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"Nam unguentum dabo": Catullus 13 and Servius' note on Phaon ('Aeneid' 3.279).

Catullus' cunning dinner invitation to Fabullus continues to generate a rich variety of interpretations of its memorable central image, the promised gift of a certain unguentum Veneris (13.12). Three Latomus articles, by Littman, Hallett, and Case, have explored possible origins of and uses for that mysterious substance, suggesting, for example, that it might even contain female secretions with powerful aphrodisiac properties, or some other unmentionable sexual lubricant.(2)

Interpretations of Catullus 13 seem to oscillate between the 'Dr Ruth' school of criticism and more restrained readings of light, friendly humour at both Fabullus' expense and the poet's, spicing a delicate compliment made to his mistress' eyebrow (suae puellae), whether she is Lesbia or not.(3) The following is offered as a contribution to the debate, in the hope of shedding further light on Catullus' unguentum within the poetic context of an elegant, refined, and deftly erotic compliment from her lover.

To make up for his admittedly meagre fare, Catullus rounds off this invitation to Fabullus with two special incentives (13.10-15):

sed contra accipies meros(4) amores

seu quid suavius elegantiusve est:

nam unguentum dabo, quod meae puellae

donarunt Veneres Cupidinesque,

quod tu cum olfacies, deos rogabis,

totum ut te faciant, Fabulle, nasum.

But what you'll get instead is some

neat affection or, sweeter, choicer yet,

I'll give an oil the Venuses and Cupids

gave to my girl: Fabullus,

when you smell it, you will ask

the gods to make you all nose!

Venus' magical unguent cries out for an allusion to poetry or myth. In his commentary, Kenneth Quinn reconsidered two previously proposed parallels: Odyssey 18.190-6 and Propertius 2.29.15-18. He discounted Homer's ambrosia of Aphrodite since it was intended for goddesses (and as a cleanser, not a perfume), but was rather attracted by the Propertius passage, which 'probably provides the clue we need':

quae cum Sidoniae nocturna ligamina mitrae

solverit atque oculos moverit illa graves,

afflabunt tibi non Arabum de gramine odores,

sed quos ipse suis fecit Amor manibus.

Quinn correctly infers here `a reference to the idea that a lovely woman, like a goddess, emitted a special characteristic fragrance which was her aura'.(5) (The charming motif of Amores making perfumes is familiar from Pompeiian wall paintings.)

There is yet another possible interpretation of the unguentum Veneris, however, which seems both more exact and more poetic, suggested by Pliny the Elder (12.18) and Vergil's commentator Servius. The latter's note at Aeneid 3.279 gives two versions of the foundation-myth for the temple of Venus at Leucas, site of the famous `lovers' leap' where Sappho ended the pain of her rejection by Phaon. Varro (cited here by Servius) had attributed the foundation of that cult to Aeneas, while Menander and his Roman adapter Turpilius (d. 103 B.C.) favoured Phaon of Lesbos.(6) Cicero cites Turpilius' dramatic adaptation of the story, Leucadia (`The Girl from Leucas') in the Tusculans (4.72), as an example of furor amatorius approaching tragic pathos. Everyone else was false to him, protested Phaon the lover, except Venus (Venerem unam excludit ut iniquam, 4.34.73). Servius' version of the tale of Phaon and the unguent of Venus runs as follows:

Qui [Phaon] cum esset navicularius, solitus a Lesbo in continentem proximos quosque mercede transvehere, Venerem mutatam in anuis formam gratis transvexit. Quapropter ab ea donatus unguenti alabastro, cum se indies inditum ungeret, feminas in suum amorem trahebat, in quis fuit una, quae de monte Leucate, cum potiri eius nequiret, abiecisse se dicitur: unde nunc aucrorare se quotannis solent qui de eo monte iaciantur in pelagus.

Pliny's account tells how Venus had hidden Phaon in a lettuce patch (!) because of his good looks, and that the unguentum, used as a skin-soap, inflamed the women of Lesbos with passion for him. Phaon's legendary sex appeal may have been comic invention.(7) Plautus (Miles 1246-7) used that without reference to unguentum:

nam nulli mortali scio obtigisse hoc, nisi duobus,

tibi et Phaoni Lesbio, tam mulier ut amaret.

Pliny the Elder recounts one tradition in which Phaon used the pale variety of the herb eryngion as an aphrodisiac to fire Sappho's passion for him (22.20). Her subsequent leap from the famous rock is referred to by Ovid (Her. 15) and by Statius (Silv. 5.3.154), and it appears in the stuccoes in the apse of the Underground Basilica at the Porta Maggiore in Rome.(8)

In accepting this allusion as central to the poem's interpretation, one would conclude that Catullus' puella has simply come into the possession of a wondrous new aphrodisiac perfume or mixer, his own extravagant claims for which are put forward with amusing and delicate sophistication in allusions to Sappho and comedy. Perhaps it serves also as an invitation to Fabullus to try it on his own candida puella, as well as a pretty compliment--a gift from `VENUS & SONS PERFUMERS'. Sapphic echoes in Catullus can provide a lyric filtre for his deepest feelings, both for (Poem 51 is a delicate and tender translation of Sappho)(9) and against (11) Lesbia.

