Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 7.

Marilyn B. Skinner (ed.), A Companion to Catullus. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp xxvi + 590, incl. 5 illustrations, bibliography, general index, and index locorum. ISBN-13 978-1-4051-3533-7. US$149.95, UK£95.00.

H. Wakefield Foster,
The University of Missouri-Columbia, U.S.A.

To review in 1500 words such a wide selection of important and enlightening essays without neglecting the bulk of the collection precludes, unfortunately, a detailed examination of individual offerings. As a remedy I survey the overarching themes of the Companion’s eight parts, reserving for closer scrutiny what is arguably one of the more universally and immediately useful essays of the collection, Daniel H. Garrison’s ‘Catullus in the College Classroom’ (pp. 503-19).

Part I: The Text and the Collection

Our knowledge of how Catullus’ text circulated in antiquity depends for good or ill on the ancient ‘secondary tradition,’ in the form of references and quotations in ancient writers (J. L. Butrica, ‘History and Transmission of the Text’, pp. 13-34, at p. 19). The secondary tradition in Catullus is relatively abundant and sheds light on and sometimes corrects the primary tradition.

In her detailed historical overview of the long-debated and still-obstinate ‘Catullan question,’ or ‘Catullfrage,’ concerning the arrangement of poems in Catullus’ collection, Skinner encouragingly writes that the ‘growing willingness to observe purposeful assignment where none was admitted previously accompanies a growing appreciation of the complexity, polyvalence, and dissonance in [Catullus’] literary product’ (Marilyn B. Skinner, ‘Authorial Arrangement of the Collection: Past and Present’ pp. 35-53, at p. 35).

Part II: Contexts of Production

This section begins with T. P. Wiseman’s careful examination of the wealthy Valerii Catulli family in Verona before and after the poet’s death (‘The Valerii Catulli of Verona’, pp. 57-71). A discussion of the contemporary political climate by David Konstan follows, in which he stresses that ‘to determine how Catullus responded to dramatic events of his day, “the last generation of the Republic” (Konstan cites Gruen, 1974),[[1]] our evidence must be first and foremost the poems themselves’ (D. Konstan, ‘The Contemporary Political Context’, pp. 72-91, at p. 73). Andrew Feldherr (pp. 93f.) notes the centrality of the Roman convivium, or drinking party, as the likeliest performance arena for Catullus and the neoterics (‘The Intellectual Climate’, pp. 92-110).

Part III: Influences

After discussing the Roman ‘heterosexualization’ of the poetry and persona of Sappho and Catullus’ particular attraction to a poetry of feminine desire and poetic imagination (pp. 131-33), Ellen Greene, ‘Catullus and Sappho’ (pp. 131-50), examines with great care the Sapphic influences of four specific poems of the collection: 5 and 7, in which Catullus expresses the happiness of his relationship with Lesbia (p. 133); 51, the translation / adaptation of Sappho 31, wherein the poetess describes her anguish and powerlessness in the presence of her (female) beloved (pp. 136-42); and 11, the bitter, disappointing, and self-berating poem, in which Catullus contradicts his formerly positive identification with the Sapphic tradition (pp. 142-46). Greene ascribes this contradiction to ‘the difficulties of translating Sappho’s discourse of feminine desire and poetic imagination into a Roman, masculine context’ (p. 134).

Peter E. Knox, ‘Catullus and Callimachus’ (pp. 151-71), examines the Callimachean influence on Catullus and the neoterics; namely, the opposition between the overlong and pompous versus the short and refined (p. 153). Perhaps for Catullus the most important feature of Callimachus’ poetry (Epigrams) is the intertwining of literary with personal themes.

