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Among those Present: Catullus 44 and 10.

Did C. Valerius Catullus, like his contemporaries Archias and Philodemus (and his later imitator Pliny the Younger), recite his poetry aloud at private gatherings? (1) Were some of the polymetric nugae written to be declaimed on given occasions and, if so, can we infer likely circumstances of delivery and possible listeners from internal textual evidence? Finally, how does it change our understanding of the poems to analyze them as performances in particular settings? These questions have been posed with increasing frequency in the last fifteen years, during which the theoretical or actual enactment of Catullan poetic discourse, along with its probable reception by live audiences, has become the object of much scholarly conjecture.

Some critics confine themselves to treating the reader-response effect of a Catullan text--that is, the range of potential reactions elicited from a notional reader--as the analogue of audience response to a live performance. For example, Selden's methodological approach utilizes the speech-act theory of John L. Austin to analyze the pragmatic outcomes of Catullan discourse. To designate poetic utterances that, instead of describing a phenomenon, produce consequences in and of themselves, he employs Austin's own term performative. (2) The rhetoric of the poems, he finds, is an incongruous fusion of referential and "performative" modes whose end result is often semantic impasse; accordingly, "the critical tradition does not so much master Catullus' literary achievement as play out a series of responses that is already predicated and predicted by his work" (489). Similarly, Fitzgerald devotes a large part of his recent book to exploring the Catullan speaker's efforts to "position" himself in relation to the con sumer of his verse through calculated exploitation of the image he presents to readers. (3)

Other interpreters, however, take the idea of a performed text literally. Wiseman envisions a few poems, those without a definite addressee, recited in ioco atque vino to a setect group of friends (1985: 127). Gamel goes much further, proposing that the liher Catulli may in fact be a collection of scripts for oral delivery, and that notorious instances of ambiguity would house a choice of possible interpretations to be resolved under individual performance conditions (84-86). Finally, using poem 4 as his test case, Fredrick examines the wider relationship of Catullus' acoustic poetics to both "referential meaning and the circumstances of performance" (52); in passing, he observes that the aural and emotive gratifications of poetic recital in a banquet setting would overlap with "the real excesses and moral anxiety that define the triclinium" (52 n. 8). This is a provocative comment to which I shall return below.

Performance scripts, by definition, bring two audiences into conjunction: an ideal receptive audience constructed by the rhetoric, and an actual audience of spectators. In a previous study, I attempted to define a socio-historical context for the hypothesis of Catullan poetic performance by suggesting that the author presented his verse, most likely by invitation, at formal banquets and employed it as a vehicle of self-promotion within the upper echelons of society. (4) Thus the actual audience for his poems would have been the small circle of elite Romans in which he moved. In other articles, I have sketched out the ideal audience created by specific Catullan poems, including 10, which is unusually frank in soliciting the goodwill of a textually projected listener. (5) I now want to marry those two approaches and combine them with a third one locating Catullus the performer in a convivial setting that includes a contemporary mentioned in his script. Judging by all the familiar names he drops, the poet must have frequently recited a poem in the immediate hearing of someone who appeared as a character in it. Hence investigation of the poem as performance should take the presence of that character into account.

In the process of delivering a first-person monologue, performers model a role for their live audiences: through stance, tone, gesture, and other strategies, they attempt to align reactions to their narrative with those of the ideal audience generated by the text. Audiences immersed in the stage action are likely to go along with those cues, and thus a good performer can even persuade an audience temporarily to accept a perspective in conflict with its normal one if the prospect is entertaining enough. Paradoxically, though, a performance becomes even more compelling when some residual friction between the two perspectives is felt and the actual audience resists full acceptance of the role prescribed for it. This may have been the case when Catullus recited a poem in the presence of a named listener. Presumably the poet's own delivery would not then control reception entirely, for the other individual would also exert the force of his or her personality upon the guests. They would have had to think about th e fairness of Catullus' depiction and the way in which the party in question might react to it through facial expression or words: from a rhetorical point of view, she or he would constitute, as it were, an alternative projected audience. With heightened self-consciousness, spectators might well become aware of the performer's effort to align their responses with those of his ideal audience, and to some degree resist that move. While actual reactions to such a situation must have been diverse, and are in any case not recoverable, we can still talk about tensions between the two recipient positions offered by the text or the different responses prescribed for specific internal listeners. Working out a methodological procedure for identifying and clarifying such tensions is the aim of this essay.

As test cases for my approach, I shall examine two poems in the polymetric collection that were almost certainly composed for oral presentation. In both, the assumption of recitation in the presence of a certain real individual interrogates the ostensibly candid self-fashioning of the authorial persona. Because the actual personalities of those characters are relevant to my analysis, I bring what is known about them to the inquiry. Construed as a written document, each poem succeeds even though we do not take its historical personages into account. When the poems are treated as performance pieces, however, both become more interesting if we have at least a rough impression of the human beings known to the original audience. (6) We can begin with a fairly clear-cut instance before proceeding to a more complicated example.

