyn Skinner’s monograph on the elegiac libellus—the very part of Catullus’ oeuvre on which his study focuses.7 This omission is hardly acceptable in a dissertation that was submitted in 2004 and published in 2007. While the question of arrangement is still disputed, more and more scholars accept that the poet himself was responsible for ordering the texts. H.’s claim that nothing can be said about how the collection was put together and that, for this reason, the arrangement cannot have any influence on questions of interpretation, is too simplistic (p. 173). For him c. 69 stands at the beginning of part III—while this view cannot be disproved, he should at least have mentioned Wiseman’s 1969 suggestion that the third book of Catullus’ collection started with c. 65,8 which now finds strong support in Barchiesi’s stimulating observations on the Callimachean framing of cc. 65-116, again unknown to the author.9

Considering its many weaknesses and problematic claims, one is left wondering finally how H.’s book could be published in this form. What were his supervisor and the series-editors thinking? Someone should have told him that the author of the Institutio oratoria is called Quintilianus, not Quintillianus (this is no typo: cf. pp. 73, 142, 143 and the index), or have pointed out that c. 99 with its 16 lines is actually not the longest of Catullus’ epigrams (after all, c. 76 comprises 26 lines). No doubt, H.’s study touches upon numerous intriguing issues, but it should have been seriously revised and rewritten before seeing the light of day.


1. Schmitz, Thomas (2002): Moderne Literaturtheorie und antike Texte. Eine Einführung, Darmstadt (now also available in English: Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts. An Introduction, London 2007).

2. TAPA 119 (1989), 219-231.

3. Cf. e.g. Krevans, Nita (1993): “Fighting against Antimachus. The Lyde and the Aetia reconsidered” in M.A. Harder, R.F. Regtuit and G.C. Wakker (edd.). Callimachus. (Hellenistica Groningana 1), Groningen: 149-60.

4. There are satirical elements in Hellenistic epigrams, but they are distinct from the scoptic poetry one finds in the imperial period. Cf. J. Blomquist (1998): “The Development of the Satirical Epigram in the Hellenistic Period” in M.A. Harder, R.F. Regtuit and G.C. Wakker (edd.). Genre in Hellenistic Poetry. (Hellenistica Groningana 3), Groningen: 45-60; on scoptic epigrams cf. Gideon Nisbet (2003): Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial’s Forgotten Rivals, Oxford.

5. E. Amato (2001): “Favorino nell’ Anthologia Palatina (e un epigramma contestato a Meleagro).” Scholia 10: 94-103 (not quoted by H.) argues that the addressee is the Second Sophistic philosopher Favorinus, which may well be true. He further suggests attributing the epigram to Strato; his authorship does not necessarily follow, but is much more likely than Meleager’s.

6. Damschen, G. (1999): “Catullus c. 94. Ipsa olera olla legit.” Mnemosyne 52: 169-176.

7. Skinner, Marilyn (2003): Catullus in Verona. A Reading of the Elegiac Libellus, Poems 65-116, Columbus.

8. Wiseman, T.P. (1969): Catullan Questions, Leicester.

9. Barchiesi, Alessandro (2005): “The Search for the Perfect Book. A PS to the New Posidippus.” In Kathryn Gutzwiller (ed.). The New Posidippus. A Hellenistic Poetry Book, Oxford: 320-42.