Part IV: Stylistics

This section offers concise and in-depth discussions (Johnson and Sheets) of the evolution of the neoteric ‘movement,’ its connection to Alexandrianism, personified in the figure of Callimachus, and its adherents’ fearless innovations as attested by Cicero’s contemptuous label of them as hoi neôteroi, the ‘newer, “trendy” poets’ (W. R. Johnson, ‘Neoteric Poetics’ pp. 175-189, at p. 175). The reviewer would add Cicero’s mock-neoteric verse: flavit ab Epiro lenissimus Onchesmites (‘There blew from Epirus the gentlest of Epirian zephyrs,’ Cic. Att. 7.20), a hexameter of five words which brilliantly encapsulates what he deemed most degrading to epic and generally over-precious in the new style: a predilection for diminutives, the frequency of obscure mythological references, and ‘affected’ archaisms such as the spondaic ending. The neoterics’ need, like the Alexandrians’ before them, for stylistic transformation reflected the very different world that they inhabited since the heady days of Ennius’ high epic.

George A. Sheets (‘Elements of Style in Catullus,’ pp. 190- 211) provides scholars and teachers with an invaluable enchiridion and discussion / analysis of the seemingly myriad stylistic devices common to Catullus’ poetry. Under the umbrella of already highly evolved conventions of Hellenic literature, Catullus, despite his critical attitude toward the old-fashioned traditional style, selectively appropriates some of its mannerisms while introducing numerous devices that are alien to the tradition of elevated Latin literature (p. 191). Within the section entitled ‘Diction’ are subsections concerned with ‘Archaisms,’ ‘Vulgarity,’ ‘Grecisms,’ and ‘Diminutives’ (pp. 191-99). Of special interest to the reviewer is the section devoted to ‘Meter, Rhythm, and Sound’ (pp. 199- 205), in which Sheets succeeds in unravelling the otherwise inseparable functions of rhythm and sound. Thankfully, more attention has been given in the last decade or so to ancient poetry’s performance aspects, which the reviewer hopes will help to awaken in teachers and students the crucial cognitive function that is served for audience and performer alike when ancient verbal art is experienced ‘live.’

Part V: Poems and Groups of Poems

William W. Batstone (‘Catullus and the Programmatic Poem: The Origins, Scope, and Utility of a Concept,’ pp. 235-53) addresses the ‘programmatic’ aspects of the Catullan corpus and provides astute definitions of ‘progammatic poetry’ (pp. 235-38), the ‘poetry book or sequence’ (pp. 240f.), a summarization and examination of the function of the poetic ‘program,’(pp. 238-40), and keen observations on the ‘performance’ goals of cyclical themes (pp. 245-49).

Julia T. Dyson’s article, ‘The Lesbia Poems’ (pp. 254-75), asserts that although the cycle is undetachable from the rest of Catullus’ oeuvre, ‘it is the poet’s passionate affair with this woman that forms the book’s dramatic core, giving meaning and coherence to the whole’ (p. 254).

Poems 61 and 62, the ‘wedding poems,’ are examined closely by Panoussi under the subheadings, ‘Poem 61: Sexuality and Marriage’ and ‘Poem 62: Resistance to Marriage.’ The balance of this section deals with Catullus’ debt to Apollonius (Jeri Blair DeBrohun’s ‘Catullan Intertextuality: Apollonius and the Allusive Plot of Catullus 64,’ pp. 293-313); a persuasive interpretation by Elena Theodorakopoulos (‘Poem 68: Love and Death, and the Gifts of Venus and the Muses,’ pp. 314-32) of the ‘notoriously difficult’ poem 68; and Catullan invective’s focus on sexual misconduct, effeminate perversions, incest, and adultery (W. Jeffrey Tatum, ‘Social Commentary and Political Invective,’ pp. 333-53).