I. "Sestius"

O funde noster seu Sabine seu Tiburs

(nam te esse Tiburtem autumant, quibus non est

cordi Catullum laedere; at quibus cordi est,

quovis Sabinum pignore esse contendunt),

sed seu Sabine sive venus Tiburs,


fui libenter in tua suburbana

villa, malamque pectore expuli tussim,

non inmerenti quam mihi meus venter,

dum sumptuosas appeto, dedit, cenas:

nam, Sestianus dum volo esse conviva,


orationem in Antium petitorem

plenam veneni et pestilentiae legi.

hic me gravedo frigida et frequens tussis

quassavit usque, dum in mum sinum fugi,

et me recuravi otioque et urtica.


quare refectus maximas tibi grates

ago, meum quod non es ulta peccatum.

nec deprecor iam, si nefaria scripta

Sesti recepso, quin gravedinem et tussim

non mi, sed ipsi Sestio ferat frigus,


qui tunc vocat me, cum malum librum legi.

O country estate of mine, whether Sabine or Tiburtine

(for those who do not wish to wound Catullus

proclaim thee Tiburtine; but those who do

swear up and down thou'rt Sabine):

well, whether Sabine or (as in fact) Tiburtine,

I was glad to be at your farmhouse outside the city

getting rid of a bad chest cold that my belly

inflicted on me-and serves me right!-

while I was hankering after extravagant meals.

For, since I wanted to be a guest of Sestius,

I read his oration Against Antius' Candidacy,

full of poison and plague. Thereupon

cold chills and a racking cough

shook me up until I fled to your bosom

and cured myself with rest and veggies.

Wherefore, restored, I render profuse thanks

that thou didst not avenge my sin.

I beg no absolution now, should I again lay hand

upon the wicked writings of Sestius,

lest their frigidity smite with chills and cough-

not me, but Sestius himself,

who invites me only after I've read his bad book.

Fordyce's dismissive verdict (197) that it is "merely a vehicle" for a pun on frigus (20), the technical term for literary ineptitude, hardly exhausts the wit of poem 44, for subsequent readers have discovered other levels of humor. The poem starts off with a sly Legal allusion. In his speech on behalf of L. Licinius Murena (63 B.C.E.), Cicero had introduced an hypothetical lawsuit over property to demonstrate how procedural formulae employed by jurisconsults can obfuscate the issue:

cum hoc fieri bellissime posset: "fundus Sabinus meus est," "immo meus," deinde iudicium, noluerunt. "FUNDUS" inquit "QUI EST IN AGRO QUI SABINUS VOCATUR." satis verbose: cedo quid postea? "EUM EGO EX IURE QUIRITIUM MEUM ESSE ALO." quid turn? "INDE IBI EGO TE EX IURE MANUM CONSERTUM VOCO.... "(Mur. 26)

Although this transaction could have been managed quite smoothly: "The Sabine farm is mine," "No mine," and then the trial, the lawyers wouldn't have it. "The property," says the plaintiff, "which is situated in the territory which is designated 'Sabine.'" Longwinded enough; then what follows? "Said property I, in accordance with the law governing Roman citizens, proclaim to be mine." And then? "In consequence of that I therein summon you to do legal battle...."

If, as seems plausible from Cicero's speech, a fundus Sabinus was routinely cited as a textbook illustration of a legally contested piece of property, then Catullus, with O funde nosier. . . Sabine, pronounces this property, whether Sabine or Tiburtine, unequivocally his. Then, through archaic religious language (e.g., autumant. 2; grates, 16; recepso, 19), he proceeds to make the subsequent solemn invocation of his country estate, expression of gratitude, and concluding vow parody a traditional prayer formula: "The suppliant thanks the god for delivering him from danger, and promises, if he should again fall into the same danger, to make no second plea for deliverance" (Jones 382).

Poem 44 also contains several references to topical matters. Catullus is apparently poking fun at the stylistic affectations of P. Sestius (tr. p1. 57 B.C.E., pr. by 54), soon to become a byword in Cicero's letters: at ad Familiares 7.32.1 (50 B.C.E.), Cicero playfully grumbles that in his absence the witticisms of others, even those of Sestius (in his etiam Sestiana), are being foisted off on him, and in ad Atticum 7.17.2 (49 B.C.E.), after seeing a copy of an important public letter Sestius had composed for Pompey, he sighs that he had "never read any piece of writing more Sestian [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]." Sandy concludes that the solemn and pretentious language of 44.1-5 must burlesque Sestius' own speaking style (71). (7) With the pointed mention of a vegetarian diet in line 15, we are furthermore reminded that Sestius' political opponent Antius had been responsible for a key piece of sumptuary legislation. (8) Sumptuary laws regularly limited the number of guests a candidate for office migh t entertain in one evening and the amount of money to be spent upon the meal; some stipulated that the food served at political gatherings should be simple vegetable dishes, corresponding to Catullus' own regimen of rest and urtica ("nettles"). (9) As for this particular lex Antia, Gellius (2.24.13) informs us that, apart from curtailing expenditures, it also stipulated that magistrates in office and those about to enter office could dine only with certain individuals, and Macrobius (Sat. 3.17.13) adds. that Antius for the rest of his life would not eat out himself, lest he be thought to hold his own law in contempt.

