Today we're going to be looking at Catullus, especially his epyllion, carmen 64. As I was preparing, I came across the following thoughts I had written down about the poem about four years ago while teaching an Intellectual Traditions course on ancient epic for our Honors program here at the U of U. I recall that I started writing, (I only made may way through half the poem as you'll see), after reading Roger Travis post "Epic immersion, part 1: in medias res, not in mediis rebus" over at Play the Past.
I've read Catullus 64 in several different classes, in Latin and English translation, over the years using various commentaries, so I've no doubt been influenced by them as I wrote this off the cuff. But I decided I'd go ahead and post now it as I found it useful in preparing my thoughts and it's something I'd like to finish up at some point to use in classes. I'd welcome any feedback.
Some Thoughts on Catullus 64
First, a little background on the poet. Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 BCE) was the son of a wealthy family from Verona (a town later made famous by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette). Catullus spent his adulthood in Rome, and had probably been sent to Rome as a young man to be educated and perhaps participate in political life. We know from his own poetry that Catullus served on the staff of the governor of Bithynia, in northern Turkey, in 56 BCE. This sort of posting was typical of young men of elite status seeking a political life. While in Bithynia, Catullus may also have travelled to the Troad, home to Troy, to perform funeral rites for his older brother, who, if we believe Catullus’ poetry, died in a shipwreck off the coast and was commemorated by a cenotaph on shore. We know little about Catullus beyond what can be gleaned from his own poetry. He had a circle of poet friends, he knew Marcus Tullius Cicero, consul of 63 and a famous orator. He wrote numerous scathing poems about Gaius Julius Caesar and made reference to Pompey the Great as well. Catullus is perhaps most famous for a series of poems about his beloved “Lesbia.” These poems cover the entire arc of his relationship with Lesbia from the happy, sunny days of new love to the dark and venomous attacks, alternating with pleading calls for reunion, that the poet makes as their relationship comes to an end. One of Catullus’ most famous poems (85) captures most vividly the pain and confusion at the end of a romance: Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? / nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior. (I hate and I love. Why would I do this, you are perhaps asking? / I don’t know, but I feel it happening and I am torn in all directions.) Lesbia’s identity is not known for certain, but she can most probably be identified with Clodia Metelli, a rather notorious woman from a prominent Roman family. Rumors of this woman abound, Clodia was accused of committing incest with her even more notorious brother Publius Clodius Pulcher, of numerous affairs with young men besides Catullus, of poisoning her husband, a former consul, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer.
Carmen, or Poem, 64 is the longest of Catullus’ poems and focuses on mythological themes rather than daily life as does much of his poetry. 64 is typically identified as an epyllion, not unlike Callimachus’ Hekale. It is very short, relies heavily on the erudition of the reader to convey its meaning, and focuses more on the female helper-maiden than the male hero. At the same time, the poem also partakes of a genre of wedding hymns known as epithalamia. Catullus was known as a neoteric poet (i.e. a “new poet”) during his own lifetime, which implies a connection to the Alexandrian poets of the Hellenistic period, such as Callimachus and Apollonios Rhodios.
In a very short poem, Catullus covers a great deal of epic territory, from the voyage of the Argonauts, via the deeds of the Athenian hero Theseus, to the aristeia and death of Achilles at Troy. And yet, the heroes and their deeds are cast in a thin and foreboding light, overshadowed by the female characters, especially Ariadne and the Fates.
The first 21 lines of the poem require much of the reader. Through a series of oblique references, Catullus covers the story of the Argonautika: the pine trees brought down from Mt. Pelion to build the Argo with the help of Athena, the goddess of high citadels, especially Athens, home of Theseus. Even before the reader meets the chosen Greek heroes and the goddess helps to build the ships, the journey to Colchis is described as completed in the first three lines. Catullus makes it very clear, in contrast to Apollonios, that the Argo was the first ship ever built and that the sea goddesses, the Nereids, were amazed to see such a craft. This aitiological framing of the Argo’s journey is in keeping with the erudition of Alexandrian poetry. It is not until the end of this description that we have Peleus and Thetis named, the couple who are the ostensible focus of the poem. But just as Catullus takes his time in coming to them, he will just as quickly put them aside.