The introduction of Phaon's unguentum Veneris into the invitation to Fabullus produces two rhetorical effects: (1) enticing Fabullus to the otherwise scanty fare at Catullus' party with the promise of sensory delights, and (2) complimenting his puella on her own irresistible charm, sophistication, and allure--her venustas. Like the puella of Caecilius in poem 35, Lesbia too could be Sappica puella doctior musa (35.16-17). If Catullus' pomade is presented in an alabaster box like Phaon's (it must be in something), Fabullus would be even more likely to catch the allusion.(10) A phallic double entendre in totum ... nasum (15) would add an epigrammatic sting to the poem.

(1) I would like to thank my former teacher and long-time friend, Professor D. F. S. Thomson, for citing this suggested Servius-parallel to Catullus' unguentum Veneris in his splendid and long-awaited new commentary: Catullus. Edited with a Textual and Interpretative Commentary (Phoenix Supplementary Volume 34; Toronto, 1997).

(2) R. J. Littman, `The unguent of Venus: Catullus 13', Latomus 36 (1977), 123-38; J. P. Hallett, `Divine unction: some further thoughts on Catullus 13', Latomus 37 (1978), 747-8; B. D. Case, `Guess who's coming to dinner: a note on Catullus 13', Latomus 54 (1995), 875-6. For further comment on the literary aspects of Catullus 13, see G. Williams, Tradition and Originality in Roman Poetry (Oxford, 1969), pp. 122, 127, 463. K. Quinn, Catullus. An Interpretation (New York, 1973), pp. 231-2, sees 13 as an invitation to meet Lesbia; G. P. Goold, Catullus (London, 1983), p. 239, reads cenabis bene (1) as a reply to Fabullus' invitation of himself to Catullus' house (comparing Cic. de Or. 2.246 for the formula): `"My sweetheart" must be the Lesbia of happier days...'; D. W. T. C. Vessey, `Thoughts on two poems of Catullus, 13 and 20', Latomus 30 (1971), 45-55, at 48, saw the poem as a 'compliment to Lesbia and her divine beauty'.

(3) E. T. Merrill, Catullus (Cambridge, MA, 1893), p. 59: Merrill's view of the tone of 13 is `dignity and condescension .... The lack of anything but happy feeling in the memory indicates that the poem was written while the love for Lesbia was still untroubled by disagreement of suspicion,--therefore about 60 B.C.' C. J. Fordyce, Catullus. A Commentary (Oxford, 1961), p. 133. R. Ellis's support for Lesbia as the puella of 13 (A Commentary on Catullus [2nd edn, Oxford, 1889], p. 48) seems generally accepted. For Clodia Metelli, see now R. D. Griffith, `The eyes of Clodia Metelli', Latomus 55 (1996), 381-3.

(4) The choice of MSS readings at 13.10 between meros (O: e.g. Kroll, Mynors, Quinn, Fordyce, Goold, Thomson) and meos (X: e.g. Littman) seems to vary with the interpretation of unguentum as either divine or profane.

(5) K. Quinn, Catullus. The Poems (London and Basingstoke, 1970); see also his Latin Explorations (London, 1986), p. 176. Quinn cites Vergil, Aen. 1.403-4, and also Baudelaire's Le Chat: `Was the scent, in other words, not one presented to Catullus by his mistress, but the alluring fragrance of her person?' (135).

(6) Servii Grammatici qui feruntur in Verilii Carmina Commentarii, recens. G. Thilo, H. Hagen (Leipzig, 1881), I, p. 390. For the fragments of Turpilius' Leucadia, see O. Ribbeck, Comicorum Romanorum Praeter Plautum et Syri Quae Feruntur Sententiae Fragmenta (Leipzig, 1898), II, 113-18.The story of Phaon and Aphrodite is also told by Aelian (12.18) and Lucian (Dial. Mort.) without reference to the unguentum.

(7) Also a theme on Etruscan mirrors: E. Gerhard, Etruskische Spiegel, bearb. A. Klugmann und G. Koerte (Berlin, 1884-97), III, Taf. CDVII; IV, Taf. CCCXXIII; V, 5, 40-2, Tar. 32.

(8) See inter alios G. Lugli, Itinerario di Roma Antica (Milan, 1970), p. 525 (fig. 365).

(9) Sappho, frag. 31L-P.

(10) Cf. the onyx in Cat. 66.83 and Horace Carm. 4.12. Pliny the Elder (36.20) refers to the use of this stone: `quem cavant et ad vasa unguentaria, quoniam optime servare incorrupta dicitur'.
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Author:Kilpatrick, Ross S.
Publication:The Classical Quarterly
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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