Catullus 44 turns upon this conceptual antithesis of "dining simply at home" versus "feasting elaborately in distinguished company." It sets up a controlling opposition between the speaker's unpretentious establishment, which receives him with no questions asked and tends him in his illness like a mother (in tuum sinum fugi, 14), and Sestius' grand triclinium, to which he struggles to gain access. Hence it has mock-confessional features, for, as David B. George incisively notes, the authorial persona must be regarded as showing himself "vulnerable" to possible rejection. In betraying his desire to be recognized as well-off (i.e., in owning upscale Tiburtine, as opposed to modest Sabine, property), the opening lines expose him as a social climber. The geographical location of the fundus is on a par with the footing of its owner: the precise status of each is ambiguous, subject to the judgment of third parties whose feelings toward Catullus will influence Their decision (quibus non est/cordi Catullum laedere.. . quibus cordi est, 2-3). This initial revelation supplies the context for what follows. Catullus seeks a dinner invitation from Sestius not only because the meal will be lavish (dum sumptuosas appeto . . . cenas, 9) but also because he wishes to be considered a member of Sestius' circle (Sestianus dum volo esse conviva, 10). Accordingly, he reads the infectious speech, suffers the consequences, and, upon reflection, blames himself (non inmerenti .. . mihi, 7) for entering into the quid pro quo. "Thus," George concludes, "[Catullus] is as much the butt of his joke as Sestius" (250): the expectations imposed upon the guest by his host, which insure a favorable reception for the host's speech, and the potential guest's ready compliance in order to earn his meal are in equally poor taste.

If we approach poem 44 as a performance script, the joke becomes even more elaborate. Catullus mentions the cold he caught as something now over and done with (me recuravi, 15; refectus, 16). With the apostrophe to his farm, which follows the pattern of a cletic hymn invoking an absent divinity, (10) and the use of the perfect fui (6), he indicates that he is no longer at home in his suburbana villa. Where is the speaker, then, when he pronounces those words? By implication, he has returned to Rome; and, though in point of fact he might be anywhere in the city, the logic of the text restricts its virtual setting (that is, the place where the projected audience is being addressed) to the site already fixed as the antithesis of the fundus. If he is no longer at his country estate, he must be envisioned as now reciting these lines in its polar opposite, Sestius' dining room, with Sestius himself in attendance.

Humor consequently arises from audience familiarity with the temperament of Sestius and from the presupposition that the subject's reaction to what was being said about him could readily be predicted. Sestius shared his friend Cicero's political sympathies; as tribune of the people he had courageously backed measures for Cicero's recall from exile, even to the point of enduring a physical beating (Sest. 79). For all his proven loyalty, though, Cicero occasionally found him difficult to deal with." A year after his return, the ex-consul was preparing to defend Sestius on a criminal charge. Q. Cicero had to keep reminding his brother to stay on his client's good side (me de retinenda Sesti gratia litteris saepe monuisti, QFr. 2.3.6). After obtaining unanimous acquittal, Cicero confessed that the job was not made any easier by Sestius' peevish disposition (... nam defendendo moroso homine cumulatissime satisfecimus, QFr. 2.4.1). Part of the problem, apparently, was that Sestius was a compulsive type who needed to be wholly in control of the situation. In recounting a series of Cicero's witticisms, Plutarch tells a revealing anecdote about the defendant hogging the limelight at his trial:


Publius Sestius employed Cicero, together with others, as advocate in a certain case, and then wanted to do all the speaking himself, permitting nobody else to say anything. As the vote was being taken and it was already clear that Sestius would be acquitted by the jurors, Cicero said: "Make the most of your fifteen minutes today, Sestius, for tomorrow you're going to be a nonentity."

Such a man would be deeply perturbed by the insinuation that his orations were unreadable.

We should also remember that Sestius, though he moved in the highest political and financial circles and subsequently attained the office of praetor, was a novus homo whose wealth was derived from his father's industrial pursuits--chiefly the manufacture of amphorae. (12) In his family background, then, he was not very different from Catullus himself, whose relations, as Wiseman has established (1987: 335-42), were negotiatores involved in financial and trade activities in Spain and, probably, Asia Minor. It is just possible that the common business interests of the Sestii and the Valerii Catulli in the Western Mediterranean brought the two families into commercial contact, at least at a later date: great numbers of amphorae produced in Sestian factories, possibly containing wine grown on the household estates, have been unearthed in Gaul, while, attested on another amphora (CIL XV 4756), a "C. Valerius Catullus" was involved in the export of pickled fish (garum) from southern Spain to Rome sometime between 40 B.C.E. and 60 C.E. (13) In actuality, then, there may have been a closer bond of social affinity between Sestius and Catullus than the hierarchical relations of superior and inferior depicted in the poem, and that conjecture would call into question the traditional reading of the poem as a malicious attack.

Suppose we visualize this piece being performed in Sestius' triclinium, complete with a sweeping gesture toward its owner at line 20, non mi, sed ipsi Sestio ferat frigus. What has been taken as disparagement becomes something more like a roast--a good-humored celebration of foibles--when performed with gusto in the presence of its (painfully?) smiling target. Sestius is being teased about his habit of feasting celebrities royally, perhaps as a way of compensating for his anxieties as a "new man." (14) By poking fun at his own ambiguous social status, Catullus makes a joke of Sestius' touchiness and shows his host how to lighten up and relax among friends. As the script draws this genial comparison, it places the two men on a basis of social equality. Meanwhile, its characterization of Sestius' speech could he understood as an indirect compliment: the rhetoric was potent enough to impose upon Catullus a regimen of "Antius-like abstemiousness" until he should recover and thus would have given Antius, author o f strict sumptuary legislation, a deserved taste of his own medicine. (15) Lastly, the actual existence of the text as literary artifact paradoxically negates the speaker's vow to forswear both Sestius' writings and his company (18-19). Fellow-guests would be left wondering what Catullus had had to do in order to earn this invitation.