Catullus transforms the reader’s expectation of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, which was traditionally depicted as a wrestling match, with an unwilling Thetis, forced to marry a mortal, constantly shape-shifting as only sea divinities can do! Instead, he subtly indicates Thetis’ eagerness for such a marriage by use of litotes (“Thetis did not reject a human marriage”), the use of two negatives to make an emphatic positive. The marriage is approved of by Juppiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus), and again Catullus glosses over other versions of the myth in which Juppiter/Zeus is indeed eager to marry Thetis off because of a prophecy about the goddess, that she will give birth to a son greater than his father. Juppiter in fact goes to great pains to learn this prophecy; he compels Prometheus to tell him by chaining the Titan to a cliff in the Caucasus Mountains and has his eagle eat out Prometheus liver every day. This ominous scene was alluded to by the appearance of the eagle in Book 2 of the Argonautika as the heroes draw close to Colchis.
Catullus does not invoke the Muses or Apollo to tell his tale, instead his address to the early heroes stands as a substitute. And Catullus inquires of them about Thetis’ and her grandparents’ willingness to see the marriage happen. Catullus states that he will “often call upon” the heroes, and especially upon Peleus, in the course of his poem. In the end however, he does no such thing, we see very little of heroic action.
The day of the happy wedding arrives and all the people of Thessaly, Peleus’ home territory, abandon their homes to attend the nuptials at Pharsalus (we shall revisit Pharsalus in Lucan’s epic when Caesar defeats Pompey). The guests are joyful and bring gifts, but again Catullus’ language gives the reader pause. The people have “deserted” their homes, the fields have been abandoned, the plow-oxen and farm implements fall into disuse and even rust! On the other hand, everything is gleaming gold, silver and ivory at Peleus’ palace. Particularly splendid is Thetis’ marriage bed, cloaked in deep purple elaborately embroidered with the “brave deeds of heroes.” The allusion to Jason’s cloak in the Argonautika is clear, and like Jason’s cloak, this coverlet is depicted with scenes that subvert heroic action, but in a much less problematic fashion.
The long ekphrastic passage describing the myth of Theseus and Ariadne focuses especially on the hero’s abandonment of the helper-maiden, not on the “brave deeds of heroes” as Catullus claims it will. In the Argonautika, Jason uses the story of Ariadne to win Medea over to his side. He, however, skips over all that Catullus includes here, focusing instead on the fact that Ariadne is recognized by the gods with a constellation in the end. Apollonios also problematizes his use of the Theseus-Ariadne story, because in fact Theseus was not even born when Jason tells the story to Medea. In fact, Medea herself will attempt to kill Theseus as a young man when he first arrives in Athens to claim his birthright. Medea sought refuge in Athens after she had been brought back to Greece by Jason and abandoned by him at Corinth when he attempts to make a more suitable marriage with a Greek princess (this story is told in the 5th century BCE tragedy Medea by Euripides). Much of Ariadne’s emotional reaction to her abandonment is similar or parallel to Medea’s mental anguish as she decides to help Jason and then carries out the deeds, and will be seen again in the figure of Dido in Vergil’s Aeneid.
The first image on the coverlet sets the reader up to sympathize with Ariadne and to find Theseus to be an ungrateful cad. Ariadne has woken to find Theseus sailing away with nary a glance backward; she is abandoned on the shores of Naxos (= Dia). The focus is on Ariadne’s eyes as they follow the ship into the distance. This repetition creates an image of the maiden with over-large and highly sympathetic puppy-eyes. This image is enhanced by the fact that she runs about in the shallows of the sea, trying to get as close to the escaping ship as possible, so much so that she has be undressed by the waves. Instead of being undressed by her lover, the waves toy with her clothing. Not only does this image suggest Theseus’ failure as a lover, but we are first introduced to the hero as a breaker of promises to young women, promises that can only be for marriage or love. In the end, Ariadne’s whole being is focused on Theseus and will result only in dire consequences. Vergil will use this same image of the hero leaving on a ship under the highly focused gaze of his distraught lover. Homer’s Odyssey introduces Odysseus in a somewhat similar scene, the hero is found sitting on the shore of an island where he is stranded in the midst of his journey home. Here, Catullus strands a young woman in the middle of her story.