Part VI: Reception

This section encompasses a broad examination of the literary reception of Catullus with relation to Horace (Randall L. B. McNeill’s ‘Catullus and Horace,’ pp. 357- 76), Vergil (Christopher Nappa’s, ‘Catullus and Vergil,’ pp. 177-98), the Roman love elegists (‘Catullus and Roman Love Elegy’ by Paul Allen Miller, pp. 399-417), Martial (Sven Lorenz’s ‘Catullus and Martial,’ pp. 418-38), interpretations of Catullus during the Renaissance (Julia Haig Gaisser, ‘Catullus in the Renaissance,’ pp. 439-60), and modern -- beginning in the late eighteenth century -- Romantic and Victorian receptions of Catullus’ oeuvre (‘The Modern Reception of Catullus’ by Brian Arkins, pp. 461-78).

Part VII: Pedagogy

About incoming college students Garrison writes that ‘having been taught that poets write about what they know and feel, adolescents will find Catullus’ works obviously autobiographical, impulsive, and unspoiled by the meticulous construction of lyrics that seem so natural’ (p. 503). If a college instructor would succeed with Catullus, he must ‘blend the mechanical bones and sinews of his Latin with the artistry so that the relation appears seamless’ (p. 504). The reviewer here is reminded of Ovid’s gnomic utterance on Pygmalion’s art: ars adeo latet arte sua (‘[his] art lies hidden by its own artifice,’ Ov. Met. 10.252).

Garrison lists briefly some of the invaluable lessons of his long teaching career, including the directives: (1) meaning must always come first, (2) never leave syntax out of the picture, and (3) be vigilant in dismantling certain Romantic preconceptions that students have brought with them from high school. However, the central theme of his article is that teachers should eschew mere translation, since ‘the only reasonable pursuit in the study of languages is to listen and learn to think in the target language [Garrison’s italics]’ (p. 517). He stresses that this can apply to ‘unspoken’ ancient languages as well and that ‘memorization in the original language’ [his italics] instills familiarity on every level (p. 504). He goes on to warn us as teachers not to focus entirely on translation, as ‘it can interfere with the primary goal of familiarity and even retard the development of reading skill’ (ibid.). In his own words, Garrison best recapitulates the essence of his article: ‘The proper study of Latin revives the dying art of reading slowly. The best goals of the college classroom -- reading rather than translating, memorization of key lyrics, close analysis of the Latin text -- are also goals of the best high school teachers. Though the range and depth of reading increase in college, well-prepared students at every level have more fun with Catullus, find more in his language, and have a stronger appetite for more’ (p. 517).

Part VIII: Translation

Elizabeth Vandiver, ‘Translating Catullus’ (pp. 523-41), addresses the multitude of pitfalls and obstacles that translators of Catullus since the Renaissance and especially during the last two centuries have had to negotiate -- the first English translation of the entire Catullan corpus appeared only as recently as 1795 -- and outlines differences between earlier ‘adaptations’ and later attempts at translation. The precise nature of the difficulties, too, continues to change. For example, whereas Fordyce as late as 1961 simply omitted from his commentary those poems that he considered obscene[[2]] -- approximately one-third of Catullus’ oeuvre -- modern translators wrestle with finding the precise register of the obscene terms in a particular passage (p. 523); for example, when and where to use the terms ‘fuck,’ ‘bang,’ ‘bone,’ ‘lay,’ or ‘make love.’

Her examination of the problem of meter is most enlightening: ‘Different critics argue for using equivalent verse-forms, for translating into native meters, and for translating into prose, and each of these options has arguments both for and against it’ (p. 524).

A Companion to Catullus is an indispensable tool for both researchers and teachers, its brilliant selection of articles arranged within an exacting and probing variety of current Catullan issues. Skinner’s editorial choices are particularly valuable as a teaching resource for those exploring the subject for the first time. This reviewer recommends the book without reservation not only to the Catullus specialist, but also and especially to all classicists and teachers at the university and secondary school levels.


[[1]] E. Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic (Berkeley 1974).

[[2]] See C. J. Fordyce, Catullus: A Commentary (Oxford 1961). In the preface Fordyce states: ‘A few poems which do not lend themselves to comment in English have been omitted’.