Such a reading of the script is grounded on the premise that its internal audience, including the fictive "Sestius," is not meant to take the speaker's pronouncements seriously. That hypothesis should not be hard to sustain. Even more than the performer's tone of voice and body language, embarrassment at the implicit alternative--the awkwardness of witnessing genuine rhetorical and social censure of the host expressed in a convivial setting--would compel listeners to enter into the spirit of the occasion and share Catullus' joke with good grace. Yet Sestius' bristly personality poses a risk factor: it is just conceivable that he will not tolerate such good-natured kidding, that he will commit the equally outrageous solecism of putting a sudden stop to the performance. The actual audience finds itself asked to choose between two textually constructed reactions: it can delight in the speaker's exuberant wit, or it can leap to its feet and protest, along with a furious Sestius, that this is really going much to o far. Raising those two possibilities--and keeping the audience nicely suspended in tension between them--is the most challenging feature of the performance dynamic.

II. "Varus"

Varus me meus ad suos amores

visum duxerat e foro otiosum,

scortillum, ut mihi tum repente visum est,

non sane illepidum neque invenustum.

huc ut venimus, incidere nobis 5

sermones varii: in quibus, quid esset

iam Bithynia; quo modo se haberet;

ecquonam mihi profuisset aere.

respondi, id quod erat, nihil neque ipsis

nec praetoribus esse nec cohorti, 10

cur quisquam caput unctius referret,

praesertim quibus esset irrumator

praetor, nec faceret pili cohortem.

"at certe tamen," inquiunt "quod illic

natum dicitur esse, comparasti 15

ad lecticam homines." ego, ut puellae

unum me facerem beatiorem,

"non" inquam "mihi tam fuit maligne,

ut, provincia quod mala incidisset,

non possem octo homines parare rectos." 20

at mi nullus erat nec hic neque illic,

fractum qui veteris pedem grabati

in collo sibi collocare posset.

hic illa, ut decuit cinaediorem,

"quaeso" inquit mihi, "mi Catulle, paulum 25

istos commoda; nam volo ad Serapim

deferri." "mane," inquii puellae,

"istud quod modo dixeram me habere,

fugit me ratio: meus sodalis--

Cinna est Gaius--is sibi paravit. 30

verum, utrum illius an mei, quid ad me?

utor tam bene quam mihi pararim.

sed tu insulsa male et molesta vivis,

per quam non licet esse neglegentem."

Varus took me to meet his girl friend

while I was hanging around the Forum.

A little tart, I saw at once,

but not uncharming nor unpretty.

As we came here, we touched upon

various topics, like "What's the news

from Bithynia now, how are conditions,

and how much money had I made?"

I told the truth: nil for the natives

nor yet the practors nor the staff,

so no one brought his head back sleeker,

particularly not those with a m____-f__ing

praetor who didn't give crud for his staff.

"Yes, but still," they said, "what's supposed to be

the native product, you surely bought

litter bearers?" I, to make myself out

to the girl as the single fortunate fellow,

said, "Oh, it wasn't that rough at all for me,

just because I drew a bad province,

that I couldn't buy eight strapping boys."

(But I had nobody, here or there,

who'd be able to hoist on his shoulder

the broken leg of an old cot.)

Here she, just like the bitch she was,

"Oh please," she asked me, "Catullus dear, lend me

those boys for a while; I'd like to be carried

to Sarapis' shrine." "HOLD it," I told her,

"that thing I just said, that I owned them,

I had a mental lapse: my buddy Cinna- you know, Gaius--uh, he bought them.

But whether they're his or mine, who cares?

I use them as freely as if I'd bought them.

But you, you're downright obtuse and obnoxious,

since you won't allow me to speak loosely."

Formerly dismissed as merely a charming vignette, Catullus 10 is now widelY appreciated for its scrutiny of urbane behavior, its insights into class and gender hierarchy, and its tacit critique of provincial exploitation. [16] In extracting all of these implications, scholars have naturally approached it as a written document; however, the dialogic quality of the narrative, the embedding of so many directly and indirectly quoted "sound bites" of colloquial speech, indicates that the poem must have been composed for performance. As an enacted script its dynamics are altered, for laughter is provoked by the ironic disparity between the authorperformer and his stage character. With appropriate comic exaggeration on the performer's part, listeners would find it easy to distinguish the poet from his homonymous persona, the raconteur "Catullus" who tells this self-deprecating anecdote, and from the other characters in the poem. They would readily observe how the speaker discredits himself by voicing sentiments fund amentally in conflict with the ideology of proper provincial government, however poorly that ideology was upheld in practice. (17) Accordingly, they might understand the sketch as a shaggy-dog story in which C. Valerius Catullus, a well-known figure on the Roman social scene, creates a satiric caricature of himself.

