BMCR 2021.04.34

Catullus and Roman comedy: theatricality and personal drama in the late Republic

, Catullus and Roman comedy: theatricality and personal drama in the late Republic. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 232. ISBN 9781108839815 $99.99.

“O you chorus of indolent reviewers,
Irresponsible, indolent reviewers,
Look, I come to the test, a tiny poem,
All composed in a metre of Catullus,
All in quantity, careful of my motion,
Like the skater on ice that hardly bears him,
Lest I fall unawares before the people,
Waking laughter in indolent reviewers.” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson from Hendecasyllabics)

The idea that Catullus flirted with comedy has been around for a long time. Scholars have seen comedic stereotypes behind figures such as the senes severiores of Cat. 5.2, the flagitatio of Cat. 42 (cf. Plautus Ps. 357ff.), and poems like Cat. 8 (miser Catulle, desinas ineptire), which resounds with the plaintive monologues of the adulescens amator character from Plautus or Terence. Polt’s monograph, however, argues that this is not just a flirtation, but that there is a committed relationship between Catullus’ poetry and comedy, and that these points of contact “are part of a larger, more sustained poetic program than has been recognized” (7). I found myself sympathetic to the primary argument of this monograph; Polt often finds new ways to spin this material, underscores the larger social and cultural role of Roman comedy and how it permeates late Republican life, and displays close reading acumen on nearly every page. His readings of Catullus expose how the characters and situations of the fabula palliata can help us more fully comprehend Catullus’ world and his poetry.

“Who? Lesbia? I know her: she went to Leicester Square
And hurried through to Soho in the evening rain,
Where she helps the sons of Romulus
Drink Japanese champagne.” (David Vessey from Lesbia in Orco)

In his introduction, Polt stresses that Catullus engages with comedy on three levels: his nugatory sensibility, his domestic and urban focus, and his fascination with translation and Greco-Roman hybridity. He surveys poems that highlight these themes with some surprising results. Polt often piggy-backs on the scholarship of others who had found something “funny” in the poem,[1] but he forges a more direct intertextual relationship between the Catullan poem and Roman comedy. The materiality of the book (Cat. 1) and the pallium of Cat. 25 (think fabula palliata, get it?) make them approach the status of props, like those of the theater, and Polt shows how Catullus in these poems mobilizes these props to “define, alter, and nullify identity and social relationships” (23). Catullus’ local perspective is examined in poems 10, 31, and 51, where his own persona can take on shades of the miles gloriosus (10), Charmides from Trinummus (31), or Lesbonicus from the same play (fitting for someone whose beloved is Lesbia). I found the final section on translation more convoluted and less convincing, but his conclusions about Catullus’ use of comedic stock types are spot-on: “Catullus’ ability to manipulate comic stock types and combine them not only with one another but also with ‘real’ people to produce new hybrids represents one of his most significant achievements” (43).

The following chapter helpfully steps back and examines the ways Romans of the Late Republic engaged with comedy and the theater more broadly. Through speeches of Cicero, one can see the way that the comic stage offered exempla, and Polt surveys the evidence of theatricality and metatheater with an eye to the role-playing many Romans must have felt they were undertaking at different social moments. Roman etiquette (and the clientele system) requires one to assume various personae, and Polt utilizes Cicero’s Pro Caelio to examine how comedy informed the various personae that Cicero conjures in that speech. Polt makes the larger point that “the choice to take up, change, or remove a theatrical persona meaningfully affects one’s identity and one’s relationship to others in society” (66). This is a valuable discussion for all who are interested in the infusion of comedy (and theater more broadly) in Roman social and political lives and it offers an effective backdrop for the following chapters.[2]

“That thing he wrote, the time the sparrow died –
(Oh, most unpleasant – gloomy, tedious words!
I called it sweet, and made believe I cried;
The stupid fool! I’ve always hated birds.” (Dorothy Parker, From a Letter from Lesbia)

The next chapter continues to place Catullus in the larger context of the Late Republic and draws upon Cicero and Lucretius to address the concept of love as a malady that needs to be cured. Both Cicero and Lucretius look to Terence’s Eunuchus when describing the follies of those in love, and both search for cures in philosophy. For Cicero, the banality of the antics of the adulescens amator should be appreciated by those with enough shame and reason to see them. Lucretius’ diatribe against erotic love in Book 4 of De Rerum Natura also bears comedic elements proving that “acting as a stock character is detrimental to ataraxia” (104). Polt attempts to connect elements from the beginning of Book 4 and Lucretius’ famous image of his teachings as medicine to the section about erotic love, but the conclusions feel rushed [e.g. “the adulescens amator is the honey” (106)] and need further elaboration. When turning to Catullus at the conclusion of the chapter, Polt stresses the poet’s iconoclastic tendencies and the way he advocates for the adulescens amator as a positive example of an alternative lifestyle. Polt reads Cat. 8 as a strong allusion to Terence’s Eunuchus, with Phaedria’s character in particular offering “a kind of restorative therapeutic for Catullus, an exemplary figure that anchors his erotic experience across the gaps between poems” (118). Language and imagery from Eunuchus do appear in selected poems of Catullus, and Polt mines poems 51, 72, 75, 76, 85, and 109 for points of contact. Some of these intertexts are more persuasive than others, but is Catullus merely assuming a well-worn mask for these allusive nods or is he now reifying his “true” lifestyle (cf. the traditional biographical reading of Catullus as rake, schizoid lover, poor poet)? It is difficult to decide from Polt’s prose: “We might even understand this [his two-sidedness] as a consequence of his lovesickness: when the morbus takes hold, he represents himself as the victim, but when it abates – as it seems in poem 109 – and ratio reasserts itself, Catullus becomes gentle again” (125). Remember, even Lucretius mentions that when the going gets tough, the mask comes off (eripitur persona, 3.58). Will the true Catullus stand up or just put on a new mask?