Catullus returns to the beginning of the Theseus-Ariadne story. Upon Theseus’ arrival on Crete from the Athenian harbor Pireaus, Ariadne was compelled to love the hero by Venus (= Aphrodite; Venus had a famous sanctuary on Mt. Eyrx on Sicily and was hence known as Erycina). Theseus had come to right a long-standing wrong. Years before, King Minos’ son Androgeos had gone to Athens and been murdered by the Athenians after he had won numerous athletic contests held in honor of the goddess Athena. Thereafter, Minos demanded that seven young men and seven young women be sent to Crete each year to be thrown to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster that lived locked up in a labyrinth at Knossos. Theseus, having come to Athens to claim his birthright, volunteered to go to Crete as one of the seven young men and bring the tribute to an end. Notice the parallels between Medea and Ariadne, both princesses bewitched by love, Aietes and Minos, both unjust, arrogant and cruel kings, and Jason and Theseus, heroes out to right an old wrong by “capturing” a “farm-animal.”
Having explained Theseus’ purpose for coming to Crete, Catullus returns to Ariadne’s emotions and the reasons for them. Ariadne is a young unmarried maiden in the care of her mother, but she longs for the marriage bed, she is tossed about as if victim of a shipwreck, and she grows pale with fear as she contemplates the dangerous task Theseus must complete. Her passion is a burning flame and she is driven to a frenzy of desire by none other than Cupid (= Eros) and his mother Venus, who Catullus again refers to indirectly by two cities on Cyprus, one of the goddess’ favored islands. Theseus’ success is ensured by the gifts Ariadne gives to the gods. His heroic deed is staged for the reader by a simile in which the monster is identified with a tree ripped out of the ground by a tornado. Although Theseus kills the Minotaur, he only escapes the final danger of being trapped in the labyrinth by following a thread. Catullus expects that the reader will again know the mythic tradition: Ariadne, instead of offering magical aid, provides Theseus with a gift that any young woman would have access to, a ball of yarn, to help him escape the trap of the labyrinth.
Catullus interrupts his story to put himself back on track, ending the flashback, but at the same time completing the connection between the two threads of the story through a series of questions. In this praeteritio (a refusal to address something, which is then addressed through the refusal itself) Catullus makes it clear that Ariadne abandoned her father, mother and sister for love of Theseus, and that they had a marriage, on which he turned his back. Switching from his own authorial voice, Catullus then falls back on the authority of traditional voices, “they tell us,” to convey the frenzy of Ariadne rushing from mountain top to shore as Theseus sails farther and farther away.
It is through Ariadne’s speech that we see how the relationship between the hero and the girl developed. Again the emphasis is on Theseus’ faithlessness and failure to uphold his promises, especially promises of marriage. Ariadne mourns for the brother whose death she has facilitated, despite the fact that he was a cannibalistic monster. In fact, she instead identifies Theseus with the monstrous. He is the offspring of a lioness, or of one of the hazards to sailors, the Syrtes sandbanks, Scylla with her dog-headed tentacles, or the whirlpool Charybdis, all referenced in the Argonautika. In a twist, Ariadne offers that she would have gone with Theseus even as a servant, that is she would have been happy to be a prize, the thing the women at Troy most feared. Ironically, Ariadne questions why she bothers to speak, as no one but the unhearing and unspeaking breezes can hear her, when in fact she is nothing more than a mute, frozen image embroidered on a coverlet. Her plea that none of these things had happened ends with the image of Theseus as a traitorous guest, violating the laws of guest-friendship, like Paris and Jason.
Ariadne seems to come back to her senses as she explores three possible escapes, which she will ultimately reject. First, she asks whether she should go back to Crete (Mt. Ida); no, she’s stuck on an island with no way to get there. Second, will my father save me; no, I ran off with the boy who killed my brother. Finally, can I rely upon my loving husband; no, he has abandoned me here on this empty island. There is no escape for Ariadne, and yet before she succumbs to death she will curse Theseus, calling upon the Furies to avenge her, to leave Theseus alone in the world as she has been left.