While poem 10 has no named addressee, it divulges essential information through its incidental asides, a series of parenthetical remarks addressed to a fictive internal listener. At lines 3-4, the speaker confides his immediate, somewhat mixed impression of Varus' girl friend (scortillum, ut mihi tum repente visum est, / non sane illepidum neque invenustum). In line 9, he assures the listener of the accuracy of his report on conditions in Bithynia (respondi, id quod erat) and, in lines 16-17, admits his wish to impress the girl (ut puellae / unum me facerem beatiorem). With disarming bluntness, he then 'fesses up to an outright lie in 21-23:

at mi nullus erat nec hic neque illic,

fractum qui veteris pedem grabati

in collo sibi collocare posset.

When he subsequently repeats the young woman's request to borrow his litter-bearers, he prefaces her actual words with a gratuitous dig at her insolence, ut decuit cinaediorem (24). By sharing his impressions of the girl, the speaker has made his projected internal listener complicit with his final dismissal of her. One plausible motive for his behavior has lately been suggested. Comparing the raconteur's rhetorical tactics with those of the man who tells a tendentious joke in Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Fitzgerald observes that the speaker deflects the ridicule of males who are his financial and erotic rivals by inviting them to join him in laughter at the expense of the female who had made a fool of him (173-74). When he recited those lines, a performer would of course play up his confessional intimacy with the live audience through body language. For the derogatory humor to work properly, then, the presence of others to whom he can turn in engaging appeal is well-nigh essential.

Yet the otherwise puzzling phrase huc ut venimus in line 5 invites us to picture the three main characters proceeding to the exact location, signaled by the deictic huc, where the story is to be recounted. The inference that the speaker's companions must be imagined as present in order to hear his elaborated version of their earlier conversational exchange obviously alters the thrust of the anecdote. How, first of all, will the girl react to the statements made about her? Ostensibly she is being complimented for the wit that gained her admittance to this gathering. To avoid being perceived as truly insulsa and molesta, she would have to refrain from protesting Catullus' remarks. Though spoken in a bantering way, giving them a superficial deniability, they would be disparaging nevertheless because they would remind her of the precariousness of her social position. She might well be forced to play the role of scapegoat in what she herself knew to be a ritual of compensation for the economic disappointments Cat ullus and his friends had suffered in the public realm. (18) The speaker's cavalier sacrifice of the girl's dignity to his amour propre contributes to his presentation of himself as neglegens. Since the text is so preoccupied with the disadvantages for ambitious young men which are created by horizontal power imbalances, however, his conduct might simply reflect ordinary presumptions of class and gender superiority without proffering a critical assessment of them.

But this is to reckon without the implied presence of Varus on the same dinner couch as the girl. Opinion is split on whether the person so named, here and in poem 22, is P. Alfenus Varus, later a renowned jurist who became consul suffectus in 39 B.C.E., or Quintilius Varus, a prominent literary critic of the early Augustan period and intimate of Vergil and Horace. Although Neudling in his Prosopography to Catullus asserts a scholarly consensus "that the Varus of both poems is the same, and that he is identical with Quintilius Varus" (152), Fordyce (116) and, more recently, Thomson (232) are skeptical: we are dealing with one individual, they conclude, but from the available evidence we cannot determine his identity. Neither commentator, however, takes into account the close affinity between principles tacitly ascribed to the Varus of poem 22 and the testimony to Quintilius Varus' character subsequently provided by Horace.

In a famous lament addressed to Vergil (Carm. 1.24), Horace describes the death of their friend Quintilius as an irreparable loss to the abstract entities Pudor, incorrupta Fides, and nuda Veritas (6-7). Each of these qualities--restraint, fidelity, candor--is a social virtue, a separate facet of his overall integrity. Of these, Pudor is the first to be named, which indicates that the trait was characteristic of its possessor, that "seemliness and propriety," as Putnam observes, "were much a part of Quintilius's moral outlook" (126). The same ethical principles carried over into his literary dealings, where they manifested themselves as a tough intellectual honesty. (19) Smug insensitivity to one's transgressions was Quintilius' bete noir. Commemorating him as the ideal critic in the Ars Poetica, Horace recalls not only his intolerance of sloppiness but, more important, his silent contempt for fatuity:

Quintilio si quid recitares, "corrige, sodes,

hoc" aiebat "et hoc." melius te posse negares,

bis terque expertum frustra delere iubebat

et male tornatos incudi reddere versus.

si defendere delictum quam vertere malles.

nullum ultra verbum aut operam insumebat inanem,

quin sine rivali teque et tua solus amares. (AP 438-44)

If you were to recite anything to Quintilius: "Fix it, please,

"here," he used to say, "and here." If you protested you couldn't do better,

having tried vainly two or three times, he'd tell you to cut out

the badly rounded lines and return them to the anvil.

If you chose to defend, rather than improve, the imperfection,

he'd say not one word further, would not waste his time

to prevent you alone, sans rival, from loving yourself and your work.

Just such blindness to the faults of his own verse is displayed by the poetaster Suffenus pilloried in Catullus 22:

qui modo scurra

aut siquid hac re scitius videbatur,

idem inficeto est inficetior rure,

simul poemata attigit, neque idem umquam

aeque est beatus ac poema cum scribit:

tam gaudet in se tamque se ipse miratur. (12-17)

... he who just now appeared a wit

or whatever is sharper than that

is at the same time more boorish than the boorish countryside

as soon as he turns his hand to poetry,

nor at the same time is he ever happier than when writing a poem;

he's so pleased with himself and so in awe of himself.