The third and fourth chapters offer readings that underscore how the social world of Catullus’ poetry evokes comedic tropes built around the “heroic badness” of the clever slave and the clever meretrices. Intratextual connections link Cat. 21, 24, and 49, and, in addition, Polt urges the reader to see a Plautine atmosphere behind these poems: “The speaker takes a page from Plautus’ book, adopting the universalizing servus callidus and his distinctively humorous malitia to find ways to advance his own interests over those of Aurelius, Furius, Juventius, and Cicero” (147). Catullus’ social position vis-à-vis these characters helps to determine how he will exploit this Plautine schtick to achieve success – although it is hard to know if that “success” is merely a smile from the full-knowing reader or actual success (e.g. winning Cicero’s patronage or additional kisses from Juventius). I also wondered if the clever slave, who so often embodies the playwright himself, might have appealed to Catullus (cf. Pl. Ps. 401-5). If that slave qua writer was also a figure of Hellenistic learning as recent scholarship has highlighted,[3] would Catullus’ nod to this figure place himself in that same line – a Hellenistic poet who exploits both Greek and Roman predecessors for allusive material in his own learned constructions? When Polt turns to the figure of the meretrix callida, he treats her as “an embodiment of the anti-traditional values” (151) that Catullus champions in his poetry, while remaining sympathetic to the gendered differences of male slaves and female sex laborers. Close analysis of Cat. 55/58b and 36/37 reveals how Catullus exploits comedic stereotypes in the saucy exchange between Catullus and a meretrix in Cat. 55 and how it helps us understand the relationship jockeying of Catullus and Lesbia in Cat. 36 and 37, with Catullus playing the miles gloriosus and Lesbia the meretrix. For a poem like Cat. 55, the female nudity suggests to me that mime is also an influence, but mime is downplayed throughout this work in spite of Wiseman’s suggestions,[4] a mime writer by the name of Catullus, and the use of nugae to signify mime (s.v. OLD 3). Additionally, a poem like Cat. 62 in which we have another view of male/female relations in dialogue would have provided an interesting point of comparison for this chapter (for the most part, the eight longer poems, Cat. 61-68, are ignored in this study).

Polt wraps up his monograph with an epilogue that provides a couple of examples of the way that Catullus acts as a proto-elegist: “Catullus’ experiments in adapting Roman comedy to his personal poetry paved the way for later poets to do something similar” (176). He then turns to Ovid’s Amores and offers an explication of Amores 1.10 in tandem with Plautus’ Asinaria and Cat. 110 that reveals how the role of the lena and the vocabulary of officium and fides mirror one another.

At first glance one may think the primary thrust of Polt’s monograph holds true for some of Catullus’ poetry, but certainly does not apply to the entire varied corpus. A quick glance at Polt’s index shows that he references 48 of Catullus’ poems, but most only once, and often in a glancing manner. So, one may question how deeply Catullus is committed to comedy. Would a tryst with tragedy, or epic, or lyric also be tempting to Catullus? There are additional structural problems with the work; for instance, 25% of this book does not mention Catullus (pp. 45-106), and while that material does help to set the scene, it also feels like an over-long prologue [in a Roman comedy?] that does not provide much new information. The readings that Polt offers of Catullus’ poems are cogent and convincing, and the book does much to clarify the reach of theatrical and comedic material in the 1st century BCE. From its title, I hoped for more analysis of Catullus in this monograph, and to get a better sense if comedy is a key tenet for all of Catullus or only selected poems. Polt’s book clarifies what many translators and poets already knew, namely that comedic scenes/tropes act as the salt (sal) in many of Catullus’ poems and that one can regularly find a punchline. Poets who translate or allude to Catullus have often highlighted humor, hence my quotations of some Catullan translations/adaptations in this review.

“Your nose is wrong.
Your feet are wrong.
Your eyes are wrong your mouth is wrong.
Your pimp is wrong even his name is wrong.
Who cares what they say, you’re not –
Why can’t I
Live in the nineteenth century.” – Anne Carson (Carmen 43)


[1] Skinner, M. 1989. “Ut decuit cinaediorem: Power, Gender, and Urbanity in Catullus 10.” Helios 16: 7-23; Nappa, C. 2001. Aspects of Catullus’ Social Fiction. Frankfurt am Main: Lang; Young, E. 2015. Translation as Muse: Poetic Translation in Catullus’s Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] The recent work by Hanses casts a wider net, but covers similar ground to the second and third chapters of Polt’s book, cf. Hanses, M. 2020. The Life of Comedy after the Death of Plautus and Terence. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

[3] Sharrock, A. 2009. Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press. Fontaine, M. 2010. Funny Words in Plautine Comedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 197-200, 249-56 is especially strong on this topic. Christenson recently has stressed, “The time is ripe for critics to fully embrace and develop the notion of Plautus as a sophisticated Hellenistic and intertextual poet” (Christenson, D. 2020. Plautus: Pseudolus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 47).

[4] Wiseman, T.P. 1985. Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.