Academic journal article Antichthon

Catullus, Caesar and Roman Masculine Identity

Academic journal article Antichthon

Catullus, Caesar and Roman Masculine Identity

Article excerpt

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One of the hallmarks of Latin love poetry is its seemingly oppositional stance toward traditional Roman values.1 As I and others have recently argued, however, critical approaches that merely focus on a search for oppositional ideology in Roman poetry are not only reductionist but also fail to do justice to the complex literary strategies at work in those texts.2 As Matthew Santirocco suggests, Augustan literature does not simply reflect a pre-existing ideology but rather participates interactively in its production.3 It seems to me that this applies equally well to Catullus. By problematizing the poet's relationship to male public culture, Catullus sets the stage not only for the elegists' ambivalent stance toward political life, but also for their ambiguous gender identifications.

Throughout the Catullan corpus the play between private life and public achievement, masculine and feminine, remains in constant tension.4 On the one hand, the Catullan speaker often adopts a feminine persona, identifying himself with the Sapphic world of feminine desire and imagination.5 On the other hand, Catullus' erotic invectives against male friends and rivals constitute a virtuoso display of Roman masculinity. These apparent vacillations between active and passive / masculine and feminine personae can be linked to the expression of fragmentation so prevalent in Catullus' Lesbia poems. The conflict between the speaker's passion for Lesbia and the rational awareness of its destructiveness is linked by Catullus to feminine and masculine voices within a divided lyric consciousness, a 'multivoiced poetic ego' that seems hopelessly tangled up in the oppositional discourses of the private and public worlds.6

In a number of poems, the Catullan speaker flagrantly defies norms of masculine behavior, most famously in poems 5, 7 and 51, where his expressions of amorous effusiveness and abject dependence on his beloved reinforce the speaker's feminine persona. Accordingly, Catullus often positions himself on the periphery of dominant Roman ideologies of aggression and conquest. In subtle ways, however, he also identifies himself with certain core features of those ideologies. Of the two poems I will be discussing, poem 11 is the most problematic, in part because the speaker appears simply to reject the values represented by both Caesar and Lesbia. The speaker articulates his alienation from Roman political life by imagining himself on the margins, untouched by the corrupting presence of political institutions. The Catullan speaker thus appears to be configured in the poem as an exemplar of the poet's retreat into the world of desire and imagination, a world presented by Catullus as fundamentally at odds with the privileged sphere of public achievement in Roman society. Yet the speaker's hyperphallic invectives suggest how conventional expressions of masculinity may coexist with a feminised self. I will argue in this paper that Catullus' attacks on Caesar and Lesbia in poems 57 and 11 do not merely express the speaker's sense of moral outrage at their decadence and depravity but, more than that, they show how Catullus' invectives serve to highlight the contradictions in Catullus' own persona.7

I begin with poem 57, the most vitriolic of Catullus' attacks on Caesar. Scholars generally believe the poem was written sometime between the end of 61 BCE and the beginning of 58, the period between Caesar's return from Spain and his departure for Gaul.8 Unlike some of the more veiled insults in other poems, poem 57 is a sustained, aggressive attack on Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurra.9 As he does in a number of his other invectives against male friends or rivals, Catullus expresses his attack on Caesar through a series of sexual slurs that serve to impugn Caesar's masculinity and call into question his moral authority.

pulcre convenit improbis cinaedis

Mamurrae pathicoque Caesarique. …

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