Insofar as the poem is a disguised literary manifesto posing as a meditative comment to a friend, (20) the choice of addressee is significant. Catullus is talking to someone who is himself not misled by appearances, who believes that poetic achievement requires hard effort, and who professes a doctrine of critical self-consciousness, especially in literary matters. Yet the speaker's concluding allusion to the fable of the knapsack ("We don't see the part of the pouch on our own back" [non videmus manticae quod in tergo est, 21]) moderates his earlier comments by admitting that he and his addressee share a tendency to be overly judgmental. Since this assessment of Suffenus' failings is grounded on a set of critical principles that tally perfectly with those known to be espoused by Quintilius Varus, the latter is almost certainly the "varus" of Catullus 22. It follows, then, that he is also the Varus who accompanies Catullus to dinner in poem 10.

So let us posit Quintilius Varus as an onlooker forming his opinion of the raconteur even as the anecdote is being told. It will not be a positive one. His girl friend, in exploding Catullus' earlier pretensions, had acted as a kind of moral surrogate for her lover and been silenced for her pains. Quintilius, however, is not so vulnerable: as Catullus' social equal, he may express his sentiments with the frankness for which he was later praised by Horace. Character traits of venality, mendacity, and opportunism unconsciously revealed by the protagonist might amuse the less fastidious listener he makes his confidant; to Quintilius they would seem odious. Given his firm code of integrity, he would not for a moment condone the speaker's parting excuse of being neglegens, "careless" in a playful sense. As it allows its central figure to run afoul of a third-person observer's judgment, the script exposes the vulgarity of moral neglegentia--"carelessness" in a gross, self-indulgent (21)

Serving as a point of ethical triangulation, Quintilius' disapproval adds a further dimension of irony to an already paradoxical text. It models a detached recipient position from which it is possible to observe shortcomings in both the raconteur and the ideal listener who might be cajoled into approving of him. Actual audiences are thus faced with an apparent dilemma. If they respond favorably to the speaker's blandishments, they will have the fun of acting as the speaker's sounding board, but only through a sacrifice of principle. If they espouse Quintilius' disapproving posture, they miss out on some of the amusement that is generated by Catullus' self-characterization. There is a third alternative, however: the audience can enjoy the drawing-room comedy while appreciating the insight displayed by the poet in thus holding himself up to ridicule. Catullus is demonstrating his full awareness of the pack on his own back. His implied confrontation with Quintilius in the fictive surroundings of this banquet am plifies, as it were, the conversation about artistic integrity begun in 22.

III. "Catullus(es)"

The knack of creating occasional verse, often impromptu, and then reciting it in public is proof, according to Cicero, of either intellectual brilliance or abject sycophancy, depending upon whose ox is being gored. In Cicero's Pro Archia, the orator cites his client's ability to compose extemporaneously as evidence of an "extraordinary mental dexterity and quickness of invention" (animorum incredibilis motus celeritatemque ingeniorum, 17) that by rights should enhance his standing with a jury:

...quotiens ego hune vidi, cum litteram scripsisset nullam, magnum numerum optimorum versuum de cis ipsis rebus quae turn agerentur dicere ex tempore, quotiens revocatum eandem rem dicere commutatis verbis atque sententiis! (Arch. 18)

How many times have I seen this man, although he hadn't written down a word, recite on the spot a great number of first-rate verses about those very happenings then taking place; how many times have I seen him, when asked for an encore, treat the same topic, but with words and import completely altered!

But Philodemus' epigrams about his patron L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus are a different matter altogether: in Cicero's polemic against the consul of 58 B.C.E., the circulation of such texts confirms not only Piso's personal depravity but also his power to corrupt others. To be sure, Cicero does not attack the Epicurean philosopher by name, alluding to him only as quidam Graecus qui cum isto vivit ("a certain Greek who lives with this fellow," Pis. 68). Piso's Greek friend is extremely refined (perpolitus, 70) in literary matters, Cicero blandly continues; the poetry he creates is ita festivum, ita concinnum, ita elegans, nihil ut fieri possit argutius ("so witty, neat and apt that nothing could be more clever"). Yet, laid under obligation by ties of gratitude to his patron, the aforesaid Greek prostituted his art:

... rogatus invitatus coactus ita multa ad istum de isto quoque scripsit ut omnis hominis libidines, omnia stupra, omnia cenarum genera conviviorumque, adulteria denique eius delicatissimis versibus expresserit, in quibus si qui velit possit istius tamquam in speculo vitam intueri; ex quibus multa a multis et lecta et audita recitarem, ni vererer ne hoc ipsum genus orationis quo nunc utor ab huius loci more abhorreret.... (Pis. 70-71) Asked, urged, compelled, he likewise wrote so much to Piso about Piso as to portray all the man's lusts, all his offenses, all manner of dinners and banquets, and lastly his adulteries in perfectly naughty verses, in which whoever wanted to could gaze upon the fellow's life as in a mirror; of which I would recite many lines, both read and heard by many people, if I weren't afraid that the very mode of speech I now employ would shrink away from the custom of this place....

These two references to contemporary practice indicate that in Cicero's time public performance of light verse, especially by professional writers, was a regular feature of festive occasions. (22) Since Archias' accomplishments can be presented in so positive a light, declaiming one's verses in a gathering of one's social peers or even superiors would not be objectionable in itself for a man of equestrian or senatorial status. Nevertheless, speaking in the authorial first person of one's loves and hates might well expose an individual to derision outside the protective bubble of hospitality. Further, the introduction of Philodemus' works into evidence against Piso indicates that a certain ambivalence surrounded the composition and recitation of risque material even in convivial surroundings, among Catullus' contemporaries no less than Pliny's. (23) Cicero's ostentatious attempt to urge broadminded tolerance of such literary activities upon his senatorial audience is actually deployed for just the opposite ef fect, that is, in order to underscore the questionable content of Philodemus' epigrams. (24) Audience reception of certain features of Catullus' Poetry--not only its sexual frankness, but also its outspoken abuse of prominent individuals, as illustrated by poem 10--might well be problematic. (25) Fredrick is right, then, to observe that the risk to decorum involved in banqueting, especially as figured in moralizing discourses, would imbue Catullan poetic performance. (26)

Effective self-fashioning--as distinct from my previous suggestion of unambiguous self-presentation as a means of networking--must therefore be a key objective of Catullus' scripts. Selden's observations about the poet's recourse to rhetorical tools for projecting a specific ethos, in the manner of the orator tailoring his personality to the demands of his case, are relevant here. He pronounces Catullus "a master of this type of characterization" (493) and correlates his linguistic construction of an illusion of transparent subjectivity with late Republican exploitation of discursive technologies in order to generate a convincing political "image":

In the first place, the poet shows how the devices of rhetorical characterization being institutionalized by Cicero and his colleagues in contemporary Rome ultimately come into conflict with their own documentary and judicative aims.... Secondly, Catullus takes up the authority that profiles and impersonations of this sort possess. If character portrayal is not only a matter of literary interest, but an unavoidably political concern, this is due, he shows us, to the fact that, regardless of its validity, ethical description introduces irreversible effects.... (497).

Selden demonstrates that the equivocations and logical contradictions in Catullus' representation of self become only too apparent if the poems are subjected to a reader's scrutiny. He believes, however, that the author's inquiry into "the theory and practice of impersonation" (498) serves no further purpose than to demystify the strategies employed. But the indeterminacy found in the written text does not prove Catullus' poetic project is solely deconstructionist. When a poem is declaimed, interpretive choices, as Gamel notes, must be made in advance; and the seeming incoherence of such pieces as poems 49, 8, 65 and 16 may be due to a built-in flexibility that allowed the performer greater room to maneuver, depending upon the disposition of the audience in front of him. (27) Stance, facial expression, tone of voice, and other means of projection would inform those listening to poem 16, for example, how far its first-person statements ought to be taken with a grain of salt and temper, if necessary, the shock of its obscenities. (It goes without saying that certain texts would simply not be presented under certain circumstances.)

If, then, Catullus made his way upward in Roman society by developing a reputation as an amateur entertainer, approaching his poems as scripts entails some possibility of recovering ingredients of the authorial personality as it was observed by his contemporaries, not just in the artificial context of banquet recitation but in ordinary life. In poems 44 and 10, we see him forestalling disapproval of certain traits in his public persona. He does so by introducing "Sestius" and "Varus" as foils to the figure encapsulated in the first-person narrative. In performance, their virtual presence, indicated by gesture or inflection, allows scope for disingenuous mockery of the speaker's own attempts to enhance his social credibility, as seen in poem 44, or to enrich himself, as in 10, by means that might compromise his honor. This ploy adds to Catullus' reputation for urbanity while enabling him to defuse whatever antagonism may have been provoked by his off-stage public conduct. In that case, we need not look very f ar for the actor behind the comic mask. The "Catullus" we greet with laughter is his larger-than-life alter ego. (28)

MARILYN B. SKINNER is Professor of Classics at the University of Arizona and the current President of the Vergilian Society. She is the author of Catullus' Passer: the Arrangement of the Book of Polymetric Poems (New York 1981) and co-editor of Roman Sexualities (Princeton 1998). She is presently completing a monograph on Catullus' elegies and elegiac epigrams.

(1.) I wish to express my very special thanks to Mary-Kay Gamel for her comments on an earlier draft of this essay and to Eva Stehle for generous help in formulating my methodological introduction. When citing Catullus, I follow Thomson's text; all translations are my own.

(2.) In order to avoid confusion, I restrict my use of perform and its derivatives to contexts in which oral delivery of a poem is meant literally.

For Archias and Philodemus, see below, pp. 13-15. Pliny, Ep. 5.3.7, confesses that he gives readings of his light verse without knowing whether his predecessors and models did (recito tamen, quod illi an fecerint nescio), but he is speaking of formal public recitation.

(3.) See especially chap. 2, "Catullus and the Reader," and chap. 3, "Obscenity Figures."

(4.) Skinner 1993.

(5.) Skinner 1989; for the ascribed role of the ideal audience in poem 10, see further Pedrick 196-201 and Fitzgerald 173-79.

(6.) Admittedly there is a chronological problem with some of the evidence I use to reconstruct the character of these individuals: testimony about attitudes and conduct may refer to a later period of their lives. Thus, for purposes of argument, I have to assume that the essential personality remained the same throughout adulthood.

(7.) For Catullus 44 as primarily a literary polemic against Sestius, see Buchheit 3 13-15 and Sandy 68-73. "Syme 59 and n. 42 identifies this Antius with the C. Antius Restio who, as tribune, authored a lex sumptuaria passed shortly after 78 B.C.E.

(9.) See Thomson 314.

(10.) Jones 381-82.

(11.) On the other hand, Cicero never doubts Sestius' steadfastness. When informing M. Brutus, six weeks after Caesar's assassination, that Sestius had joined him in defending Brutus' interests in the Senate, he tellingly adds: nosti hominem; causae non defuit (ad Brut. 5.4).

(12.) D'Arms 55-62.

(13.) Excavated at Rome by H. Dressel in 1878 from a deposit of amphorae near the Castra Praetoria. For the circumstances of discovery and the archaeological context, see Zevi 21112; on the inscription itself, Wiseman 1987: 339-40.

(14.) Sestius' bountiful hospitality to Ariarathes, a prince of Cappadocia who visited Rome in 45 B.C.E. prompted Cicero to refer to him jocularly as an "official state caterer" (parochus publicus, Att. 13.2a.2).

(15.) Thanks to Eva Stehle for advancing this insight per litteras.

(16.) Pedrick; Nielsen; Skinner 1989; Fitzgerald 173-79; Braund.

(17.) Catullus 10, according to Braund's reading, is a proactive defense of Memmius' administration of Bithynia. The governor has kept the speaker's rapacity in check; "though the speaker complains vociferously, the reader/audience of the poem need not agree with him and, by Cicero's standards at least, should not do so" (51).

(18.) Fitzgerald 177-78.

(19.) It is significant that Philodemus addresscs Quintilius Varus by name, together with Plotius Tucca, Varius, and Vergil, at the conclusion of P. Herc. Paris. 2, Frag. 279a, which deals with calumny, a vice associated with flattery (Gigante 1995: 47; see further Gigante and Capasso 1989).

(20.) Kroll 40.

(21.) Fitzgerald 173 notes that the speaker's appeal to the relaxed standards of urbane banter is unjustified, for his lie was not witty but opportunistic. Accordingly, it must be evaluated by stricter moral criteria. Since neglegentia in a moral context is opposed to "such central Roman values as pietas, fides, constantia, and gravitas (dutifulness, reliability, constancy, seriousness)," it violates a code of ethics for which Catullus elsewhere professes deep respect.

(22.) The Greek custom of sympotic recitation by guests and participants persisted, as Cameron 71-103 has convincingly demonstrated, well into the Hellenistic era. Shortly thereafter it became an established feature of the Roman convivium: see, e.g., Cicero, De Or. 3.194, preserving evidence of recitals by the second-century B.C.E. poet Antipater of Sidon.

(23.) Cicero's flippant disquisition upon primary obscenities in a letter to his friend Paetus (Fam. 9.22) cannot be pressed as evidence for elite moral attitudes. Yet, as Richlin 18 points out, for all his advocacy of frankness Cicero resorts to circumlocutions and puns in order to avoid using a primary obscenity himself. Fitzgerald 62 defines the Roman attitude toward obscenity as "something both scandalous and licit within its proper context"; the question, then, is whether a given performance venue, i.e., this or that triclinium, would constitute the "proper context."

(24.) In quo reprehendat eum [Philodemum] licet si qui volet modo leviter, non ut improbum, non ut audacem, non ut impurum, sed ut Graeculum, ut adsentatorem, ut poetam ("in which matter [i.e., composing epigrams] let anyone who wishes reprimand him, but lightly--not as shameless, as brazen, as indecent, but as a sorry little Greek, a toady, a poet," Pis. 70). Pointedly excluding certain categories to be applied when judging Philodemus' conduct functions as a form of praeteritio, implicitly damning him on those grounds as well. Cf. Pliny's famous citation (Ep. 4.14.4-5) of Catullus 16.5-8 in defense of employing sexual themes (lascivia rerum) and frank language (verba nude) in light verse--though, he circumspectly adds, he himself does not do so.!

(25.) This applies even if we accept Braund's reading of poem 10 as a justification of Memmius' tenure of office: the invective employed there, albeit by an untrustworthy narrator, might still undermine the ex-govemor's dignitas.

(26.) The respectability of a feast can be called into question in various ways. Gowers 12-32 provides an excellent introduction to the symbolic value of Roman food consumption and the meal as literary topic. On the distinction between refined sensuality and coarseness, in eating as in other forms of pleasure, see Edwards 198-204; Cicero's depiction of Piso's inelegant table (Pis. 67) is a classic example of invective based upon the latter. For the connection between moral profligacy and extravagant feasting, see Corbeill, chap. 4.

(27.) Responding to Selden's earlier assertion (491) that Catullus' poems could not be performed, Gamel contends that, because of their inherent ambiguities, they "offer far more interesting performance opportunities than do more straightforward texts" (85). This scholarly exchange speaks volumes about the conflicting assumptions readers and actors bring to the Catullan corpus.

(28.) I am fully aware that broaching this possibility may seem like a return to a naive positivistic biographics. The effect of a performed text upon its audience, however, is closely bound up with the personal impression created by its performer. Relating Catullus' scripts to their original performance context should therefore include what quasi-biographical elements, actual or fictive, may be reasonably deduced from internal evidence, and such elements need not necessarily go untheorized.


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Date:Mar 22, 2001
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